The Security Service, also MI5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5), is the United Kingdom‘s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency and is part of its intelligence machinery alongside the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and Defence Intelligence (DI). MI5 is directed by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and the service is bound by the Security Service Act 1989. The service is directed to protect British parliamentary democracy and economic interests, and counter terrorism and espionage within the UK.
The service has had a national headquarters at Thames House on Millbank in London since 1995, drawing together personnel from a number of locations into a single HQ facility. Thames House was, until March 2013, shared with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and is also home to the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, a subordinate organisation to the Security Service. The service has offices across the United Kingdom including an HQ in Northern Ireland.
Details of the northern operations centre in Greater Manchester were revealed by the firm who built it. Plans to open the northern operations centre were reported by The Manchester Evening News in February 2005, and plans to open a permanent Scottish office in Glasgow were reported by The Scotsman in January of that year.
The Security Service comes under the authority of the Home Secretary within the Cabinet. The service is headed by a Director General at the grade of a Permanent Secretary of the British Civil Service who is directly supported by an internal security organisation, secretariat, legal advisory branch and information services branch. The Deputy DG is responsible for the operational activity of the service, being responsible for four branches; international counter-terrorism, National Security Advice Centre (counter proliferation and counter espionage), Irish and domestic counter-terrorism and technical and surveillance operations.
The service is directed by the Joint Intelligence Committee  for intelligence operational priorities. It liaises with SIS, GCHQ, DIS, and a number of other bodies within the British government and industrial base. It is overseen by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Members of Parliament, who are directly appointed by the Prime Minister, by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and by the Intelligence Services Commissioner. Judicial oversight of the service’s conduct is exercised by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
Operations of the service are required to be proportionate and compliant with British legislation including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the Data Protection Act 1998, and various other items of legislation. Information held by the service is exempt from disclosure under section 23 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
The Security Service is derived from the Secret Service Bureau, founded in 1909 and concentrating originally on the activities of the Imperial German government as a joint initiative of the Admiralty and the War Office. The Bureau was split into naval and army sections which, over time, specialised in foreign target espionage and internal counter-espionage activities respectively. This specialisation was a result of the Admiralty intelligence requirements related to the maritime strength of the Imperial German Navy. This specialisation was formalised prior to 1914 and the beginning of World War I, with the two sections undergoing a number of administrative changes and the home section becoming Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5), the name by which it is known in popular culture to this very day.
The founding head of the Army section was Vernon Kell of the South Staffordshire Regiment, who remained in that role until the early part of the Second World War. Its role was originally quite restricted; existing purely to ensure national security through counter-espionage. With a small staff and working in conjunction with the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police, the service was responsible for overall direction and the identification of foreign agents, whilst Special Branch provided the manpower for the investigation of their affairs, arrest and interrogation.
On the day after the declaration of World War I, the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, announced that “within the last twenty-four hours no fewer than twenty-one spies, or suspected spies, have been arrested in various places all over the country, chiefly in important military or naval centres, some of them long known to the authorities to be spies”, a reference to arrests directed by the service. These arrests have provoked recent historical controversy. According to the official history of MI5, the actual number of agents identified was 22 and Kell had started sending out letters to local police forces on 29 July giving them advance warning of arrests to be made as soon as war was declared. Portsmouth Constabulary jumped the gun and arrested one on 3 August, and not all of the 22 were in custody by the time that McKenna made his speech, but the official history regards the incident as a devastating blow to Imperial Germany which deprived them of their entire spy ring, and specifically upset the Kaiser.
This view has been challenged by Nicholas Hiley who has asserted that it is a complete fabrication. In 2006 his article “Entering the Lists” was published in the journal Intelligence and National Security outlining the products of his research into recently opened files. Hiley was sent an advance copy of the official history and objected to the retelling of the story. He later wrote another article, “Re-entering the Lists”, which asserted that the list of those arrested published in the official history was concocted from later case histories.
After this auspicious start, the history of MI5 becomes darker. It was consistently successful throughout the rest of the 1910s and 1920s in its core counter-espionage role. Throughout World War 1, Germany continued trying to infiltrate Britain but MI5 was able to identify most, if not all, of the agents dispatched. MI5 used a method that depended on strict control of entry and exit to the country and, crucially, large-scale inspection of mail. In post-war years, attention turned to attempts by the Soviet Union and the Comintern to surreptitiously support revolutionary activities within Britain. MI5’s expertise, combined with the early incompetence of the Soviets, meant the bureau was successful once more in correctly identifying and closely monitoring these activities.
However, in the meantime, MI5’s role had been substantially enlarged. Due to the spy hysteria, MI5 had been formed with far more resources than it actually needed to track down German spies. As is common within governmental bureaucracies, this caused the service to expand its role, to use its spare resources. MI5 acquired many additional responsibilities during the war. Most significantly, its strict counter-espionage role blurred considerably. It became a much more political role, involving the surveillance not merely of foreign agents but also of pacifist and anti-conscription organisations, and of organised labour. This was justified through the common belief that foreign influence was at the root of these organisations. Thus, by the end of the World War 1, MI5 was a fully-fledged investigating force (although it never had powers of arrest), in addition to being a counter-espionage agency. The expansion of this role continued after a brief post-war power struggle with the head of the Special Branch, Sir Basil Thomson.
After World War 1, Kell’s department was considered unnecessary by budget-conscious politicians. In 1919, MI5’s budget was slashed from £100,000 and over 800 officers to just £35,000 and 12 officers. At the same time, Sir Basil Thomson of Special Branch was appointed Director of Home Intelligence, in supreme command of all domestic counter-insurgency and counter-intelligence investigations. Consequently, as official MI5 historian Christopher Andrew has noted in his official history “Defence of the Realm” (2010), MI5 had no clearly defined role in the Anglo-Irish War. And to add insult to injury, several of Kell’s officers defected to Thomson’s new Agency, the Home Intelligence Directorate. MI5 therefore undertook no tangible intelligence operations of consequence during the Irish War of Independence. MI5 did undertake the training of British Army Case Officers from the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI) for the Army’s so-called “Silent Section” otherwise known as M04(x). Quickly trained by MI5 veterans at Hounslow Barracks, outside London, these freshly minted M04(x) Army case officers were deployed to Dublin beginning in the Spring of 1919. Over time, 175 officers were trained and dispatched to Ireland. In Ireland, they came under the command of General Romer and his Deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Searles Hill-Dillon.
In April 1919, Colonel Walter Wilson of DMI arrived in Dublin to take over the day-to-day management of these 175 Army intelligence officers, and the unit was designated as the “Dublin District Special Branch” (DMI/MO4(x)/DDSB) because it operated exclusively within the confines of the Army’s Dublin Military District. Royal Marine Colonel Hugh Montgomery of the Department of Naval Intelligence, was also seconded to Romer’s intelligence staff at this time. British Army after-action reports and contemporary accounts indicate that M04(x)/DDSB was considered a highly amateurish outfit. Serious cover constraints, coupled with alcohol abuse and social fraternization with local prostitutes would prove to be the downfall of several of these amateur sleuths.
The intelligence staff of Michael Collins Irish Republican Army penetrated the unit. Using DMP detectives Ned Broy and David Nelligan, Michael Collins was able to learn the names and lodgings of the M04(x) agents, referred to by IRA operatives as “The Cairo Gang”. On Bloody Sunday, Collins ordered his Counter-intelligence Unit, The Squad, to assassinate 25 M04(x) agents, several British Courts Martial Officers, at least one agent reporting to Basil Thomson, and several intelligence officers attached to the Royal Irish Constabulary Auxiliary Division, at their lodgings throughout Dublin. Although the shooting of 14 British officers had the desired effect on British morale, in many ways Bloody Sunday was a botched job. Three of Collins’s men were apprehended after engaging in a shoot-out on the street, and at least 2 of the wounded British officers had no connection whatsoever to British Intelligence. Moreover, with MO4(x) having fielded a total of 175 agents of the DDSB, Collins’s operation only temporarily slowed British momentum. Within days, the remaining 160-odd M04(x) agents were re-established in secure quarters inside solidly Loyalist hotels in Dublin, from where they continued to pursue Collins and the IRA relentlessly right up until the Truce. In December 1920 the entire DDSB was transferred from British Army Command to civil command under Deputy Police Commissioner General Ormonde Winter, and thereafter was known as “D Branch” within Dublin Castle. By January 1921, the highly experienced MI6 operative David Boyle arrived at Dublin Castle to take over the day-to-day management of D Branch. The unit’s former commander, Colonel Wilson, resigned in protest for having had his command taken from him. D Branch thrived under Boyle’s leadership. The net impact of Collins’s strike of Bloody Sunday, November 21, 1920, was therefore quite negligible—even though the IRA had not gone up against MI5 professionals but instead only a quickly trained outfit of amateur army “D-Listers.”
That afternoon, a mixed force of the British Army, the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the Black and Tans retaliated by indiscriminately shooting dead 14 civilians at a Gaelic Football match at Croke Park.
In 1921, Sir Warren Fisher, the Government inspector general for civil service affairs, conducted a thorough review of the operations and expenditures of Basil Thomson’s Home Intelligence Directorate. He issued a scathing report, accusing Thomson of wasting both money and resources and conducting redundant as well as ineffectual operations. Shortly thereafter, in a private meeting with Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Sir Basil Thomson was sacked, and the Home Intelligence Directorate was formally abolished. With Thomson out of the way, Special Branch was returned to the command of the Commissioner of The Criminal Investigation Division at Scotland Yard. Only then was Vernon Kell able once again to rebuild MI5 and regain its former place as Britain’s chief domestic spy agency.
MI5’s decline in counter-espionage efficiency began in the 1930s. It was, to some extent, a victim of its own success. It was unable to break the ways of thinking it had evolved in the 1910s and 1920s. In particular, it was unable to adjust to the new methods of the Soviet intelligence services the NKVD and GRU. It continued to think in terms of agents who would attempt to gather information simply through observation or bribery, or to agitate within labour organisations and the armed services, while posing as ordinary citizens. The NKVD, however, had evolved more sophisticated methods; it began to recruit agents from within the British nobility, most notably fromCambridge University, who were seen as a long-term investment. They succeeded in gaining positions within the Government (and, in Kim Philby‘s case, within British intelligence itself), from where they were able to provide the NKVD with sensitive information. The most successful of these agents—Harold “Kim” Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross—went undetected until after the Second World War, and were known as the Cambridge Five.
Second World War
MI5 experienced further failure during the Second World War. It was chronically unprepared, both organisationally and in terms of resources, for the outbreak of war, and utterly unequal to the task which it was assigned—the large-scale internment of enemy aliens in an attempt to uncover enemy agents. The operation was poorly handled and contributed to the near-collapse of the agency by 1940. One of the earliest actions of Winston Churchill on coming to power in early 1940 was to sack the agency’s long-term head, Vernon Kell. He was replaced initially by the ineffective Brigadier A.W.A. Harker, as Acting Director General. Harker in turn was quickly replaced by David Petrie, an SIS man, with Harker as his deputy. With the ending of the Battle of Britain and the abandonment of invasion plans (correctly reported by both SIS and the Bletchley Park Ultra project), the spy scare eased, and the internment policy was gradually reversed. This eased pressure on MI5, and allowed it to concentrate on its major wartime success, the so-called “double-cross” system.
This was a system based on an internal memo drafted by an MI5 officer in 1936, which criticised the long-standing policy of arresting and sending to trial all enemy agents discovered by MI5. Several had offered to defect to Britain when captured; before 1939, such requests were invariably turned down. The memo advocated attempting to “turn” captured agents wherever possible, and use them to mislead enemy intelligence agencies. This suggestion was turned into a massive and well-tuned system of deception during the Second World War.
Beginning with the capture of an agent named Owens, codenamed Snow, MI5 began to offer enemy agents the chance to avoid prosecution (and thus the possibility of the death penalty) if they would work as British double-agents. Agents who agreed to this were supervised by MI5 in transmitting bogus “intelligence” back to the German secret service, the Abwehr. This necessitated a large-scale organisational effort, since the information had to appear valuable but actually be misleading. A high-level committee, the Wireless Board, was formed to provide this information. The day-to-day operation was delegated to a subcommittee, the Twenty Committee (so called because the Roman numerals for twenty, XX, form a double cross).
The system was extraordinarily successful. A postwar analysis of German intelligence records found that of the 115 or so agents targeted against Britain during the war, all but one (who committed suicide) had been successfully identified and caught, with several “turned” to become double agents. The system played a major part in the massive campaign of deception which preceded the D-Day landings, designed to give the Germans a false impression of the location and timings of the landings (see Operation Fortitude).
All foreigners entering the country were processed at the London Reception Centre (LRC) at the Royal Patriotic School which was operated by MI5 subsection B1D, 30,000 were inspected at LRC. Captured enemy agents were taken to Camp 020, Latchmere House, for interrogation. This was commanded by Colonel Robin Stephens. There was a Reserve Camp, Camp 020R, at Huntercombe which was used mainly for long term detention of prisoners.
The Prime Minister’s personal responsibility for the Service was delegated to the Home Secretary Maxwell-Fyfe in 1952, with a directive issued by the Home Secretary setting out the role and objectives of the Director General. The service was subsequently placed on a statutory basis in 1989 with the introduction of the Security Service Act. This was the first government acknowledgement of the existence of the service.
The post-war period was a difficult time for the Service with a significant change in the threat as the Cold War began, being challenged by an extremely active KGB and increasing incidence of the Northern Ireland conflict and international terrorism. Whilst little has yet been released regarding the successes of the service there have been a number of intelligence failures which have created embarrassment for both the service and the government. For instance in 1983 one of its officers, Michael Bettaney, was caught trying to sell information to the KGB. He was subsequently convicted of espionage.
Following the Michael Bettaney case, Philip Woodfield was appointed as a staff counsellor for the security and intelligence services. His role was to be available to be consulted by any member or former member of the security and intelligence services who had “anxieties relating to the work of his or her service” that it had not been possible to allay through the ordinary processes of management-staff relations, including proposals for publications.
The Service was instrumental in breaking up a large Soviet spy ring at the start of the 1970s, with 105 Soviet embassy staff known or suspected to be involved in intelligence activities being expelled from the country in 1971.
Controversy arose when it was alleged that the service was monitoring trade unions and left-wing politicians. A file was kept on Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson from 1945, when he became an MP, although the agency’s official historian, Christopher Andrew maintains that his fears of MI5 conspiracies and bugging were unfounded. As Home Secretary, the Labour MP Jack Straw discovered the existence of his own file dating from his days as astudent radical.
One of the most significant and far reaching failures was an inability to conclusively detect and apprehend the “Cambridge Five” spy ring which had formed in the inter-war years and achieved great success in penetrating the government, and the intelligence agencies themselves. Related to this failure were suggestions of a high-level penetration within the service, Peter Wright (especially in his controversial book Spycatcher) and others believing that evidence implicated the former Director General, Roger Hollis or his deputy Graham Mitchell. The Trend inquiry of 1974 found the case unproven of that accusation, and that view was later supported by the former KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky. Another spy ring, the Portland Spy Ring, exposed after a tip-off by Soviet defector Michael Goleniewski, led to an extensive MI5 surveillance operation.
There have been strong accusations leveled against MI5 for having failed in its obligation to provide care for former police agents who had infiltrated the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. The two most notable of the agents,Martin McGartland and Raymond Gilmour, are presently residing in England using false identities and in 2012 launched test cases against the agency. Both men claimed to journalist Liam Clarke in the Belfast Telegraph that they were abandoned by MI5 and were “left high and dry despite severe health problems as a result of their work and lavish promises of life-time care from their former Intelligence bosses”. Both men suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Security Service’s role in counter-terrorism
The end of the Cold War resulted in a change in emphasis for the operations of the service, assuming responsibility for the investigation of all Irish republican activity within Britain  and increasing the effort countering other forms of terrorism, particularly in more recent years the more widespread threat of Islamic extremism.
Whilst the British security forces in Northern Ireland have provided support in the countering of both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups since the early 1970s, republican sources have often accused these forces of collusion with loyalists. In 2006, an Irish government committee inquiry found that there was widespread collusion between British security forces and loyalist terrorists in the 1970s, which resulted in eighteen deaths. In 2012, a legal review by Sir Desmond de Silva QC into the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane found that MI5, along with British Military intelligence and RUC Special Branch was found to have colluded in furthering and facilitating his death. MI5 had overall supervision of the intelligence gathering in Northern Ireland during the troubles, a secret MI5 document released revealed that in 1985, 85% of the UDA’s intelligence was from security force sources. Prime MinisterDavid Cameron accepted the findings and apologised on behalf of the British government and acknowledged significant levels of collusion with Loyalists in its state agencies.
The Security Service took responsibility for all security intelligence work in Northern Ireland from 2007 from the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Both Nuala O’Loan, the PoliceOmbudsman for Northern Ireland, and Al Hutchinson, the Oversight Commissioner of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, expressed reservations. During April 2010 the Real IRAdetonated a 120 lb. car bomb outside Palace Barracks in County Down which is the headquarters of MI5 in Northern Ireland and also home to the 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment.
MI5 is understood to have a close working relationship with the Republic of Ireland‘s Special Detective Unit (SDU), the counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence section of the Garda Síochána (national police), particularly with regards to threats from dissident republican terrorism and Islamic terrorism.
Executive Liaison Groups enable MI5 to safely share secret, sensitive, and often raw intelligence with the police, on which decisions can be made about how best to gather evidence and prosecute suspects in the courts. Each organisation works in partnership throughout the investigation, but MI5 retain the lead for collecting, assessing and exploiting intelligence. The police take lead responsibility for gathering evidence, obtaining arrests and preventing risks to the public.
In 1996, legislation formalised the extension of the Security Service’s statutory remit to include supporting the law enforcement agencies in their work against serious crime. Tasking was reactive, acting at the request of law enforcement bodies such as the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS), for whom MI5 agents performed electronic surveillance and eavesdropping duties during Operation Trinity. This role has subsequently been passed to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) and then the National Crime Agency. (NCA)
In 2001, after the September 11 attacks in the U.S., MI5 started collecting bulk telephone communications data on which telephone numbers called each other and when, authorised under a little understood general power under the Telecommunications Act 1984 instead of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 would have brought independent oversight and regulation. This was kept secret until announced by the Home Secretary in 2015.
In July 2006, parliamentarian Norman Baker accused the British Government of “hoarding information about people who pose no danger to this country”, after it emerged that MI5 holds secret files on 272,000 individuals—equivalent to one in 160 adults. It was later revealed that a “traffic light” system operates:
- Green: active—about 10% of files
- Amber: enquiries prohibited, further information may be added—about 46% of files.
- Red: enquiries prohibited, substantial information may not be added—about 44% of files
Directors General of the Security Service
- 1909–1940: Vernon Kell (b. 1873–d. 1942)
- 1940–1941: Oswald Allen Harker (b. 1886–d. 1968)
- 1941–1946: David Petrie (b. 1879–d. 1961)
- 1946–1953: Percy Sillitoe (b. 1888–d. 1962)
- 1953–1956: Dick White (b. 1906–d. 1993)
- 1956–1965: Roger Hollis (b. 1905–d. 1973)
- 1965–1972: Martin Furnival Jones (b. 1912–d. 1997)
- 1972–1979: Michael Hanley (b. 1918–d. 2001)
- 1979–1981: Howard Smith (b. 1919–d. 1996)
- 1981–1985: John Jones (b. 1923–d. 1998)
- 1985–1988: Antony Duff (b. 1920–d. 2000)
- 1988–1992: Patrick Walker (b. 1932)
- 1992–1996: Stella Rimington (b. 1935)
- 1996–2002: Stephen Lander (b. 1947)
- 2002–2007: Eliza Manningham-Buller (b. 1948)
- 2007–2013: Jonathan Evans (b. 1958)
- From April 2013: Andrew Parker (b. 1962)
Past names of the Security Service
Although commonly referred to as “MI5”, this was the Service’s official name for only thirteen years (1916–29). However, as an acknowledgment of popular thought, “MI5” is used as a sub-title on the various pages of the official Security Service website (see links, below).
- October 1909: Founded as the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau.
- April 1914: Became a subsection of the War Office Directorate of Military Operations, section 5 (MO5)—MO5(g).
- September 1916: Became Military Intelligence section 5—MI5.
- 1929: Renamed the Defence Security Service.
- 1931: Renamed the Security Service.
- Annie Machon – MI5 whistleblower
- Club de Berne – a European intelligence sharing forum
- Counter Terrorism Command – of London’s Metropolitan Police Service
- David Shayler – MI5 whistleblower
- Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre
- Spooks – a BBC television drama about the work of a group of MI5 officers (renamed MI-5 in the United States)