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Defending the realm

Published date: 15 Oct 2009

Speech by the Director General of MI5, Jonathan Evans, at Bristol University, 15 October 2009.

I am very pleased to be here tonight to give the 14th Policy and Politics Annual Lecture. The Security Service has no responsibility for policy and is debarred by law from engaging in politics. But I'll do my best!

It is a happy co-incidence for me that two institutions that have played an important part in my life should share a Centenary: Bristol University and the Security Service MI5. The Security Service was formed in 1909 because of concerns about possible German espionage in the run up to the First World War. Bristol was one of that group of universities founded in the major cities of this country in the early years of the 20th century.

This year is also the centenary of the Girl Guiding movement – which reminded me of the strange fact that during the First World War Girl Guides were employed by MI5 as messengers within the building. The initial plan had been to use Boy Scouts but they proved feckless and noisy and the Girl Guides were a more reliable alternative. The Guides were required to be "between the ages of 14 and 16... of good standing, quick, cheerful and willing". They were allotted marks each day by their patrol leaders and at the end of the month the patrol with most points was awarded a prize picture which was theirs to keep for the following month. Maybe today's financial regulators might consider this as an alternative to the "bonus culture".

The institutions of a country are very important in forming and maintaining its national character. Of course, primarily, they should deliver whatever public good they are intended to provide – in Bristol University's case, research, education and scholarship, in the Service's case protecting national security. But institutions do more than that. They very often develop a character of their own that runs alongside their everyday functions. I remember the late Lord Dearing saying that the Post Office had a certain goodness of character whatever its other failings might have been. An institution's character comes from its function, from the people that have created and sustained it, from its history and from the stories and behaviours that it values. The long term health and success of an institution is very often determined by that character as much as, or more than, by the validity of the functions it seeks to discharge.

Moreover, institutions are of course where people spend much of their working lives. They thus provide purpose, meaning, comradeship and the opportunity to develop and to contribute that would be missing in an atomised society without institutions (if indeed one could imagine such a society). Institutions shape our lives individually, communally and nationally. Perhaps we shall find in due course that they shape lives supranationally as well.

The British have historically been good at creating and sustaining institutions. Tradition – that which has been handed down – can be and often has been positive, progressive and helpful. It is interesting that much of the recent public debate about the powers of the state in respect of the individual has been cast in the context of the English tradition of law and liberty.

The Security Service has been in existence for 100 years. Its purpose is to protect national security and in practice that has meant protecting the country against covertly organised threats. What do I mean by that? I mean activities that are secretly organised and which aim to damage the safety or wellbeing of the country to such an extent that they constitute a threat to our security as a nation. Over a hundred years the nature of such threats has changed. Initially we sought to identify and prevent German spying in the run up to the Great War. We did the same in the Second World War, which was a period of great success: every German agent sent to this country was identified on or shortly after arrival, the great majority being "turned" and reporting to the Nazis only what the Service told them to report. This "double cross system", as it was known, was a most remarkable achievement.

After the war the main threat was international, Soviet-inspired communism. Then the international terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s, much of it connected to the Palestinian issue; terrorism relating to the affairs of Northern Ireland which continues in a less acute form up to our own day, and of course since the late 1990s we have seen the emergence of a new kind of terrorism principally driven or inspired by Al Qaida.

This changing scene has meant that the Service itself has grown and shrunk along the way. From very modest beginnings in Victoria Street in 1909 we grew to meet the threat of the Great War, shrank to a very small number of staff in the interwar years, ballooned in 1940 (not without institutional problems) and so the ebb and flow of Treasury funding has continued. In recent years we have been going through one of the periods of growth and have also moved from being heavily centralised in London to having a significant regional presence across the UK.

Today the Service is focused principally on Al Qaida related terrorism which has emerged as a major threat in the last ten years. Globalisation has operated in this area as in many others, so that our domestic security is now dependent as much on events in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia as it is on events in London, Manchester or indeed Bristol. We continue also to investigate the activities of foreign intelligence services in so far as they continue to attack UK interests, an activity that today happens increasingly via the internet, and we have a continuing role in countering terrorism related to the affairs of Northern Ireland and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We also have close links with the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), which advises those responsible for the protection of critical national infrastructure – many of whom are in the private sector – about the threat to their assets and how best they can be protected.

I joined the Service in 1980, straight from Bristol and recruited via the university "milk round", my first contact with the Service taking place in the career service offices in, I think, Berkeley Square. The Service at that time was using a discreet cover as some opaque Government department. It says something about the secret nature of the Service in those days, and my own naivety that I did not fully realise that I was working for MI5 until a few days after I had joined. I might add that at least one of my Bristol contemporaries must have taken the same path from Bristol, since I found myself sitting next to him on my first day at the Service's headquarters in Gower Street in London! I recognised him despite the fact that his previously flowing hair had been cropped to a respectable short back and sides.

On arrival in my first intelligence section I recall a comment made by one retired military gentleman: "Ah! One of the young intellectuals!". I came to respect that caste of retired officers because though they may have had a rather old fashioned view of the world, they were decent, public spirited and practical people who were not in the Service for money or advancement but because they thought they could do something useful for their country. Today's Service is much younger and more diverse than the one I joined but strong elements of that vocational attitude still survive.

From the earliest days, the Service had a culture of pragmatic decency that served it well in changing times. In WWII the officer in charge of interrogating foreign prisoners was Colonel Robin "Tin Eye" Stephens. Stephens, though an  intimidating figure with his glittering monocle, was quite clear that there was to be no physical mistreatment of prisoners. In his view it was the wrong way to proceed – there were better ways of getting to the truth.

This debate is of course still very relevant. I can say quite clearly that the Security Service does not torture people, nor do we collude in torture or solicit others to torture people on our behalf. That is a very clear and long established principle.

Operating a security service within a liberal democracy does of course pose problems and occasionally dilemmas. A "purist" liberal might argue that there should be no domestic intelligence service separate from law enforcement: within the law the State should not restrict the activities of its citizens. Such a doctrine is comforting in its purity but does not stand up well to the test of reality. Any country has legitimate security needs, and the people of this country expect to be able to go about their lives in security, confidence and prosperity. We should all be able to shop with our families, attend sporting events or use public transport without fear. But there are those who are intent on stopping us from doing so. It is a responsibility of government to ensure that those who threaten us cannot succeed in their plans. And since those plans are by their nature secret, we need a security intelligence service to identify and investigate them. We cannot merely wait until our enemies have acted and then seek to bring them to justice. Important as that process is, it does not prevent the actual harm that our enemies and opponents seek to do to us. And some activity threatening to our security, including some of the state espionage activity against us, is not amenable to the criminal law.

An additional complication is that an intelligence service cannot operate effectively if its actions are visible to all. We need to keep secret from the people we are investigating that we know who they are, and that we are investigating them. If not, they will take measures to avoid our scrutiny. Therefore full disclosure of the Security Service's activities to public gaze would negate the purpose of having a security service in the first place.

Accordingly the arrangements in place for the oversight of the Security Service (which are very similar to those for the Secret Intelligence Service and GCHQ) depend upon those bodies that provide the oversight operating within the so called "ring of secrecy", so that they can require the Service to account for its actions in some detail without that information coming into the public domain. These oversight arrangements comprise five elements.

First, the Service works under the authority of the Home Secretary. Our plans and performance are scrutinised by him, and I see the Home Secretary regularly. Authorisations for the use of intrusive techniques such as telephone interception are required, by statute, to be signed by the Home Secretary personally. They are not in the Service's gift. This statutory framework ensures that we may only intrude on the privacy of citizens in accordance with law, a principle enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and reflected in the Human Rights Act.

Second, the Service's use of the intrusive powers authorised under the law is reviewed by two Commissioners, retired senior judges, who are appointed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. They have access to our most sensitive operational activities and ensure that we are applying the law and that the use of the powers is justified. If you are interested, the reports of the Commissioners are published so you can check that we are keeping the rules! We certainly put a great deal of effort into doing so.

Third, the Service is accountable to the Intelligence and Security Committee of parliamentarians, who operate in rather the same way that a Select Committee oversees the work of a department of state. Anyone who doubts that the Committee is afforded detailed access to the Service's activities should spend a couple of hours reading the published version of the Committee's report entitled "Could 7/7 have been prevented?", published earlier this year. The operational detail included in the report about the Service's actions in connection with the 7 July bombings in London is unprecedented and I wish it had received more coverage.

Fourth, there is the Investigatory Powers Tribunal available to members of the public who wish to complain about the Agencies. The Tribunal is independent of government and is made up of senior members of the legal profession and judiciary.

And finally the finances of the Service are subject to scrutiny by both the Treasury and the National Audit Office.

There is a balance to be struck between two extremes: it would be self-defeating to have such onerous and detailed scrutiny that the operational effectiveness and responsiveness of the Service was seriously impaired. Equally, accountability must be sufficiently robust to ensure that any inappropriate action on the part of the Service comes to light. In my view the current balance is about right. We are an operationally focussed Service and need to be able to react with speed, for example when terrorists are plotting an attack. But the members of the Service, as much as those outside, support the need for appropriate oversight. We are, after all, ourselves citizens of this country and the reason that most people join the Service is because they want to do something useful and valuable for our society. Members of the Service are conscientious people who think about what they are doing and as a Service we encourage discussion and debate of ethical issues as an important part of keeping the culture of the Service healthy. And the long term effectiveness of the Service, operating in a democracy, depends upon our operating within the ethical values and norms of the society we serve. This is a message I give personally to all new members of the Service.

Recently there has been much media reporting of allegations made by a variety of people that the Service has solicited and colluded in the mistreatment of detainees held by other governments. Some have even alleged that we have taken part in or been present during mistreatment. Regrettably I am not able to comment on these allegations in detail because most of the complainants are taking action against the Service, and other government departments in the civil courts. This precludes full public discussion of the allegations. But I would like to make some general points.

Perhaps most importantly, context. After 9/11 the UK and other western countries were faced with the fact that the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaida was indiscriminate, global and massive. Now, 8 years on, we have a better understanding of the nature and scope of Al Qaida's capabilities but we did not have that understanding in the period immediately after 9/11. We had seen nearly 3000 people killed in the United States, 67 of them British. We were aware that 9/11 was not the summit of Al Qaida's ambitions. And there was a real possibility that similar attacks were being planned, possibly imminently. Our intelligence resources were not adequate to the situation we faced and the root of the terrorist problem was in parts of the world where the standards and practices of the local security apparatus were very far removed from our own.

This posed a real dilemma. Given the pressing need to understand and uncover Al Qaida's plans, were we to deal (however circumspectly) with those security services who had experience of working against At Qaida on their own territory, or were we to refuse to deal with them, accepting that in so doing we would be cutting off a potentially vital source of information that would prevent attacks in the West? In my view we would have been derelict in our duty if we had not worked, circumspectly, with overseas liaisons who were in a position to provide intelligence that could safeguard this country from attack. I have every confidence in the behaviour of my officers in what were difficult and, at times, dangerous circumstances. This was not just a theoretical issue. Al Qaida had indeed made plans for further attacks after 9/11: details of some of these plans came to light through the interrogation of detainees by other countries, including the US, in the period after 9/11; subsequent investigation on the ground, including in the UK, substantiated these claims. Such intelligence was of the utmost importance to the safety and security of the UK. It has saved British lives. Many attacks have been stopped as a result of effective international intelligence co-operation since 9/11.

I do not defend the abuses that have recently come to light within the US system since 9/11. Nor would I dispute the judgement of the Intelligence and Security Committee, in its 2005 Report on the Handling of Detainees and its 2007 Report on Rendition, that the Service, among others, was slow to detect the emerging pattern of US practice in the period after 9/11. But it is important to recognise that we do not control what other countries do, that operational decisions have to be taken with the knowledge available, even if it is incomplete, and that when the emerging pattern of US policy was detected necessary improvements were made. And we should recall that notwithstanding these serious issues, the UK has gained huge intelligence benefits from our co-operation with the US agencies in recent years, and the US agencies have been generous in sharing intelligence with us.

To quote the article written earlier this year by Alan Johnson and David Miliband:

Intelligence from overseas is critical to our success in stopping terrorism. All the most serious plots and attacks in the UK in this decade have had significant links abroad. Our agencies must work with their equivalents overseas... we have to work hard to ensure that we do not collude in torture or mistreatment. Enormous effort goes into assessing the risks in each case. But it is not possible to eradicate all risk. Judgements need to be made.

That is the reality of the situation: we do not solicit or collude in torture. We do not practice torture. But we are operating in a difficult and complex environment.

The two principles articulated in the Service's ethical approach are, first, "diligent judgement" – of the sort outlined in the article by the Home and Foreign Secretaries, recognising that we operate in a complex environment where easy answers are not available to us. And second, "due accountability". We are an accountable public organisation. We seek to record decisions made and the actions we have taken, and we provide information as required to oversight bodies such as the Commissioners, the Intelligence and Security Committee, and in particular to the Courts. Disclosure for the court process can be a very resource-intensive exercise, complicated by the question of how much of the relevant material can safely come into the public sphere through the courts. These problems can take time to resolve, not because we are seeking to cover anything up but, on the contrary, because the quantity and variety of records and the scale of disclosure exercises, particularly when faced with allegations ranging over a period of years involving dozens of cases and the actions of hundreds of officers, is so enormous. But in these current cases, as in others historically, we shall do all we can to make sure the relevant information is available to the court. It will be for the court to decide on the merits of the cases before it.

I have spoken at some length about the oversight arrangements for the intelligence agencies. Those arrangements are an important safeguard but they are more fundamentally an enabler. By building public confidence in the accountability of the agencies, they enable the country to benefit from the work that the agencies do. For the Security Service, over the last century, that work has been to help safeguard the country against a series of threats from totalitarian, undemocratic or violent States and non-State groups : defeating enemy espionage in the two World Wars; containing, after a long struggle, the Soviet espionage threat; contributing to the success of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland by limiting the impact of terrorism, and since 9/11 working with the Police and other agencies to prevent most (though sadly not all) of the many terrorist plots against the people of this country.

I started this talk with some thoughts on the importance of institutions. The Security Service has survived and prospered over a century by combining strong and positive traditions with the ability to respond rapidly and effectively to the changing environment. Bristol University has done the same. This creative ability depends on understanding and engaging with the world we live in, making the best use of the talents and enthusiasms of those engaged in the work and being willing to take decisions in a context where not everything is already known. That is my experience of the Service but it is also, of course a pretty good description of academic life.

I am very pleased to have benefited personally from my time at Bristol University. I have found, like all graduates, that undergraduate days are extraordinarily important in shaping your mind and laying the foundations for the future course of your life. Though, of course, I was, like most undergraduates laying the foundations without knowing what would be built on them – a tricky engineering problem! And I am equally pleased to have had the privilege of working in the Security Service: for the interest of the work, the opportunity to contribute positively to national life, and the excellent colleagues that I have been fortunate to work with, you would be hard pressed to find a better graduate career! I hope very much that both institutions are able to make as significant and beneficial a contribution to national life in their second centuries as they have done in their first.


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