‘More Open to Stay Secret’: UK Intelligence Agency Openness and the Public

Main Image Credit SIS Chief Richard Moore speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on 30 November 2021. Courtesy of PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

UK intelligence agencies’ efforts to promote their work are on the increase. While not always successful in delivering the right message, or cutting through to their intended audience, it is welcome to see that the UK’s intelligence agencies now have a voice, in a clear break from the past.

Last week, the Chief of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), Richard Moore, gave a highly publicised speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The speech – the first public one by Moore – set out the service’s priorities and the need to adopt technology to support its ongoing work, and was preceded by the first live radio interview with Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘We must become more open to stay secret’, Moore said. He listed China, Russia, Iran and international terrorism as SIS’s top priorities, and explained that the service needed – as other parts of the UK intelligence community have done – to reach out to the private sector for answers to questions on innovations from artificial intelligence to synthetic biology. ‘Unlike Q in the Bond movies’, Moore went on, ‘we cannot do it all in-house’. Openness is also important for recruitment – a consistent theme of SIS’s messaging, with the speech attracting sizable interest from the UK media.

Since taking up his role as Chief in October 2020, Moore has not been averse to publicity. In April 2021, he gave the first broadcast interview by a serving ‘C’ to Times Radio – which was followed by an interview with the Security Service’s (MI5) Ken McCallum a month later. He has regularly used the social media platform Twitter (@ChiefMI6) to share his views on agency history, recruitment and interests, in another first for a Chief.

Of course, he is not alone. In October, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) Director Jeremy Fleming spoke to the Cipher Brief annual conference, warning of the threats of ransomware. Following Moore’s speech, Ken McCallum also gave an exclusive interview to The Sun, asking readers to consider a career in MI5. Heads of agencies, including Moore, McCallum and Fleming’s predecessors, have given talks before. But it is not just heads of agencies, and recently we have seen a series of intelligence-related stories in the press.

Traditionally, the UK’s agencies took a neither seen nor heard approach, with fictional depictions often filling the void

GCHQ’s Director of Strategy, Policy and Engagement, Jo Cavan, joined Nicky Campbell’s BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in, responding to questions from listeners about the agency. ‘It’s a common myth we’re reading everybody’s emails’, she said. ‘We’re not listening to everybody’s calls … it would be morally wrong’. ‘Amena’, a first-generation British Bangladeshi, also spoke to BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat a week later. ‘There’s a common misconception that you’ve got to be a nerd [to work in intelligence]’. Just last week, a senior MI5 officer, known only as Director K, also spoke to The Telegraph on hostile state activity and the need for an overhaul of the Official Secrets Act to challenge ‘increasingly damaging activity’.

That the UK’s intelligence community now has a voice is welcome. Traditionally, the UK’s agencies took a neither seen nor heard approach, with fictional depictions often filling the void. Previously, it was also up to ministers to praise the work of MI5, GCHQ and SIS – a mode of communication that would be risky now. In 2019, research by the Hansard Society found that the public had little trust in ministers and even MPs, with just 33% saying they had confidence in government. The same polling found that Britons had more faith in the military (74%) and judiciary (62%). New work by the Institute for Public Policy Research found the picture remained the same.

Recent polling by YouGov suggests that on the issue of ‘trust’, the UK public have relatively high levels of it for the UK’s agencies. 58% of those surveyed said they had a ‘great deal’ or ‘some’ trust, as opposed to 16% who had ‘not much’ and 7% no trust at all. The message is clear that, if public trust in politicians is low, the agencies themselves need to be increasingly prominent in their messaging. The issue – as it always has been – is how do they get that message across?

Polling suggests that, despite trusting the agencies, Britons have – as I previously wrote – little understanding about what they do. Nor do they go and read statements on websites or the reports of the Intelligence and Security Committee to find out more. It is not good enough having a website; the people the agencies want to recruit often do not visit. The message is that if the agencies want to contribute to discussions, and reach out to new audiences, they should do it themselves in imaginative ways. The coverage of C’s speech is a good example: agencies need to be more prominent in the headlines, not just be heard about when things go wrong.

Engagement may not always be a success, and can often be cringeworthy when it goes wrong. TikToker Elise Lamsdale’s video criticising an SIS recruitment site featuring Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons and geeks recently went viral. ‘Which boomer signed off on this?’ she complained. The site, ‘GeeksLikeYou’ – an attempt to build on the earlier #SecretlyWereJustLikeYou campaign – also referenced Bond and gaming culture. ‘Our ideal candidate isn’t Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye. (Sorry, Pierce.) It’s you: the geek who knows that GoldenEye was the best game on the N64’, it says on the frontpage, while helpfully pointing out that SIS is in no way linked to Daniel Craig or Brosnan.

Social media is one way that the UK’s agencies have reached out – although admittedly, they are far behind their US counterparts. GCHQ joined Twitter in May 2016 with the simple message ‘Hello, world’, and GCHQ and its affiliated National Cyber Security Centre now have Instagram and LinkedIn. MI5 has an Instagram profile, joining the platform in April 2021. ‘You can insert your own joke about whether we will be following you’, said Ken McCallum. It remains to be seen whether SIS will follow in having its own social media presence beyond ‘C’s’ Twitter.

It may be painful for some to hear, but SIS, GCHQ and MI5 are more of a ‘brand’ these days. Consistent mentions of the agencies by name, references to their mission, and – importantly for diversity – challenging cliches about who does intelligence are all vital. Knowledge of, for example, what GCHQ does – and its wider identity – has increased awareness (though public knowledge of GCHQ still lags behind MI5 and SIS), something the other agencies could learn from. If we can draw lessons from across the Atlantic, members of the US intelligence community are far ahead of their UK counterparts in promoting their history. The CIA has engaged with the past, and the sky has not fallen in. In the UK, only GCHQ has a public-facing historian and, beyond file releases by GCHQ and MI5, there is still a lot to be done to challenge Bond-like mythology.

Naturally, there will be limits. Announcing MI5’s Instagram, Ken McCallum spoke of ‘being more open’ – a claim that drew scepticism from observers. And there have to be red lines. Richard Moore noted the ‘unbreakable principle’ that SIS never reveals the identity of agents. ‘Their names will go with us to our graves’, he said – and rightly so. Nonetheless, there are ways that the agencies can engage more with the public – whether on history, recruitment, culture or mission – without compromising their day-to-day work. Equally, they can – as Moore’s latest speech made clear – point out the key security threats facing the UK.

Depicting agency life, promoting awareness and knowledge, and reaching out in new ways are all key to supporting the UK intelligence community’s democratic ‘licence to operate’. Paradoxically, greater engagement and openness can enhance the work of the UK’s secret intelligence agencies. They just need to do more of it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dan Lomas

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