BHM: Tell us about yourself, what is your role within MI6?
My name is Alex Younger and I am the head of MI6, which is also known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). MI6 works overseas to protect the national security of the UK, for example by countering the threats posed by international terrorism, weapons proliferation, hostile foreign states, instability overseas and cyber-attacks. We give the British Government the intelligence it needs to retain the advantage over our adversaries.
BHM: With the role of security forces largely kept out of mainstream media, what can you tell us about the role of the security service in this country?
MI6 works ‘upstream’, which means as close to the source of the threat to the UK as possible. In sporting terms, it’s about ensuring we’re always playing in the opponent’s half. We penetrate organisations that threaten our country in order to provide our government with the information or tools it needs to counter them.
Or emphasis generally, though not exclusively, is on human intelligence or ‘humint’ for short. We get this intelligence by forming close and secret relationships of trust with brave individuals overseas who have access to the information we need. We call these people ‘agents’. To be effective in this work we have to have a deep understanding of the cultures and languages of the countries we operate in.
Intelligence is increasingly a team affair. A key part of our work is about sustaining partnerships. This of course means with our sister agencies MI5 and GCHQ but also with the police and Armed Forces, with whom we work incredibly closely. We also form partnerships with foreign intelligence agencies. Often that means working with partners who are very different to us. However, any action taken on the basis of our co-operation must be done in accordance with our laws and values.
BHM: The public perception of MI6 is polarised. On one hand it is this massive yet secretive organisation that we interpret as this James Bond figurehead. Yet on the other hand it receives accolades as this great place to work for BME and LGBT+ people. How would you describe the image of MI6 and how do you hope it develops or changes in the future?
While I am keen to ensure that the public understands more about who we are and what we do, the details of our operations must remain secret. That is because a key part of our job is to create relationships with brave people all over the world inside organisations that mean us harm. Our duty of secrecy to agents is absolute; these relationships are built on deep trust which we forfeit at our peril.
However, we don’t need to be so coy about the principles that underpin all of our operations:
We know that it we undermine British values, even in the name of defending them, then we have failed. Our staff are not from another planet. They are ordinary men and women operating in the face of complex moral, ethical and physical challenges, often in the most forbidding environments on earth. In contrast to James Bond, MI6 officers are not for taking moral shortcuts. In fact, a strong ethical core is one of the first qualities we look for in our staff. It’s safe to say that James Bond wouldn’t get through our recruitment process and, whilst we share his qualities of patriotism, energy and tenacity, an intelligence officer in the real MI6 has a high degree of emotional intelligence, values teamwork and always has respect for the law… unlike Mr Bond!
On the LGBT point, I’m really proud of our Stonewall Workplace Equality Index ranking (we’re in the top 50 employers). Winning awards is not everything – but it does send a strong message that MI6 values difference and we are made stronger for it. We are only interested in a person’s skills, values and capacity to do the job, nothing else. You do have to gain security clearance to work in SIS, but that looks at honesty and integrity – it does not mean having to conform to a “one size fits all” standard. Our success will depend on getting the very best and brightest to join us from across the UK, regardless of their background. In short, there is no such thing as a standard MI6 officer. If you think you can contribute, we would love to hear from you! I want MI6 to be as diverse as the country it represents, and to attract the best from all its communities, including BAME.
BHM: One major criticism of security forces in general is that it is a rather invasive presence within our society, especially when you consider that the UK has more cameras on its citizens than any other nation. Do you feel that such an overwhelming presence is justified, and why?
The organisation I lead must always reflect the nation’s values and those of our population. Even if we wanted to deviate from those values, we wouldn’t be able to as there is no way our staff would allow it to happen. Everything we do in protecting the UK’s national security must be authorised, necessary and proportionate. This is non-negotiable and is a principle that runs through all of our work. It is worth also pointing out that we are a tasked organisation, which means that we don’t decide on the intelligence priorities to focus on, the government of the day does. And we have a robust oversight framework, including Ministers, Parliament (in the form of the Intelligence and Security Committee) and independent Judicial Commissioners who have the power to review any of our operations. And, of course, as the foreign intelligence service, operating overseas against repressive states, any cameras are likely to be pointed at us, not the other way around!
BHM: Just how have national security measures developed with time? Is it a case of making the step before the next big societal development, or are you in this almost perpetual state of catch-up, and what do you hope is your organisation’s next big step forward?
National security today is increasingly defined through two prisms: globalisation and digitisation. Both of them require transformative steps on the part of MI6.
Globalisation has made the world more inter-connected than ever before. It is a force for good and has broken down barriers, leaving us more prosperous as a result. However, with all of the benefits that globalisation has offered us, it has also brought with it threats. We now see terrorist organisations transcend national barriers, sometimes as simply and easily as using an internet connection. We see hostile foreign states attempting to interfere covertly in the affairs of sovereign nations, ours included. As these threats become networked in this way then so too must our response to them. Partnership is vital. This aspect of our work can only grow.
Digitisation has seen our adversaries embrace technological advances to further their cause and protect themselves. The use of encrypted communications is an example of this. We must respond to this, but only in a way which is both proportionate and lawful. We are seeing tech used against us by our opponents without regard for law or proportionality. The key will be for us to keep our technological edge, but to do so in a way that protects our values. That is what the Investigatory Powers Bill, currently going through Parliament, is all about.
BHM: Perhaps saying that you are in a perpetual state of catch-up is unfair, as MI6 has been praised in the past for “forward thinking”, particularly when it comes to apprenticeship schemes and working with schools and universities to develop counter cyber-terrorism schemes. How else are you “forward thinking”?
As I’ve said publicly, in five years time there will be two sorts of intelligence service: those who have embraced and understood the information revolution and have prospered; and those that haven’t and as a result wither on the vine. I’m determined that MI6 will be in the former category. I want to professionalise our approach to technology and have the business areas of creativity and innovation within MI6 inhabited by people who are the best at what they do, regardless of background. I want to see an environment where people can have ideas and say what they think. I want to instil a culture where my officers have the confidence to challenge and innovate, regardless of their level of seniority in the organisation.
Fundementally, I want to put out a call for the ‘Best of Britain’ to join us and help make a difference regardless of where they come from. My ultimate goal is for more people to consider a career in MI6 and to get rid of the myth that it’s all about having studied at Oxford or Cambridge or having advanced hand-to-hand combat skills. That stereotype really couldn’t be further from the truth.
What is true is that our work at MI6 is exciting, intellectually challenging and it matters. We are Britain’s secret frontline, operating upstream in the shadows to keep our friends, families and fellow countrymen and women safe. If you think you have the skills we need, come and join us!
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