Al Senter introduces Stella Rimington by acknowledging both her recent writing career and her career in MI5. Rimington was not just the first female Director General of MI5 but also the first who was openly identified as such. She apparently approved of the decision but felt that the way it was handled was poor. When she was told that her promotion would be public knowledge she asked what the press plan was and received very little reply. Within a short space of time the tabloids had located her home and published pictures of it. A member of the IRA was arrested with a news cutting of the pictures in his pocket and Rimington, her 16 year old younger daughter and their dog had to quickly move into a secret flat and she had to teach her daughter how to keep it a secret. She and her colleagues then had to devise their own openness strategy for future announcements.
Senter asks if she could have imagined the end result when she first joined MI5. Rimington laughs and explains that in the 60s there were no application forms or any concept of ‘openness’. You had to wait for a tap on the shoulder. It was also very much a man’s world. She had started off as an English student in Edinburgh before going to Liverpool for a postgraduate degree in archiving. After working for a while her husband was posted to the British High Commission in India and she assumed she would never work again as she would only be a mother and wife. Then she received the requisite tap on the shoulder and began work as a clerk typist for the MI5 office in India.
The MI5 she joined was still feeling the effects of the discovery of the five Soviet spies in Cambridge. Far from considering openness it was extremely tightly closed and had very little contact with any other secret services aside from the Americans and a few of the Commonwealth states. Multiagency cooperation didn’t really begin until the IRA arrived and had their bases in North Ireland, weapons overseas, troops in Germany and targets in England. This started MI5 on the path to learning to speak to and trust the secret services in other countries.
A lot of her active work was during the time of the Cold War, something she never assumed she would see the end of. At the time not many had seen how brittle the Soviet system was. There were plenty of defectors and they knew that Soviet technology wasn’t as good as they claimed but the speed at which the Eastern Bloc fell came as a surprise. Then came the need to make visit and make friends with former enemies. She was part of the team that went to Moscow in 1991 to make the first open contact with the KGB. They had to talk to long lines of hard faced KGB officers about legality and oversight and democracy, when it was very clear that none of these men wanted to change. They stayed in the British Embassy and Rimington recalls having dinner with the Ambassador and his wife with all of them fully aware that the chandelier over the table was bugged and that all of the waiters were working for the KGB.
Conducting operations now is a very different ball game. During the Cold War a lot of work involved following members of the KGB around, often in London, to try and find their contacts. They were very good at detecting that they were being tailed but unlikely to turn round and make it known that they were aware of it. These days however a lot of work goes into tracking terrorists, who are much more likely to turn around and shoot you if they realise they’re being followed. The KGB were trained agents who had procedures, terrorists are worryingly unpredictable.
When the lights go up one of the questions is perhaps predictable,
“What do you say you did at parties?”
Rimington points out that being in the secret service makes a normal social life rather difficult, often people would choose to socialise inside the circle of secrecy. The official story was always that you worked for the Ministry of Defence because it was a large department but even that could cause problems. It was surprisingly easy to meet someone who had an uncle or a friend in the MoD who would then want to know which department you worked in. Rimington used to make up different stories for different events but somehow she would always run into someone who knew more about her cover story than she did. The need for secrecy also caused problems in starting relationships. If you go on a date and say that you work in cosmetics sales what do you then do if the relationship becomes serious? Apparently there are real life versions of Mr & Mrs Smith. Rimington knows of several couples who started dating without any idea that they were both in the secret services, which must have led to some interesting revelations.
Another audience member asks about her fears for the future and Rimington’s main concern is terrorists and how to deal with them, as no one seems to have had particular success so far. There are also potential concerns. Putin seems to have an ideology that harks back to the Cold War. He has hinted at animosity toward NATO, which many of the Warsaw Pact countries joined after the wall came down. She visited the Baltic recently and saw that people in Tallinn in Estonia (who once voted to defy the Russians and were surprised and delighted not to be attacked) were once again worrying about their future. Then there is concern about migration. We seem incapable of coping with it now and she wonders what will happen if Global Warming continues and causes massive movements of people that will make the numbers of migrants today seem minor in comparison.