In 1907 Major Vernon Kell become Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau with responsibility for investigating espionage, sabotage and subversion within and outside Britain. Later the organisation became known as Military Intelligence (MI5).
In 1911 MI6 took over responsibility for counter-espionage outside Britain. Kell worked closely in this work with Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch. Kell and Thomson decided to create a card-index system on all potential subversives.
Kell discovered that foreigners were collecting information about Britain's ships, factories and harbours. However, under the terms of the Official Secrets Act, these spies were not committing any offences. Kell eventually persuaded the government to make changes to the Official Secrets Act.
By 1914 Vernon Kell had a staff of four officers, one barrister, two investigators and seven clerks. This enabled MI5 to collect a great deal of information of spies in Britain. On the outbreak of the First World War MI5 officers arrested 22 German agents. Over the next year another seven spies were caught. Eleven men were executed, as was Sir Roger Casement, who was found guilty of treason in 1916.
By the end of the war MI5 had a staff of 5,000 people whose main job was inspecting foreign mail. MI5 also had files on 137,500 individuals. This included trade unionists, members of the Independent Labour Party and those who had campaigned for peace negotiations during the First World War.
In September 1924 MI5 intercepted a letter signed by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, and Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were urged to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, provided "five very good reasons" why he believed the letter was genuine. However, one of these reasons, that the letter came "direct from an agent in Moscow for a long time in our service, and of proved reliability" was incorrect. After consulting Basil Thomson at Special Branch, Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. Kell told MacDonald that MI5 and the Special Branch were convinced the letter was genuine.
It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret but someone in MI5 leaked it to Lord Rothermere, the owner of the The Daily Mail, and Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of The Times (both these men were supporters of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s). The letter was published in these newspapers four days before the 1924 General Election and contributed to the defeat of Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party.
After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter. According to Christopher Andrew, the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Reilly played an active part in ensuring that the letter was publicised. A copy of the Russian version of the letter has been discovered in what appears to be Reilly's handwriting, and there can scarcely have been another past or present SIS agent with so few scruples about exploiting it in the anti-Bolshevik cause."
It later became clear that Major George Joseph Ball (1885-1961), a MI5 officer, played an important role in leaking it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. Later, Desmond Morton, who worked under Hugh Sinclair, at MI6 claimed that it was Stewart Menzies who sent the Zinoviev letter to the Daily Mail.
In 1925 Vernon Kell recruited Maxwell Knight, the Director of Intelligence of the British Fascists (BF). Knight played a significant role in helping to defeat the General Strike in 1926 and by the early 1930s was placed in charge of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. The vast majority of Knight's agents were part-time. Knight recruited a large number of his agents from right-wing political organizations such as the Nordic League, British Union of Fascists and the Right Club. This included William Allen and William Joyce who was later to become known as Lord Haw Haw in Nazi Germany.
The Soviet Union became aware that British Intelligence was recruiting from pro-fascists organisations. They therefore decided to order their British agents to join far-right groups. Kim Philby and Guy Burgess both joined the Anglo-German Fellowship, a pro-Nazi pressure group. Philby also became a journalist working for The Times while Burgess was employed by the BBC. They now had the perfect CV for British intelligence and it was not long before they were recruited as agents.
In 1932 Compton Mackenzie published Greek Memories, an account of his experiences as a MI6 officer during the First World War. In the book he disclosed for the first time that Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) existed. He even revealed that the first Director-General of the organization was Mansfield Cumming. In one passage he referred to the organization as being "scores of under-employed generals surrounded by a dense cloud of intelligence officers sleuthing each other."
The book was immediately withdrawn and all remaining copies were destroyed. Mackenzie was fined £100 for breaching the Official Secrets Act. Mackenzie's actions were now monitored by MI5. One agent claimed that he was overhead telling a journalist from the Daily Telegraph that MI5 was an inefficient organization and that Vernon Kell and his staff were incompetent.
In 1935 Dick White, an MI5 officer, had a meeting with Jona Ustinov, the press attaché working with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop. Ustinov identified anti-Nazis in Germany that could be persuaded to become British agents. White visited Nazi Germany and began to recruit German agents in preparation for the likely war between the two countries.
In 1930 Maxwell Knight recruited Olga Grey. Although only 19 she joined the Friends of the Soviet Union. She soon gained the confidence of Percy Glading, a member of the Communist Party. In 1937 Glading asked Grey to find a safe house. This became a meeting place for Glading and Theodore Maly, a Soviet intelligence officer. Glading also arranged for several people working at Woolwich Aresnal, to take pictures of blueprints of weapons being developed. On 14th May, 1938, Glading, Albert Williams and George Whomack were convicted under the Official Secrets Act.
When Joseph Stalin instigated the Great Purges in 1936, known critics of Stalin, including the Soviet agent, Ignace Reiss were murdered by KGB agents. Walter Krivitsky, one of the most senior Soviet intelligence officers in Europe decided to defect. He managed to escape to Canada where he lived under the cover name of Walter Thomas. Krivitsky eventually contacted the FBI and gave details of 61 Soviet agents working in Britain.
In 1939 Walter Krivitsky was brought to London to be interviewed by Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5. Krivitsky did not know the names of these agents but described one as being a journalist who had worked for a British newspaper during the Spanish Civil War. Another was described as "a Scotsman of good family, educated at Eton and Oxford, and an idealist who worked for the Russians without payment." These descriptions fitted Kim Philby and Donald Maclean. However, White and Liddle were not convinced by Krivitsky's testimony and his leads were not followed up.
Walter Krivitsky was found dead in the Bellevue Hotel in Washington on 10th February, 1941. At first it was claimed that Krivitsky had committed suicide. However, others claimed his hiding place had been disclosed by a Soviet mole working for MI5 and had been murdered by Soviet agents.
During the early stages of the war with Germany Vernon Kell agreed to establish a double-cross operation organized by Dick White. Arthur Owen, an agent working for Abwehr, was arrested and he eventually agreed to become a double-agent. As well as sending false information to Nazi Germany, Owen also kept White informed about the arrival of German agents in Britain. Between September and November 1940, a total of 21 German agents were arrested by Special Branch officers.
MI5 also recruited a large number of part-time agents during the war including Anthony Blunt, Goronwy Rees, Victor Rothschild, Alan P. Herbert and Ian Fleming. Over the next couple of years MI5 grew to 570 officers and staff. MI5 also moved its headquarters from Horseferry Road to Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire.
During the war MI5 had responsibility for dealing with enemy aliens (Germans and Italians living in Britain). This included around 60,000 German refugees that had entered Britain in the 1930s. These were mainly Jews and left-wing opponents of Adolf Hitler who had escaped from Nazi Germany.
In 1939 police arrested a large number of Germans living in Britain. The government feared that these people might be Nazi spies pretending to be refugees. They were interned and held in various camps all over Britain. Like other refugees they were eventually appeared before tribunals which classified them into three different groups. 'A' class aliens were interned, whereas 'B' class aliens were allowed to leave the camps but had certain restrictions placed upon their movements. The vast majority of refugees were identified as 'C' class aliens and were allowed to go free.
On 12th May, 1940, John Anderson, who was in charge of national security, ordered the arrests of over 2,000 male aliens living in coastal areas. A few days later all 'B' class aliens were rounded up and placed into internment camps.
The three largest internment camps were at Wharf Mills (Bury), Huyton (Liverpool) and on the Isle of Man. Others were sent to the prisons at Brixton and Holloway and to a camp at Kempton Park Racecourse. At Brixton several Jewish refugees were beaten up by interned members of the British Union of Fascists.
The conditions in these internment camps were often appalling. In some camps refugees and foreign aliens were housed in tents without mattresses. Men and women were sent to different camps and so husband and wives were separated. Internees were refused to right to read newspapers, listen to the radio or to receive letters. They were therefore unable to discover what had happened to family members. Several refugees who had fled to England to avoid persecution in Nazi Germany committed suicide in these camps.
In May 1940 Winston Churchill became prime minister. Six months later he sacked Vernon Kell, Director-General of MI5, and replaced him with David Petrie. Over the next four years Petrie brought in experts to form sections for dealing with different types of agent. He also established closer links with MI6, the Secret Service with responsibility for counterespionage outside Britain.
Petrie's reforms particularly benefited Guy Liddell and Dick White. As controllers of B division, they now managed MI5's most significant operations. One of B division's most important agents was Joan Miller, a member of various right-wing organizations. Miller eventually became very close to Archibald Ramsay, the leader of the Right Club. In 1939 Miller began to suspect that Ramsay was a German spy. Miller also believed that Anna Wolkoff, who ran the Russian Tea Room in South Kensington, the main meeting place for members of the Right Club, was also involved in espionage.
In February 1940, Anna Wolkoff met Tyler Kent, a cypher clerk from the American Embassy. He soon became a regular visitor to the Russian Tea Room where he met other members of the Right Club including Archibald Ramsay.
Kent was concerned that the American government wanted the United States to join the war against Germany. He said he had evidence of this as he had been making copies of the correspondence between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent invited Wolkoff and Ramsay back to his flat to look at these documents. This included secret assurances that the United States would support France if it was invaded by the German Army. Kent later argued that he had shown these documents to Ramsay in the hope that he would pass this information to American politicians hostile to Roosevelt.
On 13th April 1940 Anna Wolkoff went to Kent's flat and made copies of some of these documents. Joan Miller and Marjorie Amor were later to testify that these documents were then passed on to Duco del Monte, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Italian Embassy. Soon afterwards, MI8, the wireless interception service, picked up messages between Rome and Berlin that indicated that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of German military intelligence (Abwehr), now had copies of the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence
Soon afterwards Wolkoff asked Joan Miller if she would use her contacts at the Italian Embassy to pass a coded letter to William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) in Germany. The letter contained information that he could use in his broadcasts on Radio Hamburg. Before passing the letter to her contacts, Miller showed it to Maxwell Knight, head of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion.
On 18th May, Knight told Guy Liddell about the Right Club spy ring. Liddell immediately had a meeting with Joseph Kennedy, the American Ambassador in London. Kennedy agreed to waive Kent's diplomatic immunity and on 20th May, 1940, the Special Branch raided his flat. Inside they found the copies of 1,929 classified documents including secret correspondence between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Kent was also found in possession of what became known as Ramsay's Red Book. This book had details of the supporters of the Right Club and had been given to Kent for safe keeping.
Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act. The trial took place in secret and on 7th November 1940, Wolkoff was sentenced to ten years. Kent, because he was an American citizen, was treated less harshly and received only seven years. It is said that after being sentenced Wolkoff swore that she would get her revenge by killing Joan Miller.
In September 1945, a Russian diplomat, Constantin Volkhov, approached the British vice-consul in Istanbul with information about three Soviet agents working in the Foreign Office and the counterespionage service in London. Kim Philby was able to tell the KGB who quickly arrested Volkhov and took him back to the Soviet Union.
Also in September 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk in the Russian Legation, defected to the West claiming he had evidence of an Soviet spy ring based in Britain. The case was passed on to Philby . He suggested that Gouzenko should be interviewed by the MI% agent, Roger Hollis.
Gouzenko provided evidence that led to the arrest of 22 local agents and 15 Soviet spies in Canada. Information from Gouzenko also resulted in the arrest and conviction of Klaus Fuchs and Allan Nunn May. Gouzenko also claimed that there was a Soviet agent inside MI5. However, he was later to argue that Hollis showed little interest in this evidence. "The mistake in my opinion in dealing with this matter was that the task of finding the agent was given to MI5 itself. The results even beforehand could be expected to be nil."
Clement Attlee, Britain's new Labour Party prime minister, received information from sympathizers that MI5 was dominated by people with a right-wing agenda. It was even suggested that they might try and destabilize the government. He therefore decided in May 1946 to appoint an outsider, Sir Percy Sillitoe, the former chief constable of Sheffield and Glasgow, to replace David Petrie as head of MI5.
After the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Clement Attlee gave permission for MI5 to carry out surveillance of left-wing members of the House of Commons. Their mail was secretly opened and telephone taps were installed. It was also decided to continue the policy of Maxwell Knight in the 1930s of inserting agents into the Communist Party and the trade union movement.
In 1949 Kim Philby became the SIS liaison officer in Washington. The following year Stewart Menzies and John Sinclair discussed the possibility of Philby becoming the next Director General of MI6. Dick White was asked to produce a report on Philby. He asked Arthur Martin and Jane Archer to carry out an investigation into his past. They became concerned about how quickly changed from a communist sympathizer to a supporter of pro-fascist organizations. They also discovered that the description of the mole provided by Walter Krivitsky and Igor Gouzenko could be that of Philby. It was now decided that Philby could in fact be a double-agent.
When Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected in 1951 Philby became the chief suspect as the man who had tipped them off that they were being investigated. Under pressure from Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, Stewart Menzies agreed that Philby should be interrogated by MI6. However, they cleared him of being part of a spy ring. However, the CIA insisted that he should be recalled to London. In September 1951 Philby officially resigned from MI6 but continued to work for the organization on a part-time basis.
When MI5 search Burgess's flat in London in 1951 they discovered papers written by John Cairncross. When interviewed by Jim Skardon admitted he had passed secret documents to Burgess. In order to avoid another scandal Cairncross was not prosecuted.
Guy Liddell was expected to succeed David Petrie as chief of MI5. However, Ellen Wilkinson, who served under Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, had heard rumours from Europe that Liddell was suspected of being a double-agent. As a result, Liddell did not get the top job and instead became Deputy Director-General. Sillitoe eventually retired in 1953 and was replaced by Sir Dick White.
White's major innovation was the creation of F Branch. This section infiltrated every left-wing organization in Britain including the Labour Party, the trade unions, the peace movement and student unions. White appointed Alexander Kellar as the director of F Branch. Keller, a former president of the National Union of Students, suggested that MI5 should recruit British students and trade unionists. These people were then told to express views sympathetic to communism in the hope that they would be recruited as Soviet agents.
David Maxwell-Fyfe, the home secretary, told Sir Dick White to "wage war on the communists and crypto-communists". In 1955 Hugh Winterton of MI5 organized the burglary of a flat occupied by a senior Communist Party official. During the operation MI5 agents were able to photograph files detailing the party's entire 55,000 membership.
On 23rd October, 1955, the newspaper, New York Sunday News, reported that Kim Philby was a Soviet spy. Two days later Marcus Lipton asked Anthony Eden in the House of Commons: "Has the prime minister made up his mind to cover up at all costs the dubious third-man activities of Mr. Harold Philby". Eden refused to reply but, Harold Macmillan, the foreign secretary, issued a statement a couple of days later: "While in government service he (Philby) carried out his duties ably and conscientiously, and I have no reason to conclude that Mr Philby has at any time betrayed the interests of his country, or to identify him with the so-called 'Third Man', if indeed there was one."
Philby now called a press conference where he denied he was a spy. He added that "I have never been a communist and the last time I spoke to a communist knowing he was one, was in 1934". Philby accused Lipton of lying and challenged him to repeat his claims outside the protection of the House of Commons. Lipton was forced to issue a statement where he withdrew his comments. Philby now moved to the Middle East where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The Observer and the The Economist. He also continued to work as a part-time agent for MI6.
In December 1961, Anatoli Golitsin, a KGB agent, working in Finland, defected to the CIA. He was immediately flown to the United States and lodged in a safe house called Ashford Farm near Washington. Interviewed by James Angleton, Golitsin supplied information about a large number of Soviet agents working in the West.
In these interviews Golitsin argued that as the KGB would be so concerned about his defection, they would attempt to convince the CIA that the information he was giving them would be completely unreliable. He predicted that the KGB would send false defectors with information that contradicted what he was saying.
In June 1962 Yuri Nosenko made contact with the CIA in Geneva. He was deputy chief of the Seventh Department of the KGB. His main responsibility was the recruitment of foreign spies. He like Golitsin, provided evidence that John Vassall was a Soviet agent. However, most of his evidence undermined that given by Golitsin. This included Golitsin's claim that a senior figure in the Admiralty was a spy.
Arthur Martin, head of MI5's D1 Section, went to to interview Anatoli Golitsin in America. Golitsin provided evidence that suggested that Kim Philby had been a member of a Ring of Five agents based in Britain. The same spy ring that had included Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
Philby was questioned once more by MI6 about being a Soviet agent. Aware that he was in danger of being arrested, on 23rd January, 1963, Philby fled to the Soviet Union. In his book, My Silent War (1968), Philby admitted that he had been a Soviet spy for over thirty years.
Anthony Blunt also confessed his crimes but was granted immunity from prosecution and continued as Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. Blunt was not exposed as a spy until 1979.
In July 1963, Golitsin travelled to London to be interviewed by Arthur Martin. Soon afterwards a senior MI5 officer leaked information to British newspapers that they were interviewing a KGB defector in London. As soon as this story appeared in the press, Golitsin returned to the United States and refused to give any more information to MI5.
When back in Washington Golitsin was interviewed once more by Angleton. Golitsin provided information that suggested Hugh Gaitskell had been murdered in January 1963 to allow Harold Wilson, a KGB agent, to become leader of the Labour Party. Angleton believed Golitsin but few senior members of the CIA agreed with him. They pointed out that Gaitskell had died after Golitsin had left the Soviet Union and would have had to know in advance what was about to take place.
Golitsin also suggested that W. Averell Harriman had been a Soviet spy, while he was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Angleton was convinced by this story as he knew someone was involved in spying during the negotiations that took place between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. However, other CIA officers thought the story ridiculous and Harriman was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as ambassador-at-large for Southeast Asian affairs.
In January 1964 Yuri Nosenko contacted the CIA and said he had changed his mind and was now willing to defect to the United States. He claimed that he had been recalled to Moscow to be interrogated. Nosenko feared that the KGB had discovered he was a double-agent and once back in the Soviet Union would be executed. Nosenko also claimed that he had important information about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He insisted that although Lee Harvey Oswald had lived in the Soviet Union he was not a KGB agent.
Nosenko arrived in the United States on 14th February, 1964. However, soon afterwards, Nosenko was undermined by the US National Security Agency who had been monitoring communications between Moscow and Geneva. It discovered that Nosenko had lied about being recalled to the Soviet Union. Nosenko was now taken to a CIA detention cell and after extensive interrogation he admitted the story about him being recalled was untrue.
James Angleton believed that Anatoli Golitsin was a genuine double-agent but argued that Yuri Nosenko was part of a disinformation campaign. However, some MI5 officers believed Nosenko and considered Golitsin was a fake.
In January 1964 Arthur Martin interviewed Michael Straight, an American who had studied at Trinity College, Cambridge. While at university he became friends with Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Straight claimed that Blunt had tried to recruit him to become a Soviet spy.
Arthur Martin and Jim Skardon had interviewed Blunt eleven times since 1951. Martin, now armed with Straight's story, went to see Blunt again. This time he made a confession. He admitted being a Soviet agent and named John Cairncross, Peter Ashby, Brian Symon and Leo Long as spies he had recruited. Cairncross was now interviewed by MI5 and made a full confession in return for not being prosecuted.
Martin was disappointed when it was discovered that Roger Hollis and the British government had decided not to put Anthony Blunt on trial. Martin once again began to argue that there was still a Soviet spy working at the centre of MI5. Hollis thought Martin's suggestion was highly damaging to the organization and ordered Martin to be suspended from duty.
After his suspension had ended, Arthur Martin, along with Martin Furnival Jones and Peter Wright, went to see Dick White, head of MI6. They told White that they were convinced that either Hollis or his deputy, Graham Mitchell, were Soviet agents. White contacted Hollis and it was agreed that Mitchell should be kept under constant surveillance. Hollis was also investigated but no evidence was found and he was officially cleared of being a spy.
In 1964 Roger Hollis ordered the investigation into Graham Mitchell should be brought to an end. Martin protested by accusing Hollis of protecting Mitchell. Hollis was furious and took his revenge by replacing Arthur Martin with Ronald Symonds as head of DI (Investigations). Soon afterwards Martin was sacked from MI5. When Dick White heard the news he offered Martin a job with MI6. However, Martin's career as MI5's chief investigating officer had come to an end.
In 1968 Peter Wright was involved with Cecil King, the publisher of the Daily Mirror and a MI5 agent, in a plot to bring down Wilson's government and replace it with a coalition led by Lord Mountbatten. The conspiracy failed and King was forced to resign as chairman of International Publishing Corporation.
Roger Hollis retired in 1965 and was replaced as Director-General by Martin Furnival Jones. He held office until Michael Hanley took over in 1972. According to Peter Wright Hanley told his officers that the prime minister, Edward Heath, had ordered the service to target left-wing politicians.
When Harold Wilson returned to power in 1974 Peter Wright once again became involved in a plot against the Labour government. It was suggested that MI5 files on Wilson should be leaked to the press. Eventually Victor Rothschild persuaded Wright not to take part in the conspiracy. Rothschild warned him that he was likely to get a caught and if that happened he would lose his job and pension.
In 1975 Harold Wilson discovered that MI5 agents were involved in a smear campaign against him. When Hanley was interviewed by Wilson he claimed that this plot only involved a small group of "disaffected right-wing officers". When James Callaghan took office he replaced Hanley with an outsider, the diplomat Howard Smith.
In his retirement Peter Wright wrote an account of his work at MI5. Despite attempts by Margaret Thatcher and her government to suppress the publication and distribution of the book, Spycatcher, was published in 1987. In the book Wright claimed that Roger Hollis had been a Soviet double-agent and had been the fifth man in the spy ring that included Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt.
Other allegations in Wright's book included attempts by MI6 to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser during the Suez Canal Crisis and a conspiracy by MI5 to overthrow the government of Harold Wilson between 1974 and 1976.
In November 1979, Goronwy Rees, gave a deathbed confession that he had been a Soviet spy. He also claimed that Guy Liddell was also a traitor and had been part of the Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt spy ring.
Howard Smith retired as Director General of MI5 in 1981. He was followed by John Jones (1981-85), Anthony Duff (1985-88), Patrick Walker (1988-91) and Stella Rimmington (1991-96).