Shifting world of espionage prompts call for Mandarin and Russian-speaking spies

What’s Russian for cloak and dagger? Shutterstock

For some, it began with a tap on the shoulder at Oxford or Cambridge. Now recruitment for British intelligence occurs via newspaper and online advertisements and aptitude tests through websites. Despite the newfangled – and arguably more egalitarian – means of generating job applicants, there is a distinctive Cold War edge to the Security Service’s push for more Mandarin and Russian speakers. More significantly, it may indicate a shifting of priorities away from the decade-long dominant counter-terrorism field.

Although it came into existence prior to the Cold War, the Security Service, better known as MI5, found its raison d’etre in the half-century struggle against Soviet communism. The end of the Cold War, apparently, removed the threat from former Communist countries and left MI5 struggling, beyond its role in Northern Ireland, for new priorities. The point we are missing, of course, is that the end of the Cold War did not end the activities of foreign intelligence agencies against the United Kingdom – those have continued over the past two decades as have MI5’s efforts at countering espionage.

What did change was the emergence of a much more immediate threat. Its presence was signalled by September 11 attacks in the US and reiterated by the July 7 2005 bombings in London. Already, by early 2004, the British government had announced that MI5’s personnel would increase by 50% as part of the drive towards making international terrorism its main security priority, an emphasis which remains to this day.

Spy v spy

The problem is that foreign intelligence agencies did not stop spying even as terrorism surged as a threat. Ten years ago, in 2004, the UK parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee warned that UK intelligence was falling behind in its efforts against Russian and Chinese intelligence because of the concentration on the threat of terrorism. It also regularly warns, as it did in its 2011-12 report:

Government, defence and security interests, as well as the commercial sector, continue to be at risk from traditional espionage by several countries that are targeting UK interests.

The new recruitment emphasis on Mandarin and Russian speakers may be simply an acknowledgement that a threat from foreign espionage remains. More widely, it could also be a shifting back of priorities from counter-terrorism. In relation to the latter, if the future terrorism threat is posed less by well-organised terrorist groups with sophisticated plots and more by “lone actor” terrorism in which individuals or small groups of individuals carry out crude attacks, then MI5 will have less of a role to play in counter-terrorism than regular police forces.

Trenchcoat: not suitable for on-duty wear in Beijing.

A similar trend is evident in the United States. After 9/11 the main American domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), declared that countering terrorism would be its top priority. Nevertheless, it has for a number of years also paid attention to the threat of Chinese espionage. This threat is much more diffused than during the Cold War, thanks to globalisation. It could include the oft-discussed approaches via computers but also, potentially, through Chinese students and business people.

Limited pool of recruits

In its effort to recruit those with proficiency in specific languages, as well to ensure a more diverse workforce in general, MI5 has a crucial disadvantage beyond having to compete with potentially higher-paying private companies for skilled personnel. Its recruitment policy disenfranchises an obvious cohort with relevant skills: immigrants and the children of immigrants.

The Security Service does accept born or naturalised citizens but only ones who also have at least one parent who is a British citizen or who has “substantial ties to the UK”. The latter, despite broadly being defined as: “your parent is a citizen of a British Overseas Territory, a Commonwealth citizen, US citizen, EEA citizen, British national or citizen overseas, and they would need to have demonstrable connections with the UK by way of family history or have been resident here for a substantial period of time”, could still potentially eliminate valuable recruits.

Limiting the pool, done undoubtedly out of concern about the loyalty of citizens without strong connections to the United Kingdom, at a time when a when a record low number of British students are taking foreign languages at universities makes the prospect of getting good recruits that much more daunting. As a result, MI5 and the British intelligence services will have to be increasingly creative in their pursuit of a shrinking number of candidates.