Created in 1909 as the Foreign Department of the Secret Service Bureau, under the leadership of Capt. Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the SIS was responsible for the collection of intelligence from outside the British Empire until the end of World War II. During the Cold War, the SIS extended its reach by opening stations in Commonwealth countries, but was handicapped by a series of hostile penetrations. Dick Ellis admitted in 1966 that he had sold SIS secrets to the Abwehr before the war, and in March 1961 George Blake confessed that he had spied for the KGB since his release from internment in Korea in April 1953. In addition, in January 1963 Kim Philby confirmed that he had spied for the Soviets since his original recruitment in May 1934.
Although the SIS experienced hostile penetration by the Germans, especially in Holland from 1936 on, and consistently thereafter by the Soviets, the organization took the credit for much of the cryptographic success achieved at Bletchley Park and developed uniquely close links with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services and its successor, the Central Intelligence Agency. Based on mutual trust engendered through collaborative operations, including technical operations against the Soviets in Vienna and Berlin during the 1950s and the infiltration of partisans into the Eastern Bloc, the SIS became the CIA’s acknowledged partner in such major joint operations as BOOT, SCRAMBLE, and VALUABLE.
This unequal partnership with the United States survived the 1956 Suez Crisis, when political relations between the two countries dropped to a low point, and despite being a fraction of the CIA’s size, the SIS gained respect for the quality of its political analysis and the ingenuity of its technical operations, such as the highly productive eavesdropping conducted in Athens during the Cyprus Emergency. Any lingering doubts about the SIS’s ability to attract Soviet defectors, or its internal integrity, were removed by the successful recruitment and management of Oleg Gordievsky, who was run from December 1973 until his impressive exfiltration from Moscow in July 1985. However, there would later be concerns that Gordievsky may not have been compromised by Aldrich Ames, as originally supposed when the CIA debriefed the mole following his arrest in February 1994, leaving the possibility that another spy had gone undetected.
The SIS has had 14 chiefs, but the appointment of John Scarlett in July 2004 was by far the most controversial. A career SIS officer, Scarlett had been expelled from Moscow in January 1994 and been responsible for managing the Mitrokhin fiasco in 1998. He had also been chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in September 2002 when the British government issued a document to explain and illustrate the threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD). After the Iraq War of 2003 and the Butler Report into WMD intelligence, the JIC-sponsored assessment was demonstrated to have been fundamentally flawed, and SIS’s reputation was severely undermined. The chiefs of SIS have been Mansfield Smith-Cumming (1909–23), Hugh Sinclair (1923–39), Stewart Menzies (1939–53), John Sinclair (1953–56), Dick White (1956–58), John Rennie (1968–73), Maurice Oldfield (1973–78), Dickie Franks (1978–81), Colin Figures (1981–85), Christopher Curwen (1985–89), Colin McColl (1989–94), David Spedding (1994–99), Richard Dearlove (1999–2004), and John Scarlett (2004– ).