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UK spy boss defends foreign intelligence links

BRITAIN'S MI5 security service, under fire for alleged complicity in abuse of suspects overseas, has defended its foreign intelligence links, saying they stopped "many attacks" in the years after the Sept. 11 2001 strike.

Speaking for the first time about charges of MI5 complicity, agency Director-General Jonathan Evans said Britain had had to get overseas help at the time as its own knowledge of al Qaeda was inadequate and al Qaeda might have hit again "imminently".

MI5 would have failed in its duty if it had not worked with its overseas connections to safeguard Britain, he said in a speech in Bristol in western England yesterday evening.

"Such intelligence was of the utmost importance to the safety and security of the UK. It has saved British lives. Many attacks have been stopped as a result of effective international intelligence co-operation since 9/11," said Evans.

A text of his remarks was released by MI5.

Human rights groups have expressed concern about Britain's intelligence links with countries where detainees are at risk of torture or other abuse and apparently held in a secret US system of detention and transfers.

In one high-profile case, Britain is to investigate whether members of its secret services were complicit in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident released from Guantanamo Bay earlier this year after nearly seven years in detention in several countries including Pakistan.

Evans said that working with foreign agencies whose standards in handling suspects were very far removed from Britain's had posed "a real dilemma" for MI5 officers working in difficult and at times dangerous circumstances.

"We do not solicit or collude in torture. We do not practice torture. But we are operating in a difficult and complex environment," he said.


Outlining MI5's options at the time, he said: "Given the pressing need to understand and uncover al Qaeda's plans, were we to deal, however circumspectly, with those security services who had experience of working against al Qaeda on their own territory?

"Or were we to refuse to deal with them, accepting that in so doing we would be cutting off a potentially vital source of information that would prevent attacks in the West?"

Britain has been a target for Islamist militants after it joined the United States in invading Afghanistan and Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Four British Muslim men carried out suicide bomb attacks on the London transport system in July 2005, killing 52 people.

Evans said he did not defend abuses that had come to light in the "US system" since Sept 11, 2001 -- an apparent reference to the alleged abuse of al Qaeda suspects in Guantanamo and other facilities under effective US control.

"But it is important to recognise that we do not control what other countries do, that operational decisions have to be taken with the knowledge available, even if it is incomplete, and that when the emerging pattern of US policy was detected necessary improvements were made," he added.

Detailing the system of accountability MI5 is subject to, Evans said a balance had to be struck between an "onerous and detailed scrutiny" that could harm the service's effectiveness, and accountability sufficiently robust to ensure any inappropriate action by the service came to light.


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