MI6 steps up spy recruits to cold war levels




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 4 May 2003

The UK’s foreign intelligence service has stepped up its staff recruitment in response to terrorist threats and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Although the global campaign against al-Qaeda has damaged the terrorist network, its supporters are thought to be joining other groups, making the security services’ task more difficult.

The Secret Intelligence Service, widely known as MI6, is recruiting 40 staff members annually and training them to be “front line” officers posted abroad with the task of recruiting spies and informers. The service, which was scaled down after the cold war, will soon return to its former size.

The pace of recruitment is now double that of the Foreign Office and will increase the size of the SIS staff to just below 2,000. Cutbacks in the 1990s saw its entire staff shrink to 1,600, officials say.

But the attacks in the US on September 11 2001 and concerns about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, have given SIS a central role in traditional intelligence gathering and the formation of government security policy.

The depletion of staff posted abroad in the 1990s is regarded as having weakened the service. But new funds were allocated to SIS and MI5, the domestic Security Service, in the wake of the September 11 attacks to reflect the threat to the UK from non-state groups such as al-Qaeda.

SIS is focused on counter-terrorism, weapons proliferation and political instability in global areas afflicted with conflict, crime and narcotics – all of which are regarded as having a direct impact on the security of the UK.

Recruitment from ethnic minorities and the Muslim community has remained in proportion with the overall increase in the number of people applying, while the slump facing financial institutions has increased the number of recruits from business backgrounds.

The need for more Muslim recruits was demonstrated again by last week’s suicide bomb attack in Israel, which was believed to have been carried out by two Britons. On Sunday, police were questioning three men and three women in connection with the bombing.

The service is led by Sir Richard Dearlove and has its headquarters on the Thames in a building known unofficially as “Legoland” at Vauxhall Cross. It has retained a degree of secrecy about its operations surpassed only by the Government Communications Headquarters eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham. This is unlikely to change, in spite of the need to attract a wider range of recruits.

A mark of how far this secrecy extends could be seen when Tony Blair, the prime minister, and George W. Bush, the US president, delivered post-summit statements on the war in Iraq at Camp David on March 27. The seats of top US and UK government officials had been clearly labelled in the front row, including one with the name “Dearlove”.

However, unlike George Tenet, his CIA equivalent, Sir Richard, known as “C” in the service, did not take up his place, denying the press any opportunity to update a hazy university-era photograph of him, which is the only one to have been published.


© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.