Stepping out of the shadows while wanting to remain in the dark.
The reality is that such speeches never take place in a vacuum. When Eliza Manningham-Buller whilst still head of MI5 briefly entered the limelight she told of us of how they were monitoring up to 30 active plots, with there being around 1,600 individuals of interest to them who wished us ill. It is doubtless down to the sacrifices of MI5 that of those 30 plots causing active concern, and those 2,000 individuals dedicated to thinking up new and imaginative ways to kill us that there has not been a successful terrorist attack here since 7/7. Then again, perhaps not: figures released yesterday made clear that over the last two years, no one has been held for longer than 14 days without charge under anti-terrorist legislation. Either the terrorist threat has been consistently over-egged, to say the least, or MI5, MI6, the police and everyone else is doing a fantastic job keeping us safe from harm.
Yesterday Sir John Sawers, the current "C", or for those of us who've never much liked James Bond, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, delivered a speech which was, and this was highlighted by everyone so we must also do so, televised live. His aim in doing so was to answer two questions, the second of which was presumably the whole point of his turning up. In the light of the completely untrue allegations made against the security services by those whose innocence has never been proved, how can the public have confidence that work done in secret is lawful, ethical, and in their interests?
It's a tricky one, isn't it? Sir John thankfully had the answer: because he said it is. In fact, it was even better than that, as his speech itself makes clear:
Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.
We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.
Yet if we hold back, and don't pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.
These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas.
Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more finely-balanced judgments have to be made by Ministers themselves. I welcome the publication of the consolidated guidance on detainee issues. It reflects the detailed guidance issued to SIS staff in the field and the training we give them.
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're required by UK and international law to avoid that action. And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.
It is really rather gobsmacking: here is the head of our foreign intelligence service first putting forward the hoary old chestnut that is the "ticking time bomb scenario", where the human rights of the suspect conflict with the opportunity to save lives, then immediately afterwards stating categorically that torture is illegal and abhorrent and that they have nothing to do with it. It's not difficult to see the conflict between these two statements, as Craig Murray most definitely has. We're back it seems to plausible deniability - putting the argument plainly and strongly for exactly the sort of abuse which has been documented post 9/11 - then stating equally plainly and strongly that they would never ever do such a thing.
If for some unfathomable reason you don't trust the word of MI6, then well, you're pretty much stuffed. For Sir John is firmly in favour of the "control principle", where by you don't release information you've received from others without their permission. This was supposedly breached when the "seven paragraphs" concerning the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed were ordered to be published by the Court of Appeal. It doesn't matter to MI6 that the main reason for doing so was that a legal ruling in the US had already established beyond doubt that Mohamed was tortured, using information from the CIA; the principle rather than shining the light of truth on such "abhorrent" practices by our closest allies is far more important. Sawers looks forward to a green paper which will set out "some better options for dealing with national security issues in the courts", for which it's impossible to read anything other than an end to courageous judges exposing what was done in our name.
Although it reflects a Blackadder joke, Sir John Sawers is right in saying secrecy is not a dirty word. We need intelligence services, as is demonstrated by the packages which have been intercepted on cargo planes today. Openness it seems however is a dirty word. Sawers can talk all he wants about the useless Intelligence and Security Committee and two former judges who act as commissioners; their work simply doesn't provide anywhere near enough oversight into services which routinely do perform heroics, but which can equally also find themselves complicit in activity which makes us less safe, not more. What is needed is a wholly independent body, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which would conduct yearly reviews and also have the powers to investigate allegations of abuse, producing reports which would be as lightly censored as possible. For all their recognition that they can no longer hide in the shadows, the intelligence services still want to remain in the dark, and are actively fighting to do so.