“C” head of MI6 comes in from the cold: secrecy is dirty business

The head of MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, known as “C” has given what is being billed as the first public speech by a serving MI6 chief.

His name is John Sawyers, Sir John Sawyers.

Sawyers defended the business of secrecy and even seemed to admit that it is a dirty business and that MI6 deals with dirty partners. Echoing the US position that it does not torture but nor does it physically intervene when it sees torture going on but only reports it (one of the upshots of the recent WikiLeaks trove of documents), Saywers argued:

Suppose we received 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 lives…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.

Even if those with whom it is shared abuse human rights? That seems to be the implication. A thousand spy novels from James Bond to Jason Bourne have just been officially confirmed.

Taking a swipe at newspapers like the Guardian in the UK and academics, Sawyers added

These are not abstract questions just for philosophy courses or searching editorials, they are real, constant operational dilemmas.

That argument is not new. We’ve heard it before. “Oh we deal with the real world. You can debate as much as you like in your classrooms and editorial offices.” It’s an extremely weak argument. Ultimately the MI6 is there to serve the UK and its people, and it’s people get to decide what it should do, and certainly get to debate it. They can’t be brushed aside as not knowing what goes on when MI6 and CIA/NSA are over-protective of secrets in the first place.

The speech may be historical in its being unprecedented but is otherwise very flavorless. It reads like eating Ready Brek.

Here’s another false equivalence

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.

Oh we wish our hands weren’t tied by lawyers in Brussels and Geneva! If we had a free hand we’d capture more terrorists! Yet here also on the Guardian’s front page is this revealing statistic:

No terror arrests in 100,000 police counter-terror searches, figures show

And the head of BA earlier this week condemned the over-zealousness of US airport security saying a lot of it was simply unnecessary.

Is this what Sawyer is railing against:

The police‘s use of controversial counterterrorism stop and search powers against individuals is to be scrapped immediately, the home secretary announced today…The home secretary’s decision to scrap their use against individuals follows a ruling by the European court of human rights in January that the powers were unlawful because they were too broadly drawn and lacked sufficient safeguards to protect civil liberties.

C may have come in from the cold but it’s hard not to see this as a closing of the ranks against the WikiLeaks material showing what a dirty business war and secrecy are.

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