MI6 chief Sir John Sawers to step down
Sawers, the first outsider to be appointed to the role in decades, has been in post since 2009
Ewen MacAskill and Richard Norton-Taylor | June 26, 2014
Sir John Sawers, the head of Britain's overseas intelligence agency MI6, is to stand down in November.
His departure comes after a turbulent year in which the three British intelligence services have been thrown into disarray by Edward Snowden's revelations about surveillance.
Of the three intelligence heads who gave evidence to the parliamentary intelligence committee in November which was dominated by the Snowden controversy, only one will be left – Andrew Parker, the director general of the domestic spy agency MI5.
The Foreign Office announced in January that the head of the surveillance agency GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, was to stand down. It was presented as long planned and unconnected to Snowden.
At the intelligence committee hearing, Sawers was critical of Snowden's revelations, claiming they had been very damaging. "They have put our operations at risk. It is clear our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee. Al-Qaida is lapping it up," he said.
Sawers, 58, has been in post since 2009 and has apparently decided that 36 years as a public servant is long enough. He is not planning to take another public service job. Five years in post is about average for MI6 chiefs.
The announcement is being made early to give his successor a chance to take over well before the next year's general election.
The names of serving members of MI6 other than its head are secret, so a speculative list of potential successors will not be made public.
Although he worked for MI6 when young, serving in Yemen and Syria, Sawers spent most of his career as a diplomat working through a series of Foreign Office jobs, including foreign affairs adviser to Tony Blair and ambassador to the United Nations.
He was the first outsider to be appointed to the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) for decades. His appointment was opposed by senior MI6 officers who saw it as an attempt by the Foreign Office to increase its influence over the intelligence service as a result of the Iraq fiasco. The intelligence agencies claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Sawers tried to lift the veil of secrecy surrounding MI6, and was its first head to give a speech in public. In that speech, in October 2010, he described MI6 as the "secret frontline of national security".
He added: "Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up." MI6 obtained its intelligence from secret agents abroad who risked their lives providing it, he told his audience of editors.
Sawers said torture was "illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. 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."
He added, however, that if MI6 received credible intelligence that might save lives here or abroad, "we have a professional and moral duty to act on it".
But a year later he was confronted with clear evidence that in 2004, before his time as head of the agency, MI6 was directly involved in the rendition of two prominent Libyan dissidents to Tripoli where they were tortured by Muammar Gaddafi's secret police. The evidence was laid out in the files of the head of Gaddafi's intelligence service, Moussa Koussa, ransacked after the bombing of Libya in 2011.
In 2012, a coroner rebuked MI6 officers for hampering the police investigation into the death of Gareth Williams, a GCHQ employee seconded to MI6 who was found dead in suspicious circumstances at a London flat.