My journey to the school for spies starts in the half-light of a waking city. I do not know where I am going and have only been instructed to meet my contact at a central London landmark. We travel by car, boat and train to a place where officers of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the overseas espionage agency known as SIS, learn their craft. I am not allowed to describe it to you, but I can tell you this: it is giant and austere and the slicing wind makes my eyes water.
At the door, I am met by a small, cheerful woman with short, wavy blonde hair whose beaming welcome is at odds with the sterile eeriness of this place. Kathy, who is in charge of all intelligence operations by SIS officers and their agents around the world, ushers me over to a bank of armchairs next to a large window overlooking a paved landscape. She jokes that when she was first offered a job at the agency, also known as MI6, her mother questioned whether she wanted to commit herself to something so “wacky and unfamiliar”. “My dad just said, ‘Go for it.’” This self-effacing northerner says she is “not particularly brave”. But she is one of the most powerful spies in Britain. Kathy is one of four directors-general at SIS, each of whom reports to the chief, known as “C”. For the first time, three of them are women.
They work in the most important and rapidly evolving areas of spycraft. Kathy is director of operations. Rebecca is the chief’s deputy, who oversees strategy. The most storied MI6 job of all belongs to Ada, who is the head of technology, known as “Q” after James Bond’s mastermind gadgeteer. I have spent six months interviewing them about how they reached the top in a traditionally male career and trying to understand what the life of a female spy is really like. Since the chief of MI6 is the only member of the agency who is named or permitted to speak in public, and because all of them have been men, this is the first time that female SIS officers have ever spoken on the record. I have agreed to change their names and omit certain details to protect them and the sources they work with. They agreed to speak to encourage women applicants and correct the perception of espionage as a man’s game. About the photographs:
Eliza Bourner is a London-based photographer whose work creates richly cinematic psychological landscapes. For this issue, FT Weekend Magazine invited her to visualise scenes that reflect aspects of this article. These photographs do not contain individuals working in British intelligence or document MI6 equipment and locations. © Eliza Bourner The low profile of these three senior officers is in keeping with the history of women in British intelligence. In the past, women have been overlooked, relegated to secretarial roles or, before the SIS era, deployed as “honeytraps” to ensnare or blackmail enemies. When Vernon Kell co-founded MI6’s precursor in 1909, he identified as his ideal recruits men “who could make notes on their shirt cuff while riding on horseback”. His views on women were less well-known, but it is said that he once commented: “I like my girls to have good legs.” Despite having proved themselves with significant skill and bravery during the second world war, women in MI6 and its sister agency MI5 struggled to progress and were not regularly recruited as intelligence officers until the late 1970s. This misogyny was repeated and exaggerated in popular novels written by former spies such as Ian Fleming and John le Carré.
The fictional MI6 officer James Bond gropes his secretary, spices his operations with extravagant liaisons and encounters few female spies, the most famous being the dowdy Russian counter-intelligence officer Rosa Klebb. Film versions of Fleming’s books made famous an entire genre of “Bond girls”, conquests rather than fully drawn human beings. Le Carré, best known for the cold war spy chronicles starring a gnomic intelligence officer, George Smiley, expresses a similarly two-dimensional view. His women are sirens who exert a potent sexual hold over male protagonists but have little to say for themselves.
The one exception, “Moscow-gazer” Connie Sachs, is a caricature in the opposite direction — an eccentric with an encyclopedic memory who succumbs to alcoholism after being sidelined from the job at which she excels. Sexist depictions are hardly confined to spy films, but they matter more in a profession in which mystery is encouraged and reality is classified. The perceptions built up through cultural references are, like so many aspects of the Bond legacy, double-edged.
The films have built SIS a legendary brand, but their portrayal of ad-hoc killings and solo operations is far from accurate. For MI6, the historical absence of women is both a serious omission and a secret weapon. The UK’s main adversaries today — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — are repressive societies with few women in positions of power. For the female spy, this weakness in the enemy is exploitable. Precisely because they are so likely to be overlooked, women have the potential to be the best spies of all.