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UK intelligence chief defends using secrecy to protect national security

The head of the UK's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) [official website] made a public statement Thursday defending the use of secrecy [text] for protecting national security, but also acknowledging concerns over some of the agency's adopted tactics. SIS Chief John Sawers [BBC profile] addressed questions about the value of a secret intelligence effort and whether the public could be confident that the SIS's work is "lawful, ethical, and in their interests." Of the three services forming the UK intelligence community, SIS,also known as MI6, specializes in operations abroad, dealing with threats and gathering intelligence from various sources around the world. In his speech, Sawer outlined the process the agency uses to obtain, report and protect intelligence information. He defended the SIS secrecy practices related to protecting British citizens from al Qaeda [JURIST news archive] terrorist operations, cyber threats and proliferation of nuclear weapons, and emphasized the importance of secrecy in facilitating long-range strategic intelligence and military support and security. The National Security Council and the 1994 Intelligence Services Act [text] set the legal framework for SIS conduct and ensure that the SIS is held accountable for its actions. Sawer formally communicated the SIS's position on torture [JURIST news archive]:

Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. 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.
Finally, Sawer noted his concern about Parliament's decision to allow intelligence information in the courts without confidence of protection, but recognized the delicate balance between a duty to protect the public from security threats and the rights of citizens to raise complaints and have access to fair trials. This speech marks the first public address by a serving chief of the agency in its 101-year history.

This is not the first time the SIS has been forced to address the issues surrounding secrecy and torture. These issues were underscored in May when the England and Wales Court of Appeal [official website] handed down a judgment [text; JURIST report] overturning a ruling of a UK high court, which held that defendants, members of MI5 [official website] and MI6, could utilize a "closed material procedure" that would allow them to rely on certain evidence without disclosing it to opposing counsel or committing it to the public record. In February, an appeals court ruled [JURIST report] that the government must disclose several paragraphs [text] detailing the allegations of mistreatment of terrorist suspect Binyam Mohamed [JURIST news archive] that were previously omitted from an earlier ruling in his criminal trial. Mohamed was returned to the UK in 2009, four months after charges against him were dismissed [JURIST reports].

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