John Humphrys - Can we trust our spies?

December 03, 2021, 4:32 PM UTC

The first time I was invited to lunch with ‘C’ the script could have been written by John le Carre himself. The caller did not give his name but made it clear that he was inviting me on behalf of a very important person. If I accepted the invitation I had to promise never to tell a soul. It was all very hush-hush. When I asked where the lunch might happen I was told a car would be sent to pick me up. I pointed out that this could all be a bit tricky. I am, after all, a journalist and my job is to tell people things. Indeed, said my mystery caller, the purpose would be to brief me on important matters but anything I might choose to repeat would have to be on a strictly unattributable basis. The understanding was that the lunch had never happened. I agreed to that and only then did he tell me who my host was. None other than the nation’s top spook. The director of MI6, our national security service.

That was back in the late ’80s. I had another invitation to lunch with ‘C’ - a different ‘C’ this time - shortly after the Iraq war. The rules were the same: no attribution and no mention of C’s identity. How things have changed in the past twenty years.

Today, not only do we know the identity of C, but we can also read some of his thoughts on Twitter about we know what he thinks on the most important aspects of the nation’s foreign policy. He is also more than happy to give lectures in public and even appear on the Today programme live to tell us.

His name is Richard Moore. In his first live broadcast interview a few days ago he warned openly about that the country he fears most is China.

What do you make of all this? Are you relaxed about the fact that C is the spy who has come in from the cold and do you share his concerns?

Mr Moore seems most worried about “debt traps and data traps” being used by China which threaten to erode our sovereignty and have made it necessary for us to take defensive measures to protect against them. He told Nick Robinson: “Beijing is trying to use influence through its economic policies to try and sometimes, I think, get people on the hook". A “data trap”, he explained, is what happens if a nation such as ours allows another country to gain access to really critical data about your society. Over time, he says, “ that will erode your sovereignty and you no longer have control over that data.”

He added: "That's something which, I think, in the UK we are very alive to and we've taken measures to defend against."

When he made a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mr Moore said China was now "the single greatest priority" for MI6. He warned that a "miscalculation" by an over-confident regime in Beijing over an issue like Taiwan could pose a "serious challenge" to global peace. China is trying to lure poor countries into their traps to get them on their hook so that it can “harvest data from around the world" and use it to exert influence abroad. It can then exploit their vulnerability for leverage.

One of Beijing’s tactics is to make loans to nations that they know cannot pay them back. It has been able to acquire "significant ports" because of such traps, Moore claimed. He wanted nations to be "clear-eyed" about the consequences arising from dependency on such relationships.

One example was Uganda. China has been accused of trying to grab the country’s international airport if it fails to pay a £150 million loan for the expansion of the facility. A parliamentary probe

concluded that it had imposed onerous conditions on the loans, including potential forfeiture of the airport in case of default. In another case, Sri Lanka has handed control of a strategically important southern port to China after it borrowed £980 million from a Chinese state-owned bank to build it. The government struggled to repay the debt because the port was making heavy losses. Mr Moore called for nations to be "clear-eyed" about the consequences arising from dependency on China.

There are also concerns at MI6 that China is selling technology and then using it to harvest vast amounts of data. Mr Moore warned that a country's sovereignty could be eroded if it gave away too much data.

Yet another reason why China is the "single greatest priority" for MI6 is that intelligence agencies are conducting "large-scale" espionage activities against the UK. He warned the "tectonic plates are shifting" as Beijing's power and its willingness to assert it grows. Nations need to be "clear-eyed" about the consequences arising from dependency on China.

Mr Moore is also worried about the old enemy Russia. He said it was essential for Western countries to stand up to the "full-spectrum" of threats from Moscow - from state-sanctioned attacks, such as the Salisbury poisoning, to using political proxies to undermine stability in the Balkans.

And he was frank about what has happened in Afghanistan. He said the assessment of the speed at which the Taliban would seize control of Kabul as British and American troops withdrew from Afghanistan was "clearly wrong". But he did not agree that it was an intelligence failure by the west. He said if we had recruited every member of the Taliban leadership group as a secret agent, we still would not have predicted the fall of Kabul because the Taliban themselves didn't believe it would happen so quickly. He did, however, concede that the victory of the Taliban had been a "serious reverse". What worries him is that it will be a "morale boost for extremists around the world, and indeed for those sitting in the capitals in Beijing, Tehran, and Moscow".

So now we have a pretty good idea of what keeps “C” awake at night. The question we might well ask is why he is asking us, the public, to share his worries. Why is he putting MI6 in the spotlight when it has been in the shadows for so long?

The BBC security correspondent Gordon Correra says it’s because spy chiefs know they need public support. That’s partly because they know we are less trusting of secrecy than we once were. They want to be seen to be more accountable. They also want to use the powerful tool of publicity to help recruit the best staff to their ranks and gain the support of businesses and others to help them do their job.

Do you think this is the right way to go about it? Do you trust our spies now more than you once did or have you always trusted them? And do you share the MI6 assessment that China is the nation we should fear most over the coming decades?

Let us know.