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: mi5​ca​reers​.gov​.uk/​s​u​r​v​e​i​l​l​a​nce, 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.