MI6 chief distances Britain from torture claims

By Peter Wozniak

The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, has delivered the first public speech by a serving chief of the intelligence services, insisting that Britain plays no role in torturing terrorism suspects.

Sir John, operationally known simply as ‘C’, also used the speech to journalists in Canary Wharf to defend the shroud of secrecy surrounding Britain’s intelligence services.

“You and millions of people go about your business in our cities and towns free of fear because the British government works tirelessly, out of the public eye, to stop terrorists and would-be-terrorists in their tracks,” he said.

“Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy plays a crucial part of keeping Britain safe and secure.

“Without secrecy there would be no intelligence services… our nation would be more exposed as a result.”

On the contentious issue of torture, the head of MI6 was adamant that the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) played no role in the practice.

Sir John stated: “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 are required by UK and international law to avoid that action and we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.

“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.”

This categorical denial echoes the previous government’s statements by the former foreign secretary David Miliband that any suggestion that British security forces played any role in allowing people to be tortured is false.

It has been alleged that intelligence services were complicit in allowing the use of British overseas territories for the transport of terror suspects likely to be tortured.

Sir John responded directly to the allegations, arguing: “We are accused by some people not of committing torture ourselves but of being too close to it in our efforts to keep Britain safe.

“SIS is a service that reflects our country. Integrity is the first of the service’s values.

“I am confident that, in their efforts to keep Britain safe, all SIS staff acted with the utmost integrity, and with a close eye on basic decency and moral principles.”