“It takes special people, staff and secret agents to penetrate terrorist organisations and hostile powers, and leading them has been a privilege. There are few leadership challenges in public services that can compare: I’m proud to hand over a much more modern service to my successor.”
Sir John Sawers was reflecting at the weekend as he ended his tenure as “C”, the chief of MI6, after five turbulent years in which Britain’s security agencies have had to confront new threats and the rebirth of ones from the past.
Isis and al-Qaeda seek to carry out bombings, Russia and China have boosted espionage operations. And at the same time, there have been massive leaks of intelligence by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and claims of the UK’s culpability in human rights violation.
In these changing and volatile times in the world of intelligence, the MI6 chief and his fellow heads of MI5 and GCHQ, the government’s communications headquarters, had come out of the shadows to publicly defend their agencies and warn of the dangers ahead.
“Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not a cover-up,” Sir John had been keen to stress. Torture was “illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it”. The revelations by Edward Snowden, however, are “making our adversaries rub their hands with glee”.
These issues will not go away: the UK government, for instance, is due to face action in court by Abdul Hakim Belhaj, a former Libyan militia commander, for MI6’s alleged part in his rendition to the Gaddafi regime, albeit before Sir John’s tenure. Many people continue to see Snowden and Assange as whistle-blowing heroes. Civil rights groups warn that the security establishment is trying to gain worrying powers from Parliament.
Sir John was the first MI6 chief to give a speech in public and has regularly appeared before MPs to be questioned. Within MI6 he had, say members of staff, encouraged more openness and raised morale. His claim to have left a “more modern service” to his successor, Alex Younger, is something he takes genuine pride in.
But Sir John’s appointment to the post of director-general in 2009 was not universally welcomed in a service where, according to complaints of despairing reformists, the thinking of some had not moved significantly since the time of Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original C, 100 years previously.
Sir John was the first outsider to become the chief in decades. He had worked for MI6 briefly when he was young, in Yemen and Syria, but subsequently became a career diplomat in the Foreign Office. A few of the old guard objected to their boss not coming from within; others felt it was an attempt to gain undue influence by Whitehall.
There were sniffy comments about whether his lifestyle was really suited for a role which should epitomise discretion. On his appointment, a female BBC correspondent in New York compared Sir John to former James Bond star Pierce Brosnan, adding: “Tall, dashing and an excellent dancer, Britain’s ambassador the UN could indeed be a character out of a Ian Fleming’s tales –and now he becomes the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service!”
Then came pictures on his wife’s Facebook page of the ambassador on the beach in speedos.
None of this appeared to faze Britain’s overseas partners in security after Sir John got the job, although, at a subsequent White House reception, Hilary Clinton reportedly winked at him: “Nice legs.”
One of the key reasons Sir John was asked to apply for the job by Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary at the time, was a very British problem: the continuing recriminations about the Iraq dossier and accusations that the then-head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett, had failed to prevent Tony Blair’s No 10 manipulating intelligence to justify invasion. Sir John’s appointment had the backing of Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, and Opposition leader David Cameron.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, chairman of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, said: “There was some unhappiness in the SIS [MI6] at the time because they get their chiefs from their own. But it is no bad thing to bring in fresh blood from time to time, shake things up a bit. There was also the feeling in some quarters that John Scarlett had become a bit too close to Tony Blair.
“Maybe, some were worried about Whitehall bureaucracy, but John Sawers soon won the service over. He has been an outstanding chief, doing a difficult job extremely well.
“It was also an advantage for him from being a diplomat in the more public role the intelligence chiefs now need to have: appearing in front of TV held no terror for him.
“I think this transparency is a good thing, but of course you can’t please everyone. When our committee questioned John Sawers, some people wanted absolutely everything questioned; but of course you can’t talk about operational secrets in public.”
General Lord Richards, the former head of the British military, held that the views put forward by Sir John in meetings of the National Security Council were “anything but Whitehall dogma; they were refreshingly objective”.
The two men were keen to have a coherent strategy on Syria as the rebellion against Basher al-Assad’s regime unfolded. A plan by Gen Richards to train and equip the more moderate rebels three years ago was abandoned: Sir John, others at the meetings recalled, had long warned about the rise of the extremists before it became such a grim reality.
The two men had worked together in May 2003, when Sir John was still in the Foreign Office, on a plan to send British troops to parts of Baghdad to take over civic duties from the heavily militarised Americans, who were alienating the local population.
“Whatever the rights and wrongs of the invasion, this was an opportunity to try and diffuse the situation. We were initially hopeful, but then powers in London blocked it,” recalled Gen Richards.
Britain is now back bombing Iraq and the threats of bombs in the streets of this country continues to rise. There have been no serious attacks during Sir John’s watch at MI6, potential high-profile events such as the Olympics passed peacefully. But the service he leaves behind will have to counter such deadly threats while impassioned debate will continues about the balance between security and citizens’ rights.Reuse content