Late last month, Richard Moore, the chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also known as MI6) delivered an especially newsworthy speech. It was remarkable chiefly because it was so rare. Moore assumed his current role in October 2020, but hadn’t given a public address until now.
In popular fiction, British spy masters lurk in the shadows, hiding their true identities from the public. Most famously, James Bond’s boss is known only as “M.” In the past, this was also a reality, as the heads of MI6 preferred anonymity. Indeed, the chief British spy was long referred to simply as “C.” This tradition dates back to the first head of the SIS in the early 20th century, Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming, who signed his correspondence with that lone initial.
But there has always been a tension within Western democracies between the dueling needs for transparency and secrecy. Some clandestine capabilities are necessary. But which ones? And how should elected representatives ensure that proper oversight is conducted on behalf of the people?
Moore is clearly sensitive to these questions. He began his speech by noting how odd it was for a British spy chief to be addressing the public. He explained that “it is an important part of the way we hold ourselves to account, within a democracy, of how we retain public support for what we do, and – I hope – how we inspire people to want to come and join us.”