Military Intelligence Section 6, or MI6, is the foreign intelligence arm of the United Kingdom’s government. Officially known as Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), it is arguably the most well-known intelligence agency in the world, no thanks in small measure to the fictional chronicles of Ian Fleming’s suave and debonair assassin, James Bond. Although reality can never hold a candle to the adventures of 007 in books and on the silver screen (or could it?), there are still many things about MI6 that might surprise you.
1. MI6 once hacked an Al-Qaeda website and replaced a bomb-making manual with Ellen DeGeneres’ cupcake recipe
Misdirection and information manipulation has always been part of the tradecraft of any intelligence agency worth its salt. However, there is probably nothing that could come close to how MI6 subverted Al-Qaeda’s plan to disseminate bomb-making instructions to its minions.
Al-Qaeda’s plan was simple: place a download link to a 67-page PDF bomb-making manual on its English-language website, Inspire Magazine, produced by American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki, who was once dubbed “bin Laden of the internet,” was famously killed in 2011 in a drone attack ordered by former president Barack Obama.
The PDF manual, enticingly named “Make a bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”, was meant to help lone-wolf terrorists in the US and UK make lethal pipe bombs using household items such as sugar and match heads. In a way, it was a well-meaning DIY guide to help poor souls still short of credit points to ascend to heaven.
The CIA and MI6 got wind of the plan, and both planned separate cyber-attacks against the publication. However, the CIA changed its mind and even blocked a Pentagon cyber operation, citing concerns that it would expose sources and compromise intelligence sources. So it was left to the MI6 to stop Al-Qaeda – and stopped it in style they did.
In Operation Cupcake, MI6 sneakily hacked the download link and redirected it instead to a pdf file with mangled computer codes of a web page containing excerpts from “The Best Cupcakes in America”, an e-book published by Ellen DeGeneres, which included awesome recipes like Mojito Cupcake and Rocky Road Cupcake.
The cyber-warfare operation was launched by MI6 and GCHQ in an attempt to disrupt efforts by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular to recruit “lone-wolf” terrorists with a new English-language magazine, the Daily Telegraph understands. When followers tried to download the 67-page color magazine, instead of instructions about how to “Make a bomb in the Kitchen of your Mom” by “The AQ Chef” they were greeted with garbled computer code. The code, which had been inserted into the original magazine by the British intelligence hackers, was actually a web page of recipes for “The Best Cupcakes in America” published by the Ellen DeGeneres chat show.
2. Semen powered communications even before the advent of the internet
Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming (absolutely no pun intended!), MI6’s first head (again, no pun intended), is famed for his eccentric behavior. The former seaman (still no pun intended!) was a ladies man who would zoom around town on his Rolls-Royce, planes or motorboats. He would also strut around the office with a swordstick and one wooden prosthetic foot on a child’s scooter (he lost his right leg in an accident). During interviews with potential recruits, he would casually stab his leg with a knife to see if they flinched, which he considered a sign of weakness (it’s a wooden leg, but how are they to know?). He would also only use green ink.
However, perhaps the most bizarre story involving the gold-rimmed monocle-wearing Sir Smith-Cumming, known as ‘C’ internally, revolves around semen. Cumming was reportedly asking questions about invisible inks with London University circa 1915. He was apparently delighted at the discovery that semen did not react with iodine vapor, and as such, would be practically impervious to detection. Unfortunately, according to Deputy Chief Sensor F.V. Worthington, the staff who made the discovery became the butt of jokes and had to be transferred out. Not much else is known about the semen episode, aside from the fact correspondence from Copenhagen apparently “stank to high heaven”, and they were told to use a ‘fresh supply’ for each letter!
3. MI6 kept Spain from joining the Axis alliance during World War II with a $200 million bribe
Before the United States joined the Allied forces in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United Kingdom were frequently battling German, Italian and Japanese forces on their own. Although Russia was also fighting against the German, the Russians were themselves struggling to contain the aggression of Hitler’s army.
In Asia, the UK’s colonies were swiftly being overrun by Japanese forces. Britain would ultimately lose strategic allies in Europe, most notably France and Poland, and Germany was pretty much in control of continental Europe. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Hitler’s Luftwaffe was terrorizing Britons with large-scaled air attacks (Battle of Britain) and bombing campaigns (Blitz) of major British cities and industrial centers.
However, as bad as the situation were at the time, it could’ve been worse; Britain could’ve also been facing a fourth adversary – Spain.
Fortunately, MI6 managed to convince General Franco to remain neutral during the war courtesy of at least $14 million in bribes, which, adjusted for inflation, would be worth well over $200 million today. The operation was coordinated by the British ambassador to Spain, Sir Samuel Hoare, and the money was secretly wired to bank accounts in New York and Portugal.
4. MI6 smuggled a KGB double agent out of Russia thanks to a dirty diaper and cheese and onion crisps
Oleg Gordievsky was the most important intelligence source that British intelligence has ever had. Recruited by MI6 when he was stationed in Denmark, the KGB spy served as a double agent for the British intelligence for 11 years. Incredibly, Gordievsky declined any money from MI6 and stated that his actions were driven purely by ideology. Known for his prodigious memory, Gordievsky provided his MI6 handler, whom he met once a month, with extensive information on current and old KGB operations. Such was his stature, even British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was aware of him, though she referred to him by his codename, “Mr. Collins”.
However, in 1985, Gordievsky, who by then had been promoted to the position of the Head of KGB in London, received instructions to return back to the Soviet Union. He was concerned that his cover has been blown, but he went home nonetheless. His MI6 handlers prepared a contingency plan for him. If he was in danger, Gordievsky was instructed to wear a grey cap while holding a plastic Safeway bag in front of a specific bread shop near the Kutuzovsky Prospekt building at 7.30pm on a Tuesday. His handler in Moscow would wait there every Tuesday, and would signal to proceed with the second part of the plan by eating a Kit Kat or a Mars bar.
And so it happened. The KGB had indeed grown suspicious of Gordievsky, and had him drugged and interrogated. Fortunately, he did not reveal anything during the interrogation. As soon as he could, he triggered the contingency plan. After receiving the go-ahead from his candy-eating handler, he took a train to the town of Vyborg near the Finnish border and hide in the bushes of a secluded road. Soon after, a couple of MI6 agents with diplomatic immunity, accompanied by their wives and a baby, stuffed Gordievsky in the trunk of their Ford saloon. To mask his heat signature from thermal imaging cameras at the five frontier controls they had to cross before reaching Finland, Gordievsky was covered with a metallic silver blanket.
At one of the frontier controls, Alsatian dogs were used to sniff at the boot of vehicles. The quick-thinking wives of the MI6 officers distracted the dogs by first feeding them with cheese and onion crisps, before throwing a dirty diaper from the baby into the trunk. By the time the dogs came to the trunk, the stench from the diaper managed to successfully mask the scent of Gordievsky.
After entering neutral Finland, Gordievsky was thereafter moved to an undisclosed location in the UK under an assumed identity. The Soviet Union subsequently sentenced its most high profile defector to death in absentia for treason.
5. MI6 do have agents with licenses to kill
A “license to kill” is probably the most iconic element of the James Bond mythology. In the James Bond universe, the few select agents who qualify for “double-O” status have the legal authority to kill people based on their own judgment without any legal repercussions. A bit fanciful, right?
However, during the inquest of Princess Diana’s death in 2008, former MI6 chief, Sir Richard Billing Dearlove, testified that agents with Class Seven authorization – personally approved by the Foreign Secretary-, had the authority to use “lethal force” during missions.
6. The existence of MI6 was not officially acknowledged until 1994
Despite being technically established in 1909 (although the term MI6 only emerged during World War II), it took the British government 85 years to officially acknowledge the existence of MI6 – and that too only in the wake of the ratification of the Intelligence Services Act 1994, which publicly placed the MI6 on a statutory footing under the purview of the Foreign Secretary.
Imagine, you couldn’t even brag about being a spy for MI6 before that because most still believe that it’s a fictitious organization created by Fleming!
Song of the day: Sheena Easton – For Your Eyes Only (one of the best Bond soundtracks for one the series’ poorest films)