British spies plan to party like 007 when MI6 turns 100
In the Hollywood version of the British foreign intelligence agency known as MI6, elegant black-tie affairs are all part of a night's work for super spy James Bond. When his real-life counterparts don their tuxedos later this year for an elegant celebration of the MI6's 100th anniversary, they are being told to pay their own way - reports the Wall Street Journal
The true life version of MI6 has always been less opulent than its fictional counterpart. But in the midst of a deep recession, when British bankers and members of Parliament are being publicly pilloried for extravagance, the spy agency's chiefs have decided that British taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pick up the tab.
The espionage ball, nonetheless, will almost by definition be one of the most remarkable and exclusive of 2009. Along with a host of spies past and present, a carefully screened guest list includes, according to people familiar with the arrangements, the great and powerful of the U.K., from members of the royal family to leading politicians.
Yet while MI6 is tripping the light fantastic, its sister organization -- MI5, responsible for domestic intelligence -- is celebrating its own centenary more soberly.
MI5's main event will be the launch of its first official history by Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew. The book -- "Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5" -- will be published Oct. 5 by Penguin, a subsidiary of Pearson PLC. Penguin says no big launch parties are planned, just a series of lectures by Prof. Andrew.
Next to this, it sounds like MI6 -- formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS -- will be having more fun. Some people in Britain's tightknit intelligence community grumble that, even though the agency has done its best to keep the event under wraps, it is not appropriate for MI6 to be holding balls.
"It's a secret service, for God's sake," said one individual familiar with the plans.
Others say that while the black-tie occasion is unprecedented, it is exactly in line with what the agency has done as well in real life as it has in the James Bond version: rubbing shoulders with the powerful.
"It's a very SIS thing to do," says Philip Davies, an intelligence specialist at London's Brunel University. "It has a reputation for cultivating its links to 'the great and the good.'"
People close to the service say the decision to hold the ball was made at the top, by Sir John Scarlett, the director general of MI6, who, like his predecessors, is referred to by the initial "C" -- after the service's first chief, Mansfield Cumming.
Government officials are mum about details. All staff will pay for their tickets, the most senior paying the most. But they won't say more, refusing to acknowledge the existence of a guest list or disclose the party's date or location, citing security concerns.
The rest of the event is shrouded in, well, secrecy. According to people familiar with the matter, the party has been planned for a secure location well fortified against gatecrashers. One person says musical entertainment from more than one band, dinner and dancing are planned. "C" himself signed off on the menu, this person says.
For Sir John, 60 years old, who retires soon afterwards, the event should also cap an illustrious career.
In the 1980s, he was the MI6 case officer for Oleg Gordievsky, then the senior KGB officer in the Soviet Embassy in London and later perhaps the most celebrated Soviet defector of the Cold War, helping to turn over information of huge value to London and Washington.
As chairman of the interdepartmental Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John signed off on a faulty 2002 intelligence dossier released to the public about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. It did his career no harm, however. In 2004, he returned to MI6 as its chief, appointed by then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
To his detractors, the Iraq dossier and the celebration show Sir John's failure to keep MI6's political masters at arm's length. His supporters say he is a man with a keen sense of duty, and his wish is to honor a service that has made an important but largely unsung contribution to the security of the U.K.
The secret agencies have struggled with heightened public scrutiny, the likes of which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a mere sexagenarian in the intelligence business, has faced for decades now.
That's partly explained by history. MI5 and MI6 were created together as the Secret Service Bureau in October 1909, prompted by British fears about a growing threat of invasion from Germany. Days later, says Nick Hiley of the University of Kent, they split after the heads of its foreign and domestic units fell out. The home section evolved into MI5, responsible for counterintelligence and security within the U.K., while the foreign section became MI6. Both were departments of military intelligence, hence the initials.
For eight decades, the government officially denied their existence. MI5 was formalized by law in 1989, while MI6 had to wait until 1994 before that step was taken.
Today, both increasingly face public examination and controversy. In recent weeks, MI5 admitted it had had the ringleader of the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings on London's transport system in its sights on several occasions before the attacks. MI6 has faced questions about how much it knew of the harsh treatment meted out to U.S. terror detainees.
Both have benefited from big increases in funding since the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The total intelligence budget for the two services and GCHQ, Britain's signals intelligence agency, is set to exceed Â£2 billion ($3.2 billion) this year, more than double what it was in 2001, according to figures from the parliamentary committee that oversees the agency. But MI5's budget has tripled to combat the threat from domestic Islamist terrorism, outstripping the increase in MI6's funding.
For much of their history, MI5 was the Cinderella organization compared with its more glamorous sister: MI6 officers were said to regard their counterparts as plodding bureaucrats. That may have changed now. But Cinderella or not, it's still MI6 that gets to go to the ball.
Discuss this news here...