Official Secrecy

Andrew Boyle

  • The Frontiers of Secrecy by David Leigh
    Junction, 291 pp, £9.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 86245 002 0

Tudor times apart, together with the brief dictatorship of Cromwell, the British interest in secret intelligence has been a comparatively recent development. And, to be entirely objective, the British have not proved all that good at it. A certain uneasiness overtook the Foreign Office during and after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 when it was discovered that Continental nations were building ‘large and influential intelligence organisations within their military establishments’, to quote F. H. Hinsley, the sole historian to have been allowed free access to the files of SIS. ‘Great Britain had to follow suit.’ It did so lamely and rather unsurely through newly-formed and somewhat despised intelligence branches inside the War Office and the Admiralty. Only service drop-outs, or, alternatively, rare intellectuals seemingly unfitted for military and naval command, tended to drift into these branches, such was the prevailing suspicion against any activity as ungentlemanly as spying. A Secret Service Bureau was set up in 1909 to act as a screen between the service departments and the handful of British agents on foreign soil. What the latter brought in was virtually non-existent, and there is a plaintive note in a War Office comment (admittedly bearing the date 1907) which said: ‘The only consolation … is that every foreign government implicitly believes that we already have a thoroughly organised and efficient European Secret Service.’

Because, in 1916, the home or counterespionage section came under the Directorate of Military Intelligence at the War Office, along with the foreign or active espionage section, these took respectively the titles of MI5 and Mli(c). However, disgruntlement at the ineffectiveness of both branches led the Admiralty and War Office to establish espionage systems of their own while the war was still raging. Not until 1921, after difficult deliberations, did the Secret Intelligence Service emerge with exclusive responsibility for spying. Yet once again there had to be compromise in the interests of co-operation: on an inter-service basis, the Army, Navy and Air Force housed an intelligence section inside SIS on the understanding that each, in turn, would provide its chief, the legendary ‘C’. Moreover, Whitehall’s non-military departments, including the Home Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the India Office, were put on the list as customers for relevant secret information. For administrative purposes, MI6, as Mli(c) had since been renamed, became ‘the funny end’ of the Foreign Office, receiving its wherewithal from that department’s secret vote, while MI5 remained under the Home Office. At the same time, SIS assumed control of the embryonic but vitally important Government Code and Cypher School, the arm which alone would fully justify itself as a war-winning weapon in World War Two.

This curious historical background undoubtedly accounts for the almost impregnable opposition in Whitehall to any relaxation of the existing secrecy code, so far as Parliament and the ordinary citizen are concerned today. The Civil Service, embracing several more ministries than existed when SIS was born, has as big a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and in preventing the implementation of any serious Freedom of Information measures, as the service departments and the secret community themselves. We are dealing with an inbred type of paternalism which insists that ‘nanny knows best.’

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