MI5: Security Service

The entrance to Thames House

The Security Service was set up in 1909 to counter espionage against British organisations by foreign powers. In recent years its remit has widened to include counter-terrorism, subversion and organised crime, although it has lost the latter responsibility to SOCA.

Former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall John Alderson had the following to say regarding MI5's expansion into organised crime;

"It is fatal to let the secret service into the area of ordinary crime. MI5 is not under the same restraints as the police. They infiltrate organisations, people's jobs and lives. They operate almost like a cancer."

"At the moment the acorn of a Stasi [the former East German communists' secret service] has been planted. It is there for future governments to build on."

MI5 has a full-time staff of 3,600 increasing to 4,100 by 2011 and an undisclosed annual budget. It is divided into branches: `A': deals with bugging, breakins and surveillance; `B': personnel; `C': protective security - the vetting of civil servants, security of state offices; `F': internal surveillance of subversives; trade unions, radical and campaigning groups; and of terrorist groups (including the IRA); `K': counter-espionage against `hostile' agents.

The ruling by the European Commission on Human Rights that MI5 surveillance of Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt, former Legal Officer and General Secretary of NCCL/Liberty, was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, led to the Security Service Act 1989, which recognised MI5 for the first time. The agency's role was defined as protecting "national security" against "threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from activities of agents of foreign powers, and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means".

Further legislation has been introduced in 1996 in the shape of the Security Services Bill, which was passed unopposed in the House of Commons on January 10. This allows MI5 to monitor telephones, intercept mail, and enter the homes and offices of organized crime suspects. The Bill was later amended by the Home Office at the suggestion of the police, to state that MI5 will work in a support capacity to the police in its fight against organized crime. MI5 sought powers of arrest for its agents, but these were not granted.


The current Director-General is Jonathan Evans as of 8 April 2007, an expert on al-Qaeda. On a personal note, the DG on 17 November 2001 who ordered my assassination in Florida was Stephen Lander, a serious criminal who ironically chairs the Serious Organised Crime Agency, presumably on the premise that it takes a thief to catch a thief. His photograph appears here.


MI5 took over the lead role in the campaign against Irish terrorism from Special Branch in 1992. It has had a mixed record since. In 1993 the security services intercepted a shipment of weapons, destined for the Loyalist UVF in Belfast. It was subsequently revealed that the "bust" had most likely been fabricated as a public relations exercise. At the trial in 1993 of two INLA men accused of trying to steal explosives from a quarry in Somerset, it was alleged that MI5 had orchestrated a sting to "prove" its effectiveness at a time when it was in competition with the police. The agency was unable to predict the timing of the end of the ceasefire (DT960306), and discounted the coded warnings sent in advance of the South Quay bomb. And in June 1996, after assurances that it had rolled up the IRA network on the Continent (ST960630), MI5 was criticised following the mortar bombing of a British barracks in Germany.

A turf war developed (ST960505) between MI5 and the police force over MI5's increased involvement against the IRA and organised crime. Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist detectives blamed MI5 for "incompetence and bungling" over the Docklands bombing. And although in 1993 then Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke wrote that "[organised crime does not] present a threat to the security of the UK", in 1995 Rimington signalled a broadening of activities (DT950120) in "support" of the police (whether they wanted MI5's support or not) in areas such as drug trafficking. And in a lecture to the English Speaking Union, Rimington called for her agency to join the fight against organized crime (DT951005). In November 1995 the Security Services Bill was introduced (DT951116) to "enable the Security Service to assist the law enforcement agencies in their work against organised crime". MPs passed it in January 1996 (DT960111). It is reported that in May 1996 only nine staff were tackling organised crime, and existing law only allows them to deal with terrorist organisations. The service lost its serious crime responsibility to the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

Historically the Security Service's main task has been countering foreign espionage in Britain, and although the cold war may be over, some elements of the threat remain. It was reported that MI5's counter-espionage resources have been cut by 50% (TM960329), at a time when the Russian intelligence agencies are said to be "back in business" and trying to post officers to London (DT960329) (DT960507).

The use of telephone taps and mail interception by MI5 requires warrants issued by the Home Secretary (DT960703). The total number of warrants issued (for all services) was reported as 947 in 1994. However, it has been reported that 30,000 taps are placed each year by BT. These matters are covered by the Interception of Communications Act 1985, which provides for a tribunal to hear complaints. The tribunal received 37 new complaints in 1994, and upheld none. It has never upheld a complaint since its inception. The new digital exchanges greatly facilitate phone tapping remotely. And now MI5 is seeking encryption keys for GSM digital mobile phones (TM960807) to enable them to listen in to terrorists, criminals, subversives and presumably the royal family when officers fancy some light entertainment.

It is largely a waste of time complaining about Security Service intrusion in your life. In 1992 the Security Service Commissioner Lord Justice Stuart-Smith said that of 102 complaints in three years, 99 had no merit and in the other three cases the service's activities were justified. It has been alleged that MI5 keeps records on over a million potentially subversive UK residents. Moreover, the tribunal cannot give any information to a complainant (unless it decides MI5 has acted outside of its remit, and makes a recommendation for compensation to the Home Secretary). If it turns down an applicant (and it always does) then it cannot say whether or not they have been subject to surveillance. Worse still, recourse to the courts is not available in cases which go before the tribunal. As Alan Beith the Liberal Democrat police and security spokesman says, any complaint about MI5 surveillance or harassment will "just disappear into a black hole" (TM960506).

MI5 now openly recruits new graduates, having published a brochure (ST960421) to attract recruits. All staff are on performance-related pay (TM960401) and are expected to set objectives for themselves, and achieve them.


It would appear that on occasion MI5 subverts democracy by turning known figures in politics, the media and industry into its agents. Betty Boothroyd, first woman Speaker of the House of Commons (TM960218), describes how MI5 asked her to spy on four Labour MPs. When she refused, MI5 got her banned as a security risk from the Foreign Office. It is also widely known that journalist Jon Snow (presently of Channel 4) was offered a tax-free salary to become their agent. He declined, and has indicated concern that others in the media might have received similar offers, and accepted. It is known that MI5 has moles in the organisations it operates against. Former NUM Chief Executive Roger Windsor is alleged to have been working for the service, although MI5 deny this. Another union official, NALGO general secretary Alan Jinkinson, has revealed how they tried to recruit him some years ago. And a fairly extreme subversion of democracy has been the plot reported by Peter Wright to destabilise former prime minister Harold Wilson. A group of MI5 officers regarded him as a "bloody menace" and decided he would have to go. And go he did, in circumstances which are still not entirely clear.

Watchers (A4 branch) are surveillance experts who observe targets from vehicles, on foot and from fixed posts (TM960506). They "interfere with property" by breaking and entering, with the authorisation of the Home Secretary. There are reports of their targetting individuals who are clearly not subversive. Alan Clark claims he was bugged by MI5 while a minister (ST960526), and the travails of the royals at the hands of assorted eavesdroppers are well documented. A report of an uncovered bugging device reveals the sophistication of the technology employed.

In the past MI5 has also collected information on CND and Greenham Common protesters, and investigated Welsh extremists who embarked on a letter-bombing campaign. It is reported that 38 MI5 officers followed the suspect at a demonstration, and a team of 20 officers later kept another individual under observation. It has also been alleged that MI5 infiltrates Scottish and Welsh nationalist organisations, animal rights groups, and politically extreme groupings such as Combat 18.

In the book "Enemies of the State" (Simon & Schuster, 1993) former private detective Gary Murray describes how MI5 hired him to keep a watch on anti-nuclear protesters. He describes how the service operates outside its mandate, and quotes an MI5 officer as saying (p.86),

"We've had serious problems for years. It is now manifestly obvious that we have lost track of our true identity and role. We waste a considerable amount of our time investigating people who are in no way associated with espionage or subversion. To make matters worse, we have our own subversive clique within the Service, who are a law unto themselves."

Murray's book also cites a couple of mysterious deaths which speculation has placed at MI5's door. The case of Hilda Murrell, an anti-nuclear campaigner who disappeared on 21 March 1984, has been widely reported. It has been suggested that an MI5-sponsored burglary of her home went wrong when she surprised the burglars. She was found stabbed to death three days later.

Following the attacks by al-Qaeda on the USA on September 11, 2001, MI5 was re-targeted as a primarily counter-terrorist agency. It has been successful in stopping most but not all of the intended Islamist attacks on the UK although it failed particularly to stop the 7 July 2005 London bombings by four suicide bombers including the alleged ringleader Mohammad Sidique Khan, in which 52 people died. It has also been alleged that Security Service officers were complicit in the torture in other countries of several Islamists. MI5 has hugely increased its manpower with further increases planned in a time of national economic depression. It has been alleged that they have dossiers on one in 160 UK adults, so speaking again personally, I would be very interested in seeing mine, although PC Mark Whittle of FTAC lied in February 2007 that no such dossier existed.

MI5 is supposed to be governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which came into law on 28 July 2000. However the resulting Investigatory Powers Tribunal inherited staff and attitudes from the former Security Service Tribunal, and speaking again personally, at the time of writing this article (July 2009) they have had my complaint for almost a year without calling me to appear before them despite my oft expressed wish to do so, and I think they are hoping MI5 might kill me before they have to find the Security Service "Not Guilty" (as they have for twenty years) of stalking and attempted murder. IPT have never found against MI5 and they have only once found in favour of a plaintiff in what might be seen as a token decision against the police.

It has been revealed that the London congestion charging system uses face recognition technology to search for suspects. There is also much co-operation between European and American intelligence agencies, with the Europeans having their own network for the exchange of data. There is also significant spend on Irish terrorism, which consumed 29% of MI5's resources in 2002/03, with international counter-terrorism at 32%, and protective security rising to 11%, according to an Intelligence and Security Committee report. MI5 has assumed responsibility for national security intelligence work in Northern Ireland as of August 2007. The Special Branch has also doubled in size post-9/11, to 4,247 in 2002.

Rather worrying is Security Service's use in court of information obtained by torture, which was described in the Guardian on 22 July 2003. In particular prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are known to have been interrogated by MI5 officers. On 28 March 2006 the Guardian revealed two British residents were secretly set up by MI5 for carrying "bomb parts" (which weren't) and kidnapped by the CIA for "rendition" in Cuba. The invasion of Muslim countries appears to have unleashed a storm of terrorism at home; on 10 November 2006 the Guardian revealed MI5 was monitoring 30 terrorist plots and 1,600 individuals, although it is obviously in their interest to exaggerate because they want more staff. That does not excuse the torture of Binyam Mohamed reported in the Guardian of 22 August 2008 whose interrogation was with the participation of an MI5 officer.

Former MI5 chief Stella Rimington was interviewed by the Guardian on 18 October 2008 and appears rather more liberal than you would expect. Follow this link for the piece. She thinks there was a 'huge overreaction' to 9/11, but unfortunately she also says the service does not kill people, which does not tally with my personal experience of 17 November 2001 when Seven Unknown Men shouted abuse outside my window in Orlando willing me to come outside and get shot, a challenge which I ducked. She seems to say that the war in Iraq was a mistake, and only caused more terrorism. It's a very interesting article, and I suggest you read it. I found myself wondering whether she was in some way deluding herself, because MI5 are not nice people in real life, so how can she possibly say what she does in this article?

More torture allegations were made in the Guardian on 19 December 2008, that Rangzieb Ahmed's fingernails were torn out by Pakistani intelligence torturers and he was subsequently interrogated by MI5 officers. That is the real face of MI5, not Rimington's wishful thinking.

I have written a short review of Peter Wright's book "Spycatcher" and an outline of the Spycatcher Affair; follow this link for this page.

For an overview of "Shayler-gate"follow this link.

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