The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5

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9780713998856: The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5

To mark the centenary of its foundation, the British Security Service, MI5, has opened its archives to an independent historian, the first time any of the world's leading intelligence or security services has taken such a step. "The Defence of the Realm", the book which results, is an unprecedented publication. It reveals the precise role of the Service in twentieth-century British history, from its foundation by Captain Kell of the British Army in October 1909 to root out 'the spies of the Kaiser' up to its present role in countering Islamic terrorism. It describes the distinctive ethos of MI5, how the organization has been managed, its relationship with the government, where it has triumphed and where it has failed. In all of this, no restriction has been placed on the judgements made by the author. The book also casts new light on many events and periods in British history, showing for example that through well-placed sources MI5 was probably the pre-war department with the best understanding of Hitler's objectives, and had a remarkable willingness to speak truth to power; how it was so astonishingly successful in turning German agents during the Second World War; and that it had much greater roles than has hitherto been realized during the end of the Empire and in responding to the recurrent fears of successive governments (both Conservative and Labour) and or Cold War Communist subversion. It has new information about the Profumo affair and its aftermath, about the 'Magnificent Five' and about a range of formerly unconfirmed Soviet contacts. It reveals that though MI5 had a file on Harold Wilson it did not plot against him, and it describes what really happened during the failed IRA attack in Gibraltar in March 1988. When Rab Butler was appointed Home Secretary with responsibility for the Security Service in 1957 he didn't even know where its headquarters were. "The Defence of the Realm" now describes this previously extremely secretive organization more fully than any previous book - and identifies all its main buildings on the end papers.

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Review:

A Q&A with Christopher Andrew

Question: Where does "MI5" come from?

Christopher Andrew: MI5 originally stood for "Military Intelligence [Department] 5." The Secret Service Bureau (SSB) was formed in 1909 to counter the danger to Britain from German espionage, and the division of the SSB responsible for counter-espionage within the British Isles became Department 5, or "MI5." MI5 was renamed the Security Service in 1931, but is still commonly known as MI5 today.

Question: Where is MI5 based?

Christopher Andrew: MI5's staff, headed by Director General Jonathan Evans, is largely based in their headquarters at Thames House in London. They also have eight regional offices around Great Britain plus a Northern Ireland headquarters. The Service is organized into seven branches, each with specific areas of responsibility, which work to counter a range of threats including terrorism, espionage and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Question: What happened to MI1-MI4?

Christopher Andrew: There were a number of departments within the Directorate of Military Intelligence (MI1 through MI19) which dealt with a range of issues. For example, MI1 was responsible for code-breaking, and MI2 handled Russian and Scandinavian intelligence. The responsibilities of these departments were either discontinued or absorbed into The War Office, MI5 and MI6 and, later, the Government Communications Headquarters.

Question:What is the difference between MI5 and MI6?

The Security Service (MI5) is the UK’s security intelligence agency, responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, at home and overseas, against the major threats to national security. The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is primarily responsible for gathering intelligence outside the UK in support of the government's security, defence, foreign and economic policies.

Question: How realistic is the depiction of MI5 in the television series Spooks (MI-5 here in the United States)?

Christopher Andrew: The BBC's Spooks is a slickly-produced and entertaining drama, but, like other works of spy fiction, it glamorizes the world of intelligence. The nature of MI5's work can be stimulating and highly rewarding (as the show's strapline declares, it is not "9 to 5"), but the program does not portray the full range of their activities, nor the routine, but vitally important, aspects of their operations which would not make such exciting viewing. Particularly unrealistic is the way in which the characters in Spooks regularly act outside the law in pursuit of their investigations!

(Photo © Michael Jones)

About the Author:

Christopher Andrew is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and Chair of the Faculty of History at Cambridge University. He is also chair of the British Intelligence Study Group, Co-Editor of Intelligence and National Security, former Visiting Professor at Harvard, Toronto and the Australian National University, and a regular presenter of BBC Radio and TV documentaries. His thirteen previous books include The Mitrokhin Archive volumes 1 and 2, and a number of path-breaking studies on the use and abuse of secret intelligence in modern history.

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