Civil Defence today

Inside MI5 - the real Spooks

Many of us have watched Spooks or James Bond and wonder what its like inside the secretive buildings of Thames House or Milbank. The security services exist and do their work to keep you and I, the public safe. Therefore we are not seeking to 'expose' their work, just rather discuss what they do - and help clear up the misconceptions that the TV or movies give.

Since the July 7th attacks on the UK MI5 have focused much more on Counter terrorism. In fact according to their official figures, 87% of their resources are allocated to their 'principal activity' either countering International or Domestic terrorism. International terrorism relates to the affects of Al Qaida in the Uk, whilst 'domestic terrorism' refers to Northern Ireland.

Whereas before MI5 was just based (exclusively) in Thames House London (the Northern Ireland office (UK Ministry) have since relocated), they have now setup 'a network of regional offices across the UK, including an office in Northern Ireland'. The MI5 Northern Ireland office has received much press and its location is widely known, however the others are not. We know they exist in each of the regions but their towns or precise locations are unknown.

What does MI5 do?

Spooks portrays a few gun running members of Harry Pearce's team saving the day. MI5 simply do not have that role don't run around with guns and also don't have power to arrest. In fact they now work much closer with the police so that although what happens in Spooks may happen over the course of an operation - it is not limited to just one organisation.

MI5 operations take a long time to prepare, there are lots of official forms to fill out explaining why someone or organisation should be tracked or bugged. Each request has to go to the Home Secretary to permit as it is technically a breach of human rights.

MI5 takes the lead in gathering and analysing intelligence. MI5 is concerned with analysing leads, whereas the police are concerned with suspects. MI5 investigate a huge number of individuals and decide whether they should be arrested and pose a threat to the UK. If they do, the case is referred to the police who take the lead in developing that intelligence. Effectively there will be similarities in what they do, however the latter is focused on specific individuals.

How MI5 work

Intelligence could come from a number of difference sources (I have thought of these):

  1. MI6/GCHQ - individuals could be tracked abroad generating suspicious activity
  2. Anti terrorism hotline - members of the public can report activity
  3. Existing surveillance - maybe MI5 are watching a group and a new individual comes on to the scene - are they a threat or simply an innocent member of the public?
  4. Internet chatter - forums and websites could be monitored that generate interest in an individual or group

These are just a few and each example could create many leads each of which needs prioritising and analysing. If you imagine intelligence as a funnel - MI5 is at the top and the police look after the ones at the bottom.

According to MI5's official website the 4 main ways MI5 collect intelligence are:

  1. Human intelligence sources (agents) - people (not employed by MI5) who report from inside target groups and organisations
  2. Directed surveillance - mobile operations (car / on foot surveillance) - they often work closely with the police on this
  3. Intercepting communications
  4. Intrusive surveillance - bugging a home or car

Once this intelligence has been gathered it must be analysed. All of which takes along time - unlike the hour episodes of Spooks!

We know that the vehicles MI5 use are serviced at a Garage. See our secret bases page for the known location of the previous MI5 garage.

Mobile surveillance is often supported by the police but according the Mirror can even include 'the army and its special reconnaissance regiment'. This unit has a history in Northern Ireland where it supported the SAS in transport and surveillance. We know that when Jean Charles Dimenez was being followed by the MET they were accompanied by members of the military, and its rumoured these were members of the SRR.

Having read the book "The Terrorist Hunters" - it provides an insight into the world of mobile surveillance which unlike the idealised picture we might have gives a picture of long hours sat in solitude in cars, not going anywhere for loo breaks and getting muscle pain from sitting for so long. Hardly the James bond picture we can have of the work of spies!

Working with others

The point at which a lead becomes a suspect may vary with each case. A group called an Executive Liaison Group 'enable MI5 to safely share secret, sensitive, and often raw intelligence with the police, on which decisions can be made about how best to gather evidence and prosecute suspects in the courts. Each organization works in partnership throughout the investigation, but MI5 retain the lead for collecting, assessing and exploiting intelligence. The police take lead responsibility for gathering evidence, obtaining arrests and preventing risks to the public.'

It is also this group which 'make a formal decision about when responsibility for the tactical direction of the overall investigation should transfer from MI5 to the police, and also decide when to take executive action (e.g. arrest suspects).'

Thus there is much liaison between the police and MI5 and this is widely known and even mentioned in job descriptions for MI5 jobs. Nothing super secret here then! The MI5 website mentions (as part of its recruitment section) 'Working in one of our regional offices could involve managing the liaison with a regional police Special Branch Counter Terrorist Unit. In order to progress investigations you could attend casework meetings with police to help to prioritise our investigative work, as well as deliver feedback to the analysts who supply us with intelligence.'

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