The outgoing MI6 head tells Roula Khalaf about new global threats — and why we still need 'garage shed' spycraft.
Every little detail in Sir Alex Younger's office in the modern-day ziggurat building on the south bank of the Thames evokes intrigue. The 57-year-old spy chief has for the past six years run MI6, Britain's secret intelligence service, from a designer office that belongs more in a museum of modern art than a government building; it is an aesthetic designed to defy expectations and, perhaps, to put visitors off guard.
Meetings are held around a Scandinavian oak dining table; the desk is suspiciously free of paper or a computer and has only two landline phones. From his seat behind the desk, you can see the river, although it's all but hidden by the vertical blinds that are almost fully drawn. The Swiss Mondaine clock on the wall is set five minutes fast, a tactic to get people out of meetings on time. Sometimes, says Younger, you want to play to spy chief central casting, but at other times, "it's good to present in a different way".
This week Britain's spymaster is stepping down — his tenure as head of SIS extended from the usual five years to six to maintain stability after Brexit. Clad in navy suit trousers, a white shirt and a trendy knitted blue tie with white stripes, he points to a dark, shadowy painting by a window. It depicts John Thurloe, who was head of intelligence for Oliver Cromwell and who employed a mathematician to work on codebreaking.
Rather modern for a 17th-century spymaster, but, as Younger says, Thurloe was also a Puritan, "so that's where the similarity ends". I am intrigued by the wall tapestry by Scottish artist Elizabeth Blackadder. Younger is proud of his Scottish roots. After graduating from the University of St Andrews he started his career as an officer in the Scots Guards. But there is another reason why he likes the tapestry: "I often look at it in meetings. However well you know it, you can always find new patterns."
That strikes me as a metaphor for his 30-year-long intelligence career, in which he studied patterns, peeled back layers, hid and uncovered secrets. His predecessor, John Sawers, who was given the reins of an agency tarnished by the intelligence disasters of the 2003 Iraq war, had spent much of his career in the diplomatic service. Younger, however, is a spy through and through.
It was during the first Gulf war, soon after he had left active military service, that he decided to join the intelligence service — after being courted for several years. "I'm basically a romantic. I believe in human agency. I love the fact that individuals can make a difference; in however small a way, I wanted to be one of those people."
He spent most of his career in the field, including in Afghanistan and various parts of the Middle East. He rose to become the director of counter-terrorism in 2009. When he took over from Sawers in 2014, he was a popular choice at Vauxhall Cross, and his appointment was seen as a recognition that MI6's reputation had been restored. Over the next years, however, he had to cope with a changing landscape of threats that went well beyond his expertise in counter-terrorism.
We take our seats in a corner of the spacious room, on high-backed chairs whose design, I am told, denotes status for Younger's visitors from the Middle East. On a small round table between us are two plates arrayed with finger sandwiches of cucumber and smoked salmon, half a scone with jam and a thick dollop of clotted cream, a chocolate chip cookie and a piece of sponge studded with blueberries. The plates are covered with cling film, as per coronavirus response guidance in the building. An aide comes in with two mugs of tea. Younger's says "C" on it — the code name of SIS chiefs ever since Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming, the first head of the SIS, adopted the letter as his signature.
I ask if the staff address him as C. Absolutely, he says, and that goes for the prime minister too. Mugs for guests at MI6 say either "courage", "creativity" or "respect", apparently references to qualities of a successful spy (I get "creativity" for the occasion).
Younger wants to talk about a particular food item: the jar of homemade blackberry jam placed in the middle of a coffee table on my left. When he was the MI6 chief in Afghanistan — a country that seems close to his heart, judging by the Afghan cushions decorating his office sofas — part of his job was to brief then President Hamid Karzai on "stuff".
But he had trouble competing with the CIA for the president's time, which I suspect is every British station chief's frustration. Younger, however, cracked the Karzai code when he heard that the president liked putting jam in his tea to ward off colds. "I employed my mother- in-law's jam and afforded him a ready supply which I think, at a casual estimate, would have compensated for some billions of dollars of security assistance."
Younger tells me of the evolution of the service that he has seen — and in some cases helped to engineer — over three decades. Back then, the very existence of SIS was officially a secret; today it is more clearly part of the machinery of government, even if it remains less open to public view than its sister agencies, GCHQ and the domestic-focused MI5. As evidence of the greater transparency, he reminds me that I am sitting in the "most famous secret building in the world".
More radically changed over time has been the nature of the security threat. "There was a difference, call it prosaic, between peace and war; there was a difference between domestic and international; there was a difference between cyber and real, largely because cyber didn't exist," he explains. "That's all blurred now and we've got hybrid and ambiguity and conflict across the spectrum." Ambiguity is a fascinating concept for a chief spy, he admits with an edgy laugh, because it is both a threat and an opportunity: "We are charged with dispelling ambiguity, but we also use ambiguity."
Part of Younger's mission has been to ensure that MI6 emerges a winner in the intelligence tech race. The Q character (in real life a whole department) who made magnet watches and pen grenades in the James Bond films no longer has a monopoly on tech expertise. Under Younger, in 2018 the service backed an £85m venture capital fund to encourage American-style collaboration between the intelligence community and the private sector. The status of Q officers, who were in the past support staff to "fighter pilots", the human intelligence officers, also has been elevated, a levelling of staff that he welcomes. Yet, even if he likes to be described as a venture capitalist (his face lights up when I mention it), it's hard to miss Younger's enduring commitment to the slightly boy scout, ingenuity-in-adversity ethic of traditional spycraft. "I don't want to lose the garage shed ethic. This really matters to me."
No amount of data or tech, however, prepared Britain or its allies for the onslaught of a coronavirus pandemic that has upended everything from geopolitics to business and intelligence gathering. Younger laments the disruption of his plans to visit SIS stations around the world before his October 1 departure. The pandemic-induced paralysis across countries makes for a safer world, in some ways, but it also dangerously disrupts sensitive, human-to-human communication.
Younger tells me that while a pandemic was considered a potential threat, no one had calculated its implications in the security sphere. It has already intensified geopolitical rivalry and put unwelcome emphasis on economic sovereignty. "It seems to me, regrettably, in the response to the pandemic, we've seen essentially a nation-based response characterised by opportunism and protectionism. As an intelligence officer, I've got to deal with the consequences of that."
In a public move unimaginable when he started in MI6, three years ago Younger wrote a letter to The Economist to complain about an article that depicted spies as mavericks who break the law. "Despite bridling at the implication of a moral equivalence between us and our opponents that runs through John le Carré's novels," he wrote, "I'll take the quiet courage and integrity of [le Carré's character] George Smiley over the brash antics of 007, any day."
Younger may be ambivalent about Bond, but he does acknowledge that the films have "made us more famous than Pepsi". The thing about the life of a spy, he says, is that the job is done in such ordinary environments. On a Middle East mission, he recalls, his team was working on penetrating a programme aimed at exporting nuclear technology to a hostile state. Suddenly when planning the surveillance operation for a crucial meeting in a mall he realised the venue was familiar. "I'd been there with my kids that weekend and I was going from talking about Pingu in a café to talking about nuclear proliferation."
For much of his career, Younger claimed to be a diplomat, a job description his close friends "frankly regarded as improbable". I ask him whether secrecy made it an exceedingly lonely existence. "It is isolating. You have highs and lows in this business." Younger's tenure as MI6 chief also has had its highs and lows. In 2017, Britain suffered five terrorist attacks, including the Islamist suicide bombing of the Manchester arena, which killed 22 people. A year later, Russian agents poisoned Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military officer, and his daughter Yulia, in provincial Salisbury, an attack that shocked the nation. Did SIS focus too much on counter-terrorism and not enough on the Russian or Chinese threats? A recent report on Russia by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament noted that SIS's "operational effort" against Russia had declined between 2001 and 2007.
Younger suggests terrorism is a more existential threat: "It is such an assault on our social fabric that I'm entirely unsurprised and indeed support the very low tolerance that the government has for insecurity generated by terrorism." For him, the recent high in the counter-terrorism effort was the destruction of the self-proclaimed caliphate of Islamic State (Isis), even if the terrorism threat remains lethal, and attacks are autonomously generated and more spontaneous.
Relations with Russia he likens to a "boiling frog", with Britain and its allies only gradually discovering how far the Kremlin is willing to provoke mischief. His own analysis is that Vladimir Putin's government is threatened by the quality of western democratic institutions and alliances and sets out to disrupt them as a matter of policy. Yet he seems unimpressed with the result. "I think it's really important that we avoid two mistakes here: the first is to do Russia's job for them by bigging it up; I haven't seen in the UK any occasion where this stuff has made a strategic difference. Secondly, and related, I think we should keep this in proportion. The Russians did not create the things that divide us — we did that. They are adept, albeit in a rather crass manner, at exacerbating those things and I believe that we should prevent that."
If the threat from Russia should be kept in perspective, the rising ideological challenge from China will occupy intelligence agencies for many years to come. Younger says, with some regret, that the notion, widely held in the west in the past two decades, that economic progress would bring democratisation to China was a misunderstanding of the Communist party. "The idea that as they matured and became richer they were going to become more like us is for the birds," he says. "I think you're seeing a steady but definite ideological divergence taking place; there will be at least two dominant value systems on one planet into the medium term and that's just a fact and it's where we're going."
How does a medium-sized power such as Britain position itself in this steady, and unsettling decoupling? The golden era in Sino-British relations promoted by ex-chancellor George Osborne is long gone, but it's far from clear the current Johnson government has a coherent strategy in place. Younger insists that government policy is clear, and on the right track. Britain, he says, must call out the Chinese over malicious cyber attacks and ensure that critical infrastructure is not overly dependent on Beijing, but it has to coexist with China. Eschewing the cold war framing of the western rivalry with China, he says Britain can both "stick up for what we believe in" and ensure a balanced relationship through engagement and dialogue. "I am not a Manichean, I don't think it's black or white, and that's why I reject this cold war idea."
Two things will help manage Britain's relationship with Beijing, he says. The first is technological innovation, the second is alliances. The security relationship with the US is as special as ever but, more surprisingly, he tells me that he's also never been on better terms with his European counterparts, Brexit notwithstanding. Indeed, Younger is not overly worried yet that an agreement on data sharing has not been reached. It is, after all, "significantly beneficial" to Europe to have an agreement, he notes.
The impact of Brexit will be left for his successor to manage. Richard Moore, the ex-political director of the Foreign Office, stepped into the chief role this week. Younger will not be drawn on what he will do next but his experience will be in high demand. Predecessors have gone on to advise governments and businesses around the world.
Before I leave, Younger shows me another painting, this one placed on the meeting table, rather than hung on a wall. It is the work of James Hart Dyke, an artist who was invited to spend a year with MI6 to commemorate the SIS centenary in 2009. "Waiting in the Hotel Room" shows a man in a suit, his back turned, looking out the window. It radiates the anxious energy of a spy awaiting the arrival of an agent. It is, I suspect, the image of his career that will endure in his mind long after he has left the service.
Written by: Roula Khalaf
© Financial Times