At Large

The Old Lady Shows Her Ankles

MI6 comes out of the cold, into irrelevance.

By 11.5.10

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It was heralded as a history-making and one hundred year old tradition-breaking event last week when Sir John Sawers, the current Chief of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), spoke publicly of the role his agency plays. From a theatrical standpoint, his performance was a "smash." In practical terms, it was a good try at creating a pretense of a new and open MI6.

As late as the 1990s official Britain still refused to admit SIS actually existed, whether under that name or its earlier designation as MI6. This was not so much a deception as it was a forelock-tugging recognition of the storied past of the secret institution that so steadfastly favored its anonymity. Tradition has always been important to the "friends," as the rest of Britain's foreign affairs establishment called their clandestine cousins. Giving up the long since out-dated thin veneer of purported non-existence was hardly an operational blow to Her Majesty's pimpernels.

Of equal lack of real importance -- other than as a public relations device -- was Sir John's forswearing of the use of torture to gain information by his organization or acceptance of such intelligence from less ethical allies. With not a little cynicism he noted torture was also against the law. (Nice of you to mention that, Chief.) As the British are masters of the concept of thinly sliced definition of language, one wonders what aspect of behavior toward gaining deadly time-sensitive information will be put into effect. What "special instance" will come to exist to test this new politically correct civilian intelligence agency interpretation of "Queen's Regulations."

It may salve the conscience of some in Parliament, press, and the public that their national security is protected by an intelligence service that doesn't use violent methods of interrogation to gather critical information. Nonetheless, public statements to that effect by the head of their foreign intelligence adds little to the efficacy of the service itself. Sir John knows that well enough as a long-serving foreign affairs civil servant.

Beyond the stated ethical base of this exercise is the fact that all of Britain's security services have received budget increases in the midst of broad defense cutbacks. For political reasons it has become important to burnish MI6's reputation, which had become the focal point for the post-Blair public dispute over the Secret Intelligence Service inadequate performance on the question of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

The new Conservative-led government found a convenient whipping boy in the pejorative characterization of the Tony Blair days of "slavish" support of American assessments. WMD has become the convenient target, and MI6 the ineffectual purveyor of false intelligence. It seems that the Tory/Lib Dem spinmeisters decided SIS would have to lift its skirts to satisfy a never satisfied press and public, which have wearied of Britain's military involvement in the Middle East.

As has been the case so often in the past, the amateur sleuths in the press and politics have missed the important point. MI6 had informants within the Saddam hierarchy. The trouble was that Saddam suspected that fact even though he and his trusted lieutenants didn't know the identity of the specific agents. Saddam simply used these unknown intelligence adversaries as a conduit in a highly successful campaign of disinformation.

By the end of 2002 or early 2003, Baghdad had already shipped to Syria the left-over chemical stores from the first Gulf War that were suspected of existing but never found by the UN teams. This information was picked up by the SIS contacts, but it merely became proof that Iraq still had WMD capacity -- which was exactly what Saddam wanted the world to think. It was his view that he would be safe from invasion if it was thought that he had nuclear and/or bio-chemical weapons.

Unfortunately for Saddam, fear of his purported WMD did not engender the reaction he expected from London and Washington. The negotiations that the Iraqi leader had expected to be spurred by fear of his WMD worked the opposite way, and the U.S. and Britain attacked.

So seven years later the SIS has to play the contrite incompetent to satisfy the new political reality at Downing Street. British intelligence, and to a certain extent its partner in pre-war Iraq, the CIA, have had to acknowledge they were snookered by Saddam with the unwitting assistance of ambitious Iraqi exile leaders, and thus went to war. Which is worse: an intelligence agency that thinks there are weapons of mass destruction when there aren't any -- or intelligence officers who can't tell the difference between real and fabricated information?

British officialdom apparently now believes it doesn't really matter just so someone of importance promises such errors will never happen again. And that was what Sir John has done: that and present his boyish 55-year-old countenance to the press and public. This was supposed, as the Financial Times put it, to take "a big step towards greater transparency and improved public confidence." But it doesn't mean a damn as far as intelligence operations is concerned other than making a difficult job more so.

And the best of British luck to you chaps!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.