Lord Evans of Weardale, former Director General of MI5, on balancing security and ethics

A portrait of Lord Evans wearing a business suit, standing in an office setting

Lord Evans of Weardale KCB DL (BA 1980, Hon LLD 2008) is the former Director General of MI5, the British Security Service. He graduated from the University with a degree in Classical Studies before joining the Security Service in 1980, focusing on international and domestic counterterrorism. In 2001, he was appointed Director of the Service’s international counterterrorism work just ten days before the 9/11 attacks. 

Jonathan Evans became head of MI5 in 2007, where he ushered in a new era for the agency, leading it through a period of rapid change and giving the first ever public interview by a sitting MI5 leader.  After leaving the Security Service, he became a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords. In 2018, he took on a new role as Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, where he continues to serve. 

Lord Evans will be the keynote speaker at our London Branch’s Annual Lecture on Tuesday 17 October 2023 at the House of Lords. You can learn more about his lecture and purchase tickets on the event webpage.  

What is it about your Classics degree that prepared you for your work in MI5? 

I never intended to join MI5, and in those days, it was extremely secretive. I only realised that I was actually in MI5 on day two of my training course. It was an exciting surprise to me.  

My Classics degree gave me a wide grounding in the humanities, particularly with the languages which require discipline and concentration and help you to crystallize your thoughts. There were a number of classicists in the MI5 office. Someone once sent me a memo in Latin because he thought it would be a good way of expressing himself, although it was a bit challenging for me. You don’t go into classics for vocational reasons, so you look for areas where you can make a career outside of the discipline.  

You became the director of international terrorism just ten days before the September 11th attacks in New York. How did that change the job you had just taken on? 

9/11 led to two big changes in my role. Firstly, counterterrorism went from security issue to massive public policy issue. It became the number one political issue of the time. What had been a professional activity between ourselves, the police and a few other agencies quickly became very, very public. Secondly, we had a huge growth of the service. This brought its own challenges because we were busy doing the job without enough resources but at the same time having to think about recruiting new people.  

You are noted for being the first head of MI5 to give a public interview. Why did you believe it was so important to grant the public insight into your department’s work? 

There is a political and social context to MI5’s work, and society’s expectations change. When I joined the service, there was no statutory basis for its existence, no public face, and no parliamentary oversight. That’s just not viable in the current world.  

As we were using a lot more public resource, increasingly we needed to explain what we did and how we spent the money. We began giving evidence in a lot more trials and needed to lay out the work that led to individuals being prosecuted. We were also recruiting. People need to understand what the service does and why it’s useful.  

You’ve worked in intelligence and security on different types of threats, including domestic, international and more recently, digital. Are there similarities in how you handle each type of threat? 

MI5 tries to have a wide understanding of any threat in order to contextualize and assess it. We’re not a law enforcement agency aiming to send people to prison, although we help the police to do so.  

No matter what type of threat we are facing, the ethical and legal framework within which we work is the same. From an ethical point of view, it’s very important that the approach is the same in terms of proportionality and respect for the law. 

The service has a number of capabilities lawfully enshrined including human sources, technical intelligence gathering, physical surveillance and more. These tools are there to help us to uncover conspiracies against the UK and can be used in different ways against different sorts of threat.  

In the last ten years, there’s been an interesting shift in national security. From roughly 9/11 until 2012, it was all about terrorism. Since then, state threats have emerged as very pressing issues. There were early indications in the killing of the dissident and defector Alexander Litvinenko, as well as the Salisbury poisonings, and now writ large with Ukraine. The whole national security system has had to reinvent what it means to stop state threats. There is now flexibility required of the intelligence services. We still must work on counterterrorism, but it’s no longer the only thing to do. You’ve got to be able to do both at the same time. 

What does the Committee on Standards in Public Life do and how did your previous experience in intelligence prepare you for the role of Chair? 

Our job is to advise the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister’s government and the public sector on arrangements for upholding ethical standards of conduct across public life in England. The committee is comprised of independent members, such as myself, as well as representatives of the major political parties.  

When I took on the role, my son said ‘that’s a weird job for a spy,’ but I don’t think it is. In the service, the work was very contentious and difficult. It was at the edge of human rights law, while seeking to maintain high standards of ethics, legality and accountability. We delivered a form of public service that is contested but did so on a strong legal basis with accountability and thoughtfulness about the ethics of our work.

The world is evolving quickly with new technology emerging every day. How do you implement ethical standards that keep pace with modern life? 

About three years ago, my committee published a report called Artificial Intelligence and Public Standards. Increasingly, public services are going to be delivered with at least some assistance from AI, and we need to consider whether the existing ethical standards work in this context. It brings new questions about what accountability means for AI systems. Equally, the fundamental aims of the ethical structure need to remain the same. We need to think about accountability and integrity, and apply those things to new challenges.  

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