"Open Secret", by Stella Rimington
On the novel "At risk", by Stella Rimington, here
Secrets of success
A storm is whipping up around the former head of MI5's decision to publish her memoirs. She claims she was opening up a closed man's world but fellow spies say they saw only someone ruthlessly driven by self-aggrandisement
Special report: freedom of information
Sunday September 9, 2001
It is now 10 years since the first public glimpse of Dame Stella Rimington, a fuzzy newspaper 'snatch-shot' grabbed in an Islington street. How things have changed.
In 1991, publication of her photograph meant the newly appointed head of MI5 had to move house. Yesterday, five years after her retirement, she gave an interview to the Guardian, the first step in a campaign to promote her autobiography, which will be serialised by the paper from tomorrow. The once-shy mole has rubbed her eyes and decided she likes the daylight after all, accompanied as it is by a six-figure publisher's advance.
The book is triggering a valuable debate about the degree to which former intelligence staff should remain bound by lifelong confidentiality: ought we to follow the American model, where the memoirs of former spies, provided they reveal no 'sources or methods', are an accepted part of the literary landscape?
For Stella, however, there has been a substantial downside. For so many years the ultimate Whitehall insider, she finds herself bereft of old friends, most of whom regard her book as an act of astonishing betrayal.
It does not contain any damaging secrets, and portrays MI5 in a highly favourable light, but the fact of having written it is enough. As a letter to Rimington from David Lyon, the SAS Commandant-General put it, she can expect 'a long period of being persona non grata '. Just as the memoir by the former SAS chief Sir Peter de la Billière was followed by a flood of bestsellers by former troopers, so Dame Stella's critics argue that she is opening the way for shelves of books by less exalted spies.
Much of her Guardian interview was given over to complaints against Whitehall's efforts to dissuade her from publishing, especially a stiff 'bollocking' from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson. The woman who, as boss of MI5's 'counter-subversion' F Branch, once deployed the secret state against peaceniks and trade unionists, now describes the process of vetting her manuscript as 'Kafkaesque'. Outside the security stockade for the first time in her life, she finds she has acquired 'a feeling of how persecuted you can feel when things are going on that you don't actually have any control over'.
In F Branch, Rimington spied on Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, then running the National Council for Civil Liberties. Now she frets over closed-circuit cameras in shopping centres, deploring the fact that 'our civil liberties have been intruded upon'. As Director General, she personally threatened former officers with the removal of their pensions if they should disclose events from the distant past, citing the Official Secrets Act.
A distinguished former ambassador to Moscow, who had been at MI5 earlier in his career, was even ordered not to appear on Desert Island Discs. Yet according to the Guardian, she now believes the Act needs 'radical reform'. Here is no ordinary trajectory. Where on earth is the link?
Her background contains few clues. Born in south London in 1935, Rimington is the daughter of an engineer and a health visitor, the very embodiment of the middle-English petite bourgeoisie. 'Stella has ability. She must be determined to make fullest possible use of it,' read her fourth year grammar school report. 'With consistent effort, Stella could do well.' Equipped with a second in English from Edinburgh University, she worked for a time as an archivist, becoming a spy by accident. In 1963, she married her childhood boyfriend, John Rimington, a civil servant.
When he was posted to Delhi, Stella became the dutiful diplomatic wife. Then, she says, came the call, an approach to see if she would like some part-time work assisting the local MI5 representative. With the vocation thus revealed, so began the relentless career: stints fighting terrorists, subversives and the Russians, first as an operative, then as a section chief; deputy Director General by 1990; the world's first female security boss a year later.
Spies call the elaborate stories they spin to support their cover their 'legends' and, like any memoirist, Rimington is creating hers. It has two main purposes: to secure her place in history as the feminist 'revolutionary' who modernised MI5 and also to justify the book's publication. Here we find that missing link: gender, the prism through which she asks us to view her entire life. The book, reports the Guardian , 'is about being a woman in a man's world - a woman, a mother, a single mother, a wife in a disintegrating marriage.' (In 1983, by now with two daughters, the Rimingtons parted, although they have never divorced.)
Her career, Stella says, was, above all, a struggle to beat and change an entire culture, formerly dominated by the 'tweedy guys with pipes' so damagingly portrayed in Peter Wright's book, Spycatcher . The lawlessness which that culture spawned is no longer tolerated, while women make up almost half the workforce. Above all, she emphasises, as DG she opened the doors on a formerly closed world, giving a press conference, and a televised Dimbleby lecture. The old rules of omerta, she seems to be saying, no longer apply. A role model needs her testament.
So much for the case she makes in her defence. The prosecution, composed principally of her former colleagues, claims that at times this picture bears only a distant relationship to the truth. If there is a thread from spook to author, they suggest, it is made of baser material: a ruthless drive for self-aggrandisement, coupled with the ability, where necessary, to dissemble. And Stella the feminist? One source said: 'Stella helping other women? Don't make me laugh. It's bunk.'
One episode illustrates the argument. MI5's most damaging recent fiasco came in 1982. Michael Bettaney, a former Ulster agent-runner, was serving in the MI5's K4 section, which combated Soviet bloc espionage in Britain. An unstable alcoholic, he was caught trying to tell the Russians about his colleagues' operations. In prison, awaiting trial, he managed to give the IRA the names of most intelligence officers and agents in Northern Ireland.
Two years earlier, one of Bettaney's top agents, an IRA infiltrator, met Rimington in London and warned her of Bettaney's volatility and drinking. If she did take action, it remains the case that Bettaney's access to secrets was undiminished. But when Bettaney was arrested, Rimington managed to evade criticism. Some of Rimington's intelligence service critics allege that, instead, she tried to shift blame for his treachery on to two more junior colleagues, both of them women, claiming that they had tipped him over the edge by somehow 'offending' him.
Then, and at later critical junctures, such as her successful campaign as Director General to persuade the then-Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to give MI5 the lead over the police against mainland Irish terrorism, she used her most potent personal resource, a quite extraordinary personal magnetism, a quality far beyond mere charm; a means of making her interlocutors feel so special that they come to accept that whatever she says must be right.
There is nothing gender-specific about this; she shares it with, for example, Bill Clinton. But having myself been on the receiving end at a dinner she gave for journalists, I can attest to its power. For a period, I was willing to suspend all disbelief. If Stella was saying that MI5 was now open and accountable, then it must be so.
Of course it is not. Its brochures (one of Rimington's 'modernising' innovations) trumpet the new glasnost by proclaiming that it isn't true that staff can be prosecuted for disclosing the colour of the carpet at headquarters (blue) or the fact that its restaurant 'serves a particularly good chicken Madras'. But very little else. It remains to be seen whether Stella's memoir will really trigger a flood of publications by her former subordinates. If it does, one thing is certain - they will face legal sanctions rather rougher than a bollocking from Richard Wilson.
Not for the only time in her life, Stella Rimington has got what she wants by convincing others that day is night. Some call it bravery. Others, on both sides of the gender divide, claim it looks more like hypocrisy.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, mum
Stella Rimington was a bored 32-year-old housewife when she was first approached by MI5 in Delhi to do some light secretarial work. Here, in the first exclusive extracts from the book the establishment tried to stop, she describes how over the next 25 years she smashed her way through every barrier in the security service, becoming the first female intelligence officer to run agents in the field, and eventually the first female director-general of MI5. Meanwhile, her marriage crumbled - leaving her the single mother of two young girls
Special report: freedom of information
Monday September 10, 2001
One day in the summer of 1967, as I was walking through the British high commission compound in Delhi, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was one of the first secretaries in the high commission, and although I knew he did something secret, I didn't know exactly what, as one was not encouraged to enquire about these things. He was a baronet who lived a comfortable life in one of the more spacious high commission houses and was best known for his excellent Sunday curry lunches, and for driving around in a snazzy old Jaguar. The baronet asked me whether, if I had a little spare time on my hands, I might consider helping him out at the office.
I went in the next day and he told me that he was the MI5 representative in India. Would I be interested in working for him on a temporary basis? I wrote home: "They have offered me a job working in the secret part of the high commission for £5 a week, which I think I will take. It will help to keep me out of gonk-making." (Gonks were the Teletubbies of the 60s and I was at that time on the committee of the toy fair, which meant endless sewing afternoons making stuffed toys.)
My baronet does not seem to have taken it much more seriously. He wrote back to head office: "She and her husband frequently take a picnic lunch by the high commission swimming pool," as though that were a prime consideration in giving me the job, and added, "I consider she would be entirely suitable for the work even though she is only a two-finger typist." I later learned that references had been taken up and that my headmistress, obviously somewhat dubious about these prospective employers, had written: "She is the kind of girl who does not shirk unpleasant jobs. She is reliable and discreet, or at least as reliable and discreet as most young ladies of her age."
My job did not turn out to be particularly exciting, but when my husband finished his posting and we came home to England in February 1969, I thought I would see whether there was any chance of joining MI5 as a permanent employee. I contacted my baronet friend, who put me in touch with the recruiters.
It soon became clear that a strict sex-discrimination policy was in place in MI5. It did not matter that I had a degree, that I had already worked for several years in the public service, at a higher grade than it was offering, or that I was 34 years old. The policy was that men were recruited as what were called "officers" and women had their own career structure, a second-class career, as "assistant officers". They did all sorts of support work, but not the sharp-end intelligence gathering operations. What the recruiters were offering me, in June 1969, was a post as "junior assistant officer".
Later that month I started work in MI5's headquarters at Leconfield House in Curzon Street, London. When I arrived, wearing a striped Indian silk suit with a miniskirt, and a little hat sitting on top of long hair done up in a bun, I had very little idea about the organisation I was seeking to join. Had I known a bit more about its early history, perhaps I would not have been quite so surprised by what seemed its old-fashioned and eccentric aspects. Even in 1969, the ethos had not changed very much from the days when a small group of military officers, all male of course and all close colleagues working in great secrecy, pitted their wits against the enemy.
The men were largely from a similar background. It seemed that they all lived in Guildford and spent their spare time gardening. Many had fought in the war. I remember one, who had been a Dambuster and had flown the most dramatic and dangerous sorties when he was very young. He regularly withdrew into his office and locked the door after lunch. I used to jump up and down in the corridor to look over the smoked glass in the partition, to see what he was doing, and he was invariably sound asleep. No one thought it appropriate to comment. Another gentleman, who was supposed to be running agents against the Russian intelligence residency in London, favoured rather loud tweed suits and a monocle. He would arrive in the office at about 10 and at about 11 would go out for what was termed "breakfast". He would return at noon, smelling strongly of whisky, to get ready to go out to "meet an agent" for lunch. If he returned at all it would be at about 4pm, for a quiet snooze before getting ready to go home. Eventually, he collapsed in the lift returning from one of these sorties and was not seen again.
In those days, as a newcomer, you were not sure what you were allowed or expected to know and you were not encouraged to seek information. I was always quite inquisitive and I wanted to know what was going on, but I soon realised that people regarded you with suspicion if you asked too many questions. Indeed, you were hardly sure whether you were even meant to know the name of the director-general, and since you certainly never saw him or received any communication signed by him, you might just as well not have known. There was a joke going around that you would know which was the director-general because he was the one who always wore his dark glasses indoors so that he would not be recognised.
I was put to work in a long, narrow room with about 10 other people, mostly women. This was the section where all new joiners were put for a few months to be trained, and it was presided over by a couple of training officers, two well-bred ladies "of a certain age", from the twin-set-and-pearls brigade. On my first day I was intrigued when, at noon, they opened their desk drawers and produced exquisite cut glasses and bottles of some superior sherry, and partook of a rather elegant pre-lunch drink.
In that summer of 1969, I was learning the first principles of intelligence work and I must say I found it pretty dull. The job of the section was to identify as many members of the Communist party of Great Britain as we could and, having identified them, to open files on them.
One very good source of information which was readily available, however, was the Morning Star, the newspaper of the Communist party of Great Britain. I am sure that the vast standing order for Leconfield House kept that newspaper on its feet when it might otherwise have gone under. We and the Soviet embassy were, I believe, its main large-scale supporters.
Trainees were given responsibility for the rural branches of the party. I got Sussex, where there were very few party members and many of those were fairly ancient. After I had found out what I was supposed to be doing, I whiled away the time reading Dornford Yates novels under the desk.
In April 1970, I learned that I was pregnant. Considering that I had wanted a baby for such a long time, the pregnancy came, as seems so often to happen, at the most inopportune moment. In February that year, my husband John and I had taken the plunge and bought a house in Islington. It was a charming little Georgian terrace house, but we could only just afford the mortgage on both our salaries.
Being a working mother had never been my intention, and I was extremely uneasy about it. Certainly this situation had not arisen before in MI5. It was made clear to me that if I wanted to come back, even at my then grade, I would have to come back full time and I would be expected to return after three months. When I left to go on maternity leave, my boss wrote on my annual confidential report: "She is a most acceptable, warm-hearted and engaging colleague," but then added, "even though she is an upholder of women's rights."
At that stage, I was not strongly committed to MI5, nor was I earning large sums of money. I went back to work in April 1971 solely because I felt I had no option. My memories of those early years of Sophie's life are primarily of hard work and exhaustion, and of relations between John and myself going into severe decline.
At work I soon started to feel disgruntled about my second-class status. The last straw for me came one day when a nice young man arrived in my section to share my office. He had just come down from university, with a BA in something or other, and he was about 23. He had been recruited as an officer. I waited until it was time for my annual interview with my personnel officer and I took the opportunity to ask what prevented me from being an officer. The poor man was completely taken aback. He was an ex-army officer with a moustache, and a pipe clamped firmly between his lips, given to wearing very hairy tweed suits and khaki braces. I do not think it had ever occurred to him that a woman might want to become an officer in MI5. But word of my remarkable demands filtered out, and in 1973 I was at last promoted to an officer.
By the late 70s, now with two children at home, I was focused on trying to break through the glass ceiling, which involved persuading the men in charge to let me try my hand at agent-running, despite the fact that no woman in MI5 had ever done that work. The first response I got was a delaying tactic. They sent me on the newly created agent-running course.
The first thing students on the course had to do was go to a given pub, strike up a conversation with anyone there and try to find out all about his private life. I say "his" because when I got to my designated pub, somewhere near Victoria, there were no women in the bar. You obviously had to be prepared to give a fictional cover story about yourself in case the person was inquisitive. What you were not told was that, while you were doing this, someone from the course would arrive and recognise you, address you by your real name and do his best to blow your cover story. For a female, of course, faced with a bar full of males, this was particularly difficult. The man I accosted was just beginning to show a worrying degree of interest when my so-called friend strode in. I treated him as a saviour rather than a nuisance, which was not quite what was intended. (When I did eventually become an agent-runner, I always took care to find suitable surroundings where I would not stand out.)
I stayed in the agent-running section until the spring of 1983; for my last two years there I was the deputy head of the section. During that time we mounted a number of operations against Soviet bloc intelligence officers in the UK. We adopted all sorts of covers, designed to achieve the objective of getting alongside and cultivating the chosen target, until the moment came to drop the cover and make the pitch. In the course of "living my cover" I had to spend nights in a flat I had rented under a cover name and on other occasions in a hotel. It was a rather odd feeling to know that only a few miles away the girls were going to bed in our house, while I, as somebody totally different from their mother, was sleeping in a flat they had never seen.
On one occasion the two parts of my life came together in a way that was unprofessional but unavoidable. There was a sudden transport strike. One of the girls was at a school on the other side of London, to which she travelled by tube. The only way she could get home that day was to be picked up. But John was away and the au pair had to collect my other daughter from the opposite side of London. Inevitably, as always seemed to happen in those days, I had a meeting arranged with a contact.
The flat I was using to meet this particular person was, by lucky chance, very near the school. So I told my daughter how to get there by walking from the school, gave her the key and a cover story to use in case anyone should ask what she was doing, and told her to let herself in and wait. When I arrived I made her some supper and shut her in the bedroom to do her homework while I had my meeting. We both spent the night there and I walked with her to school in the morning. She was 11 at the time.
On another occasion I was due to meet an agent who was considering defecting. I had agreed to meet him in a safe house in the Barbican, but just before I set off, the phone rang. It was the nanny, to say that my younger daughter, Harriet, had gone into convulsions; she had rung for an ambulance to take them to St Bartholomew's hospital. Would I meet them there? This was a real dilemma. If I did not turn up at the safe house, my contact would be left standing in the street, exposed and vulnerable. In the end I managed to do both by going via the safe house to St Bartholomew's. I had to borrow money from the would-be defector, though, to pay for all the taxis involved in this complicated bit of manoeuvring, as I had not had time to go to the bank that morning. Whether or not the apparent scarcity of funds available to British intelligence influenced his decision, I don't know. But he did eventually decide not to make the jump across.
My frequent absences on operations, the stressful nature of the work and all the things we were trying to do to the large house we had by then moved to, did nothing to bring John and me closer together. When we were together we were both tired and cross, and seemed to be continuously arguing. I still have a tragic little note written by one of the girls from those days and left on the stairs for me to find when I came home late one evening. It reads: "Mum. pleas dont argew with dad." I decided that the best solution for us would be to separate and in December 1984 I moved out to a smaller house with the girls.
Two years later, I was promoted to director of counterespionage, a position known in those days as "K". Nearly 80 years on, I had become the modern manifestation of the founder of MI5. Though my promotion was seen as a breakthrough for women - I was the first to have reached this level - I heard tell of mutterings about it in the men's toilets. By then the girls were 12 and 16. Even though they did not know in any detail what I did for a living, they knew it was something secret for the government. There had been a series of strange events that they'd had to get used to. One evening several years before, the phone had rung and I had answered it. After I had put the phone down, one of them said: "What was that?" "Oh nothing," I said absent-mindedly, "it was just about someone who thinks he's been stabbed by a poisoned umbrella."
"I don't think so."
"Oh," she said, and went back to whatever she was doing.
That, of course, was the first notification by the police of the incident when Georgi Markov was poisoned by the Bulgarian secret service on Waterloo Bridge.
There were innumerable telephone calls at odd times of the day and night, which often resulted in my leaving home unexpectedly. There were occasions when the news reported the expulsion of certain Russian officials for "unacceptable activities", when I seemed extremely interested and unusually cheerful. And later, while the Provisional IRA was bombing London, I seemed always to have an anxious expression and an obsessive interest in the news on the radio.
My promotion to deputy director-general in 1990 was the first time I seriously wondered if I might end up as director-general. It still seemed to me that the other deputy was much more likely to be given the job. He was responsible for the operational and investigative work, had served in Moscow and had run the surveillance section. My job, in charge of the support side - finances, personnel recruiting, accommodation and all the general underpinning - was dull in comparison.
It is tempting to think that it was because I was female that I was given the "soft" subjects, but I don't believe that was the reason. The fact that I was a woman had almost ceased to be relevant to the progress of my career by this time. As far as colleagues in the service or in Whitehall went, I did not think it was an issue (although some of the police still found it difficult to treat a senior woman like a normal human being, and felt the need to treat all engagements with me and senior female colleagues as trials of strength they had to win).
Shortly before Christmas 1990, I was asked to stay behind after a meeting and the director-general said: "Congratulations. You are to be the next director-general." I was also told, almost by the way, that the appointment and my name were to be announced publicly, and that the announcement would be in the next few days. It did not take a moment's thought to realise that there was likely to be a sensation. It was the first time the appointment of a director-general of MI5 had ever been formally announced. What's more, I was the first woman to hold the post, and that alone was bound to cause a stir.
When I had recovered from the shock, I said: "I'm not sure this is a very good idea." I rang the permanent secretary at the Home Office to tell him so. But he seemed to think I was making a lot of fuss about nothing, and anyway, he said, "The prime minister has agreed."
I decided that Harriet and I would go away from home on the day of the announcement and stay away for a couple of days to let the furore die down, as I rather naively thought. Sophie, my elder daughter, was away at university. So we parked the dog with the security staff at the office and went to stay in a hotel. We watched the news that evening. They had no photograph, nobody knew anything about me and they didn't know who to ask for a comment. In the end my estranged husband John, who as director-general of the health and safety executive occasionally appeared on TV when there was a disaster of some kind, agreed to comment. He told an astonished nation that they were lucky to have someone like me to look after them.
Unfortunately, I had not managed to contact Sophie, and she later told me that she was sitting in her digs that evening with the TV on when she suddenly realised that they were talking about her mother. "I thought you must have done something wrong, because I knew you were not supposed to talk about your work," she said.
After a couple of days, we got fed up with cowering in a hotel. It was too uncomfortable and we were worried about the dog, so we packed up and went home. That was the beginning of one of the most uncomfortable periods of my life. The press inevitably found out where we lived. We had been in the same Islington street for nearly 10 years, though the neighbours had no idea what I did for a living. Photographers camped outside the house, determined to be the first to get a photo. In the absence of anything better, a blurry picture that the New Statesman had taken of me years before, for an "exposé" of senior MI5 personnel, got lots of outings (the coat I was wearing in that now famous picture had long since gone to a charity shop). But before long, several desperately unflattering pictures appeared of me unloading my shopping from the boot of the car on a Saturday morning, wearing tatty old jeans and a Barbour. That taught me what all women in public life have to learn fast: that you'd better look as good as you can, whatever you are doing, in case there is a telephoto lens about. (When I see Cherie Blair, slimmed down by remorseless exercise, stoically wearing her designer clothes on holiday, I know how she's feeling.) Then a picture of our house appeared prominently in the Independent. My security advisers wanted me to go quickly while they assessed the situation, so we - Harriet, dog and I - moved into a flat at the top of some offices in Grosvenor Street. It was the most uncomfortable and unsuitable place. To take the dog for a walk, you had to descend several floors in a lift and walk through miles of corridors, past the guards to the street. We felt as though we were in prison. In the daytime, the dog had to come into my office, where the security guards looked after him.
As it turned out, the whole of my time as director-general was plagued by our unsettled living arrangements, because even when it was agreed where we should live, it was a place that needed a lot of work to make it habitable. Harriet and I camped there surrounded by builders for more than a year. Our first Christmas dinner there, nearly two years after I took up the job, was held in a room furnished with garden chairs and lit only by candles in bottles.
The principle behind making my name public was one I approved of, but the way it was handled was a disaster - not a PR disaster, but a personal disaster for the girls and for me.
Spies like us
In the second extract from her
memoirs, former MI5 boss Stella Rimington writes candidly about the 'strange,
paranoid and lazy' Peter Wright, the so-called Wilson plot and spying on CND,
the miners and other 'subversives'
Special report: freedom of information
Tuesday September 11, 2001
Peter Wright and Harold Wilson
Peter Wright was an extraordinary figure. I believe he had at one time been regarded as an effective counterespionage operator, but by the time I knew him well he was quite clearly a man with an obsession, and was regarded by many as quite mad and certainly dangerous. He had briefly been made the assistant director of the section I was working in but, according to rumour, he had been so bad at giving any direction or leadership that he had been "promoted" to the post of special adviser to the director.
By then he was, in fact, everything that a counterespionage officer should not be. He was self-important and he had an overdeveloped imagination and an obsessive personality that had turned to paranoia. Above all, he was lazy.
It is hard to explain why he was allowed to stay for so long. As special adviser he had the right to pick up anything he liked and drop it when he tired of it. He used to wander around, finding out what everyone was doing, taking cases off people, going off and doing interviews which he never wrote up, and then moving on to something else, while refusing to release files for others to work on. He always implied that he knew more about everything than anyone else, but that what he knew was so secret that he could not possibly tell you what it was.
I remember sitting through one or two of the lectures he occasionally gave to the newer staff on the subject of the KGB. He was not a good lecturer - he had a monotonous voice and a lisp. He spoke with great conviction about the KGB, about their cunning, their operational effectiveness and their successes. But though I was quite junior, I found him completely unconvincing. We called him "the KGB illegal" because, with his appearance and his lisp, we could imagine that he was really a KGB officer himself, living under a false identity, perhaps like Gordon Lonsdale, the "Canadian businessman" who ran the Portland spy ring in the 60s and was really the KGB officer Molody. Maybe, we thought, he had been sent into MI5 to confuse everyone.
As it turned out, my time as director of counterespionage was very largely dominated by this strange and untrustworthy man. In 1987, he wrote the book Spycatcher, in which he went out of his way to mention every sensitive operation that he had ever known about and to name every codeword he could recall. Spycatcher was a book designed to cause the maximum amount of harm and embarrassment to an organisation that Wright wrongly thought had cheated him out of a proper pension.
The prospect of the book sent the intelligence community and Whitehall into a spin. It was decided to pursue the book through every possible legal channel, whether or not there was any hope of success. I thought at the time it was the wrong thing to do and, as it turned out, the huge furore merely drew attention to it and resulted in far higher sales than would otherwise have been achieved. His second book in the same vein passed almost unnoticed, and at the end of the day neither book did any great damage to MI5's ability to do its work.
There was one allegation in Wright's book that aroused considerable interest and caused the most anxiety, the so-called Wilson plot. This was Wright's assertion that a group of 30 MI5 officers, of which he was one, plotted to get rid of Harold Wilson's government be cause they suspected the prime minister of being excessively sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Sir Antony Duff, the director-general of the day, who was not an MI5 insider and had no personal knowledge of the service's activities in the period concerned, was determined that the story should be thoroughly investigated.
Extensive interviews were conducted with those who had known Wright and were still working; white-haired gentlemen all over the country were dug out of retirement and asked to cast their minds back, but though much reminiscing went on, no one could recall anything that sounded like what Wright was claiming had happened. Files were trawled through with the same result.
Finally, a detailed report was written for Whitehall, and ministers felt sufficiently confident to state publicly that no such plot had ever existed. Wright later withdrew the allegation, admitting, in a Panorama programme in 1988, that what the book said about the so-called plot was not true. However, as is always the way of these things, his retraction went almost unnoticed, and the untrue allegation stuck in some circles and remains in currency to this day.
When, much later, I was director-general, I decided I would try once and for all to knock the Wilson plot allegation on the head. I asked some of the old grandees of the Labour party, most of whom had at one stage been home secretaries, to come in to Thames House to talk about it. It was clear to me then that the conviction in that generation of the Labour party that there was some kind of a plot against them, or ganised by the intelligence services, runs deep.
Though I tried my best to convince them that they were wrong, I knew at the end of the exercise that further efforts would be fruitless. The fact that Wilson himself said, at the time he left office, that he was convinced that MI5 was spying on him, meant that through loyalty to him, if for no other reason, it was difficult for his former colleagues to accept there was nothing in it. But one of those former colleagues did go so far as to remark to me that if Wilson had really believed that, it was very strange that he never mentioned it at the time to any of his political colleagues, so that the first they knew about it was when, like everyone else, they read what he had said about it to the Observer.
CND and the miners
My time working in countersubversion spanned a period of very considerable upheaval - the miners' strike, the Greenham Common protests, the height of CND, the growth of Militant Tendency and its activities in Liverpool, and a Socialist Workers' party that was very active in universities.
It is an established fact that the anti-nuclear movement, in its own right an entirely legitimate protest movement, was of great interest to the Soviet Union in the 1980s. As part of its subversive activities in the west, the Soviet Union sought covertly to encourage anti-nuclear, ban-the-bomb and other such protest in many western countries as a way of weakening the defences of their enemies. Of course that does not mean that everyone who joined CND was part of a subversive plot. But Soviet officials encouraged western communist parties, such as the Communist party of Great Britain, to try to infiltrate CND at key strategic levels by getting their members elected as officers. Our job, and what we were doing, was to monitor those activities, not to investigate CND, which on its own was of no interest to us.
In similar vein, the 1984 miners' strike was supported by a very large number of members of the National Union of Mineworkers, but it was directed by a triumvirate who had declared that they were using the strike to try to bring down the elected government of Margaret Thatcher and it was actively supported by the Communist party. What was it legitimate for us to do about that? We quickly decided that the activities of picket lines and miners' wives' support groups were not our concern, even though they were of great concern to the police who had to deal with the law-and-order aspects of the strike; accusations that we were running agents or telephone interceptions to get advance warning of picket movements are wrong. We in MI5 limited our investigations to the activities of those who were using the strike for subversive purposes.
The charge that MI5 was then, or at any other time, subject to political direction is unfounded. In all my time in MI5, at the various levels at which I worked, I am aware of only two occasions when the government of the day enquired whether it would be possible for the service to investigate something. (The miners' strike was not one of them.) In neither case did those with the authority at the time think that what was being sought was within the service's remit, and it was not done. No director-general, as far as I am aware, ever hesitated to resist an inappropriate suggestion or was ever penalised for doing so.
The general election exercise
My team in countersubversion was responsible for what was known as the "general election exercise". At each general election it was the responsibility of the director-general to provide the incoming prime minister with any serious security information available on MPs in his own party, so that he could take it into account in forming his cabinet. It was a cardinal principle of this work that information about members of one party was not made available to the other.
Although the number of MPs on whom there was serious security information was minimal, completing the exercise itself was a huge chore. Most of it had to be done in the period between the election being declared and election day. It was often quite difficult to get full identifying particulars for all the parliamentary candidates because the exercise was regarded as particularly sensitive, due to the ease with which it could be misrepresented, and we were not allowed to seek any help from the parties themselves.
As we did not know who was going to be elected in each constituency, let alone which party would win the election, much of the final preparation had to be done at the last minute. A further problem was the definition of what information was and was not sufficiently serious to get a person included in the exercise. Final decisions on all this were taken at the top of the service and, not entirely surprisingly, our bosses did not always agree with the assessments we had made.
Kenneth Clarke and John Major
During my first year as director-general, MI5 took over lead responsibility for intelligence work against IRA terrorism on the mainland from the Metropolitan police special branch. The home secretary at the time was Kenneth Clarke, and patience was not one of his virtues. In the summer of 1992 I was summoned down to the Home Office. Clarke questioned me grumpily about why we had not made any noticeable difference to the level of IRA activity. I had to tell him that such things took time.
From time to time, I brought John Major, then the prime minister, very unwelcome news about planned or imminent IRA operations, which sometimes we did not have enough intelligence to be sure of preventing. On such occasions he would look grave and say, "I'm relying on you, Stella." I would go back to my colleagues and say, "The prime minister is relying on us," to which they would reply, "Gosh, thanks," as they went off to do their job.
Not surprisingly, Major often seemed rather gloomy, and I rarely brought him good news. (My general observation of government ministers was that they were chronically exhausted, and this showed more and more as the parliamentary term wore on.) But he used to enjoy pulling my leg. He once asked me with great solemnity how many telephone interceptions we were doing without a warrant. In a similar vein, he once asked me equally solemnly which MPs we were investigating. Much later, as things began to get very difficult with his Europhobe MPs, he used to ask wistfully whether I had any techniques I could pass on for dealing with dissidents.
By then I felt quite sorry for him. He seemed isolated, but in spite of it all he kept his sense of humour, and just before I left he got me to join in playing a joke on Marmaduke Hussey, then chairman of the BBC. I was at No 10 for one of our regular briefing meetings; the prime minister's next appointment was with Duke Hussey. A few days earlier the BBC had broadcast a leaked document, which the government regarded as damaging and was therefore rather put out about. The chairman had been called in to account for the BBC's action.
"Let's give him a shock," said the prime minister. "You stay on and be in the room when he comes in. Then he'll think he's really in trouble." So, when we came to the end of our meeting, Alex Allen, John Major's private secretary at the time, showed in Hussey. On seeing me, perfectly on cue, Duke said, "My God, it's not that bad is it?"
The spy who went into the cold
When the cold war ended, even MI5
was taken by surprise. In the final extract from her memoirs, Stella Rimington
recalls an extraordinary mission to Moscow to make the first 'friendly' contact
with the KGB
Special report: freedom of information
Wednesday September 12, 2001
In 1989, with startling speed, the cold war, which had dominated the work of MI5 for the whole of my working life, came to an end. The suddenness with which it all happened had not been foreseen by the intelligence services of the USA or Europe or of the Soviet Union itself. But when it happened, it had a dramatic effect on all intelligence professionals in both east and west.
In December 1991, I was asked to make our first friendly contact with the KGB. Some months before, Douglas Hurd, then foreign secretary, had met Vadim Bakatin, whom Mikhail Gorbachev had put in charge of the KGB following the failed coup against him. He asked him, in the spirit of the times, if he would like some people from the British security service to go over and talk to the KGB about working in a democracy. He said he would. I was delighted to be asked to lead the team. We were three: myself; a colleague from MI5, a man who had spent much of his security service career in counterespionage work against the Soviet intelligence services and whose hatred of communism was matched only by his love of Russia and its language; and an official from the Home Office.
It was breathtaking for me, after more than 20 years spent combating the activities of Soviet intelligence, to be setting off to Moscow to meet them for what we hoped would be friendly talks. We were met at Sheremetyevo airport by a KGB team led by a man whom, I found out later when I got back home again, I had already come across once before. He had been a member of the KGB office in New Delhi in the 1960s when I was a locally engaged clerk-typist working in the MI5 office there and, as one was required to do, I had written a note, which was faithfully stored on a file in the registry, reporting that I had encountered him. There he was, clutching a small bunch of red roses. I gathered later that they had agonised over whether, as a senior professional woman, I would be insulted or flattered to be offered flowers.
We stayed with the British ambassador, Rodric Braithwaite, in the embassy just across the river from the Kremlin. We arrived just as winter gripped Moscow, and from my bedroom window I watched as, over the few days we were there, the river turned first to ice and then to a snow field.
There was a sense of complete unreality in the embassy. Everything was changing incredibly fast and no one knew what would happen next. The USSR was in its terminal stages (by the end of December it had ceased to exist) and the leaders of the Soviet republics had agreed to form the Commonwealth of Independent States, but what that would mean in practice was not clear at all. Out on the street, there was every sign of economic breakdown. Little old ladies were selling a single tin of soup or a pair of worn shoes. In the Gum department store practically all the shelves were empty. No one knew what the rouble was worth, and prices at the tourist stalls in the Arbat, where we bought the then current version of the Russian doll (a big Yeltsin, containing Gorbachev, Khrushchev, Stalin and a tiny Lenin in the middle) varied minute by minute.
Inside the British embassy, security rules were still in force, but it was as though the old enemy was beginning to lose its teeth. So though we went into the safe room to discuss with the embassy staff the strategy for our meetings, and though everyone was still conscious that there were microphones everywhere and that all the Russian staff were working for the KGB, there was far less concern about what they overheard than there had been.
At dinner in the embassy dining room on our first night there, conscious that we were being overheard, we spoke quite openly about the KGB and how we judged that they were reacting to the new situation. I caught one of the women who were serving our dinner looking at a colleague and raising her eyes to the heavens at our conversation - or was it to the large crystal chandelier which hung over the table and was no doubt picking up everything we said? Our meetings with the KGB were held in their headquarters in Dzerzhinsky Square, a complex of large, forbidding buildings which also includes what had been the Lubyanka prison, over the years a place of imprisonment, torture and death. We were shown to a meeting room, where Bakatin welcomed us at the door. At a long conference table, what seemed like an immense line of KGB officers, all male of course, was drawn up on one side. Four rather isolated chairs had been placed on our side, for the three of us and our interpreter. There was an eerie atmosphere as we sized each other up, and there was much smiling and handshaking and remarks about historic moments. But in fact, on both sides, we were rather like wild animals suddenly being presented with their prey in circumstances where they couldn't eat it.
We went through our description of the laws and regulations which controlled the activities of the intelligence agencies in the UK. These were met with polite incredulity by our KGB interlocutors. I then made my requests. Over the years, members of the staff of the British embassy in Moscow and their families, who for the most part lived in blocks of flats reserved for the staff of foreign embassies, had been subject to harassment of various descriptions. It was clearly done either by or with the tacit support of the KGB.
Flats had been entered when their occupants were out and obvious signs of someone's presence had been left around. Freezers had been turned off, and small things broken. Possessions had been removed and returned on another occasion - a favourite trick was to take away one shoe of a pair and then bring it back a few weeks later. Quite frequently, the tyres of diplomatic cars parked outside flats were punctured, or other damage was done. The idea, presumably, was to frighten and unsettle the people concerned. Sometimes the harassment was more threatening. When diplomats or their wives were driving in and around Moscow, they were very frequently followed by surveillance cars; that was expected, but sometimes those cars drove dangerously and threateningly close or even, apparently on purpose, hit the car they were following. My request was that if, in this post-cold war era, we were to get closer and cooperate, that sort of behaviour should stop.
Bakatin's response to my opening remarks was friendly and welcoming. As for my request, he said that he would do what he could to look into the harassment, but in a surprisingly frank admission of his position, he added that he doubted whether he would be able to do anything about it. In the gaps between our meetings, we went sightseeing in temperatures colder than I had experienced. While we did so, we were followed around by some part of the KGB, clearly not the A team, as they were fairly conspicuous.
As well as the request for an end to harassment, I wanted to establish what scope there was for a reduction in the espionage attack by the KGB on this country. It seemed to me not unreasonable to expect that if the cold war was over, there should be less aggressive spying. This was a matter for the First Chief Directorate, the foreign intelligence arm of the KGB, so on the second evening of our stay, the head of the First Chief Directorate, Yevgeny Primakov, later Russia's foreign minister and briefly prime minister, invited me to a meeting to discuss that topic. My small party and I drove in the ambassador's Rolls-Royce to what seemed in the dark to be a rather leafy suburb, to what I took to be a KGB safe house.
It was difficult to avoid the feeling that we had somehow slipped into a James Bond film. It was a dark, cold and snowy night. As I was taking off my snow boots in the hall, Primakov materialised on the stairs to welcome us. We went upstairs to a lamplit sitting room, furnished with heavy curtains and drapery behind which anything could have been lurking. We had a brief, rather cool discussion. Primakov made it very clear that I was barking up completely the wrong tree. Espionage would continue to be necessary, for the defence of Russia, and they would continue to engage in it at whatever level they chose.
We called it a day before too long, and he disappeared behind the draperies. We went once more to that house the next evening for a farewell dinner with our new KGB "friends" and the ambassador. Primakov did not reappear, but a fair cross section of the others we had met did. Much champagne was drunk on that occasion, and innumerable toasts, with many references to the number of women in top positions in the UK, along the lines of, "Your queen is a lady, your prime minister is a lady and now in MI5, dear Mrs Rimington, we have a lady."
Bakatin lasted only another six months, and by January 1992 his imminent departure was announced. But when my own appointment as director-general of MI5 was made public, shortly after our visit to Moscow, he was still head of the KGB. Among all the congratulations I received, the letter from him was the one I most enjoyed. It seemed the crowning unexpectedness of that whole unexpected period.
September 23 2001 BOOKS: MEMOIRS
Tell us something
OPEN SECRET: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of
by Stella Rimington
“In the gaps between our meetings," reports Stella Rimington of a trip to Moscow to meet her KGB counterparts, "we sightsaw in temperatures colder than I had experienced."
"Sightsaw" is, of course, revolting, but aren't there words missing before or after "experienced"? "Ever", perhaps, or "in my life"? And, since temperature is a measure of heat, they can't be colder. "Lower" would be more exact. But why bother to bring temperature into it at all? Actually, the whole sentence is useless. We know it gets cold in Moscow, so there's no need to tell us unless you are going to bring something new to the party. Perhaps she should have written, "It was so cold I lost my ability to write acceptable English."
Although historic, this book is bad. That sentence is typical. We are, however, forewarned. In her preface, Rimington tells the story of the publication. Nobody wanted it published, and the cabinet secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, was delegated to talk her out of it. She was shaken by the experience. Wilson patted her on the shoulder and said, "Never mind, Stella, go off and buy something." Quite a card, that Wilson. Rimington not being a rebel, she allowed the text to be strained through a thickish blanket of bureaucracy and politics. The residue is unappealing.
The problem is not merely stylistic. There is also the feeling that we are being told next to nothing. The bombing of Pan-Am 103 over Lockerbie, for example, gets about a page. It "caused enormous consternation", but the outcome of the investigation was "a brilliant fusion of forensic, intelligence and analytical skills". We might as well be reading an MI5 press release.
In fairness, however, there are revelations, although they are seldom substantial. Rimington was recruited in India in 1967 by somebody who tapped her and said, "Pssst . . . Do you want to be a spy?" And MI5 life in the shabby offices around London comes across as a deadly dull round of files and tea trolleys. Tea is something of an obsession. When Rimington rises to the top, she deals with man-management issues by applying "the same principles I used on the nannies and au pairs". She buys "a very large tea pot" and establishes "a regular weekly tea meeting".
And, true enough, we do learn a certain amount about Rimington herself. She is a good archivist and she is ambitious. She agonises about the upbringing of her two daughters (especially after separation from her husband), although this anguish never seems to damage her work. As the cover photograph shows as well as anything in the text, she is a bright, tough suburban lady with no visible hinterland. We don't hear of her relaxing with Mozart or Jane Austen, though she does, from time to time, take part in amateur theatricals. She is pleased to tell us that, when she becomes the first public face of MI5, a correspondent in The Spectator finds himself fancying her. But, most of the time, she is content to present herself as largely asexual.
Perhaps the most gripping personal details concern the claustrophobia and anxiety with which she was afflicted after her childhood experiences during wartime bombing. These were combined with a fierce, long-suffering dutifulness imposed by her father. Unfortunately, later in the book this theme just falls away. A better writer would have dramatised the connections that cry out to be made and that almost certainly led to her success in a male-dominated profession.
In broad policy terms, the book is of some significance. The fact that it has been published at all is a gesture against the cult of excessive secrecy. This, before Rimington, bred the opposing cult of spying as a glamorous (Ian Fleming) or intellectually and morally intense (John le Carré) pursuit. Rimington, in contrast, portrays an essentially clerical profession hedged about with legal restrictions. One feels a slight pang of disappointment when she firmly announces that MI5 does not kill people. What, none?
Furthermore, she does document the huge and now sickeningly topical switch from cold-war operations to anti-terrorism. She reasonably points out that anti-terrorist successes are unknown and unremarked, whereas failures, such as the IRA's docklands bomb, are spectacular.
The big positive of the book (assuming we believe her, and I think I do) is that the British security services are, on the whole, competent and honourable. Above all, according to her account, they obey the law and do not pursue legitimate political dissent. This is rare. When speaking to her former KGB rivals in Moscow, she describes the legal restrictions necessary for secret operations within a democracy. She is trying to help them move on from their terrible past. But she is received "with polite incredulity". Vicious cultures do not reform overnight. Rimington plainly enjoys the hospitality of the KGB, but is dismayed by their attitudes. This draws from her the most depressing and historically pertinent observation in the book. "If the level of later cooperation had matched the level of bonhomie that night, we would between us have cracked the problems of terrorism and organised crime for all time."
But, on the whole, the account is ruined by its lack of substantial revelation. It demonstrates that freedom is best defended by good filing systems (and, possibly, gallons of tea), but it does not really engage with the real political and operational complexities that now wait to be resolved as, after the World Trade Centre, we enter the frightening world of asymmetric warfare. What do we do now, Stella? It's another book - but, for all our sakes, get a ghostwriter.
She tracked, trailed, bugged and burgled some of the most ruthless spies, drug-runners, subversives and terrorists of her generation - and who knows who else besides. But when the news broke that Stella Rimington, the first officially named and first woman director of MI5, had written her autobiography, she found herself an enemy of the state. Here, in the first ever interview given by a head of the British security service, she tells Richard Norton-Taylor and Alan Rusbridger about her brilliant career - and her dramatic fall from grace
Saturday September 8, 2001
It is well known that women who work for the security service come in two forms. The first (think Ursula Andress or Britt Ekland) is blonde, packs her revolver in her bikini and likes nothing better than sports cars and strangling men with her bare thighs. The other (think Lois Maxwell) is the spinster in spectacles - frustrated at work and unrequited in love.
Stella Rimington is, in short, all wrong. We have few images of her as a young woman, but it is fair to say that her own account of her earlier years is notably short on sun, sea and jungle sex. Her life has not - at least in her own version - been a relentless juggernaut of danger, passion and calamity. But nor would you confuse her with Miss Moneypenny, if only because Miss Money-penny was for ever stuck as the faithful secretary to "M". Whereas, of course, Mrs R ended up as "M".
The Bond Girl of 1967 was the ravishing Mie Hama, who joined forces with Sean Connery to mount a daring raid on Ernst Blofeld's volcano-buried lair, thereby averting an apocalyptic world war. That same summer, a bored diplomat's wife started doing a little work as a clerk/typist for MI5 in Delhi. It was a change from doing amateur dramatics or sitting on the toy fair committee. She wrote home: "They have offered me a job working in the secret part of the High Commission, for £5 a week, which I think I will take. It will help to keep me out of gonk-making." This is not a line one can easily imagine falling from the lips of Honor Blackman.
Forget Bond, then, and think Le Carré instead. But, of course, he's not much help, either. Smiley, Esterhase, Bland, Lacon - all men of a certain age and class. Which writer in this genre would have dared to create Rimington - the convent girl from Essex, via Nottingham High School and a first job as assistant archivist in Worcestershire County Records Office? Which writer would have allowed her to rise without trace until one day she emerges, blinking, into daylight as the first officially-named director general of MI5, and the first woman in the post? And then, having pensioned her off, make her former colleagues cast her into outer darkness for breaking the code of omerta that surrounds the world of intelligence?
So little prepares you for meeting the woman who for four years headed up one of the most formidable intelligence services in the world. Of course, there have been glimpses of her over recent years, notably the blurred picture in the street and the Dimbleby lecture she gave in 1994. And now there is the book, an inevitably selective and elliptical autobiography, which describes much about her life without, perhaps, explaining much.
MI5 is not the Girl Guides. It is difficult to imagine anyone rising to the top of the pile without a streak of ruthlessness to match whatever analytical or managerial qualities they might also have. And yet - whether due to modesty, a gift for understatement or the work of the Whitehall censor - the book itself does not quite explain the meteoric career of this woman with whom we are now face to face. This open-faced, large-eyed, middle-aged woman who seems - not vulnerable, quite, but certainly apprehensive.
On the way up, a senior executive of Random House has intercepted us to discuss a clipping about the book from the Mirror, which is mildly acerbic. They have not shown it to Stella, he says nervously. She is... a little anxious. It might be best not to mention it. She's coping well, but...
Can this be genuine, this fluttering trepidation at an encounter with two journalists? Anxiety? From the woman who once ran the counter-surveillance F Branch at the height of the cold war? Who tracked, trailed, bugged and burgled some of the most ruthless spies, drug-runners, crooks, subversives and terrorists of her generation?
Or is it technique, tradecraft? Much of her book is about being a woman in a man's world - a woman, a mother, a single mother, a wife in a disintegrating marriage. There was, of course, plenty of struggle, but when we meet she talks frankly of the advantages of gender. "Any woman will tell you, you work out what you can use to your advantage, the fact that you're female - and that's what you do."
Such as? "Um, surprise, if you're dealing with foreign organisations particularly; there are... you have ways of dealing with people which are different from the way men deal with people... " She speaks slowly, deliberately, carefully, with the slightest over-enunciation when the conversation strays into difficult territory.
Such as? "Such as you can charm them, or bully them or whatever. The English gentlemen sometimes find it quite difficult to deal with - I would have said before all of this happened - with aggressive women." She pauses and considers. "I think that's now fading, particularly in Whitehall - they've got used to women in senior positions, and those kind of advantages that might have existed earlier perhaps no longer do."
So it is possible that this appearance of nervousness is more calculated than it seems - a device to encourage sympathy. But there is something about the Stella Rimington in front of us that seems genuinely vulnerable. And the clue is in that parenthesis - "before all of this happened". The "all of this" is, of course, the book and the reaction to it. She makes the genesis sound so simple and innocent. She was at a bit of a post-retirement loose end. "I suppose the trigger was that I began to realise how much interest there is around about women who have got to the top of anything, and I did quite a lot of talking to women's groups and giving away prizes at girls' schools and that sort of thing, and people kept saying, 'When are you going to write your autobiography?' " She thought it would be "fun" to try.
She wrote it and packed it off to Whitehall for vetting without, she says, having much idea what the reaction would be. When it came, the reaction was "very confusing". "Absolutely nothing happened for two months, nobody said anything, which left me somewhat, well, very much wondering what on earth was going on. Then, when they did say something, I got this both barrels thing from [cabinet secretary] Richard Wilson. I know how Whitehall works, I knew his brief was to deter me, if he possibly could. I thought, well, that's what he's trying to do and if I get through this bit, then we can start talking about the content. And that's what happened, actually. I got both barrels, which was very... which I think was, yes, quite upsetting."
By both barrels, she says she means a deliberate and "heavy" attempt to deter, scare and humiliate her. Whatever form Sir Richard's bollocking took, it clearly had a sharp effect. She walked in as a respected insider, someone at ease with power, with access. She left an outsider, under no misapprehension that she had offended the highest in the land. She had burned her boats. She had been cast into outer darkness.
"I did find it quite a shock," she says. "It was tempting at that stage to say, okay, I won't do it."
Had "they" left it at that, she says, she might even have quietly withdrawn the manuscript and kept it for her children. But "they" had other ideas about how to persuade her to shut up - and the longer it went on, the more her determination to publish hardened.
An anti-Rimington whispering campaign was launched, which was, perhaps, to be expected. But she was astonished when someone in Whitehall put a copy of the manuscript in a taxi and sent it to the Sun in Wapping. "I genuinely thought I had submitted something to a confidential process and that, okay, they might not want me to do it and, yes, we would have to have an argument about it. Ultimately, I felt they had the rules and the law on their side, and I was anxious, obviously, to obey the rules. Frankly, that's why I submitted it in the first place."
Who packed it off to the Sun? And why leak something if it was so dangerously revealing? She pauses and picks her words with great care. "I don't know who leaked it. I can speculate, like you can, but I think it's pretty clear that some parts of the machinery were more upset than others - I could infer that from the things I was reading. I just don't know if it was some one person who thought it was the right thing to do or whether it was, you know, an 'operation'." She does say she found the leaking "absolutely amazing because, as I say, I thought I'd put it into a fairly well-honed process that regularly received books from ministers and senior civil servants, etc".
As well as being amazed, she admits to being shaken and, for the first time in her professional life, intensely vulnerable. "I did reel back at some of the nastiness. I couldn't look at the manuscript again for a bit, while I absorbed the horror. Going back now to the clearance process, which has its Kafka-esque elements to it, I think I understand better what people outside feel when they're trying to deal with the state, or particularly with the secret state, and how - perhaps it's a bizarre exaggeration for me to say this - how got at you can actually feel. Any of my former colleagues would laugh at that because clearly I am an insider, but nevertheless you do just get a feeling of how persecuted you can feel when things are going on that you don't actually have any control over."
But the assault on her had just begun. After her Whitehall bruising and the leaking of the manuscript, Rimington had to endure a bout of being knocked around in the media - also an unfamiliar experience for someone who had lived so long in the protected shadows. The Telegraph and Times led the way, with several coruscating editorials attacking her. The Times considered the book "objectionable and disastrous". The colonel commandant of the SAS, David Lyon, wrote a letter warning Rimington that she could expect "a long period of being persona non grata, both to many she has worked with and many she has yet to meet among the general public." There was much written about the "de la Billiere effect" - the supposed opening of the memoir floodgates by senior officers who go into print.
This was a tough period for Rimington - and she is bracing herself for a fresh round of abuse with publication of the book. "I try not to read things I know are going to be too hurtful and people warn me off. I've got a network of people who say, 'My God, the Telegraph's at it again', so I don't read it. It is, actually, quite wounding, particularly if you've spent most of your career working to defend the nation, so to speak. It is quite wounding to see yourself suddenly appear as one of the nation's enemies."
The hurt was intensified by the absence of public voices supporting her. It is commonplace in America for CIA chiefs - Colby, Turner, Helms, Gates in recent times - to go into print on retirement. For any of them to be attacked for doing so by the New York Times or Washington Post would be unthinkable. In America, oddly enough, the press tends to be on the side of openness. You would not find a CIA director attacked (to quote the Times on Rimington) by the American press as being "an affront to her country".
"I think it is about the culture of the less said, the better; if you say things, it could cause trouble, so don't let's do it," says Rimington of the insiders who tried to stop her. "It's an avoidance of difficulty, really. You know, 'Why bother with that? Let's get on with what we have to do.' " She pauses and laughs at the irony of what she's saying: "I'm going to sound like the world's most civil libertarian by the time you've written this!"
But there is an underlying toughness behind the laughter. "I've never been one to retreat at the first whiff of gunshot. If you terrorise everybody who wishes to say anything - even like me, originally, wanting to write about what it's like being a woman through the period I've been working - then clearly people won't use the system, and that would be a pity. What you need is a system people are encouraged to use.
"Nobody believes more strongly than I that there are things we must continue to keep secrets. But I thought they were being excessively and sometimes rather ridiculously careful. Not my own people, but some of the comments that were coming from elsewhere." Asked what she was requested to delete from her early manuscripts, she says: "There were names of people, things I had said that they felt, you know, revealed aspects of things that they didn't want to draw attention to, it was that kind of thing." She was told to remove any mention of the SAS - a request she describes as "a bit stupid" - and when she describes the killing of three unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988, it was suggested she mention "the military" instead. "But there were not huge amounts that were taken out," she says.
She does not claim that she was striking a great blow for openness, or that there was a great principle at stake. "No, there wasn't. It was something I wanted to write, I thought it was interesting, I enjoyed writing it. I knew all the time that it might turn out I wouldn't be able to do it." She is now convinced that the Official Secrets Act should be reformed. The absolute duty of confidentiality it imposes on former members of the security and intelligence services is "probably nowadays unrealistic. For a charge under the Official Secrets Act to stick, I would think... that you would have to show damage."
She is less sure how far she'd have pushed this issue if the government had finally said, don't publish. "I don't know. I never threatened them with the Human Rights Act. I never threatened them with anything, actually. I really did wait to see what would happen." Would she have taken them to court? "I doubt it, I doubt it."
This, then, is a conundrum. The process has evidently caused Rimington considerable pain and has resulted in her exclusion from the charmed circle of influence and power she once inhabited. Which begs the questions: why would she put herself through all this if there were no great principle involved? Is she dissembling? Is she really keen on pushing at the boundaries of openness in the spirit of much else that she did while director general? Or should we accept her explanation that she simply wanted to write about the role of a prominent woman in public life?
Former colleagues suggest that the book was really written as a way of explaining to her children why she was never there as a mother. They think making a clean break from the intimacy and security of an organisation such as MI5 has been difficult for Rimington, and that the book was possibly a way of getting it all out of her system. Perhaps she does not truly know herself why she went through with the project. "She's not a great thinker," says one. "In a room of philosophers and doers, she was always a doer."
The organisation Rimington joined in 1965 - after being recruited by a baronet serving alongside her husband in the Delhi High Commission - was intensely male, public school and clubby. "They were all men from the same colonial service/military sort of background. In those days, the organisation was very closed. I think the arrival of women like me - and people like me - did begin to challenge that. I always felt slightly revolutionary, because I was clearly quite different. There were a lot of women like me scattered around, but we weren't able to exert very much influence. But I've never liked working for people who I didn't think were as competent as me. You can call it a sort of arrogance, if you like. I suppose it caused me to push to get into more senior, more responsible positions."
Her pragmatic attitude - what she calls her "huge dollop of common sense" - may have suited the times. She did not spend a lot of time - at least in her early career - agonising over what she refers to as "the ethical dilemma thing". "I didn't suffer from great ethical dilemmas at the beginning at all, actually.
I think I thought what we were doing seemed very appropriate, we were defending the nation against threats, and I was interested when I first joined in the way that one did that. But I wasn't, at that stage, over- imbued with anxiety about external scrutiny or any of those things that later became issues."
It was - at least in the early days - all immense, well, fun. "Even though there were all of these tweedy guys with pipes, I still thought the essence of the cold war and spies and stuff was fun. You know, going round listening to people's telephones and opening their mail and stuff. It beats being an archivist and it beats being a civil servant, I thought. Certainly I wouldn't be doing it justice if I didn't say that I found my career fun from start to finish, I really did, but it also became quite serious stuff as time went on. And it is true that the more you move up an organisation, the issues that affect you most are more managerial, they're about the organisation, about its successes, positioning, the threats to it and so on. Those were the things that, by the end, were occupying me, and everybody else was having fun doing the spy bit and the terrorist bit."
It was when she started running agents of her own that she began to be troubled by some of the deeper and more worrying dimensions of the job. "The agent-running thing does bring you up sharp with the ethical dilemma of asking people to do things that might put them at risk. And that is the moment, when it's personalised and you're dealing with people face to face, that you actually focus on."
Being a woman wasn't a particular advantage in this work, though she did come to be a strong believer in alternative methods. "I don't think women are better at it; women are sometimes different, they can make a different appeal/approach/think of different ways of doing it, etc. It's all about diversity." She snorts at the thought that she ever went further in encouraging women agents to exploit their gender: "I never was involved in any honeytraps. Nothing to do with honeytraps!"
But being a mother (and, later, a single mother) did help, she says, in terms of compartmentalising her life between work and home. Only she had a further compartment or two once she got to work - or back at home, in dealing with friends, neighbours or even children. It was, she realises retrospectively, immensely stressful for much of the time. "You do what you have to do at the time, and how much stress you're under never becomes apparent to you until much later. It was certainly not usual, shall we say? There was also the problem of the fact that you were not supposed to say where you worked. So you were perpetually trying to avoid situations that other people would take for granted, where people were going to start asking you about your job. I do think that in those days it made life more difficult and it turned us all, in a sense, in on ourselves so that we, you know... everybody dealt with it in their own way. It's less true now, I think, because there's more openness and people are, in certain circumstances, more prepared to say that they work for the security services, but in those days, one was told that one had to say one worked for the Ministry of Defence and that was it. And I did avoid going to cocktail parties, and in the street, and those sorts of things. You just don't. And it's still the same now - I don't do a great deal of general socialising.
"There's still the security implications of the world and his wife knowing where you live. It's not only the terrorists, quite frankly; it's the press that one has to be wary of. I'd rather not get a knock on the front door from the Daily Mail, which still happens. So it becomes a way of life."
The secrecy extended to her children. "They always knew I did something for the government and at a certain stage - you'd have to ask them when - they knew that it was something that you didn't talk about, something secret. So I was as frank as it was necessary to be. They wouldn't have wanted to be burdened with a huge amount of detail."
All that ended with the day of her appointment. Previous MI5 chiefs had lived in the shadows. Some had been named by radical magazines, but none had ever been photographed. With no more than a few hours' notice, the permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir Clive Whitmore, decided that Rimington would be publicly named as the new director general.
She was, she says, quite unprepared for the sudden move from shadows into daylight. "Well, I hadn't been warned, and I suppose my natural reaction was, hang on a minute, let's just... I would have liked to have had a chance to think it through, not that I necessarily thought it was a bad idea in terms of openness, I was just worried that we hadn't thought through all the implications. Of course, when I was announced, then the children knew, and I don't think either of them, even then - when they were 17 and 20 - focused exactly on what it was I did."
Was it a problem for them? "Yes, without a doubt. Suddenly becoming exposed, so to speak, as being the children of this person about whom there was huge amount of furore at the time. It was a huge problem for both of them, really.
"The one hesitation I had about this book was whether it would expose the family to intrusion, which they would find offensive. I talked about it with them and they were extremely supportive, and now they're grown, I think they can cope with that in a way that they couldn't when they were children."
Did those extra compartments ever trouble her - the lack of candour or plain duplicity involved in her life? "No, because people understand the context in which there is duplicity, which is not a word I would use - I would use 'cover', I would use 'necessary secrecy' and 'discretion' - not 'duplicity' because that is a pejorative word. But I don't think it is a problem really, because people right from the outset are trained to understand the context in which the work is being done. There is a very strong context of abiding by the law and abiding by the rules, otherwise mayhem breaks out. So people do understand that, and of course they have to be convinced that the reason they're doing this is worthwhile."
That strong sense of "abiding by the rules" was, of course, not the pervading theme of the assorted MI5 officers who broke ranks during her period at the organisation. Peter Wright's cheerful admissions of bugging and burgling his way around London won the service few admirers in the 80s, any more than did Cathy Massiter's revelations of vetting, Michael Bettaney's drunken spree of betrayal or David Shayler's more recent allegations of conspiracies to knock off foreign leaders.
I, spy (part 2)
Richard Norton-Taylor and Alan Rusbridger
Saturday September 8, 2001
For much of the 80s, Rimington was in charge of counter-subversion, most famously during the miners' strike. She draws back from discussion of any of this work, except in the broadest terms. "I don't want to talk too much about this because my former colleagues aren't going to be too happy if I raise into the headlines the issue of subversion, which for them now is a very minor issue."
She emphasises the extent to which eastern bloc countries concentrated on infiltrating organisations in Britain during the cold war. MI5's job was to keep tabs on individual communists. Hers was a pursuit of "subversive" individuals rather than organisations. "The thing people fail to understand is that subversive organisations by definition target areas of society that have the most influence - unions or whatever." It was, she says, easy "to get a position on the executive committee of a union or as leader of CND, where people aren't necessarily expecting you - that's what subversive organisations did. What the service was doing was very clearly set out by the definition of subversion, which I'm sure you know. And the files that were opened on people were opened under that definition."
[The traditional definition of subversion was for the first time laid out in statute in the 1989 Security Service Act. It says that the functions of MI5 are to protect national security from espionage, terrorism and sabotage and - this is the relevant bit - "from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means".]
"You can say from the position of 2001 that files were opened on people who were not actively threatening the state, but nevertheless, in the context of those days, I think the files that were opened fitted that definition of subversion. I think, in the past, some of our predecessors may have been a bit over enthusiastic [in opening files], but by the time I got there we were very focused on this definition and what we were doing. But it's not always an easy judgment to make."
She will not be drawn on the well-publicised instances, such as the monitoring of the National Council for Civil Liberties at a time when it was run by women such as Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, who now seem only marginally more subversive than, say, Iain Duncan Smith. She will only say that opening files on people - the collection of material, some or all of which might be in the public domain - is quite different from investigating someone. If Harriet Harman or Peter Mandelson wanted to see what was on their files, would she say no? "I would say no, they shouldn't."
What about Roger Windsor, the chief executive of the NUM widely alleged to have been an MI5 informer? Would it be wrong to say that he had contact with MI5? Once again, the words are enunciated with precision: "It would be correct to say that he, Roger Windsor, was never an agent in any sense of the word that you can possibly imagine and that MI5 did not run agents in the National Union of Mineworkers." No informers? "No, or in the miners wives' whatsits, or the picket line or any of that stuff. That's not to say that the police or special branch, who had a legitimate role in law and order, might not have been doing some of those things."
She is also vague on the vetting of BBC journalists - Cathy Massiter claimed in 1985 that "subversive" BBC journalists had files marked with little Christmas trees. "God! I don't think BBC journalists were vetted as an occupation, as far as I know. I am very out of date on all this." The BBC did, in fact, submit names of journalists and producers to MI5 for vetting.
She acknowledges that those on the left will probably never quite bring themselves to trust MI5. There is too much residual cold war paranoia and the Peter Wright memoirs, full of froth about the Wilson years, made some of the suspicions seem not too paranoid. But Rimington emphasises the growing rigour with which decisions to vet or monitor subjects are taken.
"It's not a judgment that's made solely by the desk officer, or even by the management of MI5, because if you want to investigate something, with the full panoply of investigative aids, then you have to have warrants where your judgment is subject to scrutiny by ministers, by the Home Office, etc, then later by judges brought in to oversee, and all that kind of stuff."
Though MI5 does continue to have a role of vetting potential ministers around the time of each general election, she says that would generally not include material about their personal lives. Not even in unconventional situations - say, a minister with a fondness for cottaging? "No, the security service wouldn't expect to have in their records information about people hanging around public lavatories, unless it was in an espionage context. The PM would have to rely on the whips for that kind of thing. The only time the director general would feel it appropriate to pass on that sort of thing would be if it had any relationship to national security - the threat of blackmail, for example, where somebody was in a job where he had access to the nation's secrets, that sort of thing. That's a judgment that you have to make."
The pre-election vetting was a "mammoth labour", she says, "because you don't know who's going to get in in any constituency... that is about checking in the files, about whether there is anything in there of importance, and that's when a judgment has to be made about anybody who has been elected on the side of the incoming government, so the prime minister can take it into account when he forms his government. It's a kind of vetting, although it's not vetting, because members of parliament are not vetted." She knows of two occasions when ministers asked MI5 to investigate individuals. On both occasions, she says, MI5 refused. The requests were made before she was appointed head of the agency in 1991. That points to the Thatcher government, but Rimington declines to comment further.
She has great admiration for Sir Antony Duff, the former diplomat brought in to transform the culture of MI5 after the Bettaney affair. The lax old "fun" times were, she says, firmly in the past. "In the old days, when I first joined, you wrote things in files, knowing that no one was ever going to read them, except for other members of the service. Now you write things in files and you think things and do things, conscious that they're going to be subject to all sorts of different scrutiny. It focuses the mind quite sharply. But, ultimately, one has to remember that it's not necessarily going to be the secret state that's going to intrude on people's privacy. Nowadays it's everything, it's the system, you know - supermarkets, cameras in shopping centres, on roads... I think our civil liberties in a sense have been intruded upon and not by the secret state."
And now she is working for a supermarket - M&S - and has made the sharp transition from the most closed of public services to one of the most publicly scrutinised of private sector companies. How different has she found this new culture? "Very, really. Everything is really different, except for the managerial issues. There is a different ethos, the different motivation of people in the corporate world, particularly the focus on reward. That was something I had to learn about and understand because, whatever you might say about the public service, reward is not the key thing that motivates people."
There was some criticism of Rimington's role, particularly in the generous arrangements for the incoming chief executive, Luc Vandevelde. Was she, in retrospect, a bit naive to begin with? "Yes, I think you're probably right. I don't think I had fully understood the differences. But on the other hand it's easy to go too far and say that all they're interested in is lining their own pockets, which they're not, actually. I'm sure that if I went back to my previous job now, I would have quite a different attitude to certain things, but I hope fundamentally I would still believe as I did then, about the importance of the public service ethos."
One thing that has surprised her about life on the "outside" is the maleness of the British boardroom. "By the time I left public service, I think it's true to say that women were regarded as paid-up members of the human race. But in the boardrooms of British companies that really is not yet the case. Obviously there are more women around than there were, but there's still a real sense of 'We need a woman on the board, a woman's point of view', which I found quite shocking." Marks & Spencer included? "Oh, yeah, everywhere. Some were more overt about it than others. One chairman said to me, 'We need a woman on the board, but I'm not sure I can convince my colleagues', which was absolutely breathtaking! I wouldn't join such a company."
How does she spend her spare time, while not sitting on boards or writing books? "I don't seem to have very much time at the moment. I seem to have taken on far more than I can cope with. I go to the country, where I have a little house, and potter about but now - I shall be 67 next birthday - I'm beginning to think about how I'll wind down as I'm coming to the end of the natural, first period of some of the things I've taken on. So I may find I've got more spare time in the future."
The bad news for Sir Richard Wilson and her former colleagues in Thames House is that she's got the writing bug and is now toying with the idea of a novel. Inevitably, it would be a spy novel. Of all the writers in the genre, she thinks Le Carré; gets closest to the reality of life on the inside. "But because he is a novelist, it all sounds a lot more sharp and exciting than it is in reality. The reality is a lot more boring. It's about people making decisions, people working in the context of the law and oversight, and being answerable to things. What John Le Carré; gets wrong is in his organisations, everybody is suspecting each other and fighting each other, and that's not the case at all."
The good news is that - notwithstanding her recent experiences - obedient attitudes die hard. "Of course I would submit it for clearance. As I understand the contractual obligations, anything that could be interpreted as referring to my work in the service would have to be submitted."