Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) chief John Sawers, in a address to the Society of Editors media group hosted at Thomson Reuters London offices, said the risks of failure in tackling proliferation by countries like Iran “are grim.”
He added that intelligence failings on Iraq before the 2003 invasion showed “politicians and officials alike” how important it was that sources of information were rigorously evaluated.
Improving intelligence performance has been a focus for the West since the Septemper 11 2001, attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion, events involving profound faults in preparedness.
A British inquiry in 2004 by a former top civil servant, Lord Butler, said it was a “serious weakness” that caveats from intelligence chiefs were not spelt out in a September 2002 dossier which set out the government’s case for disarming Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Former US President George W. Bush launched the Iraq invasion citing a threat of weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein’s government. No such weapons were ever found.
Sawers said the Butler Review “was a clear reminder, to both the agencies and the center of government, politicians and officials alike, of how intelligence needs to be handled.”
He added he was confident his service had implemented the recommendations of Butler’s report, which urged steps to ensure “effective scrutiny and validation of human intelligence sources” and to make sure this was properly resourced.
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.
His speech is a move to more public accountability and openness at SIS, 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 US 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 authorities, and a need by 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 the 1990s.