Early secret agents: fact and fiction

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The Independent Online
ON TUESDAY 30 March 1909, a sub-committee of the Committee of Imperial Defence met in secret session at 2 Whitehall Gardens, Westminster, to consider the question of foreign espionage in Britain. The first witness was Colonel James Edmonds, head of MO5, military operations counter-intelligence, whose job was to uncover foreign spies in Britain. He had a staff of two and a budget of pounds 200 a year. Edmonds painted a picture of hordes of German spies in Britain preparing to take by stealth what Germany could not gain in open combat. Lord Esher, who apparently thought Edmonds had spies on the brain, asked him, 'Colonel, do you feel any apprehension regarding the large numbers of German waiters in this country?'

But the sarcasm was lost on Edmonds, who had quickly realised that in order to persuade the sub-committee to act, he would have to present a list of cases packed with convincing detail. Fortunately, help was at hand in the unlikely figure of William Le Queux, Queen Alexandra's favourite novelist. Le Queux provided Edmonds with a list of fictional cases he had prepared for his bestseller Spies of the Kaiser.

When Edmonds presented his new 'evidence', the atmosphere in the sub-committee changed. General J S Ewart, the director of military operations, saw a marvellous opportunity to expand his empire. Britain should not only round up German spies, he suggested, it should match them spy for spy. It should obtain some decent agents to spy in Germany, but without risking that country's opprobrium by being openly linked to them in any way.

One can detect, even in those early days, a sentiment that lingers today: spying is a dirty business more suited to foreigners than to Englishmen. But since circumstances compel us to tackle the foreigner on equal terms, then let the spying be done in such a manner that if our spies are detected, we can swear we have nothing whatsoever to do with them.

The idea of having an intelligence system that officially did not exist became the main reason for creating a Secret Service Bureau. The bureau had two sections, Home and Foreign. Home concerned itself with catching spies in Britain, and was the forerunner of today's MI5, or Security Service. Foreign collected intelligence from abroad and was eventually to become MI6 or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

SIS had sufficient money to send agents only to Germany. Its first chief was Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who had a wooden leg and used to get around the corridors of Whitehall on a child's scooter. From these modest beginnings, Britain's intelligence and security services have grown into bureaucracies that at the height of the Cold War employed at least 25,000 people and cost the taxpayer pounds 600m a year.