The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6)  is the United Kingdom's external intelligence agency. Under the direction of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), it works alongside the Security Service (MI5), Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS). Within the civil service community the service is colloquially referred to as 'Box 850' which comes from its old post office box number.  MI6 and the Machinery of Spying ISBN 0714654574. 2003-08-11]. Hearing Transcripts, BNL BCCI scandals, Iraq--Machine Tools for various facilities. – House of Representatives, Washington DC. 1993-01-21.
The Service is derived from the William Melville Secret Service Bureau which was founded in 1909. It 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. When World War I started, the two sections underwent administrative changes so that the foreign section became the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6), the name by which it is frequently known in popular culture today. Its first director was Captain Sir George Mansfield 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. The usage inspired Ian Fleming in his James Bond novels to use the denominator " (James Bond) " for the head of service.
World War I
The service's performance during World War I was mixed, because it was unable to establish a network in Germany itself. The majority of its results came from military and commercial intelligence collected through networks in neutral countries, occupied territories, and Russia. MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service), K. Lee Lerner and Judson Knight in Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security.
After the war, resources were significantly reduced. 'Circulating Sections' were introduced to give greater control on its objectives to its consumer departments, mainly the War Office and Admiralty. The Circulating Sections established intelligence requirements for the operational 'Group' sections to fulfill and passed the intelligence back to the consumers. This relationship was termed the '1921 arrangement' and still provides the basis for the internal structure of the agency.
During the 1920s SIS established a close operational relationship with the diplomatic service. It established the post of "Passport Control Officer" within embassies, based on a system developed during WWI by British Army Intelligence. This provided operatives with a degree of cover and diplomatic immunity but had become compromised by the 1930s.
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.
In the immediate post-war years under Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming and throughout most of the 1920s, the SIS was focused on Communism- in particular, Russian Bolshevism. Examples include a thwarted operation to overthrow the Bolshevik government (Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World Of Sidney Reilly; 2002, Feral House, ISBN 0-922915-79-2.) in 1918 by SIS agents Sidney Reilly (Andrew Cook, Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly; 2004, Tempus Publishing, ISBN 0-7524-2959-0.) and R. H. Bruce Lockhart (Robert Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent (reprint); 2003, Folio Society, ASIN B000E4QXIK.) as well as more orthodox espionage efforts within early Soviet Russia headed by Captain George Hill.
Smith-Cumming died, in his office, in 1923 and was replaced as "C" by Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair. While lacking the charisma of his predecessor, he had a clear vision for the future of the agency which developed a range of new activities under his leadership. Under Sinclair the following sections were created:
- 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, industrial 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 come to be the foundation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War.<ref name=Sinclair>
With the emergence of Nazi Germany as a threat following the ascendence of the National Socialists, in the early 1930s attention was shifted in that direction. Whilst the service acquired several reliable sources within the Government and the German Admiralty, its information was less comprehensive than that provided by the diplomatic network of Robert Vansittart, the Permanent Undersecretary at the Foreign Office.
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 WWI.
World War II
During the World War II the human intelligence work of the service was overshadowed by several other initiatives:
- The cryptanalytic effort undertaken by the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), the bureau responsible for interception and decryption of foreign communications at Bletchley Park.
- The extensive "double-cross" system run by MI5 to feed misleading intelligence to the Germans
- Imagery intelligence activities conducted by the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (Now JARIC, The National Imagery Exploitation Centre).
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, 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. When a meeting took place without police presence, two SIS agents were duly abducted by the SS.
In the early stages of the war Section D was significantly expanded and given a distinct identity as the Special Operations Executive. SOE operations were overtly offensive in the occupied countries, which clashed with the more discreet approach of SIS, leading to a significant level of friction and increased risk to SIS operatives. The increased security in the occupied territories as a result of SOE activity, significantly reduced freedom of movement for SIS operatives and so curtailed operations.
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 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.
SIS operations against the Soviet Union were extensively compromised by the fact that the post-war Counter-Espionage Section, R5, was headed for two years by an agent working for the Soviet Union, Kim Philby. Although Philby's damage was mitigated for several years by his transfer as Head of Station in Turkey, he later returned and was the SIS intelligence liaison officer at the Embassy in Washington D.C.. In this capacity he compromised a programme of joint U.S.-UK paramilitary operations in Enver Hoxha's Albania (although it has been shown that these operations were further compromised "on the ground" by poor security discipline amongst the Albanian émigrés recruited to undertake the operations). Philby was eased out of office and quietly retired in 1953 after the defection of his friends and fellow members of the "Cambridge Five" Donald Duart Maclean and Guy Burgess.
SIS suffered further embarrassment when it turned out that an officer involved in both the Vienna and 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. Blake was eventually identified, arrested and faced trial in court for espionage and was sent to prison—only to be liberated and extracted to the USSR in 1964. In 1956 MI6 Director John Alexander Sinclair had to resign after the botched affair of the death of Lionel Crabb.
Despite these setbacks, SIS began to recover in the early 1960s as a result of improved vetting and security, and a series of successful penetrations, one of the Polish security establishment codenamed NODDY and the other the GRU Colonel Oleg Penkovsky. Penkovsky ran for two years as a considerable success, providing several thousand photographed documents, including Red Army rocketry manuals that allowed U.S. 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 Kuzichki, 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 Soviet coup attempt of 1991 which, briefly, toppled Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
SIS activities allegedly included a range of covert political action successes, including the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953 (in collaboration with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency), the again collaborative toppling of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, and the triggering of an internal conflict between Lebanese paramilitary groups in the second half of the 1980s that effectively distracted them from further hostage takings of Westerners in the region.
A number of "intelligence operatives" (spies) have left SIS. Usually they have either found new employment in the civilian world or defected to a friendly country. In the late 1990s, an SIS officer called Richard Tomlinson was dismissed and later wrote a story of his experiences that was published in Russia by a publisher with links to the successor of the KGB, known as the Foreign Intelligence Service in Russia.
End of Cold War to present
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 25% across the board and senior management was reduced by 40%. 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 nonconventional 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. Following the 911 funding was increased.
In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, MI6 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 claims that MI6 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" - Scott Ritter, Sunday Times, December 28, 2003.
On May 6, 2004, it was announced that Sir Richard Dearlove was to be replaced as head of the SIS by John Scarlett, former chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Scarlett is an unusually high-profile appointment to the job, and gave evidence at the Hutton Inquiry.
On November 15 2006, MI6 allowed an interview with current operations officers for the first time. The interview was on the Colin Murray show on BBC Radio 1. The two officers (one male and one female) had their voices disguised for security reasons. The officers compared their real experience with the fictional portrayal of MI6 in the James Bond films. While denying that there ever existed a "licence to kill" and reiterating that MI6 operated under British law, the officers confirmed that there is a 'Q'-like figure who is head of the technology department, and that their director is referred to as 'C'. The officers described the lifestyle as quite glamorous and very varied, with plenty of overseas travel and adventure, and described their role primarily as intelligence gatherers, developing relationships with potential sources. The interview is seen largely as a public relations and employment tactic, following the placement of advertising for applicants on the agency's website for the first time in April 2006.
- SIS Or MI6. What's In A Name?. SIS website. Retrieved on 2007-09-02.
- MI6 and the Machinery of Spying – Philip H. J. Davies, p273, ISBN 0714654574. 2003-08-11.Accessed: 2007-10-05.
- Hearing Transcripts, Richard Paul Hatfield – The Hutton Inquiry, London. 2003-08-11.Accessed: 2007-10-05.
- BNL BCCI scandals, Iraq--Machine Tools for various facilities. – House of Representatives, Washington DC. 1993-01-21.Accessed: 2007-10-05.
- The usage inspired Ian Fleming in his James Bond novels to use the denominator " (James Bond) " for the head of service.
- MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service), K. Lee Lerner and Judson Knight in Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security.Accessed:2007-09-02.
- The Secret Life of Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, Spymaster to Winston Churchill, Anthony Cave Brown, Collier, 1989
- Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World Of Sidney Reilly; 2002, Feral House, ISBN 0-922915-79-2.
- Andrew Cook, Ace of Spies: The True Story of Sidney Reilly; 2004, Tempus Publishing, ISBN 0-7524-2959-0.
- Robert Bruce Lockhart, Memoirs of a British Agent (reprint); 2003, Folio Society, ASIN B000E4QXIK.
- Davies, Philip H.J. (2004). MI6 and the Machinery of Spying London: Frank Cass, ISBN 0-7146-8363-9 (h/b)
- Davies, Philip H.J. (2005) 'The Machinery of Spying Breaks Down' in Studies in Intelligence Summer 2005 Declassified Edition.
- Dorril, Stephen (2001) MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations London: Fourth Estate, ISBN 1-85702-701-9
- Humphreys, Rob (1999) London: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, ISBN 1-85828-404-X
- Judd, Alan: The quest for C : Sir Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service, London : HarperCollins 1999, ISBN 0-00-255901-3
- Richard Tomlinson, The Big Breach - From Top Secret to Maximum Security. Coauthor Nick Fielding, Mainstream Publishing (1 February 2001) ISBN 1-903813-01-8