MI6: Squiffy need not apply

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 28/04/06):

ONE DAY, towards the end of my final year at university, I was tapped on the shoulder by a friendly don and asked if I, ahem, would like to meet an acquaintance of his, nudge, who was linked to the Foreign Office, wink, but outside the normal channels, if I knew what he meant. I most certainly did. For months, I had been assiduously cultivating the air of a potential spook by looking even more furtive than usual. I had read every word of John le Carré. I had even bought a faintly sinister trilby.

Today, I could have saved the expense of the hat and books, and simply responded to the advertisement that appeared in The Times yesterday, inviting applications to join MI6, “The World’s Intelligence”.

There was a time, and not so long ago, when an expressed desire to join the British secret service was an automatic disqualification. This was a club that would not admit anyone who wanted to be a member: admission was strictly by invitation.

Now, for the first time in its 97-year history, potential recruits are being invited to apply to join the Secret Intelligence Service: MI6 is finally following the example of other intelligence agencies, and its sister organisation MI5, with a policy of open recruitment.

For a century that world has been the exclusive preserve of white, Oxbridge-educated males with over-active imaginations: people, in short, like me. Initial recruitment was often informal and personal. Quite how personal is revealed in The Deceivers, Thaddeus Holt’s magisterial account of wartime espionage. Intelligence officers were recruited according to an almost identical pattern: Buffy (alias “C”) bumped into Tuffy at the club who introduced him to Squiffy, an old school chum who had married Toffy’s sister, lost an ear with Monty in Africa, and was now at a loose end. The next day, Squiffy joined SIS.

British MI5 officers were almost exclusively upper-class Englishmen. They often did not speak the same language as the people they were dealing with, both figuratively and literally.

This spies’ society was a self-replicating oligarchy, and only with the post-war spy scandals did it become clear that, when friends recruited like-minded friends, one bad apple could seed an entire rotten orchard.

Today the intelligence services face an array of challenges for which a white face and an Oxbridge mind are not necessarily the best qualifications: international terrorism, drug dealing, economic espionage, nuclear proliferation. The advert in yesterday’s newspaper pictured a mosque, a jungle, a Bedu, six black faces, two Asians, one Chinese and a single white person, in profile.

But the decision to advertise for new blood is more than just a reflection of changing intelligence priorities; it reinforces a broader shift in philosophy towards greater openness that has slowly permeated the intelligence services over the past decade.

Traditionally, British spymasters adhered to the doctrine that there could be no middle ground between absolute secrecy and complete disclosure. A secret service that was only part secret was seen as the same sort of impossible creature as a semi-virgin. When the CIA opened itself up to public scrutiny in the 1970s, many CIA contacts switched allegiance to MI6 because they feared being exposed. In retrospect those fears were groundless, but it gave British espionage yet another reason to clam up and retreat from the light.

At times, the obsession with all-enveloping secrecy was taken to ludicrous extremes. The Government even toyed with prosecuting Graham Greene (who had worked alongside Kim Philby during the war) after he published Our Man in Havana: “What secret had I betrayed?” demanded the novelist. “The possibility of using bird shit as secret ink?” The experience of the CIA and other intelligence agencies suggests that it is perfectly possible to give spying an overt face without jeopardising covert activities, or undermining the core elements of espionage that truly need to remain secret: operations and the identity of agents.

In everyday life we assume that the more we know about the sources of information, the more reliable it is likely to be. The mystique of British intelligence trades on the reverse of that formula. Politicians and others therefore accord more weight to these secret pronouncements than the facts can carry, even though, as George Tenet, the former CIA Director, has himself pointed out: “By definition intelligence deals with the unclear . . . not everything we analyse can be known to standard of absolute proof.”

This, surely, was Blair’s cardinal error in the run-up to the Iraq war. He chose to give greater credence to unclear intelligence than it warranted, precisely because of its shadowy provenance. If MI6 had been free to stand up in public and go through the evidence at an early stage, then the entire grim farrago might have been avoided.

Today, at long last, the intelligence services have a public face and public recruitment campaign. MI5 archives, kept secret for decades, are being released in a systematic and long-overdue display of historical candour. Even the far more reticent MI6 has allowed a historian into the archives to compile the history of the service up to 1949.

The spies have come in from the clubs and commons rooms, and on to the open job market. There is no evidence that greater accessibility and greater public accountability have undermined the effectiveness of British intelligence. The secret service has been shaken up, but not stirred. Indeed, public confidence can only increase with the proof that these are no longer exclusive Old Boys’ clubs. If you doubt that, ask yourself who would you rather have secretly ferreting out the violent mysteries of al-Qaeda: the man in the advert disguised as a Bedu, Squiffy from the Drones Club or, heaven forbid, me?

There was never much danger of the latter. The friendly don’s friend in Whitehall took one look at me, and plainly decided that our country’s most vital secrets were better entrusted to someone else.

After mature reflection, I think it was the hat that gave me away.