Britain’s spymasters have said that the King has been holding secret annual award ceremonies for spies who have risked their lives in the battle against enemies of the state.
“The spy Oscars” - as they have become known - were first held in 2012 and MI5 has shared details on its Instagram account.
When he was Prince of Wales, the King, who is patron of the Intelligence Services, presented hundreds of spies with honours and awards along with citations for bravery. Awards ceremonies have taken place at locations including Thames House, the HQ of MI5 in London, but there are no fixed dates for the events, according to security sources.
Now the King has succeeded to the throne, Prince William could potentially take over in the future, but that decision has not been made.
An intelligence source said that the awards were presented personally by the King to members of the intelligence community responsible for foiling dozens of terrorist attacks.
Details of the vast majority of the operations involving the security services have been kept secret, and consequently, the spies involved are never allowed to receive any form of public recognition.
Working in the shadows
Colonel Philip Ingram, a former Army intelligence officer, said the achievements of the intelligence and security services were often overlooked because they took place in the shadows.
He told The Telegraph: “We forget the contribution the intelligence services give to ensuring our safety and security and the contribution they make to Britain’s standing in the world. Very often the measurement of their success is nothing happens, and when something does, again, we rarely hear about it. It is fantastic that His Majesty takes a personal interest and plays his role in saying thank you to some of these exceptional men and women who have to permanently live and work in the shadows.”
It is understood that the awards were broken down into operational and non-operational categories so that support staff such as archivists, interpreters, clerical personnel, and long-serving catering and security staff could also be recognised. Personnel involved in counter-terrorism, counter-espionage operations, as well as those spies working with the police to expose and dismantle organised crime gangs, have also been presented with awards.
In 2021, Ken McCallum, the director-general of MI5, announced that the security service had foiled 39 late-stage terror plots in the UK in the past four years. At the time he said they were largely Islamic extremist plots, but a “growing number” were planned by Right-wing terrorists. It is understood that those MI5 officers directly involved in those counter-terrorist operations have received awards.
Mr McCallum has said previously: “We need to be vigilant both for the increase in inspired terrorism which has become a real trend for us to deal with over the last five to 10 years, alongside the potential regrowth of al-Qaeda-style directed plots.”
Officers from MI6 have also been honoured. Many of the personnel thanked by the King had been involved in covert operations in countries including Russia, China and Iran.
Because of the highly sensitive nature of the operations, the spies being honoured could not receive their awards at public investitures held at Buckingham Palace.
The only members of the intelligence services who are ever named publicly are the three intelligence chiefs – Mr McCallum, Sir Richard Moore, the head of MI6, also known as “C”, and Anne Keast-Butler, the director of GCHQ. The awards are now an important part of the intelligence services calendar and have previously been held at St James’s Palace.
In an Instagram post from the time of the Coronation, MI5 said:
In 2019, it emerged that Prince William had spent three weeks working alongside spies as part of a work experience program inside the headquarters of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ. At the time, he said: “Spending time inside our security and intelligence agencies, understanding more about the vital contribution they make to our national security, was a truly humbling experience.
“These agencies are full of people from everyday backgrounds doing the most extraordinary work to keep us safe. They work in secret, often not even able to tell their family and friends about the work they do or the stresses they face.
“They are driven by an unrivaled patriotism and dedication to upholding the values of this country. We all owe them deep gratitude for the difficult and dangerous work they do.”