The service has had a national headquarters at Thames House on Millbank in London since 1995, drawing together personnel from a number of locations into a single HQ facility. Thames House is shared with the Northern Ireland Office and is also home to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, a subordinate organisation to the Security Service. It has been alleged that the Service has regional facilities with one claimed to be in Glasgow. Within the civil service community the service is colloquially known as Box 500 (after its official wartime address of PO Box 500; its current address is PO Box 3255, London SW1P 1AE)
The service is headed by a Director General at the grade of a Permanent Secretary of the British Civil Service who is directly supported by an internal security organisation, secretariat, legal advisory branch and information services branch. The Deputy DG is responsible for the operational activity of the service, being responsible for four branches; international counter-terrorism, National Security Advice Centre (counter proliferation and counter espionage), Irish and domestic counter-terrorism and technical and surveillance operations.
The service is subject to the direction of the Joint Intelligence Committeefor intelligence operational priorities and liaises with the SIS, GCHQ, DIS and a number of other bodies within the British government and industrial base. The service is overseen by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Members of Parliament directly appointed by the Prime Minister. Judicial oversight is also vested in the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Intelligence Services Commissioner.
Operations of the service are required to be proportionate and compliant with British legislation including Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, Data Protection Act and various other items of legislation. The service is not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The service will mark its centenary in 2009 by publishing an official history, to be written by Professor Christopher Andrew, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Cambridge University, to be published in hardback in 2009 by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.
The founding head of the Army section was Captain Vernon Kell of the South Staffordshire Regiment, who remained in that role until the early part of the Second World War. Its role was originally quite restricted; existing purely to ensure national security through counter-espionage. With a small staff and working in conjunction with the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, the service was responsible for overall direction and the identification of foreign agents, whilst Special Branch provided the manpower for the investigation of their affairs, arrest and interrogation.
Founded in a climate of hysteria over an alleged huge German spy network, the service was successful, against admittedly weak opposition, prior to the war. The service identified a total of 22 agents, 21 of whom were interned at the start of the war, following a period of covert surveillance. This strategy was adopted based on the assessment that agents apprehended would likely be replaced, their identities unknown to the service. Predicated on the ability of the service to quickly apprehend the suspects, success was assured by providing Kell twelve hours' notice of the outbreak of war. The arrests deprived Germany completely of reliable intelligence from within Britain.
However, in the meantime MI5's role had been substantially enlarged. Due to the spy hysteria, MI5 was formed with far more resources than it actually needed to track down German spies. As is common within governmental bureaucracies, this meant it expanded its role in order to use its spare resources. MI5 acquired many additional responsibilities during the war. Most significantly, its strict counter-espionage role was considerably blurred. It became a much more political role, involving the surveillance not merely of foreign agents but of pacifist and anti-conscription organisations, and organised labour. This was justified on the basis of the common (but mistaken) belief that foreign influence was at the root of these organisations. Thus by the end of the war, MI5 was a fully-fledged secret police (although it never had the powers of arrest), in addition to being a counter-espionage agency.
This expansion of its role has continued, after a brief post-war power struggle with the head of the Special Branch, Sir Basil Thompson. MI5 also managed to acquire responsibility for security operations not only in Great Britain but throughout the British Empire, and with the decline in the Empire the Security Officers based in the British High Commissions returned to London and joined the Service, which gave it a significant role in Ireland. MI5 now has a role similar to that of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation, if not as extensive, which includes crime-prevention activities as well as political surveillance and counter-espionage. This expansion had happened almost entirely without supervision; MI5 had no responsibility to Parliament, and was often able to act with considerable independence even from the Cabinet and Prime Minister. Since 1994, MI5 activities have been subject to scrutiny by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee.
MI5's Irish operations during the Anglo-Irish War were an unmitigated disaster. Its operation was penetrated by the Irish Republican Army, and even before Michael Collins ordered a ruthless purge of MI5's Irish agents—almost all of whom were assassinated—it was unable to provide useful intelligence on the Irish republican movement during the Home Rule and independence controversies.
MI5's decline in counter-espionage efficiency began in the 1930s. It was to some extent a victim of its own success; it was unable to break the ways of thinking it had evolved in the 1910s and 1920s. In particular, it was entirely unable to adjust to the new methods of the NKVD, the Russian secret intelligence organisation (later KGB). It continued to think in terms of agents who would attempt to gather information simply through observation or bribery, or to agitate within labour organisations or the armed services, while posing as ordinary citizens.
The NKVD, however, had evolved more sophisticated methods; it began to recruit agents from within the Establishment, most notably from Cambridge University, who were seen as a long-term investment. They succeeded in gaining positions within the Government (and, in Kim Philby's case, within British intelligence itself), from where they were much more easily able to provide the NKVD with sensitive information. The most successful of these agents—Harold 'Kim' Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross—went undetected until after the Second World War, and were known as the Cambridge Five. See also Melita Norwood and Klaus Fuchs.
MI5 experienced further failure during the Second World War. It was chronically unprepared, both organisationally and in terms of resources, for the outbreak of war, and utterly unequal to the task which it was assigned—the large-scale internment of enemy aliens in an attempt to uncover enemy agents. The operation was badly mishandled and contributed to the near-collapse of the agency by 1940.
One of the earliest actions of Winston Churchill on coming to power in early 1940 was to sack the agency's long-term head, Vernon Kell. He was replaced initially by the ineffective Brigadier A.W.A. Harker, as Acting Director General. Harker in turn was quickly replaced by David Petrie, an SIS man, with Harker as his deputy. With the ending of the Battle of Britain and the abandonment of invasion plans (correctly reported by both SIS and the Bletchley Park ULTRA project), the spy scare eased, and the internment policy was gradually reversed. This eased pressure on MI5, and allowed it to concentrate on its major wartime success, the so-called "double-cross" system.
This was a system based on an internal memo drafted by an MI5 officer in 1936, which criticised the long-standing policy of arresting and sending to trial all enemy agents discovered by MI5. Several had offered to defect to Britain when captured; before 1939, such requests were invariably turned down. The memo advocated attempting to "turn" captured agents wherever possible, and use them to mislead enemy intelligence agencies. This suggestion was turned into a massive and well-tuned system of deception during the Second World War.
Beginning with the capture of an agent named Owens, codenamed SNOW, MI5 began to offer enemy agents the chance to avoid prosecution (and thus the possibility of the death penalty) if they would work as British double-agents. Agents who agreed to this were supervised by MI5 in transmitting bogus "intelligence" back to the German secret service, the Abwehr. This necessitated a large-scale organisational effort, since the information had to appear valuable but actually be misleading. A high-level committee, the Wireless Board, was formed to provide this information. The day-to-day operation was delegated to a subcommittee, the Twenty Committee (so called because the Roman numerals for twenty, XX, form a double cross).
The system was extraordinarily successful. A postwar analysis of German intelligence records found that of the 115 or so agents targeted against Britain during the war, all but one (who committed suicide) had been successfully identified and caught, with several "turned" to become double agents. The system played a major part in the massive campaign of deception which preceded the D-Day landings, designed to give the Germans a false impression of the location and timings of the landings (see Operation Mincemeat).
All aliens entering the country were processed at the London Reception Centre (LRC) at the Royal Patriotic School which was operated by MI5 subsection B1D, 30,000 were inspected at LRC. Captured enemy agents were taken to Camp 020, Latchmere House, for interrogation. This was commanded by Colonel Robin Stephens. There was a Reserve Camp, Camp 020R, at Huntercombe which was used mainly for long term detention of prisoners.
The post-war period was a difficult time for the Service with a significant change in the threat as the Cold War began, being challenged by an extremely active KGB and increasing incidence of Irish separatism and international terrorism. Whilst little has yet been released regarding the successes of the service there have been a number of intelligence failures which have created embarrassment for both the service and the government.
Following the Michael Bettaney case, Sir Philip Woodfield was appointed as a staff counsellor for the security and intelligence services. His role was to be available to be consulted by any member or former member of the security and intelligence services who had "anxieties relating to the work of his or her service that it had not been possible to allay through the ordinary processes of management-staff relations, including proposals for publications.
The Service was instrumental in breaking up a large Soviet spy ring at the start of the 1970s, with 105 Soviet embassy staff known or suspected to be involved in intelligence activities being expelled from the country in 1971.
Controversy arose when it was alleged that the service was monitoring trade unions and left-wing politicians; Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was convinced that personnel were conspiring against him, and as Home Secretary the Labour MP Jack Straw discovered the existence of his own file dating from his days as a student radical.
One of the most significant and far reaching failures was an inability to conclusively detect and apprehend the "Cambridge Five" spy ring which had formed in the inter-war years and achieved great success in penetrating the government, and the intelligence agencies themselves. Related to this failure were suggestions of a high-level penetration within the service, Peter Wright (especially in his controversial book Spy Catcher, which Britain banned) and others believing that evidence suggested the former Director-General himself, Roger Hollis. The Trend inquiry of 1974 cleared Hollis of that accusation, later corroborated by the former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky. Another spy ring Portland Spy Ring was detected by Special Branch of Scotland Yard.
The end of the Cold War resulted in a change in emphasis for the operations of the service, assuming responsibility for the investigation of all Irish republican activity within Britain and increasing the effort countering other forms of terrorism, particularly in more recent years the more widespread threat of Islamist extremism.
The service has been attributed with a number of successes in breaking up and monitoring extremist Islamist networks since 2001.
It is also attributed with successfully infiltrating the Provisional IRA (PIRA), with operations in conjunction with Special Branch from various police forces leading to 21 convictions for terrorism-related offences between 1992 and 1999.
Whilst the British security forces in Northern Ireland have provided support in the countering of both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups since the early 1970s, republican sources have often accused these forces of collusion with loyalists. In 2006, an Irish government committee inquiry found that there was widespread collusion between British security forces and loyalist terrorists in the 1970s, which resulted in 18 deaths.
The Security Service will take responsibility for all security intelligence work in Northern Ireland from 2007 from the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Both Nuala O'Loan, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, and Al Hutchinson, the Oversight Commissioner of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, have expressed reservations.
With the emergence of other terrorist threats in the United Kingdom the service has increased its resource commitment to the detection and prevention of these activities. Numerous raids against suspected militants, and the internment of key suspects in HM Prison Belmarsh in London, have been credited to Security Service intelligence. It has been reported that Security Service officers have been involved in interrogation of British citizens interned at the United States' Guantanamo Bay facility in Cuba.
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