Securing our future

Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke about the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy in a speech on 16 November.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming to hear me speak on the role of Secret Intelligence in Britain’s foreign policy. This is an unusual topic for a Foreign Secretary to discuss in public, but there are important reasons to do so and I shall set them out.

I believe it is vital that the British public and Parliament have confidence in the Agencies’ ability to keep us safe and to do so within the framework of the law; and that they also have confidence in government using this capability wisely, and in accordance with our democratic values and principles of domestic and international law.

In this speech I will explain how Intelligence is used within Government to inform decisions about foreign and security policy and to help implement it, alongside the work of our diplomats, our Armed Forces and other agencies of government.

I will illustrate the extraordinary importance of the contribution of the Intelligence Agencies as well their ingenuity and resourcefulness.

And I will set out what the Government is doing to tackle the lessons of the past, and to strengthen the independent and Parliamentary oversight of the Agencies for the future.

As Foreign Secretary I am responsible for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office here; for nearly 15,000 staff in Britain and overseas, our network of 262 Embassies and other diplomatic offices and for the six other Foreign Office Ministers.

But I am also directly responsible, under the overall authority of the Prime Minister, for the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, and the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ. My colleague the Home Secretary is responsible for the Security Service, SyS.
We are much more open about the Agencies than we were even twenty years ago. Today I am pleased to welcome Sir John Sawers, the Chief of SIS, Iain Lobban, the Director of GCHQ and Jonathan Evans, the Director General of SyS to this event. It is not that many years ago that the identities of their predecessors were a secret.

But I cannot speak about the Agencies the way I talk about the Foreign Office, and nor would you expect me to. Intelligence operations are secret and must remain so.
The reason that the Agencies operate in secret is so that we can protect the lives of those who we rely on to carry out this dangerous work for us, and so that we do not reveal details of how they do it. Threats are launched at us secretly, new weapons systems are developed secretly and countries or terrorist groups that plan attacks or operations against us do so in secrecy. We need a covert capability to monitor threats and to contribute to timely action against them.

But the need for secrecy places additional importance on the Foreign Secretary’s accountability to Parliament for GCHQ and SIS. This is one of the indispensable foundations of public confidence, and one that I will personally strive to strengthen. I pay tribute to the Intelligence and Security Committee and its predecessors, along with many other individual Parliamentarians who have long made a distinguished contribution in this area.

As Foreign Secretary, I see operational proposals from the Agencies every day, amounting to hundreds every year. The proposals are detailed. They set out the planned operation, the potential risks and the likely benefits of the information to be gained. They include substantial legal sections which set out the basis for the operation and comments from senior Foreign Office officials and lawyers. I discuss these with them and with officials from the Agencies, and I often work closely with the Home Secretary. These are often not easy decisions, and the majority involve judgments about cooperating with other countries. I take ultimate responsibility for these operations, and I do not approve them all.

I do not see my responsibility for SIS and GCHQ as something separate to my role as Foreign Secretary; it is an absolutely integral part of it. Many of the most important priorities in foreign policy, from stabilising Afghanistan and helping Pakistan to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, all have an intelligence component.

Our nation’s Armed Forces, diplomats, Intelligence personnel and police all perform distinct and different roles. The purpose of Government in that regard is to draw on their capabilities and marshall their resources in a way that serves the country’s overall objectives: at home a safe, stable democracy in which our liberties are safeguarded, and abroad a secure and peaceful environment that supports economic growth, prosperity and freedom.

We have come to government determined to draw these capabilities together better than ever before and on the basis of a clear vision of Britain’s role in the world.
We are setting out to strengthen the central role of the Foreign Office, make sustainable the finances of the MoD and to improve the overall strategic direction of foreign policy.
We have a National Security Strategy that calls for the use of all our national advantages - our diplomacy and membership of the UN Security Council, EU, NATO and the Commonwealth, our international development programmes, our Armed Forces and defence diplomacy, our cultural assets and our intelligence services - to build up our nation’s influence in the world, to prevent conflict and to avert threats beyond our shores.

We now have a National Security Council to ensure that this strategic objective runs through the veins of the whole of Government and that policies are not confined to Departmental silos. Whether it is overseeing the mission in Libya, on which the National Security Council met 60 times, or building a whole new set of stronger relationships with countries in Latin America, we need foreign policy to be pursued across the whole of Government. The NSC brings together all the key Cabinet Ministers, the Heads of the Armed Forces and the Heads of the Intelligence Services. They now see the same information and formally discuss policy more frequently than has ever been the case in the past, outside conditions of world war. NSC meetings are minuted and form part of the Cabinet Office record of central government.

And we have ambitious efforts in hand to build up the Foreign Office as an institution, with an expanded reach in the parts of the world that matter most to our security and our economy and a remit to pursue a more expeditionary and creative British foreign policy. We are sending more diplomatic staff to over twenty countries, opening six new Embassies and up to seven new Consulates in the emerging powers, and we have begun the biggest drive ever seen to enhance the diplomatic skills of the Foreign Office.

This intensified national effort is so important because we are at a vital juncture in world affairs.

The shift in economic power and influence South and East in the world, and its dispersal among a larger group of nations, has been accelerated by the global financial crisis. It has real implications for our prosperity and our security. It makes it harder for our nation to earn its living in the world, and means that there are more countries and centres of power which we now need to understand, to influence and in which we must be strongly represented.

At the same time the constant evolution of cyberspace is introducing additional complexity to foreign affairs; fuelling an explosion of new connections between governments, economies and citizens, which is overwhelmingly positive but also permits the transfusion of new threats. The same digital means that are bringing hope and opportunity to millions around the world and fuelling change in the Middle East also empower terrorists, criminals and some states with new means of attack and organisation.

In this period of uncertainty and turbulence it is important that our foreign policy ranges further afield to look for new partners and to tackle global challenges.

Our Intelligence Agencies are vital assets in this whole of Government effort. They harness the skills of people, the latest technology and trusted partnerships to help us address international risk.

They have a fundamental and indispensable role to play in keeping our nation safe and helping us to understand other countries.

Properly used, Secret Intelligence saves both military and civilian lives, protects our economy, stops criminals and makes a critical contribution to our diplomatic and military success.

I see daily evidence of the integrity, skill and professionalism of the men and women of GCHQ, SIS and SyS.

Because I work so closely with them, I know that their values are the finest values of the United Kingdom.

I also know that they rarely receive the recognition they deserve for their contribution.
Like our diplomats they are impartial and loyal crown servants - not servants of any particular government.

It takes a particularly special person as well to work in an environment where your identity is concealed from those around you, your successes, your bravery and the danger you face go largely unnoticed, and in which you may never answer back at public criticism.

To have just a few people with that sense of commitment, loyalty and service to our nation would be something to prize. But we have entire Agencies like that. I count myself lucky to know them and to work with them.

I also know that the Home Secretary has the highest of praise for the work of the Security Service.

We use our Intelligence Agencies for specific needs which only they in Government are equipped to address.

They provide an early warning system against States which take actions which are hostile to us or to our interests - such as developing nuclear weapons - or which they may seek to do so in the future.

All three agencies work closely together and with others around the world to safeguard the security and national interests of the UK against those who try to steal our confidential information in cyberspace or to conduct cyber attacks. GCHQ uses its sophisticated capabilities to identify these electronic attacks and advises Government on how to secure our networks against them. SIS seeks to understand how states approach the cyber world and their overall intent. Working with our allies around the world, our intelligence agencies work closely together to safeguard the UK against future cyber threats and attacks, to exploit cyber tools and applications and to develop operations online.

They disrupt complex plots against the UK, such as when would-be terrorists in Britain travel abroad to gain training in bomb-making. In doing so, SIS and GCHQ work increasingly closely on a daily basis, often as part of a single team, with colleagues and officers from the Security Service and the police, in different parts of the UK and across the world.

In one recent case members of a UK network travelled overseas for terrorist training. The Agencies were able to detect their intentions. Agents recruited by SIS reported on what the group were doing. This revealed that members of the network had discussed mounting attacks in the UK. Once the plot was revealed to us, we were able to approach the Government in question and work with it to arrange the lawful arrest of a key figure in the network which disrupted the conspiracy before such plans could be developed. The Home Secretary and I were kept closely in the picture throughout. In an increasingly interconnected world, this kind of joint operation, with close inter-agency working that is the envy of the world, allows us to focus first and foremost on prosecuting terrorists wherever we can.

Without our Intelligence Agencies, terrorist groups would have free rein to harm British citizens here and abroad, and successful operations like this would not be possible. But they are also a resource that inform the making of foreign policy.

They have the capabilities to find out things that are beyond the reach of everyday diplomacy, filling in some of the blanks in our understanding of other countries and governments. Our Agencies’ ability to derive secret intelligence from human sources, from defectors and from intercepted communications is a vital asset. The better our information is, the more we are equipped as a Government to make the right decisions.

We should be proud of Britain’s role in securing intervention in Libya to and stop Qadhafi from massacring his own people. This diplomatic and military success was also backed by effective intelligence. Throughout the conflict in Libya, the agencies used their global capabilities to provide insight into the intentions of pro-Qadhafi forces and to understand the progress of the battles around Brega, Misrata and finally Tripoli.

They worked to identify key political figures, develop contacts with the emerging opposition and provide political and military intelligence. Most importantly, they saved lives. For example the Qadhafi regime tried to attack the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, and to kill some of the Western representatives in Libya. The Agencies obtained firm intelligence, were able to warn the NTC of the threat and the attacks were prevented.

This also illustrates the Agencies’ ability to develop links with parts of governments in other countries that complement and strengthen our diplomatic and military relationships. For example, they help other countries to develop the capability to tackle security threats which affect them and could threaten us.

Some of the most acute threats to our security arise in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. In Afghanistan, our Agencies help the Afghan government to build the capacity of their security services to enable them to take responsibility for their own security. In these other countries the Agencies work to build capacity and willingness among our partners to investigate and disrupt terrorist targets plotting against the UK. This includes the provision of infrastructure support and training, the development of analytical and forensic capabilities to services who have never used them before, and training and education on legal and human rights obligations, responsibilities and ways of working. This work is not easy. It necessarily sometimes requires working with countries that do not fully share our values, but which we want to bring closer to sharing our values. There are examples of such work leading to major improvements in the effectiveness and practices of our partners.

It is also an asset to any Foreign Secretary to be able to draw on the technical skills, cultural expertise, global political understanding, language skills and relationships of GCHQ and SIS. They recruit extraordinarily talented people with cutting edge skills, able to go places, to do things and acquire information that no one else in Government can, and to surge their activities anywhere in the world in response to events. They operate joint teams designed to ensure the seamless operation between home and overseas and between human and electronic intelligence, achieving an overall effect which is greater than the sum of the component parts. I am encouraging this and even closer joint working between the Foreign Office, SIS and GCHQ, so that we get the maximum cross-fertilisation of ideas, generating more proposals and options for Ministers while ensuring that each agency retains its own identity.

In short, the Agencies give us a key national advantage in foreign and security policy. Whether it is their intelligence-gathering and analytical skills, SIS’s agent-running expertise or GCHQ’s cyber expertise, their abilities are recognised as among the very best, and in some areas the best, in the world. They are an essential component of our relationship with the United States, and lend weight and substance to some of our other most important alliances.

Their work in all these areas is built on the extraordinary historical legacy of the achievements of the agencies since their founding before the First World War. With the passage of time, we now know about the astonishing success of the Double Cross system during the Second World War, as a result of which every single German agent in Britain was actually working for us.

We know about the monumental code breaking achievements at Bletchley Park, which meant that we were able to intercept and read many German communications throughout the war, and to secure our own communications better as a result. These successes will be remembered for centuries. The achievements I see from the agencies today are built on this legacy and fully live up to the same standards of technical brilliance, ingenuity and imagination - even if it will fall to future generations to chronicle their contribution now.

But Intelligence does not replace the need for diplomacy, and can never be a substitute for it.

This Government believes that Britain’s national interest is served best when diplomacy is informed by Intelligence, and Intelligence is balanced by diplomatic assessments.

This means that Intelligence is weighed and assessed alongside all other sources of information available to us including diplomatic reporting and the insights of other government departments; judged in the context of the Government’s overall strategy and objectives; and brought together to make careful decisions which are considered in the National Security Council.

We also recognise that serious issues have been raised by the events of recent years that have to be addressed decisively and with clarity.

Intelligence throws up some of the most difficult ethical and legal questions that I encounter as Foreign Secretary, with which my predecessors in this position also have had to grapple.

Some of them relate to the past use of Intelligence in reaching and justifying decisions in foreign policy - the most controversial instance of this, the Iraq War, is currently the subject of an Inquiry.

But we also saw allegations of UK complicity in extraordinary rendition leading to torture. The very making of these allegations undermined Britain’s standing in the world as a country that upholds international law and abhors torture. Torture is unacceptable in any circumstances. It is abhorrent, it is wrong, and Britain will never condone it.

As a Government we understand how important it is that we not only uphold our values and international law, but that we are seen to do so. As a nation we need to be an inspiring example of the values we hold dear and that we want to encourage others to take up. Moral authority in the eyes of the world, once damaged, must be painfully and gradually re-established.

We are answering this challenge in two ways.

First, the Prime Minister took immediate action when we came to Government to announce a Detainee Inquiry, chaired by a distinguished former Appeal Court Judge Sir Peter Gibson, into whether the UK was involved in or aware of the improper treatment of detainees held by other countries. It will begin its formal work as soon as current police investigations are completed. The Government also agreed, and the Prime Minister published, the consolidated guidance issued to intelligence officers and service personnel on the treatment of detainees held overseas by other States. He announced our intention to reach a mediated settlement of the civil claims brought by former detainees of Guantanamo Bay, given that under present legal arrangements, the Agencies could not defend themselves in these cases without further weakening national security. This was achieved in November last year. In the Foreign Office, I have also published for the first time guidance given to all FCO staff on the need to report any alleged incidents of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment that they encounter in the course of their work.

Second, we have brought forward a Justice and Security Green Paper to strengthen our legal arrangements and Parliamentary and independent oversight of the Intelligence Agencies. At its heart are proposals to ensure that cases involving national security information can be heard fairly, fully and safely in our courts, and that we protect British interests by preventing the disclosure of genuinely sensitive material. This includes intelligence information shared with Britain by intelligence partners overseas.
The justice system is not currently equipped to pass judgement in national security cases involving information so sensitive that it cannot be disclosed in a courtroom. This leaves the public with unanswered questions and the security and intelligence agencies unable to state their case and defend themselves. The taxpayer faces the prospect of footing an increasing bill for costly financial settlements because of the lack of an appropriate framework in which civil damages claims involving sensitive material can be heard. And key overseas relations have been strained by pressure to disclose sensitive information belonging to other Governments, including in cases where applicants sought sensitive UK Government-held, but very often foreign government-originated information for disclosure into foreign legal proceedings.

All these difficult issues have contributed to a lack of public trust and damaged our relations overseas. Both must be addressed, which is what our Green Paper sets out to do.

Our proposals are intended to ensure that the mainstream civil court system is equipped to hear national security cases where disclosure of material would be damaging to the public interest. Central to this is the proposed introduction of legislation to make the mechanism known as closed material procedures - already used elsewhere in the UK court system - available in the full range of civil proceedings. This system enables relevant but sensitive material in a case which damage national security if exposed to be considered privately by the judges and a special advocate, appointed to represent the other party’s interests. This would only be used in exceptional instances where it is critical to the case.

Some argue that this proposal runs counter to the principles of open justice.

The Government understands that open justice is a fundamental attribute of our democracy, and that it should only be departed from when it is strictly necessary to achieve the proper administration of justice.

Under our proposals, a closed material proceeding could well represent only a small part of a case, the rest of which would be heard in open court. And it is surely fairer to ensure that sensitive material can be considered in court under these arrangements, than that it is excluded altogether. Our proposals would ensure that the full case can be heard by the judge before reaching a decision. These changes would enable balanced judgments to be reached, the public to have confidence in independent judgement by the Court and the Agencies either to be held to account or to be exonerated.

They are not proposals we have made lightly or without careful thought. We have listened to the Supreme Court’s recent relevant judgments and consulted widely.
The ability of other countries to share Intelligence with us without fear we will have to disclose it here or overseas is absolutely vital to our national interest. This is managed under the Control Principle, a strict rule of intelligence sharing whereby any further use or disclosure of intelligence requires the agreement of the Agency that provided it in the first place. If we cannot uphold the control principle and others do not share information with us, the very real risk is that our security will be jeopardised.

Threats to our security cross borders, whether from organised crime or the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We cannot confront them without cooperating with intelligence partners on the basis of trust. At times, we are dependent on others to stop attacks.

Intelligence really is like a jigsaw in which we very rarely have all the pieces, and rely on others to share the pieces they have with us just as they often rely on us to help them in the same way. It is the analysis of information from our partners along with our own intelligence that enables us to piece together each snippet of information with others to create the fullest possible picture of the threats to our national security and to act against them.

A blend of people, technology and partnerships give us an intelligence edge. If our techniques come to light, adversaries benefit and are able to switch techniques and communications resulting in a loss of knowledge about their plans.

Many agents and sources risk their lives - some lose their lives - to give us the vital information to keep us safe. We have a duty to protect them. And if the countries we work with cannot trust us to protect their sources then they will not share their information with us. We expect the same of them. We take it for granted in diplomacy that we must uphold our agreements and respect the confidences of our partners - the same applies to an even greater degree in intelligence, where lives and critical national interests are at stake.

The Green Paper also includes important proposals to strengthen independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the role of the Agencies. It proposes, for instance, to make the Intelligence and Security Committee a statutory Committee of Parliament, reporting formally to Parliament, and to enable it to take evidence from any Department or body in the wider intelligence community. It also proposes careful consideration of extending the Committee’s remit to include retrospective review of certain operational aspects of the work of the Agencies where there are matters of significant national interest. We also propose that the Committee be given the power to require information from the Agencies, bringing it more in line with Parliamentary Select Committees, but with this power subject to a veto only from the Secretary of State where national security so requires it.

We are confident that taken together these changes represent the most comprehensive effort yet to address the complex issues thrown up by the need to protect our security in the 21st century, and to do so in a way that upholds our values and begins to restore public confidence.

There is no single answer to this, and nor can we ever remove the risks to our country entirely. The effort to safeguard our liberties and values and to live up to them must be a constant throughout public life. It is one of the strengths of our democracy that we are able to recognise where we fall short, and to lay stronger foundations for the future.
So this will be our Government’s approach: drawing a line under the past and creating the right legislative framework so that the interests of national security and justice are reconciled; drawing on the talents and capabilities of the Intelligence Agencies to support national security and ensure our military operations and our diplomacy underpinned by high quality, high-tempo intelligence; and bringing together all our assets and our advantages to support a secure and prosperous future for Britain in the world. As we do so we will always be conscious of the lessons of the past - including the lessons of our achievements as well as the errors we must strive to avoid.

We are fortunate in the United Kingdom to have some of the most ingenious, resourceful and respected Intelligence Agencies in the world. In the 20th century their contribution was so important that historians judge it substantially shortened the most terrible events in the history of mankind. Today their work each day and every hour helps this country and its citizens in a vast range of ways, keeping them safer at home and removing threats to them abroad.

We should have great pride in the history, standards and ethos of these organisations and cherish these strengths. The dedication and professionalism of the people who work for our agencies and the accountability to democratic government within which they operate has few equals, and possibly no equals, among any of their counterparts.
It is important that their work and the legal and political framework in which it takes place is properly understood and publicly appreciated.

But it is also important that where controversies have arisen they are faced up to and dealt with, and where changes are necessary to ensure our Agencies can do the job we expect of them, that we make the case for change with clarity and conviction.

It is for all these reasons that I have given this speech today. I do so with determination that the men and women of the Secret Intelligence Service, Government Communications Headquarters and the Security Service will always be able to do their vital work with the support, not only of the government of the day, but of the wider public as well.

Updates to this page

Published 16 November 2011