The British Secret Intelligence Service
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6, is the foreign intelligence service of the government of the United Kingdom, tasked mainly with the covert overseas collection and analysis of human intelligence (HUMINT) in support of the UK's national security. SIS is a member of the country's intelligence community and its Chief is accountable to the country's Foreign Secretary.
Formed in 1909 as a section of the Secret Service Bureau specialising in foreign intelligence, the section experienced dramatic growth during World War I and officially adopted its current name around 1920. The name MI6 (meaning Military Intelligence, Section 6) originated as a flag of convenience during World War II, when SIS was known by many names; it is still commonly used today. The existence of SIS was only officially acknowledged in 1994 with the introduction of the Intelligence Services Act 1994 (ISA), which placed the organisation on a statutory footing for the first time and provides the legal basis for its operations. Today, SIS is subject to public oversight by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee.
The Future of Intelligence
To echo the words of the Chief Mr Alex Younger, SIS is working hard to prepare for the next generation of intelligence work in an ever changing technology driven world. Artificial Intelligence, 3D Printing, Robotics, Bio-metric systems, driverless cars and a global eco-system are all examples of the key areas of development growing at exponential rates. The seemingly seamless secret shift to singularity? Maybe we are not quite there yet, but the success of global intelligence rests on truly understanding and harnessing the potential of exponential, digitised, growth. Unlike corporate counterparts, intelligence agencies are going to become increasingly reliant on firstly, accurately measuring the rate of exponential growth and its direction, and secondly, being able to stay ahead of the 'exponential curve' in what is an unforgiving business. Read more about how SIS can reserve its seat on the inevitable journey towards singularity as we use all our resources to keep our country safe and prosperous.
SIS Mission Statement
The Secret Intelligence Service works secretly overseas, and develops foreign contacts to gather intelligence that makes the UK safer and more prosperous. SIS helps the UK pick out and develop opportunities as well as manage risks to national security, military resources and the economy.
SIS works worldwide to counter terrorism, resolve international conflict and help stop the spread of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons. SIS is here to help protect the UK’s people, economy and its interests.
In terms of its Mission, the Secret Intelligence Service describes it as:
"Our mission is to provide Her Majesty's Government with a global covert capability. We collect secret intelligence and mount operations overseas to prevent and detect serious crime, and promote and defend the national security and economic wellbeing of the United Kingdom. We work closely with the MI5 and GCHQ, and the secret nature of our work means we operate within a strict legal framework and report to government ministers. It takes people from a wide range of backgrounds with a variety of different skills to help counter the increasing number of threats to the UK. But they all share the same mission – to protect the country, its people and interests."
History of The Secret Intelligence Service - MI6
The service derived from the Secret Service Bureau, which was founded in 1909. The Bureau was a joint initiative of the Admiralty and the War Office to control secret intelligence operations in the UK and overseas, particularly concentrating on the activities of the Imperial German government. The bureau was split into naval and army sections which, over time, specialised in foreign espionage and internal counter-espionage activities, respectively. This specialisation was because the Admiralty wanted to know the maritime strength of the Imperial German Navy. This specialisation was formalised before 1914. During the First World War in 1916, the two sections underwent administrative changes so that the foreign section became the section MI1(c) of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
Its first director was Captain Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming, who often dropped the Smith in routine communication. He typically signed correspondence with his initial C in green ink. This usage evolved as a code name, and has been adhered to by all subsequent directors of SIS when signing documents to retain anonymity.
First World War
The service's performance during the First World War was mixed, because it was unable to establish a network in Germany itself. Most of its results came from military and commercial intelligence collected through networks in neutral countries, occupied territories, and Russia.
After the war, resources were significantly reduced but during the 1920s, SIS established a close operational relationship with the diplomatic service. In August 1919, Cumming created the new passport control department, providing diplomatic cover for agents abroad. The post of Passport Control Officer provided operatives with diplomatic immunity Circulating Sections established intelligence requirements and passed the intelligence back to its consumer departments, mainly the War Office and Admiralty.
The debate over the future structure of British Intelligence continued at length after the end of hostilities but Cumming managed to engineer the return of the Service to Foreign Office control. At this time, the organisation was known in Whitehall by a variety of titles including the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Secret Service, MI1(c), the Special Intelligence Service and even C's organisation. Around 1920, it began increasingly to be referred to as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), a title that it has continued to use to the present day and which was enshrined in statute in the Intelligence Services Act 1994. During the Second World War, the name MI6 was used as a flag of convenience, the name by which it is frequently known in popular culture since.
In the immediate post-war years under Sir Mansfield George Smith-Cumming and throughout most of the 1920s, SIS was focused on Communism, in particular, Russian Bolshevism. Examples include a thwarted operation to overthrow the Bolshevik government in 1918 by SIS agents Sidney George Reilly and Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, as well as more orthodox espionage efforts within early Soviet Russia headed by Captain George Hill.
Smith-Cumming died suddenly at his home on 14 June 1923, shortly before he was due to retire, and was replaced as C by Admiral Sir Hugh "Quex" Sinclair. Sinclair created the following sections:
A central foreign counter-espionage Circulating Section, Section V, to liaise with the Security Service to collate counter-espionage reports from overseas stations.
An economic intelligence section, Section VII, to deal with trade, industry and contraband.
A clandestine radio communications organisation, Section VIII, to communicate with operatives and agents overseas.
Section N to exploit the contents of foreign diplomatic bags
Section D to conduct political covert actions and paramilitary operations in time of war. Section D would organise the Home Defence Scheme resistance organisation in the UK and come to be the foundation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War
MI6 assisted the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, with "the exchange of information about communism" as late as October 1937, well into the Nazi era; the head of the British agency's Berlin station, Frank Foley, was still able to describe his relationship with the Gestapo's so-called communism expert as "cordial".
Sinclair died in 1939, after an illness, and was replaced as C by Lt Col. Stewart Menzies (Horse Guards), who had been with the service since the end of World War I.
On 26 and 27 July 1939, in Pyry near Warsaw, British military intelligence representatives including Dilly Knox, Alastair Denniston and Humphrey Sandwith were introduced by their allied Polish counterparts into their Enigma-decryption techniques and equipment, including Zygalski sheets and the cryptologic "Bomba", and were promised future delivery of a reverse-engineered, Polish-built duplicate Enigma machine. The demonstration represented a vital basis for the later British continuation and effort. During the war, British cryptologists decrypted a vast number of messages enciphered on Enigma. The intelligence gleaned from this source, codenamed "Ultra" by the British, was a substantial aid to the Allied war effort.
Second World War
GC&CS was the source of Ultra intelligence, which was very useful.
The chief of SIS, Stewart Menzies insisted on wartime control of codebreaking, and this gave him immense power and influence, which he used judiciously. By distributing the Ultra material collected by the Government Code & Cypher School, for the first time, MI6 became an important branch of the government. Extensive breaches of Nazi Enigma signals gave Menzies and his team enormous insight into Adolf Hitler's strategy, and this was kept a closely held secret.
The British intelligence services signed a special agreement with their allied Polish counterparts 1940. In July 2005, the British and Polish governments jointly produced a two-tome study of bilateral intelligence cooperation in the War, which revealed information that had until then been officially secret. The Report of the Anglo-Polish Historical Committee was written by leading historians and experts who had been granted unprecedented access to British intelligence archives, and concluded that 48 percent of all reports received by British secret services from continental Europe in 1939–45 had come from Polish sources. This was facilitated by the fact that occupied Poland had a tradition of insurgency organizations passed down through generations, with networks in emigre Polish communities in Germany and France; a major part of Polish resistance activity was clandestine and involved cellular intelligence networks; while Nazi Germany used Poles as forced labourers across the continent, putting them in a unique position to spy on the enemy. Liaison was undertaken by SIS officer Wilfred Dunderdale, and reports included advanced warning of the Afrikakorps' departure for Libya, awareness of the readiness of Vichy French units to fight against the Allies or switch sides in Operation Torch, and advance warning both of Operation Barbarossaand Operation Edelweiss, the German Caucasus campaign. Polish-sourced reporting on German secret weapons began in 1941, and Operation Wildhorn enabled a British special operations flight to airlift a V-2 Rocket that had been captured by the Polish resistance. Polish secret agent Jan Karski delivered the British the first Allied intelligence on the Holocaust. Via a female Polish agent, the British also had a channel to the anti-Nazi chief of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
The most significant failure of the service during the war was known as the Venlo incident, named for the Dutch town where much of the operation took place. Agents of the German army secret service, the Abwehr, and the counter-espionage section of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), posed as high-ranking officers involved in a plot to depose Hitler. In a series of meetings between SIS agents and the 'conspirators', SS plans to abduct the SIS team were shelved due to the presence of Dutch police. On the night of 8–9 November 1939, a meeting took place without police presence. There, the two SIS agents were duly abducted by the SS.
In 1940, journalist and Soviet agent Kim Philby applied for a vacancy in Section D of SIS, and was vetted by his friend and fellow Soviet agent Guy Burgess. When Section D was absorbed by Special Operations Executive (SOE) in summer of 1940, Philby was appointed as an instructor in the arts of "black propaganda" at the SOE's training establishment in Beaulieu, Hampshire.
In May 1940, MI6 set up British Security Co-ordination (BSC), on the authorisation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill over the objections of Stewart Menzies. This was a covert organisation based in New York City, headed by William Stephenson intended to investigate enemy activities, prevent sabotage against British interests in the Americas, and mobilise pro-British opinion in the Americas. BSC also founded Camp X in Canada to train clandestine operators and to establish (in 1942) a telecommunications relay station, code name Hydra, operated by engineer Benjamin deForest Bayly.
In early 1944 MI6 re-established Section IX, its prewar anti-Soviet section, and Philby took a position there. He was able to alert the NKVD about all British intelligence on the Soviets—including what the American OSS had shared with the British about the Soviets.
Despite these difficulties the service nevertheless conducted substantial and successful operations in both occupied Europe and in the Middle East and Far East where it operated under the cover name Interservice Liaison Department (ISLD).
In August 1945 Soviet intelligence officer Konstantin Volkov tried to defect to the UK, offering the names of all Soviet agents working inside British intelligence. Philby received the memo on Volkov's offer and alerted the Soviets, so they could arrest him. In 1946, SIS absorbed the "rump" remnant of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), dispersing the latter's personnel and equipment between its operational divisions or "controllerates" and new Directorates for Training and Development and for War Planning. The 1921 arrangement was streamlined with the geographical, operational units redesignated "Production Sections", sorted regionally under Controllers, all under a Director of Production. The Circulating Sections were renamed "Requirements Sections" and placed under a Directorate of Requirements.
Operation Gold: the Berlin tunnel in 1956
SIS operations against the USSR were extensively compromised by the presence of an agent working for the Soviet Union, Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby, in the post-war Counter-Espionage Section, R5. SIS suffered further embarrassment when it turned out that an officer involved in both the Viennaand Berlin tunnel operations had been turned as a Soviet agent during internment by the Chinese during the Korean War. This agent, George Blake, returned from his internment to be treated as something of a hero by his contemporaries in "the office". His security authorisation was restored, and in 1953 he was posted to the Vienna Station where the original Vienna tunnels had been running for years. After compromising these to his Soviet controllers, he was subsequently assigned to the British team involved on Operation Gold, the Berlin tunnel, and which was, consequently, blown from the outset. In 1956, SIS Director John Alexander Sinclair had to resign after the botched affair of the death of Lionel Crabb
SIS activities included a range of covert political actions, including the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in the 1953 Iranian coup d'état (in collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency).
Despite earlier Soviet penetration, SIS began to recover as a result of improved vetting and security, and a series of successful penetrations. From 1958, SIS had three moles in the Polish UB, the most successful of which was codenamed NODDY. The CIA described the information SIS received from these Poles as "some of the most valuable intelligence ever collected", and rewarded SIS with $20 million to expand their Polish operation. In 1961 Polish defector Michael Goleniewski exposed George Blake as a Soviet agent. Blake was identified, arrested, tried for espionage and sent to prison. He escaped and was exfiltrated to the USSR in 1966.
Also, in the GRU, they recruited Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky ran for two years as a considerable success, providing several thousand photographed documents, including Red Army rocketry manuals that allowed US National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) analysts to recognise the deployment pattern of Soviet SS4 MRBMs and SS5 IRBMs in Cuba in October 1962. SIS operations against the USSR continued to gain pace through the remainder of the Cold War, arguably peaking with the recruitment in the 1970s of Oleg Gordievsky whom SIS ran for the better part of a decade, then successfully exfiltrated from the USSR across the Finnish border in 1985.
The real scale and impact of SIS activities during the second half of the Cold War remains unknown, however, because the bulk of their most successful targeting operations against Soviet officials were the result of "Third Country" operations recruiting Soviet sources travelling abroad in Asia and Africa. These included the defection to the SIS Tehran station in 1982 of KGB officer Vladimir Kuzichkin, the son of a senior Politburo member and a member of the KGB's internal Second Chief Directorate who provided SIS and the British government with warning of the mobilisation of the KGB's Alpha Force during the 1991 August Coup which briefly toppled Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
After the Cold War
The end of the Cold War led to a reshuffle of existing priorities. The Soviet Bloc ceased to swallow the lion's share of operational priorities, although the stability and intentions of a weakened but still nuclear-capable Federal Russia constituted a significant concern. Instead, functional rather than geographical intelligence requirements came to the fore such as counter-proliferation (via the agency's Production and Targeting, Counter-Proliferation Section) which had been a sphere of activity since the discovery of Pakistani physics students studying nuclear-weapons related subjects in 1974; counter-terrorism (via two joint sections run in collaboration with the Security Service, one for Irish republicanism and one for international terrorism); counter-narcotics and serious crime (originally set up under the Western Hemisphere controllerate in 1989); and a 'global issues' section looking at matters such as the environment and other public welfare issues. In the mid-1990s these were consolidated into a new post of Controller, Global and Functional.
During the transition, then-C Sir Colin McColl embraced a new, albeit limited, policy of openness towards the press and public, with 'public affairs' falling into the brief of Director, Counter-Intelligence and Security (renamed Director, Security and Public Affairs). McColl's policies were part and parcel with a wider 'open government initiative' developed from 1993 by the government of John Major. As part of this, SIS operations, and those of the national signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, were placed on a statutory footing through the 1994 Intelligence Services Act. Although the Act provided procedures for authorisations and warrants, this essentially enshrined mechanisms that had been in place at least since 1953 (for authorisations) and 1985 (under the Interception of Communications Act, for warrants). Under this Act, since 1994, SIS and GCHQ activities have been subject to scrutiny by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee.
During the mid-1990s the British intelligence community was subjected to a comprehensive costing review by the government. As part of broader defence cut-backs SIS had its resources cut back twenty-five percent across the board and senior management was reduced by forty percent. As a consequence of these cuts, the Requirements division (formerly the Circulating Sections of the 1921 Arrangement) were deprived of any representation on the board of directors. At the same time, the Middle East and Africa controllerates were pared back and amalgamated. According to the findings of Lord Butler of Brockwell's Review of Weapons of Mass Destruction, the reduction of operational capabilities in the Middle East and of the Requirements division's ability to challenge the quality of the information the Middle East Controllerate was providing weakened the Joint Intelligence Committee's estimates of Iraq's non-conventional weapons programmes. These weaknesses were major contributors to the UK's erroneous assessments of Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction' prior to the 2003 invasion of that country.
War on Terror
During the Global War on Terror, SIS accepted information from the CIA that was obtained through torture, including the extraordinary rendition programme. Craig Murray, a UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, had written several memos critical of the UK's accepting this information; he was then sacked from his job.
SIS members were present in Afghanistan during the 2001 invasion following the September 11 attacks; after members of the 22nd Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment returned to the UK in mid-December 2001, members of both territorial SAS regiments remained in the country to provide close protection to SIS members.
In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is alleged, although not confirmed, that some SIS conducted Operation Mass Appeal which was a campaign to plant stories about Iraq's WMDs in the media. The operation was exposed in The Sunday Times in December 2003. Claims by former weapons inspector Scott Ritter suggest that similar propaganda campaigns against Iraq date back well into the 1990s. Ritter says that SIS recruited him in 1997 to help with the propaganda effort. "The aim was to convince the public that Iraq was a far greater threat than it actually was." Towards the end of the invasion, SIS agents operating out of Baghdad international airport with Special Air Service (SAS) protection, began to re-establish a station in Baghdad and began gathering intelligence; in particular on WMDs, after it became clear that Iraq did not possess any WMDs, MI6 had to officially withdraw pre-invasion intelligence about them. In the months after the invasion, they also began gathering political intelligence; predicting what would happen in post-Baathist Iraq. MI6 personnel in the country never exceed 50; in early 2004, apart from supporting Task Force Black in hunting down former senior Ba'athist party members, MI6 also made an effort to target "transnational terrorism"/jihadist network that led to the SAS carrying out Operation Aston in February 2004: They conducted a raid on a house in Baghdad that was part of a 'jihadist pipeline' that ran from Iran to Iraq that US and UK intelligence agencies were tracking suspects on – the raid captured members of Pakistan based terrorist group.
Shortly before the Second Battle of Fallujah, MI6 personnel visited JSOCs TSF (Temporary Screening Facility) at Balad to question a suspected insurgent, afterwards they raised concern about the poor detention conditions there and as a result the British government informed JSOC in Iraq that prisoners captured by British special forces would only turn them over to JSOC if there was an undertaking not to send them to Balad. In Spring 2005, the SAS detachment operating in Basra and southern Iraq, known as Operation Hathor, escorted MI6 "case" officers into Basra so they could meet their sources and handlers and MI6 provided information that enabled the detachment to carryout surveillance operations. MI6 were also involved in resolving the Basra prison incident; the SIS played a central role in the British withdrawal from Basra in 2007.
In July 2011 it was reported that SIS has closed several of its stations in the past couple of years, particularly in Iraq, where it used to have several outposts in the south of the country in the region of Basra according to the annual report of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. The closures have allowed the service to focus its attention on Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are its principal stations. On 12 July 2011, MI6 intelligence officers, along with other intelligence agencies tracked 2 British-Afghans to a hotel in Herat, Afghanistan who were discovered to be trying to "establish contact" with the Taliban or al-Qaeda to learn bomb-making skills; operators from the SAS arrested captured them and they are believed to be the first Britons to be captured alive in Afghanistan since 2001.
In October 2013, SIS appealed for reinforcements and extra staff from other intelligence agencies amid growing concern about a terrorist threat from Afghanistan and that the country will become an "intelligence vacuum" after British troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
In March 2016, it was reported that MI6 had been involved in the Libyan Civil War since January of that year, escorted by the SAS, to meet with Libyan officials to discuss the supplying of weapons and training for the Syrian Army and the militias fighting against ISIS. In April 2016, it was revealed that MI6 teams with members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment seconded to them had been deployed to Yemen to train Yemeni forces fighting AQAP, as well as identifying targets for drone strikes. In November 2016, the Independent reported that MI6, MI5 and GCHQ supplied the SAS and other British special forces- as part of a multinational special forces operation- a list (compiled from intelligence) of 200 British jihadist to kill or capture before they attempt to return to the UK. The 200 male and female jihadists are senior members of ISIS that pose a direct threat to the UK; Sources said SAS soldiers have been told that the mission could be the most important in the regiment’s 75-year history.