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A world of secrets exposed
Conversation with the former ‘C’
Sir John Scarlett, former director general of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), met with The Washington Times in October to discuss “The Secret History of MI6 From
1909-1949.” An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
TWT:What is the book about?
JS: The history of MI6 from 1909 to 1949. 1909 was when the service was founded. The centenary was last year. [It’s] the oldest continuously active intelligence service in the world. Up until 1949, this is a history drawing on full access to the archive. This historian [Keith Jeffery] had unrestricted access. So that’s what it is. It’s a serious history about the service.
TWT:Was access truly unrestricted?
There clearly were areas and types of information which the author couldn’t get into - not being able to name any new agents who were not previously known, for example. And the restriction on the officers that he’d been able to name. He does name quite a few officers from the service in the book, and wherever it’s necessary to do that, I hope he saw a very great need to do it. But there’s not a gratuitous listing of officers’ names. So there were those kinds of restrictions. As long as people felt confident that these important security considerations were being respected and that our obligations to our sources were being respected - an absolute obligation - and the current efficiency of the service was being respected and not in any way undermined, then we had very little push-back from it.
TWT:Did author Keith Jeffery approach you, or did you ask him?
JS: There was a competition. He was surprised, but he recognized what a unique opportunity it was. He saw that it was complicated; he saw that he had a risk taking it on. And it’s very, very good that he did.
Again, it’s a risk from our point of view, but he has triumphed because he’s written a long book, but it’s entertaining. And it’s detailed but done with a light touch while still being serious. He’s brought out the characters, the stories. It is exactly what I wanted. Despite failures and cock-ups and so on, it’s a story to the credit of a service and of people who worked in it and for it.
TWT:Why did you feel there was a need to do it? Sunshine, after all, isn’t particularly in its heyday for intelligence services.
JS: Well, yes and no. It’s certainly a radical step and a unique step that’s not been done before. There was a particular moment, the centenary [of MI6], that in the view of the establishment was a good moment to do it.
Of course, last year MI5 published a history up to the current day of its activities, so that project was well under way when we decided to do this. So there were clear precedents of similar activities that were going on around us. We didn’t need to do it; there was no absolute requirement. It was a judgment. But it was in the wider public interest and the service’s interest to do it.
Up until now, what this book is talking about and the record it’s drawing on have been secret. And they’ve been secret for a good reason: An intelligence service that talks about or allows itself to be written about regarding its activities, true stories, its techniques, its officers, its sources, then of course, it puts at risk its efficiency in current operations.
So there’s a compromise involved here. There was a strong interest not just in one’s duty to history - to make this archive available to a professional historian - but also a strong interest from the service’s point of view: Using this history, which is an exceptionally long history, and drawing on it, to play to the public demand for the true story of what it actually did in the early years of its history.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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