The Spy Who Recruited Me
As MI5 begins to advertise openly for Cambridge students, Varsity investigates the recruitment process of its more secretive sister organisation, MI6
by Matthew Ward
Friday 4th February 2011, 13:52 GMT
A Varsity investigation has found that MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), continues to recruit students from Cambridge in a clandestine manner.
This is in sharp contrast to MI5, which is now openly advertising for Cambridge students in a bid to increase applications to the intelligence community and render the process easier and fairer. In many respects, MI5 now works procedurally and, in terms of recruitment, in a similar manner to the domestic police authority or a branch of the civil service.
The MI6 selection process, on the other hand, remains shrouded in mystery for all but the few who are ‘spotted’.The highly secretive and unofficial means by which the intelligence community operates makes exposing their strategies problematic, but sources say that there have been as many as one fellow per College operating as ‘talent spotters’ for SIS at any one time.
One student recalls being asked to talk about someone they knew from a “different cultural background”. They were also asked to consider and relay this person’s personality traits and how the student interacted with them and felt about them.
In another instance, a student nearing the end of their studies at Gonville and Caius received an anonymous letter telling them to attend a private meeting in Whitehall. Once there, the student was informed that the meeting was about the possibility of joining MI6. After expressing his potential interest in the job, he was asked to come back for a further discussion. At this later meeting he was presented with a large package of material labelled “top secret and must be kept in this room”. When the applicant asked how dangerous it was to work for MI6, the student was told that, “no-one on active service has ever [been killed] while working with the service”. This would appear to be a wry lie, depending on how SIS classes their staff.
The two primary roles that Cambridge students would be asked to take are that of operational officer or agent. Operational officers are responsible for organising groups of agents; these agents must always be able to supply their officers with useful information.
Agents operate under extreme secrecy and under very dangerous conditions, gathering ‘black’ intelligence that foreign governments want to keep secret. They are not technically classed as part of the service, for very obvious reasons, and are therefore not counted when recording the dead. These agents are, in the words of one source, just “another commodity”.
Due to the sensitive nature of the job, there is a certain ‘type’ of individual that recruiters are looking for amongst Cambridge students. High emotional intelligence is a key attribute alongside the more obvious academic capability. The ability to make friends easily is also a significant factor in the ability to recruit more agents.
Yet the ability to be open and friendly must also go hand in hand with the capability of remaining detached; a knack for accepting the tensions and difficulties that come with asking your colleagues to do tough and dangerous things.
The kind of Cambridge student in whom the secret service shows an interest, though, alters depending on the geo-political dimensions of the time. In the past, knowledge of the Russian language was a highly-prized attribute, when being able to blend into the Eastern bloc offered great opportunities.
Now, the intelligence community is demonstrating an increasing interest in recruiting people from middle-eastern backgrounds, as well as those of Chinese descent. This may well require the intelligence services to look further afield, especially MI5 who need British muslims to infiltrate indigenous groups or home-grown cells, this has not deterred either intelligence agency from continuing to prioritise Oxbridge as their top recruitment ground.
Oxbridge has consistently been the place for the intelligence community to expand their workforce due to what a source termed “institutional factors”.There are strong ties between the secret services and Cambridge as many of those working in intelligence are alumni of the University. Moreover, the relationship clearly works both ways: many spies take a break from their day jobs to work as academics at the University.
Nonetheless, even candidates found in Cambridge undergo intense examination, especially for MI6. One of the security checks for SIS is called ‘developed vetting’. This goes well beyond the criminal record checks and verifications of their preliminary screening. ‘DV’ is seen in “cathartic” terms. It consists of an in-depth, one-to-one interview that can in theory “last indefinitely”, according to one source. It is a deeply personal process, involving the consultation of family and friends. Any aspect of their life that is not disclosed and which may later be found to put the candidate in a compromising position, leads to immediate dismissal.
MI6 frequently trade on their reputation for mysteriousness. Anonymity is, after all, an alluring quality. Cambridge students may well be enticed by the potential draw of working in exciting places and the attraction of playing James Bond, yet the reality can often be very different.
One intelligence officer tells a not-uncommon story of his active service being no more glamorous than spending ten months at his desk gathering information from newspaper clippings.