What Is The MI5?

Discover the fascinating history of MI5, the British security service that deals with counter-espionage, terrorism, and more recently organised crime.

The origins of MI5 can be traced back to 1909, when the British Government established the Secret Service Bureau, its main task being to assess the risk posed by German espionage to British naval ports. Initially it was divided into two sections, one to deal with counter-espionage within Britain, and the other to deal with overseas matters. Vernon Kell was the man put in charge of the former unit, which was later to become known as MI5.

The success of the Secret Service Bureau was immediate and emphatic. Between 1909 and the outbreak of the First World War, more than 30 German spies were arrested, essentially destroying their spy network and making it virtually useless during the war. This feat is made spectacularly impressive when you consider that the group that Kell was the head of consisted only 10 persons.

In 1916 MI5 was an officially recognised section of the security services. Wartime duties focused mainly on counter-espionage, but also included duties such as advising munitions factories on security and vetting. It could have been disastrous if a German sympathiser had gained employment at such a place! They also spread their work to all areas of the British Empire, in an attempt to curtail the work of all enemy spies. By the end of the war another 35 German spies had been arrested. This was rather to be expected though as the staff of MI5 had increased to 850.

After the war, MI5 had to find different uses for its resources. It mainly worked preventing communist subversion within the British armed forces, which was considered a very real threat at the time. In 1931 it became formally responsible for dealing with all threats to national security, with the exception of Irish terrorists and anarchists.

The number of staff in MI5 had gradually declined since the conclusion of the First World War. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the staff levels were nearly as low as when the organisation had first started up. They were, however, extremely effective in their duties of counter-espionage, and monitoring and surveillance of enemy foreigners. Indeed, by sifting through German records after the war, Britain was able to establish that all German agents had been arrested, bar one (who committed suicide before an arrest could be made). MI5 also persuaded some of these agents to misinform the Germans, a key reason why later Allied offences were so successful.

The main threat to national security in the 1950's came from the Soviet Union. There were a large number of communist party members living in Britain. It came as no surprise, that the Russians, through careful character selection, choosing those with a strong communist ideology, were able to turn several MI5 agents to work for them. Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean and Kim Philby had all fled to the safety of the Soviet Union before they had been identified as double agents. A vetting procedure was introduced in the mid-fifties, and this helped to reduce the number of potential double agents in MI5.

Frailties in the national security system were further exposed in the early 1960's. First was the Portland spy case, in which it became clear that a Soviet spy network, led by Gordon Lonsdale had access to military top-secret information. Little over a year later came the Profumo Affair. The Secretary for War, John Profumo, had been using the services of two costly prostitutes, who were found to be associated with Eugene Ivanov, a Soviet spy. This type of bad publicity had to be explained by MI5, who then had to find new ways to tighten national security. In contrast, MI6 dealing with overseas affairs found that a stonewall silence was more than enough to explain their mistakes, away from the attention of the British media.

105 Russian personnel were expelled from Britain in 1971, and this obviously weakened the Russian network. MI5 turned its attention to the threat of terrorism, mainly from the Palestinians and the Irish, often helping to neutralise potential bombings and hostage situations.

The early 1990's saw an end to the Cold War, and the threat of communist subversion was virtually nil. MI5 continued to battle terrorism, but also began to diversify, the detection of organised crime being a prime example. They also attempted to become less mysterious in the public eye, through innovations such as posting jobs available in the service on the Internet, and advertising on TV.

Ever since its formation MI5 has done sterling work, helping to protect national security in Britain. Although some of its shortcomings have been highlighted through the media, they have been far outweighed by the successes over the years. These successes cannot be made public due to security reasons, so the silence of the security services must also be its greatest tribute.

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