Monday, April 05, 2010

The day MI6 tried to recruit me – by email

Being a spy sounded fun – so when I had a message from the security services asking me to apply, I thought I should give it a go . . .

A tranquil evening was interrupted by the ping of an incoming email: "MI6 Graduate Event." Intrigued, I clicked. "The event no one is talking about," the email ran. "For the first time, the Secret Intelligence Service (sometimes known as MI6) is holding graduate events. Please do not mention or forward this email to anyone." I immediately called my friend Lily. "Did you get the email from MI6? We should apply!"

This was just over a year ago when I was still at university, and I didn't realise at the time that I was the target of a historic drive by MI6 to change the way it recruits. It's no secret that SIS has traditionally plucked its officers from elite networks – you didn't find them, they found you. Now, MI6 advertisements line the London Underground. This month, the service revealed for the first time how many agents it employs – 2,252. It aims to hire 275 more this year, and it's likely those agents will receive not a tap on the shoulder, but an email.

Judi Dench as M, the head of MI6

Judi Dench as M, the head of MI6 Photograph: Allstar/UNITED ARTISTS/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Over Christmas, I almost forgot about the event. Then came the invitation: arrive at seven, don't discuss personal details, first names only. Stilettos, lipstick, train – destination Tate Modern. On the top floor, I passed through a metal detector and into the main room. Chardonnay in hand, I surveyed the attendees. Despite talk of expanding recruitment, the room was full of white men from Oxbridge, although to be fair, there was one girl wearing a hijab.

A group of young men had gathered in a corner. "There seems to be a lack of ladies over here," I said, joining them. Silence. "Female company is always welcome," one stammered.

A debonair senior agent opened the event; we heard about hardship postings, exotic locales, intelligence gathering. I was seduced. Then, a devastating blow. "We require you to have lived in the UK for 10 years prior to joining SIS." I might have grown up in America, but I was born in London, my father is English. I resolved to plead my case to a youthful, sandy-haired recruiting officer.

"I want to join, but as you can tell from my accent, I haven't spent my entire life here."

"Perhaps we can accommodate you," he said politely. "How long have you lived in this country?"

"Six months."

"Ah," he said. "I'm terribly sorry, but six years is the absolute minimum." My heart sank, then I gathered myself.

"I suppose I'll have to try my luck with the CIA," I said, and walked out into the cold.

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