Rimington: U.K. espionage has evolved as times changed


Stella Rimington, retired director general of the British Security Service, MI5, speaks about her rise through the MI5 ranks and changes in Britain’s approach to espionage Wednesday in the Amphitheater. Photo by Eve Edelheit.

Nick Glunt | Staff Writer

In 1967, Stella Rimington had been in India for two years with her husband, diplomat John Rimington. She had dropped her career and had begun working as a housewife.

“And there I was, in India, doing what diplomats’ wives did in those days — which I have to say was not very much, except organizing thrift sales and coffee mornings and appearing in amateur dramatics and things — when somebody sidled up to me in the compound at the British High Commission and said, ‘Psst, do you want to be a spy?’” Rimington said jokingly. “Or something like that.”

In reality, she was asked to help a first secretary at the High Commission, only to discover he was a member of MI5, one of three British intelligence agencies. Thus, from 1967 through 1992, Rimington rose through the ranks, until she became director general in 1992. Rimington retired in 1996.

Rimington discussed how espionage has changed with the advent of terrorism during her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater. Her speech, “The Changing Face of U.K. National Security,” was the third in Week Three’s topic on “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.”

MI5 before terrorism

Before terrorism became the main threat to national security, the U.K. primarily battled espionage attempts from other countries, Rimington said. German espionage operatives had been in the U.K. gathering all sorts of information since before World War I.

Thus, in 1909, the U.K. formed the Secret Service Bureau, which later became MI5. MI5’s main objective is to intercept and combat espionage attempts within the U.K.

During the Cold War — during which Rimington joined the ranks — MI5 battled Soviet spies. As the agency feared Soviets had infiltrated all institutions of government and military, these were times of extreme turmoil, Rimington said.

As a result, MI5 became extremely secretive, she said.

“There were strict rules about what you could say about where you worked and did,” she said. “And the rule was: You can’t say anything to anybody about anything.”

Even sharing intelligence among international allies was limited, she said, because they feared other countries, too, had been infiltrated by the Soviets.

When the Cold War ended and the Russian KGB was suddenly an ally, Rimington was sent to Russia to make first contact with the KGB. When she returned, she was told she had been promoted to director general.

Combating terrorism

Today, British intelligence is aware of 200 terrorist networks within the borders of the U.K. MI5 is aware of 30 plans to launch terrorist attacks at any given time. Rimington said very few are completed, and the media are aware of very few of those foiled.

The U.K. has been battling terrorism since it became so prominent in the 1980s and 1990s. One challenge in countering terrorism, Rimington said, is that although MI5 gathers a lot of intelligence on various threats, they aren’t sure which can be trusted as real, possible dangers.

If MI5 acted on every bit of information it uncovers, Rimington said, the public would feel very unsafe — there would be far too frequent evacuations and warnings. Instead, MI5 waits and analyzes all information before acting.

Rimington said she remembers briefing the prime minister on possible threats about which she didn’t have every piece of information.

“Well, prime minister,” she used to have to say, “we know that the IRA is about to bring in a large lorry bomb. We don’t know when it’s coming in; we don’t know which port it’s coming in at; and we don’t know what the target is. But, prime minister, I thought you should know.”

Rimington said former Prime Minister John Major would lean back and close his eyes before saying, “Stella, do your best.”

And often, she said, those lorry bombs were intercepted.

Eliminating some secrecy

Once the Cold War ended, Rimington said, there was no longer a need for international secrecy in intelligence. Instead of fearing the Soviets had infiltrated the global ranks, MI5 had to begin sharing intelligence once again.

“Terrorists work across national boundaries,” she said. “Terrorism can be planned in one country, financed in another to take place in a third. So we all had to start to get to know new allies and to work out ways of passing sensitive intelligence secretly between different countries.”

This sometimes caused various issues. One country may believe a particular bit of intelligence, while another may see it as unreliable. This would result in embarrassment, confusion and criticism. Collaboration, Rimington said, was a requirement.

Secrecy was further lowered when she became the first MI5 director general to have her name publicly announced. Though her photo wasn’t released, the media quickly tracked down her home to nab one.

“All my neighbors started to get very upset,” Rimington said, “because they suddenly realized that this quiet lady who lived on their street for the last 10 years was not what she seemed and presented, as they saw it, a risk.”

One woman said to Rimington that she wasn’t comfortable driving her children to school when Rimington was leaving for work, as the IRA was a major threat at that time.

Sexism in the agency

One particular issue Rimington saw in MI5 was that of sexism. In order to join MI5, candidates had to be “tapped on the shoulder.” There was no application process. As a result, ex-military men often hired former colleagues — other ex-military men.

“And (those men) were often assisted by well-bred, but not necessarily well-educated, women,” she said. “Not me. I quickly found that rather than a glass ceiling in this outfit, there was a glass box. It was more about what we women couldn’t do than what (men) could do.”

She said women were employed for deskwork: typing, filing and intelligence analysis, if they were especially bright. Even Rimington had originally been hired as a typist — but she said she was hired more because she was, at the time, a diplomat’s wife.

In the mid-70s, MI5 began recruiting young men directly from universities. She said these men had just as much experience as any of the female workers, so it was only fair that women would be given equal chances. Rimington was the first woman to be accepted as a field worker.

She told a humorous story about her first training assignment. She was to learn as much as possible about a person in a “very sleazy dump” of a pub near London’s Victoria Station, all while using a cover story. Then, another agent would enter the pub and refute her cover. The test was to see how she handled the situation.

She learned very quickly that even the field tests were designed for men; the pub was filled with only men, all drinking pints and smoking cigarettes.

“I went up to one of these guys and started chatting him up, and he was clearly beginning to think my purpose was quite different than what it was,” Rimington said to laughs from the crowd. “Then the man from the force came in, and I treated him as a bit of a savior, because I had got into a very difficult situation.”

That was the “breakthrough,” she said. As a result, female agents began to flow into the field.

Drawing from her experience as a woman in the field, Rimington took up fiction writing once she retired. She invented the character Liz Carlyle, a 34-year-old female MI5 agent with a sexist partner. Liz has been Rimington’s heroine in six books since 2004.

Her books, Rimington said, are more realistic in comparison to traditional spy media. Shows like “Spooks” and movies in the “James Bond” series are largely dramatized, she said, and are therefore less true.

“(Being in Russia after the Cold War) certainly gave me my one and only ‘James Bond’ moment,” Rimington said, “as I drove on a snowy Moscow night in the British ambassador’s Rolls-Royce, Union Jack flying off the bonnet, to have dinner with the KGB in one of their safe houses. Very strange experience after all my time.”

Q: There’s been a lot of talk this week about the concern that our fears might be a failure of imagination, that certainly there was a failure on the part of our services’ imagination to imagine anything as terrible as 9/11. I’m wondering what the British services are doing to create that imaginative approach to what might happen next.

A: I think the situation in Britain, before 9/11, was rather different from the situation here because we had already experienced a long period of terrorism on our own territory. So we were perhaps more expecting of that kind of thing happening, whereas in the United States, although there had been terrorist incidents — your embassies, for example, had been blown up — they had been outside the confines of your own country. I think, therefore, the imagining something awful as 9/11 happening in your own country was a huge, not surprising, a huge leap of the imagination, whereas, perhaps, in Britain, nothing, in a sense, surprised us about what might happen. Nowadays, the imagination is overflowing with possibilities. I think here, as well, you are now alert to practically anything happening. We certainly are in Britain. We know our intelligence services are doing their very best to protect us. But I think all of us know, in this country, as well as at home, that there is no such thing as 100 percent protection. We live in a dangerous world, and that’s why, I think, we feel that governments have a responsibility to warn us that we live in a dangerous world and not to tell us that they can wrap their arms around us and protect us from everything. I think that’s the stance that we take in the United Kingdom.

Q: To what extent is it possible to identify the key factors in radicalizing young people in Britain, and to act effectively against that process of radicalization?

A: I think some of the key factors are pretty obvious, but they change. Every time anything happens in the world that they can use as an excuse for this awful route that they’re on, then they shift a bit. They shift their rationalization. The most difficult thing to understand is why young men — who’ve been at ordinary schools at Britain and have had this experience of being British citizens in our suburbs or in our cities — why is it that they are vulnerable to people in arms, for example, coming over from Pakistan or wherever with an extremist message? How is it — and I don’t think we know the answer to this — that they can, intellectually, make that shift between living at peace, living in a country like Britain, and then suddenly feeling that all of the people they’ve known are their enemy? I don’t think we understand that. I do not think we do, and I think it takes psychologists to understand this caste of mind. They obviously feel alien, but why do they feel alien to such an extent? I don’t know.

Q: Is there a connection between British intelligence and the current Murdoch hacking scandal?

A: “No” is the answer to that. I think everybody in Britain is watching with great interest, particularly as it concerns Rupert Murdoch, who is not one of Britain’s favorite people. He owns a very significant number of our newspapers: The Times, The Sunday Times, the News of the World and The Sun. Two tabloids and two serious newspapers, and he also owns a great part of one of our television channels and wanted to buy the whole of it. I think there’s a complex relationship between members of Parliament, for example, who have suffered at the hands of our tabloid newspapers, exposing their private lives and all sorts of things. Now, they feel that they have an opportunity to get back at the tabloids. All of this dislike of the idea of Rupert Murdoch taking over more of our media, dislike of the tabloids, dislike of the kind of journalists who do this sort of thing — it’s all coming together. There’s a huge, great pot being stirred, but it’s got nothing to do with our intelligence services, I am very pleased to say. It doesn’t threaten our national security, so it’s not their concern.

Q: What is Britain’s policy regarding enhanced interrogation, such as waterboarding?

A: We would describe waterboarding as torture. Any kind of torture is illegal in Britain. Therefore, we regard those forms of practices as illegalities. That is why we have got at least two investigations going on at the moment. It has been said that our intelligence services were aware that those kind of practices were being carried on. Our intelligence services say that although they are now aware, they were only aware at quite a late stage. The argument goes that if they were aware, they should not have been collaborating with organizations that were carrying out those practices. The other problem, as I alluded to, is that now some people are coming back from having been in prison in Guantánamo Bay and are telling tales of how British intelligence offices were present at torture that was being carried out on them in various parts of the world. British intelligence service officers say they were not. So we’ve got this going on at present, and various inquiries into it. But torture of any kind is illegal in Britain.

Q: We have a few questions around this. This is one of the statements of it: Why doesn’t it make more sense to approach the War on Terrorism as a military action, rather than a legal action?

A: The phrase, “the War on Terrorism,” is one that I don’t myself like or use because it implies that you can defeat terrorism by force of arms alone, and, in my opinion, you can’t. The way to defeat terrorism is by a multi-faceted approach. Military — yes, if you need to. Intelligence — yes as well, because it will give you the ability to prevent quite a lot — if your intelligence services have a grip of it — of what is being planned. That helps to destabilize and undermine the terrorists and makes them think about other things. Politically — you have to defeat terrorism, ultimately, by political means, by getting at the root cause of what’s causing this, and —though it’s very difficult and takes a long time — ultimately, trying to settle it. We have experience with this in Northern Ireland. We were able, by good intelligence, to create a situation where the government could actually talk to the leaders of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army, and eventually, that resulted in what we called a peace process. But they couldn’t have done that if the intelligence services had not created a situation where the terrorists were being unsuccessful, and so were beginning to think that they needed to turn their minds to something else. So defeating terrorism has got to be a multi-faceted approach, and you can’t do it by force of arms alone.

Q: Here’s someone who’s going to the special master class this afternoon, wanting to know: When you were a spy, did you have to change your appearance?

A: No, because when I was a spy, for a long period, nobody knew who I was at all because we all live undercover. We don’t talk about what we do; we don’t go out and say to our neighbors, “Look, we’re spies.” So I didn’t actually have to change my appearance. I was working, mainly, in Great Britain, and there was no need for me to change my appearance. I was not in a hostile environment, except in Northern Ireland. So no, I never had to change my appearance. I had to change my cover story — in other words, who I was. I made up all kinds of stories about who I was and what I was doing — learned, I would say, in that pub in Victoria so many years ago. But no, I never had to change my appearance.

Q: We have several questions about the relationships among countries as they are cooperating or not. Summarizing them in a couple of ways: Do countries spy on each other, even allies, and how hard is it today for the United Kingdom and the United States to collaborate with the Soviet, Russian intelligence?

A: Yes, countries do spy on each other, even though they’re allies. I couldn’t possibly tell you who the British spy on, or who the Americans spy on, but yes, certainly. You can have various levels of collaboration and cooperation, but not all of them are entirely trusting. So you tend to back them up with some secret information as well. The relationship with the Russian intelligence services has been very rocky. As far as Britain is concerned, it’s still really in cold storage, particularly —as I said — after the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered on the streets of London by someone pouring polonium in his tea. He took a very long time to die, which meant that a lot of research could be done about what had happened to him. It was clearly a form of murder that could only have been carried out by a state. People do not have quantities of polonium. The track of this polonium — out of Russia, around through Germany, into Britain — was there. It had left a trace that could be checked by our people. So that was a murder on our streets, carried out by a foreign intelligence service, and that put relationships into cold storage. That’s where I believe they are now. There will be relationships on certain levels, but not the deep sort of relationship that we have with your intelligence services.

Q: What are the three books that you mentioned that you recommend about the history of MI5?

A: There is a wonderful new book called Defend the Realm, which is on sale in the book shop up there, which is written by professor Christopher Andrew. It is a history of the first 100 years of MI5, written in a considerable amount of detail, full of anecdotes, events and such-like. It’s really well worth reading. There’s another history of MI6 — The Secret History of MI6 — written by another professor, Keith Jeffery from (Queen’s University Belfast), which is a history of MI6, but surprisingly enough for our secret intelligence service, it goes from 1909 to 1949 — no further, because MI6 decided that they were not prepared to reveal their recent history, whereas MI5 threw it all in, and it goes up to the modern day. And then there’s a history of Government Communications Headquarters, which is an unauthorized history written by another academic (GCHQ: The Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secret Intelligence Agency by Richard J. Aldrich). That’s available as well. They are there for anyone who is interested.

Q: Were you consulted on the TV show “MI5,” and does it get anything right?

A: They did ask me to be an adviser halfway through, but by then, I had seen some of their efforts and I thought they were so unlike reality that I decided I didn’t want to get involved in it because what I would tell them would probably ruin their show. It’s very popular in Britain, as well as here, but in every episode, a small handful of people go out and save the world against serious threats. They put themselves at serious risk in doing so and terrible things happen to them, whereas in real life, you’re working in a big team and the whole purpose is to try and stop your officers getting killed or getting themselves into dangerous situations by using tradecraft to protect them. None of that comes out in “MI5.”

Q: You briefly mentioned finding the right balance between privacy and security. Could you elaborate on that? What is that balance?

A: The balance between our rights to our private life and the government’s responsibility to defend us is basically a very difficult one to establish. There is no line that you can draw. The line moves depending on the threats. Obviously, at a time of enhanced threat, the government will move its protections further into looking after us. At a time of not-such-great threat, then the protections should move back again. But we certainly felt, under the government of Tony Blair, that the government was much more about protecting itself from criticism, should anything dreadful happen, than it was really about being open and honest with the British public, that we are in a time of very serious risk and threat. “We will do our best,” they should be saying, “to defend you, but we know you wish to live your private lives and we must warn you that there is a threat.” That is, I think, the line that a government should take. Not, “We are going to increase our powers to do this, that and the other. We are going to wrap our arms around you,” because they can’t, and we don’t want —well, personally speaking, I don’t want — to be surveilled everywhere I go. I don’t want my children stopped by policemen, just in case they might be carrying a bomb, when there is no evidence. It’s a fine line. It’s a line that we have to rely on our governments to take. And if they don’t take it correctly, we have to tell them, in my opinion.

Q: This is a double question, and I think it will probably be the last, although we have many, many more. On your first day as chief of MI5, what was the one tool or resource you felt was needed to secure the organization’s success, and why? The other part of the question is: On your last day, what was the one tool or resource that you thought the agency needed?

A: I think on my first day, I decided that we needed to be more open because we were getting a lot of criticism. Many people were saying, “The Cold War has come to an end, now. We don’t need you lot. You’re all about spies and stuff. Why are we giving you so much money and such? We don’t need you.” I knew, we all knew, that we were needed even more because of the increasing threat of terrorism. I thought the first thing we needed to do was to explain ourselves better, so the people understood more what intelligence services do in democracies, and what they don’t do. That was what I thought we needed, and that is what we set about doing. On my last day, what did I think they needed? The answer was, I thought they needed more resources because by then, we were very, very stretched, actually. One of the great things about the British intelligence services is that they’ve always remained small. That’s been a kind of democratic thing. We don’t want huge intelligence services; we want small, highly competent, highly focused ones. By the time I left, I thought they needed more resources. After 9/11, they are now about double the size that they were when I left, so they’ve got more resources.