Wednesday, 24 September 2008

WRONG: MI5 and MI6 exist

This isn't a conspiracy theory: of course the intelligence services exist, just not under the names MI5 and MI6. These designations aren’t offical titles - the former became the Security Service in 1931, and the latter didn’t have a name at all until 1994, because it didn’t officially exist. It was publicly acknowledged in the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, however, and took on its previously informal title, the Secret Intelligence Service.

The terms MI5 and MI6 are so popular, however, that the services even use those titles for their official (and surprisingly snazzy) websites. James Bond has a lot to answer for.

MI5 and MI6 are far from being the only MI (Military Intelligence) units in British history. By the end of World War II, there were a full 15 others: MI4 provided maps, MI7 governed propaganda, MI9 debriefed escaped PoWs and provided false documentation, while MI15 was concerned with aerial photography. These departments were later disbanded or merged, leaving just two (that we know of…) plus GCHQ, which is largely concerned with intelligence-gathering and the security of information (ie writing and breaking codes).

MI5 deals with covert domestic intelligence – in the words of the Security Service Act of 1989, “the protection of national security and, in particular, its protection against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage.” It is based at Thames House on Millbank in London, and is responsible to the Home Secretary. Fans of the BBC1 MI5 drama Spooks will be disappointed to learn that “Thames House” in that show is actually the Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street.

MI5 files are gradually destroyed as they become obsolete, or are released into the National Archives if they are of historical interest. Recent releases include evidence that the leader of the British Union Of Fascists in the 1930s had, almost endearingly, written to Mussolini asking for a signed photo.

Another file highlights MI5’s suspicion that the black American singer Paul Robeson was a communist, while also expressing admiration for his voice after attending a concert. Swallows And Amazons author Arthur Ransome was a suspected Bolshevik, too, but then he did marry Trotsky’s secretary.

The overseas intelligence division MI6 was created in 1909 when Britain decided to establish a permanent secret service (though there have been British government spies in Europe since the time of Henry VIII at the very latest). Its first chief, Mansfield Cumming, was a Naval officer who was enticed into the job by Admiral AE Bethell with the suitably enigmatic note: “My dear Mansfield Cumming […] You may perhaps like a new billet. I have something good I can offer you and if you would like to come and see me on Thursday about noon I will tell you what it is.”

Ever the workaholic, Cumming turned up for work a week early. Disappointingly for those who romanticise espionage, he was obliged to note in his diary, “Went to the office and remained all day but saw no one, nor was there anything to do.”

Cumming ran MI6 out of a succession of flats for his entire life (he worked such long hours that he preferred not so much to work from home as live at the office), but the Service has been based at London’s Vauxhall Cross since 1994. The gigantic, green-and-beige, Lego-style building is so far from being a secret headquarters that it featured in a mortar-attack sequence in the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. A year later, life imitated art when terrorists (suspected to be the Real IRA) fired a rocket at the building from Vauxhall Bridge.

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