The former agent David Shayler described life as an MI5 desk officer as "nine-to-five, or to be more precise, nine-to-five-fifteen". He and his colleagues were more likely to be "pushing paper than pushing drugs in a sting operation".
Despite last week's unprecedented appeal for a thousand new recruits, the MI5 website suggests little has changed. The application process is designed to deter thrill-seekers, and the negatives of life as a spy are emphasised: men over 5ft 11ins tall need not apply; they are too conspicuous, and the same goes for women over 5ft 8ins; there is little prospect of promotion: watching an unmoving target for hours on end can be extremely dull. But sources familiar with the recruitment needs of MI5 and MI6 say the life of a spy has become more exciting since the beginning of the war on terrorism. "There is less time for reflection and analysis," says one. "In the 1990s the worst that could be envisaged if intelligence failed was an IRA bomb outside Harrods. Now we face the threat of anthrax bombs that could render cities uninhabitable for 20 years."
The security services still need recruits "with the intellectual qualities of a high-flying civil servant", but employees are increasingly required to act as "enforcers who can go in and disrupt bank accounts, hack into financial records and smash networks. MI5 has set up entirely false banks which have then disappeared when money has been transferred to them".
Interrogation skills have also become vital. The source says: "Suspects need to be picked up fast and pumped for information. This business is all about exploiting human weakness. It is about cultivating friends in order to manipulate them. Modern agents are people who have the charisma to persuade people to do things that may be against their natural instincts."
These people are hard to find. The traditional staff complements of MI5 and the foreign intelligence service MI6 have, until now, been about 2,000 each. The recruitment of 1,000 new people to MI5 announced last week would represent a massive expansion. There is, however, little confidence that it will work. A source says: "The first time MI5 advertised in The Guardian it got 14,000 applications. Thirteen thousand were in need of serious medical help. Open recruiting attracts people who have confused MI5 with the SAS."
This has caused a form of social regression. Insiders say that 20 years ago, when both MI5 and MI6 employed the traditional recruitment method of approaching potential candidates at university, both agencies achieved an almost perfect gender balance. Now recruitment advertising attracts an overwhelming number of male applicants.
Changes in higher education have also caused difficulties. A source claims: "Tutors do not know their students as well as they used to. Academics no longer have the confidence to recommend people to the agencies." Student debt is a problem for the espionage community, too. "We are now entering a phase where the only people who can afford to work for MI5 and MI6 are people lucky enough to graduate without debts," the source says. This has led to a crisis in retention as well as recruitment. A source explains: "MI5 experiences a steady bleed of people. At 23, people will come to London and won't mind slumming it for a while. But at 28, when they want to buy a house, the salary is not enough. It takes 10 years to train a good agent handler and far too many leave after five or seven years. MI6 has been trying to expand for seven years. The good people are sucked up by merchant banks that pay three times as much."
Few who are acquainted with the security services doubt that MI5 can attract applicants. But at a time when advanced IT skills, languages and financial acumen are desperately needed, there are grave concerns about quality. A source says: "Blair uses the intelligence services more than any of his predecessors. In recent years they have been the largest recruiters in Whitehall. But both MI5 and MI6 have struggled to reach targets. At a time when we need these people, it is harder to attract and retain the right calibre of recruit."
The stiff traditionalismand inflexibility that once appalled Shayler has been diluted from the security services. New recruits can expect unprecedented opportunities. But at a time of maximum need, the attractions of spying are still being undermined by mundane realities such as low pay grades and student debt. It used to be claimed that MI5 and MI6 had 12 good people for every 100 mediocrities in the CIA. That is close to being untrue now, though not because the CIA has got better.
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