Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, makes historic public appearance

For the first time in 100 years “C”, the head of the UK for­eign intel­li­gence ser­vice SIS (com­monly known as MI6) has gone public.

Former career dip­lo­mat Sir John Saw­ers (he of Speedo fame) yes­ter­day made a speech to the UK Soci­ety of Edit­ors in what appeared to be a pro­fes­sion­ally dip­lo­matic rear-guard action in response to a num­ber of hot media top­ics at the moment.

Choos­ing both his audi­ence wisely and his words care­fully, he hit on three key areas:

Tor­ture: Legal cases are cur­rently going through UK courts on behalf of Brit­ish vic­tims of tor­ture, in which MI5 and MI6 intel­li­gence officers are alleged to have been com­pli­cit.  The Met­ro­pol­itan Police are cur­rently invest­ig­at­ing a num­ber of cases.  Over the last week, a Brit­ish mil­it­ary train­ing manual on “enhanced” inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques has also been made pub­lic. How­ever, Saw­ers unblush­ingly states that MI6 abides by UK and inter­na­tional law and would never get involved, even tan­gen­tially, in tor­ture cases.  In fact, he goes on to assert that the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are train­ing the rest of the world in human rights in this regard.

 

 

Whis­tleblow­ing: In the week fol­low­ing the latest Wikileaks coup — the Iraq War Diar­ies, com­pris­ing nearly 400,000 doc­u­ments detail­ing the every­day hor­ror of life in occu­pied Iraq, includ­ing war crimes such as murder, rape and tor­ture com­mit­ted by both US and UK forces — Saw­ers states that secrecy is not a dirty word: the intel­li­gence agen­cies need to have the con­fid­ence that whis­tleblowers will not emerge to in order to guard agent and staff iden­tit­ies, as well as main­tain­ing the con­fid­ence of their inter­na­tional intel­li­gence part­ners that their (dirty?) secrets will remain, um, secret.  One pre­sumes he is advoc­at­ing against the expos­ure of war crimes and justice for the victims.

This, one also pre­sumes, is the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for US politi­cians who pro­pose cyber-attacks against Wikileaks and the declar­a­tion by some US polit­ical insiders that Julian Assange, spokes­man of the organ­isa­tion, should be treated as an unlaw­fully des­ig­nated “unlaw­ful com­batant”, sub­ject to the full rigour of extra-judicial US power, up to and includ­ing assassination. 

Spuri­ous media claims of unveri­fied “dam­age” are the hoary old chest­nuts always dragged out in whis­tleblower cases.  After Wikileaks released its Afghan War Blog in July, gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence com­ment­at­ors made apo­ca­lyptic pre­dic­tions that the leak had put mil­it­ary and agent lives at risk.  US Defense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates has since gone on the record to admit that this was simply not true. 

Dur­ing the Shayler whis­tleblow­ing case a dec­ade ago, the gov­ern­ment repeatedly tried to assert that agent lives had been put at risk, and yet the formal judge­ment at the end of his trial stated that this was abso­lutely not the case.  And again, with the recent Wikileaks Iraq War Blog, gov­ern­ment sources are using the same old man­tra.  When will they real­ise that they can only cry wolf so many times and get away with it?  And when will the journ­al­ists regur­git­at­ing this spin wake up to the fact they are being played?

Account­ab­il­ity:  Saw­ers goes on to describe the mech­an­isms of account­ab­il­ity, such as they are.  He accur­ately states, as I have pre­vi­ously described ad nauseam, that under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, he is notion­ally respons­ible to his polit­ical “mas­ter”, the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, who has to clear in advance any leg­ally dubi­ous for­eign oper­a­tions (up to and includ­ing murder – the fabled “licence to kill” is not fic­tion, as you can see here).

The 1994 ISA also estab­lished the Prime Minister’s Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in Par­lia­ment, which many com­ment­at­ors seem to believe offers mean­ing­ful over­sight of the spies.  How­ever, as I have detailed before, this is a mere fig leaf to real account­ab­il­ity: the ISC can only invest­ig­ate issues of policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the spy agen­cies.  Dis­clos­ures relat­ing to crime, oper­a­tional incom­pet­ence or involve­ment in tor­ture fall out­side its remit.

But what hap­pens if intel­li­gence officers decide to oper­ate bey­ond this frame­work? How would min­is­ters or the ISC ever know?  Other spy mas­ters have suc­cess­fully lied to their polit­ical mas­ters in the past, after all.

Sir John has the gall to say that, if an oper­a­tion is not cleared by the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, it does not pro­ceed.  But what about the Gadaffi Plot way back in 1996, when MI6 was spon­sor­ing a group of Islamic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to try to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Gadaffi without, it has been asser­ted, the prior writ­ten approval of the then-Foreign sec­ret­ary, Tory politi­cian Mal­com Rif­kind?  This was repor­ted extens­ively, includ­ing in this art­icle by Mark Thomas in the New States­man. What hap­pens if rogue MI6 officers blithely side-step this notional account­ab­il­ity — because they can, because they know they will get away with it — because they have in the past?

MoS_August_97_QPlot_CredibleIn the interests of justice, UK and inter­na­tional law, and account­ab­il­ity, per­haps a new Conservative/Coalition gov­ern­ment should now reas­sess its approach to intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers gen­er­ally, and re-examine this spe­cific dis­clos­ure about Libya, which has been backed up by inter­na­tional intel­li­gence sources, both US and French, in order to achieve some sort of clos­ure for the inno­cent vic­tims in Libya of this MI6-funded ter­ror­ist attack? And it is finally time to hold the per­pet­rat­ors to account — PT16, Richard Bart­lett, and PT16B, David Wat­son, who were the senior officers in MI6 respons­ible for the murder plot.

As civ­il­ised coun­tries, we need to rethink our approach to the issue of whis­tleblow­ing. Lies, spin,  pro­sec­u­tions and thug­gish threats of assas­sin­a­tion are beneath us as soci­et­ies that notion­ally adhere to the prin­ciples of demo­cracy.  If we can only real­ist­ic­ally hope that the actions of our gov­ern­ments, mil­it­ary forces, and intel­li­gence agen­cies are trans­par­ent and account­able via whis­tleblowers, then we need to ensure that these people are leg­ally pro­tec­ted and that their voices are heard clearly.

 

New York INN conference: How the world changed after 9/11

INNIn Septem­ber 2010 I was invited over to New York to speak at a tele­vised 2-day sym­posium organ­ised by the inde­pend­ent TV and radio sta­tion Inter­na­tional News Net (INN).  The topic under dis­cus­sion was “How the world changed after 9/11″.

Speak­ers were invited from around the world to par­ti­cip­ate in panel dis­cus­sions focus­ing on dif­fer­ent areas that have been notice­ably degraded and cor­rup­ted since 9/11 in response to the end­less “war on ter­ror”: civil liber­ties, the rule of law, intel­li­gence, polit­ics, eco­nom­ics, and the media.  Some of the dis­cus­sions fea­tured aca­dem­ics, pro­fes­sion­als and sci­ent­ists ques­tion­ing the asser­tions of the offi­cial US gov­ern­ment account of 9/11 itself — the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for so many ensu­ing horrors.

NYC_Sept_2010_on stageI was on the same panel as Ray McGov­ern (army vet­eran and long-time CIA ana­lyst), Coleen Row­ley (FBI whis­tleblower), and Dr Kath­er­ine Albrecht (digital pri­vacy cam­paigner).  The title of the ses­sion was “Good­bye Fourth Amend­ment”.  As I poin­ted out at the begin­ning of my talk, at least the US has a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion to shred — some­thing the UK never quite man­aged to produce.…

Here’s the film of my ses­sion. DVDs of this and all other panel dis­cus­sions are avail­able from INN.