Wednesday, 9th October 2013
The new head of MI5, Sir Andrew Parker, launched a robust defence of the techniques used by Britain's intelligence agencies in his first speech since taking the job and warned they would not be able to sustain current levels of counter-terrorism work without the help of surveillance from GCHQ. "We are facing an international threat and GCHQ provides many of the intelligence leads upon which we rely. It causes enormous damage to make public the reach and limits of GCHQ techniques. Such information hands the advantage to the terrorists. It is the gift they need to evade us and strike at will. Unfashionable as it might seem, that is why we must keep secrets secret, and why not doing so causes such harm."
Today it is terrorists, but when it was established in 1907 it had a responsibility for investigating espionage, sabotage and subversion within and outside Britain. Its idea of subversion was the growth in support of the Labour Party and the emerging trade union movement. By 1914 Vernon Kell had a staff of four officers, one barrister, two investigators and seven clerks. On the outbreak of the First World War MI5 officers arrested 22 German agents. Over the next year another seven spies were caught.
By the end of the war MI5 had a staff of 5,000 people whose main job was inspecting foreign mail. Kell's main concern involved the spread of socialism after the Russian Revolution. MI5 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 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.
This is only the start of MI5 working against those who held a position left of the Conservative Party. For example, read these books on how British intelligence attempted to undermine the Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s: Peter Wrights's Spycatcher (1987), David Leigh's, The Wilson Plot: How the Spycatchers and Their American Allies Tried to Overthrow the British Government (1988) and Robin Ramsey's Smear!: Wilson and the Secret State (1992).
The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)
Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)
Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)
Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)
Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)
Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)
Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)
The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)
The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)
Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)
New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)
Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)
Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)
Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)
Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)
The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)
Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)
British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)
Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)
Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)
The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)
The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)
What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)
Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)