Created in Great Britain in August 1909 as the Home Department of the Secret Service Bureau and headed by Maj. Vernon Kell, the Security Service—also known as MI5 by virtue of its early cover as a military intelligence branch—established its reputation for quiet efficiency by rounding up a large German espionage organization based in a barber shop in London’s Caledonian Road in August 1914. Between the wars, MI5’s strength was drastically reduced, to the point where in 1939 it was obliged to take on hundreds of officers, secretaries, and clerks to cope with the challenges of alien internment and German spies. The task proved too great for Kell and his deputy, Sir Eric Holt-Wilson, and Sir David Petrie was appointed by Winston Churchill to supervise its restructuring. A former Scotland Yard analyst, Capt. Guy Liddell, was promoted to director of counterespionage, and he selected Anthony Blunt as his assistant. By the middle of 1941 MI5 had taken control of the Abwehr’s agents in England and had begun to perfect the art of strategic deception, a tactic that was to prove vital to the success of D-Day.
At the end of the war, MI5 retained a small proportion of its staff to work on countersubversion and run counterintelligence operations against the Soviets, but little was achieved until 1963, when the organization was almost paralyzed by the suspicion that it had suffered hostile penetration at a high level. However, the subsequent mole hunts proved inconclusive, and the only confirmed case of espionage was Michael Bettaney, an inadequate alcoholic who in 1983 volunteered to spy for the KGB’s London rezident but was betrayed by Oleg Gordievsky.
Always a secretive, independent government department, MI5 attracted unwelcome publicity when it attempted to honeytrap Eugene Ivanov with the help of a cabinet minister, John Profumo. In another embarrassment, an MI5 retiree, Peter Wright, collaborated with journalists to prove that MI5’s poor postwar performance could not be attributed to Blunt’s role as a Soviet mole. His controversial book, SpyCatcher, gained wide circulation because of a clumsy attempt to prevent publication in Australia in 1986. Since then the organization has suffered further embarrassment following the resignation in 1996 of a junior officer, David Shayler, who later served a prison sentence for breaches of the Official Secrets Act resulting from unauthorized disclosures to journalists.
MI5’s 14 directors-general have been Kell (1909–40), Petrie (1940–46), Percy Sillitoe (1946–53), Dick White (1953–56), Roger Hollis (1956–65), Martin Furnival Jones (1965–71), Michael Hanley (1972–79), Howard Smith (1979–81), John Jones (1981–85), Antony Duff (1985–87), Patrick Walker (1987–92), Stella Rimington (1992–96), Stephen Lander (1996–2000), and Eliza Manningham-Buller (2000– )