In an engaging keynote at RSA Conference 2017 Dame Stella Rimington reflected on her fascinating journey from academic librarian to the first female director general of the Security Service (MI5), and shone an illuminating light on her work in the fields of countersubversion, counterespionage and counterterrorism.
Dame Rimington explained that, in the late 1960s and at the height of the Cold War, she was recruited to the small MI5 office in India as a part time clerk typist, gathering information on spies and passing information back to London where it would become part of a great database of information.
“When we went back to London, I decided it would be more fun trying to get a job in MI5, and I was recruited as a junior assistant officer.”
Dame Rimington explained that at that time, the main threat was from the Soviet Union, and she was tasked with stopping their spies from gaining information that would help them if the Cold War ever turned to a fighting war, along with finding out who they were, catching them out and trying to get them out of the country.
“In those days the sources of intelligence were very similar fundamentally to the sources of intelligence now,” she said, “but the way it worked was of course very different. Nobody had heard of the internet, nobody had invented cyber space, so it was all pretty simple stuff.”
The sources of intelligence back then were:
• Intercepting communications (by opening letters and interfering with landline telephones)
• Surveillance (by following people on the street, seeing where they went, who they met)
• Eavesdropping (trying to find out what was going on in houses or embassies)
• Managing human sources (the most important sources of intelligence, even in today’s technological world—they can not only tell you what’s going on, but what might be going to happen next)
“The world was a simpler place, but we did get the intelligence by those means.
“It wasn’t easy—when you are countering espionage it’s slow, difficult work, as certainty is far more important than speed. You’ve got to be certain that you’ve got the right person.”
However, things saw a dramatic change towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 80s with the arrival of terrorism.
“Suddenly we were faced with dealing with an enemy that was very, very different from the enemy that we had dealt with before. With terrorism, you don’t have time, speed is of the essence. You have to take action on inadequate information—and it needs people with nerve.”
From there, continued Remmington, the nature of the service moved on again into the modern world, bringing about new laws and legislations on intelligence and the end of the Cold War.
It was around this time that Dame Rimington was informed that she was to be appointed the next director general of MI5, something that came to her as a great surprise.
“I was also told,” she added, “that the government had decided it was going to announce the appointment and my name. This was the very first time ever that any announcement of this kind had been made about any of our intelligence services.”
Imagine, she quipped, the very first time ever an announcement of this kind has been made, and it’s a woman! Whilst everybody thinks the head of our intelligence services is James Bond!
In the late 1980s, once established in her role, Dame Rimington, along with colleagues, decided the time was right to instigate a belief that it was right for the intelligence services to have a certain amount of openness, formulating what they described as their Openness Strategy.
“We knew we were never going to talk about our operations in detail, not about any of our equipment, but we would talk about what a security service has the right to do in a democracy. The Openness Strategy balanced out the public’s understanding of what our intelligence services are here to do.”
To conclude, Rimington left the audience with the following closing thoughts:
“The world is probably a more insecure place now than it has ever been. It is in a very troubled state. We are relying on all of you to make the world a safer, simpler and kinder place for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren than it has been for us.”