The origins of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) are to be found in the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau, established by the Committee of Imperial Defence in October 1909. The Secret Service Bureau was soon abbreviated to `Secret Service`, `SS Bureau` or even `SS`. The first head of the Foreign Section, Captain Sir Mansfield Cumming RN, signed himself `MC` or `C` in green ink. Thus began the long tradition of the head of the Service adopting the initial `C` as his symbol.
Cumming sought to ensure that the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau maintained a degree of autonomy but the War Office, in particular, managed to exercise extensive control over his actions. The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 brought a need for even closer cooperation with military intelligence organisations within the War Office. The most significant manifestation of this was the virtual integration of the Foreign Section within the Military Intelligence Directorate. Thus, for much of the war, Cumming`s organisation was known as MI1(c). This arrangement did not sit well with Cumming who regretted this diminution of his independence. As a naval officer he was less than pleased at appearing under the auspices of the War Office.
The debate over the future structure of British Intelligence continued at length after the end of hostilities but Cumming managed to engineer the return of the Service to Foreign Office control. At this time the organisation was known in Whitehall by a variety of titles including the `Foreign Intelligence Service`, the `Secret Service`, `MI1(c)`, the `Special Intelligence Service` and even `C`s organisation`. Around 1920, it began increasingly to be referred to as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), a title that it has continued to use to the present day and which was enshrined in statute in the Intelligence Services Act 1994.
`MI6` has become an almost interchangeable title for SIS, at least in the minds of those outside the Service. The origins of the use of this other title are to be found in the late 1930s when it was adopted as a flag of convenience for SIS. It was used extensively during the Second World War, especially if an organisational link needed to be made with MI5 www.mi5.gov.uk/output/uk-home-page.html . Although `MI6` fell into official disuse years ago, many writers and journalists continue to use it to describe SIS.
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