By Claudie Qumsieh
An espionage Chief has made a public speech for the first time today. John Sawers heads the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) aka MI6. The organisation gathers foreign secret intelligence. MI6 has been operating for 100 years but did not officially exist until 1992. Over the past 5 years SIS has gradually become more open, launching a website and posting recruitment ads in the media.
Sawer was former Foreign Affairs adviser to Tony Blair. An enquiry into the government’s case for invading Iraq by Lord Butler said that it was a “serious weakness” that intelligence was not made clear using “effective scrutiny and validation of human intelligence sources” . Sawers said today that Butler’s Review “was a clear reminder, to both the agencies and the centre of government, politicians and officials alike, of how intelligence needs to be handled”. Sources have to be scrutinised and evaluated.
More openness of course brings accountability and scrutiny by human rights advocates. Sawers spoke of the dilemma of gathering intelligence through torture “Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by UK and international law to avoid that action, and we do, even though that allows that terrorist activity to go ahead.”
To remind the audience of the security threats MI6 handle, he spoke of daily intelligence of terrorists “bent on maiming and murdering people in Britain”.
While domestic terrorism is a threat Sawer said “The dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons are more far-reaching. It can alter the whole balance of power in a region”
Despite today’s insight Sawer insisted “Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure. Secret organisations need to stay secret even if we present an occasional public face, as I am doing today… If our operations and methods become public they won’t work”