Britain’s MI6 appoints new director amidst mounting global crises

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) has announced the appointment of a new director at a period that some see as the most critical for the agency since the end of the Cold War. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a brief statement on Saturday that Alex Younger will be replacing Sir John Sawers, who earlier this year announced he would be stepping down from the post. Prior to his appointment, Younger, 51, held the position of chief of global operations, which is considered the number two position at MI6. The Foreign Office statement described Younger as a “career SIS officer” who has worked for the agency since 1991, when he joined from the Scots Guards regiment of the British Army. He holds an economics degree and has served with MI6 in the Middle East, Europe, and Afghanistan, where he represented the agency as its most senior officer in the country following the US-led military invasion of 2001. Upon his return to the United Kingdom, Younger directed MI6’s counterterrorism preparations in the lead-up to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Some observers noted on Sunday that the new director’s appointment comes at a crucial period for Britain’s principal external intelligence agency, as it prepares to expand its operations in Iraq and Syria, in response to the growth of the Islamic State there. Additionally, British intelligence is refocusing on Eastern Europe, as the crisis in Ukraine threatens to further-damage relations between East and West, which appear to be on their direst state since the Cold War. Younger’s appointment will be seen as a reaffirmation by the government of the work of Sir John, who has led MI6 for four years. Many were surprised when Sir John, who was a diplomat, not an intelligence officer, was named as director of MI6 in 2010. It was said at the time that his appointment was meant to be seen as a public response by the government over strong accusations that the agency had seriously underperformed in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Sir John has tried to restore MI6’s reputation and has been particularly noted for his public appearances, which included lectures and speeches at parliamentary hearings. Read more of this post

MI6 chief paid ‘extremely rare’ secret visit to Israel: newspaper

The Director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, widely known as MI6, visited Israel in secret in late August in an effort to convince the Israelis not to launch military strikes on Iran, according to a British newspaper. In an article published on Tuesday, The Daily Mail said Sir John Sawers, who leads Britain’s foremost external spy agency, held private meetings with leading Israeli officials, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. His message, according to the paper, was that London wanted more time so that the economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community to bear fruit. Sanctions are considered by some in the West a viable alternative to calls by Israeli officials for direct military attacks on Iran, aimed at stopping the country’s nuclear program. If confirmed, Sir John’s visit to Israel would represent a near-unprecedented move; this is because, unlike his counterpart at the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the Director of MI6, known informally as ‘C’, does not routinely travel to foreign countries as a diplomatic messenger of the British government. Many, therefore, will see Sawers’ alleged trip to Israel as yet another sign that the Jewish state is beginning to lean heavily in favor of attacking Iran using overt military means. In a possibly related development, Israel’s Minister for Intelligence and Atomic Energy said on Wednesday that he supported international sanctions on Iran. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #765

Hillary ClintonBy TIMOTHY W. COLEMAN | |
►►MI6 chief says Iran will get nukes in 2 years. Sir John Sawers, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, has been quoted as publicly forecasting that Iranian nuclear weapons efforts will likely come to fruition by 2014. Sawers is quoted in The Daily Telegraph as saying: “The Iranians are determinedly going down a path to master all aspects of nuclear weapons; all the technologies they need”, adding “it’s equally clear that Israel and the United States would face huge dangers if Iran were to become a nuclear weapon state”. He went on to assert that Iran would have achieved nuclear statehood in 2008 had it not been for clandestine efforts to thwart such ends. He did not elaborate on what he meant by his comments, for which he was criticized in Parliament earlier this week.
►►MI6 chief claims US interrogators were ‘obsessed’. In the same Telegraph interview, Sir John claimed that British interrogators, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, came “close to the line” of illegality. He went on to say that US interrogators straddled the line between legal and illegal, insinuating that US personnel may have crossed the line during interrogations. Sir John is quoted as explaining: “They [US interrogators] got so obsessed with getting a right answer that they drifted into an area that kind of amounted to torture”. He went on to claim that British personnel involved in interrogations never crossed the line, observing: “We’ve never been there, we’ve never been involved in that, and I think our accountability, our disciplines, have helped us keep on the right side of these lines”.
►►Clinton says Israeli spy Pollard unlikely to be freed. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reaffirmed Washington’s position that Jonathan Pollard was unlikely to receive clemency or see freedom anytime soon. During a press conference in Jerusalem on July 16, Secretary Clinton stated unequivocally: “He [Jonathan Pollard] was sentenced to life in prison, he is serving that sentence, and I do not have any expectations that that is going to change”. Pollard, a former US naval intelligence analyst, was suspected of trying to provide classified information to South Africa, Pakistan, and Australia. He was arrested and convicted of espionage for providing classified information to the State of Israel. He is serving a life sentence for his crimes.

News you may have missed #764

Baroness FalknerBy IAN ALLEN | |
►►US government agency spied on whistleblower scientists. The US Food and Drug Administration has been found operating a massive surveillance campaign targeting its own scientists for writing letters to journalists, members of Congress and President Barack Obama. The scientists were expressing their concern over the FDA’s approval of medical imaging devices for colonoscopies and mammograms that could endanger patients with high levels of radiation. The covert spying operation, which is most likely illegal, led the agency to monitor the scientists’ computers at work and at home, copying emails and thumb drives and even monitoring individual messages line by line as they were being composed in real time.
►►UK lawmaker tells MI6 chief to ‘stop bragging’. The head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Sir John Sawers, has been accused by Liberal Democrat parliamentarian Baroness Falkner of Margravine of demonstrating a “lack of judgment” for “bragging” about MI6’s role in slowing Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier this month, Sir John said in an interview that covert operations by British spies had prevented Iran from developing nuclear weapons as early as 2008. But Lady Falkner said in a speech at the House of Lords that “Sir John’s comments could almost be construed as bragging. In my view”, she continued, “it would be best for the veneer of silence to descend on the Secret Intelligence Service once again. There is such a thing as too much information”.
►►German domestic intel agency gets new director. The German government has appointed terrorism expert Hans-Georg Maassen to head the country’s domestic intelligence body, known as the “Verfassungschutz. Maassen’s appointment comes after several turbulent weeks for the agency that have resulted in three of its top officials stepping down amid a scandal connected to a series of murders by a Neo-Nazi group calling itself the National Socialist Underground.

News you may have missed #447

  • UK MI6 chief speaks publicly for the first time. Sir John Sawers, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, has delivered what he said was the first public address by a serving chief of the agency in its 101-year history.
  • WikiLeaks to release secret Russia, China logs. Whistleblower website WikiLeaks, which has published hundreds of US war logs, is preparing to release secret files from Russia and China, Russian newspaper Kommersant said on Tuesday.
  • Renegade CIA agent’s papers acquired by NYU. The private papers of the late Philip Agee, the disaffected CIA operative whose unauthorized publication of agency secrets 35 years ago was arguably far more controversial than anything WikiLeaks has produced, have been obtained by New York University, which plans to make them public next spring.

News you may have missed #0189

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News you may have missed #0020

  • Social media is ruining spy industry, says IT security group. IT security consultancy NCC Group says that intelligence “agencies are concerned that Facebook and other social networking tools are ruining the spy industry”. The comments come just hours after British newspaper The Mail on Sunday revealed that personal details about the future head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, had been accessible to 200 million online users through his wife’s Facebook account.
  • Pakistan’s nukes face insider threat, says ex-CIA official. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a 23-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, argues in Arms Control Today that “[t]he greatest threat of a loose nuke scenario stems from insiders in the nuclear establishment working with outsiders, people seeking a bomb or material to make a bomb […]. Nowhere in the world is this threat greater than in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have a dismal track record in thwarting insider threats”, claims the retired US intelligence agent.
  • Hamas says Israeli spy cell in Ramallah busted. Hamas says it has dismantled an Israeli spy network, which served through the West Bank-based administration of Palestinian Authority Chief Mahmoud Abbas. The group claims that the network “channeled […] false information to Ramallah [in the Fatah-dominated West Bank] and then to the Israeli occupation”, in order to create “target bank” in Gaza.

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Facebook reveals personal details of future MI6 chief

Sir John Sawers

Sir John Sawers

Facebook, the Internet social networking site with over 200 million registered users worldwide, has made intelligence headlines once again. Last April, intelNews reported on revelations by Sweden’s armed forces that Swedish soldiers serving with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan were approached on Facebook and asked to provide details on NATO’s military presence in the country. Last weekend, Facebook did it again: British newspaper The Mail on Sunday argued that “potentially compromising” personal details about Sir John Sawers, who has been appointed to the post of Director of MI6, Britain’s primary external intelligence agency, were revealed by his wife on her Facebook account. The paper accused Lady Shelley Sawers of “a major personal security breach” upon discovering that “she had put virtually no privacy protection on her account”, which made it accessible to all of Facebook’s 200 million users. Read more of this post

Is new MI6 head really an outsider?

Sir John Sawers

Sir John Sawers

Soon after Downing Street announced the pending appointment of Sir John Sawers to the post of Director of MI6, Britain’s primary external intelligence agency, many hurried to call the choice a “break with tradition”. This is because Sir John’s official career description is that of a diplomat. It is true that appointing anyone other than a seasoned intelligence professional to the helm of MI6 or MI5 is highly unusual. The last time this happened was in 1968, when Sir John Rennie, also a diplomat, was tasked to head MI6. But how much of an intelligence outsider is Sawers, really? The truth is that he will actually be rejoining MI6, where he began his career in 1977, serving in Syria and Yemen, among other places. The question that nobody in Whitehall will answer is when exactly Sawers left the service. The London Times claims he did so “in the 1980s”, when he joined the diplomatic service. The question is, of course, did he actually leave MI6? Or did he linger in one of the agency’s many desks that overlap with Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service? Read more of this post

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