Spies like us

MI5
is drawing attention to itself by enlisting the help of recruitment agencies to
fill its quota of spies. But it turns out most applicants will be disappointed
as they simply won’t be normal enough. John Charlton investigates

MI5’s
mission to recruit 1,000 extra intelligence officers to help combat the
terrorist threat appears to be on course, but former insiders advise caution
and say few will be hired.

Some
4,000 applications have landed on the desks of the recruitment agencies
handling the initial stages, before shortlisted applicants’ details are sent on
to MI5’s in-house recruiters.

Recruitment
agency TribalGWT (www.tribalgwt.com) is
dealing with applications for vetting and surveillance officers. 

This
response must surprise Robin Ramsay, editor of Lobster magazine, which tracks
security service activities.

“It
amazes me that anyone would work for them [MI5], so awful are they to work
for,” he says.

A
view shared by former MI5 intelligence officer and whistleblower David Shayler,
who told Personnel Today that working for MI5 was “a waste of time as the
money’s so low”.

The
£21,000 starting salary for a surveillance officer wouldn’t buy too many of the
bespoke suits favoured by upmarket fictional spies such as James Bond, or even
the crumpled nylon ones worn by downmarket agents such as Harry Palmer.

Nor
will Arabic, Persian, Punjabi and other linguists be able to play much chemin
de fer on a starting salary of up to £20,100.

But
such is the rigour of MI5’s recruitment processes that hardly any of the
4,000-and-counting applicants will ever walk the blue carpets of MI5’s HQ in
central London.

Shayler
underwent several interviews and thorough vetting procedures. His four referees
were interviewed face-to-face and his neighbours were asked about his
character.

The
Home Office says 30 to 40 of the initial 4,000 are likely to be hired.

Many
will be rejected immediately because they are not British subjects, or have not
been resident in the UK for 10 years, or lack basic entry qualifications.

Annie
Machon, who worked as an MI5 recruiter in the mid-1990s, says a major
recruitment drive in 1996 attracted about 20,000 applicants. Six were
eventually hired.

They
were most likely of average height and build. For field officers MI5 specifies
a maximum height of five feet 11 inches for males and five feet eight inches
for females.

“They
need to blend in,” explains Shayler.

So
who is likely to get through the recruitment net?

According
to MI5 they’ll be “ordinary people” who want to do an “extraordinary job”. MI5
also sports the usual PC buttons and says it’s committed to equal opportunities
to “reflect the diversity of society”.

It
has no choice with linguists, but what of intelligence officers?

Shayler,
who was sentenced to six months imprisonment in October 2002 for breaching the
Official Secrets Act by selling secret documents to the Mail on Sunday, demurs.

“Intelligence
officers tend to be public school and Oxbridge educated,” he says.

And
is MI5 a meritocracy? “Not at all,” says Shayler.

But
some things have changed. When he applied to join MI5 in 1991, after seeing an
advert in the Independent which was cryptically headlined ‘Godot isn’t coming’,
Shayler says admittance of homosexuality ruled out applicants immediately. This
is no longer the case.

But
remember MI5 suspected the loyalty of homosexuals after the antics of the
notorious Cambridge Spy Ring of the 1930s and 1940s and traitor John Vassell in
the 1960s.

MI5
may have bent its knee to some 21st century personnel norms, but not all. For
example, staff cannot join a union or staff association and the agency is
exempt from the Data Protection Act.

Shayler
and Machon both admit there is a staff counsellor to whom employees can turn,
but claim that “that counts against you and you’ll be blacklisted and shunted
sideways”.

According
to Shayler, outsourcing MI5’s HR function to a consultancy would improve
personnel practices at the agency and make the organisation more of a
meritocracy.

Well
he would say that wouldn’t he?

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