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In First, British Spy Chief Goes Public

Sir John Sawers giving a live televised address in London on Thursday.


October 28, 2010. LONDON (KATAKAMI / NYTimes) — At an appropriately hush-hush venue, before a not-so-hush-hush audience of newspaper editors and television cameras, the chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, on Thursday made the first public appearance by a serving chief of the agency, known as MI6, in its 101-year history.

Sir John Sawers took over the agency after the retirement of his predecessor late last year. Previously he had been a high-profile diplomat, serving as Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations and in other posts.

Sir John “will step out of the shadows today to make an unprecedented public intervention,” the Press Association news agency said, noting that his host, the Society of Editors, had requested that the venue for his speech not be made public. His appearance extended a trend among Britain’s spy bosses to shed the traditional cloak of their trade.

“Wherever possible the public should be told what is being done in their name. The default switch should be set to release information unless there is an extremely good reason for withholding it,” said Bob Satchwell, the head of the Society of Editors.

“We are glad to provide a platform that will encourage greater openness which will help to build confidence and respect for our intelligence services in their vital work in protecting national security.”

“Why now, might you ask?” Sir John said. The answer, he said, was that despite its prominence in the news, the debate about MI6 was not well-informed and “in today’s open society, no government institution is given the benefit of the doubt all the time.”

The organization traces its history to a decision by defense planners in 1909 to create a Secret Service Bureau. The body evolved through two world wars and the Cold War, feeding the plot lines and character lists of spy thrillers from James Bond to George Smiley. But for decades, the identity of its chief — known only as C, according to the Press Association — was the biggest secret of all.

Despite the nature of Sir John’s job, said Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, “this is someone who loves the limelight.”

MI6 focuses on overseas operation while its domestic counterpart, MI5, is responsible for domestic security.

Even before his appointment, Sir John seemed to offer something a break with tradition, shown in Facebook photographs having fun in a park, wearing a red fleece and a Santa Claus hat and playing Frisbee on a beach.

The photographs were posted by Sir John’s wife, Shelley, who had chronicled the activities of her family and friends on the Facebook page, whose existence was disclosed by the tabloid Mail on Sunday.

Sir John’s appearance followed a first public speech by Iain Lobban, the director of Britain’s electronic eavesdropping agency, and several appearances by Jonathan Evans, the director general of MI5.

While he has not spoken publicly until Thursday about the work of MI6, he made two public appearances to give evidence at an official inquiry into the Iraq war about earlier assignments as a foreign policy adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair and as the British representative in Baghdad.