Good morning everyone, Your Excellencies, Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to be in Prague and to be visiting such a close friend and ally of the United Kingdom.
In particular, I’m grateful to be joined today by my friends and colleagues in the Czech intelligence services with whom we have an outstanding partnership.
It was here in this beautiful capital, almost exactly 55 years ago, on the 18th July 1968, that Alexander Dubcek broadcast to the nation at a moment of supreme crisis.
Millions were daring to hope that the liberalising reforms of the Prague Spring would genuinely change what that great Czech Vaclav Havel would later call the “contaminated moral environment” of Communist rule.
Dubcek voiced that optimism by saying, and I quote:
“We shall finish the democratic process that we have begun….Today, after many years, people can come out openly without fear for their opinions.”
Those were fateful words, because we know what happened next: one month and two days later, columns of Russian tanks rolled through the streets around us, re-imposing by brute force another generation of oppression on the Czech people before they finally regained their freedom.
No-one described those years with greater skill or originality than the late Milan Kundera, a giant of European literature, whose passing we all mourn.
So any visiting British official should come to the Czech Republic in a spirit of humility, particularly when Russian tanks have, once again, invaded a European nation.
Our Czech friends know better than we British ever will the realities of dictatorship, and the bleak, pitiless mentality of conquest and domination that lay behind the tragedy of 1968 and drives Vladimir Putin today.
Not surprisingly, the Czech Republic was among the very first countries in Europe to come to Ukraine’s aid with essential military supplies and has continued to show extraordinary humanitarian generosity to the Ukrainian people.
And I take heart from the uplifting fact that no amount of force or repression, in four decades of tyranny, could overcome the courage and dignity of the Czech people, just as Putin is discovering that nothing he can do in Ukraine will break that nation’s will to resist and triumph.
And it’s the human factor – intangible but vital – that I want to concentrate upon today in my second public speech in this role.
My service is surrounded by mythology – not all of which I would wish to dispel. The Human Factor by Graham Greene is a rather fine but not very flattering novel about my profession and my service.
But the title is undeniably accurate because my service exists to create and nurture one of the most extraordinary and highly charged human relationships: the unique bond of trust between agents overseas and the intelligence officers who work with them.
Recruiting and running those agents in the toughest and most inhospitable places on earth is what we do: that is our core business, what no-one else in the British Government can do.
Courageous men and women from other nations choose to make common cause with us – often at immense risk – and everything depends on forging a relationship of empathy, confidence and understanding.
We have to maintain secrecy, not as an end in itself, but because the lives of our agents and the effectiveness of our work depend upon it. And we never forget that the very best human qualities are found in all nations.
There were many Russians, in 1968, who saw the moral travesty of what was being done here in Prague. They had no wish to be on the wrong side of history and the bravest of them acted on their convictions by throwing in their lot with us, as partners for freedom.
There are many Russians today who are silently appalled by the sight of their armed forces pulverising Ukrainian cities, expelling innocent families from their homes, and kidnapping thousands of children.
They are watching in horror as their soldiers ravage a kindred country. They know in their hearts that Putin’s case for attacking a fellow Slavic nation is fraudulent, a miasma of lies and fantasy.
One architect of that onslaught, Yevgeny Prigozhin, demolished the whole charade in a single sentence when he said, and I quote:
“The war was needed for Shoigu to receive a hero star….The oligarchic clan that rules Russia needed the war.”
He added – and I stress these were his words not mine –
“The mentally ill scumbags decided: ‘it’s OK, we’ll throw in a few thousand more Russian men as cannon fodder. They’ll die under artillery fire, but we’ll get what we want.”
A few hours after saying that, Prigozhin was marching on Moscow, leading a mutiny which exposed the inexorable decay of the unstable autocracy over which Putin presides.
As they witness the venality, infighting and sheer callous incompetence of their leaders – the human factor at its worst -many Russians are wrestling with the same dilemmas and the same tugs of conscience as their predecessors did in 1968.
I invite them to do what others have already done this past 18 months and join hands with us. Our door is always open.
We will handle their offers of help with the discretion and professionalism for which my service is famed. Their secrets will always be safe with us, and together we will work to bring the bloodshed to an end.
My service lives by the principle that our loyalty to our agents is lifelong – and our gratitude eternal.
One of my earlier acts as C was to repatriate the ashes of a woman who had died just after turning 100, having worked for SIS by penetrating German intelligence – the Abwehr – in Lisbon in 1944. She was codenamed ECCLESIASTIC and, in her retirement, generations of MI6 officers helped to look after her.
We have a picture of her photographing what was ostensibly a British Top Secret document, in a deception operation that successfully fooled the German high command.
Nearly 80 years later, we gathered in honour of ECCLESIASTIC to scatter her ashes in the English Channel, within sight of where the Allied fleet sailed from Portsmouth to liberate Europe and end a catastrophic conflict.
In the same way, today’s ruinous war will only truly end when a sovereign Ukraine lives in freedom.
To bring forward that moment, Ukraine’s armed forces are now on the offensive, demonstrating their astonishing ability to innovate and mobilise new technology.
Last summer, at the Aspen Security Conference, I noted that the Russian effort appeared to be “running out of steam” – it was and there appears now to be little prospect of the Russian forces regaining momentum.
In the last month, Ukraine has liberated more territory than Russia captured in the last year.
At this moment in the conflict it’s even more vital for Ukraine’s friends to press on and sustain their support, so that Ukrainian valour on the battlefield continues to find its counterpart in the enduring will of allied countries to arm, provision and train them for “as long as it takes”, to quote the emphatic communique of the NATO summit in Vilnius.
Some nations, by contrast, have reduced themselves to being accomplices of the aggressor. Iran’s decision to supply Russia with the suicide drones that mete out random destruction to Ukraine’s cities has provoked internal quarrels at the highest level of the regime in Tehran.
And so it should, because that decision was unconscionable.
Iran seeks cash by selling arms to Russia to enable them to kill Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.
Russia, in turn, seeks cash by hawking their mercenaries around Africa.
In some African nations burdened by civil war, poverty and a weak state, Russia has offered a 21st century version of a Faustian pact. The essential bargain is that Wagner mercenaries will keep the government of that country in power, provided that it signs over to Russia, or to Russian individuals, privileged rights to its people’s mineral wealth.
The leaders of the Central African Republic were the first to strike this deal, followed by the military regime in Mali, and others – perhaps the contenders for power in Sudan or the new rulers of Burkina Faso – may be next.
But now they’ve had to watch the very mercenaries who they are supposed to trust turning against their ultimate patron, Vladimir Putin, and bearing down on Moscow. If Russian mercenaries can betray Putin, who else might they betray? If they can advance on Moscow, what other capitals might they threaten?
And what if Prigozhin was right, when he said this about Russia’s policy in Africa:
“We were told that Africa was needed, and after that, it was abandoned because all the money that was intended for aid was stolen.”
The truth is that Russia has no interest in peace or stability in African countries; on the contrary, its strategy for influence requires active conflicts and weak states, which the Kremlin views as targets to be controlled and exploited, in a new Russian imperialism.
Yet for all the immediate challenges posed by Putin’s aggression, Russia is not the single most important strategic focus of my service.
We now devote more resources to China than anywhere else, reflecting China’s increasing global significance. As the Foreign Secretary said in April, Britain will robustly defend our national security and values, but at the same time it’s absolutely necessary to engage with China, for the simple reason that not a single international problem of any importance can be addressed if we do not.
We have watched China steadily expand its influence in contested spaces by offering countries ambitious deals that look too good to be true – and frequently turn out to be exactly that.
For example, control of data is vital for national sovereignty: governments have a duty to safeguard the data generated by their citizens, and by national projects, whether in health or infrastructure.
If you hand over your data to another state, you risk ensnaring yourself in a “data trap” that will dilute your sovereignty and leave you vulnerable.
When China was selling Covid vaccines around the world, it often ensured that recipient countries would have to share their vaccination data-sets with Beijing.
That is exactly the kind of condition in any deal which should ring alarm bells.
Authoritarian regimes try to hide their intentions in contested spaces within a blizzard of propaganda and disinformation.
They are increasingly doing this with the aid of Artificial Intelligence, which is opening up vast new terrains for fake news, blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality.
This brings me back to the core business of my service: in a world ever more awash with disinformation and fakery, the premium on discovering the truth with accurate verified reporting from human agents and technical operations will be even greater.
AI is going to make information infinitely more accessible and some have asked whether it will put intelligence services like mine out of business? In fact, the opposite is likely to be true.
As AI trawls the ocean of open source, there will be even greater value in landing, with a well-cast fly, the secrets that lie beyond the reach of its nets.
The unique characteristics of human agents in the right places will become still more significant. They are never just passive collectors of information: our agents can be tasked and directed; they can identify new questions we didn’t know to ask; and sometimes they can influence decisions inside a government or terrorist group.
Human intelligence in the age of Artificial Intelligence will increasingly be defined as those things that machines cannot do, albeit we should expect the frontiers of machine capability to advance with startling speed.
My teams are now using AI to augment – but not replace – their own judgement about how people might act in various situations. They are combining their skills with AI and bulk data to identify and disrupt the flow of weapons to Russia for use against Ukraine.
In future, as AI begins to overtake some aspects of human cognition, it’s possible that digital tools may come to understand – or rather, to be able to predict – human behaviour better than humans can.
But there will always be an extraordinary bond that allows one person genuinely to confide in another, united by a sense of common humanity and purpose, the essence of the human factor.
However swift and all-encompassing the advance of AI, some relationships are going to stay uniquely, stubbornly human, and those relationships are at the heart of my service, because my agency is dedicated to preserving human agency.
So what we do is going to remain vital, but how we do it must continually adapt, to harness AI’s burgeoning opportunities and counter its threats.
I expect that we will increasingly be tasked with obtaining intelligence on how hostile states are using AI in damaging, reckless and unethical ways.
I know that we can only protect our citizens if we understand the essence of the threat, while embracing AI’s undoubted potential for good.
So let me say with clarity and conviction: my service, together with our allies, intends to win the race to master the ethical and safe use of AI.
It’s true that other countries have inherent advantages, which we will never be able to match – or would never wish to.
China benefits from sheer scale: AI, in its current form, requires colossal volumes of data; the more data you have, the more rapidly you can teach machine-learning tools. China has added to its immense data-sets at home by hoovering up others abroad.
And the Chinese authorities are not hugely troubled by questions of personal privacy or individual data security. They are focused on controlling information and preventing inconvenient truths from being revealed.
But speaking for the United Kingdom Intelligence Community, we have advantages too: our people, inspired by their mission; our values, entrepreneurial and democratic; our technology, ingenious and leading edge; our partnerships, based on friendship not transactions; all combining to maximise our creativity.
We cannot, in all honesty, be sure where the advance of AI will take us, but we can strike out in a spirit of optimism with a willingness to cooperate. And I remain hopeful that our common humanity and our shared interest in understanding the power of AI, may yet lead to agreement on global coordination, on which our Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, is leading the way.
China’s draft AI regulations emphasise the importance of veracity, accuracy, objectivity and diversity. I can only say: we agree. Let’s make those fine words a reality not a slogan.
For our part, SIS is fortunate to serve a country with a greater concentration of tech companies, world class universities and research centres than anywhere else in Europe. And this is where all free societies – and the agencies that protect them – enjoy the biggest inherent advantage of all.
Through openness, debate and the dynamic exchange of ideas, we excel at liberating the talents of our people, because as John Stuart Mill said:
“Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom.”
The Czech people showed 55 years ago that nothing can ever suppress humanity and freedom, which together bestow a unique competitive edge and our duty is to make the most of it.
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Image: https://pixabay.com/sk/illustrations/banner-ve%C4%BEk%C3%A1-brit%C3%A1nia-anglicko-1090955/, by 0fjd125gk87, sis.gov.uk