U.K. Spy Chief: 'Secrecy Is Not A Dirty Word'

The head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, popularly known as MI6, has criticized the leaking of secret information, and says secrecy is vital to protect both the nation and its citizens. In the first public speech given by a serving chief, John Sawers also praised his staff for the dangerous and important work they do, condemned torture and said it was important for people to understand why secrecy is "not a dirty word."

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The head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service has criticized the leaking of confidential information, saying secrecy is vital to protect the nation and its citizens. It's not just what he said that matters but how he said it: in public.

It was the first public speech ever by an active head of the service popularly known as MI6. The speech comes amid a furious debate in Britain about the value and the wisdom of the latest release of secret documents by WikiLeaks.

Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER: Sir John Sawers didn't directly mention WikiLeaks, but he said that if his agency's operations and methods become public, they'll cease to function.

Mr. JOHN SAWERS (Chief, Secret Intelligence Service): Agents take risks. They will not work with SIS, will not pass us the secrets they hold, unless they can trust us not to expose them.

BARKER: On the subject of torture, Sawers said Britain's spies are legally bound not just to avoid torture but to avoid any actions which might lead to someone being tortured, even, he said, if that meant terrorist activity would go ahead.

Mr. SAWERS: Some may question this. But we are clear that it's the right thing to do. It makes us strive all the harder to find different ways, consistent with human rights, to get the outcome we want.

BARKER: Even so, Sir John acknowledged that British Intelligence would act on information that might save lives, even if it came from a foreign partner with a problematical human rights record.

Tim Cooke-Hurle is an investigator with the anti-torture organization Reprieve. British agents might avoid colluding with torture in foreign interrogations, he says, but once again there's a problem with the definition of torture.

Mr. TIM COOKE-HURLE (Investigator, Reprieve): When they suspect that there's a serious risk of someone being subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, there's considerable leeway for the operative to go ahead. And, you know, I'm looking at a copy of the guidance now. And it's as simple as that.

BARKER: Former British Guantanamo detainees are suing the British government over that guidance, which they allege allowed British agents to sit in on their mistreatment at the hands of the CIA, and a judicial inquiry has been called here to investigate whether British operatives have been complicit in human rights abuses by foreign intelligence services.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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