Why MI5 comes out of the shadows

Why do you want to join the Secret Service?” demands John Cleese, the British spymaster interviewing a new recruit in the old Monty Python sketch.

“Can you keep a secret?” “Yes.” “Good, well you're in then.”

Some British spies have proved notoriously bad at keeping secrets, but for most of the last century the British intelligence agencies insisted on complete secrecy as the central defining tenet of their work. MI5, the Security Service, and MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, worked in deep shadow, anonymous, deniable and invisible.

As the historian Sir Michael Howard remarked in 1991: “So far as official government policy is concerned, the British security and intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, do not exist, enemy agents are found under gooseberry bushes and intelligence is brought in by the storks.”

For decades Britain's spy barons clung to the belief that there could be no middle ground between total secrecy and complete disclosure.

But then, beginning about 15 years ago, for reasons cultural, political and operational, these secret organisations began to edge, slowly, towards the light. John Major, as Prime Minister, publicly acknowledged MI6's existence for the first time in 1992, and gradually the dense and unhealthy fog of unnecessary secrecy began to lift.

Quite how far that process has now gone may be measured by the interview in today's newspaper with Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5.

Here sits the stork-in-chief, a man whose identity would once have been the most closely guarded secret, photographed at his desk, in his shirtsleeves, looking more like a country bank manager than “M”: Smiley, but much more smiley.

This new spirit of openness reflects a remarkable ideological shift, with its origins in the Spycatcher debacle of 1985. The revelations of “bugging and burgling” by Peter Wright, the former assistant director of MI5, did huge damage to the service. The Government's efforts to silence Wright compounded the catastrophe.

That experience convinced many in the secret world that public relations were as important to this as to any other branch of government, and that a degree of public scrutiny could be tolerated so long as it did not undermine secret sources or compromise operational efficiency.

Cold War espionage was a battle between professional spies, taking place at a distance from daily life in Britain. The war against terrorism has brought the public much closer to the action: for good operational reasons, MI5 needs members of the public to feel comfortable calling its telephone number with information, and for that, it needs a visible public profile.

Recruitment to the world of intelligence traditionally relied on the old-boy network, in which informal recruiters would tap the shoulder of a likely candidate, who tended to be white, male and upper-middle class. Today the ideal recruit is more likely to be Muslim and female, recruited not by some Oxbridge don with a nod and a wink, but through the internet, where both MI5 and MI6 maintain websites.

As the Monty Python sketch implied, in the old days anyone who applied to join the secret service was, by definition, suspect. Reversing Groucho Marx's dictum, this club did not want anyone to join who wanted to be a member. Today both organisations actively advertise for recruits.

The MI5 website, launched in 2002, calls for applicants who are “resilient, sensitive to others and open to new ideas”, which sounds more like an advert for a social worker than a ruthless secret agent in the James Bond mould.

The Security Service even revealed a hitherto unsuspected sense of humour: “The service does not kill people or arrange their assassinations. It is not an offence for a member of the service to disclose that the Thames House carpets are blue.” (Which probably means they are beige: a classic double bluff.)

For most of their history, Britain's secret services have declined to divulge facts about the past, for fear of jeopardising future operations. This, too, has changed. In October MI5 will mark its centenary with an official history of the service written by Professor Christopher Andrew, who has had full access to the archives. A similar volume on the history of MI6 is being written by Professor Keith Jeffery.

The shift towards greater candour has provoked squeals in some quarters. When Stella Rimington, the former MI5 chief, published her memoirs, the spy-writer Chapman Pincher denounced her in the Daily Mail, demanding to know “Is this the most treacherous woman in Britain?” He added: “I sense the secrets Establishment will be averse to putting another woman in a top job for many years.” A year later Eliza Manningham-Buller was appointed Director-General of MI5.

There is also a strong political imperative in greater visibility. Intelligence has never been more central to politics than today, but at a time of shrinking budgets, like other government agencies, the intelligence services need to demonstrate their relevance and effectiveness. This cannot be done without lifting the cloak a little, and showing the dagger.

The degree of openness should not be exaggerated. MI6 is still far more reticent than its domestic sister-service. Much intelligence still relies on secrecy and subterfuge: to penetrate, expose and prevent potential disaster, agents need to operate in the darkness. Public accountability has its limits.

The chatty, ultra-modern MI5 website still adheres to the wartime adage that “loose lips sink ships”: “It is important from the outset that you should be discreet about your interest in joining the service.” Can you keep a secret? Good, well you're in then.

Yet the modern intelligence agencies are candid about what they do, and what they have done in the past, in ways that would have been unthinkable to an earlier generation.

For most of its existence, the British intelligence establishment has lurked in the darkest recesses of government, half-hidden, shielded by a dense cloud of secrecy and tradition; today it is more accessible, more accountable, less economical with the truth and - to the extent that the task allows - more visible than ever before in its 100-year history. If nothing else, the glasnost within the secret services has demonstrated that there is more than one way to keep a secret.

John le Carré, that unrivalled investigator of the spy mind, has observed that the secret services offer a window into the character of the society they seek to protect. By seeing our spies more clearly, we may also catch a revealing glimpse of ourselves.

Ben Macintyre