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The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), colloquially known as MI6 is the United Kingdommarker's external intelligence agency, part of the country's intelligence community. Under the direction of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), it works alongside the Security Servicemarker (MI5), Government Communications Headquartersmarker (GCHQ) and the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS). Within the civil service community the service is colloquially referred to as Box 850, which comes from its old post office box number.

Since 1995, the Secret Intelligence Service has had its headquarters at Vauxhall Cross on the South Bank of the Thames.

The British Government did not fully officially acknowledge the existence of SIS or any other security services throughout their existence until 1994.



The Service is derived from the Secret Service Bureau, which was founded in 1909. It was a joint initiative of the Admiralty and the War Officemarker 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 World War I 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.

World War I

The service's performance during First World War was mixed, because it was unable to establish a network in Germanymarker itself. The majority of its results came from military and commercial intelligence collected through networks in neutral countries, occupied territories, and Russiamarker.

Inter-War period

After the war, resources were significantly reduced. Circulating Sections were introduced to give greater control on its objectives to its consumer departments, mainly the War Officemarker and Admiralty. The Circulating Sections established intelligence requirements for the operational Group sections to fulfill and passed the intelligence back to the consumers. This relationship was termed the 1921 arrangement and still provides the basis for the internal structure of the agency.

During the 1920s, SIS established a close operational relationship with the diplomatic service. It established the post of Passport Control Officer within embassies, based on a system developed during WWI by British Army Intelligence. This provided operatives with a degree of cover and diplomatic immunity but had become compromised by the 1930s (Venlo Incident).

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 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, in his office, in 1923 and was replaced as C by Admiral Sir Hugh "Quex" Sinclair. While lacking the charisma of his predecessor, he had a clear vision for the future of the agency which developed a range of new activities under his leadership. Under Sinclair the following sections were created:
  • 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 Officemarker.

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 WWI.

World War II

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 Dutchmarker town where much of the operation took place. Agents of the German army secret service, the Abwehr, posed as high-ranking officers involved in a plot to depose Hitler. In a series of meetings between SIS agents and the 'conspirators', SSmarker 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.

In the early stages of the war, Section D was significantly expanded and given a distinct identity as the Special Operations Executive. 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.

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).

Cold War

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 USSRmarker 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 Turkeymarker, he later returned and was the SIS intelligence liaison officer at the Embassy in Washington D.C.marker. In this capacity he compromised a programme of joint U.S.-UK paramilitary operations (Albanian Subversion, Valuable Project) in Enver Hoxha's Albaniamarker (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 Viennamarker and Berlinmarker tunnel operations had been turned as a Soviet agent during internment by the Chinesemarker 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 Goldmarker, 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. 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 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 U.S. National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) analysts to recognise the deployment pattern of Soviet SS4 MRBMs and SS5 IRBMs in Cubamarker 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 Finnishmarker 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 Tehranmarker Station in 1982 of KGBmarker 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 Iranmarker in 1953 (in collaboration with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency), the again collaborative toppling of Patrice Lumumba in the Congomarker in 1961, and the triggering of an internal conflict between Lebanesemarker 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".

End of Cold War to present

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 Pakistanimarker 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 Hemispheremarker 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.

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, GCHQmarker, 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'smarker 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 Iraqmarker'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 is 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.

SIS headquarters

SIS headquartersmarker, since 1995, is at 85 Vauxhall Cross, along the Albert Embankmentmarker in Vauxhallmarker on the banks of the River Thames by Vauxhall Bridgemarker, Londonmarker. Previous headquarters have been Century House, 100 Westminster Bridge Road, Lambethmarker, 1966-95; and 54, Broadway, off Victoria Streetmarker, London SW1, 1924-66. (Although SIS operated from Broadway, it was actually based at St James's Street).

Designed by 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. 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 (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 Whitehallmarker.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, Die Another Day, and Casino Royale. For the first time MI6 allowed filming of the building itself 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 The Daily Telegraph article claimed that the British government opposed the filming, but these claims were denied by a Foreign Officemarker spokesperson.

On the evening of 20 September 2000. the building was attacked using a Russian-built RPG-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.

Chiefs of the SIS

See also



  • 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
  • Judd, Alan: The quest for C : Sir Mansfield Cumming and the founding of the British Secret Service, London : HarperCollins 1999, ISBN 0-00-255901-3
  • Seeger, Kirsten Olstrup (2008) 'Friendly Fire' (DK) ISBN 978-87-7799-193-6. A biography
  • Richard Tomlinson, The Big Breach - From Top Secret to Maximum Security. Coauthor Nick Fielding, Mainstream Publishing (1 February 2001) ISBN 1-903813-01-8
  • Colonel David Smiley, "Irregular Regular" (1994) - Editions Michael Russell - Norwich - 1994 - ISBN 0 85955 202 0. An autobiography of a British officer, honororary colonel of the Royal Horse Guards, David de Crespigny Smiley LVO, OBE, MC, who served in the Special Operations Executive during WWII (Albaniamarker, Thaïland) and was a MI6 officer after war (Poland, Malta, Oman, Yemen). Translated in French by Thierry Le Breton, Au cœur de l’action clandestine. Des Commandos au MI6, L’Esprit du Livre Editions, France, 2008 (ISBN 2915960275)

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