Espionage is a secretive business, but in recent years a little light has penetrated the murk surrounding the U.K.'s two main security agencies. The Security Service (better known as MI5 and tasked with internal security), and its sister organization, the Secret Intelligence Service (also called MI6 and concerned with external intelligence), have set up their own websites and now advertise openly for new recruits. But this new transparency has strict limits. Much of the agencies' work is covert and British spymasters seldom venture into the full glare of public attention.
The debut speech by Jonathan Evans, who became head of MI5 in April, would have excited interest simply for its rarity value. For most Britons, his Nov. 5 appearance provided their first glimpse of the 49-year-old career spy from an ordinary background (his grandfather was a bus driver) who had risen through the ranks first to serve as head of MI5's international terrorism section and then on to the agency's top job.
Evans' choice of audience would have also generated comment. He delivered his speech, which had prior approval from British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, to the Society of Editors, a group dedicated to the preservation of media freedoms. The date of the speech added further piquancy: Evans addressed his audience on Guy Fawkes' Day, the anniversary of one of the earliest terror conspiracies in Britain, the failed plot on Nov. 5, 1605, to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Against this backdrop, Evans' speech itself could have seemed an anticlimax, the gray bureaucratic musings of a gray bureaucrat. Instead, it packed a hefty punch, revealing a new assessment of the scale of the terror threat facing the U.K. and the conflicting demands placed on his organization as it works to counter that threat. The tensions between terrorism prevention and the protection of civil liberties were already set to dominate the U.K.'s political agenda in a week that will see a report published about the shooting by London's anti-terror police in 2005 of an innocent Brazilian electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, after he was mistaken for a suicide bomber. On Nov. 6, Queen Elizabeth II will read out the government's legislative program for the forthcoming year, expected to include a tightening of terror laws.
Al-Qaeda and related groups remain the primary threat. Last year, MI5 said it had identified 1,600 people actively involved in terrorism in the U.K. Evans says that number has now risen to "at least 2,000." The increase, Evans said, "is partly because our coverage of the extremist networks is now more thorough. But it is also because there remains a steady flow of new recruits to the extremist cause." Some of these recruits, said Evans, are teenagers, as young as 15 and 16. Plots, often designed to be carried out by young Britons, are hatched in Pakistan, and increasingly also in Iraq, Somalia and Algeria. Some terrorists are technically savvy; others much less so. "We have to pay equal attention to both the crude and the complex, because the primitive can be just as deadly as the sophisticated," said Evans.
He identified key impediments to the work of MI5. One culprit in his view is short-term thinking. "We know that the strategic thinking of our enemies is long-term. But public discourse in the U.K. works to a much shorter timescale, whether the electoral cycle or the media deadline. We cannot view this challenge in such timescales. If we only react tactically while our enemies plan strategically, we shall be hard put to win this," he said.
Another problem was to recruit the necessary staff. MI5 is expanding and will have 4000 staff by 2011. They may not, however, reflect the diversity of the population they are expected to protect. Two of Evans' last three predecessors were women, but the numbers of female applicants to the Security Service are falling.
There has been no decline in the phalanxes of what Evans called "undeclared Russian intelligence officers in the U.K. at the Russian Embassy and associated organizations conducting covert activity in this country."
"Despite the Cold War ending nearly two decades ago, my Service is still expending resources to defend the U.K. against unreconstructed attempts by Russia, China and others, to spy on us," Evans complained. "A number of countries continue to devote considerable time and energy trying to steal our sensitive technology on civilian and military projects, and trying to obtain political and economic intelligence at our expense. It is a matter of some disappointment to me that I still have to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat. They are resources which I would far rather devote to countering the threat from international terrorism a threat to the whole international community, not just the U.K."