“So, the American correspondents!” Only hours after he arrived back from his headline-grabbing Washington summit with his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton, Foreign Secretary William Hague sat down with a dozen AACL members on Nov.18 outside his Whitehall office for a frank and on-record talk – – his first major interview after days of high-level meetings with the Americans and the United Nations Security Council. This was bound to be a lively discussion, given Mr. Hague’s longstanding reputation as the sharpest Tory wit in the House of Commons and his new role at the head of a fast-changing and budget-challenged British foreign service, and he seemed eager to put his debating skills and his Rotherham drawl to work on the North American media.
He spoke at length and extemporaneously about the prickliest topics on the world agenda, including the effort to bring peace to Sudan, the terrorism alerts and threats emerging from Europe, the new independence of the BBC World Service, the status of the “special relationship,” the British role in the Euro crisis and the Irish bailout, and the settlement reached with the Guantanamo Bay prisoners who, we had learned the previous day, were paid cash settlements by the British government. On this latter topic, he was atypically guarded: “The terms of the settlement don’t allow us to discuss the specific terms of the settlement,” he conceded, adding: “I didn’t detect any frustration from the United States on behalf of the settlement.” He also pressed his case for the release of Guantanamo prisoner Shaker Aamer, whose continued detainment had struck a note of transatlantic friction.
He issued an ominous warning on terror threats: “People should not panic but they should be alert… he threat level in the United Kingdom is severe. That means we consider an attack highly likely and attempts at attacks are highly likely.”
On the whole, though he was eager to assure his audience that Britain remains committed to its alliance with the United States: “It remains excellent, I think I can safely say,” and, in the face of historic military budget cuts, he stressed that “we will retain the fourth largest military budget in the world.” His words had their effect: The interview made the Wall Street Journal, Fox News online, Reuters and numerous other North American outlets during a week that proved to be one of the busiest of the year for transatlantic news.