The head of MI6 emerged from the shadows yesterday to describe the moral dilemma over the use of intelligence obtained by torture while facing the threat of terrorism. In the first ever public speech by a head of the intelligence service, Sir John Sawers presented a defence of his organisation against charges that it has become complicit in some of the dark acts of George W Bush’s “war on terror”.
He acknowledged, however, that “After 9/11 the terrorist threat was immediate. We are accused by some people not of committing torture ourselves, but of being too close to it.” Sir John became the first “C”, as his post is known, to break cover in 100 years of MI6’s existence. MI6 agents remain within the law, their chief insisted. He said Britain has refused to pass on information which could have resulted in mistreatment of suspects in foreign countries even when the failure to do so “allows terrorist activity to go ahead. We are clear that it’s the right thing to do.”
Speaking to the Society of Editors in London, Sir John said torture was “illegal and abhorrent” and that he was sure his agents had “nothing whatsoever” to do with it. But there was ambiguity in his statement over what happens with information obtained through torture by allies.
“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. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives,” he said. “We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. If we hold back and don’t pass on that intelligence, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved. These are not abstract questions. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas. Sometimes there is no clear way forward.”Although reassurances must be sought over the treatment of detainees, trying to force through democratic values may be counter-productive, Sir John claimed. He also said that the work of the intelligence service was secret for good reason.
“Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure. If our operations and methods become public, they won’t work. Without the trust of agents, the anonymity of our staff, the confidence of our partners, we would not get the intelligence.” In the UK, the High Court had ruled in the case of the former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed that material supplied by a foreign intelligence service should be made public.
Sir John said it was essential that the “control principle” allowing the group which supplied the information to have a say in how it was distributed should be preserved.”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,” he said. “That’s why we have been so concerned about the release of intelligence material in recent court cases.”
Sir John Sawers“If we demand an abrupt move to the pluralism that we in the West enjoy we may undermine the controls in place. Terrorists would end up with new opportunities. SIS deals with the realities, the threats that they are. We minimise risks; our closest partners include many in the Muslim world concerned at the threat al-Qa’ida poses to Islam.”
Sir John Sawers“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 weapons.”