Eliza Manningham-Buller: Spying dame

To her neighbours, she was an extrovert woman who liked doing a roast for the family on Sundays
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Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller seemed happy to contradict the Prime Minister this week by declaring that it was clear from the video "martyrdom wills" of British suicide bombers that they are motivated by a sense of injustice at Britain's perceived anti-Muslim foreign policy, in particular our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was - we were told - consonant with the way she has in the past distanced herself from the more melodramatic pronouncements of politicians on the question of international terrorism. And it meant - we were told - that her public warning of the scale of the threat Britain faces should be taken with great seriousness.

Once everyone would have done that. Dame Eliza is, after all Director General of the Security Service - or head of MI5, as she is more colloquially known. And her chilling admonition - that her staff have identified 30 major terrorist plots being planned in Britain actively involving than 1,600 individuals - seems the most portentous and detailed to date.

But dodgy dossiers have implanted doubt about intelligence. So how seriously should we take the woman who is issuing the warning?

Eliza Manningham-Buller has one of the shortest entries in Who's Who, as might be expected of the woman who knows the nation's most sensitive and secret intelligence before any member of the Government does.

She comes from an impeccable conservative background of aristocrats and top lawyers. Her mother was Lady Mary Lilian Lindsay, fourth daughter of the 27th Earl of Crawford, who trained carrier pigeons to fly top-secret coded military messages during the Second World War.

Her father was Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (Eton and Magdalen), a minister in Winston Churchill's government before becoming Attorney General and then Lord Chancellor in the Macmillan era. Not a man known for his liberal views he was nicknamed Bullying-Manners in Bernard Levin's parliamentary sketches in the 1950s - an unflattering epithet which was transferred to his daughter Eliza when she was at school, at Benenden with Princess Anne, and later in MI5 where, it is said, "she does not suffer fools gladly".

The Honourable Elizabeth Lydia Manningham-Buller was born in 1948, the second daughter in a family of four. After Benenden she read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. It was there, much to her father's alarm, that MI5 first attempted to recruit her. She declined and went on to star as the Fairy Godmother in a production of Cinderella directed by Gyles Brandreth. (She is now godmother to about 30 children, though she has none of her own.) After graduating, she taught at the exclusive Queen's Gate school in London, where among her pupils was the TV cook Nigella Lawson who was herself approached at Oxford to join MI5. (Thankfully she said no too.)

But MI5 returned. It was 1974 and the height of the Cold War. This time she signed up. She began by typing transcripts of tapped telephone conversations between Warsaw Pact diplomats but soon progressed - despite her lack of Russian - to become a full-time spy-chaser.

She proved adept. "I remember Eliza as a brilliant counter-espionage officer," the spy Oleg Gordievsky said later. "She was bright, sharp and full of colour." Manningham-Buller was one of only a handful of people inside MI5 to know that Gordievsky, the deputy head of the KGB at the Soviet embassy in London, was a double agent. Manningham-Buller checked and analysed the stories Gordievsky supplied to Nato before he became perhaps the most important person ever to defect to the UK. Her ability to keep a secret was confirmed when it transpired that one of the key people working in her assistant's office was a spy for the Russians who never got wind of what Gordievsky was up to.

Early on she made a key decision, switching from counter-espionage to counterterrorism. She was one of MI5's key operatives in 1988 when the Lockerbie bombing brought down Pan Am Flight 103 with the loss of 270 lives in one of the first mass international terrorism outrages. She was then posted to Washington to liaise with the US intelligence community during the first Gulf War in 1990. "She made her mark in Washington," one insider said. "She got on very well with the Americans."

It was only at this point, at the age of 43, that she wed - to a man with five children by a previous marriage, bringing her an instant family. Her husband David, whose surname has never been publicly disclosed, was a lecturer in moral philosophy and an Irish Catholic who once held strong left-wing views. He did not find out until they married what her job was.

She was good at secrets. To her neighbours, Eliza was a tallish extrovert carefree woman, energetic and alert but "happy to talk about almost anything under the sun", who liked doing crosswords and cooking a roast for the family every Sunday - something she is said to insist on making time for each week.

Despite her success in liaison work she became frustrated with being a perpetual "messenger" and applied to switch to operations. "She hates idleness," Gordievsky said. On her return to the UK in 1992 she was appointed as the service's director of Irish counterterrorism, a new post set up after MI5 seized control of anti-IRA operations in Britain from the Metropolitan Police's Special Branch.

She "tore the guts out" of the terrorists in "brilliant operations" against the IRA's active service units, ensuring there was sufficient evidence for prosecutions, David Bickford, a former chief legal adviser to MI5 told Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian in a rare interview. She was put in charge of all of MI5's surveillance and technical operations and promoted to join MI5's management board.

In 1997, she became MI5's deputy director general, with day-to-day responsibility for the service's operational work and its relations with foreign intelligence agencies. "She is a very decisive person. You need to be, otherwise you get stressed," her predecessor as MI5 chief, Sir Stephen Lander, has said. "She drives things forward."

Then came 11 September. The next day Manningham-Buller flew out to Washington to liaise with the US authorities. She also participated in a review of vulnerable targets which led to a ring of concrete protection around the Houses of Parliament. But when the Government's infamous dossier on Iraq's weapons programme was published in September 2002, she reportedly had doubts about how real a threat Iraq posed. Her boss, Sir Stephen Lander, was absent when the dodgy dossier was signed off by Whitehall's joint intelligence committee.

Yet when Sir Stephen retired as head of MI5 and Eliza Manningham-Buller was appointed to succeed him in October 2002 - only the second woman to head the service - she was seen by many as a conservative choice. Since then she has developed a surprisingly public profile. "She's quite a political animal," David Bickford told Richard Norton-Taylor. "That's in the genes, so she is able to handle Whitehall very effectively. She's not afraid to mix it with ministers." Before a year had elapsed she made her first public speech. In June 2003 she told the Royal United Services Institute that it was only a matter of time before terrorists launched a chemical, biological or nuclear attack on a major Western city. Al-Qa'ida, she said, represented "the first truly global terrorist threat". She had entered the political arena.

She was there again last October when her statement to the law lords on the Wood Green ricin poison plot was leaked. It revealed that the unreliable information on which the police raid was launched - and no ricin was found - came from a man who had probably been tortured in Algeria and that MI5 hadn't asked about torture "because that would make things difficult". In January this year she refused to appear before the parliamentary human rights committee to elaborate.

Last year, on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, she spoke publicly again, at the Dutch security service. She said MI5 was shocked and disappointed it had not been able to prevent the 7/7 bomb attacks in London but added: "We were not altogether surprised because of our understanding of the threat." Since then five major conspiracies had been thwarted in the UK. But to further protect Britons, she warned, some erosion of civil liberties might be needed "to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives".

The central dilemma, she believes - and this was implicit again in her speech this week - is that traditional police techniques don't work so well with terrorists. Waiting to catch criminals red-handed is not appropriate with suicide bombers with bombs around their waists. That means gathering evidence good enough to stand up in court is much harder.

Now in yet another public speech Dame Eliza has issued her dramatic warning about 30 terror plots. "I speak not as a politician but as someone who has been an intelligence professional for 32 years," she said. That professional expertise is unquestioned. MI5 has expanded by 50 per cent since 9/11, though its casework has increased 80 per cent just since January. By 2008 MI5 is scheduled to double in size on 2001 levels. "Today we see the use of home-made improvised explosive devices; tomorrow's threat may include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology. That threat is serious, is growing and will, I believe, be with us for a generation."

Is she just protecting the patch of her organisation? Or is she preparing the ground for that erosion of civil liberties? Or is she right? Those are the questions facing all of us.

A Life in Brief

BORN July 14 1948.

FAMILY Married to David (surname kept secret), a former lecturer in moral philosophy, now a carpenter. Five stepchildren.

EDUCATION Northampton high school; Benenden; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

CAREER Teacher, Queen's Gate school, London, 1971-74. Recruited to join MI5 in 1974. MI5 liaison officer in Washington, 1990-1991. Deputy Director General, 1997-2002; Director General 2002-. Appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the Bath, 2005.

SHE SAYS "It is a sustained campaign, not a series of isolated incidents. It aims to wear down our will to resist."

THEY SAY "She was brought up in the milieu of ministers. She carries a lot of weight across Whitehall." Sir Stephen Lander, her predecessor