Secret Intelligence Service ”MI6”

Motto: ‘Semper Occultus’ (Always Secret)

The Secret Intelligence Service is without doubt the organisation that James Bond works for. Although commonly referred to as MI6 (the MI standing for Military Intelligence), the service is no longer connected with the military and in fact reports to The Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the British government. The designation ‘6’ is rumoured to have been the room number the agency was housed in when it first commenced operations.

The SIS can be traced back to 1909 when Commander Sir Mansfield Cumming set up the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau charged with gathering intelligence information from overseas. Sir Mansfield, known to his friends as ‘C’, always signed himself as such in green ink and his predecessors have done so ever since.

During the Second World War, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was established partly from MI6, but was disbanded soon after the war ended, with SOE operatives being reabsorbed into SIS. It was working with the SOE that a Naval Reservist by the name of Ian Fleming had the inspiration to create a character entrenched in the world of espionage – James Bond.

The existence of the Secret Intelligence Service was not officially acknowledged by the British government until March 1994, on publication of the Intelligence Services Act (1994), which for the first time revealed the role of the service, including its budget and the number of staff under its command. The Act states that its current role is “(a) to obtain and provide information relating to the actions or intentions of persons outside the British Islands; and (b) to perform other tasks relating to the actions or intentions of such persons…[in relation to] the interests of national security, with particular reference to defence and foreign policies…the interests of the economic well-being of the UK…or in support of the prevention or detection of serious crime.”

85 Embankment, Vauxhall

85 Embankment, Vauxhall

The service is based at 85 Embankment, Vauxhall Cross, London SE1 in a rather eye catching building known to those who work there as “Legoland”. It employs some 2,300 personnel and is reported to have an annual budget of around £150m. The building is now well known on the London skyline, aided by its appearance in the James Bond films since 1995’s GoldenEye. However, having a higher profile has its drawbacks. On Wednesday 20th September 2000 at 2200BST an explosion rocked the Vauxhall Cross headquarters of MI6. The Real IRA had launched an attack on the building using a Russian-built Mark 22 anti-tank missile, shattering a window on the 8th floor. Although many intelligence analysts and critics opposed to the new higher profile MI6 building came out of the woodwork to the tune of “I told you so”, one must wonder why an anti-tank missile, used for piercing armoured plated vehicles, only managed to break a window.

As well as the headquarters in Vauxhall Bridge, MI6 are rumoured to operate from several other premises in the UK. These other government premises are thought to be used primarily for training purposes and include a building in a busy street in South London, where the service paid for a number of telephone lines to be installed. A large country estate on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, Hanslope Park, is also owned by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and is reported to be the Technical Security Department of the SIS.

Hanslope Park, FCO Building

Hanslope Park, FCO Building © Milton Keynes Heritage Association

However, by far the most dramatic and atmospheric of the rumoured SIS sites, is the field training centre at Fort Monckton, in Gosport, Hampshire. Situated on the tip of the Gosport Peninsula, the old Napoleonic fort is only accessible by drawbridge and this is where operatives and agents are reported to learn “fieldcraft”.

Soviet satellite image of Fort Monckton, Gosport, UK

Soviet satellite image of Fort Monckton, Gosport, UK © Federation of American Scientists

MI6 operate a number of stations throughout the world, with the head of each station usually being declared to the Secret Service of the host nation.

Just as its employees know the CIA as “The Company”, MI6 is known as “The Firm”. In February 1999, then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced the appointment of Sir Richard B. Dearlove, KCMG, OBE as the Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, ‘C’.

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