Britain’s MI5, the country’s domestic intelligence service, is the subject of a slick British TV drama that has well-heeled actors taking on Serb terrorists, Islamic extremists and Colombian drug lords on a weekly basis. While the series, called “Spooks,” has raised the profile of the secretive MI5 among Britons, the real life spy agency is enjoying a growing audience among Washington policymakers across the Atlantic.
In charge of protecting Britain from threats like terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and espionage, the MI5 might be expected to wield broad authority to bring the law crashing down on internal threats.
The MI5 has no powers to arrest or detain suspects. Its 2,000 employees can use its sweeping surveillance powers to investigate, but not to act. To bring the crooks in, the MI5 turns its information over to British law enforcement agencies, which decide on their own whether and how to nab suspects.
For critics of the FBI, which civil libertarians see increasingly inhabiting a murky ground that includes both a domestic intelligence gathering and national police authority, the MI5’s example offers a solution that separates the powers of state in the post-9/11 world.
With a stated mission of protecting Britain’s “national security and economic well-being,” the MI5, officially called the Security Service, has kept the moniker of its origins in WWI military intelligence operations (the MI6, of James Bond fame, is in charge of foreign intelligence gathering).
The modern MI5, staffed entirely by civilians, reports to Britain’s home secretary, the country’s chief law enforcement official. It is subject to the oversight of a Parliamentary intelligence and security committee.
During the Cold War, the MI5 worked to thwart KGB agents stationed in Britain.
In the 1990s, the agency’s role shifted to terrorist threats from the Irish Republican Army. The rise of Osama bin Laden, and cooperation with American intelligence agencies, has focused the MI5 on infiltrating the al-Qaida terrorist network, among other internal threats.
In a success in January, MI5 agents uncovered traces of ricin, a deadly toxin, in a north London apartment. After quickly passing the information to British police, several men were arrested and charged under Britain’s anti-terror legislation. The MI5 also played a role in the recent arrest of a British man caught trying to peddle anti-aircraft missiles to undercover FBI agents.
Notoriously secretive, the MI5 has been forced to open up in recent years. Until 1992, the agency’s director was never named. Now the MI5 maintains a and openly recruits the next generation of British spooks.
In a rare speech in June, the MI5’s director general, Eliza Manningham-Buller, said a new terrorism warning center based at MI5 headquarters in central London was analyzing an average of 150 pieces of intelligence about terrorist threats every day.
It has not always been smooth surveillance for the MI5, though. The agency has run afoul of civil rights organizations, whose activities it once investigated. Anti-nuclear campaigners have also complained of falling under the gaze of the MI5.
Still, the MI5 says its independence allows it to avoid conflicts of interest. “We are not a ‘secret police force,’” it states on an official Web page dedicated to dispelling MI5 myths.