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'Secrecy is not a dirty word,' John Sawers, chief of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6), said to a gathering of academics, officials and editors in London on Thursday. ((Toby Melville/Associated Press) )

John Sawers, the head of Britain's MI-6 spy agency, delivered his first public speech on Thursday, defending the shadowy work of an organization that did not officially exist until 1992.

His speech is part of a major public relations effort to explain Britain's Secret Intelligence Service to citizens, and addressed accusations that the agency had colluded with the torture of terror suspects abroad.

MI-6, which earned worldwide notoriety as the sensational, cloak-and-dagger employer of the fictional James Bond, has made other moves toward greater openness, such as setting up its own website posting recruitment ads in Britain's media.

But in his speech to the Society of Editors in London, Sawers argued that keeping secrets was a critical part of "keeping Britain safe and secure."

"Secrecy is not a dirty word," he said. "Secrecy is not there as a coverup. Without secrecy there would be no intelligence services, or indeed other national assets like our special forces. Our nation would be more exposed as a result."

Sawers's sales pitch comes at a time that government spending cuts are expected to trim its budget. MI-6 is one of Britain's three major intelligence agencies, which collectively face a 7.5 per cent cut over five years.

In his speech, he also alluded to the "real, constant operational dilemma" of how to handle foreign intelligence that may have been extracted by mistreatment or abuse. A judge-led inquiry is examining whether British spies were complicit in the torture of terror suspects held by the U.S. and other allies.

Sawers said that he welcomed the inquiry, but outlined the anguished choice that spies had to make when faced with intelligence potentially tainted by abuse.

"Suppose we received credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it," he said. "We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.

"If we hold back, and don't pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved ... Sometimes there is no clear way forward."