Forget Bond: MI5 wants cat-loving twentysomethings

Britain's spymasters are looking for a new kind of recruit to tackle a different threat. Sophie Goodchild and Lauren Veevers ask an ex-agent about the job
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The Independent Online

They seek her here; they seek her there; that damned elusive cosmetic-buying, weepy-watching, cat-owning, Italian food-loving, female couch potato with a mind like a spring trap. That is the new quarry of Britain's spymasters.

An advertisement specifying these characteristics has been placed in magazines by that hitherto shadowy employer, the security service. It shows the back view of an Afro-haired, twenty-something woman in a T-shirt.

Those seeking work in the domestic secret intelligence service, MI5, are referred to: mi5careers.gov.uk/surveillance, where the invisible ink brigade says: "We particularly welcome applications from women and ethnic minorities."

Salaries for a mobile surveillance officer start at £24,121 for what MI5 describes as: "A remarkable job, undertaken by remarkable people. But you would never know to look at them. Because they need to blend into the background, officers are of average height, build and general appearance." The selection process can take up to eight months and consists of intense interviews and rigorous aptitude tests.

For the post of intelligence officer, hopefuls receive a lengthy application form which asks for examples of how you have worked co-operatively, used initiative and judgement, and shown "drive and resilience". Applicants who pass interview stages will, of course, be required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

One woman who did fulfil the role for real is Annie Machon. Ms Machon, 38, joined MI5's political and counter-terrorism department in 1991 on general duties. Annie was so disgusted by the security service's failings that she and her agent partner, David Shayler, went on the record, breaking the Official Secrets Act. They spent two years on the run and David was jailed six months in 2002 for breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Her advice for new recruits? "Don't do it! When I started, there were quite a few women that worked there but many of them were admin based. The main problem the security services have is retaining agents. When David and I left, lots more did too - just not so publicly."

The BBC's popular Spooks and the American equivalent, 24, have raised the profile of MI5 as a female career option. But Ms Machon says, "Programmes like Spooks are not really accurate and so glamorise the job a bit, but I also think they highlight the dangerous side to the job which may put some women off. I never saw the skills involved in gender terms. An officer requires a broad range of skills; intellect, organisational skills, analytical skills and the skill to identify a threat in the first place.

"I don't think that women make particularly better spies than men - but I suppose the general perception of an agent is male, so when interviewing people they may open up more to a woman than a man."

Ms Machon author of Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair, said: "MI5's wish list as far as recruits go is huge - but that doesn't mean that the people who get through have all those things. When I was there the level of staff who were incompetent was a real worry. They have clearly broadened their recruitment policy but I expect that the long process with still be just as stringent. When I was a recruiter we had 20,000 people applying to be James Bond, but only about five got through."

Jane Featherstone, executive producer of Spooks, said: "At first the intelligence services were resistant, and they let that be known through former members who acted as technical advisers on Spooks. Then they thought it might help to recruit new spies. They even used the first series to help with their advertising campaign. But they were deluged with people who thought the job involved walking around in Armani saving the planet."

Miranda Raison, who plays MI5 agent Jo Portman in Spooks, said the production team tried to make the portrayal of female operatives as authentic as possible. She said the original cast had met members of the intelligence service to discuss how to play their roles.

"They got a lot of literature together from that, and since then, cast members have been given a pack full of stories on genuine operations to learn from. There are lots of things you wouldn't expect in there: for example, how to operate undercover, or as a honeytrap - but it's much more brutal than you'd imagine."

MI5 is keen to receive applications from ethnic minorities to help infiltrate Muslim terrorist groups. Its director general, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently warned that MI5 is investigating 30 known terror plots in the UK.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Thompson

Katy Guest, with a little help from M, poses the questions you need to answer.

1. My favourite song is:

a) "The Spy Who Loved Me" by Carly Simon

b) "Spies Like Us" by Paul McCartney

c) "Watching the Detectives" by Elvis Costello

2. My biggest worry is:

a) The threat from fat Russian men with unusual physical deformities

b) The threat from funny bearded men with unusual chemical weapons

c) The threat to Jade Goody from a woman with unusually rounded bosoms who is trying to steal her boyfriend

3. My biggest asset is:

A) My high class

b) My high IQ

c) My blonde highlights

4. When travelling in enemy territory, I always take:

a) A cyanide pill

b) A handy Arabic phrasebook

c) A copy of Grazia magazine and a spare G-string

5. My cat is:

a) White and fluffy

b) Concealing a secret microchip in his Whiskas

c) Named Hoogli. I don't know why.

6. I recently found myself in a moral dilemma when:

a) I ended up in bed with an enemy agent who turned out to be a very cunning linguist

b) I ended up stuck on a Bond question at my local pub quiz and was offered a cufflink communications device to phone a friend

c) Yeah, but no, but it was Sharon, right, cos she's a slag and I never, but no, but ...

7. The one gadget no mobile surveillance officer should be without is:

a) Ladder-proof nylons

b) A push-up bra

c) A subscription to Weepy Films R Us and picture of her cat Hoogli

M'S VERDICT

Mostly As: Dear Miss Moneypenny, we do wish you would stop applying for jobs at MI5. Things have changed since your day, when men were men and women mixed the martinis. Enjoy your retirement and please don't send any more of those letters to old Mr Bond - don't you know we use camera phones these days?

Mostly Bs: You seem to have misunderstood the nature of the task: we are not recruiting a new Q, but mobile surveillance officers with a working knowledge of hair-twirling and celebrity gossip. Stop trying to be Pussy Galore: you're outdated and the catsuit doesn't fit you.

Mostly Cs: You wouldn't know your Mata Haris from your Maybelline. Nobody would suspect you of working for intelligence. You've got the job! (PS, don't tell Hoogli.)

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