Former MI6 Director: “I fully support the idea of using intelligence as a source of strategic power”

Agenda Pública

26 mins - 22 de Diciembre de 2023, 07:00

Dr. Eva Michaels
A very warm welcome to our viewers and readers to this conversation that I’ll be having today with Sir John Sawers, former head of British secret intelligence between 2009 and 2014. We’re going to talk about the current international security environment, including intelligence issues. It gives me immense pleasure to be able to welcome Sir John today, and I’m really grateful for your time, Sir John. Thank you so much for being with us. 

Before I introduce you to our viewers and readers, let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Eva Michaels. I am an assistant professor in intelligence and security at Leiden University in the Netherlands and a researcher at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. My main research interests lie in how Europeans respond to crises due to the escalation of violent conflict in its neighbourhood. I’ve been looking specifically at crises where Europeans have been surprised and have been facing allegations of failure. I have the best possible conversation partner, Sir John. 

You have been head of MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, from November 2009 to November 2014. Prior to this, you have been centrally involved in diplomacy for many years, among others, as the UK’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador to Egypt, foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair, and director general for political affairs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where you advised the Foreign Secretary and negotiated internationally on their behalf. 

I should also say, and this is of interest to our readers and viewers, while it was a break with a past that a leader who had been more associated with diplomatic service would head MI6, this was such a natural and smart appointment. Given all your previous experience and the skills you brought with you, you certainly knew the priorities and functioning of decision-makers inside out, and you were aware of the constraints and opportunities in the intelligence-policy interface. 

I should remind our readers and viewers that you took over as head of MI6 in late 2009 at a challenging time domestically because the actions of the intelligence services were under close scrutiny, among others over the questioning of terror suspects.

It was also a time of massive economic crisis, leading to huge government cuts, which was likely also an added source of stress for you. And 2010 brought a change in government from 13 years of Labour to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government under Prime Minister David Cameron. This also included the introduction of the UK’s National Security Council, which changed the dynamics of the intelligence-policy interface quite substantially by integrating the Joint Intelligence Council more into British policymaking. 

Soon afterwards, you were confronted with a series of foreign policy crises which were quite hard to anticipate. Among others, the Arab uprisings starting in December 2010, ISIS’ rise to power in Iraq and Syria, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Given your background, your experience that you brought to the new post, let me start off by asking you which elements of your upbringing, and perhaps also your early study and work experiences, prepared you for a leadership role in intelligence? Thank you so much, Sir John.

Sir John Sawers
Well, good morning, Eva, and good morning to all your listeners and readers, and thank you for this opportunity. I had a fairly modest upbringing. I was brought up in a small town, went to the local school, and went on from there to a red-brick university – not one of the centres of academia in this country. But all my life I had a fascination with the world, and I had a drive to public service to work for a wider good. I never particularly felt motivated by money. It’s more about what can you contribute. I was elected as secretary of the Students’ Union at my university. That was a full-time job representing the students and looking after student affairs, and that gave me my first sense of politics, in a way. And when I applied for the Foreign Office, as a way of combining my interest with the world with my interest in public service, I was successful, but then found myself also with an offer from the intelligence service, from MI6. And of course, being a young and enthusiastic person, I was very attracted by the idea of the secret world. So, I joined that for a few years. 

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But in the end, actually, I found out I was more interested in policy and politics and how to make things better than I was in information and operations and in the workings of intelligence. So I switched from the intelligence service to the diplomatic service and spent most of my career in diplomacy until I was in New York, rather enjoying myself at the United Nations, when I was asked by a senior figure in government to come back and lead MI6, which was the most challenging and demanding and fascinating and responsible job I did in my career. So that was my background.

One of the great advantages of a diplomatic life is where it takes you. We lived in Syria. I actually met my wife in Yemen. Our lives came together, and we carried on together from that happy meeting. We lived in South Africa at the end of apartheid, which was absolutely fascinating. Lived in Washington, and then, as you say, I was ambassador in Cairo, and went to Iraq after the fall of Saddam. 

And all these experiences, they build an understanding of different cultures, of different peoples, and of conflict situations where both the best and the worst of people come out. And I think perhaps the biggest contribution to my life experience was working in areas of conflict around the world.

Dr. Eva Michaels
Could you tell us a bit about how you understand leadership in intelligence? As you said before, you came back to intelligence after years in diplomatic service. I imagine it was quite a challenge to assume a leadership role in intelligence. But now, in retrospect, how do you understand leadership in intelligence? And what was back then important from a leadership perspective when you navigated MI6 through multiple crises? 

Sir John Sawers
I took over at MI6 at a time when trust in the agency had dipped. We had been part of an intelligence effort that produced the intelligence on Iraq that was later proved to be wrong. The service had become embroiled in allegations of mistreatment of detainees arrested in the counterterrorist efforts. And the strong support that there has always been in this country for the intelligence services – MI6, MI5, the listening agency GCHQ – it took a hit as a consequence of that, and I had to rebuild trust in the organisation. 

And part of that was making sure that what the intelligence service was doing was directly contributing to decisions of the government: connecting intelligence officers in the field, dealing with agents, to the policy interests and concerns of governments so the intelligence collection was targeted on the right issues. And making that connection again between MI6 as a service and government decision-makers at the centre, and rebuilding trust between the service and the wider government and parliament and the media, which had taken a hit in those early years after 9/11.

Dr. Eva Michaels
And again, looking at your background and what you brought to the new post, it really seems like that was the most natural appointment to be made that you were heading MI6, and you certainly succeeded very well. Let me now move on to the current international security environment. I would like to ask you if you could briefly elaborate on what you find most alarming about the current threat environment. And then perhaps to move on to opportunities: are there any developments in the international security environments that you find encouraging at the moment?

Sir John Sawers
Let’s start with threats, Eva. There are the obvious challenges we’re facing. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, now almost two years ago, has posed a real challenge to the whole of Europe and our concept of European security. I think the rise of China, the challenges that Xi Jinping is presenting and the security challenges in the region have been very difficult to deal with. You’ve got the threats of North Korea with nuclear weapons, Iran working towards the acquisition of nuclear weapons and both countries becoming disruptive forces in their respective regions. 

We’ve always had concerns about these four countries – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea - that are challenging in different ways the global order.
I think what’s concerning at the moment is the way those four are coming together, how Russia and China are cooperating with each other more closely. I don’t think they are natural allies, and I think Russia is a bit uncomfortable being such a junior partner to China. But the fact is Russia has isolated itself. It needs partners where it can get them. And interestingly, Xi Jinping has taken China in a much more Leninist direction of party control.  Xi Jinping rather admires the way in which President Putin exercises power in Russia.

They both have a concern about America, about the West and being dependent upon the West, which they’re trying to shake off.  Meanwhile, North Korea has provided enormous amounts of missiles to Russia to use in Ukraine. Iran has become a source of drones. China and Iran are coming together with a sort of investment and political partnership. So, we’re not dealing with four separate security threats. We’re dealing with four threats which in many ways are linking together. And that is what is presenting a profound challenge to American leadership in upholding international order and to Europe’s role in supporting a rules-based system. So that is the biggest challenge, I think, we’re facing.

In terms of opportunities. I am a firm believer in the fundamental strengths of the Western system, the fact that we have checks and balances in our politics, that we have an entrepreneur-based economy which enables new companies to emerge and grow.  We’re not state-controlled or state-directed.  We’re seeing in countries like China and also a Western-leaning country like Vietnam, that as a country grows and develops, then the middle classes demand more freedom, demand more ability to express themselves.

In countries with one-party states and growing economies, there’s a tension, a growing tension between the elite, which is trying to keep control in a sort of very 20th century Leninist way, and the aspirations of young people. In the long term, I think that is a positive factor for the Western system.  

At the geopolitical level, President Biden and President Xi Jinping have worked responsibly to try to manage the rivalry between the United States and China. The summit last month in San Francisco was a good example of both leaders recognising the dangers of that competition (which will be a feature for the coming decades) running out of control and ending up in conflict between the world’s two most powerful nations.

I’m also very encouraged by the rise of India. I think India is going to be the fastest growing global economy over the next five to ten years. I’m not a fan of the social policies that Narendra Modi’s government is pursuing but, through their economic policies, they are building a really successful platform for India to become a global power in the 21st century, and one whose interests are basically compatible and aligned with Western countries. They are a democracy. They have the rule of law. They have a very vibrant technology sector. They have fantastic demographics, much better than Europe has or China has. I think India is a country of the future. So, I see opportunities in the period ahead.

I think also Africa is always considered left behind.  I think we will see Africa catching up over the coming years. I’m so excited by the developments that are taking place in West Africa. There’s this corridor between Lagos and Abidjan which is a really dynamic centre for the economy and for development in West Africa. You’re seeing the way in which Kenya is taking off economically as well. There are terrible problems in Africa, in Sudan, in Ethiopia, across the Sahel, political problems in South Africa, but there are centres of excellence and centres of excitement and entrepreneurship in Africa as well.

Dr. Eva Michaels
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Sir John. When we look at some of the international crises we’ve been facing, especially since you’ve been head of MI6, many have said this has been a new age of uncertainty, it’s been much harder to anticipate and prepare for developments on the grounds, there have been more surprises. Very often in the immediate aftermath of these crises, we’re confronted with allegations of failures, such as the one obviously triggered by Hamas’ attack on Israel. So we tend to focus on those areas where we fail to anticipate and respond to developments. But often these allegations pay insufficient attention to the complexities in the intelligence-policy interface. Could you perhaps remind us of some examples of success? In the UK context, but also beyond, if you feel more comfortable looking beyond the UK, of examples of clear success of anticipation and preparedness when faced with international crises?

Sir John Sawers
Yes, I’m very happy to do that. I think the failure by Israel’s security and intelligence services to identify in advance the brutal Hamas assaults of 7 October is a very serious intelligence failure.  Israel, being an open society, will do a full investigation into what went wrong. But some things very seriously did go wrong, and people paid for it with their lives. Of course, just a year before, in 2022, we saw the great success of the CIA and MI6 and some other agencies in predicting and forewarning that President Putin was not bluffing with the build-up of forces in Belarus and on the Russian borders. He was actually going to invade Ukraine. And that was very clearly signalled in advance. And I think that’s a success. 

Looking back over the last 20 years, when I was chief of MI6, our highest priority was to deal with terrorism and to disrupt terrorist threats. There are thousands, possibly tens of thousands of people today going about their lives who would have been killed or maimed in terrorist attacks that were disrupted by the intelligence agencies. And this was not the success of a single agency. It was teamwork across countries. As chief of MI6, our closest partnership was with the Americans and other Five Eyes countries (Canada, Australia and New Zealand). But I also worked incredibly closely with Spanish intelligence, with French intelligence, German intelligence, Italian intelligence, Turkish intelligence, Saudi intelligence, Indian intelligence, and we pooled our efforts to disrupt terrorist attacks.  I think that was a big success. 

I think the third area I would identify is limiting weapons proliferation.  When we talk about nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, many people think of the failure on Iraq. And, yes, it was a failure. It was a serious failure of group-think as much as anything else. We were convinced that Iraq was pursuing weapons of mass destruction and the question for the intelligence agencies was to find it, not to assess whether or not they were developing such weapons. 

But I think in other areas of nuclear proliferation, Libya’s efforts to acquire nuclear and chemical and biological weapons, the tracking of what was happening in North Korea, and above all, identifying and slowing down Iran’s nuclear weapons program. I think these have all been major successes. When the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was agreed back in 1969, the expectation was that by the year 2000, there would be dozens of countries with nuclear weapons, and we’d have a nightmare to manage it all, despite the NPT.

But the reality is there are still only nine nuclear weapons states.  And that is a reflection of international concern about proliferation and a determination to keep nuclear weapons under control and to prevent the enormous tragedy that would follow if a rogue state or a terrorist organisation were able to get hold of nuclear weapons and use them.  

So, I think the world is a much safer place. Many people are going about their lives peacefully who wouldn’t otherwise be doing so because of the work of intelligence and security agencies.

Dr. Eva Michaels
And for some of these intelligence successes, the public disclosure of intelligence has also been quite helpful. I’d love to briefly talk about this. Where do you personally see the value of publicly disclosing intelligence for warning purposes? So, for instance for diplomacy, deterrence, or building up societal resilience, forming international coalitions – where do you see the value? And how would you say is this handled differently today compared to when you were chief of MI6?

Sir John Sawers
When I was chief of the service, my biggest concern, of course, was to preserve and protect the integrity of the intelligence and the sources of that intelligence. So, it was my job to be conservative about releasing intelligence because of the risk of putting at threat the lives of the people who bravely provide that intelligence to free countries like the UK. 

I was not impressed by politicians wanting to use secret intelligence as a political means to gain support for their policies. Now, if you’re a politician, you’re trying to win over Parliament or public opinion, of course, you want to use every method available. So there is a tension between intelligence chiefs and politicians about how much to expose in public in order to bring the public round. I didn’t see my role as the chief of intelligence to do the job of politicians.  After they made tough decisions, they had to win round their parliamentary majority and not use me as a person to help them in that. 

There has been an interesting development recently - and Bill Burns, who’s a good friend of mine, as director of the CIA, in many ways, has led this.  In the Ukraine war, intelligence has been deployed in public in order to put President Putin and the Russians on the back foot, in order to gain strategic advantage on the battlefield by exposing in advance Russian intentions and Russian plans.

So that is intelligence as a tool of war. Now, I fully agree, as long as sources can be protected, agents’ lives and identities can be protected, I fully support the idea of using intelligence as a source of strategic power, and to deploy it in a way which weakens the enemy, weakens the aggressor, in this case, Russia.  I think that is a very interesting and important development, as I say, led by Bill Burns and supported also by my successor as chief of MI6.  

Dr. Eva Michaels
Yes, and it’s interesting to look at the parallels between you and Bill Burns. You both have a background as a career diplomat. Especially now in Bill Burns’ case, this has also, I think, increased his willingness to push the agency to support the Biden administration to increasingly use intelligence for warning purposes either side of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And I suspect this also shaped your approach at the time.

Sir John Sawers
What I had when I was chief MI6 and what Bill Burns has now as CIA director, is a knowledge of politics and diplomacy and how intelligence best contributes to that. I think in the years before I became chief, my predecessors were all, for the previous 50 years or so, intelligence professionals themselves. They were very strong on intelligence operations, but much less connected to the political and policy-making process.  The current chief of MI6, Richard Moore, is someone who served as an ambassador abroad, who served as a senior official, did my job as political director in the Foreign Office.  Nowadays, to be a successful chief of intelligence, it’s not good enough just to know the intelligence business. You’ve got to know about politics and diplomacy and how the policy process works.  I felt I was much better equipped to be chief of MI6 because I had that wider skill set.  

We shall see how the rest of his term develops – but I think Bill Burns has already shown that he has become one of the two or three most effective directors that the CIA has ever had in terms of bridging that gap between the acquisition of intelligence and its use in the policy-making process.

Dr. Eva Michaels
I would like to link this to European security cooperation, especially now looking at the Spanish EU presidency which is coming to an end soon. I would like to throw in the rather controversial notion of strategic autonomy in security and defence. You were, as Tony Blair’s foreign policy advisor in the late 1990s and early 2000s, also involved in these very early discussions based on an Anglo-French consensus which emerged at the time, that Europe should be able to think and act more autonomously – not independently, but autonomously. And this notion has been floating around over the past 25 years. But increasingly, Europeans were less comfortable with the whole idea of autonomy, what autonomy and security defence would mean, and then the meaning shifted more to economic cooperation. And this is also what we’re looking at now by talking about open strategic autonomy, especially what the Spanish EU presidency has been pushing for. Yet ever since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, experts come back to this whole notion of autonomy in security and defence. Do you think that there’s any appetite in the UK for closer European cooperation in security and defence? You also mentioned before the intelligence cooperation, more informal intelligence cooperation, that has been happening between the British government and other European governments. Do you see any future for the UK’s involvement in European strategic autonomy in security and defence?

Sir John Sawers
In some ways, the most important factor in this is the United States.  Britain and France developed the concept of European defence and security capability with the UK insisting that we kept a very strong commitment to it being compatible with NATO.  We supported the idea of a European defence capability and that the European Union should play a role in this. But there was no point in duplicating the structures we had in NATO. And it would be a weakness if, by developing the European arm of defence and security, we undermined the transatlantic relationship, which has been fundamental to Europe security for 100 years. 

Of course, the problem isn’t so much now European ambitions, it’s America’s own determination to pursue a more autonomous approach itself.  Now, not the Biden administration. I think the Biden administration has been very committed to the transatlantic relationship. But the whole concept of Transatlanticism has grown out of the NATO experience, and it may be we have to rebuild it in years ahead. And, of course, we have an election coming up in little over ten months’ time in the United States, which could well see the return of Donald Trump and his America first approach and his basic skepticism towards NATO as an alliance.

Now, for my country, the biggest issue for the last ten years has been our relationship with the European Union. I think we made a strategic mistake in leaving the EU. It was an example of how populism can have a seriously damaging effect on a nation. And we’re having to recover and rebuild ourselves after that setback. It was like sort of shooting yourself in the leg, and we’re having to limp forward now in a weaker way. 

But I think one of the great strengths of the UK has been our armed forces, our intelligence and security capability, and that is something which is a real contribution to wider European security, not just to the defence of the United Kingdom. And if we see a second Trump Administration in Washington, and a change of government here in the UK, with Labour coming in, I think this is one of the areas where we can forge a better relationship between the UK and the EU.  

I think it’s too much of a stretch to think that we will be able to rejoin the European Union any time soon.  I don’t think that should be our plan.  I think our plan should be to forge a better EU-UK relationship across the board, a smoother relationship for citizens, for business people, for trade.  Something that the UK can bring to this, at a time when Europe will be focused on its defence and security, will be the strengths that we can bring in these areas, including in intelligence.  These aren’t areas necessarily for EU cooperation, but they are areas where the UK is a net contributor to Europe as a whole, which I know are valued in Berlin, in Paris, in Madrid, in Rome, and in Brussels as well. 

I don’t want Donald Trump to be elected. I have no difficulty with Republicans as a party. It’s Donald Trump I do not want to see back in power in Washington. But if that does happen, even if it doesn’t, I think there will be an opportunity for a closer UK relationship with the EU, where one of the things we bring to the table is our strengths in defence, security, and intelligence.

Dr. Eva Michaels
Absolutely. And those of us who have been observing European foreign policy over the past 25-30 years, we think back nostalgically to this Anglo-French consensus, despite tensions elsewhere in European foreign policy, especially starting with the Saint-Malo agreement between Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair at the time, but also the subsequent years until the mid-2000s, when despite these huge tensions over Iraq, cooperation was possible. For instance, the EU’s first military autonomous operation being deployed to the Congo at the time, which didn’t receive much attention simply because of these other tensions elsewhere. But it was a strong consensus on certain aspects of European security cooperation. And I think EU members are also becoming much more flexible again in terms of cooperating outside of EU structures, and especially this notion of European strategic autonomy, should there ever be desire to breathe new life into this, this would need to happen outside of EU structures. And I think everyone is looking to the UK as a very welcome contributor. 

Sir John, my most heartfelt thanks for your time and your insights. Thank you so much.

Sir John Sawers
Thank you very much. My best wishes for the holiday season to all your viewers and listeners.

Note: Transcription modified from original audio for clarity purposes
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