British Counter Intelligence Essay

Pages: 5 (1679 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 4  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Doctorate  ·  Topic: Government

British Counter-Intelligence

Did British counter-intelligence efforts during World War I create a terrible situation for British citizens in terms of their civil liberties? That's the contention presented by Nicholas Hiley writing in the English Historical Review. This paper examines Hiley's assertions and reports on the author's point-of-view based on the literature. Thesis: This paper's response to the first question in this paragraph a very positive yes; indeed, the literature presented by Hiley -- if he is to be believed, and there is no reason to question his narratives given the stature of the publication -- shows that without doubt serious violations of civil liberties took place before and during the First World War.

Counter-espionage and Security in Great Britain during the First World War

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In his 1986 scholarly article Hiley explains that of the two organizations in Britain that were involved with counter-intelligence. The first and the smallest was called the MO5(g), a group that originally operated independently but once WWI broke out, came under the umbrella of the War Office. The orders given to MO5(g) were as follows: "…expose and frustrate the clandestine activities of enemy aliens under whatever form they may be encountered" (Hiley, 1986, p. 635). Major Vernon Kell was in charge of this unit. The second unit involved with counter-espionage was called the "Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department" located at Scotland Yard; of the approximately 700 officers at Scotland Yard, the special branch included 114 officers, Hiley explains on page 636. The officer in charge was Patrick Quinn, Hiley continues.

On the day before war was declared against Germany, Kell's group arrested twenty-two German agents that were "known" to have been operating in England; two hundred other individuals were being monitored in England at that time, Hiley writes. Kell's group intercepted letters and cables suspected of being sent and received by German spies. Kell's unit also was active abroad (in Rotterdam, the Hague, Ostend, among other cities) and had focused on systematically observing known operators on those cities (Hiley, 638).

TOPIC: Essay on British Counter Intelligence Assignment

The first sign of potential civil liberties violations in Hiley's narrative occurred in October, 1914, when "…many others [were] interned for lack of evidence, being 'mainly people taken off boats who had not actually landed in this country, and who therefore could not be tried under our laws'" (Hiley, 639). Clearly Kell believed that by intercepting mail and cables he could break the back of the German spy network. In December, 1914, the postal "censorship" staff numbered 170 people but a year later, December 1915, the censorship group grew to 1,453.

While these activities do not seem to be violations of civil liberties, there is no way to know for sure if all the alleged German spies that were arrested and/or put to death were actually spies in the true sense of the word. But from 1916 onward, Hiley writes (644), it was "…indeed increasingly difficult for the Germans to operate agents in the United Kingdom." According to Hiley, the censorship (intercepting of mail and telegram cables) that the British intelligence people had put into effect was effective, because from September 1917 to November 1918, "…no German agent got as far as being brought to trial" (645).

However, on page 646 Hiley reports that the names of 34,500 "…British citizens who 'not only had definite ties of blood-relationships with the enemy, but in many cases were actually full-blooded enemies born and bred'." It seems that the gathering of data and creation of "dossiers" was extreme; the "collection, collation, and circulation" of information on "suspects" became an obsession in Britain. From what Hiley reports, by 1918 the Security Service functioned as "the government's 'central clearing house" for "precautionary information" (647) the growth of the security branch of the government was massive; by November, 1918, there were more people gathering information (conducting various kinds of espionage) than there were working in the Britain Foreign Office (Hiley, 647).

On page 648 Hiley begins to let the reader know that the passion for information gathering (whether purposeful or just based on paranoia) in Britain was over the top. From 1916 onward, he explains, the Security Service was no longer interested in "…trapping enemy agents," but rather it had become a "…huge, decentralized system for gathering all information of possible use in 'the repression of enemy activities outside the area of operations'" (648). In other words, the Security Service was spying on British citizens. Only a "small section" of the Security Service was trying to "…locate German spies" (648). On page 649 Hiley's narrative moves into an area where the reader can clearly see the Security Service was violating civil liberties. The service in fact "…used the excuse of national security" to spy on protest groups and political groups "…that were themselves of no threat to the state" (Hiley, 649).

Pacifist groups in England were investigated on the "assumption" that somehow German money set them up, which is quite a stretch, according to Hiley's article. Behaving in a paranoid way and not showing savvy, the Security Service claimed in a 1915 review of activities that "…There is little doubt but that there is German money in [the pacifist groups] but it is impossible to find out the source through which it percolates" (Hiley, 650). In June 5, 1916, a raid was conducted against a protest group (against conscription, which in a democracy they should be allowed to protest) called "No-Conscription Fellowship"; and on June 6, 1916, another group was raided. The Security Service seized over two tons of printed material; and while no link with Germans was uncovered, the Security Service launched a propaganda campaign against the pacifist groups claiming that "…the real aim" of the two groups is to "work up feeling…against measures necessary for the successful prosecution of the war." (Hiley, 651). And hence the argument justifying the harassment of legitimate protest groups was simple: If they are "…not for the success of our country" they should then be classified "pro-German" (651). Hiley's point on page 653 is that the attack on civil liberties grew because the Security Service moved from a counter-espionage campaign to one of "political surveillance." Soon, the Security Service also began spying on labor groups.

Meanwhile in Hiley's 1985 article he reviews some of the "alarming" and exaggerated reports that Germans were "swarming" in the streets of London, and that at some point the Germans in London will meet at a "fixed rendezvous" and carry out some demonic scheme. That scheme may include cutting every "main line…and every telegraph wire of importance," Hiley quotes from letters between security people in England. Every gun in all forts will be disabled and "…every factory of explosives" will be "blown sky-high" (Hiley, 1985, 836). All this was taking place in 1908 and 1909, well before the blatant violation of citizens' civil rights described earlier in This paper.

There was said to be three key kinds of German spies in Britain ("resident aliens") who were part of a plot to take over the country: a) those that live near "important engineering structures" like bridges, tunnels, etc.); b) those living in apartments that entertain "small parties of Germans" who "motor about the country with maps out"; and c) "tradesmen, photographers, bakers, even doctors and eye specialists" -- all who are well established in towns and ports and are "very inquisitive" (Hiley, 841).

With this kind of fear and paranoia well established, it is no surprise that the Weekly News in London would launch a promotion asking readers to report spies they may have met or know about. "Foreign Spies in Britain," the headline read, and readers were paid 10 (British pounds) for information. "Have You Seen a Spy?" The headline continued. After all, spies were said to be everywhere in Britain, so readers may have "…had adventures with… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "British Counter Intelligence" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

British Counter Intelligence.  (2012, August 31).  Retrieved October 17, 2021, from

MLA Format

"British Counter Intelligence."  31 August 2012.  Web.  17 October 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"British Counter Intelligence."  August 31, 2012.  Accessed October 17, 2021.