BRITAIN’S spy agency chief has stepped out of the shadows with an unprecedented public address, defending the need for secrecy to counter growing terror threats such as Iran’s nuclear proliferation.
MI6 chief John Sawers said overnight even though Cold War-era secrecy has been lifted and intelligence agencies were working to become more accessible, keeping intelligence material secret was vital to protect people against terror attacks.
“Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up,” Mr Sawers told a select group of journalists in London. “Without secrecy there would be no intelligence services, or indeed other national assets like our special forces. Our nation would be more exposed as a result.”
The question of secrecy has dominated world news in the last week, after the whistleblowing group WikiLeaks published nearly 400,000 US intelligence logs detailing daily carnage in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. In July, the same group published 77,000 secret US documents on the war in Afghanistan.
Some of the leaked documents show that coalition forces handed over terror suspects to Iraqi security services even after abuse was suspected, or continued with interrogations despite visible injuries to suspects. There has been no clear mention of MI6 involvement in the logs, however.
Mr Sawers’ speech also comes as two government inquiries probe whether MI6 and other agencies were complicit in the abuse of terror suspects – allegations that Mr Sawers denied overnight, adding that MI6 agents are obligated by law to stop and avoid torture.
“And we do – even though that allows terrorist activity to go ahead,” he said, adding that although his agency hasn’t been specifically accused of torture it has been accused of “being too close to it.”
Mr Sawers – also known by the codename “C” as all MI6 directors have been known since the first chief Mansfield Cumming – said progress had been made in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but new terror threats were growing in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa. The new threats come amid severe budget cuts ahead.
“We get inside terrorist organisations to see where the next threats are coming from,” he said. “What we do is not seen.”
He said while a “typical” terror attack would not bring down Britain, the dangers of nuclear proliferation – as well as chemical and biological weapons – had the potential to alter the political balance of power in the region.
“The revelations around Iran’s secret enrichment site at Qom were an intelligence success,” he said. “They led to diplomatic pressure on Iran intensifying, with tougher UN and EU sanctions which are beginning to bite. The Iranian regime must think hard about where its best interests lie.”
But using intelligence poses anguished choices for agents – especially when faced with the possibility that intelligence could be tainted by abuse or torture.
“Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it,” he said.
“We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward. If we hold back, and don’t pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved,” he said. “Sometimes there is no clear way forward.”
In a court case that drove a wedge between US and British intelligence, British High Court judges last year ordered the government to release secret US intelligence exchanges on the treatment of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed, who claimed British authorities knew he was beaten and had his genitals sliced with a scalpel while being interrogated in Morocco.
Mr Sawers said the release of such information risked intelligence sharing and undermined the “Control Principle”, a rule in the intelligence community that says the agency that gets the information first has the power to decide how the information is used.
“So if the control principle is not respected, the intelligence sharing dries up,” he said.
The US and Britain have often taken different approaches to terror threats, most recently seen during a European terror plot that was unveiled last month and is still considered active. While the United States issued a travel advisory warning citizens to be aware of potential threats in Europe, British officials downplayed the specifics of the plot.
There was also a striking difference during the trans-Atlantic bombing plot in 2006, where militants tried to down several airliners with explosives contained in soft drink bottles. Prosecutors said American officials wanted to crack the plot and round up the suspects quickly whereas British officials wanted to wait and gather more information.
MI6, known as the cloak-and-dagger employer of the fictional James Bond, has tried to become less secretive. It has started posting recruitment ads in Britain’s media, hired press officers, and last month released its first-ever official history. The CIA took a similar path years ago.
Mr Sawers has already revealed more than any previous MI6 chief. Shortly after his appointment was announced last year, a newspaper ran some of the spy’s holiday snapshots, taken from his wife’s Facebook page.
The images showed Mr Sawers posing with his children, wearing a Santa hat and playing Frisbee on a beach. The Facebook pictures and other personal details were removed after the newspaper told the government about them.
Some politicians called the details a security lapse.
Mr Sawers has a long history in policymaking, having served as Britain’s UN ambassador and the UK’s special representative in Iraq during the 2003 invasion. He had also been involved in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program while serving as the political director of the Foreign Office between 2003 and 2007.
His speech comes at a time when Britain’s three major intelligence agencies collectively face a 7.5 per cent cut over the next five years.
Insisting that intelligence was more important now than ever, Mr Sawers said MI6 would be working closely with Britain’s domestic spy agency, MI5, and its eavesdropping agency, GCHQ, on budget issues.
“Yes, the intelligence services have to make savings too,” he said.