In a rare speech by an MI6 chief while in office, Younger did not specifically name Russia but left no doubt that this was the target of his remarks. Russia has been accused of interfering in the US presidential election and there are concerns it could do the same in French and German elections next year.
He did mention Russia in relation to Syria, portraying Russian military support for the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, in the takeover of Aleppo and elsewhere as potentially creating a long-term problem that could increase radicalisation.
“In Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian regime seek to make a desert and call it peace. The human tragedy is heartbreaking,” Younger said.
Russia has moved ever closer to centre stage for the US and UK intelligence agencies over the last year. During the US election campaign Donald Trump said he would seek to engage in some sort of discourse with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
Younger delivered the speech at the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, the official name for MI6, at Vauxhall Cross in central London. It was the first time an MI6 chief has made a speech at the HQ, a move aimed at trying to show the secret organisation is making an effort to be a bit more transparent.
He described the internet as having turned the work of the intelligence services on its head and said it represented “an existential threat” as well as an opportunity.
He said hybrid warfare – which Russia has employed in Ukraine, though he again did not mention Russia – was a dangerous phenomenon. “The connectivity that is at the heart of globalisation can be exploited by states with hostile intent to further their aims deniably,” he said.
“They do this through means as varied as cyber-attacks, propaganda or subversion of democratic process. Our job is to give the government the information advantage: to shine a light on these activities and help our country and our allies, in particular across Europe, build the resilience they need to protect themselves.
“The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty. They should be a concern to all those who share democratic values.”
Younger declined to provide details of how Britain was responding to such threats, citing operational reasons, but it is known the UK government does not see a need to respond to Russia in a symmetrical way, such as launching a counter-cyber-attack. Instead it could launch a series of counter-measures such as sanctions.
The US intelligence services claim to have evidence that Russia was behind the leaking of information from the Democratic party that undermined Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Senators are pushing for the White House to have any such intelligence declassified. Russia has denied any such involvement.
Younger ran through various threats posed to the UK other than cyber-security, noting that counter-terrorism, his speciality, had been a niche concern when he began his career but had now become central. He said the UK intelligence and security services had disrupted 12 terrorist plots in the UK since June 2013. MI5 and the police were running hundreds of investigations into those intent on carrying out or supporting terrorist atrocities.
“As I speak, the highly organised external attack-planning structures within Daesh [the preferred government name for Islamic State], even as they face military threat, are plotting ways to project violence against the UK and our allies without ever having to leave Syria.”
He said the events unfolding in Syria created as many, if not more, problems. The strongest weapon against international terrorism was legitimacy, he said, and Assad, backed by Russia, did not have it. The end result could be an increase in terrorism.
“If you doubt the link between legitimacy and effective counter-terrorism, then – albeit negatively – the unfolding tragedy in Syria will, I fear, provide proof. I believe Russian conduct in Syria, allied with that of Assad’s discredited regime, will, if they do not change course, provide a tragic example of the perils of forfeiting legitimacy.
“In defining as a terrorist anyone who opposes a brutal government, they alienate precisely that group that has to be on side if the extremists are to be defeated.”
In a reference to the Chilcot report on Iraq, he came as close as anyone from MI6 to acknowledging that the agency had made a huge mistake through its part in falsely claiming Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 invasion. The Chilcot report singled out the intelligence agencies for falling into line with what Tony Blair’s government wanted rather challenging it over WMD.
“A vital lesson I take from the Chilcot report is the danger of groupthink. I will do anything I can to stimulate a contrary view: to create a culture where everyone has the confidence to challenge, whatever their seniority,” Younger said.
He played down the impact of Brexit and the Trump election win. “I’m often asked what effect the big political changes of 2016, Brexit and the US election result, will have on these relationships. My answer is that I will aim for, and expect, continuity.”
Comments made by Trump on the campaign trail such as support for the US resuming torture would create legal problems for MI6 if the president-elect was to follow through. But there is scepticism in the US intelligence community that Trump will actually implement this, and there are already signs that he is backing off.
Younger did not directly address the torture issue. But one remark could be read as a promise that MI6 would not be implicated in any such move. “We can work with a wide range of partner countries overseas, partners who often do not share our laws but who do know our red lines,” he said.
Author: Ewen MacAskill