MI6 Chief John Sawers 311 AP.
(photo credit: AP)
LONDON — Britain's spy agency chief stepped out of the shadows with an unprecedented public address Thursday, defending the need for secrecy to counter growing terror threats such as Iran's nuclear proliferation.
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MI6 chief John Sawers said 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.
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"Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up," 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 whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks published nearly 400,000 US intelligence logs detailing daily carnage in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Some of the leaked documents showed 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
Sawers' speech also came as two government inquiries are probing whether
MI6 and other agencies were complicit in the abuse of terror suspects —
allegations that Sawers denied Thursday, 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."
Sawers said progress had been made in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but new
terror threats were growing in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
"We get inside terrorist organizations 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
But using intelligence poses anguishing 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
MI6, known as 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.
But Britain's three major intelligence agencies collectively face a 7.5 percent cut over the next five years.
Insisting that intelligence was more important now than ever, 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.