The birth of MI6

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - H.B. Lyle is the au­thor of “The Ir­reg­u­lar.”

Bri­tain’s se­cret ser­vice was cre­ated in re­sponse to a Ger­man ‘spy fever’ in 1909.

Dur­ing the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions of Rus­sian in­volve­ment in Pres­i­dent Trump’s cam­paign, the “Trump dossier” gained le­git­i­macy in the minds of many when re­ports emerged that the doc­u­ment had been com­piled by an ex-agent of MI6. In the age of fake news, many in the me­dia seized on the for­eign arm of the Bri­tish in­tel­li­gence ser­vices as an im­pec­ca­ble source.

What few peo­ple re­al­ize — and what star­tled me when I be­gan re­search­ing my lat­est spy novel — is that MI6 it­self came about as a re­sult of an elab­o­rate cam­paign of mis­in­for­ma­tion. In fact, it is fair to say that fake news cre­ated both arms of the Bri­tish se­cret ser­vice, for­eign and do­mes­tic.

By the start of the 20th cen­tury, the Bri­tish em­pire was the largest and rich­est in his­tory. Too big to de­fend, even — a fact brought home by a rather un­sat­is­fac­tory se­ries of wars in South Africa. The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment had re­luc­tantly curbed its high-handed ten­den­cies and en­tered into agree­ments with its im­pe­rial ri­vals, in par­tic­u­lar France and Rus­sia.

Its big­gest ri­val, how­ever, re­mained Ger­many. Across the North Sea, the Ger­mans be­gan to en­large their navy, and there were rum­blings in Bri­tain about re­spond­ing in kind. But it wasn’t the facts that got peo­ple in such a lather about Ger­man ex­pan­sion. It was fiction.

In 1903, Ersk­ine Childers pub­lished one of the first ever spy nov­els, “The Rid­dle of the Sands,” in which a plucky English gen­tle­man goes sail­ing off the Ger­man coast and un­cov­ers a se­cret plan for a Ger­man in­va­sion. The book was a huge best­seller and led to a slew of copy­cat nov­els, most of which re­lied on the ex­is­tence of beastly Ger­man spies, from writ­ers such as Wil­liam Le Queux and John Buchan.

A “spy fever” be­gan to grip Bri­tain — inf lamed, en­cour­aged and, in a very real sense, cre­ated by the pop­u­lar press. In 1906, one of the big­gest-sell­ing news­pa­pers, the Daily Mail, com­mis­sioned Le Queux to write a se­ri­al­ized ac­count of a Ger­man in­va­sion of Bri­tain.

With the help of re­tired mil­i­tary ex­perts, such as the for­mer com­man­der in chief and war hero Lord Fred­er­ick Roberts, Le Queux drew up a fea­si­ble at­tack plan. But the news­pa­per re­jected the first draft, say­ing any “in­va­sion” needed to go through towns where it wanted to in­crease its cir­cu­la­tion.

Le Queux, who turned out to be an early mas­ter of pro­pa­ganda, duly obliged and pro­duced a se­ries of lurid, plainly lu­di­crous episodes de­tail­ing a Ger­man takeover. The ar­ti­cles, later pub­lished in book form as the wildly suc­cess­ful “The In­va­sion of 1910,” not only paint a pic­ture of Bri­tain as rid­dled with Ger­man spies, they take a swipe at im­mi­grants of all na­tion­al­i­ties, blame weak lead­er­ship on the lack of aris­to­crats in gov­ern­ment, and sug­gest that the coun­try has gone soft be­cause of tax­a­tion.

By the end of 1908, this fever had reached such a pitch that mem­bers of the pub­lic were send­ing in hun­dreds of let­ters de­tail­ing sus­pected Ger­man spies in their ar­eas. Le Queux, whose next book — “The Spies of the Kaiser” (about spies in the United King­dom) — was even more suc­cess­ful than the last, be­gan bom­bard­ing the War Of­fice with these ac­counts, many of which also found their way into the news­pa­pers.

And, of course, sto­ries of Ger­man spies sold news­pa­pers.

Even­tu­ally, in 1909, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment felt com­pelled to in­ves­ti­gate. Of­fi­cials set up an in­quiry into Ger­man spies on Bri­tish soil. But it found noth­ing. There was no ev­i­dence to sug­gest a net­work of spies.

When the in­ves­ti­ga­tion dug a lit­tle deeper into some of these sto­ries, it found out that one of the “spies” was an Ox­ford aca­demic swear­ing in Ger­man to avoid giv­ing of­fense; an­other “sus­pi­cious” Ger­man waiter turned out to be Swiss; the sin­is­ter el­derly-care home in Suf­folk turned out to be … an el­derly-care home in Suf­folk. There was no case to an­swer.

De­spite this, the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment rec­om­mended the es­tab­lish­ment of a Se­cret Ser­vice Bureau, split into two sec­tions that cov­ered do­mes­tic and for­eign in­tel­li­gence. That’s right: They knew the threat of Ger­man spies in Bri­tain was neg­li­gi­ble, but they went ahead and cre­ated an or­ga­ni­za­tion to counter them. There was no real mil­i­tary dan­ger in do­ing noth­ing, but there was grave po­lit­i­cal dan­ger in be­ing seen as do­ing noth­ing.

We can tell the true im­por­tance the gov­ern­ment at­tached to the Se­cret Ser­vice Bureau at the time, for it had only two em­ploy­ees. Capt. Ver­non Kell headed the home sec­tion, named MI5 dur­ing World War I, and Sir Mans­field Cum­ming ran the for­eign sec­tion, or MI6. It wasn’t un­til this war, in fact, that the ser­vice be­came any­thing like the one we now know.

The Bri­tish se­cret ser­vice thus had its ori­gins in a con­certed, crude but nev­er­the­less ef­fec­tive cam­paign of fake news, where the line be­tween fact and fiction was de­lib­er­ately blurred for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons.

Clearly the Trump dossier it­self isn’t an ex­am­ple of fake news, nor is the Bri­tish se­cret ser­vice, for all its murky ori­gins, a pur­veyor of fiction. But this shift­ing line — be­tween real and fake news, be­tween in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and the politi­cians who seek to con­trol them — has been at is­sue for more than a cen­tury. Plus ça change ...

Getty Im­ages

THE LON­DON head­quar­ters of the Bri­tish Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, com­monly known as MI6.

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