How coronavirus has stepped up geopolitical rivalry – outgoing UK spy chief | FT

In an exclusive interview, Sir Alex Younger, codenamed ‘C’, who steps down from his role after 30 years at MI6 this week, tells FT editor Roula Khalaf the global pandemic has redoubled the secret service’s mission and increased its myriad challenges. See if you get the FT for free as a student ( or start a £1 trial:

Sir alex you’ve been in the service for 30 years 30 years of being a spy and then a chief spy what is the reality of life as a spy uh i think that there’s a big intellectual curiosity thing i mean our job is asking questions a bit like yours every day uh you’re learning something new frankly it’s just fascinating and then there’s the business of espionage which

Is you know pretty esoteric but but the but the irony is it’s done in plain sight it’s done amongst normal life so you know unlike soldiers who are on a battlefield and know there’s a war going on our work takes place in pubs and bars and supermarkets and shopping malls and there’s it’s a curious juxtaposition and sometimes it can lead to a sort of loneliness

Within the crowd sometimes it can be exhilarating um on a personal level i when i was serving in the middle east we were seeking to get inside a an organization that was proliferating nuclear weapons and i had to go and approach someone and talk to them and we did it in a shopping mall and um as as i went up to this person i realized i was in familiar environments

And had been in that place with my children the weekend before so i’ve gone from talking about pingu to talking about proliferation and it’s just it’s an extraordinary contrast and it is um it’s intrinsically interesting and satisfying knowing what you know what keeps you up at night so in contrast to my counterparts in authoritarian regimes it’s not my job

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To big up threats that’s not what i am for i think of my job as exactly the other way around it’s for us alongside our colleagues in mi5 and gchq to deal with the threats that face this country so that people can go about their normal lives and be of the best they can be but i do see myriad challenges and my background is in counter-terrorism and of course i

Have spent 30 years in fear of failure and i’m of course as we have discussed uh we’re in a position where terrorism is still a a lethal uh and present threat in our societies but i’m also extremely proud of what we have achieved on that but you are only as good as your last operation and necessarily that is a big preoccupation and now we see the counterpart

Threat of attempts to reduce trust in our institutions through disinformation by by hostile state actors and again i think that is something that we shouldn’t inadvertently pick up we should quietly work against it so that this country has got the space to develop and thrive and uh well i don’t my fear would be that this this narrative comes to dominate and we

Lose confidence in our institutions which are strong and i don’t want that to happen we’ve just been um faced with an unprecedented crisis we’re still living it in the form of a pandemic does the pandemic change the way that you think about national security well first of all i mean to make the obvious point our business is talking to people so in terms of us

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As a capability and what we do it clearly has an influence and we’ve had to be pretty creative and flexible uh in working out new ways of carrying out our traditional mission and actually i think by and large we’ve been pretty successful at that and there’s quite a lot of things we do now which i wouldn’t change we will keep so it’s it’s been i think for many

Like for many organizations it’s been a transforming experience and not necessarily for the worst um but it’s certainly also changed the mission it’s changed the things that i think our country is most concerned about it’s changed our scheme of prioritization and at the end i think that boils down to something that i basically regret which is that something

We knew was coming has been accelerated which is the sort of steepening of geopolitical rivalry in the world i think the response pandemic has broadly been characterized by a national response by um uh protectionism by opportunism and i and i think we all regret that and that has accelerated the sort of steepening sense of international rivalry i think we as

A country should work to mitigate that but i also think that it kind of uh it is what we as a service were brought in into play to do in 1909 to give our government the strategic insights that it needs to to maintain an advantage and keep the country safe and i think that kind of most traditional of our missions has been redoubled in importance as a result of

All of this would you do it all over again yes i would i think um i actually think that the next 30 years are going to be even more interesting than the 30 years just gone i’ve already said i think people joining are lucky they can they can um they can do something about the things that worry people in this country um i also think that intelligence services

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Britain’s covert capabilities are kind of closer to the middle of uh government government capabilities than they were when i joined the overt and the covert have blended this boundaryless world there’s more ambiguity and there’s generally speaking more call on our services as part of the sort of broader national security team so i think we play a much more

Central role in responding to the things the government cared about than we would have when i joined in 1991 and of course the real reason why we do it again is is the people and um the privilege of my life has been to live amongst the people of mi6 and the honor of my life has been to lead them

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How coronavirus has stepped up geopolitical rivalry – outgoing UK spy chief | FT By Financial Times

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