Wanted: Tough, intelligent, patriotic person who can keep national secrets.
I’m not sure Mumsnet would be the first place I would think of to advertise for a spy, but it’s part of a new strategy by UK intelligence agencies – MI5, MI6 and GCHQ – to try to broaden their appeal to women.
Some Mumsnet users joked they would be perfectly suited, since they, as middle-aged women, were so used to being invisible.
Others were less sure. ShatnersBassoon wrote: “Yes, people who can’t help but type their every passing thought into an online forum would make great spies” while iseenodust said: “I have experience in sitting in cafes and love people watching.”
But the agencies believe more women should be encouraged to apply not just for legal or ethical reasons, but because it will make the country safer.
As the film industry chatters about the possibility of a female James Bond (Rolling Stone has even mocked up a Jane Bond trailer starring Emilia Clarke), the government is busy looking for a real-life one.
But – male or female – what qualities do you need to make it as a spy?
Former MI5 officer Annie Machon says it depends a lot on which of the government agencies you apply for. There are three:
- MI5, the domestic security service
- MI6 (now called Secrets Intelligence Service or SIS), which gathers intelligence overseas
- GCHQ, often referred to as the listening agency because it runs the electronic eavesdropping operations
At MI5 – or “the Box” as it is known inside government – you run the operation, says Machon. You need to be a team leader, you need to be able to influence people easily and you need to be able to gain people’s trust.
For MI6, it’s much more about the ability to operate abroad and alone, often in hostile environments, and perhaps be more “ethically flexible”.
And GCHQ staff tend to be the “boffins” – the types that are technically brilliant at things like coding and encryption, but perhaps not brilliant at a party, says Machon. The centre has been known to target internet hacker circles.
Machon resigned with her former partner, David Shayler, as part of a whistle-blowing operation in 1996. They wanted to highlight what they felt was incompetent and criminal behaviour at the agencies. Shayler was sentenced to six months in prison for breaking the Official Secrets Act after leaking secret documents to the press.
But of her recruitment, she says: “I applied for a job at the Foreign Office and got a letter saying we might have something more interesting for you.” She guessed it might be for the secret service.
“It’s a really tough recruitment process. The first interview is about three hours long, covering your life since you were 12. Then there’s a two-day course competing against other candidates – you have to analyse written data and role play around the case.”
She adds that these are followed by very intense interviews, including with a psychiatrist, so you really need to be able to keep your cool.
But if you fancy yourself as James Bond, you’re unlikely to get in. “Those types are weeded out early,” she says.
Prof Anthony Glees, who studies the world of intelligence and teaches at the University of Buckingham, seconds that. He says the key qualities needed are “clarity, firmness, toughness and the ability to read and understand a file without jumping to conclusions”.
And it’s not all about chasing baddies, there are less glamorous aspects to the work as well. “You need to be good at collecting data, analysing data and presenting data. You’ve also got to be good at acting on it,” Prof Glees says.
And, he reckons, modern-day spooks are generally very concerned about lawfulness and moral duty.
So is there anything that would stop you being employed?
“If you lied during your interview process,” says Machon. It seems that it doesn’t really matter if you broke the law, or dabbled in drugs, as long as there was nothing that you could be blackmailed with.
Historically, it’s been a man’s world. When the intelligence agencies were set up, in the early 20th Century, recruits came from the military.
And then, Prof Glees says, in World War 2, it was decided that the intelligence services needed to be intelligent. That was when tapping up the brightest students from universities began – and of course at that time it was mostly men.
But it’s changed since then. A recent government report on the issue says that last year 41.6% of MI5’s workforce was female, with a target of 45% by 2021.
Machon says that in her time there, in the early 1990s, it was 51% women and 49% men. She wonders whether the TV series Spooks, which ran from 2002 to 2011, may have deterred women from applying because it showed MI5 officers’ work as so dangerous, much more so than the reality.
To work at MI5…
- You must be a British citizen
- One of your parents must be British and have substantial ties to the UK
- Candidates must normally have been resident in the UK for nine out of the last 10 years
- Recruitment process can take six to nine months
- You must not discuss application with anyone except partner or close family, but only if they are British
- Application must not be mentioned on social media
All three agencies say they have taken steps to promote flexible working. But logistically it is hard if you have to pick up the kids. If your operation “goes live” you need to be available 24 hours a day. Admittedly that might happen only a couple of times a year but the nature of it means that it’s impossible to predict when.
In some cases, there might be advantages to being a woman. Prof Glees says that one of the biggest problems facing MI5 now is working out why so many women are joining so-called Islamic State. You could argue that a woman might be better suited to gaining the confidence of a female informer, for example.
Social media has changed things, with online profiles often providing details about someone’s political leanings or if they have a partner – information that previously would have required a lot of man-hours to gather.
For security reasons, intelligence officers are required to have a low social media presence – as are their partners (as one former head of MI6 found to his embarrassment).
But perhaps the most important quality of all is a certain drive to want to protect your country and make it a better place. Annie Machon says she and her colleagues liked the idea of making a difference.
So for those of you who think you’ve got what it takes, there’s an MI5 quiz to get you started. Just don’t mention it on Facebook.
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