The head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, was the first serving MI6 chief to make a public speech in its 100 years at a meeting of the Society of Editors in London.
“Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it.
“If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we’re required by UK and international law to avoid that action, and we do, even though that allows that terrorist activity to go ahead.
“Some may question this. But we are clear that it’s the right thing to do. It makes us strive even harder to find different ways, consistent with human rights, to get the outcome we want.
“Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.”
Sir John said the UK’s security service had a duty to ensure any partner service will respect human rights, but admitted this was “not always straightforward”.
“Yet if we hold back, and don’t pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.
“These are not abstract questions just for philosophy courses or searching editorials, they are real, constant operational dilemmas. Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more finely-balanced judgment have to be made by ministers themselves.”
Sir John added that it was essential for MI6 agents and other intelligence agencies to be sure that their secrets were protected, in order to succeed in countering any terror threat. He described his organisation as the “secret front line” protecting Britain.
“Secrecy is not a dirty word. Secrecy is not there as a cover-up. Secrecy plays a crucial part in keeping Britain safe and secure.
“Secret organisations need to stay secret, even if we present an occasional public face, as I am doing today. If our operations and methods become public, they won’t work. Agents take risks.
“They will not work with SIS [Secret Intelligence Service], will not pass us the secrets they hold, unless they can trust us not to expose them. Our foreign partners need to have certainty that what they tell us will remain secret, not just most of the time, but always.”
Sir John also focussed on the fight against al-Qaeda, the need to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons technology and combating cyber terrorism.