Fine Print

Britain's MI6 operates a bit differently than CIA

By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 3:55 AM

"The most draining aspect of my job is reading, every day, intelligence reports describing the plotting of terrorists who are bent on maiming and murdering people in this country."

Those words, spoken last week, come from the first public speech given by a director of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Instead of Dame Judi Dench, who plays the role in James Bond films, Sir John Sawers, the real director of the legendary 101-year-old spy service, appeared before the Society of Editors in London. Early in his career, Sawers was an MI6 operative in the Middle East.

It's worth looking at his precise presentation for its similarities and differences with what CIA Director Leon Panetta might say in a similar circumstance.

While the U.S. intelligence community is made up of 16 agencies, including CIA and those in the Pentagon, "three specialised services form the [United Kingdom] intelligence community," said Sawers, 55, a Foreign Service diplomat. He listed MI5, which is a domestic service somewhat like the FBI; and GCHQ, the government's electronic eavesdropping agency, which is much like the Pentagon-based National Security Agency. Each also has the lead in the cyber world. Sawers' own service, like the CIA, operates outside the British homeland, gathering information primarily from human sources.

British Defense Intelligence remains inside its Defense Ministry and under the chief of defense intelligence, normally a three-star general. He coordinates intelligence gathering and analysis for all the military services. Sawers made clear, however, that in Afghanistan his operatives "provide tactical intelligence that guides military operations and saves our soldiers' lives."

Most different from the United States is management of Britain's MI6. Where the CIA "reports" to the director of national intelligence, the agency takes direction from the White House through the National Security Council, although the president, himself, must authorize its covert operations.

MI6 "does not choose what it does," Sawers said. Under a 1994 law, cabinet ministers who make up the British National Security Council "tell us what they want to know, what they want us to achieve ... [and] we take our direction from the National Security Council," which is chaired by the prime minister. Other permanent members are the deputy prime minister, the chancellor of the exchequer, the secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, the home secretary, the secretary of state for defence, the secretary of state for international development and the security minister.

Individually, Sawers said, "I answer directly to the foreign secretary," unlike the CIA's Panetta. MI6 submits plans for operations to the foreign secretary and "he approves most, but not all, and those operations he does not approve do not happen."

"When our operations require legal authorization or entail political risk, I seek the foreign secretary's approval in advance. If a case is particularly complex, he can consult the attorney general," Sawers said.

The three British intelligence agencies in the next five years "will see us intensifying our collaboration to improve our operational impact and to save money," Sawers said. "Yes, even the intelligence services have to make savings," he added, reflecting another issue in common with the Americans.

Oversight of the U.S. intelligence community is done within both the executive and legislative branches. There is the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of up to 16 members appointed from outside the federal government, who are given assignments by the White House, and there are also inspectors general within the intelligence agencies.

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