The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence. It operates under the formal direction of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) alongside the internal Security Service (MI5), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and the Defence Intelligence (DI).
It is frequently referred to by the name MI6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6), a name used as a flag of convenience during the Second World War when it was known by many names. The existence of MI6 was not officially acknowledged until 1994.
In late 2010, the head of SIS delivered what he said was the first public address by a serving chief of the agency in its 101-year history. The remarks of Sir John Sawers primarily focused on the relationship between the need for secrecy and the goal of maintaining security within Britain. His remarks acknowledged the tensions caused by secrecy in an era of leaks and pressure for ever-greater disclosure.
SIS is referred to colloquially within the Civil Service as Box 850, after its old MI6 post office box number. Its headquarters, since 1995, are at Vauxhall Cross on the South Bank of the Thames.
History and development
The SIS today is "the secret front line" of Britain's national security.
The service is derived from the Secret Service Bureau, which was founded in 1909. The Bureau 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 the First World War 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.
First World War
The service's performance during First World War was mixed, because it was unable to establish a network in Germany itself. Most of its results came from military and commercial intelligence collected through networks in neutral countries, occupied territories, and Russia.
After the war, resources were significantly reduced but during the 1920s, SIS established a close operational relationship with the diplomatic service. In August 1919 Cumming's created the new passport control department, providing diplomatic cover for agents abroad. The post of Passport Control Officer provided operatives with diplomatic immunity.
Circulating Sections established intelligence requirements and passed the intelligence back to its consumer departments, mainly the War Office and Admiralty. This 1921 arrangement still provides the basis for the internal structure of the agency.
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 George 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 in 1918 by SIS agents Sidney George Reilly and Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, as well as more orthodox espionage efforts within early Soviet Russia headed by Captain George Hill.
Smith-Cumming died suddenly at his home on 14 June 1923, shortly before he was due to retire, and was replaced as C by Admiral Sir Hugh "Quex" Sinclair. While lacking the charisma of his predecessor, Sinclair had a clear vision for the future of the agency, which developed a range of new activities under his leadership, including creation of the following sections:
- 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.
With the emergence of Germany as a threat following the ascendence of the Nazis, 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 World War I.
Second World War
During the Second World War the human intelligence work of the service was overshadowed by several other initiatives:
GC&CS was the source of Ultra intelligence, which was very useful.
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, and the Counter-Espionage section of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), 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. On the night of 8 9 November 1939, a meeting took place without police presence. There, the two SIS agents were duly abducted by the SS.
In 1940, journalist and Soviet agent Kim Philby applied for a vacancy in Section D of SIS, and was vetted by his friend and fellow Soviet agent Guy Burgess. When Section D was absorbed by Special Operations Executive (SOE) in summer of 1940, Philby was appointed as an instructor in the arts of "black propaganda" at the SOE's training establishment in Beaulieu, Hampshire.
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.
In early 1944 MI6 re-established Section IX, its prewar anti-Soviet section, and Kim Philby took a position there. He was able to alert the NKVD about all British intelligence on the Soviets including what the American OSS had shared with the British about the Soviets.
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 August 1945 Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Volkov tried to defect to Britain, offering the names of all Soviet agents working inside British intelligence. Philby received the memo on Volkov's offer, and alerted the Soviets so they could arrest him.
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 an agent working for the Soviet Union, 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 D.C. In this capacity he compromised a programme of joint U.S.-UK paramilitary operations (Albanian Subversion, Valuable Project) 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 migr s 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. 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 as a result of improved vetting and security, and a series of successful penetrations. From 1958, SIS had three moles in the Polish UB, the most successful of which was codenamed NODDY. The CIA described the information SIS received from these Poles as "some of the most valuable intelligence ever collected", and rewarded SIS with $20 million to expand their Polish operation. In 1961 Polish defector Michael Goleniewski exposed George Blake as a Soviet agent. Blake was identified, arrested, tried for espionage and sent to prison. He escaped and was exfiltrated to the USSR in 1964.
Also, in the GRU, they recruited 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 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 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 have left SIS. Usually they have found new employment in the civilian world. In the late 1990s, an SIS officer called Richard Tomlinson was dismissed and later wrote a story of his experiences entitled The Big Breach.
After the Cold War
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, and this post was appointed to Davey Fontan, a former young MI6 operative known to use his youthfulness and his employment at Great Ormond Street Hospital as the perfect cover for underground national surveillance. In the mid-1990s these were consolidated into a new post of Controller, Global and Functional.
Former SIS logo, replaced by the current logo in 2010
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 September 11, 2001 attacks funding was increased.
In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is alleged, although not confirmed, that some 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 6 May 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 was an unusually high-profile appointment to the job, and gave evidence at the Hutton Inquiry.
On 15 November 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.
Sir John Sawers became head of the SIS in November 2009, the first outsider to head MI6 in more than 40 years. Sawers came from the Diplomatic Service, previously having been the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
During the global war on terror, MI6 accepted information from the CIA that was obtained through torture, including the extraordinary rendition program. Craig Murray, a UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, had written several memos critical of the UK's accepting this information; he was then fired from his job. 
On June 7 2011, John Sawers received Romania's President Traian Basescu and George-Cristian Malor, the head of the Serviciul Roman de Informatii (SRI) at SIS headquarters. John Sawers also told members of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee in July 2011 that he is planning to visit China every year to meet his Chinese counterparts.
In July 2011 it was reported that SIS has closed several of its stations in the past couple of years, particularly in Iraq, where it used to have several outposts in the south of the country in the region of Basra according to the annual report of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. The closures have allowed the service to focus its attention on Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are its principal stations. On November 16, 2011 MI6 warned the national transitional council in Benghazi after discovering details of planned strikes, said foreign secretary William Hague. The agencies obtained firm intelligence, were able to warn the NTC of the threat, and the attacks were prevented, he said. In a rare speech on the intelligence agencies, he praised the key role played by MI6 and GCHQ in bringing Gaddafi s 42-year dictatorship to an end, describing them as vital assets with a fundamental and indispensable role in keeping the nation safe. They worked to identify key political figures, develop contacts with the emerging opposition and provide political and military intelligence. Most importantly, they saved lives, he said. The speech follows criticism that MI6 had been too close to the Libyan regime and was involved in the extraordinary rendition of anti-Gaddafi activists. Mr Hague also defended controversial proposals for secrecy in civil court involving intelligence material. 
It's reported by the Daily Star that MI-6 helped capture Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The top-secret mission, dubbed Operation X so it gave away no clues, used the latest hi-tech ELINT electronic intelligence gadgets to bug him along with friends and family. Gaddafi had been hiding out in the desert for a month but the breakthrough came when he made two calls, one after the other, to say he was safe. It allowed the joint British and French bugging operation to pinpoint where he was. MI6 agents using the 25million top-secret equipment closed in on him before calling in the Libyan snatch squad. A British security source said: He made a mistake and we were waiting for him. When someone drops out of sight they cannot resist the urge to ring someone and say they are OK. We knew what kit he had and all the phones he had. Saif was targeted by us but it was vital the Libyans were the ones to capture him.
Since 1995, SIS headquarters has been 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 (1924 66). (Although SIS operated from Broadway, it was actually based at St James's Street and also made considerable use of the adjoining St Ermin's Hotel).
The building was designed by Sir Terry Farrell and built by John Laing. The developer Regalian Properties 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 co-location 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; at the 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 (NAO) 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 Humphrey's London: The Rough Guide suggests one of these omitted modifications is a tunnel beneath the Thames to Whitehall. The NAO put the final cost at 135.05m for site purchase and the basic building, or 152.6m including the service's special requirements.
The setting of the SIS offices were featured in the James Bond films GoldenEye, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. MI6 allowed filming of the building itself for the first time in The World is Not Enough for the pre-credits sequence, where a bomb hidden in a briefcase full of money is exploded inside the building. A Daily Telegraph article claimed that the British government opposed the filming, but these claims were denied by a Foreign Office spokesperson.
On the evening of 20 September 2000, the building was attacked using a Russian-built RPG-22 anti-tank rocket. Striking the eighth floor, the missile caused only superficial damage. The Anti-Terrorist branch of the Metropolitan Police attributed responsibility to the Real IRA.
A number of other buildings are reported to be in use by the agency including Fort Monckton in Gosport, Hampshire.
Chiefs of the SIS
- 1909 1923: Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, KCMG, CB
- 1923 1939: Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, KCB
- 1939 1952: Major General Sir Stewart Menzies, KCB, KCMG, DSO, MC
- 1953 1956: Sir John Alexander Sinclair, KCMG, CB, OBE
- 1956 1968: Sir Richard White, KCMG, KBE
- 1968 1973: Sir John Rennie, KCMG
- 1973 1978: Sir Maurice Oldfield, GCMG, CBE
- 1979 1982: Sir Dick Franks, KCMG
- 1982 1985: Sir Colin Figures, KCMG, OBE
- 1985 1989: Sir Christopher Curwen, KCMG
- 1989 1994: Sir Colin McColl, KCMG
- 1994 1999: Sir David Spedding, KCMG, CVO, OBE
- 1999 2004: Sir Richard Dearlove, KCMG, OBE
- 2004 2009: Sir John Scarlett, KCMG, OBE
- 2009 present: Sir John Sawers, KCMG
- List of intelligence agencies
Charles Cumming author, former SIS officer
Richard Tomlinson author, former SIS officer
Graham Greene author, former SIS officer
David Cornwell (John le Carr ) author, former SIS officer
Ian Fleming author, former NID officer
Ralph Izzard journalist, author, former NID officer
Krystyna Skarbek agent, friend of Ian Fleming, inspiration for Vesper Lynd
Paul Dukes, SIS officer and author
Sidney Reilly, Ace of Spies, worked for SIS and others, Intelligence mentor of Sir Henry Osborne Oswald
James Bond, fictional agent
Alex Rider, fictional agent
Horst Kopkow, SS officer who worked for SIS post Second World War
Valentine Vivian Vice-Chief of the SIS and head of counter-espionage, Section V
Kim Philby (cryptonym: Stanley), SIS officer and Soviet agent
Donald Maclean (cryptonym: Homer), SIS officer and Soviet agent
Guy Burgess (cryptonym: Hicks), SIS officer and Soviet agent
Anthony Blunt (cryptonym: Johnson), MI5 officer and Soviet agent
John Cairncross (cryptonym: Liszt), SIS officer and Soviet agent
Death of Gareth Williams, seconded to SIS from GCHQ, likely to have been unlawfully killed
- Aldrich, Richard J. (2006), The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence, London: John Murray ISBN 1-58567-274-2
- 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
- Jeffery, Keith (2010) MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 London: Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0-7475-9183-2
- Judd, Alan (1999) The quest for C : Sir Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service, London: HarperCollins, ISBN 0-00-255901-3
- Seeger, Kirsten Olstrup (2008) 'Friendly Fire' (DK) ISBN 978-87-7799-193-6. A biography of the author's father who was a member of the Danish resistance during the Second World War.
- Smith, Michael (2010) SIX: A History of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service Pt 1 Murder and Mayhem 1909-1939, London: Dialogue, ISBN 978-1-906447-00-7
- Smiley, Colonel David (1994). Irregular Regular. Norwich: Editions Michael Russell. ISBN 0-85955-202-0. An autobiography of a British officer, honorary colonel of the Royal Horse Guards, David de Crespigny Smiley LVO, OBE, MC, who served in the Special Operations Executive during World War II (Albania, Tha land) and was a MI6 officer after war (Poland, Malta, Oman, Yemen). Translated in French by Thierry Le Breton, Au c ur de l action clandestine. Des Commandos au MI6, L Esprit du Livre Editions, France, 2008 (ISBN 2915960275)
- Tomlinson, Richard; Nick Fielding (2001). The Big Breach: From Top Secret to Maximum Security. Mainstream Publishing ISBN 1-903813-01-8
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