United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security

United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security

The intelligence community of the United Kingdom is both older and more complicated than that of the United States. MI5, or the Security Service, and MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, are the best-known components of the British intelligence structure, but these are just two parts of a vast intelligence apparatus. Command and control operates through no less than four entities: the Central Intelligence Machinery, the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services, the Permanent Secretaries' Committee on the Intelligence Services, and the Joint Intelligence Committee. Communications intelligence is the responsibility of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which works closely with the Communications Electronics Security Group, while a number of agencies manage military intelligence under the aegis of the Ministry of Defense. Even London's Metropolitan Police, or Scotland Yard, has its own Special Branch concerned with intelligence.

The principal oversight committee for British intelligence is the Central Intelligence Machinery, based in the Prime Minister's Cabinet Office. Roughly analogous, in various ways, to the U.S. National Security Council, Intelligence Community, and intelligence committees in both houses of Congress, it oversees the coordination of security and intelligence agencies. The Central Intelligence Machinery acts as a mechanism for assessment and accountability, observing and reporting on the performance of specific agencies. It is also concerned with tasking and the allocation of resources.

Whereas the Central Intelligence Machinery is at the top echelon of command and control, the Ministerial Committee on the Intelligence Services exercises regular ongoing oversight of intelligence activities. Through this committee, the Prime Minister, with the assistance of the Secretary of the Cabinet, exercises authority over the daily operations of the British intelligence and security communities as a whole. The Home Secretary oversees MI5, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, and Scotland Yard, while MI6 and GCHQ answer to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary.

These ministers receive assistance from the Permanent Secretaries' Committee on the Intelligence Services. Finally, the Joint Intelligence Committee, or JIC, is not unlike America's National Intelligence Council, which prepares National Intelligence Estimates. JIC draws up general intelligence needs to be met by GCHQ and MI6. MI5 and domestic security. The "MI" by which the two principal British security services are known (MI5, or Security Service, and MI6, or Secret Intelligence Service) refers to their common origins in military intelligence. Both can trace their roots to the Secret Service Bureau, created in 1909 after a report by Parliament's Committee on Imperial Defense concluded that "an extensive system of German espionage exists in this country…" Working with the War Office, Admiralty, and various operatives and agents overseas, the bureau had both a Home Section and a Foreign Section—precursors, respectively, of MI5 and MI6.

After the outbreak of World War I, the War Office took over the Home Section, designated MI5 in 1916. MI5, which might be likened to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (although its operatives do not have arrest powers), spent the war years successfully apprehending a number of German spies and saboteurs in England, and after the war directed its attention against Communist elements. By the late 1930s, MI5's focus once again became German and pro-German infiltrators, of which it captured several. During the Cold War, MI5 returned to the efforts against Communists that had concerned it in the interwar years, but was less successful in this, due to the discovery of numerous Soviet moles within its ranks. Today, MI5 is concerned with counter-terrorism and counter-espionage against groups in Northern Ireland, as well as terrorist organizations based in the Middle East and other parts of the world.

Scotland Yard. The Metropolitan Police is better known by a name that refers to the location of its original headquarters, which overlooked a residence formerly owned by Scottish royalty. Scotland Yard, established in 1829, has a number of intelligence and surveillance units. Among these is the Scientific Intelligence Unit, which is concerned with behavioral and DNA analysis relating to unsolved crimes. The unit scored a major victory in 1986, when it became the first police organization in the world to track down a rapist and murderer—the perhaps appropriately named Colin Pitchfork—by use of DNA evidence.

Scotland Yard formed the world's first antiterrorism unit in 1883, when it established the Special Irish Branch in response to bombings in London committed by the Irish Fenian movement. The office later became known as the Special Branch. Providing protective services for Queen Victoria and later monarchs, the Special Branch performed a function akin to that of the U.S. Secret Service. The Special Branch also assists MI5 with a number of activities that include surveillance, arrest (a power that Special Branch officers possess), and testimony at trial. This last duty helps preserve the cover of MI5 officers, who are rarely allowed to testify in public to minimize risk of exposure.

National Criminal Intelligence Service. In addition to its other responsibilities, Scotland Yard operates the National Identification Service, which includes the National Criminal Record Office and National Fingerprint Collection. Despite these efforts at gathering criminal intelligence, in the 1980s the Home Secretary's office recognized the need for better coordination of these intelligence-gathering efforts, and in April 1992, established the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS).

Directed toward criminal organizations operating within the country, NCIS is one of Europe's first national criminal intelligence services. Its staff of some 500 personnel has backgrounds in police, customs, and excise work. Its areas of interest range from organized crime, drug trafficking, and money laundering to child molestation and football hooliganism.

MI6 and international intelligence. MI6 (formerly the Secret Service Bureau Foreign Section) gained its present designation in 1921. From it would emerge the precursor to GCHQ in 1919. Analogous to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), MI6 directed its efforts toward more or less the same threats targeted by MI5: Germans during the world wars, and Communists during the interwar and postwar periods. In World War II, MI6 sponsored aerial reconnaissance efforts that would later be taken over by the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Through GCHQ, MI6 enjoyed a number of successes during World War II, most notable among them being the Ultra program to break German Enigma ciphers. Like MI5, however, MI6 in the early Cold War experienced embarrassment with the exposure of Soviet spy rings operating in its midst. Yet MI6 also scored a victory by cultivating a Soviet mole in Oleg Penkovsky, who went on to work with both MI6 and CIA. Whereas MI5 established an atmosphere of openness in the post-Cold War era, MI6, which continues to operate extensively abroad, remains highly secretive.

GCHQ. GCHQ grew out of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), established in November 1919. During the 1920s and 1930s, GC&CS had considerable success in its efforts to decipher German and Soviet transmissions. Once the Germans acquired the Enigma machine, with its apparently unbreakable ciphers, in the late 1930s, GC&CS greatly stepped up its efforts. In August 1939, just before war broke out in Europe, it moved its headquarters to Bletchley Park outside London. There its cryptanalysts undertook Operation Ultra, the breaking of the Enigma cipher—a project whose details remained classified until the 1970s.

Renamed the Government Communications Headquarters in 1942 to conceal its activities, this leading communications intelligence agency of the United Kingdom—quite similar in function to the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)—greatly escalated its efforts in the Cold War. GCHQ is also like NSA, with which it participates in the Echelon global surveillance network, in its level of secrecy. Much of what is known about it comes from James Bamford's famous 1982 book on NSA, The Puzzle Palace.

According to Bamford, GCHQ at that time had six directorates. Among these were the Composite Signals Organization, dedicated to radio intercepts; the Directorate of Organization and Establishment, whose functions were chiefly administrative; the Directorate of Signals Intelligence Plans, concerned with long-range planning and management; and the Joint Technical Language Service, which intercepted foreign communications. The Directorate of Signals Intelligence Operations and Requirements, which was the largest and most secretive of directorates, according to Bamford, oversaw codebreaking activities.

Bamford also named the Directorate of Communications Security, whose activities were affiliated with an agency about which somewhat more is known, the Communications Electronics Security Group, or CESG. Established in 1969, CESG is the British national technical authority for information security, and works with a number of government agencies to ensure that communications security is maintained through state-of-the-art equipment. At the end of the Cold War, GCHQ employed some 6,000 people, but its staff had decreased to about 4,500 by the mid-1990s.

Military intelligence. In addition to the Cabinet-level oversight committees mentioned earlier, the Minister of Defense controls military intelligence through the Defence Procurement Executive and the Defense Intelligence Staff (DIS). DIS in turn oversees a number of military intelligence agencies, most notably the Defense Geographic and Imagery Intelligence Agency (DGIA) and the Defense Intelligence and Security Center.

DGIA was formed in 2000 from the merger of the RAF's Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Center (JARIC) and the Military Survey Defense Agency. JARIC was concerned with aerial reconnaissance and the capture of photographic intelligence, and the Military Survey with geographic and geospatial support to defense planning. The Defense Intelligence and Security Center, created in 1996, integrates intelligence and security training for Britain's military services.



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Andrew, Christopher M. Her Majesty's Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community. New York: Viking, 1986.

Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace: A Report on America's Most Secret Agency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

Bar-Joseph, Uri. Intelligence Intervention in the Politics of Democratic States: The United States, Israel, and Britain. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Dorril, Stephen. MI6: Inside the Cover World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service. New York: Free Press, 2000.

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Communications Electronics Security Group. < http://www.cesg.gov.uk/ > (April 12, 2003).

Government Communications Headquarters. < http://www.gchq.gov.uk/ > (April 12, 2003).

The Metropolitan Police Service. < http://www.met.police.uk/ > (April 12, 2003).

MI5: The Security Service. < http://www.mi5.gov.uk/ > (April 11, 2003).

United Kingdom Intelligence Agencies. Federation of American Scientists. < http://www.fas.org/irp/world/uk/index.html > (April 11, 2003).


Bletchley Park
British Terrorism Act
MI5 (British Security Service)
MI6 (British Secret Intelligence Service)
Official Secrets Act, United Kingdom
Special Relationship: Technology Sharing Between the Intelligence Agencies of the United States and United Kingdom
Ultra, Operation
United Kingdom, Counter-terrorism Policy
United States, Intelligence and Security

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