Britain's Secret Frontline
The Times published a reader's letter earlier this year. It
read, "Sir - is it not bizarre that MI5 and MI6, otherwise
known as the secret services, currently stand accused of being - er
I may be biased. But I think that reader was onto something
rather important and most government work these days is done by
conventional and transparent processes. But not all.
Britain's foreign intelligence effort was first organised in
1909, when the Secret Intelligence Service was formed.
We have just published an official history of our first forty
years. I'm sure you will all have read all 800 pages of it.
The first Chief, Mansfield Cummings, used to pay the salaries of
SIS officials out of his private income, dispensed in cash from a
desk drawer. I'm glad to say that, even after the Chancellor's
statement last week, I'm not in the same position.
SIS' existence was admitted only in 1994. We British move slowly
on such things.
And this, I believe, is the first public speech given by a
serving Chief of British Secret Intelligence Service.
"Why now?" might you ask.
Well, intelligence features prominently in the National Security
Strategy and the Strategic Defence and Security Review, published
We often appear in the news. Our popular name - MI6 - is an
We have a website, and we've got versions in Arabic and Russian.
We recruit our staff openly, with adverts in the national
But debate on SIS' role is not well informed, in part because we
have been so determined to protect our secrets.
In today's open society, no government institution is given the
benefit of the doubt all of the time. There are new expectations of
public - and legal - accountability that have developed.
In short, in 2010 the context for the UK's secret intelligence
work is very different from 1994.
I am not going to use today to tantalise you with hints of
sensitive operations or intelligence successes. Instead I want to
answer two important questions:
- What value do we get from a secret overseas intelligence effort
in the modern era?
- How can the public have confidence that work done in secret is
lawful, ethical, and in their interests.
Britain's Intelligence Community
First, how do we all fit in?
The Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, operates abroad, dealing
with threats overseas and gathering intelligence mainly from human
The Security Service, MI5, works here in the UK, protecting the
homeland from terrorist attack and other threats.
GCHQ produces intelligence from communications, and takes the
lead in the cyber world.
These three specialised services form the UK intelligence
community and we operate in what the Foreign Secretary has called a
'Networked World'. Technology plays an ever growing part in our
work, for SIS as well as GCHQ and the boundary line between home
and abroad is increasingly blurred.
So the three agencies work increasingly closely together and the
next five years will see us intensifying our collaboration, to
improve our operational impact, and to save money. Yes, even the
intelligence services have to make savings.
What is Secret Intelligence?
Secret Intelligence is important information that others wish
you not to know; it's information that deepens our understanding of
a foreign country or grouping, or reveals their true intentions.
It's information that gives us new opportunities for action.
We at SIS obtain our intelligence from secret agents. These are
people, nearly all foreign nationals, who have access to secret
information and who choose to work with us.
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 that we
in Britain take for granted.
Our agents are working today in some of the most dangerous and
exposed places, bravely and to hugely valuable effect, and we owe a
debt to countless more whose service is over.
Agents take serious risks and make sacrifices to help our
country. In return we give them a solemn pledge: that we shall keep
their role secret.
The information we get from agents is put into an intelligence
report. The source is described in general terms.
It is just that - a report. It tells us something new or
corroborates what we suspect.
A report's value can be over-played if it tells us what we want
to hear, or it can be underplayed if it contains unwelcome news or
runs against received wisdom.
It is part of the picture, and may not be even wholly accurate,
even if the trusted agent who gave it to us is sure that it is.
So, sources of intelligence have to be rigorously evaluated, and
their reports have to be honestly weighed alongside all other
information. Those who produce it, and those who want to use it,
have to put intelligence in a wider context. The Joint Intelligence
Committee plays a crucial role.
The Butler Review following Iraq was a clear reminder, to both
Agencies and the centre of Government, politicians and officials
alike, of how intelligence needs to be handled.
The SIS Board recently reviewed our implementation of Lord
Butler's recommendations, to make sure we've implemented them
fully, in spirit as well as in substance. I am confident that they
have been. And we will look at the wider issues again once the
Chilcott Inquiry reports.
The Need for Secret Intelligence
So, why do we need secret intelligence?
Well, let's start with the terrorist problem.
Most people go about their daily work not worrying about the
risk of a terrorist attack. That a bomb may have been planted on
their route, or hostages might be seized. I'm glad they don't worry
about those sorts of things: part of our job is to make people feel
But those threats exist, as we're recalling now with the 7/7
inquest. That said, on any given day the chances that a terrorist
attack will happen on our streets, even in Central London, feel
small enough to be safely ignored by the public.
You and millions of people like you 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's an enormous tribute to the men and women of our
intelligence and security agencies, and to our cooperation with
partner services around the world, that so few of these appalling
plots develop into real terrorist attacks.
Some of these terrorists are British citizens, trained in how to
use weapons, how to make bombs. Others are foreign nationals who
want to attack us to undermine our support for forces of moderation
around the world.
Many of the reports I read describe the workings of the Al-Qaeda
network, rooted in a nihilistic version of Islam.
Al-Qaeda have ambitious goals. Weakening the power of the West.
Toppling moderate Islamic regimes. Seizing the Holy Places of Islam
to give them moral authority. Taking controls of the Arab World's
oil reserves. They're unlikely to achieve these goals, but they
remain set on trying, and are ready to use extreme violence.
Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, recently described how the
threat is intensifying. Precisely because we are having some
successes in closing down the space for terrorist recruitment and
planning in the UK, the extremists are increasingly preparing their
attacks against British targets from abroad.
It's not just the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa pose real
threats to the UK.
From his remote base in Yemen, AL-Qaeda leader and US national
Anwar al-Awlaki, broadcasts propaganda and terrorist instruction in
fluent English, over the internet.
Our intelligence effort needs to go where the threat is. One of
the advantages of the way we in SIS work is that we are highly
adaptable and flexible. We don't get pinned in one place.
There is no one reason for the terrorist phenomenon. Some blame
political issues like Palestine or Kashmir or Iraq. Others cite
economic disadvantage. Distortions of the Islamic faith. Male
supremacy. The lack of normal checks and balances in some
There are many theories.
I've worked a lot in the Islamic World. I agree with those who
say we need to be steady and stand by our friends.
Over time, moving to a more open system of government in these
countries, one more responsive to people's grievances will help.
But if we demand an abrupt move to the pluralism that we in the
West enjoy, we may undermine the controls that are now in place and
terrorists would end up with new opportunities.
Whatever the cause or causes of so-called Islamic terrorism,
there is little prospect of it fading away soon.
SIS deals with the realities, the threats as they are. We work
to minimise the risks. Our closest partners include many in the
Muslim world who are concerned at the threat Al-Qaeda poses to
In the UK, the Security Service, MI5, leads our
counter-terrorism effort. They do a superb job and SIS' work starts
with the priorities that the Security Service sets.
It's not enough to intercept terrorists here, at the very last
minute. They need to be identified and stopped well before then,
which means actions far beyond our own borders.
This is where SIS comes in. Over a third of SIS resources are
directed against international terrorism. It's the largest single
area of SIS' 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.
It scarcely needs saying, but I'll say it anyway: working to
tackle terrorism overseas is complex and often dangerous. Our
agents, and sometimes our staff, risk their lives.
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.
SIS officers round the world make judgements at short notice
with potentially life or death consequences.
Say an agent warns us of a planned attack. We may need to meet
that agent fast and securely, to understand the intelligence more
fully. To work with GCHQ who look for other signs. To work with MI5
and the police to act on that intelligence here in the UK.
Ministers and lawyers need to be briefed, and consulted on next
steps. We need partner agencies abroad to pool information, to
monitor individuals or to detain them where there are clear,
Disrupting the terrorists is a painstaking process with much
careful preparation, and then sudden rapid activity. Details have
to be right. It all has to be tackled fast and securely. There is
little margin for error.
All this goes on 24 hours a day, every day of the year. And it
keeps us far safer than we would be without it.
Terrorism is difficult enough, and despite our collective
efforts, an attack may well get through. The human costs would be
huge. But our country, our democratic system, will not be brought
down by a typical terrorist attack.
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.
States seeking to build nuclear weapons against their
international legal obligations are obsessively secretive about it.
SIS' role is to find out what these states are doing and planning,
and identify ways to slow down their access to vital materials and
The revelations around Iran's secret enrichment site at Qom were
an intelligence success. 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
The risks of failure in this area are grim. Stopping nuclear
proliferation cannot be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy.
We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for
countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons.
The longer international efforts delay Iran's acquisition of
nuclear weapons technology, the more time we create for a political
solution to be found.
Long-Range Strategic Intelligence
The National Security Strategy which the Prime Minister
published last week sets out the strategic direction for foreign,
defence and security policy for the years ahead. Intelligence is at
the heart of that strategy.
SIS has the responsibility to gather long-range strategic
intelligence, to track military and economic power in other
countries, and find out what they are going to do with it. We try
to see inside the minds of potential policy adversaries and predict
We have expertise on states that operate opaquely and without
public accountability. We provide early warning of new weapons
systems, or of major changes in policy.
Machiavelli said that "surprise is the essential factor in
victory". A lot of SIS work is about making sure that the British
government does not face unwelcome surprises. And that some of our
My colleague Iain Lobban at GCHQ recently described the cyber
threats we face in the modern world.
Attacks on government information and commercial secrets of our
companies, are happening all the time. Electricity grids, our
banking system, anything controlled by computers, could possibly be
vulnerable. For some, cyber is becoming an instrument of policy as
much as diplomacy or military force.
As Iain is the first to recognise, there isn't a purely
technological solution. We need to invest in technology to defend
ourselves, and the Government has allocated funds for that purpose
in the Spending Round.
Even hi-technology threats have that crucial human dimension and
SIS will be gathering intelligence on individuals and states
launching cyber attacks against us, to find out how they organise
themselves and to develop ways to counter them.
We have already set to work. It's a big task of the future.
Supporting the Military and Building Security
Where the military are involved in a conflict, you will find SIS
and GCHQ alongside them.
In Afghanistan, our people provide tactical intelligence that
guides military operations and saves our soldiers' lives. Our
strategic intelligence helps map the political way forward.
We are building up the Afghan security service, already probably
the most capable of the Afghan security institutions, to help the
Afghans take responsibility for their own security.
Capacity building is not limited to Afghanistan. We offer
training and support to partner services around the world. It wins
their cooperation, it improves the quality of their work, and it
builds respect for human rights.
Our Government expects SIS to maintain a global reach,
collecting intelligence in all areas of major British interest to
reduce the risk of unpleasant surprises.
And we have our network of partners which provides us a discreet
channel of communication to other governments on the most sensitive
So, we are a very special part of government. SIS exists to give
the UK advantage. We are a sovereign national asset. We are the
secret frontline of our national security.
How can the public have confidence that work done by us in
secret is lawful, ethical and in their interests?
Let me explain how it all works in practice.
SIS does not choose what it does. The 1994 Intelligence Services
Act sets the legal framework for what we do. Ministers tell us what
they want to know, what they want us to achieve. We take our
direction from the National Security Council.
As Chief of SIS, I am responsible for SIS operations. I answer
directly to the Foreign Secretary.
When our operations require legal authorisation or entail
political risk, I seek the Foreign Secretary's approval in advance.
If a case is particularly complex he can consult the Attorney
General. In the end, the Foreign Secretary decides what we do.
Submissions for operations go to the Foreign Secretary all the
time. He approves most, but not all and those operations he does
not approve do not happen. It's as simple as that.
There is oversight and scrutiny by parliamentarians and by
The Intelligence and Security Committee is chaired by Sir
Malcolm Rifkind, and includes other senior politicians, many of
them former ministers. They hold us to account and can investigate
areas of our activity.
And, two former judges have full access to our files, as
Intelligence Commissioner and Interception Commissioner. They make
sure our procedures are proper and lawful.
These processes of control and accountability are as robust as
you will find anywhere. SIS fully supports them. We want to enjoy
We don't operate on our own. Intelligence is a team game. If we
need to track a British terrorist in another country, or stop a
shipment of components for a secret nuclear programme, we need to
work with Services abroad.
We work with over 200 partner services around the world, with
hugely constructive results. And our intelligence partnership with
the United States is an especially powerful contributor to UK
No intelligence service risks compromising its sources. So we
have a rule called the Control Principle; the service who first
obtains the intelligence has the right to control how it is used;
who else it can be shared with, and what action can be taken on
It's Rule Number One of intelligence sharing. We insist on it
with our partners, and they insist on it with us. Because whenever
intelligence is revealed, others try to hunt down the source.
Agents can get identified, arrested, tortured and killed by the
very organisations who are working against us.
So if the Control Principle is not respected, the intelligence
dries up. That's why we have been so concerned about the possible
release of intelligence material in recent court cases.
Law, Ethics and Intelligence
We can't do our job if we work only with friendly democracies.
Dangerous threats usually come from dangerous people in dangerous
places. We have to deal with the world as it is.
Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives,
here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it.
We will normally want to share it with those who can save those
We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner
service will respect human rights. That is not always
Yet if we hold back, and don't pass on that intelligence, out of
concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent
lives may be lost that we could have saved.
These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or
searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational
Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more
finely-balanced judgements have to be made by Ministers themselves.
I welcome the publication of the Consolidated Guidance on detainee
issues. It reflects the detailed guidance issued to SIS staff in
the field and the training we give them.
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 the terrorist activity to go ahead.
Some may question this, but we are clear that it's the right
thing to do. It makes us strive all the harder to find different
ways, consistent with human rights, to get the outcome we want.
Other countries respect our approach on these issues. Even where
we find deep differences of culture and tradition, we can make
progress, slowly but surely, by seeking careful assurances and
providing skilled training.
I also welcome the Prime Minister's initiative in setting up the
Gibson inquiry into the detainee issue. If there are more lessons
to be learned, we want to learn them.
And, 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
Let me say this: SIS is 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.
So, back to that reader's letter in The Times.
The recent debate about secrecy reflects two concerns.
First, the national security, and the need for the intelligence
and security agencies to work in secret to protect British
interests and our way of life from those who threaten it.
And second, the need for justice - the rights of citizens to
raise complaint against the Government and get a fair hearing.
As a public servant, and as a citizen, I devoutly want both
objectives upheld, and not to have one undermine the other.
The judges have to determine what constitutes a fair trial.
We in the intelligence and security agencies have to make sure
that our secrets don't become available to those who are
threatening our country. And we have to protect our partners'
As the Prime Minister said in Parliament, at present we're
unable to use secret material in court with confidence that the
material will be protected.
The Government has promised a Green Paper to set out some better
options for dealing with national security issues in the courts and
I look forward to that.
Part of sustaining public confidence in the intelligence
services is debate about the principles and value of the
And the purpose of today is to explain what SIS do and why we do
it. Why our work is important, and why we can't work in the open. A
lot is at stake.
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
Agents take risks. They will not work with SIS, will not pass us
the secrets they hold, unless they can trust us not to expose
Foreign partners need to have certainty that what they tell us
will remain secret - not just most of the time, but always.
Without the trust of agents, the anonymity of our staff, the
confidence of partners, we would not get the intelligence. The
lives of everyone living here would be less safe. The United
Kingdom would be more vulnerable to the unexpected, the vicious and
Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover up.
Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and
And 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.
Without secrecy, we can't tackle threats at source. We would be
forced to defend ourselves on the goal-line, on our borders. And
it's more than obvious that the dangers of terrorism, nuclear
proliferation and cyber attack are not much impressed by
Ladies and Gentlemen: the remarkable men and women who make up
the staff of SIS are among the most loyal, dedicated and innovative
in the entire public service. We ask more of them than we do of any
other public servants not in uniform. Exceptional people, doing
extraordinary things for their country.
Our people can't and don't talk about what they do. They receive
recognition for their achievements only within the confines of the
You don't know them, but I do. It is an honour to lead them.