17 Mar 2015

We must face down Putin threat with power, says former MI6 chief

A former head of MI6 has warned that the UK’s emphasis on Islamist terrorism has led to policymakers potentially ignoring a more traditional security threat posed by nation states, describing Russia’s behaviour as “probably as important to each of us as the future of the health service”.

“The more serious danger from terrorism in my view is more latent that actual,” said Sir Richard Dearlove, who was chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS, from 1999 to 2004.

Sir Richard claimed last year that the government and media had blown Islamist terrorism out of proportion. Today he went further, arguing that the risk of radicalised Britons was not as great as the threat posed by militants trying to acquire chemical or nuclear material for an attack on the west.


“The risk of that exists but (it) isn’t high,” he told Channel 4 News after speaking at the Global Strategy Forum in London. “But that risk is greater than dealing with radicalised youth…. we are completely obsessed with domestic issues. We should be mature as a country to deal with radicalisation with the resources we have.”

Sir Richard pointed out that there had been no terror attacks in the UK since his last public speech in July last year. He said that while the terrorist threat had stretched the resources of the intelligence services, it had “so far been managed reasonably well”, though Britain’s spies and politicians lived constantly with the occupational hazard of “being blamed for failure”.

‘Deeply uncomfortable’

He told the audience he was “deeply uncomfortable” with intense media attention devoted to the IS executioner known as “Jihadi John” and the three schoolgirls believed to have absconded from east London to Syria to join jihadist militants, claiming that “it risked giving the subjects a kind of iconic status” which would potentially inspire others “yearning to become the same”.

He warned that Britain was “gently slipping out of that role” as a leader in Nato and said he was “shocked” by the lack of a commitment from the main political leaders to defence spending at least at the 2 per cent of GDP level.

Recognising public opposition to soldiers being sent on overt operations overseas, following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sir Richard said the UK “should be building up our Special Forces even more than we have already”, with defence spending rising from a real 2 per cent to 3 per cent over the next decade.

Ukraine ‘mishandled’

Dearlove, who is now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, has been criticised for intelligence failures in the run-up to the highly controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I am not denying that Iraq is one of the reasons why foreign military adventures are viewed with concern,” he told Channel 4 News after his speech.

Sir Richard, who served in Moscow with MI6, claimed the west had “mishandled Ukraine” by not engaging with Russia more fully before the crisis erupted last year. He said that while he was not making excuses for Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the west had underestimated “the emotional impact on Russia’s sense of national identity” arising from EU treaty negotiations with Ukraine.

“I do not subscribe to the idea of a return to the cold war,” he said, but argued that unless western diplomacy with Russia was backed by the “unequivocal expression of power,” it would not have much effect.

Sir Richard said that a new body made up of “citizens’ groups” and others who understood technology, should be set up to scrutinise Britain’s security and intelligence agencies, with a special focus on the UK’s power to intercept communications.

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