MI6 in particular has suffered some hard reputational knocks and doesn’t like it. Mr Hague is trying to shape the debate about it in the media, by giving those who write and comment on it a better idea of how it works, as Jonathan Rugman reports.
William Hague is speaking in the Foreign Office today about the work of the most secretive arms of the British government: the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), both of which answer to Britain’s Foreign Secretary.
This is causing ripples of excitement among long-term Whitehall watchers, though it may provoke less interest amid the general public. After all, it was just over a year ago that the current “C” or “Chief” of MI6, Sir John Sawers, broke the ice fairly comprehensively with the Chief’s first televised speech; today marks another staging post in bringing Britain’s spying agencies out of the shadows, albeit briefly and in the most stage-managed way possible.
The most interesting reason for the government doing this is that MI6 in particular has suffered some hard reputational knocks and doesn’t like it. Mr Hague is trying to shape the debate about it in the media, by giving those who write and comment on it a better idea of how it works, instead of the men and women of Vauxhall Cross suffering in silence at the hands of the press.
Two reputational knocks are fairly obvious: the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq marked Britain’s worst intelligence failure in decades, and now forms part of the Chilcott Enquiry, to which Sir John Sawers has himself given evidence. Then there has been the steady flow of allegations of UK complicity in the “rendition” and torture of terrorist suspects.
Mr Hague will make the important, but hardly surprising, point that agents and informants have been killed for supplying intelligence to their MI6 paymasters; but he will also set out how Britain’s spies are accountable for their behaviour, principally to Hague himself as well as to the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee. Accountability is the watchword of today’s event, as Mr Hague seeks to “restore public confidence” in how the secret world operates.
What helps is that the Commons committee is now chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a formidable former Foreign Secretary himself who is now expected to give the guardians of our national security secrets a tougher ride than his predecessors. In fact, the kind of informed scrutiny Britain’s spies claim they actually want, if what they do is going to be deemed beyond reproach.
Mr Hague wants to draw a line under past torture and rendition scandals without admitting any culpability; a judicial enquiry is supposed to be looking into the issue, though you have to set against that the fact that lawyers representing former detainees say they will boycott the enquiry’s largely secret work.
The Foreign Secretary will also point out that the Government has brought forward a Green Paper, which sets out reforms to how cases involving intelligence are tried in court.
This will allow intelligence officers to give evidence in secret, which is surely better than declining to give evidence at all, though it will also add to concern that more and more of British justice is taking place behind closed doors.
Will this speech and the measures it sets out begin to restore public confidence? That’s a question we might begin to be able to answer in a year or so.
And the timing is important. As the standoff between the West and Iran intensifies, intelligence is surely likely to take the lead in informing both politicians and public as to the extent of Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as how to respond.