About Those Letters & Numbers: MI-5 and MI-6
By Tom Morrow
More and more the security service monikers of the United Kingdom’s MI-5 and MI-6 are mentioned in our news reports, and, especially in spy terrorist-genre movies, but what do they mean.
MI-5 (Military Intelligence, Section 5), is the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency and is part of that nation’s intelligence machinery alongside their Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6). The service is directed to protect British parliamentary democracy and economic interests, counter terrorism and espionage within the Great Britain. MI-5 operates similarly as the FBI does in the U.S.
The Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), commonly known as MI-6 (Military Intelligence, Section 6), is the “foreign intelligence” agency of the British government … a counterpart to our CIA. Think “James Bond.” Author and Bond creator Ian Fleming was a member of Britain’s MI-6 during World War II. Ironically, the existence of MI-6 was not officially acknowledged until 1994. It forms a part of the UK’s intelligence machinery alongside MI-5 and Defense Intelligence.
During the Second World War the human intelligence work of MI-6 was overshadowed by several other efforts: the cryptanalytic effort undertaken by the Government Code and Cypher School, the bureau responsible for interception and decryption of foreign communications at Bletchley Park where the infamous German “Enigma” machine’s code was broken; the extensive “double-cross” system run by MI-5 to feed misleading domestic intelligence to German spies and imagery intelligence activities conducted by the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit.
An interesting point of history: leading up to World War II, MI-6 assisted Germany’s Nazi Gestapo secret police, via “the exchange of information about Communism” as late as October 1937 — well into the Nazi era.
In 1940, the second member of the “Cambridge Spy Ring,” journalist and Soviet agent Kim Philby applied for a vacancy in Section D of SIS, and was vetted by his friend and fellow Soviet agent Guy Burgess. When Section D was absorbed by Special Operations Executive (SOE) in summer of 1940, Philby was appointed as an instructor in the arts of “black propaganda.” Philby was virtually a fox guarding the henhouse, so to speak.
In early 1944, MI-6 re-established Section IX, and Philby took a position there where he was able to alert the NKVD, the Russian secret service, about all British intelligence on the Soviets … including what the American OSS (forerunner of the CIA) had shared with the British about the Soviets.
Severe damage was done by Philby in August 1945, when Russian NKVD intelligence officer Konstantin Volkov tried to defect to the UK, offering the names of all Soviet agents working inside British intelligence services. Philby received the memo on Volkov’s offer, and alerted the Soviets so they could arrest him. As a result, the Russian agent never made it to England.
MI-6 operations against the USSR were extensively compromised by the fact the post-war Counter-Espionage Section was headed for two years by Philby. Although Philby’s continued damage was mitigated for several years by his transfer as Head of Station in Turkey, he later was assigned as the MI-6 intelligence liaison officer at the British Embassy in Washington D.C. In that capacity he caused great havoc by compromising a program of joint U.S.-UK paramilitary operations.
As MI-6 investigators closed in on him, Philby escaped to Moscow in 1953, following Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, his friends and fellow members of the infamous “Cambridge Spy Ring.”
During the Global War on Terror, MI-6 has exchanged information with the CIA. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is alleged, although not confirmed, that MI-6 conducted Operation Mass Appeal which was a campaign to plant stories about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the media. Evidently it worked. The reason for the U.S. attack on Iraq was fear of WMDs.
In November 2011, MI-6 helped capture Libyan leader Col. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. The top-secret mission, dubbed Operation X to disguise its purpose, used modern electronic intelligence (ELINT) technologies to bug the Libyan leader along with his friends and family.
Today, both MI-5 and MI-6 work closely with the FBI and CIA and are heavily involved in tracking down and capturing al Qaede, ISIS-influenced jihadists and Muslim terrorists who have attacked and killed dozens of Brits and Americans through acts of domestic terror both in the UK and U.S.
Even though there often is a “love-hate” relationship between the American and British intelligence services, with today’s lightning fast electronic-satellite gathering information systems available to virtually every country around the globe, the “Atlantic Cousins” work hand-in-hand in tracking down and holding at bay enemies of our respective democratic institutions.