British Intelligence Agencies, Put Simply


By Campaign Agent William Fawcett

The concept of intelligence is a rather modern phenomenon, and the legal existence of our undercover agencies was only revealed in the late 1980s and 1990s. It is obviously a controversial institution that has provided the government with a ‘hidden hand’ in gaining leverage in both domestic and international affairs and is often said to carry out the government’s ‘dirty work’, as the truth of these underground practices only reveals themselves decades after in leaks and declassified documents. Yet whilst most of us think of James Bond or the TV series Spooks, the processes and institutions that maintain our national security are on the whole more mundane and monotonous, yet some more sinister than previously imagined.

Intelligence was formerly a loose band of agencies with no true governmental oversight before the Second World War, and much of the political elite back then either refused or were reluctant to partake in activities of the sort. However, with the onset of the Second World War Churchill, the impulsive and captivating figure he was, realised the crucial importance of intelligence, providing the catalyst for closer ties between the Prime Minister and the intelligence agencies. Most famously the establishment of GC&CS at Bletchley Park that provided the essential Ultra intelligence that arguably changed the tide of the war, was the Government’s biggest success, later evolving into what we now know as GCHQ, situated in Cheltenham. Attlee succeeded Churchill by consolidating and inter-connecting the intelligence agencies: MI5, MI6, and then GC&CS, creating an intelligence and security apparatus that remains similar today still under the scope of the Joint Intelligence Committee and more recently the National Security Council (created in 2010). Furthermore, Defence Intelligence (DI) was created in 1964 and is the fourth branch of the UK’s intelligence agencies, albeit under the whim of the Ministry of Defence.

The roles of our intelligence agencies in securing Britain’s interests around the world are numerous, from the counter-espionage against KGB spies during the early Cold War to the counter-subversion of left-wing activists during the Trade Union strikes in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently counter-terrorism activities against the IRA and Islamic fundamentalists. Moreover, covert wars and foreign espionage have long been a tradition for intelligence agencies, involving Britain’s and almost every other established intelligence agency around the world, and it is these activities that evoke the more insidious side of intelligence. As a result, intelligence is often, and understandably so, regarded as the most opaque and unaccountable wing of the government, and as such little was previously known outside of Whitehall about the intelligence agencies until their legal recognition a few decades ago. With whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden exposing some of the practices of the institutions claiming to protect us, their accountability has arguably increased. However, rather draconian laws such as the Official Secrets Act and to a lesser extent the Investigatory Powers Act (Snoopers’ Charter) still restrict the press’ and the public’s knowledge of the work behind the scenes of Downing Street, for good or for bad.

MI5 Security Intelligence

The domestic arm of the intelligence agency; its goal consists of keeping the country and its citizens safe from hostile threats from inside and outside, and against espionage sponsored by other states, friend or foe. It was only formally recognised by Thatcher’s government in 1989 and had previously been very busy exposing spies from a whole host of intelligence agencies during the Cold War, in particular, the Russian KGB. Notable successes and failures include the defections of the Cambridge Five who defected to the USSR in the 1950s and 1960s, the Profumo sex-scandal (which also involved Soviet agents) and providing a back channel to negotiations with the IRA under successive governments. Another significant portion of time of the MI5 was devoted to counter-subversion from the Communist Party of Great Britain, receiving Soviet support, with operations against Comintern during the 1920s and the Trade Union strikes in the 1970s.

The Security Service comes under the jurisdiction of the Home Office, although before 1989 the relationship with Downing Street experienced its fair share of highs and lows. Like MI6, it specialises in HUMINT (Human Intelligence) to gather intelligence.

MI6 Secret Intelligence Service

 The international wing of the intelligence agency, and perhaps its most famous, strives to protect British interests abroad through a variety of means including espionage, conflict resolution, developing foreign contacts and protecting the UK from foreign menaces. The government did not formally acknowledge MI6 until 1994 and it represents the more covert and clandestine section of intelligence gathering. Declassified documents expose British covert action in conjunction with the CIA in toppling the Iranian government in 1953, supporting dictator Suharto Indonesia in the 1960s, various proxy wars in post-independence Africa and more recently providing various levels of intelligence for the Major and Blair governments leading up to the Iraq War. Some argue that MI6 was the tool the British government used to secretly retain its status as a world superpower as the Empire slowly disintegrated, whilst others favour the argument that it has proved hugely influential in protecting Britain from foreign threats and placing the government one step ahead on international issues.

 The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) comes under the helm of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and makes up the second party in the Joint Intelligence Committee and the National Security Council.

GCHQ Government Communications Headquarters

 The British answer to the Pentagon, GCHQ has its origins in Bletchley Park during WW2 and is involved in SIGINT (signals intelligence) as opposed to HUMINT (MI5 and MI6). Based in the “Doughnut” in Cheltenham, GCHQ was not legally an entity until 1994 like MI6. It has two focal operations: gathering digital and communications intelligence and securing the UK’s own communications from domestic or foreign entities. The Snowden leaks to the Guardian in 2013 damaged the reputation of GCHQ as it exposed the Tempora program used to essentially spy on British citizens without any prior suspicion. However, it has proved hugely important in foiling many dozens of terrorist attacks in Britain since its establishment and is a vital tool in protecting Britain in the modern age.

Unlike MI6 and MI5, GCHQ has no parent ministry, although Boris Johnson as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs oversees the agency.

Alongside Defence Intelligence (DI), these three branches of the UK’s crucially important and somewhat obscure intelligence apparatus secure British interests abroad and protect British citizens and the government at home. They initially came under the jurisdiction of the Joint Intelligence Committee just before the outbreak of WW2, which solidified their place in the government structure. David Cameron introduced the National Security Council in 2010 that convenes very regularly with the major figures from all the intelligence agencies, the military and the Cabinet to discuss domestic and foreign issues, that works alongside the COBRA meetings following sudden events like terrorist attacks. Unlike for much of the Twentieth Century, the British intelligence apparatus has never been clearer and more structured than it is now. Previously conflicts of interest arose more often than not between Prime Ministers and the Director-Generals of the intelligence agencies.

As part of the Civil Service, the intelligence agencies are not some unaccountable and completely hidden part of government living completely in the shadows. They are directly answerable to both the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in turn the Prime Minister and his/her Cabinet Office. MI6 loudly asserts its location at Vauxhall Cross on the banks of the Thames, whilst MI5 is more tucked away at Thames House closer to London Bridge. Throughout their establishment at the start of the 20th Century, these intelligence agencies have provided invaluable information in dictating and influencing domestic and foreign policy, despite some shortcomings in transparency over the years. From the cracking of the Enigma code during WW2 to influencing the ‘sexed-up dossier’ alongside Operation Mass Appeal that laid the path for the 2003 Iraq invasion, the security and intelligence agencies have contributed to many successes, failures and other ambiguous results since their establishment. Yet they have been imperative in preventing terrorist attacks at home and working alongside our allies (The Five Eyes Agreement etc.) to uphold and protect our democratic and liberal values. Figures like Julian Assange (still in exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London) and Edward Snowden (safe in Russia) have arguably provided a counter-narrative, ensuring that our government and intelligence agencies do not violate the rights and liberties they claim to protect, although some will claim that this only damages our national security.

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