British intelligence agencies foiled an attack on the leadership of Libya's National Transitional Council and Western representatives by forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Wednesday.
Hague said the overseas intelligence agency MI6 and electronic listening agency GCHQ played a key role in the successful NATO-led operation in Libya by offering insight into the intentions of forces backing the late dictator and how battles in key cities were progressing.
"They saved lives," Hague declared.
On one occasion, Hague said, the Gadhafi regime had tried to attack the National Transitional Council in the Libyan city of Benghazi and kill some of the Western representatives in the country.
"The agencies obtained firm intelligence, were able to warn the NTC of the threat, and the attacks were prevented," he said in a rare public address about the work of Britain's intelligence services.
The foreign secretary is responsible for MI6 and GCHQ. He acknowledged the ethical dilemmas posed by secret intelligence work, saying he personally reviewed hundred of proposals for intelligence operations a year, not all of which were approved.
Hague acknowledged that claims that MI5 and MI6 officers were complicit in the detention and torture of suspects overseas damaged the nation's reputation.
"The very making of these allegations undermined Britain's standing in the world as a country that upholds international law and abhors torture," he said. "As a government, we understand how important it is that we not only uphold our values and international law, but that we are seen to do so."
Prime Minister David Cameron has ordered a public inquiry to examine whether Britain was complicit in the U.S. rendition of suspects who were mistreated and tortured.
Hague promised to draw a line under the past, pointing to the detainee inquiry and recent government proposals to allow greater use of secret intelligence material in court.
He praised the intelligence services as vital assets that help save civilian and military lives and safeguard Britain's economic interests, saying that without the spy services, "terrorist groups would have free rein to harm U.K. citizens here and abroad."
Hague cited as a success the arrest of a terror suspect after agencies learned that members of a U.K. terrorism network traveled overseas for training and discovered that those members had discussed mounting attacks in the U.K.
He said once the plot was reveled, Britain approached the foreign government in question and worked with it to arrange the arrest, "disrupting the conspiracy" before the plans could be developed.
"Properly used, secret intelligence saves both military and civilian lives, protects our economy, stops serious crime and makes a critical contribution to our diplomatic and military success," Hague said.
He did not identify the country where this occurred or the terrorist network that was involved.
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd