MI6 comes in from the cold and on to the internet

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But the need to boost the number of MI6 officers, and employ staff from more diverse backgrounds, has prompted the spy agency to come in from the (technological) cold and openly recruit for the first time.

The agency - which prefers to call itself SIS - the Secret Intelligence Service - todaylaunches its first external website.

While the glossy site - www.mi6.gov.uk - has details of the agency's history, role and accountability, its principal job is to encourage more people to join up. MI6 employs the same number of staff as its sister agency, MI5, with about 2,000 officers. Both have received a large injection of cash from Gordon Brown to increase their counter- terrorism capabilities.

MI5 plans to hire 1,000 officers, but the recruitment drive for MI6 is thought to be in the hundreds. It also wants a greater mix of staff, with a higher number of ethnic minorities to help infiltrate and combat terrorist networks linked to al-Qa'ida. A Foreign Office spokesman said: "The idea that you need to wait to be tapped on the shoulder by some mysterious guy at university is outdated."

The MI6 website, which is adorned with a picture of its futuristic headquarters at Vauxhall Cross on the Thames in central London, offers would-be SIS staff the opportunity to experience "foreign travel", "excitement" and become a real-life Q and design "hi-tech gadgets" for agents. Facilities at the headquarters include squash and basketball courts, a gym, restaurant, coffee lounge and bar.

The website says new staff, who receive a starting salary of about £21,000, will "enjoy work that is stimulating, often exciting, always varied, and, in the technical field, often cutting-edge".

The SIS chiefs also call on the services of their best known [fictional] recruiting agent, James Bond.

The website says: "James Bond, as Ian Fleming originally conceived him, was based on reality. But any author needs to inject a level of glamour and excitement in order to sell.

"By the time the filmmakers focused on Bond the gap between truth and fiction had already widened. Nevertheless, staff who join SIS can look forward to a career that will have moments when the gap narrows just a little and the certainty of a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond's, will be in the service of their country."

Being able to keep a secret is important, too. The site warns: "Potential candidates should not divulge to anyone, other than a spouse or close partner, their application to SIS."

Spies' tales

* Andrew Before university the 28-year-old spent a year teaching in Lebanon and travelling in Egypt and Syria. He later worked for a London management consultancy and was sent to Iraq in 2003 while in the Territorial Army. "I've been in some pretty testing situations abroad delivering results under pressure and in difficult circumstances. It gives me a real buzz."

* Peter Operational agent, 24, who joined after studying modern languages and teaching in the Far East. "The feeling of achievement when you persuade a contact to trust you is what does it for me."