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Britain's MI6 operates a bit differently than CIA

On Capitol Hill, the House and Senate intelligence committees provide oversight but other panels can investigate when intelligence operations fall under their jurisdiction.

In Britain oversight is performed both by members of Parliament and by judges. There is the single Intelligence and Security Committee, now chaired by Conservative Party member Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron. The committee traditionally includes other senior politicians, many of them former ministers. "They hold us to account and can investigate areas of our activity," Sawers said.

In addition, two former judges have full access to MI6 files, as intelligence commissioner and interception commissioner. "They make sure our procedures are proper and lawful," Sawers said.

As with U.S. intelligence, terrorism is central for the British services. "Over one-third of SIS resources are directed against international terrorism," Sawers said, making it "the largest single area of SIS's work." MI6 tries to penetrate terrorist groups.

There are other ways in which the countries' two agencies differ. Like the CIA, MI6 has a website, but while the U.S. agency site is only in English, MI6's is also in Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish and Chinese. Another sign of British sophistication: while the CIA site has games and quizzes for kids, the MI6 site gives short tests to allow potential recruits to assess their analytical and administrative skills.

Sawers spoke of matters that I doubt Panetta would include. Based on his experience in the Islamic world, he spoke out on ways to combat terrorism that fell into the policy field. For example, he talked about countries in the Middle East "moving to a more open system of government ... one more responsive to people's grievences" as one way to curtail the growth of terrorists. He then added this bit of advice to policymakers: "But if we demand an abrupt move to the pluralism that we in the West enjoy, we may undermine the controls that are now in place, and terrorists would end up with new opportunities."

His look into the future was more characteristic of intelligence chiefs. "Whatever the cause or causes of so-called Islamic terrorism, there is little prospect of it fading away soon," he said.

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