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Thriller writer Stella Rimington talks about the spy biz.

Thriller writer Stella Rimington talks about her MI5 days at a talk at the Brisbane City Hall...

Ms Rimington had been compared to M in the James Bond movies. She thought James Bond movies were entertaining and Judi Dench was a fine actor, but James Bond had little similarity to the real spy world. For starters, she said, it wasn’t the policy of the British spy service to kill people: MI5 and MI6 were all about finding information.

She said MI5 were an internal security service, like ASIO in Australia, and worked in teams, dealing with terrorist cells for example. MI6 worked abroad, from embassies for example, gathering information. MI6 agents often worked alone and were self-starters.

Ms Rimington recalled her early years in MI5 in Delhi, which was at the forefront of the Cold War in the 1960s, and was full of spies. MI5 had to find out who among the diplomats were spies for the KGB, as well as try to get diplomats from the other side to help them: this task was known as “running” them.

She said that when she joined MI5 there was a two-tier system: the men and the women support staff. Women had to collate files and papers and do some intelligence assessment, but would never deal with human sources, eg. recruiting an agent in another organization and running them to get information.

Her main character in her thrillers, Liz Carlyle, was an agent runner. But by the 1970s this situation was changing: it seemed less logical to have the division of jobs between men and women. She said women were good at spy work: they had the people skills to recruit and run agents in dangerous situations, having both an empathy and ruthlessness when required.

In the mid-1970s she was allowed to go on “the course”, which had been designed to screen and train men in MI5. She had to go into a pub near Victoria Station, make up a cover story and get information from a stranger there; then another agent would come along and blow the cover, and the trainee agent had to try and handle the situation. She hadn’t been enjoying the experience and was glad when the other agent came along.

Some of her projects at MI5 included trying to find any double agents, as it were, that might have remained in MI5 after the Cambridge “ring of five” spies had been caught. They worried that some of these spies who might have been recruited in the late 1920s, early 30s along with the ring of five, might still be in the service. Eventually they abandoned the search, but Stella Rimington used a plot based on this for a later novel, Secret Asset (2006).

She changed the story to one about the IRA who have a mole in MI5 and are embarking on a terror plot. Ms Rimington said she often used plots or incidents from her experiences and changed the organisations involved to suit modern events. Secret Asset manages to combine both the IRA and Islamic terrorists.

Stella Rimington talked a lot about the Cold War in the 1970s. There were a lot of Soviet spies in London back then, she said, and much of her work involved finding and prosecuting them. She has adapted incidents from this period for plots: British agents being spotted talking to KGB agents in parks; MI5 turning up at the same time the next week to watch and arrest them, and expel the foreign spy.

At the time there were events happening in London that sounded like stories from spy novels: a Bulgarian dissident was killed by a poison pellet on Waterloo Bridge, stabbed by an umbrella in a Bulgarian intelligence operation.

When asked by a member of the audience how MI5 compared with the KGB, Ms Rimington said MI5 were a better intelligence service than the KGB. She acknowledged however that the KGB had a few wins.

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