Vauxhall Cross, Home of the Secret Intelligence Service

I could show all the usual places in London that tourists want to know about, such as Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge, etc, but I’d like to talk about places that interest me personally, such as the iconic building housing the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS – otherwise known as MI6, a nod to its military intelligence origins) in the photo below.

All information on this website about Vauxhall Cross and Thames House is already in the public domain.

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The ziggurat building, its shape influenced by Babylonian and Mayan architecture, was designed by architect Terry Farrell and completed in 1994, the same year that the SIS was officially recognised in the Intelligence Services Act. Until then no one in government had been willing to acknowledge the existence of the Secret Intelligence Service, or its sister service, MI5. The building incorporates ‘special requirements’ particular to security services (same for MI5). Those include laboratories and workshops. It is classed as HPT (high potential threat from terrorists) and HIS (threat from hostile intelligence services). It covers 295,000 square feet and is constructed from very tough bombproof man-made ochre granite. There are approximately 10-11 floors above ground and reputedly five or more floors underground housing a command centre, labs, workshops, etc. Green-tinted windows are triple-glazed to safeguard against RF (laser and radio frequency) flooding techniques. Inside the building (according to information from The Big Breach – a book written by Richard Tomlinson, a former SIS officer – and other sources) there are unmarked corridors with only acronyms on the doors plus floor plans and exit signs on the walls. The floors have open-plan offices with partitions and there is a staff bar overlooking the Thames. Modular-shielded rooms prevent eavesdropping – they house the mainframe computers, cipher and communications areas. (Important outstation rooms are also lead-lined with up to a foot of lead). Filing cabinets are protected from penetration by X-rays and the locks collapse internally if force is used in an attempt to open them. There are frequent security checks on all equipment to ensure there has been no tampering. A secure command-and-control room runs major operations from the basement which also houses extensive computer suites. At the time of completion there was room for expansion of central processors and technical areas. The building has emergency back-up systems, conference rooms, laboratories, workshops, physical and electronic security systems, data wiring, and specific communications modifications.

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The main entrance to the Vauxhall Cross building on the Albert Embankment opposite a motorbike garage and railway bridge. At the ground level are steel doors with barriers behind them, pedestrian entrances on either side and a security booth to check visitors. There is a separate entrance for vehicles, also closely guarded as you would expect.

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The lowest level river frontage of the SIS building with fountains and bombproof walls. The head of the SIS is currently Sir John Sawers. The service has more than 2,000 employees with around 350 field officers or Intelligence Branch staff, 800 technical and admin staff, and about 1,000 staff who are secretaries, clerks, guards, cooks, drivers and mechanics. Those figures may have risen to more in 2011 since there has been a drive to increase the number of personnel due to the threats currently faced. The SIS recruits from Oxford and Cambridge universities plus other universities, and also from Special Forces. Recruiters look for ‘persuasive types’. Recruits undergo medical checks, a psychological exam and positive vetting. Candidates are put through the Civil Service Selection Board and undergo the Intelligence Officer’s Entry Course (IONEC). Employees follow a security breach points system. If they get 160 points against them in three years, security clearance is withdrawn and they may be subjected to instant dismissal. Turning down a posting will jeopardise future promotions and can also lead to dismissal. The SIS is sometimes known as ‘FCO Coordinating Staff’ (as in Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the ministry to which the SIS answers) or ‘The Executive Branch’. Unofficially it is known as ‘The Firm’ to operatives and ‘The Friends’ to other agencies. The Vauxhall Cross HQ has been codenamed as ACTOR in the past, and jokingly as Legoland or Babylon-on-Thames, the latter a reference to the architectural influence of ancient buildings.

 

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Side view of Vauxhall Cross. The service is much more open to the public and journalists than it used to be but they don’t much like people walking around their building taking photographs even if it is for book research……..hardly surprising given the terrorist threat that exists today and the fact the building came under rocket attack in 2000. (The result was superficial damage).

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Vauxhall Cross at night, just as interesting as during the day.

More (official) information about the history of the SIS, recruitment and FAQs can be found at the SIS website below:

https://www.sis.gov.uk/

There is also a section devoted to the artist James Hart Dyke, who spent a year with SIS creating some atmospheric paintings recording the work of the agency.

https://www.sis.gov.uk/our-history/centenary/a-year-with-mi6-art-exhibition.html

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