A whistleblower who revealed Britain’s chaotic response to the fall of Kabul has said the civil service has become so dangerously politicised that officials who speak out risk being sidelined or sacked.
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Josie Stewart said her former colleagues felt their role was to protect ministers, some of whom were only interested in “looking good”, rather than working in the interests of the public.
The former senior official at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is now taking the government to court to test legal protections for whistleblowers amid concerns they are not sufficient to protect civil servants who share sensitive information in the public interest.
Stewart, who was head of illicit finance at the department, is challenging her dismissal with the Public Interest Disclosure Act after she was sacked for giving an anonymous interview to the BBC about the government’s handling of the chaotic Afghan withdrawal.
In her first interview since she lost her job, she said that the government’s Afghan withdrawal strategy had been shaped by political concerns back home, with ministers more focused on media coverage and “the political fallout” than saving lives.
Her intervention will increase the pressure on Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary at the time, who is currently fighting for his political career over bullying allegations, which he has denied. He was criticised for failing to return home from holiday in August 2021 when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.
Stewart, who worked for the FCDO for seven years, including two at the British embassy in Kabul, volunteered to work in the Whitehall crisis centre when the Taliban took over. She suggested that ministers had not expected the public to care about evacuating locals who had helped the British.
Her case, which gets its final hearing in September this year, will establish a precedent for how the courts handle similar ones in future, clarifying whether whistleblowers can avoid dismissal if they have disclosed information in “exceptionally serious circumstances” and it is therefore viewed as “reasonable” to have done so.
“If the law is not tested and used then I don’t know how much it actually means as potential whistleblowers don’t know which side of the line it is going to fall. Is what they’re going to do likely to be legally protected or not? If they don’t know then I’m not sure how meaningful the fact the law exists is,” she said.
Stewart, 42, who now works for the organisation Transparency International, claimed that the civil service had been dangerously politicised since the Boris Johnson era and accused the cabinet secretary, Simon Case, of failing to stand up for officials.
“I increasingly saw senior officials interpreting their role as doing what ministers say and providing protections to ministers. It was almost as if their first loyalty [was] to their political leaders rather than to the public,” she said.
“Essentially people who said ‘yes’ and went along with it and bought into this shift in culture and approach were those whose careers went well. Those who resisted either found themselves buried somewhere or looking for jobs elsewhere.
“It threatens the impartiality of the civil service. The civil service is supposed to bring expertise in how to get things done. It risks that expertise being neutered by a slant towards focusing on things that look good rather than achieving impact.”
In a particularly damning claim, she suggested that the politicisation of the civil service had had a dramatic impact on the government’s handling of the Afghanistan evacuation.
“The almost entire objective politically was to come out of it looking OK to the UK public, rather than to save lives or fulfil a responsibility to the Afghan people,” she said. “It was shocking in terms of the scale and how brazen and obvious it was to civil servants working on it.”
She cited the government’s failure to have a plan for evacuating Afghan nationals, such as translators or contractors, who had helped the British but weren’t eligible for the existing Afghan relocations and assistance policy (ARAP) scheme because they didn’t work directly for the UK.
“There was no policy because we didn’t intend to do it at all,” she said. “The only reason it came into life during the crisis was because government was surprised to learn that the British people did actually care and did feel that we owed something to those people.
“Then they thought: ‘Well, people do care and we had better do something about it.’ So it was a misjudgment politically. Hence the chaos.”
The crisis centre received thousands of emails from desperate Afghans asking for help which sat unopened until pressure from MPs led to Raab promising in the House of Commons that they would all be read by a certain date.
“Suddenly we had huge numbers of people drafted in from HMRC and God knows where to open emails,” she said. “There was absolutely no intent to do anything with them, other than to be able to say they’re opened.”
Stewart suggested that part of the problem was that Sir Philip Barton, the permanent secretary at the FCDO, was too willing to do the bidding of his political masters.
She said that he had tried to do his best in a “pretty broken system”, but added: “I think he has potentially lost sight of the importance of his leadership role in trying to fix that broken system rather than cementing some of its problems.”
Across Whitehall, Case, who was appointed by the former prime minister, was “very much seen as Johnson’s person rather than a head of the civil service standing up for the civil service”, she said.
“Everybody knows it. Everybody knows that before, the previous couple [of cabinet secretaries] were people whom the civil service trusted would have their back and the institution’s back. That’s no longer the case.”
Case’s handling of the Partygate scandal, when “a whole bunch” of officials should have been sacked for covering up the truth, further undermined morale. “The message to the civil service was that they had to do their job to protect their political masters.”
Yet she lays the blame for the politicisation of the civil service firmly at Johnson’s door as the dramatic culture change across Whitehall had taken place under his leadership.
“Our system depends on the fundamental necessity of honesty and truth in government and I think the now well-documented breakdown of some of that in No 10 and elsewhere under Boris Johnson has filtered down and out across government and down into the civil service,” she said.
“Once you break a pretty fundamental ‘rule’ of the importance of truth, then all the other rules become less strong as well … Like who are you there to serve, is it politicians or is it the public, and how on a daily basis does that play out?”
Stewart questioned ministers’ claims that the fall of Afghanistan had taken the Foreign Office by surprise. “The government had said there was no way of knowing that the Taliban would take Kabul so quickly,” she said.
“Yet I do know that months in advance UK embassy staff had evacuated, taken out, flown out of the country, their cats. They wouldn’t have done that had they not anticipated having to leave quickly, fairly soon.”
But it was the decision by a junior civil servant, Raphael Marshall, whom she had never met, in December 2021 to submit a 40-page dossier to the foreign affairs committee to lift the lid on the FCDO response to the Afghan crisis that finally drove her to go public.
Stewart said that she had felt “really humbled and actually quite ashamed” that the young official had been the only one “brave enough” to do what she believed was the right thing.
But then Raab went on the morning news round and “started to build a picture of denial” which “dismissed and undermined” the evidence. “That was not OK,” she added.
So in January 2022 she gave an anonymous interview and leaked emails to BBC Newsnight which showed that the decision to allow the animal charity Nowzad’s Afghan staff to be evacuated was taken as a result of an instruction from Johnson – overruling officials who had said they were not eligible and others were more at risk.
Johnson has denied being involved in the decision. “I shared those emails with the BBC because I felt the prime minister shouldn’t be lying to British people and that was in the public interest to know,” she said.
But her unredacted emails were accidentally published on social media by the BBC, revealing her identity. She was stripped of her FCDO security clearance and later sacked because without it she was unable to do her job.
Her lawyers anticipate the government will argue that protections under the Public Interest Disclosure Act cannot apply because she was not, in the end, dismissed for whistleblowing – and plan to challenge it. “That should not be a valid argument. The precedent would really undermine any public interest disclosure.”
Stewart admitted the BBC’s mistake was a “massive shock” and lost her the career that she loved. “Accidents happen and we’ve all done stupid things at work, but this did have really big consequences for me,” she said.
She wants the BBC to put more stringent procedures in place to prevent it ever happening again – and to safeguard trust in promises of anonymity. “Journalists deserve a process being put in place to check and safeguard for their sakes but also sources’ sakes,” she said.
The personal impact on Stewart has been huge. “It’s been really traumatic. It wasn’t just any job for me, it was the team and agenda that I’d built and loved. Being part of the civil service was a privilege that I will probably grieve for the rest of my professional life.
“People either said I was a hero or the official civil service line was that I was some kind of villain … I faced these two totally extreme views on who I was. I knew that I was neither of those. People said I was really brave, but I didn’t feel that because I didn’t choose that. I felt I had no choice to be where I am.”
In March 2022, Stewart submitted her own written evidence to the foreign affairs committee to formally back up Marshall. She would have preferred to have raised her concerns internally, but knew that her complaint about Barton would land on his desk. “Had I been in a position where I could have gone to a regulator or somebody outside the chain of command within FCDO then I would have done so.
“I never set out to be a whistleblower. I never imagined or wanted to be in this position in any way. I very deeply believe in the importance of an impartial civil service which has the confidence of ministers and I think that’s in the public interest,” she said.
“The whole thing only works when the whole thing is working. Our whole system depends on honesty and truth, at least to parliament, if not to the public. There has to be some form of redress for when that breaks down or doesn’t occur.”
An FCDO spokesperson said: “We are rightly proud of our staff who worked tirelessly to evacuate more than 15,000 people from Afghanistan within a fortnight. This was the biggest mission of its kind in generations and the second largest evacuation carried out by any country. We implemented lessons learned from the Afghanistan response in our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We are still working to assist Afghanistan. We have supported over 6,000 eligible individuals to leave since the end of Op Pitting and doubled our aid, which continues to feed millions of Afghans and provide life-saving health services.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The cabinet secretary is proud to lead a civil service that works day in, day out to deliver the government’s priorities for the people of this country. His focus is on ensuring the whole of government is working together to put in place the very best public services for the British people.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “We take our responsibilities as journalists very seriously and we deeply regret that the name of the email account was inadvertently revealed when the email was published on social media.”
A spokesperson for Boris Johnson declined to comment.