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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 July, 2004, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
MI5 blocked from Cabinet papers
BY Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online at the National Archives

Clem Atlee
Atlee: MI5 wanted access to agenda

Britain's spies demanded to see Cabinet papers during Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee's post-war government, newly released documents reveal.

MI5 asked to see the weekly agenda in an apparent fit of pique after being ignored by civil servants.

Papers released at the National Archives confirm Number 10 blocked the request which sparked a wider debate on who controlled the spies.

Spy masters made the demand after they were frozen out of a plan to abolish visas for Americans.

Cabinet discussions theoretically remain the most important in government, as they represent the point at which ministers collectively agree a position to put before Parliament and the country.

Diplomatic request

But writing from a telegraphic address "Snuffbox, London", the UK's internal security agency told Downing Street in November 1948 that it should have access to the weekly agenda.

At the time, MI5's existence was largely a state secret, with the service's head, Sir Percy Sillitoe, not even listed in the official annual directory of civil servants.

But the spy master wanted very much to be at the centre of government - and ordered officials to fire off letters demanding access to the weekly Cabinet agenda.

I am sorry to have to reply that this suggestion of seeing Cabinet agendas is not approved
Cabinet Office to MI5
While couched in diplomatic language, papers reveal Sir Percy strongly opposed a plan to abolish visas for US citizens - and was hopping mad he had not been consulted.

But officials were not having any of it. One memo described the then Cabinet Secretary Sir Norman Brook's absolute opposition to Sir Percy's request.

"If the principle were once conceded that the Security Service has a right to be told what is coming up for discussion, they would soon ask to see papers on matters which they thought might interest them.

"Papers dealt with under the general heading of 'relations with Eire' would have had an irresistible lure for the Security Service.

"We had better stick pretty closely to the conception of the Cabinet as a meeting of Ministers."

Meanwhile, Whitehall chiefs realised nobody knew which minister had the power to put MI5 back in its place.

One civil servant was sent to the archives to investigate. Days later, he reported he had found just half a dozen documents setting out MI5's constitutional position - papers which even the Cabinet Secretary had not seen.

MI5 received a polite but firm rebuke
While MI5's chief had right of access to the Prime Minister, "to whom he will have right of access", he was also responsible to the Home and Foreign Secretaries, depending on the circumstances.

The Home Office blamed the Foreign Office for MI5's complaint, saying an official had shown himself "not very interested" in his role as the official link between Whitehall and the secret service.

"There are a fair few number of cases where things have gone wrong through the failure of the Foreign Office to keep the Security Service in touch with developments," said one official.

And when asked if it would like to take responsibility for MI5, the new Ministry of Defence hurriedly declined, saying it had too much on its plate.

On 10 December, Sir Percy got his rebuke, albeit a polite one.

"I am sorry to have to reply that this suggestion [of seeing papers] is not approved," wrote the Cabinet Office.

"It is felt here that the solution of your difficulties lies rather in the direction of improved contacts between your service and the few departments which handle matters of interest to you."

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