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Real life head of MI6 makes his first ever public address

29-Oct-2010 • Bond Style

The boss of Britain's MI6 spy agency delivered his first public speech Thursday, defending his organization's shadowy work in part of a remarkable shift for an agency that until 1992 did not officially exist -- reports Business Week.

The speech by John Sawers, who heads the country's Secret Intelligence Service -- better known as MI6 -- comes as part of a public relations effort to better explain the agency to the country's citizens. His address was also aimed at dealing with accusations that the agency had colluded with the torture of terror suspects abroad.

MI6, which earned worldwide notoriety as the sensational, cloak-and-dagger employer of the fictional James Bond, has over the past five years set up its own website and begun posting recruitment ads in Britain's media, all moves toward greater openness.

But in his speech to the Society of Editors in London, Sawers argued that keeping secrets was a critical part of "keeping Britain safe and secure."

"Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover up," he said. "Without secrecy there would be no intelligence services, or indeed other national assets like our special forces. Our nation would be more exposed as a result."

Sawers' sales pitch comes at a time that government spending cuts are expected to trim its budget. MI6 is one of Britain's three major intelligence agencies, which collectively face a 7.5 percent cut over five years.

In his speech, he also alluded to the "real, constant operational dilemma" of how to handle foreign intelligence that may have been extracted by mistreatment or abuse. A judge-led inquiry is examining whether British spies were complicit in the torture of terror suspects held by the U.S. and other allies.

Sawers said that he welcomed the inquiry, but outlined the anguished choice that spies had to make when faced with intelligence potentially tainted by abuse.

"Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it," he said. "We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.

"If we hold back, and don't pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved ... Sometimes there is no clear way forward."

MI6's activities, which stretch back to 1909, have recently been outlined in its first-ever official history published last month.

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