British intelligence agencies

The Government of the United Kingdom maintains intelligence agencies within several different government departments. The agencies are responsible for collecting and producing foreign and domestic intelligence, providing military intelligence, performing espionage and counter-espionage. Their intelligence assessments contribute to the conduct of the foreign relations of the United Kingdom, maintaining the national security of the United Kingdom, military planning and law enforcement in the United Kingdom.[1] The main organisations are the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), the Security Service (MI5), the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and Defence Intelligence (DI).

The history of the organisations goes back to the 19th century. The decryption of the Zimmermann Telegram in 1917 was described as the most significant intelligence triumph for Britain during World War I,[2] and one of the earliest occasions on which a piece of signals intelligence influenced world events.[3] During the Second World War and afterwards, many observers regarded Ultra as immensely valuable to the Allies of World War II. In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, GCHQ interceptions of Soviet ship positions were sent directly to the White House.[4] Intelligence cooperation in the post-war period between the United Kingdom and the United States became the cornerstone of Western intelligence gathering and the "Special Relationship" between the United Kingdom and the United States.[5]

Current agencies

Agency Description Personnel
Domestic intelligence Security Service (MI5)[6] Counter terrorism and counter espionage intelligence gathering and analysis. 4,053[7]
Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) Counter terrorism and protecting critical national infrastructure. 551[7]
National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit (NDEDIU)[8] Counter extremism and public disorder intelligence gathering and analysis.
National Crime Agency (NCA)[9] Organised crime intelligence gathering and analysis. 4,516[10]
National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NBIS)[11] Illegal firearms intelligence analysis. 40[12]
National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB)[13] Economic crime intelligence gathering and analysis. 90[14]
Foreign intelligence Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6)[15] Foreign intelligence gathering. 2,594[7]
Defence Intelligence (DI)[16] Military intelligence gathering and analysis. 3,655[7]
Signals intelligence Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)[17] Signals intelligence gathering and analysis. 5,806[7]
Joint intelligence Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO)[18] Joint intelligence analysis. 58[7]


Organised intelligence collection and planning for the government of the United Kingdom and the British Empire was established during the 19th century. The War Office, responsible for the administration of the British Army, formed the Intelligence Branch in 1873, which became the Directorate of Military Intelligence. The Admiralty, responsible for the command of the Royal Navy, formed the Foreign Intelligence Committee in 1882,[19] which evolved into the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) in 1887.[20] The Committee of Imperial Defence, established in 1902, was responsible for research, and some co-ordination, on issues of military strategy.

The Secret Service Bureau was founded in 1909 as a joint initiative of the Admiralty and the War Office to control secret intelligence operations in the UK and overseas, particularly concentrating on the activities of the Imperial German government. The Bureau was split into naval and army sections which, over time, specialised in foreign espionage and internal counter-espionage activities respectively. This specialisation, formalised prior to 1914, was a result of the Admiralty intelligence requirements related to the maritime strength of the Imperial German Navy. In 1916, during World War I, the two sections underwent administrative changes so that the internal counter-espionage section became the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5) and the foreign section became the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 6 (MI6), names by which the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service are frequently known in popular culture today.

The Naval Intelligence Division led the Royal Navy's highly successful cryptographic efforts, Room 40 (later known as NID25). The decryption of the Zimmermann Telegram was described as the most significant intelligence triumph for Britain during World War I,[2] and one of the earliest occasions on which a piece of signals intelligence influenced world events.[3]

The Imperial War Cabinet was the British Empire's wartime coordinating body. In 1919, the Cabinet's Secret Service Committee, recommended that a peacetime codebreaking agency should be created.[21] Staff were merged from NID25 and MI1b into the new organisation,[22] which was given the cover-name the "Government Code and Cypher School" (GC&CS).[23]

The Joint Intelligence Committee was founded in 1936 as a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence.[24] During World War II, it became the senior intelligence assessment body for the United Kingdom government.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the RAF Intelligence Branch was established, although personnel had been employed in intelligence duties in the RAF since its formation in 1918.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was a World War II organisation operational from 1940 until early 1946. SOE conducted espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe and later in occupied Southeast Asia against the Axis powers and aided local resistance movements.

During the Second World War, the Government Code and Cypher School was based largely at Bletchley Park working on, most significantly, the German Enigma machine (codenamed Ultra) and Lorenz ciphers,[25] but also a large number of other systems. Winston Churchill was reported to have told King George VI, when presenting to him Stewart Menzies (head of the Secret Intelligence Service and the person who controlled distribution of Ultra decrypts to the government): "It is thanks to the secret weapon of General Menzies, put into use on all the fronts, that we won the war!"[26] F. W. Winterbotham quoted the western Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, at war's end describing Ultra as having been "decisive" to Allied victory.[27] Sir Harry Hinsley, Bletchley Park veteran and official historian of British Intelligence in World War II, made a similar assessment about Ultra, saying that it shortened the war "by not less than two years and probably by four years"; and that, in the absence of Ultra, it is uncertain how the war would have ended.[28]

GC&CS was renamed the "Government Communications Headquarters" (GCHQ) in 1946.[29] Wartime signals intelligence cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States continued in the post-war period.[30] The two countries signed the bilateral UKUSA Agreement in 1948. It was later broadened to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand, known as the Five Eyes, as well as cooperation with several "third-party" nations. This became the cornerstone of Western intelligence gathering and the "Special Relationship" between the UK and the USA.[5] Since World War II, the chief of the London station of the United States Central Intelligence Agency has attended the Joint Intelligence Committee's weekly meetings. One former US intelligence officer has described this as the "highlight of the job" for the London CIA chief.[31] Resident intelligence chiefs from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand may attend when certain issues are discussed.

In 1946 the Joint Intelligence Bureau (JIB) was established.[32] The JIB was structured into a series of divisions: procurement (JIB 1), geographic (JIB 2 and JIB 3), defences, ports and beaches (JIB 4), airfields (JIB 5), key points (JIB 6), oil (JIB 7) and telecommunications (JIB 8).[33]

The Joint Intelligence Committee moved to the Cabinet Office in 1957 with its assessments staff who prepared intelligence assessments for the committee to consider.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, GCHQ Scarborough intercepted radio communications from Soviet ships reporting their positions and used that to establish where they were heading. A copy of the report was sent directly to the White House Situation Room, providing initial indications of Soviet intentions with regards the US naval blockade of Cuba.[4]

When the Ministry of Defence was formed in 1964, the Joint Intelligence Bureau, Naval Intelligence, Military Intelligence and Air Intelligence were combined to form the Defence Intelligence Staff (DIS).[34] The DIS focussed initially on Cold War issues.[35]

The Security Service Act 1989 established the legal basis of the Security Service (MI5) for the first time under the government led by Margaret Thatcher. GCHQ and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) were placed on a statutory footing by the Intelligence Services Act 1994 under the government led by John Major.

In 2009, the Defence Intelligence Staff changed its name to Defence Intelligence (DI).[35] The Joint Intelligence Organisation was formalised to provide intelligence assessment and advice on development of the UK intelligence community's analytical capability for the Joint Intelligence Committee and the National Security Council, which was established in 2010.[18]

The National Crime Agency, established in 2013, gathers and analyses intelligence on serious and organised crime.[9] It was preceded by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (2006–2013), National Criminal Intelligence Service (1992–2006), and the National Drugs Intelligence Unit (1970s–1992).

Four domestic intelligence units exist under the authority of the Home Office. The National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit, which dates back to 2004 and has been hosted by the Metropolitan Police Service since 2011; the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism, created in 2007, which is responsible for leading work on counter-terrorism working closely with the police and security services; the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, which was created in 2008; and the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, which was established in 2010 by the City of London Police.[13]


Single Intelligence Account

The Single Intelligence Account (SIA) is the funding vehicle for the three main security and intelligence agencies: the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6),[36] Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)[37] and the Security Service (MI5).[38]

As of 2016, the Accounting Officer for the SIA is Mark Sedwill, the National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister.[38][37][39]

The current spending on the SIA is £3.2 billion in financial year 2017/18.[40]

See also



  1. See for example "Spies told to come clean on Cameron's order to kill". The Sunday Times. 19 February 2017. Retrieved 19 February 2017.
  2. "Why was the Zimmerman Telegram so important?". BBC. 17 January 2017. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  3. "The telegram that brought America into the First World War". BBC History Magazine. 17 January 2017. Retrieved 17 January 2017.
  4. Corera, Gordon (2019-10-21). "Scarborough's Cuban missile crisis role revealed". Retrieved 2019-10-21.
  5. Adam White (29 June 2010). "How a Secret Spy Pact Helped Win the Cold War". Time.
  6. "The Security Service". MI5. Retrieved 2014-03-07.
  7. Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament "Annual Report 2016–2017", Section 10: Administration and Expenditure. House of Commons (20 December 2017). Retrieved 4 June 2018.
  8. "National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit". National Police Chief's Council. Archived from the original on 2 February 2018. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  9. "Intelligence". National Crime Agency. Archived from the original on 2017-01-22. Retrieved 2017-01-21.
  10. National Crime Agency "Annual Report and Accounts 2016-17", page 58. Published 20 July 2017. Retrieved 5 June 2018.
  11. "NABIS - National Ballistics Intelligence Service". Retrieved 2014-03-07.
  12. "Tracking firearms". The Economist. 3 October 2013. Retrieved 22 June 2018.
  13. "General guide to the NFIB" (PDF). City of London Police. July 2010. Retrieved 21 January 2017.
  14. Meadows, Sam (2018-07-13). "What really happens when you report a scam? We go behind closed doors at Action Fraud". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 2018-10-08.
  15. "SIS (MI6)". SIS. Retrieved 2014-03-07.
  16. "Defence Intelligence - Detailed guidance - GOV.UK". Retrieved 2014-03-07.
  17. "GCHQ Home page". Archived from the original on 2014-08-01. Retrieved 2014-03-07.
  18. "Joint Intelligence Organisation - GOV.UK". Retrieved 2014-03-07.
  19. Allen. The Foreign Intelligence Committee. p. 68.
  20. "Obituary". Obituaries. The Times (34523). London. 13 March 1895. col F, p. 10.
  21. Johnson, 1997, p. 44
  22. Johnson, 1997, p. 45 and Kahn, 1991, p. 82
  23. Macksey, Kenneth (2003). The Searchers: How Radio Interception Changed the Course of Both World Wars. Cassell Military. p. 58. ISBN 978-0-304-36545-6.
  24. Spying on the World. p. 10. ISBN 9780748678570.
  25. Gannon, Paul (2006). Colossus: Bletchley Park's Greatest Secret. Atlantic Books. ISBN 978-1-84354-331-2.
  26. The original source for this quote is Gustave Bertrand, Enigma, p. 256, at the end of a short passage asserting the importance of Enigma-derived intelligence for Allied victory.
  27. Winterbotham 1974, pp. 154, 191.
  28. Hinsley 1996.
  29. Smith, Michael (1998). Station X. Channel 4 books. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-330-41929-1.
  30. "How the British and Americans started listening in". BBC. 8 February 2016. Retrieved 24 February 2016.
  31. "Why no questions about the CIA?". New Statesman. September 2003. Archived from the original on 2013-07-06.
  32. Dylan, p. xiii
  33. Dylan, p. 31
  34. Dylan, p. 184
  35. "Defence Intelligence: Roles". Ministry of Defence. 12 December 2012. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
  36. SIS: Funding and financial controls Archived 2014-11-10 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved on 2 March 2014.
  37. GCHQ funding & financial controls Retrieved on 2 March 2014.
  38. "Funding | MI5 - The Security Service (2014)". Archived from the original on 8 April 2014. Retrieved 2 March 2014.
  39. "Sir Mark Lyall Grant". GOV.UK. Retrieved 13 February 2016.
  40. Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Annual Report 2015–2016, page 10. House of Commons (5 July 2016). Retrieved 14 December 2016.


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