Britain's secret service

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Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. MI6 � that's what Britain's Secret Intelligence Service is known as. And that about takes care of what many Britons know about it. The BBC's security correspondent Gordon Corera did his best to change that with a three-part radio documentary about MI6. �MI6: A Century in Shadows' includes interviews with diplomats, officers, and former agents.

SOUND CLIP FROM DOCUMENTARY: I can feel the adrenaline sort of pumping through when I think back to some of things that I and many others were required to do.

Well there have been other times in my life where I have been involved in death yes. I can't talk about that.

MULLINS: Now if that sounds like CIA talk with a British accent BBC producer Gordon Corera says that's because the two agencies have a lot in common.

GORDON CORERA: MI6 or to give its official name � the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS � like the CIA is a human intelligence service. In other words it deals in people. It tries to recruit agents overseas who can provide information � betray secrets if you like. So they both have the same aim fundamentally. MI6 is slightly smaller and also has a history of having been more secret. To give you some idea how secret it was until 1994 MI6 did not officially exist. Ministers in the British government were trained to not even acknowledge its existence. And previously MI6 chiefs had never spoken to the press before and they've actually still not gone on camera ever. So they are more secretive, if you like, than the CIA even though they do the same kind of job.

MULLINS: And in 1994 what happened to change that?

CORERA: Well it was partly the end of the Cold War. It was partly for fear of being sued in the courts. And it turns there were regulations which to some extent force their hand. And it was interesting because I spoke to the [INAUDIBLE] chief MI6 at that period � in the early 1990s � and who clearly was quite reluctant of having to come out of the shadows if you like and become official partly because he quite liked the mythology around it and believed that the secrecy helped the service recruit people and that the fictionalized portrayals � whether it's James Bond or John La Carre � also helped perpetuate a kind of image of the service which he believes helped it recruit agents and recruit staff.

MULLINS: So the romance helped the agency?

CORERA: Absolutely and that's what Sir Colin McColl believes.

SIR COLIN MCCOLL: It spreads the name, the brand, but also the feeling that you're good; that you know a lot.

CORERA: Do you think even the James Bond mythology helps with that?

MCCOLL: Oh yes absolutely. Well he keeps the name going doesn't he? I mean everybody watches Bond. So why shouldn't a little bit of Bond rub off on our reputation.

MULLINS: So that's from your documentary. That's Sir Colin McColl who was the chief of MI6 from 1988 to 1994 � a really pivotal period when the Soviet Union dissolved. Well with so much in the history of this organization your documentary basically tell us what the story is that you're telling because the story that very much we have in our minds of course is the story that we read about La Carre novels or see in James Bond films.

CORERA: Well that's right and part of the idea of the documentary was to say it's 100 years of MI6 this year � this October to be precise � and to just have a look over the 100 years at what its done; how its work had changed or hadn't changed; what really does it do? And to actually do a bit of myth busting actually and to try and explain to people who have this mysterious idea about intelligence well here's what British intelligence really does and really doesn't do. And I think because it was the centenary � the 100th birthday � we were able to get some people to talk who hadn't talked in the same level of detail before.

MULLINS: Now tell us about one conversation you had with Sir John Scarlett who is the current head of MI6. A lot of issues came up with him and I want to play a little bit of your documentary now. Maybe you can set it up for us. This is essentially dealing with what the rules are around what spies in Britain can and cannot do.

CORERA: Well exactly because basically spies are authorized by the government to break the law overseas. So to bug, to burgle, to try and induce people to work for them. And so one of the things I think people wonder is well how far can they go then? What are the limits if you like of activity and of ethics for an intelligence officer who is seeking secrets for his country? And so that's one of the things that I asked Sir John Scarlett.

SIR JOHN SCARLETT: You need to have a very clear sense. You need to be thinking all the time you know what is right and what is wrong.

CORERA: Are there limits to what the service can and can't do? Can it burgle abroad, blackmail, poison, kill people? I mean what are the limits of behavior or are there any in pursuit of the national interests?

SCARLETT: Well of course there are limits. I'd prefer not to get into all the specifics about particular techniques.

CORERA: Do you have a license to kill I guess people would ask.

SCARLETT: As is the license to kill issue � no we do not. We do not have license to kill.

CORERA: Did you ever? Did the service ever?

SCARLETT: Well not to my knowledge.

CORERA: Are there still active ethical debates within the organization now about what you should do and what you shouldn't do? I mean do you teach the new recruits a certain sense of ethics? This is acceptable, this isn't.

SCARLETT: Yes of course we do. And obviously a new recruit is always going to ask the question, do we blackmail people? Do we see to compromise them? Do we put pressure on them?

CORERA: What's the answer?

SCARLETT: No is the answer.

MULLINS: He says no is the answer Gordon. Do you have reason to believe that that is indeed the case?

CORERA: Well it's interesting. I think the argument people within MI6 made to me, not just to John Scarlett but others, is that blackmail isn't the best way of recruiting someone to spy for you because they're not really loyal to you they're only doing it because they have to and therefore you can't be sure what they're telling you is the truth, which is after all the most important thing. Make of that what you will. What they really do and don't do. Even though I've asked the question you know it's hard to be sure, historically especially, what the spies have got up to.

MULLINS: Well things changed a lot after the Cold War. I mean during the Cold War the real focus was the Soviet Union and the Soviet Block. After the Soviet Block crumbled at that point MI6 shifted to countering international crime, curbing nuclear weapons. Then comes 9/11. How did that change the focus?

CORERA: Well all of a sudden � terrorism had been on the agenda � but suddenly it was thrust to the top of the agenda and it actually became the dominant subject in the way countering the Soviet Union had been the dominant subject for MI6 during the Cold War. It also raised difficult ethical issues for MI6. How do you deal with other countries? And I think this was the toughest one for MI6 because the nature of international terrorism means you need information from other countries. You need information from countries which have different human rights standards from your own. What do you do when your closest ally, with whom you have a very intimate relationship � the CIA � carries out practices like extraordinary rendition? How do you deal with that if you're MI6? These created quite difficult ethical dilemmas for MI6 which it took them some time to resolve and they still are to some extent struggling over those.

MULLINS: Alright thank you very much. Gordon Corera, the BBC's security correspondent whose three-part radio documentary on the British secret service has just aired in the United Kingdom. It's called �MI6: A Century in the Shadows.' You can find a link on our website The World dot org. Gordon Corera thanks.

CORERA: Thank you.