Twenty years after Stella Rimington became the first woman to head MI5, Stylist interviews a working female spy (and is ordered to delete the tape afterwards...)
There are a handful of jobs everyone finds intriguing. Undercover journalists make the list, as do private detectives and Navy Seals. Myths swirl around them, based on rumour and popular culture. But nothing intrigues like a spy; from Spooks, Bond and Bourne to the Russian agents in recent headlines, nobody’s sure what they do, but everyone wants to know more.
It’s why I’m in Thames House, central London, waiting to meet a woman who works for MI5; one of the most secretive organisations in the world. My journey here was, without a doubt, the strangest of my career. Three months ago a PR called the Stylist office, offering a client for interview. So far, so unremarkable. Except they wouldn’t tell me who their client was. Suspecting I was about to learn a celebrity I’d never heard of was releasing a perfume, I explained we'd need to know who it was. “It’s MI5. Would Stylist want to interview an intelligence officer?”
The answer, of course, was yes. Interviews with MI5 are incredibly rare. And so followed weeks of correspondence, a semi-clandestine meeting and an unheard-of agreement of copy approval (necessary so the agency can remove anything that might jeopardise the officer’s safety). I’d have to relinquish my dictaphone, they’d record the interview, send me to a separate building to transcribe it, and then the audio would be destroyed.
Having no idea who I’m about to meet makes thorough interview prep somewhat tricky. In fact, all I have to go on are wild internet conspiracy theories and the 1,000-page tome The Defence Of The Realm: The Authorised History Of MI5. Here I learn that MI5 is: “The UK’s security intelligence agency, responsible for protecting the UK, its citizens and interests, against the major threats to national security.” A lot has changed since MI5 was set up in 1909, created to combat Germany’s attempts at espionage. From 14 staff the Secret Service has grown to more than 3,600 and threats have changed from Communism and Fascism to international terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
Fewer than 10 people in the world know what I do, and they include my close girlfriends and ex-boyfriend
And as for the agent herself? In an attempt to get into the Bond mindset, I read up about Pearl Cornioley, a spy who tricked the Germans by hiding coded messages in the hem of her skirt and, inspired, try my hand at MI5’s online recruitment test. Oddly I appear to be a good fit; something I doubt as soon as I get into the taxi to conduct the interview. “Thames House please,” I ask the driver. “Oh, MI5. Are you a spy then?” he replies. My subterfuge goes from bad to worse when, on arrival, I enter the wrong building and give my contact’s name to a blank-faced receptionist. Even then, thinking this is some kind of test, I keep repeating who I’m here to see like I’m being scanned for a password or secret handshake.
Eventually I arrive at the right reception where Susan (not her real name) leads me through a confusing maze of grey corridors. It feels disappointingly ordinary – no gadgets in sight – but the tension builds as I wait a further 30 minutes for the interview to start. Who, exactly is about to walk through the door? The woman who appears (I’ll call her Laura) is slim, pretty and blonde, dressed surprisingly casually in jeans and a white polo neck. She’s 28, articulate and funny, but otherwise unremarkable. “If you look extraordinarily like a spy,” she laughs when I point this out, “you probably shouldn’t be one!”
Even as we laugh there’s a tension in the room. This is a woman trained to keep secrets and it’s made clear the recording will stop if we touch on anything ‘that needs clarification’ (which happens three times, when I ask about personal relationships, agent running – building relationships with people who assist the organisation by providing information relevant to national security – and whether there is anywhere she can’t travel).
First, I ask, what exactly is her job? It involves, she explains carefully, receiving information about potential threats to national security, (“person A has gone to country B, trained, met person C, come back to the UK, is going to carry out action D”) and working against the clock to ascertain if that threat is real. “I build up my case. I ask can we corroborate that information, who did they meet, who are they in contact with, do they have extremist views, are they procuring items? At every stage I’m dealing with our own agent runners, surveillance teams and technical people, other intelligence agencies, the police and other government departments to build the picture.”
Does she listen to phone calls, enter people’s houses, follow suspicious people in cars or on foot? “No, but I work with people who do.” Gathering intelligence this way is key, but it’s made clear any activities are subject to the scrutiny of Parliament; no-one here is above the law. As for Laura’s role, “As an investigator I direct what they [the surveillance officers] do. Am I interested in doing those activities myself? Yes, but [it’s] not like on Spooks.”
Suddenly there are wry smiles all round. Spooks has done more to both promote and misrepresent MI5 than anything since James Bond (who actually works for MI6). It was the first thing Laura’s mother said when she heard she was applying, “There was that episode where the girl got killed and my mum said ‘You’re not going to be doing that are you?’”
You’re trained to think, ‘What is it that this person is actually looking to learn? Do you want to know that I read top secret documents that morning?’
So she is allowed to tell people what she does? “Yes, but it’s about discretion, and it’s there to protect me. I’m working with sensitive information and there are people out there looking to potentially exploit that.” Blackmail? She nods. “Fewer than 10 people in the world know what I do, and they include close girlfriends and my ex-boyfriend.” It’s something that’s been difficult for her parents, “They couldn’t tell their friends [when I got the job], they couldn’t tell anyone ‘look at what my daughter has achieved’ since. That is hard on them.”
Instead, recruits are given a cover story and trained how to use it. What’s hers? “Civil servant. I run a team that write reports for Whitehall.” And when people probe? “You’re trained to think, ‘What is it that [this person] is actually looking to learn? Do you want to know that I read top secret documents that morning?’”
Laura is now single and dating. “When I meet a guy do I tell him what I do? No. It is part of the role and it’s hard. Anyway, on dates I’m put off by someone who asks questions about [my job]. It’s harder when you get into a relationship, choosing the right time to tell them and choosing how to tell them.” It’s a situation Laura’s faced. She waited six months before telling her (then) boyfriend the truth. “I decided to sit him down and tell him when I saw myself being with him long-term. First I talked to the office, asked is it OK. Then I said ‘look, this is what I do.’ He wasn’t shocked, and it was a relief, it was nice to bring someone in, to let them into my world.”
Are there rules on who she can date? “There isn’t a tick list, it’s not that you can’t date someone from that country or that religion. But you have to consider if that person brings vulnerabilities to you, if they’re involved in criminal activity for example.” A little later she adds, “If you work here you would think that you would have good judgment on men,” she says with a laugh, “but all women have some weaknesses!”
Women like Laura are key to MI5’s success. It’s 20 years since Stella Rimington was appointed MI5’s first female head and today women make up 41% of the workforce. Laura talks about her own, rigorous, recruitment process. She applied online after a talk at university – no mysterious tap on the shoulder. First came a test in London (“to see how quickly you’re able to make key judgments and draw out key pieces of intelligence”), a telephone interview and then an assessment centre. “A whole day testing your analytical skills, your communication skills, how quickly you process and relay information.”
As a journalist it’s a real struggle not to probe further. But while Laura laughingly confirms they didn’t test how well she can leap from buildings, the exact details need to be skimmed over; it’s vital people who might present a risk can’t trick their way in. The history of the Secret Service shows what happens when they do. One of the darkest chapters was the Cambridge Five; a group of British men recruited as Soviet agents while students at Cambridge in the Thirties. They went on to get jobs in UK government departments that enabled them to pass information to the Russians. One, Anthony Blunt, joined MI5 and another, Kim Philby, joined MI6. Lives were undoubtedly lost because of their actions.
There is a psychological toll to seeing the true level of threat we face. When you first join the office it is scary, it gave me a fatalistic view of life.
For Laura one final hurdle remained, “The vetting process. I was interviewed, which was an intense, strange experience. It is about your sex life, your financial background, what drugs you’ve taken. They need to know because these could be areas of vulnerability for you, if they don’t know about it, they can’t protect you.” Does she have to be squeaky clean all the time? “You do have to be aware, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t get drunk. But I can’t remember the last time I thought ‘I can’t do this because of where I work.’ My vetting officer knows what I got up to at university, and I have been in situations, recently, where my friends have been taking drugs. I just don’t do it.”
The impact of her job isn’t simply self control. There are consequences to ‘bringing someone in’. “I have to consider how that will make them feel, not just in terms of will they tell someone else? But will it keep them awake at night? That is something I think about with my mum. Does she want to know if I’m working on an imminent attack plan? No. So that is more about me being responsible, thinking about what I am telling people.”
Because there is a psychological toll to seeing the true level of threat we face. “When you first join the office it is scary, it gave me a fatalistic view of life. There are things that we can stop, [but] there is always going to be that one thing we can’t, that situation where we don’t have enough information. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t kept me up at night, but the longer you’re here, the more you get used to it.”
The biggest downside of the secrecy? “[Not being able to] share the highs. Like the transatlantic airlines plot [the 2006 plot to blow up planes mid-flight from the UK to America]. Those operations become my life. We were here, we saw the doors go in [as people were arrested]. I woke up the next day and it was all over the news, but there’s no one outside of the office who gets that. I find that difficult.”
Finally I ask about the hardest part of her job, fully expecting Laura to talk about secrecy or stress. “Money. I’ve been here five and a half years and my peers are far wealthier than me,” (the starting salary for her position is £24,750). As for the men, “It isn’t like Spooks, the men are not nearly as good-looking,” she laughs. Money and men. Turns out MI5 isn’t quite as different from the average office after all.
For more information about starting a career in MI5 visit the website at mi5.gov.uk/careers
Words: Kate Graham. Picture credit: Getty Images.