27 Sep 2009


MI5: To defend the realm

Britain's counter-intelligence agency turns 100 next month. Historian Nigel West looks at the service's success, its secrets and scandals

by Nigel West

26 Sep 2009

Happy Birthday, MI5. The UK's counter-intelligence agency celebrates its centenary next month and my, how it's changed: from an organisation so completely veiled in secrecy that even the British government would not admit it existed, to one in which its Director-Generals now talk openly to the media – and even write books on their time there.

Its foundations were inauspicious to say the least. The perceived intelligence disaster of the Boer War prompted the Committee of Imperial Defence to review the failure of the British Secret Service. However, it was discovered that no such organisation existed. So the CID recommended the creation of a new branch of government, the Secret Service Bureau, the origins of MI5.

It was headed by Captain Vernon Kell, a veteran of the Boxer rebellion in China (and an occasional Telegraph correspondent); while Director-General, he was known simply as "K". The Bureau launched with a tiny staff consisting of a single ex-Scotland Yard detective and three clerks; compare this to today when the occupants of Thames House (MI5) and Vauxhall Cross (MI6), on opposite sides of the river, number several thousand.

Kell's great success was the arrest in the opening days of the First World War of the entire German spy ring in Britain, which conveniently centred on a barber's shop in north London. The arrest of Karl Gustav Ernst, his assistant Wilhelm Kronauer, and 21 of their network effectively eliminated what had been intended as a large enemy operation. It also ensured that when, in January 1916, the Secret Service Bureau was split in two and assigned the cover names MI5 and MI6, the "Imperial Security Service" would be perceived as too valuable and important an instrument to disband at the end of hostilities.

MI5 would remain under Kell's control, exercising independence from successive political administrations while avoiding causing embarrassment, until the end of his tenure in June 1940. Indeed, his only confrontation with any prime minister occurred when Stanley Baldwin demanded MI5 place Edward VIII's American lover, Wallis Simpson, under surveillance. Kell initially refused the order, but eventually relented, having been persuaded by his deputy and senior staff that the operation was indeed intended to defend the realm.

Most Cabinet ministers were content to allow MI5 a large measure of freedom because of the quality of the information it gathered. This was often gleaned from informants inside the Communist Party of Great Britain, or from secret sources such as KASPAR, a microphone concealed in the central London offices of the Young Communist League. MI5 also had the benefit of MASK, the clandestine wireless messages transmitted to and from the CPGB's covert radio located in Wimbledon. For three years until March 1937, when the CPGB changed its code based on a popular edition of Treasure Island, MASK ensured that discreet counter-measures stymied every Communist-inspired scheme, strike and coup. It also offered proof that the CPGB was not a legitimate political party, but a sinister outfit controlled from Moscow.

Since Kell's departure, MI5's 14 successors have ensured the Security Service has been free of political influence. Staffed mainly by women, it has tapped telephones, intercepted mail, opened diplomatic bags, recruited sources, managed double agents, liaised with Allied agencies and maintained a watch on suspected spies, saboteurs and subversives for 100 years without engendering the scandals that have hamstrung its counterparts in Europe and the United States.

As far as is known, it has suffered hostile penetration on only four occasions – two of which were during the Second World War. The first concerned William Rolph, a retiree who had volunteered to spy for the German intelligence organisation, Abwehr. When MI5 confronted him, he committed suicide in his office in Piccadilly. To avoid arousing the suspicions of the Abwehr, however, MI5 asked the coroner to record that Rolph had died of a heart attack. The second saw secretary Celia Luke, a Communist Party member, leak information from MI5's famous registry. She was dismissed, but not prosecuted.

Apart from the Cambridge-educated Anthony Blunt, who worked for MI5 from June 1940 to October 1945 while reporting simultaneously to the NKVD, the Soviet Union's secret police organisation, only Michael Bettaney, an Oxford graduate, has passed on classified material from inside MI5. He was arrested in 1983 and sentenced to 23 years' imprisonment.

Early in the Second World War, MI5 achieved a breakthrough by allowing a Welsh nationalist, Arthur Owens, to transmit a daily weather report from his prison cell in Wandsworth to the enemy. Owens had been recruited by the Nazis and was arrested in 1939. However, he agreed to work as a double agent, and contacted his German handlers from jail.

Owens gave access to the Abwehr's top-secret communications across Europe which, protected by an Enigma machine cipher, were thought to be impregnable. However, Owens' daily transmissions were re-ciphered on the enemy's Enigma channels, thus allowing cryptographers at the signal's intelligence service's headquarters in Barnet to crack Germany's Enigma codes.

Postwar austerity, combined with a reluctance to be accused of acting like the Gestapo, ensured that MI5 would find its work hampered against Communist subversion and Soviet espionage. Limited resources and a growing reliance on tips by well-informed defectors resettled in the US reduced MI5's status within Whitehall.

It was the ill-fated and brief affair conducted in 1961 by the war minister John Profumo that demonstrated how vulnerable the British system of government was to a poorly planned entrapment operation. Unaware of any relationship between Profumo and Christine Keeler, MI5 sought to persuade Eugene Ivanov, an identified GRU officer based in the Soviet naval attaché's office, to defect by recruiting his friend, the society osteopath Stephen Ward, to act as an intermediary. Caught in the middle was Profumo, whose career then collapsed as he attempted to conceal his affair. He had been approached by the Cabinet Secretary to assist MI5 and Ward in honeytrapping Ivanov, but had misinterpreted the encounter as a warning to distance himself from Keeler.

The MI5 molehunter Arthur Martin, when asked what he had achieved during his lengthy counter-espionage experience, had replied "bringing down the Macmillan government". Certainly, the Denning Report, which was laudatory about the role and performance of the Security Service, alerted the public to the kind of operations that had been conducted behind the scenes to protect the country against Kremlin-orchestrated subversion.

If publication of the Denning Report, which revealed for the first time the mandate given to MI5 by the Home Secretary, marked the end of an era of deference, it also provided a temporary respite from political interference and supervision. Unknown to the Cabinet, MI5 had been wracked by the fear that it had suffered hostile penetration by at least one mole. The details would emerge in 1986 with embittered retiree Peter Wright's book Spy Catcher, a breathtaking glimpse at MI5's dirty laundry.

Three years later MI5 was legitimised by the passage of the 1989 Security Service Bill which, guided by Stella Rimington, the first woman Director-General, gave the Service statutory powers and requirements. There followed a dramatic change in role, with the collapse of the Soviet threat and the acquisition of the lead responsibility for countering domestic terrorism, then focused on Northern Ireland.

The application of classic, conventional counter-intelligence methodology, which challenged the Provisional IRA as if it were a hostile intelligence agency, proved dramatically successful. But it was the unanticipated appearance of home-grown Muslim extremists that ended an era of complacency and a political desire to dismantle a security apparatus that was seen to have outlived its usefulness.

There were insufficient resources to deploy against known threats from radical zealots, and there followed the tragedy of a suicide plot hatched by fundamentalists whose individual dossiers, initiated by telephone intercepts and physical surveillance, had been shelved by an inexperienced MI5 officer. The officer, on that fateful occasion, was unable to fulfil MI5's motto: "To Defend the Realm".

 Nigel West is the author of 'TRIPLEX: Secrets from the Cambridge Spies' (Yale University Press, £17.50), out tomorrow


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