Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Shedding light on a secret service

By Gordon Corera
Security correspondent, BBC News

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Until the 1990s, the name of MI5 director general was never publicly confirmed.

But recent years have seen a careful, gradual fraying of the cloak of secrecy that surrounded the organisation.

This is largely a result of changing times.

MI5's original remit was to hunt foreign spies operating within the UK.

When it was founded in 1909, the fear was that German agents were crawling over Britain, stealing military and industrial secrets and preparing for war. The security service's job was to catch them.

After World War II, the focus shifted to catching Soviet spies operating within the UK - often within the establishment and security and intelligence services themselves.

This type of work rarely surfaced into public view unless there was a particularly spectacular catch - or mistake.

The service also spent more time monitoring domestic dissent - a role which made many suspicious, including Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who feared officers were plotting against him.

There were many people going around saying, 'We don't need those sort of services any more'
Stella Rimmington
Former MI5 director general

MI5's reputation and public profile was controversial, but it didn't necessarily matter.

As former MI5 officer Peter Wright wrote in his controversial book Spycatcher: "We bugged and burgled our way across London at the State's behest, while pompous bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall pretended to look the other way."

But the end of the Cold War brought a dilemma. What was MI5 for?

"There were many people going around saying, 'We don't need those sort of services any more because they are all to do with the Cold War,'" Stella Rimmington, who ran MI5 in the early 1990s, told me last year.

With some in Whitehall questioning the need for quite so much to be spent on intelligence, MI5 began to gingerly step into the limelight and make the case for its survival, wrestling control of countering terrorism in Northern Ireland from the police and focusing on international crime, drugs and economic espionage.

Public engagement

The attacks of 11 September 2001 answered the question of what MI5 would be for, at least for a while.

The organisation dramatically shifted its staff and resources towards countering terrorism within the UK and hunting al-Qaeda cells and sympathisers.

But this adjustment was not without problems.

Many on the inside concede that MI5 was slow to spot the emergence of domestic radicalisation and so-called "home-grown" terror networks.

[MI5] knew it needed to improve its image and explain its work better
Gordon Corera

Realising this, the security service began to expand out of London to try and gain better intelligence across the country.

This kind of counter-terrorist work inevitably required a fundamentally different degree of public engagement from the work of the past.

Whether in the form of arrests, raids (like that in Forest Gate), foiled attacks or real attacks, or in controversial areas like co-operation with the US, MI5 found its work in the public eye in a way it had never been used to.

It knew it needed to improve its image and explain its work better.

The attacks of 7 July 2005 also brought the most intense public controversy.

When it became clear that one of the 7/7 bombers had come under MI5 surveillance as part of a previous operation, questions were asked as to why he was not investigated.

The security service was forced to defend itself and explain its actions, placing statements on its website going into the kind of detail never presented before.

Mr Evans, the current director general of MI5, is clearly more comfortable engaging with the outside world than some of his predecessors were, happy even to let some journalists into the inner sanctum of Thames House, MI5's headquarters.

But he knows that shedding some light is vital for his service's reputation and its ongoing support in Whitehall, Westminster and among the public, even if the real work of the service will always remain out of view.

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