Secret Intelligence Service

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The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), more commonly known as MI6 (originally Military Intelligence [section] 6), or Her Majesty's Secret Service or just the Secret Service, is the British external security agency.

SIS has a remit to conduct espionage activities overseas, as opposed to MI5 which is charged with internal security within the United Kingdom. It was founded (along with MI5) as part of the Secret Service Bureau in 1909. Its first director was Sir 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 the James Bond stories).

The acronym SIS can also denote the "Slovensk informačn služba" (Slovak Information Service), an intelligence service of Slovakia.


World War I

The organization'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 Hugh 'Quex' Sinclair, whom historians agree to have been far less effective as a director. He was not incompetent, but he did not have the advantage of Cumming's force of personality, and was unable to command the respect and obedience of his men as effectively as Cumming had.

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. Menzies was another run-of-the-mill chief; by common opinion, SIS did not have a head of Cumming's calibre until Dick White, in the post-war era.

World War II

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. After a series of meetings between SIS agents and the 'conspirators' at which SS plans to abduct the SIS team were shelved due to the presence of Dutch police, a meeting took place without a police presence, and two SIS agents were duly abducted by the SS. This failure tarnished the service's reputation considerably.

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).

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 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 emigres 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. 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 busted out and escape 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 Sergeivich Gordievsky whom SIS ran for the better part of a decade then successfully exfiltrated from the heart of Moscow in 1984. 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 son of a senior Politburo member and a member of the KGB's internal Second Chief Directorate who provided SIS and the UK government with warning of the mobilisation of the KGB's Alpha Force during the 1991 August Coup which, briefly, toppled Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachev.

SIS activities included a range of covert political action successes, including the overthrow of an increasingly pro-Soviet 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 MI6. Usually they have either found new employment in the civilian world or defected to a friendly country. In the late '90s a spy called Richard Tomlinson was dismissed and later wrote a fascinating story of his experiences. Although MI6 tried to prevent its publication, the book can be read online for free.Template:Ref

End of Cold War to present

Since 1994, SIS activities have been subject to scrutiny by Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee.

On May 6, 2004, it was announced that Sir Richard Dearlove was to be replaced as head of the SIS 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. Of his predecessor, Dearlove, no photos exist in the public domain more recent than one taken for his university graduation.

SIS building

The SIS building at , , seen from
The SIS building at Vauxhall Cross, London, seen from Vauxhall Bridge

The SIS headquarters, since 1995, is at Vauxhall Cross, located in Vauxhall in London, on the bank of the River Thames beside Vauxhall Bridge.

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 service’s 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 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 impact caused only superficial damage. The Anti-Terrorist branch of the Metropolitan Police attributed responsibility to Irish Republicans, specifically the Real IRA.

Directors of the SIS

SIS in fiction

Ian Fleming's fictional spy James Bond worked for MI6, and the SIS building itself features in some of the Pierce Brosnan films. Though there are suggestions that Bond was modelled after an actual SIS agent, it is more likely that part of his character is based on that of his creator.

The late ITV television series The Sandbaggers (first broadcast in the UK between 1978 and 1980) revolved around the fictional Special Operations Section of MI6, although the internal structure of the organization as portrayed in the series actually resembled the Central Intelligence Agency. The Sandbaggers was the inspiration for the Greg Rucka scripted comic book Queen and Country, also set in SIS.

In the third season of Fox's television drama 24, Jack Bauer visits the MI6 offices in Los Angeles to gather information about a suspected bioterrorism attack plotted by a British ex-agent. Later, the offices were destroyed in a bombing that attempted to destroy the information that Bauer sought.

The Alex Rider series is set around a 14-year-old spy for MI6. It is probably the least realistic of the fictional works about MI6.


  1. Template:Note Richard Tomlinson, The Big Breach: From Top Secret to Maximum Security ( (Moscow: Narodny Variant Publishers, 2001).

See also

External links


fr:MI6 ja:イギリス情報局秘密情報部 no:MI6 pl:MI6


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