Excerpted from At Risk by Stella Rimington. Copyright © 2004 by Stella Rimington. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Stella Rimington joined Britain’s Security Service (MI5) in 1969. During her nearly thirty-year career she worked in all the main fields of the Service’s responsibilities—counter subversion, counter espionage and counter terrorism—and successively became Director of all three branches. Appointed Director General of MI5 in 1992, she was the first woman to hold the post and the first Director General whose name was publicly announced on appointment. Following her retirement from MI5 in 1996, she became a nonexecutive director of Marks & Spencer and published her autobiography, Open Secret, in the United Kingdom. She is also the author of three previous novels: At Risk, Secret Asset and Illegal Action. Rimington lives in London.
Q) How long did you work for MI5 and what was your position there? For those in our American audience who may not be familiar with the UK organization, please give a brief explanation of how it is, or is not, similar to the FBI here in the States.
A) I worked for MI5 for 27 years, joining in 1969 as a Junior Assistant Officer (a special rank for women, who were only allowed to be assistants in those days) and leaving in 1996 as Director General (the boss). During my career I worked mainly in counter-espionage and counter-terrorism, becoming successively Director of each of those areas. For part of the time I ran human sources (or 'agents' as we call them in UK–not the same as Agents in FBIspeak), which is Liz Carlyle's job in the book. There is no exact equivalent to MI5 in the US. There has been some discussion, as a part of the investigations of the 9/11 Commission, for example, as to whether such an agency should be created. But it has been decided not to, as I understand it. The nearest equivalent is what used to be called the Foreign Counter Intelligence part of the FBI, but it is different. MI5 is a civilian intelligence service with no powers of arrest or any other police powers,
but a lot of investigative powers. For example, they have the power to intercept
communications, follow people around, and search houses and cars. Its job is to help to
protect the country against serious threats to our national security by generating intelligence, assessing it and taking action on it to prevent the harm intended. It works very closely with the police, particularly Special Branches (which exist in large part to provide MI5 with the police back-up it needs), the Metropolitan Police, which covers London, and the other much smaller police forces which cover the different parts of the country. It also works very closely with MI6, which is our foreign intelligence service and much more like the CIA.
Q) Is there rivalry between MI5 and MI6, similar to the tensions that arise in the novel? (for instance, a lack of communication that may be similar to the FBI and the CIA).
A) The tensions between Liz and Bruno in the novel are a rather tongue-in-cheek representation of the image everyone has of MI5 and 6 always arguing. In fact, this is not
true. On the whole they work extremely closely together (as the characters Charles Wetherby and Geoffrey Fane do). But they are very different kinds of organizations, employing different sorts of people and with a different culture and a different job to do. So, from time to time individuals rub each other up the wrong way–as Liz and Bruno do. There has not been the same criticism in UK about lack of communication between agencies as there has been in the US. MI5 and 6 have worked much more closely together for years than the FBI and the CIA, partly because the laws in this country make it easier and partly because we have a long experience here of dealing with terrorism.
Q) What provisions did the UK invoke after the terrorist attacks on September 11th here in the United States? For instance, in the novel you mention the Prevention of Terrorism Act–how was this amended?
A) The Prevention of Terrorism Act has been in existence for many years and dates back to the time we were dealing with terrorism from Northern Ireland (1970s, 80s and early 90s), though it has been amended from time to time and new powers added. The main changes to the law since 9/11 have been changes in the powers to detain foreign citizens against whom there is terrorist related information and who cannot, for various reasons, be extradited.
Q) In At Risk we get a rare inside view of terrorists’ planning, thoughts and feelings in the days leading up to their attack. On what basis did you characterize them–where they came from, where their anger came from, what they’re capable of?
A) With regards to the terrorists in the novel and the way they think and plan, that comes
from my own experience of what motivates the sort of terrorists I have worked against
during my career. But it is a novel and not to be taken as a blueprint for what happens in real life.
Q) How much of the spy tactics in your novel are based on real methods, i.e., encrypted emails and numbered usernames?
A) The tradecraft of Liz and her colleagues is fairly accurate. For example, liaison with the police, the use of agent runners and investigators, care over the use of mobile phones, and encyphered communications on laptops.
Q) Frustration seems to go hand in hand with the job, as Liz fights it frequently. How much of the job is based on luck, or public sightings, and how much is based on actual “spook work”?
A) Inevitably there is a lot of frustration in intelligence work. You never know the whole
picture, and for a lot of the time you are partly in the dark, waiting for the results of
investigations, new information to come in, or some lucky breakthrough. Success comes
from a combination of good solid investigation work, well-placed human sources,
information from the public, and good luck, all coordinated and put together by intelligent assessment and analysis. At the end of the day that's what intelligence work is.
From the Hardcover edition.