December 9, 2011:
In an unusual move, the British government publicly praised a successful operation by foreign intelligence operation, MI6. In this case it was to praise numerous successful efforts by MI6 in Libya earlier this year. Not only did MI6 operatives, and the British GCHQ (similar to the U.S. NSA) provide valuable information for NATO and the rebels, but it also foiled attempts by Kaddafi's secret police, and Islamic terrorist allies, to kill rebel leaders and foreign diplomats in Libya, and civilians in Britain. Kaddafi had ordered his secret police to use all available resources to carry out these attacks. MI6 has been watching Kaddafi for decades, and quickly detected this attack order. This MI6 success was not an accident. Back in 2002, Britain decided to double recruitment of MI6 field agents and increase the MI6 budget 20 percent. All this was to deal with the Islamic terror threat.
This kind of effort was nothing new for Britain, which has been playing the espionage game long before the United States even existed. When the CIA came along after World War II, it was based on the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and the need to have a central organization to sort out the intelligence from all American intel operations and give the president one report.
But the legacy of the OSS was one of having agents in foreign countries and running active operations to gain information and weaken enemy capabilities. So in the decades after World War II, this led to interference in foreign nations, overthrowing governments seen as harmful to US interests and working with a lot of unsavory people. By the 1970s, many of these operations were seen as embarrassing and restrictions were put on this sort of thing. The British MI6 suffered no such restrictions, mainly because MI6 was smaller, not given to large scale adventures the CIA was fond of and, perhaps most importantly, had much longer experience in dealing with espionage in foreign nations.
MI6 is less than one tenth the size of the CIA (in manpower) and has a budget that's even smaller. But the CIA is by no means ten times as effective as MI6. For all its size and resources, the CIA cannot, or often will not, do things that MI6 will. Part of this has to do with MI6's greater experience and need to make do with less. But a lot of it has to do with different styles of operation. Both organizations are in the overseas espionage business, but both go about their business in quite different ways, and with often quite different results.
A large part of the difference can be traced to the fact that MI6 has always had a healthier relationship with its diplomats. CIA agents operating overseas often operate out of the local US embassy. Their cover is a diplomatic passport indicating they work for the State Department. But from the beginning, the diplomats were hostile to this sort of thing (British diplomats were not.) So CIA people were forced to use diplomatic passports indicating they were part of the Foreign Service Reserve instead of just Foreign Service. For those in the know, and that means just about everyone, it was easy to find out who the CIA guys were.
MI6 has a degree of legal cover for its operations that the CIA could only envy. Under the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, MI6 officers have immunity from prosecution for crimes committed outside Great Britain. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1998 makes it illegal for any organization in Great Britain to conspire to commit offenses abroad, but Crown agents have immunity. Which means, in effect, that yes, Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service really is licensed to kill.
Compared to the CIA, with over 20,000 people, MI6 is tiny, with about 2,400 personnel. But with this small force, MI6 maintains 51 foreign stations. MI6 divides the world into six geographic regions, each run by a controller. While some of the smaller stations have only one or two people, a large one has a station chief, a deputy station chief, two or three case officers to handle locals working for MI6 (as informants or spies), three or four clerical workers, a special clerk to handle classified files plus specialists to handle communications and ciphers (secret codes). Unlike American practice, MI6 will sometimes establish headquarters outside the embassy.
Another advantage of MI6 is that they have a number of SAS commandos trained to work with MI6 and are always available for any MI6 needs. This commando organization is called Increment and is used for assassinations, sabotage or other dangerous jobs (like arresting war criminals in the Balkans.) In addition, every station chief has a direct line to SAS headquarters and a good working relationship with the commandos.
Because it is small, most of the key MI6 people know each other. It's easier to put together special teams without a lot of time being consumed as people get used to each other. MI6 also tends to have a good reputation with foreign intelligence services, partially because it is not seen as a huge bureaucracy.
MI6 has been ahead of the CIA in other ways. Recruiting a lot of women was pioneered by MI6, and as they suspected, the women often had an easier time going undetected overseas than their male counterparts. MI6 was also quick to use its license to kill. Usually this was applied to low level thugs and troublemakers. But at least two attempts were made to get Moamar Kaddafi, the now deceased (at the hands of his own people) former dictator of Libya.
When the Cold War ended, MI6 turned its considerable skills to collecting commercial intelligence, often from NATO allies. MI6 was discreet, although some operations were revealed. Such information is turned over to British corporations, or the government, depending on who can do the most with it.
MI6 is also noted for its skill at getting people into, and out of, unfriendly countries. This came from decades of practice operating inside the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The CIA often calls on MI6 for help in rescuing people stuck in hostile environments. In return, the CIA shares it copious information collected with a fleet of spy satellites and eavesdropping aircraft.
Since September 11, 2001, MI6 has shifted a lot of its resources to anti-terrorism activity. You never hear about MI6, but when you hear about British SAS commandos operating some place like Afghanistan, you can be sure that MI6 is involved as well. For the Libya operation, it was apparently thought that there was some value in letting the world know who was responsible for some of the more useful events during the revolution.