The head of MI6 has cautioned against censoring the voices of hostile states seeking to influence public discourse in Scotland, warning that to do so would lead down a “slippery slope.”
Alex Younger, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), said that although there “limits to what we should allow people to say,” he was against any moves to “restrain” or “ban” their participation.
Asked what steps, if any, the intelligence services should take against the likes of the Kremlin propaganda broadcaster, Sputnik, or social media disinformation campaigns, he replied: “I don’t think we should do anything. I think we’ve got to be really careful.”
Speaking at his alma mater, the University of St Andrews, Mr Younger said that although he he suspected the motives of “the people involved in these decisions,” he had confidence in the “strength of our values” to withstand their influence.
In what was only his second public speech since being appointed to the position known in the intelligence community as ‘C’, Mr Younger reflected on how, increasingly, “power, money and politics is going east,” posing a “new political reality” which Britain and its allies “need to adjust to.”
Mr Younger, a former captain in the Scots Guards who joined MI6 in 1991, said that whatever the outcome of Brexit, Britain will continue to work to “strengthen our indispensable security ties in Europe,” and emphasised the ongoing need to “work with other partners across the world to disrupt terrorist activity and counter other serious threats.”
Issuing a thinly veiled warning to Russia after singling out the “egregious example” of the Salisbury nerve agent attack on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, Mr Younger described it as a “flagrant hostile act.”
He said that in response to the attack, the UK did not emulate Russia’s tactics, but instead “operationalised” its values, legal system, and alliances.
He explained: “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.”
He went on: “When faced by these kinds of attacks, our approach with our allies is to seek to attach a cost to the behaviour.
“Our intention is for the Russian state to conclude that, whatever benefits it thinks it is accruing from this activity, they are not worth the risk.
“We will do this in our own way, according to our laws, and our values. We will be successful nonetheless, and I urge Russia or any other state intent on subverting our way of life not to underestimate our determination and our capabilities, or those of our allies. We can do this to any opponent at any time.”
He later added: Mr Skripal came to the UK in an American-brokered exchange, having been pardoned by the president of Russia - and to the extent that we assumed that had meaning.
“That is not an assumption we will make again.”
Elsewhere in the appearance, which took the form of a speech and short question and answer session with students and the press, Mr Younger said he was “perplexed” by the jailing of a British academic for spying in the United Arab Emirates.
Matthew Hedges was freed last week after a high-profile battle with the Gulf state ally, but officials persisted in calling him an MI6 spy - a claim denied by family and colleagues.
Mr Younger said there will be “frank conversations” with the UAE over the incident, stressing: “I genuinely don’t understand how our Emirate partners came to the conclusions they came to.
“They are important partners of ours, so I think there are some frank conversations ahead of us.”
He also said the world was in the “early stages of a fourth industrial revolution that will further blur the lines between the physical, digits, and biological realms,” where the misuse of technology such as bulk data, machine learning and modern analytics could wrought damage if wielded by a “skilled opponent unrestrained by any notion of law or morality.”
Mr Younger also recounted his own experience in the service, where he was first tasked with penetrating a terror group in the western Balkans. The job, he recalled, took him to places “I never thought I would visit,” and involved travelling under a false identity and “many nights drinking obscure homemade alcohol.”
He credited his formative years at the university with instilling in him an “an open minded” outlook about the world, the “value of human curiosity,” and an emphasis on “deeper human relationships than are typical of university life.”
Mr Younger, who studied economics and computer science at the university, explained: “When I look back on those early days of my work with MI6 and ask myself how I was able to do it, I realise that it owes a great deal to this university. More than I knew at the time, At Andrews shaped me as a person.”