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"Britain's secret frontline" MI6 Chief speaks in public for the first time

Sir John Sawers posed the questions why do we need a secret intelligence service, what value does the UK get from that service, and how can the public have confidence that the work of SIS is both lawful and ethical?

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Sir John Sawers, known as “C”, addressed an audience of journalists from the Society of Editors and took as his theme “Britain’s Secret Frontline”.

Speaking a month after the publication of the first authorised history of SIS, and in the wake of the launch of the National Security Strategy, and the Strategic Defence and Security Review, Sir John tackled the question of the need for a secret intelligence service,

“Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy plays a crucial part of keeping Britain safe and secure. 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.”

Focussing on the theme of terrorism, Sir John said,

“You and millions of people go about your business in our cities and towns free of fear because the British government works tirelessly, out of the public eye, to stop terrorists and would-be-terrorists in their tracks.

“The most draining aspect of my job is reading, every day, intelligence reports, describing the plotting of terrorists who are bent on maiming and murdering people in this country.

“It is an enormous tribute to the men and women of our intelligence and security agencies, and to our cooperation with partner services overseas around the World, that so few of these appalling plots develop into real terrorist attacks.”

Shedding more light on the work of SIS, Sir John revealed that,

“Over a third of SIS resources are directed against international terrorism. It’s the largest single area of SIS’s work. We get inside terrorist organisations, to see where the next threats are coming from. We work to disrupt terrorist plots aimed against the UK, and against our friends and allies. What we do is not seen. Few know about the terrorist attacks we help stop… Much intelligence is partial, fragmentary. We have to build up a picture. It’s like a jigsaw, but with key sections missing, and pieces from other jigsaws mixed in.”

As well as praising the staff of SIS, Sir John focussed on the work of agents, saying,

“Our agents are the true heroes of our work. They have their own motivations and hopes. Many of them show extraordinary courage and idealism, striving in their own countries for the freedoms we in Britain take for granted.”

Recognising that intelligence reports have to be weighed against other information and set in a wider context, Sir John said,

“The Butler Review following Iraq was a clear reminder, to both the Agencies and the centre of Government, politicians, and officials alike, of how intelligence needs to be handled.”

The accountability of SIS, which has been an area of recent public discussion, was another theme for Sir John,

“SIS does not choose what it does. Ministers tell us what they want to know, what they want us to achieve. We take our direction from the National Security Council.

“When our operations require legal authorisation or entail political risk, I seek the Foreign Secretary’s approval. If a case is particularly complex, he can consult the Attorney General. In the end, the Foreign Secretary decides what we do.”

Another area addressed by Sir John in his speech focussed on allegations of complicity in torture.

“After 9/11, the terrorist threat was immediate and paramount. We are accused by some people not of committing torture ourselves but of being too close to it in our efforts to keep Britain safe. We are a Service that reflects our country. Integrity is the first of the Service’s values. I am confident that, in their efforts to keep Britain safe, all SIS staff acted with the utmost integrity, and with a close eye on basic decency and moral principles.”

Published 28 October 2010