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."
WHAT HE SAID...
Sir John Sawers
"Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives, here and abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it... We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service respect human rights. That is not always straightforward. Yet if we hold back and don't pass that intelligence, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved."
This is a key issue in the debate over whether the UK has been complicit in the mistreatment of detainees by allied intelligence services and gained from the information they supplied. For example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani accused of being a key figure in plotting the 9/11 and other terrorist attacks, was subjected to waterboarding by US authorities to get information, some of which was passed on to Britain. Twelve former Guantanamo Bay detainees, including the Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed, have claimed that UK intelligence officers were complicit in their torture. An inquiry chaired by a retired High Court judge, Sir Peter Gibson, will determine whether the allegations are true.
Sir John Sawers
"It's rule number one of our intelligence sharing. We insist on [keeping intelligence secret] with our partners and they insist on it with us. Because whenever intelligence is revealed, others try to hunt down the source. Agents can be tortured and killed by the organisations working against us. So if the control principle is not respected, intelligence-sharing dries up. That's why we have been so concerned about possible release of intelligence material in recent court cases."
The High Court ruled that information passed to MI5 by the CIA about Binyam Mohamed should not remain secret. Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Jones stated that the documents indicated that MI5 knew that Mr Mohamed had been subjected to treatment "at the very least cruel, inhuman and degrading". David Miliband, then Foreign Secretary, warned that the US may refuse to share intelligence with the UK in the future. In fact a number of allied intelligence services had expressed their concern and the Cameron government is producing a Green Paper which is expected to set out legislation to block such a move in the future.
Sir John Sawers
"If we believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we are required by UK and international law to avoid that action. And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead."
This is a somewhat startling statement by the head of MI6 declaring that information about a plot involving violence and loss of lives may not be passed on if the country where it is taking place abuses detainees and political opponents. The moral dilemma in those circumstances would be acute and grim. In reality such intelligence is sometimes passed on through a third party or assurances are sought that the regime receiving it will not behave brutally towards suspects. But Sir John's statement indicates this may not always happen and innocent people have been injured and killed to protect the civil rights of terrorist suspects.
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."
Attempts to impose Western-style liberal democracy in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have had mixed results. At the same time elections elsewhere in the Middle East have led to Islamist movements like Hamas coming to power. It is indeed the case that radical Muslim movements often do well at the polls in these places because they are well organised and act as a focal point for popular discontent. Sir John, however, may be accused of straying into risky political waters by airing these thoughts.
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."
The intelligence service is needed to prevent future conflagrations and avoid the need for military action, appetite for which has dissipated in the West after the costly – in human and financial terms – missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.