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British intelligence in the 21st century

Published date: 21 Jun 2001

Lecture by the Director General of the Security Service, Sir Stephen Lander, to the Public Records Office Conference "The Missing Dimension".


Given the perception in some quarters that the Intelligence Agencies are bent on keeping all they have done secret for ever, I am conscious of the irony of chief spook opening a conference advertised as designed to examine "the Open Government Initiative and the potential impact of the Freedom of Information Act".

Nevertheless, I am pleased to be able to open the conference because:

  • intelligence records are public records within the meaning of the Act and it is right that, as temporary custodians, the Agencies should from time to time explain their approach to the management of their archives;
  • my Service has made significant changes, with the help of the PRO, to our policies for retention and release of records over the last five years; and
  • as a one-time historian, I can appreciate the academic interest of the original material that the Agencies hold.

Gill Bennett will speak to you after tea about the approach of SIS and GCHQ. I shall speak for my Service, the Security Service (MI5). What we all have in common is the appreciation that the current Agencies do not own the past and certainly cannot change it. They retain records under the 1958 Act so far as that is necessary to ensure the effectiveness of current work, including honouring obligations made to individuals, organisations and foreign governments in the past. But, in my view, those records must in due course speak for themselves.

The Missing Dimension

The title of this conference ("The Missing Dimension") is misleading. I do not believe that anyone could claim that Intelligence has been totally absent from 20th century historical studies and that applies to peace as well as wartime material. As Christopher Andrew and David Dilks wrote in the introduction to their 1984 book "The Missing Dimension":

"Historians have been far more put off the subject of intelligence than they need have been... In Britain at least, the source material now available, for all its gaps and defects, is sufficient to fill both the general outline of the missing intelligence dimension and much of its operational material. ...Even the censored files in the Public Records Office contain a surprising amount of both raw intelligence and analysis."

Moreover, before we started releasing our own records in 1997, from 1992 Service documents and papers contained in the files of other government departments were released under the 30 year rule. Some of the subjects which these documents have shed light include:

  • CAB 16/8 - 1909 report on foreign espionage in the UK;
  • CAB 130/8 - Review of the revival of fascism in the UK (January 1946);
  • CAB 130/37 - Communist Party Strengths and Activities, Penetration of Government Organisations and Trade Unions (1948);
  • CAB 130/115 - Communism and the Trade Unions;
  • MOD AVIA 46/541 - Papers on vetting policy in industry between 1946 - 56. One serial dated 1948 includes one rather dubious assessment of the time that "there are no communist employees of these [atomic energy] firms who have access to secret work".

But these releases represent an accidental approach, not a systematic one - which is what we have been trying to put in place over the last five years.

In the short time available, what I would like to do is tell you about:

  • the archives and other records we hold;
  • our policies for retaining records no longer required for the Service's current work;
  • our policy and practice on releasing records to the PRO and hence into the public domain; and
  • if there is time, some comments on our plans for further releases.

Archives held by the Service

First, then, the archives. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that (as I hope you will not be surprised to hear) our files are safely and securely stored in good condition and with computerised databases of file subjects and titles. In headline terms, therefore, we know what we have and where it is.

The bad news is that, given that the Service has worked continuously for over 90 years, there is rather less material than you might have expected. There are a number of reasons for this which I would like to explain:

  • Size of Service. The Service was very small for periods of its history. Some figures to illustrate this point:
    - 1909: Service comprised 10 staff;
    - 1914-1918: Expanded to 850 staff (133 officers, remainder support);
    - 1920's: Cut to just 16 officers;
    - 1941: Rapid expansion to 860 staff (233 officers);
    - Today: Around 1800 staff.
  • Bomb damage. We also have the German Luftwaffe to thank for the destruction of a proportion of our records when in September 1940 a bomb hit an outbuilding of Wormwood Scrubs which housed our Registry.
  • There has in the past been an inconsistent approach to file destruction, and a lot was destroyed that we wish had not been following both World Wars.

It is not the case that previous generations were unconcerned with history. In 1945 the then DG, David Petrie, instructed that files should be reviewed for destruction. He said that:

"There is a paramount necessity to restrict the records of the Service to matters which are now its proper concern. Superfluous information impedes work rather than assists it."

But he went on to write:

"In reviewing papers for destruction, due regard should be given to the necessity of preserving information of historical interest, and also that which may be of value in a future emergency as showing how matters of policy and principle were decided. This applies also to the methods of enquiry adopted in specific cases or classes of cases."

One can see in the records the results of that guidance.

As to the records themselves, they consist of:

  • paper files, perhaps in total (including current work) some 400,000 files, many multi-volume;
  • a small amount of recovered material from spies, terrorists etc and other artefacts to do with our work;
  • taped interviews of retired members of staff, which we started collecting four years ago;
  • computerised databases of information.

But the files are by far the most interesting and voluminous. They are of broadly four types:

  • files on individuals and organisations - casework files;
  • files on subjects (many multi-volume), e.g. Soviet overseas representation (34 main vols: 180 linked ones);
  • files on Service policy, e.g. Security use of gerbils (1 volume), Policy on positive vetting of staff (6 volumes starting in 1951); and
  • files on operations (i.e. how got information).

Many of them are still living entities in that they record the lengthy interest of the Service over decades in a single subject, organisation or individual. Thus the study of Soviet espionage in some of its many manifestations has been ongoing since the 1920s (and continues today). One or two of the names in the Mitrokhin Archive were individuals in whom the Service first had an interest in the 1930s. Similarly, our interest in individual members of the Provisional IRA has been ongoing for more than 30 years, and in some cases goes back to the 1950s.

In short, much of our work has long antecedents, knowledge of which is important to success today. Records that in Government Departments would be of historical interest only continue to be of value in day-to-day work.

Current retention policy

I should now like to spend just a little time explaining our policies on retention of files of historical interest no longer needed for our work. These changed followed a review carried out by the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on Public Records in 1997. That review took account of a number of submissions from members of the public, journalists, historians and politicians.

In summary, the review endorsed our existing criteria for selection which were that we should retain files covering:

  • major investigations;
  • significant subversives, terrorists, spies, etc;
  • individuals who achieved positions of public eminence or were involved in important historical events;
  • files which contain original papers of historical interest;
  • Service policy, organisation and procedures, subjects and organisations studied, and major events with which the Service was involved;
  • files and records which are in some way "period pieces"; and
  • milestones in the Service's history.

To this list the Advisory Council recommended the following additional criteria which have since been included:

  • illustrative selection of files for individuals who were not of any particular significance;
  • sample casework files of those not covered by the above criteria that would otherwise be destroyed (of no less than 1%);
  • all Service indices.

The full criteria are now set out in an Operational Selection Policy for the Service prepared by the PRO which is publicly available on PRO website.

Policy and practice on releases

I come now to our current approach to the release of records. We have five part-time former members of the Service working on clearing material for release both from our own archives and from those of other Departments. This is time-consuming work - and accordingly the pace with which we can release material will always be modest.

In preparing files for release, our team works closely with the Records Management Staff at the PRO and I should like to put on record my appreciation for the support and advice we receive from them in this work.

The reviewers have three issues to take into account before releasing material:

  • is the file or subject still actively being worked on? If so, it will not be released;
  • is the matter sensitive in relation to national security and thus inappropriate for release under PRA Section 3.4?
  • would release cause "substantial personal distress" (as envisaged in PRA Section 5.1)?

I should expand on the national security point. We base our approach on the definition of sensitivity set out in Schedule III of the Intelligence Services Act 1994. Thus we would retain the file, or remove the offending passage, if it contained:

  • information which might lead to the exposure of individuals who have given us information or other assistance in confidence;
  • details of operational sources and methods that are still used by us or the other agencies;
  • information which might compromise current or future operations;
  • information provided by a foreign government in confidence;

We also add the need to protect the identity of our own staff (unless they have died or are already publicly avowed).

If you detect a difference of approach between us and the other two Agencies it is because our records play differently against those criteria.

Using this approach, we have been transferring files to the PRO for public release since November 1997. Our first tranche of archives comprised most of our surviving records from WW1. This tranche of material released under PRO reference KV1 included:

  • some 48 volumes of Service Branch Reports of their work during the WW1. These were described at the time by Christopher Andrew as "the most detailed record of the wartime activities of MI5 that have ever been made available" (MI5: The First Ten Years);
  • copy of Kell's letter in 1909 accepting secret service post;
  • number of working files on secret writing and counter-espionage legislation.

Since that first release there have been a further six tranches totalling 708 pieces. These have largely related to the WW11 period, although many of the Personal Files contain pre-war material.

A selection of personal files released

In KV2: Personal Files

  • (KV2 /1) 'Mata Hari' (alias Marguerite McLEOD, the German spy executed by the French in 1917.
  • (KV 2/6- 10) Roger Casement - although no light shed on the authenticity of this diary.
  • (KV 2/508 - 510) Leonard Wincott - the leader of the Invergordon Mutiny. This file documents MI5's view, now generally accepted but not so at the time, that the mutiny was spontaneous and not communist inspired.
  • (KV 2/34 - 38) Rudolf Hess - papers relating to his arrival in Britain and his subsequent detention here during the war.
  • (KV 2/245 -250) (William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) - a plethora of material on this man, including some of his personal effects: watch, ring and cufflinks. (KV2/345)
  • (KV2/74 -75) PG Wodehouse - including a copy of his MI5 interrogation report.
  • (KV2) Good accounts of a number of XX agents including SNOW (453) CHARLIE (454) and ZIG ZAG (455).

Aside from the personal files, we have released a number of subject and policy files. From KV3 and KV4:

  • (KV3/ 1- 7) File series on the German Intelligence Service (Abwehr) in the period leading up to and during WWII which includes a collection of analytical papers covering the Abwehr's activities and modus operandi in Europe.
  • (KV4/ 1- 3) John Curry's History of the Service 1908-1945. Written originally for internal purposes only and therefore is an illuminating piece of work. Now published.
  • (KV4 4- 58) MI5 section histories covering WWII, including report on communist and fascist activity, activities of the Comintern, operations of Camp 020.
  • (KV4 112 - 114) MI5 Game Book. Two volumes of MI5 case summaries from the period 1909 - 1937 (to qualify for entry in the Game Book the individual had to be prosecuted under the OSA on evidence provided by MI5).

What next?

On 5 July, we shall be releasing a further tranche of material which will include more WWII archive material and for the first time some files from the inter-war years.

This large tranche of material, totalling 189 pieces, includes files on German intelligence agents, British renegades, double agent operations, Soviet intelligence activity and communist sympathisers, and fascism. Before I say any more about this tranche, I have been asked by the PRO to remind you that details about the content of this release are subject to a press embargo until 5 July.

Some notable pieces include:

  • KV2/ 514-515 Eamon De VALERA. This file is mainly derived from press articles, but there is some analysis and extracts from contemporary intelligence summaries.
  • KV2/501 - ZINOVIEV - which adds little to Gill Bennett's excellent work on the authenticity of the ZINOVIEV letter.
  • KV2/502 - Leon TROTSKY. Contains papers relating to his travels from 1915-17, to his time in the Soviet Government and to the period after his exile in 1928 till his death in 1940. File includes an original postcard in his handwriting dated 1916 sent from Cadiz to his Soviet colleague Tchitcherine in London. This postcard never reached its intended destination but was intercepted by MI9 and ended up in our file instead! Quote: "Dear Comrade, I have just wired to you my position. I was arrested in Madrid, three days imprisonment, brought to Cadiz and told "tomorrow at 8.00am you will sail for Havanna" (as a criminal with 50 duros in my pocket). A few protests, a telegram to Romanones, etc they gave me leave to stay here until 30 November under supervision. On the 30th there is a steamer from here to New York. I wired in all directions, among others to you, without being at all sure that the telegrams would get through. I press your hand warmly... . I hope that we may meet again in the ranks of fighters for the common cause. Yours Trotsky."
  • KV4/111 Liaison with German Political Police and Nazi Authorities 1933. Includes an account of a visit to Berlin by Guy Liddel of MI5 for talks with Nazi security officials in the context of the discovery by the German police of quantities of material in the HQ of the German Communist Party which gave details of Comintern activity against the UK.

We are also planning to release another tranche of material in November which will continue with our release of pre-1945 material. It will include some more interesting pieces such as:

  • LENIN - file includes a hand-written annotation by one young MI5 desk officer in 1920 who wrote in the margins of a report "LENIN has no actual powers but serves as some kind of figure-head" - Some figure-head! Elsewhere in the file, he is also described by a Home Office official as a "well known Russian social democratic pacifist".
  • File series of 'Weekly Intelligence Summaries' sent out to MI5 Regional Officers during the war. These give a good overview of the contemporary pre-occupations of the Service. For example, one report October 1940 expressed concern that Fifth columnists or the Luftwaffe may be engaged in some form of primitive biological warfare. It goes on to lament that "the police and scientists have been heavily engaged in examining objects recently. These objects vary from: white powders found to be chalk, pellets of starch, caterpillar faeces, dust off the roads, and rubber balloons filled with ammonia; cabbage leaves and an unidentifiable object which may be an ornament of a woman's hat, or something to do with fishing".

In the medium term (next year and beyond)

Our priority is to release all our archives up to 1945 (including the inter-war years). This is expected to take at least another 3-4 years to complete.

A flavour of what's to come:

  • The Arcos Raid - the police search of the Russian Trade Mission in May 1927 which only produced inconclusive evidence that it was being used as a centre for Soviet espionage.
  • The KRIVITSKY papers - 1940 debriefing papers of KRIVITSKY (a general in Soviet Military Intelligence). These give an excellent insight into the machinery, methodology, and some operations of Soviet intelligence in Europe and the UK.
  • GOUZENKO papers - Russian cipher clerk who defected in 1945 and supplied abundant evidence of an extensive network in Canada controlled by the Russian Military Attache. It was GOUZENKO who identified Alan Nunn May - the first 'Atom Spy'.
  • Oswald MOSLEY and his cohorts.

Thereafter, I hope we can move on to release papers from the late 1940s on the origins of the Cold War, our post-war work on Communism and Fascism, the introduction of Cold War vetting, the Atom Spies etc. There will, I have no doubt, be much there that will be new to historians. Sizeable quantities for files remain.


I have attempted to explain what my Service is doing with its records and why. I hope it has been comprehensible and not "inconsistent, pointless, random, arbitrary" as various academics have from time to time described our release policies.

I believe there is material in our archives which will add to historians' understanding of the UK's 20th Century history and, in particular, how successive Governments and the Service approached non-military threats to the UK's safety and security.


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