November 2006 – Independent Interview

Forget Bond: MI5 wants cat-loving twentysomethings

Britain’s spymasters are looking for a new kind of recruit to tackle a different threat. The Independent’s Sophie Goodchild and Lauren Veevers ask an ex-agent about the job.

They seek her here; they seek her there; that damned elusive cosmetic-buying, weepy-watching, cat-owning, Italian food-loving, female couch potato with a mind like a spring trap. That is the new quarry of Britain’s spymasters.

An advertisement specifying these characteristics has been placed in magazines by that hitherto shadowy employer, the security service. It shows the back view of an Afro-haired, twenty-something woman in a T-shirt.

Those seeking work in the domestic secret intelligence service, MI5, are referred to:, where the invisible ink brigade says: “We particularly welcome applications from women and ethnic minorities.”

Salaries for a mobile surveillance officer start at £24,121 for what MI5 describes as: “A
remarkable job, undertaken by remarkable people. But you would never know to look at them. Because they need to blend into the background, officers are of average height, build and general appearance.” The selection process can take up to eight months and consists of intense interviews and rigorous aptitude tests.

For the post of intelligence officer, hopefuls receive a lengthy application form which
asks for examples of how you have worked co-operatively, used initiative and judgement, and shown “drive and resilience”. Applicants who pass interview stages will, of course, be required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

One woman who did fulfil the role for real is Annie Machon. Ms Machon, 38, joined MI5’s political and counter-terrorism department in 1991 on general duties. Annie was so
disgusted by the security service’s failings that she and her agent partner, David Shayler, went on the record, breaking the Official Secrets Act. They spent two years on the run and David was jailed six months in 2002 for breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Her advice for new recruits? “Don’t do it! When I started, there were quite a few women that worked there but many of them were admin based. The main problem the security services have is retaining agents. When David and I left, lots more did too – just not so publicly.”

The BBC’s popular Spooks and the American equivalent, 24, have raised the profile
of MI5 as a female career option. But Ms Machon says, “Programmes like Spooks are not really accurate and so glamorise the job a bit, but I also think they highlight the dangerous side to the job which may put some women off. I never saw the skills involved in gender terms. An officer requires a broad range of skills; intellect, organisational skills, analytical skills and the skill to identify a threat in the first place.

“I don’t think that women make particularly better spies than men – but I suppose the general perception of an agent is male, so when interviewing people they may open up more to a woman than a man.”

Ms Machon author of Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair, said: “MI5’s wish list as far as recruits go is huge – but that doesn’t mean that the people who get through have all those things. When I was there the level of staff who were incompetent was a real worry. They have clearly broadened their recruitment policy but I expect that the long process with still be just as stringent. When I was a recruiter we had 20,000 people applying to be James Bond, but only about five got through.”

Jane Featherstone, executive producer of Spooks, said: “At first the intelligence services were resistant, and they let that be known through former members who acted as technical advisers on Spooks. Then they thought it might help to recruit new spies. They even used the first series to help with their advertising campaign. But they were deluged with people who thought the job involved walking around in Armani saving the planet.”

Miranda Raison, who plays MI5 agent Jo Portman in Spooks, said the production team tried to make the portrayal of female operatives as authentic as possible. She said the original cast had met members of the intelligence service to discuss how to play
their roles.

“They got a lot of literature together from that, and since then, cast members have been given a pack full of stories on genuine operations to learn from. There are lots of things you wouldn’t expect in there: for example, how to operate undercover, or as a honeytrap – but it’s much more brutal than you’d imagine.”

MI5 is keen to receive applications from ethnic minorities to help infiltrate Muslim terrorist groups. Its director general, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently warned that MI5 is investigating 30 known terror plots in the UK.