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Britain's Chief Spy in First Public Address


Britain's Secret Intelligence Service chief John Sawers addresses a gathering of academics, officials and editors in London, 28 Oct 2010

Britain's Secret Intelligence Service chief John Sawers addresses a gathering of academics, officials and editors in London, 28 Oct 2010

The head of Britain's Secret Service, John Sawers, said torture is "abhorrent" and Britain has nothing to do with it. It was the first time a sitting head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service - known as MI6 - has made a public speech.

Sawers took the opportunity to outline his agency's attitude to torture. "Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it."

He said MI6 has a duty to ensure partner services respect human rights. He said, though, doing so is "not always straightforward" when innocent lives are at risk.

Earlier this year, the British government ordered an inquiry into allegations that British intelligence agencies were complicit in torture of terror suspects overseas.

In relation to Iran, Sawers said an intelligence-led approach is needed to block the country from developing nuclear weapons.

"Stopping nuclear proliferation cant be addressed purely by conventional diplomacy," said Sawers. "We need intelligence-led operations to make it more difficult for countries like Iran to develop nuclear weapons."

Iran denies it is developing a nuclear bomb.

Tim Cooke-Hurle is from the Britain-based human-rights group Reprieve. He said allegations that MI6 were complicit in torture have hurt the agency's reputation in recent years. Giving the agency a public face, he said, is in part a move to gain popular support. "I think there is a genuine intention on the part of the security services to clean up their act and to do this they do have to put people in the public light."

Cooke-Hurle also said that although MI6 does not itself carry out torture, the agency's hands are not necessarily clean. "It all happens in this awful gray zone where we know that allies, and by this I would include the United States under the (George) Bush administration, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and so on, do practice torture and the degree to which we cooperate with those groups can amount to collusion in torture in certain circumstances."

MI6 has been in operation for 100 years, but until 1994 the government refused to admit the organization existed.

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