MI6 headquarters in London
The SIS building atVauxhall Cross,
London, seen from Vauxhall Bridge
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6 (originally Military Intelligence Section 6), or the Secret Service orsimply Six, is the United Kingdom's external security agency. Insiders sometimes refer to it as box 850 which comes from its old postal box number.
SIS is responsible for the United Kingdom's espionage activities overseas, as opposed to MI5 which is charged with internal security within the UK. It was founded in October 1909 (along with MI5) as the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau. Its first director was Captain Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who, often dropping the "Smith", used his initial "C" as a code name which was also used by all subsequent directors of SIS (compare with "M" in Ian Fleming's James Bond novels).
The organisation's first significant test came with the First World War, during which it had mixed success. SIS was unable to penetrate Germany itself, but had some significant successes in military and commercial intelligence; this was achieved mostly by means of agent networks in neutral countries, occupied territories, and Russia.
After the war, SIS resources were greatly reduced and its consumers such as the War Office and Admiralty, were given partial control of its operational activities through the appointment of consumer liaisons or 'Circulating' sections. The Circulating Sections set requirements for the operational 'Group' sections and passed SIS product back to their home departments. This relationship was termed the '1921 arrangement' and provided the basic internal structure of the agency that still prevails today.
During the 1920s it began to operate mainly through a system of sometimes grudging cooperation with the diplomatic service. Most embassies acquired a "Passport Control Officer" who was in fact the SIS head for that country. This gave SIS's operatives a degree of cover and diplomatic immunity, but the system probably lasted too long and was an open secret by the 1930s. In the immediate post-war years and throughout most of the 1920s, SIS was preoccupied with Communism, and Communist Russia in particular. Sidney Reilly was loosely associated with SIS until his capture, and SIS sponsored and supported both his and Boris Savinkov's attempts to bring down the Communist regime, in addition to running more orthodox espionage efforts within Russia.
Cumming died (in his office) in 1923 and was replaced as "C" by Admiral Sir Hugh 'Quex' Sinclair, who may have lacked the charisma of his predecessor, but was probably the first C with a coherent vision for the future of the agency. Under his leadership, a wide range of new functions were developed. These included a central foreign counter-espionage Circulating Section (Section V) which liaised with MI5, collated counter-espionage (CE) information from, and issued CE requirements to, SIS stations abroad; an economic intelligence section dealing with trade, industrial and contraband (Section VII); a clandestine short-wave radio communications organisation for communicating by radio with SIS informants in foreign countries (Section VIII), an intercept unit accessing and reading the contents of foreign diplomatic bags (Section N) and a sub-organisation for political covert actions and paramilitary operations in time of war, Section D. Section D would eventually serve as one of the foundations of the wartime Special Operations Executive (SOE).
Along with the rest of the intelligence community and the wider government, SIS switched focus in the 1930s to Nazi Germany. Again its success was rather modest; although it did acquire several quite reliable sources within the Government and also the German Admiralty, its information was probably less comprehensive than that provided by the rival network of Robert Vansittart, the permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office.
'Quex' Sinclair died in 1939 and was replaced as "C" by Lt. Col. Stewart Menzies.
During the Second World War, SIS was overshadowed in intelligence terms by several other initiatives, including the massive 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; and the work of the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. It was also affected by the inflammatory activities of the Special Operations Executive, which tended to increase the danger to its own agents. Its most famous operation of the war was a spectacular failure known as the Venlo incident (after the Dutch town where much of the action took place), in which SIS was thoroughly duped by agents of the German secret service, the Abwehr, posing as high-ranking Army 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. This failure considerably tarnished the service's reputation.
During the Second World War SIS first began to be referred to as 'MI6' when, under a reorganization of military intelligence at the War Office, the War Office circulating section acquired the military designation MI6 (within SIS it was termed Section VI). Despite difficulties at the outset of the war, SIS recovered and began to run substantial and successful operations both in the occupied Continent and in the Middle East and Far East where it operated under the cover name 'Interservice Liaison Department' (ISLD). One of SIS' main functions throughout the war was to operate the secure wireless system that carried the ULTRA intercepts of Axis Enigma communications broken by the Government Codes and Cipher School (GC&CS).
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 USSR were extensively compromised by the fact that the post-war Counter-Espionage Section, R5, was headed for two years by the penetration agent Harold Adrian Russell '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 DC. In this capacity he compromised a programme of joint US-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 spy ring' 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.
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 US National Photographic Interpretation Centre (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.
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 US 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 SVR.
The end of the Cold War represented less a wholesale change of SIS' operational orientation than a reshuffling 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 Collin McColl embraced something of 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, and 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 the weakening of the Requirements division's ability to challenge the quality of the information the Middle East Controllerate was providing 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 September the 11th 2001, funding was increased.
On May 6, 2004, it was announced that Sir Richard Dearlove was to be replaced as head of the SIS after his retirement by John Scarlett, formerly chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Scarlett is an unusually high profile appointment to the job, and a well known figure on television screens in the United Kingdom due to his evidence at the Hutton Inquiry. His predecessor, Sir Richard Dearlove, is now Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge and photographs of him are publicly available for the first time.
SIS headquarters, since 1995, is at 85, Vauxhall Cross, along the Albert Embankment in Vauxhall on the banks of the River Thames by Vauxhall Bridge, London. Previous headquarters have been Century House, 100 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambeth, 1966-95; and 54, Broadway, off Victoria Street, London SW1, 1924-66. (Although SIS operated from Broadway, it was actually based at St. James's Street).
Designed by Terry Farrell, the developer Regalian Properties plc approached the Government in 1987 to see if they had any interest in the proposed building. At the same time MI5 was seeking alternative accommodation and collocation of the two services was studied. In the end this proposal was abandoned due to the lack of buildings of adequate size (existing or proposed) and the security considerations of providing a single target for attacks. In July 1988 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher approved the purchase of the new building for the SIS. At this stage the government proposed to pay for the building outright in order to maintain secrecy over the intended use of the site. It is important to note that at this time the existence of MI6 was not officially acknowledged.
The building design was reviewed to incorporate the necessary protection for Britain's foreign intelligence gathering agency. This includes overall increased security, extensive computer suites, technical areas, bomb blast protection, emergency back-up systems and protection against electronic eavesdropping. While the details and cost of construction have been released, about ten years after the original National Audit Office report was written, some of the service's special requirements remain classified. The NAO report Thames House and Vauxhall Cross has certain details omitted, describing in detail the cost and problems of certain modifications but not what these are. Rob Humprey's London: The Rough Guide suggests one of these omitted modifications is a tunnel beneath the Thames to Whitehall.
It has been commented that it is ironic for such a secretive organisation to occupy one of the most high-profile and distinctive buildings in London. The NAO put the final cost at £135.05m for site purchase and the basic building, or £152.6m including the services special requirements.
The building was featured in the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough. In the pre-credits sequence, Bond chases a suspect from the building up the Thames following the explosion of cash which was recovered and brought into the building by him. It is later revealed that the money was dipped in urea, in effect a fertiliser bomb. MI6 allowed exterior filming of the building for the first time (under protest, after the government said it had no objections) in tribute to the long-time popularity of the secret agent.
On the evening of September 20, 2000, the building was attacked by a Russian-built Mark 22 anti-tank missile. Striking the eighth floor, the missile caused only superficial damage. The Anti-Terrorist branch of the Metropolitan Police attributed responsibility to Irish Republicans, specifically the Real IRA.
Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming 19091923
Sir Hugh Sinclair 19231939
Sir Stewart Menzies 19391952
Sir John Sinclair 19531956
Sir Dick White 19561968
Sir John Rennie 19681973
Sir Maurice Oldfield 19731978
Sir Dick Franks 19791982
Sir Colin Figures 19821985
Sir Christopher Curwen 19851989
Sir Colin McColl 19891994
Sir David Spedding 19941999
Sir Richard Dearlove 19992004
John Scarlett 2004present
British Military Intelligence Systems in Northern Ireland
Special Operations Executive
Alex Rider, fictional character
James Bond, fictional character
The Sandbaggers, fictional section
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - US
Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS)
Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)
Communications Security Establishment (CSE) - Canada's signals intelligence service (within the Department of National Defence).
Davies, Philip H.J. (2004). MI6 and the Machinery of Spying London: Frank Cass, ISBN 0714683639 (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
Richard Tomlinson, The Big Breach - From Top Secret to Maximum Security. Coauthor Nick Fielding, Mainstream Publishing (1 February 2001) ISBN 1-903813-01-8
Information about SIS from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's website
Entry for MI6 on the Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Resource Program
UK Secret Bases
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6
August 22, 2006