LONDON — Besides their ability to spin a good yarn, John le Carre, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and W. Somerset Maugham have something else in common: All were British intelligence officers.
Their books have spread through the world a pervasive fictionalized version of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, but the real SIS is still the most secretive of the world's espionage agencies.
The CIA and the KGB, for example, publish the names of their directors, but the identity of the man who heads the SIS is an official secret. So, too, is the exact location of its drab, unmarked headquarters in South London, which is known as Century House.
In fact, the SIS itself is a secret. Since World War I, it has been a part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but spokesmen for the department are instructed to deny all knowledge of its existence.
'Don't Know the Man'
A Foreign Office spokesman, asked for personal details about Mansfield Cumming, the eccentric former naval officer who was the the service's first chief and led it through World War I and into the mid-1920s, responded with a polite but firm, "I'm afraid we don't know the man here."
Cumming is known, however, to have been as colorful as any Ian Fleming character. He liked disguises; his false mustaches are still classified as secret. After losing a leg in an automobile accident in World War I, he terrorized his staff by roaring along the office corridors on a child's scooter.
Because Cumming signed official documents with a single initial, successor chiefs have been known simply as "C" (not "M," as he is known in Fleming's James Bond stories).
Historically, government documents that contain even a passing reference to the SIS, which is also known by its original military intelligence classification, MI6, are classified secret and not made available to the public. Papers that refer to the counterespionage agency, MI5, are treated with the same secrecy.
Several years ago, a parliamentary committee studying the question of academic access to important Cabinet papers was told that documents dating as far back as 1919 were still secret because they referred to intelligence activities.
After a prolonged campaign, some aging documents were finally made public in the early 1980s, and this was the first tacit admission by the government of the SIS's existence. Even then, the government referred to the documents of "certain organizations," preferring not to name either MI5 or MI6.
In most Western countries, pressure for public accountability has gradually eroded some of the secrecy that shields intelligence agencies. In the United States, congressional committees were established in the 1970s to monitor CIA activities after Congress discovered that the agency was engaged in domestic spying.
After French intelligence agents were linked to the sinking of a nuclear protest ship in New Zealand last July, France tightened parliamentary control over its clandestine activities.
But MI5 and MI6 continue to stand above any such scrutiny. Both are responsible only to a handful of Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants.
Jonathan Aitken, a Conservative member of Parliament and a campaigner for change, said the other day: "It's an almost ostrich-like attitude in the service and among those who run it on a highly personalized basis. There is strong resistance to parliamentary involvement."
Official Secrets Act
The British penchant for secrecy in this area contradicts a strong democratic tradition. Helping to preserve the secrecy is a tough Official Secrets Act that dates back to 1911 and deals sternly with anyone leaking or publishing sensitive government information.
In addition, the British press operates under a system of voluntary restraints that tends to discourage reporting on intelligence activities. And social convention has made it taboo to raise the subject in any formal setting.
"Talking about intelligence activities in this country is about as tasteful as bringing up the subject of oral sex at a Victorian dinner party," Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew noted. "It's crude and crass."
Andrew, whose recent book "Her Majesty's Secret Service," is considered the most comprehensive history of the British intelligence establishment, believes that all these conventions have helped preserve the anonymity of the secret services.
"There have been some cracks, but the amazing thing is how long it's lasted," he said.
The British intelligence coup of breaking the German secret code in the early days of World War II was a secret kept by about 10,000 people for over 30 years. It finally came to light in the early 1970s.
Since the outbreak of World War II, British agents have been recruited for the most part from the cream of the country's youth on the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge universities. Here the SIS is known jokingly as "the funny end of the Foreign Office."