secret services

secret services
   Founded in 1909, the British secret intelligence service revolves around two major departments of military intelligence with several adjunct executive branches. MI5 is concerned with state security and counter-intelligence. Its responsibilities cover counter-espionage and the investigation of other internal security threats such as political dissenters and subversives. MI5 also prevents the dissemination of classified information and is heavily involved in counter-terrorist activities in the UK. MI6, which, until recently, the government claimed had no official existence in peacetime, deals with obtaining knowledge and with espionage concerning British interests on an international scale.
   Other major aspects of the secret services include the Special Branch of the British police. While originally centralized in Scotland Yard from 1883, the Special Branch was recently extended in localized form to all forty-two of Britain’s police forces.
   Army Intelligence and Special Air Service (SAS) are allied with the secret services in several areas, particularly regarding counter-terrorist operations affecting state security. The activities of the IRA have been a main area of responsibility for MI5, especially since the end of the Cold War. However, even within the secret services the tensions between the efficiency of openness and the protective shield of secrecy are evident. This secretiveness in MI5 has been ameliorated slightly by Stella Rimmington, who was until recently head of MI5 and who gave press briefings. The value of these briefings is limited.
   Until the late 1970s, the clandestine nature of the individual agencies ensured that each was reticent about sharing information with the others. They consequently operated on a largely separate basis, which caused a degree of inefficiency in handling the increased IRA activity in Northern Ireland. In 1978, MI5, the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Army Intelligence and the SAS coordinated intelligence gathering and set up the first Tasking and Coordination Group (TCG) in Belfast. The resulting success in ambushing IRA activity led to the extension of the TCG throughout Northern Ireland.
   The various arms of the secret services are still somewhat jealous of their ‘patch’. Set against that, however, is the need to redefine their role after the Cold War and to ensure better coordination of information. The Joint Intelligence Committee (J IC) now handles coordination, and role redefinition has occurred in a number of areas. The most successful redefinition has been the shift of MI5 from generalized mainland security to dealing with the IRA in particular. The effect of this is not to be underestimated. Underlying the current drive to peace in Northern Ireland are many factors, but included in those factors lies a redefinition of the working role of the secret services following the end of the Cold War. More latterly, there is clear evidence that the secret services (widely understood) have been involved in the identification, serving of indictments and arrest of criminals charged with war crimes in Bosnia. This betokens both a shift in the mandate of these organizations and, more significantly, a clear indication that they are now regarded as responsible directly to Downing Street rather than to the Ministry of Defence. The shift is significant, and unprecedented, in that the secret services may turn out to be an arm of the prime minister in particular rather than the government in general. This indicates a shift from parliamentary and cabinet government to a more presidential style of government. The way in which the secret services are being commanded and held accountable indicates a fundamental and unprecedented shift in the way in which Britain is governed.
   See also: MI5 and MI6
   Further reading
    Pincher, C. (1987) A Web of Deception, London: Sidgwick & Jackson.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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