This week MI6, whose proper title is the Secret Intelligence Service, takes another step in from the cold when ministers discuss the content of a Bill to put it on a legal footing.
Although the legislation will fall short of calls for full Parliamentary scrutiny of MI6, it will, for the first time, require Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, to sanction its overseas activities.
More controversially, the Bill is expected to make plain that agents who indulge in illegal and unauthorised activities in foreign countries are liable to prosecution in Britain. This area, which is something of a legal thicket, has yet to be finalised but the legislation will aim to enshrine the principle that Crown servants are subject to British law when pursuing their duties, even if abroad.
In January the Prime Minister confirmed for the first time the existence of MI6 and named its chief, Sir Colin McColl. John Major told the Commons MI6 provides 'foreign intelligence and overseas support in furtherance of the Government's foreign, defence, security and economic policies'.
Mr Major promised to put MI6 on a statutory footing as Baroness Thatcher, his predecessor, did with MI5 in 1989 - its agents' bugging or burgling activities have to be authorised by the Home Office. However, the timing of the new Bill is still uncertain; it is not expected to be published soon.
Rupert Allason, espionage expert and MP for Torbay, said it was inconceivable that spy prosecutions will result. He added: 'You will always get over-zealous agents - it is inevitable'.
It is likely that Mr Hurd is already asked to authorise almost all of MI6's activities. Scrutiny - known in the parlance as 'operational oversight' - is said to be tougher than for MI5.
But the Bill will make clear to the public that Mr Hurd, rather than Sir Colin, is ultimately responsible for approving missions, and clarify some of the parameters of modern espionage.
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