September 13th, 2015
11:03 AM ET

Fmr MI6 Chief Sawers on Syrian refugees: "...[these] are people seeking a better life for themselves. I don't think we should treat the refugees as potential terrorists"

Please credit any usage to “CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS”

The following transcript is of an interview by Fareed Zakaria with former Chief of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Sir Robert John Sawers GCMG. They discussed the P5+1 deal with Iran, today’s top security threats, Sawers' thoughts on President Obama's foreign policy, the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and whether Sawers believes the massive migration of refugees into Europe from Syria poses a potential terrorism threat. Sawers also discussed his views on global security challenges involving Iran, Russia, and China and why the lack of an international framework for threat responses increases the vulnerabilities.

MANDATORY CREDIT for reference and usage: “CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS”

VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

On GPS: Britain's former top spy on global security

On GPS: Former British spy chief grades Obama

Fareed talks to a former MI6 chief about Iran

GPS Web Extra: John Sawers on the Saudi oil economy

TEXT HIGHLIGHTS

Former MI6 Chief Sawers on the P5+1 deal with Iran: “I think what we're seeing is a country that is going through a transition from a sort of a revolutionary basis to being a more normal state. But there are struggles going on inside the country. –there are different concepts for the future of Iran. And frankly, when I visited Tehran - I was a diplomatic negotiator - you get the sense that the Iranian people, especially young Iranians, they don't really have much respect for the concept of revolution and a revolutionary state in Iran. They want to have a normal life. They want to be able to do business, travel, use their iPhones, and access the Internet just like young people in other countries do. I think we need a bit of strategic patience with Iran to allow it time to evolve and develop over the coming 10 to 15 years. At the end of the day, we still have an ultimate guarantor in terms of a potential military strike if Iran tries to break out. But I think there's a potential for Iran to become a more normal country over the next 10 to 15 years, and we should - we should maximize that possibility.”

Sawers on President Putin and Ukraine: “I think President Putin understands that if he wants to have any prospect of the international sanctions on Russia being lifted, then he is going to have to cooperate and work with the Ukrainian government. And we in the West, we have to understand that Ukraine has a special hold for people in Russia. It's right on their borders. It's a traditional part of Russian culture and history. And we need to take into account Russian sensitivities, justified sensitivities, as well as insist on the Ukrainians being able to take their own decisions and make - and determine their own future.”

Sawers on President Obama's foreign policy 'report card': “In terms of President Obama's performance, I think the first thing you have to say is that he had the entree from hell. He had a series of issues on the security side, troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a financial crisis that had really set back the Western economies.... And his focus has been on the domestic side, on healthcare issues, on rebuilding the American economy. I think on his external policy, he's been cautious, possibly to a fault. I think he's been resistant to get back involved in military engagements in the Islamic world - scarred by what had happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and recognizing that public opinion and the political appetite for further engagements is very low. But equally he's taken risks with the Osama bin Laden killing, which I think has really shaken the capacity of al Qaeda to launch attacks. I think his political initiatives on Iran and Cuba are important steps forward in terms of normalizing both those countries.  So, there are elements on both sides of the ledger. But he's been a calm and steady and reliable president and as a partner for European leaders as well.  So, I think overall the assessment is positive.”

Sawers on China’s economic state: “They are trying to make a transition from an economy which has been export led, really highly successful, the most successful economy in the world over the last thirty years at this rate of growth that it's - that it's managed to achieve and sustain. And they are having to adapt to - or they're trying to adapt to a more market-led rather than state-led economy.  It's hugely in our interests that China manages this transition effectively, and the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the key relationship for global stability through the rest of this century. So it's really important that China succeeds in some way in its transition. A failed China is a much more dangerous China, and we should bear that in mind.”

Sawers explains how today's security threats differ from those of even just a few years ago: “I think it's pretty chaotic and dangerous at the moment…for example, I was chief of MI6 during the London Olympics, where we were able to assure the Prime Minister, myself and my colleagues at MI5 – we were pretty confident that the London Olympics would be terrorism free. …I don't think you could be quite so confident now if the London Olympics were in 2016. …the rise of ISIS - the way in which the terrorist tactics have evolved. They're not trying now to fly airliners into buildings. They're doing simpler things. They're picking up Kalashnikovs and taking them into shopping malls, or they're attacking people with knives. That's much harder to stop and obstruct....  And we don't really have an international process to set the limits for cyber activity or to recognize what would be a justified response to cyberattack.”

Sawers on the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and whether it poses a potential terrorism threat: “That's not my biggest concern about the terrorist threat caused by the crisis in Syria. I think the great bulk of these refugees are people genuinely fleeing conflict, fleeing for their lives and seeking a better life for themselves and their families. So I don't think we should treat the refugees as potential terrorists. I think the real problem, certainly in Europe, that we face is that so many of our own citizens have been out to Syria, have signed up with terrorist organizations, like ISIS, Daesh, and have - pose a risk, because they can come back radicalized and keen to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries.”

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN GPS HOST:  The Cold War was easy. America and the West knew who the bad guys were: The Soviets. Today, it's a whole different game, of course.

The struggle to keep us all safe today was laid out concisely by the fictional head of England's secret intelligence service in the latest James Bond movie Skyfall.

///

M: I suppose I see a different world than you do. And the truth is that what I see frightens me. I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. Our word is not more transparent now; it's more opaque. It's in the shadows. That's where we must do battle.

///

ZAKARIA: That was Judi Dench as the fictional head of England's very real MI6. Her code name in the Bond movies, of course, is M. The real head of MI6 is code-named C. That stands for chief - chief of the Secret Intelligence Service. And that is the job my next guest had until late last year, the equivalent of the director of the CIA in the United States.

John Sawers now has another "C" title. He is the chairman of Macro Advisory Partners. John, pleasure to have you on.

JOHN SAWERS, FORMER CHIEF OF MI6: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, do you think that the world today is safer than it was when you took on your job as the head of MI6 five years ago?

SAWERS: I think it's pretty chaotic and dangerous at the moment. I think the - for example, I was chief of MI6 during the London Olympics, where we were able to assure the Prime Minister, myself and my colleagues at MI5, that we were pretty confident that the London Olympics would be terrorism free. And thanks to a lot of hard work, it was. I don't think you could be quite so confident now if the London Olympics were in 2016, for example.

ZAKARIA: Why?  Because of... ISIS?

SAWERS: Because of the rise of ISIS. Because of the way in which the terrorist tactics have evolved. They're not trying now to fly airliners into buildings. They're doing simpler things. They're picking up Kalashnikovs and taking them into shopping malls, or they're attacking people with knives. That's much harder to stop and obstruct as an intelligence service. I think we also have the whole cyber dimension, which is creating vulnerabilities for everyone.  And we don't really have an international process to set the limits for cyber activity or to recognize what would be a justified response to cyberattack.

United States has been - both the government and the private sector have been subject to a whole series of cyberattacks. People think they know what the sources of it was, but there's no - there's no real ability to deal with this in a conventional way. So we're going to have to find a new way to deal with new threats.

ZAKARIA: When you look at this migrant crisis and you hear voices in Europe, and there are some in the United States, who worry about the fact that among these waves of migrants, there may be jihadis, there may be people who have ties to ISIS, how worried are you about that, and how much do you think that can be - these people can be vetted and you can be sure that the - that you can - you can sort this out?

SAWERS: Well, I understand the sensitivity and the concern about that. That's not my biggest concern about the terrorist threat caused by the crisis in Syria. I think the great bulk of these refugees are people genuinely fleeing conflict, fleeing for their lives and seeking a better life for themselves and their - and their families. So I don't think we should treat the refugees as potential terrorists.

I think the real problem, certainly in Europe, that we face is that so many of our own citizens have been out to Syria, have signed up with terrorist organizations, like ISIS, Daesh, and have - pose a risk, because they can come back radicalized and keen to carry out terrorist attacks in their home countries. We saw attacks in Paris at the beginning of this year, in Copenhagen at the beginning of this year. There have been lots of attacks around the Middle East as well.

ZAKARIA: And what can you do about that? Because people say, you know, "Oh, it's because these people are unemployed," or some other people say, "It's because of the ideology." The way I look at it, you know, you're talking about a continent of 300 or 400 million people.  There are going to be some misfits, crazies and - how could you in the intelligence - how could you possibly preemptively know that this seemingly middle-class guy is going to - is going to go crazy?

SAWERS: Well, that's one of the secret skills that intelligence and security services have to - have to develop. You have to have sources of information, you have to win the trust of key figures in Muslim communities in our own countries, and we have to be able to penetrate with secret agents, the terrorist organizations overseas. These are very hard tasks that we have.

We've had some success in this. We foiled many terrorist attacks, attempted terrorist attacks, in this country and elsewhere. I don't think that we can expect to have 100-percent record on that.  Some of these terrorist attacks at different times will get through. But actually, the intelligence community in America, in Britain, in France and elsewhere have by and large been quite successful. But you still can't have 100-percent record there.

ZAKARIA: We've got to move on, because there's so much I want to cover with you. What does your intelligence tell you about the Iranian government? How divided is it? You have Khamenei coming out with these increasingly hardline statements. What's going on?

SAWERS: Well, I think what we're seeing is a country that is going through a transition from a sort of a revolutionary basis to being a more normal state. But there are struggles going on inside the country. And I know President Rouhani from my time as the chief British negotiator on the Iran deal between 2003 and 2007. We started it that long ago. And I know the foreign minister as well. I think they have a different vision for Iran in terms of Iran's security than the hardliners in the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force and so on.

So there are different concepts for the future of Iran. And frankly, when I visited Tehran - not in my last job; I visited Tehran when I was a diplomatic negotiator - the - you get the sense that the Iranian people, especially young Iranians, they don't really have much respect for the concept of revolution and a revolutionary state in Iran. They want to have a normal life. They want to be able to do business, travel, use their iPhones, and access the Internet just like young people in all the countries do.

I think we need a bit of strategic patience with Iran to allow it time to evolve and develop over the coming 10 to 15 years. At the end of the day, we still have an ultimate guarantor in terms of a potential military strike if Iran tries to break out. But I think there's a potential for Iran to become a more normal country over the next 10 to 15 years, and we should - we should maximize that possibility.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, more with John Sawers. We are going to ask him about Putin, about Saudi Arabia, about China - when we come back.

[COMMERCIAL BREAK]

ZAKARIA: And we are back now with the man who used to be known simply as C. Until late last year, John Sawers was the chief of England's Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. That job was made famous in books and on screen by James Bond's boss, known in films as M. I'm going to call him Sir John. Let's talk about Vladimir Putin.  Have we miscalculated? When I say we, I mean, the West put in place the sanctions, it condemned the annexation of Crimea, refused to accept it, told Russia it had to stop meddling in Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions are in place, the condemnation has held, but nothing has changed for Vladimir Putin.

SAWERS: Well, I wouldn't go that far. I think the Russians were quite surprised at the level of the reaction, agreed reaction between United States and Europe to - in response to the annexation of Crimea and to the conflict that he has helped contribute to in the - in the East of Ukraine. And the situation in Ukraine is calmer now then it's - certainly then it was this time last year.

I think President Putin understands that if he wants to have any prospect of the international sanctions on Russia being lifted, then he is going to have to cooperate and work with the Ukrainian government. And we in the West, we have to understand that Ukraine has a special hold for people in Russia. It's right on their borders. It's a traditional part of Russian culture and history. And we need to take into account Russian sensitivities, justified sensitivities, as well as insist on the Ukrainians being able to take their own decisions and make - and determine their own future.

ZAKARIA: What about what's going in China? You look at China, you know, you have a powerful leader - more powerful some people say than since Mao - he's consolidated power. But now he's presiding over a, you know, a period of economic slowdown, a stock market collapse, a currency fiasco. How - do you - what do you think is going on?

SAWERS: Well I wouldn't be quite so strong on the - in terms of the challenges they're facing.  They are trying to make a transition from an economy which has been export led, really highly successful, the most successful economy in the world over the last thirty years at this rate of growth that it's - that it's managed to achieve and sustain. And they are having to adapt to - or they're trying to adapt to a more market led rather than state-led economy.

It's hugely in our interests that China manages this transition effectively, and the relationship between the United States and China is going to be the key relationship for global stability through the rest of this century. So it's really important that China succeeds in some way in its transition. A failed China is a much more dangerous China, and we should bear that in mind.

ZAKARIA: What is your reading of Barack Obama as President as - in terms of foreign policy.  If you were preparing an intelligence, an analysis for the Prime Minister of Britain, what would you say about Obama's foreign policy?

SAWERS: Well, first of all we didn't spy on the United States and we have a very good cooperation with the United States in terms of the intelligence side. In terms of President Obama's performance, I think the first thing you have to say is that he had the entree from hell. He had a series of issues on the security side, troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a financial crisis that had really set back the Western economies. So he's had a series of issues - huge issues he's had to deal with. And his focus has been on the domestic side, on healthcare issues, on rebuilding the American economy.  I think on his external policy I think he's been cautious, possibly to a fault. I think he's been resistant to get back involved in military engagements in the - in the Islamic world, for example, scarred by what had happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and recognizing that public opinion and the political appetite for further engagements is very low.

But equally he's taken risks - he's took risks with the Osama bin Laden killing, which I think has really shaken the capacity of al Qaeda to launch attacks. I think his political initiatives on Iran and Cuba I think will - are important steps forward in terms of normalizing both those countries.  So, it's - as with all presidents, there are - there are elements on both sides of the ledger. But he's been a calm and steady and reliable president and as a partner for European leaders as well.  So, I think overall the assessment is positive.

ZAKARIA: Great to have you as a guide to help us through it. John Sawers, pleasure to have you on.

SAWERS: Thank you very much indeed.

END INTERVIEW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Topics: CNN • Fareed Zakaria • Fareed Zakaria GPS
tmpl
soundoff (No Responses)

Comments are closed.