Britain seeks to recruit more women as spies

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Image: Piotr Zajac /

Modern day spycraft doesn’t have much in common with the James Bond stereotype. Far from secretly infiltrating bases on the moon, most spies spend their time carefully cultivating assets from the relative comfort of their nation’s embassy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the field isn’t both vital and demanding. More than ever, nations around the world have come to realize the value of intelligence, particularly when it can mean the difference between a foiled terror attack and a devastating bomb blast plastered all over the news.

That’s why many countries have been striving over the last few years to fill the ranks of their intelligence agencies with new people. People who might have some new perspective to bring to the field. The United Kingdom, in particular, has been reaching out to women in order to find spies. Women currently make up almost 40% of the UK’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, and the government has set official hiring targets aimed at raising that percentage to 45% in the next five years, which would actually make spycraft one of the most inclusive fields for women in the country.

MI5 is even putting ads up searching for spies in the last places you might expect, including blogs directed at new mothers.

So what happens next if you decide you want to ditch diapers for high stakes espionage? Well, first there are some pretty intense interviews. According to Annie Machon, a former spy interviewed by the BBC, the whole process takes about six months. First, you are asked a series of grueling questions about every facet of your life, going back to the time when you were a child. The idea is apparently not to determine if you ever broke the law or tried drugs, but to determine if there is anything in your past that an enemy could use to gain leverage over you. Machon pointed out that the most important element, and perhaps contradictory for a spy, was to tell the truth. If the MI5 determines at any point that you have lied, you were out. They don’t care if you have done some shady stuff, and in fact are looking for a bit of moral flexibility, but they need to know as much about you as possible.

After three sessions of that, the process goes on to the competitive stage where you are competing on a battery of physical and mental tests with a number of other applicants. If you want to do well on these tests, you had better forget any preconceived notions of what a spy is supposed to be like. According to Machon, the James Bond types “get weeded out pretty quickly.”

As it turns out, being willing to break the rules and obsessively trying to seduce other agents is exactly the kind of thing your average intelligence service is not looking for. Instead, the most important elements of being a good spy are being able to analyze data, and to keep a secret.

Machon reported that the majority of the job was taking in huge amounts of intelligence and being good at presenting the important facts to others and knowing which bits of intelligence required action. And as you would expect, secrecy was the name of the game. In fact, you aren’t allowed to discuss the fact that you are even applying to be a spy with anyone but your closest family members, and then only if they themselves are British.

And indeed, only British people are allowed to work for MI5, which is perhaps understandable. They want to know where your loyalties lie. So what do you do if all this has you filled with some romantic notions of becoming a spy, but you are not British?

Well, you might consider applying to your own country’s secret service, as the rise of global terror has many nations scrambling to fill the ever-increasing need for intelligence operatives. So if you ever wanted to be a spy, it looks like now just might be the time.

Wyatt is a writer and your friend. You can follow him on Twitter @WyattRedd.

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