How to get the Secret Intelligence Service to talk

I’ve been trying to solve this enigma – How to get the Secret Intelligence Service to talk. Clearly simply writing to it with a request for information is not the answer as I’ve already tried that. Twice.

You may not be surprised to find that they have not granted me access to information about Captain Ridley’s World War 2 employment with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), which is more commonly known as MI6. I wasn’t particularly surprised but I have to say, I was disappointed not to have my letters acknowledged or a formal decline to provide the information on the grounds of national security (which I secretly think would have been exciting in itself).

When you think of the Secret Intelligence Service, you probably think about James Bond’s MI6, high-octane action, dashing agents and lovely Bond Girls. According to the historian of the first ever official history of the Service, Professor Keith Jeffery, the start of the Service was a much more understated affair. After his first day the newly appointed Chief, Mansfield Cumming, wrote in his diary,

‘Went to the office and remained all day, but saw no one, nor was there anything to do there.’ 

Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming

The Secret Intelligence Service was created in 1909 as the Foreign Section of a new Secret Service Bureau. Captain Mansfield Cumming was offered the post as Chief of the Service on 10 August 1909 by Admiral Alexander Bethell (Director of Naval Intelligence) and continued to drive the service forward through political insecurities and inter-departmental reshuffling until he was succeeded by Admiral Hugh Sinclair in 1923. Admiral Sinclair, as head of the Secret Intelligence Service and the Government Code & Cypher School, set up the now famous codebreaking operation at Bletchley Park during World War 2.

Professor Jeffery’s extensively researched book:MI6:The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 makes for fascinating reading. I have a hard copy of this hefty book and the e-book, as I easier to read on my Kindle. The paperback shown here is also easier to handle.

The book covers the beginnings of the Service to 1949, the ‘watershed’ of the Service and its ‘move to Cold War targets and techniques’, whereby data from that time remains too sensitive to release into the public domain. Professor Jeffery considers that it is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime achievement (and privilege)’ for him to write the history of a Service that remained unacknowledged by the British Government until it was given a formal legal basis in the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The modern remit of the Secret Intelligence Service is as an intelligence organisation ‘tasked by the British Government to collect intelligence world-wide in support of its security, defence, foreign and economic policies’. It is ‘primarily responsible for gathering intelligence outside of the UK…’ This differs from The Security Service (MI5) which is responsible for ‘protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, at home and overseas, against major threats to government security.’

The Secret Intelligence Service, like other security agencies, is exempt from the legal requirement under the Public Records Act of 1958, which requires government authorities to transfer records to The National Archives. The reason is obvious – there cannot be a situation where the release of documents shows how and who carries out important work designed to protect our nation.

Despite this exemption MI5 and GCHQ have placed some of the records in the National Archives and our understanding of the history of intelligence services is richer for it. Even the Secret Intelligence Service recognises the importance that publicly held records have in preserving our past. Consequently it has released Special Operation Executive (SOE) papers into the public domain. These have proved popular with researchers searching for interesting stories within their family history and writers exploring the dramatic exploits of our agents who were dropped into enemy territories during World War 2. With this exception the service continues with an unwavering policy of non disclosure about the identities of former staff or agents.

End of story?

Well, not quite. Something I read in Professor Jeffery’s book gave me a glimmer of hope that I may get the information I need. Maybe, just maybe I could get access to information about Captain Ridley by basing my request on the Secret Service’s own policy of disclosure which was set out for Professor Jeffery’s book.

That glimmer of hope I just mentioned is nestled as a neat, provocative disclaimer written in small letters at the beginning of the weighty tome…

‘SIS does not disclose the names of agents or of living members of staff and only in exceptional circumstances agrees to waive the anonymity of deceased staff. Exceptionally and in recognition of the Service’s aim in publishing the history it has been agreed that there is an overriding justification for making public, within the constraints of what the law permits, some information which ordinarily would be protected.
However, SIS’s policy has not restricted the occasional official release of some Service material – we have previously authorised a limited release of SIS information for other biographies of important intelligence figures.’ quoted from MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909 – 1949 by Professor Keith Jeffery

A set of principles for the disclosure of information for the book was devised, of which part is shown below but the complete version can be found at the official website for SIS. Click here to view.

‘1) The publication of MI6: A History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 is an important milestone for SIS. By giving Professor Keith Jeffery unrestricted access to our archive for the period, we have enabled him to explain the history of the Service’s origins, activities and role in government. Our aim has been to improve public understanding of how and why we act in support of the United Kingdom’s vital interests and carry out our statutory functions.

2) Fulfilling this aim has required SIS to allow Keith Jeffery to disclose in the History information hitherto kept secret. In so doing we have been careful neither to compromise national security, nor undermine the Government’s policy of neither confirming nor denying matters of intelligence interest (NCND). This policy and the protection of national security have been the foundation for the Service’s consideration of what information could or could not be disclosed in the History.

3) The matters which exceptionally are disclosed in the History may be categorised as follows:

SIS staff

4) SIS will neither confirm nor deny the names of serving or former officers during their lifetimes, with the exception of C, whose name is announced publicly on appointment. The strong presumption is that this policy continues to apply after the death of an officer or former officer.

5) SIS has allowed Keith Jeffery to include in the History the names of a number of officers, who were members of the Service between 1909-1949 where:

  • SIS judges that individual officers serving between 1909-1949 filled roles of sufficient seniority and thus would usually have been known as SIS officers to a range of British or foreign officials outside the intelligence community, or
  • The name of an individual officer serving between 1909 and 1949 has already appeared in an official or approved history or been released to an official archive.’

There it is in print – the Secret Intelligence Service had released information in the past for other biographies. Captain Ridley fits the criteria for disclosure in that his name is in the public domain, he is identified in most books about Bletchley Park as a member of Secret Intelligence Service personnel. He is also recorded in primary sources that are official government documents from World War 2 that are held in the National Archives. Also, Captain Ridley’s role within the Service appears to be mostly administrative. Surely releasing information about him is unlikely to breach the ongoing operational or political sensibilities? The benefit of releasing information would only add to a greater understanding of those early days at Bletchley Park.

Surely? I felt confident that my request would be viewed favourably. So I wrote to this notoriously tight-lipped source. You have to write, there is no email address listed. I waited and waited. No response. So I wrote again – perhaps it didn’t arrive. Maybe I needed to address my letter to the archives. Still no response!  If I had a reply, I would know where I stood.

A fellow researcher surmised that I should have been more specific about the information I wanted. Provide a list of questions that gave a clear basis for providing the information. Good suggestion and after reviewing the letters I had sent, I accept they are a bit sweeping. If you have any suggestions or tips then get in touch, I’d like to hear them.

So here I am, no closer to answering the question of How to get the Secret Intelligence Service to talk. I don’t think I am asking for the world, but perhaps an unwanted precedent will be set if the Secret Intelligence Service releases information to me. The last thing it wants, or needs, when there are more important things demanding its resources, is a torrent of requests for information from people like me.

Shall I leave it here and accept that part of the career of the man whose name is now synonymous with the first occupation of Bletchley Park in 1938 will remain its own sort of enigma.

You know what I may just try again.



If you would like to listen to a BBC programme about MI6, click here.

You can learn more about more about the previous Chiefs of the Secret Intelligence Service on the SIS website here.

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