By stepping out of the shadows yesterday, Sir John Sawers, aka ‘C’ in spy jargon, completed what amounts to a historic treble for Britain's intelligence services.
First came an extensive briefing about the counter-terrorism work of MI5, the domestic security service, from its head Jonathan Evans. Not the first time the head of MI5 has spoken; but it was notable for its breadth and candour. Next, Iain Lobban, director of GCHQ, the electronic eavesdropping agency, came forward to speak about the national security implications of the threat from cyber-terrorists and cyber-criminals.
Now Sir John Sawers has completed the picture - the triumvirate who control Britain's intelligence services have all spoken publicly. Sir John was at pains to stress MI6's credentials on torture - the agency will have nothing to do with it, he said. He was doubtless mindful of the controversy involving Binyam Mohamed, the British resident formerly held at Guantanamo Bay.
Sir John painted a picture of an agency forced to work in a dirty, imperfect world, where terrorism, weapons proliferation and support for military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere are priorities. But torture, he said, is completely ruled out – even if it costs lives: "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."
What are the motives for speaking out now? Partly, it is to move with the times: it was only in 1994 that the existence of MI6 was admitted, ending the outlandish policy which effectively saw the public and parliament utterly misled about the existence and funding of the secret intelligence service. Secrecy is one thing; obsessional secrecy to the point of delusion quite another.
It was also to explain who and what MI6 is – and explain the imperative as to why its work needs to be remain secret, even if the name and photo of its’ boss doesn’t. He flatly told his audience there was no point in having a secret intelligence service if its workings did not remain secret.
He will also be mindful that the Chilcot report into the Iraq war may well contain findings that MI6 was too cosy with the Blair government, and whether this led to improper use of intelligence assessments to justify war. Also, the inquiry is likely to report on whether MI6 was robust enough in either its assessment of claims made by agents in Iraq about the supposed existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Sir John must also have hoped to lay to rest the torture issue – there is an ongoing Prime Minister’s initiative, the Gibson Inquiry, into the allegations that some in the intelligence services knew about the torture of Al Qaida suspects, by non-UK security services, in the aftermath of 9/11.
He may also have wished to contribute to the debate over a promised governmental Green Paper on “better options” for dealing with national security issues in the courts. At present, it is not possible to use secret material in court with confidence it will stay secret.
Sir John’s speech shed no light on MI6’s involvement in combating Irish terrorism. Partly that is because MI5 has the lead role in that. But it was likely, too, to be at least partly due to the diplomatic and legal sensitivities of potential MI6 operations in friendly European Union countries like the Republic, or any other state where dissident republican terrorists are active.