20 October 2020

MI6: Younger’s legacy

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My name is Younger … Alex Younger. After a 5-years mandate, and another one, extended due to Brexit, Alex Younger, the MI6 chief, left the office on October 1st. Before getting the “C” quality (as the intelligence service chief is known by), Alex Younger, career officer, was detached to Europe and Middle East and, among others, has monitored the MI6 work on fighting terrorism, in the foregoing period to the London’s Olympic Games. The only member of the known Service (as director), the chief of the Secrete Intelligence Service (MI6), Alex Younger, is now… retired. But only for a while, most likely, not for a long time. On September 30th, Alex Younger, who is not that much of public-appearances person, offered the chief editor of Financial Times, Roula Khalaf, an interview who title makes those following Younger’s steps, but us also, to collect our thoughts: the Russians did not create the things that divide us – we did that.

Image source: MI6

“I believe in human agency”

This is the opinion Alex Younger expressed in the Financial Times interview, someone who tried to be part, even insignificantly, of those who can make the difference in the secrete services.

Three years ago, Younger was writing in an open letter to The Economist, as a response to an article which was calling the intelligence agents rebel spies who are breaking the law. At that time, the MI6 chief was saying about the intelligence services agents: “we are humans and we make mistakes”. He was also talking about those mistakes: we do things to defend the national security “which should not justified in following one’s private interest”, but only when necessary. Surely, “we break the rules, but not the law”.

Along values such as courage, respect and integrity, we add creativity, innovation, pure cleverness, which offers an advantage on the enemies.

But MI6 is a changing institution, which became known only three decades ago, when its existence was secrete, now being, undoubtedly, part of the government’s mechanisms, even if “it is less visible to the public than its sister agencies, GCHQ and MI5”.

But it did change in a more radical way the nature of threat against the national security.

What some time ago could be integrated in categories and separate into war or peace, internal or international, cyber or real, is now… in a fog.

We are talking about hybrid and ambiguity, a fascinating concept for a chief spy, given that ambiguity is both a threat the intelligence service must eliminate and an opportunity which could be used to eliminate the threat.

In a speech held on December 2018, at the St. Andrews University from Scotland, the second in almost 4 years, Alex Younger was saying that, keeping the mystery away apart from an intelligence organization, its key role is to provide intelligence from human sources, create human relations as a bridge over cultural and linguistic barriers in the most challenging environments, create trustable connections between intelligence officers and people in the organizations they need to understand.

A fourth generation of spies is ready to face the hybrid threats and ambiguity, a generation to intensity partnerships, to lead undercover operations in the digital world, to reveal which are the costs of a damaging activity of the enemy and to bring something new and make sure technology will help them, not the enemies.

The human, at least this is the position of the former secret service chief, is still something that matters in approaching ambiguity, even when big data and artificial intelligence are so approachable.

No amount of data or tech, however, prepared Britain or its allies for the onslaught of a coronavirus pandemic that has upended everything from geopolitics to business and intelligence gathering.”

For some things, “pandemic-induced paralysis across countries makes for a safer world, in some ways, but it also dangerously disrupts sensitive, human-to-human communication”. Although a pandemic was considered a threat, no one analyzed the security implications: “it has already intensified geopolitical rivalry and put unwelcome emphasis on economic sovereignty”. The response to the pandemic is, basically, “a nation-based response characterised by opportunism and protectionism”.

During Alex Younger’s mandate, Great Britain face many terrorist attacks, including the Islamist kamikaze attack on the Mancherster arena and, a year later, the Sergey Skripal case.

Threats generated by Russia and China

In July, it was published the “Russia” report, by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, the organism that monitors the British intelligence agencies.

The document was accusing the British government for “actively avoiding” to look for proofs regarding the Russian interference in the Brexit referendum from 2016. The security agencies in Great Britain and the government itself have lost sight of Russia too much, despite an assertive Kremlin. Focused more on clandestine operations, the espionage agencies were anxious to keep distance from the political campaigns they call “a hot potato”.

Meanwhile London has “taken its eyes off the ball”, looking in different parts, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has approached an aggressive clandestine foreign policy against Great Britain and other democracies, executing assassinations on British soil, launching cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and election interferences, using Russian money to buy political influence in “Londongrad”.

The report demands cooperation inside the intelligence community and established recommendations to change the policy when it comes to approaching the Russians.  

The Committee asks for sanctions against the Russian elites and demands their extended use. Also, it asks the United Kingdom to join forces with its allies to elaborate international commitment rules for offensive cyber operations. All of these must be supported by an international cooperation like the one that led to the expulsion of 153 Russian “diplomats” after the Salisbury attack, on March 2018.

However, the report did not answer to whether Russia has interfered in one of the most important votes in modern British history: the 2016 referendum on the withdrawal from EU.

In the 2018 speech, Younger was calling Russia a clear and current threat (given the Salisbury attack, when Sergey Skripal, former GRU colonel, and his daughter, Iulia, were poisoned, the British government accusing Russia for attempt of murder), underlining that Great Britain does not want an escalation, “even if the Russian state tries to destabilize it”.

Great Britain did not answer to this “serious hostile act” through “Russian tactics”, but through “operationalized values, our legal system, and our alliances. We exposed the perpetrators and coordinated the largest ever collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers from NATO and partner states, significantly degrading Russian intelligence capability”.

The intention of such an approach: “is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk”.

Now, in the Financial Times interview, in order to define the relations with Russia, Younger uses the metaphor of the “boiling frog”.

The metaphor generally takes the idea of the story about boiling a frog: The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to or be aware of sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly. It is used on the necessity to understand a gradual change to prevent consequences.

For example, during the Cold War, the Chicago Tribune reporter, Walter Trohan, was writing (June 6th 1960, Report from Washington): “The frog dropped into boiling water has sense to leap out, but the frog dropped into cold water can be cooked to death before he realizes he is in serious trouble. So it is with us Americans and our civilization in this mounting crisis. We must beware of those who want to thaw the cold war out at any cost. We may be cooked before we realize what has happened”.

According to Alex Younger’s analysis, “Great Britain and its allies discover only gradually how far Kremlin is willing to go to provoke damages”. Vladimir Putin’s government feels threatened by the quality of the Western democratic alliances and institutions and, therefore, “wants, as a political matter, to provoke disruptions”. He thinks that two mistakes are to be avoided in the relation with Russia: the first one, for the West to “do its job”, to bring it in the first plan, increasing its popularity. Then, in relation to it, it should be maintained a disproportion. “The Russians did not create the things that divide us – we did that. They are adept, albeit in a rather crass manner, at exacerbating those things and I believe that we should prevent that”.

If the threat from Russia should be kept in perspective, “the rising ideological challenge from China will occupy intelligence agencies for many years to come”.

Younger thinks that the largely spread idea, in the West, in the last couple of decades, that the economic progress bring democratization in China and that “as they matured and became richer they were going to become more like us” was a misunderstanding of that the Communist party is.

The ideological divergence will be consistent, so, on medium term, there will be “at least two dominating value systems on the planet”.

As for the Great Britain-China relations, although we cannot talk about a gold era as we did during the George Osborne times (the Finance Minister in Cameron’s Cabinet), it seems that the current Johnson government has a coherent strategy, “policy is clear, and on the right track”.

Great Britain, says Younger, must “call out the Chinese over malicious cyber attacks and ensure that critical infrastructure is not overly dependent on Beijing, but it has to coexist with China”.

Despite the Western rivalry, Alex Younger does not accept that the disputes between the two states must be included in the Cold War catchphrase, as Great Britain can provide a “balanced relation through commitment and dialogue”.

Managing the relation between Great Britain and Beijing will be eased by the technological innovation and alliances, with the US and, despite Brexit, with European states.

After Alex Younger, the MI6 will be led by Richard Moore, a diplomat career and former MI6 officer.

The new “C” is the first member of the Biritsh secrete service who posted, as the chief, a message on Twitter, where someone replied: “Welcome to Twitter Richard, you'll find more treachery, duplicitous behaviour, shadowy characters, backstabbing and general mayhem than you'll ever find in the world of espionage. Can be fun at times though”.

Translated by Andreea Soare