TVNZ : Top UK spy makes first public speech

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Top UK spy makes first public speech

Reuters | October 28, 2010

Britain's top spy, making the first public speech by a serving espionage chief, said today an inquiry into intelligence failings on Iraq showed sources of information had to be rigourously evaluated.

Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) chief John Sawers, addressing academics, officials and editors in a live televised appearance, said he was confident his service would take steps to ensure its recommendations were implemented.

Improving intelligence collection, co-ordination and analysis has been a major focus for Western governments since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion, events involving profound faults in intelligence collection and analysis.

A British inquiry in 2004 by a former top civil servant, Lord Butler, said it was a "serious weakness" that caveats from intelligence chiefs were not spelt out in a September 2002 dossier which set out the government's case for disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Former US President George Bush launched the Iraq invasion citing a threat of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein's government.

No such weapons were ever found.

Sawers, speaking to the Society of Editors media group, said: "The Butler Review following Iraq was a clear reminder, to both the 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 have implemented them fully in spirit as well as substance. I am confident that they have been.

"Sources of intelligence have to be rigourously 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 Butler report urged steps to ensure effective scrutiny and validation of human intelligence sources and to make sure this was properly resourced and organised.

Sawers, a career diplomat, had previously been the ambassador to the United Nations, the Foreign Office's political director, and also worked as an envoy in Baghdad and as foreign affairs adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

His speech, delivered at the London offices of Thomson Reuters, is a step towards greater openness for SIS, also known as MI6.

The move to more public accountability is a big cultural shift for a service that 20 years ago was so secret the government would not publicly avow its existence, even if it still enjoys more anonymity than its close US ally, the Central Intelligence Agency.

The pressure on intelligence officials to be more transparent has many roots - pressure from lawmakers to prevent abuses and improve performance, public concern over surveillance by police and local government, and a need by all arms of the intelligence community to make their work known so as to widen the avenues of recruitment.

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: "Wherever possible the public should be told what is being done in their name. The default switch should be set to release information unless there is an extremely good reason for withholding it.

"We are glad to provide a platform that will encourage greater openness which will help to build confidence and respect for our intelligence services in their vital work in protecting national security."

SIS, which gathers secret intelligence overseas, was first publicly acknowledged by the government in the 1990s.

The opening up of Britain's intelligence community gathered pace in 2006 when the then-head of the MI5 domestic security service, Eliza Manningham-Buller, appeared in public to make a speech to academics and journalists at a university campus.