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Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Political Activities of MI5

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.

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