Speech: C's speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies

Secret Intelligence Service

November 30
13:00 2021

Good morning. I am delighted to be here for my first public speech as Chief of SIS or MI6 as it is popularly known.

We have come a long way, since the 1980s when I first joined MI6, as John noted, and the identity of C was still secret.

But it is still unusual for the holder of this office to give public speeches. This is something that I want to change, judiciously, for 2 reasons.

First, it is an important part of the way we hold ourselves to account, within a democracy, of how we retain public support for what we do, and I hope how we inspire people to want to come and join us.

Second, the changing nature of the threats that we face requires a greater degree of openness from a modern intelligence agency. There is a paradox in play here, one I will try to explain more fully later in my speech. It goes as follows: to stay secret, we are going to have to become more open.

There will always be limits to what I can say. MI6 is an organisation that deals in secrets. Indeed, one of my few specified responsibilities under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act is not to disclose our information on an unauthorized basis. But, that said, I will share with you this morning as much as I can about our work to protect the security, and advance the interests and values, of the United Kingdom.

In my 34 years with MI6 I have seen extraordinary change in the strategic environment: from the Cold War to todays starkly contested era, in which nation states and non-state actors, such as terrorists and organised criminals, compete across the domains of the virtual and the physical in a world of, at times, bewildering complexity.

There are elements of continuity, Russia, China and Iran, and for instance, have long been 3 of what I might informally call the big 4 priorities within the intelligence community; the fourth being the threat from international terrorism.

But, mostly, we are living through an era of dramatic change in the security landscape.

We have to defend ourselves as a country against a growing threat from state actors, within an international system which is not working as it should do to constrain conflict and aggression. We face adversaries who are feeling emboldened, encounter fewer constraints, and are able to draw on greater resources than in the past.

We face transnational challenges from climate change to pandemics, which create an entirely new level of need for global cooperation. We must cooperate on these issues even when we compete fiercely elsewhere.

Furthermore, we live in a world transformed by digital connectivity, and stand on the cusp of revolutionary advances in technology which will affect the manner in which we live and work in ways we cannot fully foresee.

Advances in quantum engineering and engineered biology will change entire industries. The huge volumes of data now available across the globe, combined with ever increasing computer power and advances in data science, will mean the integration of artificial intelligence, AI, into almost every aspect of our daily lives.

Others would speak to you about the benefits associated with these new discoveries and they are myriad. But I am paid to look at the threat side of the ledger. MI6 deals with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. And the digital attack surface that criminals, terrorists and hostile states seek to exploit against us is growing exponentially.

According to some assessments, we may experience more technological progress in the next ten years than in the last century, with a disruptive impact equal to the industrial revolution. As a society, we have yet to fully internalise this stark fact and its potential impact on global geopolitics. But it is a white-hot focus for MI6.

My mission as Chief is to ensure the successful transformation and modernisation of our organisation: extending MI6s secret human relationships to reflect the changing nature of power and influence in the world; investing in the skills a global intelligence agency needs in the digital age; and meeting the technological challenge head on by opening up to an unprecedented degree to partners who can help us master the technologies we need for our operations, and to enable us to innovate faster than our adversaries.

I will speak to you today about this mission, seen through the lens of what I earlier called the big 4 set of threats: China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism, as well as the over-arching technological challenge.

But, before that, a few words on who we are and what we do.

MI6 is Britains overseas human intelligence agency. We recruit and run clandestine agents in other countries.

We draw on those human relationships to provide government with secret information, and to make things happen that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

We do this for strictly limited purposes as set out in that 1994 Act: in the interests of national security, for the economic wellbeing of the UK, or for the prevention and detection of serious crime.

And everything we do is bound by UK law.

We take this very seriously. We have been given powers by the state to operate in an ethically complex area. I ask my officers to do things in their professional existence which they would not do in their private lives. A democratic society should only grant such powers to its most ethically literate citizens, who are the very people we aim to recruit as MI6 officers.

I am in this job because I believe in the positive power of the human relationships MI6 builds. I have recruited and run agents overseas myself, and seen the risks these courageous men and women of other nations are willing to run to make common cause with us. And I have seen the difference our work makes.

What we do, as a human intelligence agency, is essential, because at the end of the day, even in a digital world, critical decisions are made by real people.

We need to understand what motivates our adversaries; their intentions, their plans, and their methods.

We need to be able to reduce the space within which they believe they can act against us with impunity on or offline.

And we need to provide the government with options to lawfully disrupt, deter and suppress threats to the UK wherever they originate as well as help them take advantage of the opportunities for our country and its citizens.

This is what we do in MI6 - working with our sister agencies GCHQ and MI5 and with our partners in Defence Intelligence and UK Special Forces.

We need MI6s global network of secret human relationships more than we have ever done, in an increasingly contested international landscape.

The tectonic plates are shifting as Chinas power, and its willingness to assert it, grows.

A large part of the UKs security and prosperity is increasingly tied up with Chinas actions and policies.

There are many areas where our country needs to engage with Beijing, including trade and investment, cultural links and the transnational challenges of climate change and biodiversity.

But the fact remains that China is an authoritarian state, with different values from ours. This is reflected in the threats we see emanating from the Chinese state, that coexist with these opportunities for cooperation.

The Chinese Intelligence Services are highly capable and continue to conduct large scale espionage operations against the UK and our allies. This includes targeting those working in government, industries, or on research of particular interest to the Chinese state. They also monitor and attempt to exercise undue influence over the Chinese diaspora.

Chinese intelligence officers seek to exploit the open nature of our society, including through the use of social media platforms to facilitate their operations. We are concerned by the Chinese governments attempt to distort public discourse and political decision making across the globe.

Beijings growing military strength and the Partys desire to resolve the Taiwan issue, by force if necessary, also pose a serious challenge to global stability and peace.

The Chinese Communist Party leadership increasingly favour bold and decisive action justified on national security grounds. The days of Deng Xiaopings hide your strength, bide your time are long over.

Beijing believes its own propaganda about Western frailties and underestimates Washingtons resolve. The risk of Chinese miscalculation through over-confidence is real.

The Chinese Communist Party brook no dissent. Beijing have eroded Hong Kongs one country, two systems framework, and removed individual rights and freedoms, in the name of national security. Its surveillance state has targeted the Uighur population in Xinjiang, carrying out widespread human rights abuses, including the arbitrary detention of an estimated 1 million Muslims.

Worryingly, these technologies of control and surveillance are increasingly being exported to other governments by China: expanding the web of authoritarian control around the planet.

Adapting to a world affected by the rise of China is the single greatest priority for MI6. We are deepening our understanding of China across the UK intelligence community, and widening the options available to the government in managing the systemic challenges that it poses.

This is not just about being able to understand China and Chinese decision making. We need to be able to operate undetected as a secret intelligence agency everywhere within the worldwide surveillance web.

And we want other countries to be clear-eyed about the debt traps, data exposure and vulnerability to political coercion that arise from depe

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