Sunday Telegraph Article, August 2010

Below is text of an art­icle I wrote, pub­lished in The Sunday Tele­graph a while ago about what it’s actu­ally like to enter the won­der­ful world of spy­ing (just in case it’s ever air­brushed out of history!):

My so-called life as a spy”

Spies have always loved liv­ing in Pimlico: a civ­il­ised area in cent­ral Lon­don, handy for strolling to the office, and won­der­fully con­veni­ent for that mid­night dash to work if your oper­a­tion sud­denly goes live. Plus, the loc­al pubs are pretty good for the cus­tom­ary after-work moan.

Pimlico_flatI lived there myself when I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, so the murder of Gareth Wil­li­ams in a nearby street gave me a bit of a jolt. While his death remains shrouded in mys­tery, what has been repor­ted of his life sounds like clas­sic GCHQ.

There are dis­tinct cul­tures with­in each of the three major UK spy agen­cies: MI5, the UK domest­ic secur­ity ser­vice; MI6, the over­seas intel­li­gence organ­isa­tion; and GCHQ, the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions HQ.

MI6 officers, as people who may have to work inde­pend­ently and under­cov­er abroad, tend to be con­fid­ent, indi­vidu­al­ist­ic and “eth­ic­ally flex­ible”, while MI5 officers need to co-ordin­ate a broad range of resources and people to run an oper­a­tion, which requires great­er team-build­ing. Of the three agen­cies, GCHQ remains the most secret­ive and inward-look­ing, and is staffed pre­dom­in­antly with “boffin” types. Wil­li­ams, with his math­em­at­ic­al skills and loner tend­en­cies, would be a typ­ic­al employee.

Des­pite the intel­li­gence com­munity present­ing a united front to the out­side world, cul­ture clashes between the three agen­cies are com­mon­place. Staff on second­ment between agen­cies – as Wil­li­ams was, from GCHQ to MI6 – can have a rough time fit­ting into a new envir­on­ment, work­ing with col­leagues who eye them with sus­pi­cion, as the divi­sions jockey for power, prestige and resources with­in Whitehall.

So what is life like work­ing as a spy? The world of intel­li­gence is not so much isol­at­ing as insu­lat­ing. Even as you pro­ceed through the con­vo­luted recruit­ment pro­cess, you find your­self enter­ing a par­al­lel uni­verse, one that exists along­side your every­day life.

Thames_House_Millbank_EntranceFrom that first, explor­at­ory meet­ing with an intel­li­gence officer in an unmarked build­ing in cent­ral Lon­don, you have to with­draw a little from your old exist­ence. You are asked not to tell your fam­ily and friends, and imme­di­ately have to sign a noti­fic­a­tion of the rig­or­ous terms of the Offi­cial Secrets Act, whereby if you talk about your work, you risk imprisonment.

The pro­cess of induc­tion into this world is intriguing, flat­ter­ing and seduct­ive. The agen­cies tend to avoid the James Bond wan­nabes, and those inspired by the fake glam­our of Spooks. The key motiv­a­tion is gen­er­ally want­ing to do a job that can make a dif­fer­ence, pro­tect the coun­try and poten­tially save lives. The secret ele­ment adds spice and per­haps com­pensates for the anor­ex­ic pay. When I star­ted work­ing for MI5 in 1991, at the fast-track gradu­ate level, the start­ing salary was £14,500 pa – a good £5,000 less than my peer group from Cam­bridge earned in their blue-chip jobs. The pay has improved some­what since then, but you don’t become a spy for the money.

The vet­ting pro­cess is pro­trac­ted. For MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, officers are required to have the highest clear­ance – Developed Vet­ting. This begins with a home vis­it. Dis­con­cert­ingly, I soon found myself in the fam­ily sit­ting room being grilled about my sex life by a little, grey-haired lady who looked just like a favour­ite grand­moth­er, until you looked into her eyes.

Then the pro­cess widens. I had to nom­in­ate four friends who were will­ing to be inter­viewed about me, and they were asked to sug­gest yet more people… so secrecy becomes impossible. One friend, of a Left-wing hue, dis­ap­proved of my recruit­ment; even those who were sup­port­ive were reluct­ant to ask me too much. As I couldn’t talk to them freely about my life, they felt increas­ingly shut out, so I lost old friends along the way.

The_spy_who_loved_meUnsur­pris­ingly, new officers begin to social­ise increas­ingly with their col­leagues, and close friend­ships grow rap­idly. With­in this clique, we could talk shop at din­ner parties, use the same slang and ter­min­o­logy, dis­cuss our work, and whinge about our bosses. With out­siders, we could nev­er be fully ourselves. This, inev­it­ably, often led to more than friend­ships. What might oth­er­wise be called office romances flour­ished. I met my former part­ner, Dav­id Shayler, when we were both in our first post­ing in MI5.

Such rela­tion­ships were not exactly encour­aged, but were gen­er­ally seen as a good thing by man­age­ment – unless, of course, it was a clandes­tine mat­ter that could leave the officer vul­ner­able to black­mail. Such affairs were seen as vet­ting offences.

Among spies, an old double stand­ard held firm. There was one couple who were caught in flag­rante in the office, not once but twice. The male officer was put on “garden­ing leave” for six months; the woman was sacked.

For the first few weeks in the job, the feel­ing of unreal­ity and dis­lo­ca­tion is strong. The only sol­id inform­a­tion you have about your new pos­i­tion, as you walk into the office for the first time, is the grade at which you will be work­ing – noth­ing else.

My first post­ing was to the small counter-sub­ver­sion sec­tion, F2. Even though it was a desk job, the inform­a­tion I was deal­ing with came from sens­it­ive sources: inter­cep­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions, reports from agents who had pen­et­rated tar­get groups, police reports. And yet, with­in a few weeks, the hand­ling of such secret and intrus­ive inform­a­tion became entirely normal.

Invest­ig­a­tions can be very fast-paced, par­tic­u­larly in the counter-ter­ror­ism sec­tions. Gen­er­ally, officers work reg­u­lar hours but occa­sion­ally, if an oper­a­tion goes live, you work around the clock. If it proves a suc­cess, there might be a news item on the tele­vi­sion about it – but obvi­ously without the full back story. That can be a sur­real exper­i­ence. You feel pride that you’ve achieved what you signed up to do, but you can­not dis­cuss it with any­body out­side the office. At such moments, the dis­con­nect from main­stream life is intensely sharp.

Regnum_DefendeHow­ever, when some­thing goes wrong – a bomb goes off in which civil­ians die – the feel­ings are even more intense. Guilt, anger, frus­tra­tion, and a scramble to ensure that the blame doesn’t attach to your sec­tion. The offi­cial motto of MI5 is Regnum Defe
nde – defence of the realm. Staff mord­antly used to joke that it should more accur­ately be Rectum Defende.

Per­son­al secur­ity also ensures that there is a con­stant bar­ri­er between you and the nor­mal world. If you meet someone inter­est­ing at a party, you can­not say too much about what you do, and such reti­cence can appear unfriendly. The cov­er story that MI5 officers use is that they work as civil ser­vants at the Min­istry of Defence; for MI6, it is the For­eign Office. This usu­ally stops people from ask­ing too much more, either through dis­cre­tion or, frankly, bore­dom. Once or twice, people pushed me for more inform­a­tion, and my para­noia anten­nae imme­di­ately began to twitch: why are they so inter­ested? Are they spies or, God for­bid, journalists?

I had the mis­for­tune once of using this cov­er story at a party, only to find my inter­locutor actu­ally worked for the real Min­istry of Defence, and wanted to know which sec­tion I worked in, who my col­leagues were, how long I had been there… Thank­fully, the magic word “Box” – slang used to describe MI5 with­in White­hall, derived from the organisation’s old PO Box 500 num­ber – brought that line of con­ver­sa­tion to an abrupt halt.

As an intel­li­gence officer, you quickly learn to be dis­creet on the tele­phone and in emails. Oblique con­ver­sa­tions become the norm, and this bleeds into your per­son­al life, too, much to the frus­tra­tion of friends and family.

The inter­net is anoth­er chal­lenge. As a “spook”, the last thing you want to see is your pho­to­graph on a friend’s Face­book page. Or, even worse, hol­i­day snaps show­ing you in your Speedos, as the cur­rent head of MI6, Sir John Saw­yer, found to his cost last year.

And what about when you come to leave the intel­li­gence ser­vice, as I did after five years. Can you ever really have a nor­mal life after­wards, and shake off the mindset?

Many of my former col­leagues have left and built careers in a wide vari­ety of areas. But I won­der how many still look auto­mat­ic­ally over their shoulders as they put their key in the front door; how many tear up paper before throw­ing it in the bin; and how many are reflex­ively reti­cent about their per­son­al life?

Would I want to be a spy these days? No, thank you. I’m hap­pi­er in the real world.

* Annie Machon is the author of Spies, Lies and Whis­tleblowers (Book Guild)