Britain's spy boss makes first public speech

LONDON Thu Oct 28, 2010 5:09am EDT

Former British Ambassador to the U.N. and present SIS chief John Sawers speaks at United Nations headquarters, in New York, April 13, 2009. REUTERS/Chip East

Former British Ambassador to the U.N. and present SIS chief John Sawers speaks at United Nations headquarters, in New York, April 13, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Chip East

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's top spy makes the first public speech by a serving UK espionage chief on Thursday, a step toward greater openness for an intelligence service that for most of the 20th century did not officially exist.

Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) chief John Sawers will speak at a live televised gathering of academics, officials and editors invited by the Society of Editors, a grouping of senior journalists from newspapers and electronic and online media.

Sawers, a career diplomat, had previously been the ambassador to the United Nations, the Foreign Office's political director, and also worked as an envoy in Baghdad and as foreign affairs adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair.

The move to more public accountability by SIS, also known as MI6, is a big cultural shift for a service that 20 years ago was so secret the government would not publicly avow its existence, even if it still enjoys more anonymity than its close U.S. ally, the Central Intelligence Agency.

The pressure on intelligence officials to be more transparent has many roots -- pressure from lawmakers to prevent abuses and improve performance, public concern over surveillance by police and local government, and a need by all arms of the intelligence community to make their work known so as to widen the avenues of recruitment.

SIS, which gathers secret intelligence overseas, was first publicly acknowledged by the government in 1992, its website says.

The opening up of Britain's intelligence community gathered pace in 2006 when the then head of the MI5 domestic security service, Eliza Manningham-Buller, appeared in public to make a speech to academics and journalists at a university campus.

Her successor Jonathan Evans has made at least four speeches since then. On October 12 the head of the Government Communications Headquarters, Iain Lobban, made the first speech ever delivered in public by a serving head of the listening post.

In 2006 SIS introduced job adverts in newspapers and in 2005 launched its Web site. It has placed job adverts on radio.

The idea is to cast the recruiters' net wider than the elite fee-paying schools and Oxford and Cambridge universities they once relied upon, reflecting the UK's multicultural reality.

Sawers himself took his undergraduate degree at Nottingham University. He also studied at St. Andrews in Scotland, Witwatersrand in South Africa and Harvard in the United States.

The chief is the only serving member of the service who is officially named in public. He is appointed by and is accountable to the Foreign Secretary, currently William Hague.

All arms of the intelligence community are expected to face spending pressure due to government cutbacks, even if the total 2.3 billion pounds ($3.4 billion) intelligence budget is tiny compared to a 155-billion-pound government budget deficit for 2009/10.

The 2009/10 annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), a group of lawmakers who oversee the main agencies, reported the heads of the services as saying they anticipated a more challenging funding climate in coming years.

Sawers noted intelligence work could save "a great deal of investment and resource here in Britain" in investigating terrorist plots and strengthening border security, the ISC said.

(Editing by Jodie Ginsberg and Sonya Hepinstall)

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