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Former MI6 boss: travel industry should challenge FCO advice

Foreign Office travel advice does not always reflect the situation on the ground, and unnecessary blanket travel bans can harm local economies fuelling extremism, according to former MI6 head Sir John Sawers.

Speaking at the ITM conference in Birmingham, Sawers said: “If you as travel industry professionals feel government advice is unreasonable, there are ways of challenging it.

“If you feel all-embracing advice for entire country doesn’t make sense because a problem is in one particular area, a group that posed a threat has been disrupted, you can lobby and make recommendations. Doing it through the embassy in country is one way.”

The diplomatic and foreign service veteran recalled his time as ambassador to Egypt in 2001, as the world reacted to the 9-11 terror attacks.  

“After 9-11 there was a great clampdown on travel, no-one quite new where the threats were going to come from,” said Sawers. “Government advice was very cautious and cautionary.”

Sawers said he tried to make sure the travel advice about Egypt “reflected the genuine threats and concerns that there could be terrorists attacks or unrest in different parts of Egypt, but wasn’t so stringent as to unnecessarily deter people from travelling, or cause unnecessary damage to the Egyptian economy which might fuel further extremism in the wake of 9-11.”

He said he was able to amend FCO travel advice “to reflect a more nuanced picture – yes there were risks in parts of Sinai and from certain organisations but you could ease up that travel advice to allow people to come with reasonable confidence that they would be safe.”

Sawers also served on the FCO board with overall responsibility for travel advice, and told delegates that while the safety of British citizens abroad was the priority, “ a fine balance has to be drawn,” weighing up other factors including tourism and local economies. “And it’s a constantly changing picture,” he added.

Cybercrime

The former secret intelligence service boss also warned delegates that the rise of cybercrime meant they should be vigilant with their data.  

“The level of hostile cyber activity is definitely growing,” he said. “Cybercrime now most prevalent form of crime. We celebrate the decline in crimes such as car theft, burglary and assault. But a lot of criminals have just moved online.”

“Government systems – MI6, GCHQ and other security institutions – are constantly bombarded with cyber attacks, by political activists and hostile governments,” said Sawers.

“Banks, energy companies, pharma, are all being attacked to gain data and intellectual property. He also cited the growing threat of ‘ransomware’ – computer malware used to lock out the data’s owner until a ransom is paid.  

“You need to think what is most vulnerable and of most interest,” he said. “In MI6, the data most important to us was the details of our secret agents, working for us in foreign countries. Those details were not put on any computer that was connected to the internet.”

He said while most businesses are not able to do this, “You have your essential, most important data that needs the highest level of protection, then tiers of other data.”

Data security needs constant monitoring, he said. “The quality of defence in most countries getting better, but so is the skill and sophistication of attackers – it’s an area of risk that everybody in business has to be more conscious of and more alert.”

Licence to thrill?

The former MI6 boss was asked to compare fictional agent James Bond with real life operations at the intelligence service. He said he’s a great James Bond fan and had visited Pinewood studios during the filming of Skyfall.

He said the scenes in Skyfall of terrorists in Whitehall “did reflect some of the strengths of the intelligence world – you had Q who is a real person, on his iPad tracking people through streets of London where the threat led, and politicians worrying about secondary issues – while Judy Dench was struggling with the first order of concern, which was how to deal with bombings on streets of Britain. That’s not a million miles from reality.”

He added: “I used to think the Bond baddies were the best parts of the films, but now you have this funny person with an odd complexion in an exotic waterfront location, ordering strikes against foreign countries, surrounded by long-legged blond eastern European-type ladies – and of course that person is now in the White House!

Trump troubles

Sawers described Trump as an “accidental president,” who didn’t expect to become Republican candidate, let alone president. “He stood to advance his brand – and of course he succeeded. He’s probably the least prepared American president in history. I’m afraid he’s not getting much better.”  

Citing a reported phone conversation between the US president and Angela Merkel, Sawers said the US president seems to have difficulty engaging in serious discussions with other world leaders.

“You’d have thought after 100 days in office, with all availability of intelligence and diplomatic machinery and so on, at whatever level he was at before he’d be far better off now. But it seems he’s not absorbing briefing materials.”

Sawers cited Chinese president Xi Jinping’s speech at this year’s Davos forum as evidence that China sees Trump’s presidency as a strategic coup, and said when senior German government officials say “on issues of real importance to Germany, such as the international trading system and the UN, they’ve got more in common with Beijing than with Washington,” this illustrates the complex changes taking place in the world.

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