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Last Updated: Monday, 26 November 2007, 12:25 GMT
Spies like us

If you've seen Spooks (above) you'll know what fictional spies do. But what is the reality of the job? The BBC has been given unprecedented access to speak to real spies about their jobs.

It's a profession that used to be stamped top secret, access denied. However, in recent years the security services have tried to take some of the mystery out of what they do.

The aim is to attract new recruits from a much broader pool of talent - ones that better reflect the society they serve.

The BBC's Radio 1 and Asian Network have been given access to some of the younger operatives working in the security services.


Greg is what MI6 calls an operational officer and the rest of us call a secret agent or spy. He says despite the stereotypes, agents are not picked because of their family or educational background.

"I certainly didn't come from a rich background and I definitely didn't go to a top university," he says.

"MI6 were really looking for things such at the right people skills and critical thinking."

His job involves eliciting secret information abroad, either on his own or through informants. Training covers meeting informants and includes role play in real locations, like cafes. Such role play is treated seriously and assessed. A lot of different elements have to be considered, says Greg.

"Selecting somewhere where you can have that meeting securely, then actually conducting it so no one can hear your conversation and trying to take on board the information that you're trying to get from them."

Only a few members of Greg's immediate family know what he does. He cannot tell friends and says it's one of the hardest things about the job.

Like any job, some of the work involved is boring and Greg wishes he got paid more, after taking a considerable wage cut to join MI6. The entry pay scale depends on experience - Greg started on about 27,000.

"Some of the IT tasks are not always the most exciting and it would be nice if we got paid more, but I don't think that's why people are doing the job."


Natalie joined MI6 because she wanted to do something worthwhile.

"Basically I was fed up working in a corporation and lining someone else's pockets," she says. "I wanted to do something that was worthwhile and a bit more constructive."

She didn't go to university and is an example of the wide range of backgrounds that MI6 now accepts. She was worried not having a degree would mean she couldn't get a job with MI6 and when she did, that she might be looked down on by other trainees.

"I don't have that level of education but there's just such a wide range of backgrounds here," she says.

"I was worried I just wasn't educated well enough to do a good job... but there isn't that snobbery and concern if you don't have a degree."

Her role is effectively a desk job, using spreadsheets and filling in forms. It's not the traditional image of what a "spy" does.

But whether you are in the field or behind a desk, operational officers are all working towards the same objectives and have a lot of respect for each other, she say.

She also says keeping her work secret can be stressful, but talking to her colleagues helps.

"We are given guidance and there's support here if we ever need it.

"It is a family environment here and everyone's close... so we just talk to each other about it and that's good."


Yasmin's job is to find out secret intelligence on whatever issues are concerning a specific government department. She cannot say which one.

"I do this for a particular part of the world - I can't tell you which one - and my job is to identify, target and recruit people from abroad who will provide us with this secret intelligence," she says.

It's basically recruiting spies for Britain to gather information on subjects such as counter-terrorism, drugs, the nuclear threat or to promote British economic interests abroad.

Hundreds of journalists request interviews with MI5. I am the only one they said "yes" to
Asian Network reporter

"Just making sure that Britain isn't being ripped off," she says.

She does not believe she was recruited because she is a Muslim as it makes no difference in the part of the world she works in, she says. She also says her faith does not conflict with her work.

"I would say extremism in any form is wrong... I feel very, very strongly that if you are able to do something to make a difference you should make that difference."

But the perception among Muslims that the establishment was out to get them had to be corrected, she believes.


Jayashree says she became an MI5 agent to repay a debt to her country. She says Britain has welcomed her family and is the country in which she was born and raised.

"I just want to work as hard as I can to ensure that it's safe for my, I'd like to say community, but by that I mean my whole country," she says.

"If you really do feel you belong to this country and you want to do something worthwhile and make a difference this is a great organisation to be in."

She's never felt this more than after the 7 July terror attacks in 2005. She felt "absolute shock" at what happened but had been trained to deal with such an event.

Unlike the public, she was in a position where she could "make a difference" and "find out what had happened and piece things together".

"It was probably one of the most defining points of my career, where I actually felt that the job that I was doing would make a difference.

"The reality was that this was probably one of the biggest jobs that any of my colleagues and I ever had to undertake. We'd received the training and we just got ahead and tried to do as much work as we could."


There are a lot of misconceptions about the job, says Shazad. Those include who is targeted by the security services. The job is about individuals - "those who potentially pose a threat or who are recognised to pose a threat to national security" - not specific communities, he says.

"We don't look at communities as a whole."

Like Jayashree, Shazad joined MI5 to help the country his family had chosen to make its home.

"It was one of the driving points behind why I joined," he says. "In your own working environment you know when you've done something really good and its really rewarding."

He says discretion is a major part of his job and when he leaves the office he has to leave his work behind.

"The security services welcome discretion. Right from the recruitment process we advise that you minimise the number of people you reveal your application to.

"This is a very interesting place to work the difference is that we can't go home and talk about our work.

"We discuss it amongst ourselves in this building, amongst our colleagues here. But when you leave the office, you really leave your work behind."

Pictures are illustrative only. Radio 1 Newsbeat will be broadcasting some of these interviews and more every day this week at 1245 GMT and 1745 GMT.

Below is a selection of your comments.

It is interesting and also essential that these organisations take people from all backgrounds as they need to 'fit in' in almost any environment. Gathering information is a lot about being in the right place, part of the background, and absorbing what is going on by being aware. A bit like being on holiday, but without the shorts and flip flops. I think there are a lot of candidates already quite experienced and mobile with their jobs and the organisations could recruit by looking at the airport statistics for who is moving around a lot already.
Alan Walker, Whitby UK

I worked for the government for nine months in the 1990s at their training as a Radio Officer. The training officers and associated staff were the biggest pack of idiots you would ever wish to meet. They loved there own sense of importance and how good they thought they were at their profession. I left and it was the best thing that happened to me and dread to think what I would be doing now if I was still with them. You have to be a certain type of person to get on in that environment, but I would advise any young person thinking about working for GCHQ, to think about it very seriously.
Mark Vickers, Essex

So... for 27,000 a year you get to risk your life in a large number of no doubt horrible ways and not actually tell people when you save their lives on a daily basis. In fact you probably have to tell your friends you work as a library catalogue expert for Department of Tedious Jobs. These people deserve our greatest thanks.
Freethinker, Northampton

These sound pretty boring jobs and for not much money either
Mick, Stroud

I have always admired the people who make it safe for us all to walk around relatively freely, which by the very nature of their work they do. I'm too old now at 60 to start doing something similar and when I was younger I didn't know how to go about doing such work, which in any case was always associated in my mind as being for those with degrees and public school educations. I feel envious of their opportunitiy and wish them success at their tasks.
Tom Aaron, London UK

Unfortunately this article does nothing to dispel the myths around the security services. If anything the use of false names and blurred photos encourages the cloak and dagger nonsense. For example the two MI5 employees tell us very little about what they actually do on a day-to-day basis. Could this be because their job involves little more than bureacratic tasks such as assessing written intelligence and deciding whether or not to share it with other government agencies? I suspect MI5 are nothing more than glorified pen pushers...
Abu Choudhury, London

What use are spies or people who work for any of our agencies when they have been exposed to the media. I beleive the government should have the power to say NO to anyone wanting to know about these agencies, and if it's for the good of this country give them carte blanche to do what they like. If your not doing anything wrong you have nothing to fear
Robert Welsby, Skelmersdale

Good PR, and now will the real James Bond, just kidding. I, and I'm sure most decent people, admire anyone who is brave to do these jobs. Everyone should try to make a difference if they can, regardless of profession. I am lucky that I am able to, but not to the degree these ladies and gentlemen do. The bin man that takes care a little more than he is cotracted to do, the postman who makes that extra effort to make things run smoothly, the chief exec that makes the extra effort to make everyone feel better or simply the person who says thank you everytime someone does something for them - even if it is their job - and so many more. It all makes a difference, we just have to be bothered to.
Haider, Guildford

Has Hutton still got you so spooked that you're doing PR pieces for the government now? None of these interviews tell us anything we couldn't guess as it's all 'secret'. It's just a puff-piece about how great working for MI6 is.
Rick Webber, Brighton, UK

A security agent on working for MI6


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