Stella Rimington is former Director-General of MI5 and served for nearly 40 years in the UK's intelligence services
Stella Rimington is former Director-General of MI5 and served for nearly 40 years in the UK's intelligence services

"When I first met MI5 in the middle of 1960s nobody had heard of British intelligence at all," said Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, as she opened this year's InfoSecurity Europe. She recalled her introduction to an agency whose transformations she had witnessed over 40 years.

Her speech recalled more than a few details which echo today's cyber-security industry, facing a keenly interested if largely ignorant public and dominated, by and large, by men. At a time when the industry is trying to become more diverse, Rimington's experience of cold war espionage may well contain some lessons relevant to the cyber age.

At the height of the Cold War, the public had little idea of what actual spy work was. They tended to either think it existed in the glamorous world of Ian Fleming's spy novels, the sordid backrooms of the Profumo affair or the incompetent old boys clubs that had so badly missed five senior intelligence agents defecting to Moscow.

On the last part, they were at least partly right. In the mid 60s Stella had given up a job as a historical archivist to be the wife of a diplomat in New Delhi. India was teeming with spies from both sides of the then hotly-contested Cold War but the life of a diplomat's wife was, according to Rimington, mostly "about running coffee mornings and jumble sales."  

It wasn't long before she got the fabled 'tap on the shoulder' and was offered a job as a spy. "In those days," said Rimington, it was far "more about who you were than what you could do". Rimington would end up witnessing and even initiating part of that change.

The intelligence services were run by the kind of pipe smoking, tweed jacketed mandarins of John Le Carre who, says Rimington, were rather "traditional in their thinking".

When she returned to England and applied to MI5 for a junior assistant officer's job, she found an "uncomfortable, male dominated world with the women in one place and the men in another." The intelligence services were run on an unspoken two tiered system, where men got to do all the actual spywork and women, as Rimington put it, "sat back at their desks and looked after their papers".

When Women's Lib came along in the 1970s, its effects were also felt in MI5. Though "it wasn't a place for hanging a poster or burning your bra," the women at MI5 wrote a round robin letter, explaining their dissatisfaction with their marginal position within the organisation.

The upper echelons, who were almost entirely male didn't know what to do. "You need diversity", said Rimington, and "by denying themselves the efforts of a third of their staff, they were denying themselves the diversity which actually existed."

It was decided that the women of MI5 would be allowed to train with the men and do actual spywork, running human intelligence sources. Rimington was one of the first.

The training was still geared entirely towards training men. One of the exercises involved creating a cover, going into a pub and finding out as much as you could about someone in there.

Her first go was at "a sleazy dump near Victoria station," the kind of place that women did not go in the late 1970s and that someone like Rimington stuck out like a sore thumb.

Women are now doing all those roles, she added. But the problem of senior management living in a "different world from those who were actually doing the work", persisted throughout her career. In MI5, the decisions of various employees to defect or leak became particularly emblematic of this problem including Peter Wright, the principal scientific officer for MI5 whose book, Spycatcher, revealed in great detail his career within an intelligence service which was until recently, all but a state secret within the UK.

When the workings of the UK's intelligence agencies were finally revealed to the public in the early 1990s, they saw a very different picture from what Rimington had seen in the mid 1960s. Far from the old boys clubs of LeCarre and a male dominated atmosphere, they found none other than Stella Rimington, director general of MI5.