Spies like us

20150310-Spy_picThere were many interesting details in the report released by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on March 5th. Titled Women in the UK Intelligence Community and coinciding with International Women’s Day, it explored issues of diversity in Britain’s three intelligence agencies: SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6 and focussed on overseas spying), MI5 (the domestic agency) and GCHQ, or Government Communications Headquarters; the cyber snoops. But the primary focus for the report, as the name suggests, is how to attract, promote and retain women.

Much of the attention given to the report, written by Labour MP Hazel Blears, centred on the suggestion that Mumsnet, a parents’ support website, be used as a forum for advertising recruitment opportunities. The Mumsnetters had great fun with this, see here.  But as a bid for diversity the Daily Mail was unimpressed, commenting: ‘Er, is she sure about that? Is Mumsnet not even more insufferably middle-class than Oxbridge these days?’.

Unfortunately, many of the more interesting details were overlooked by the media.  For example, the report states that women made up 36% of applicants and 44% of actual recruits to SIS last year.  I read two things from these statistics: first, proportionally more women passed the SIS selection process than men. Second, given the ideal gender split would, presumably, be 50/50, a 44% recruitment rate equates to 88% of the target figure.  As a frequent user of national rail services, I’d be whooping for joy if every train I took achieved something similar.

One of the biggest criticisms of all three agencies was described as the ‘permafrost of middle management’. The report observed: ‘while the top and bottom of the organisation understand and are committed to diversity, there is a tier at middle management level…that seems to have a very traditional male mentality and outlook’. (Although even this attracted the Daily Mail’s ungracious observation: “Of course! Top jobs always go to greasers and yea-sayers who can sniff the political wind”.)

The intelligence agencies are not the only government departments experiencing permafrost; the British army suffers likewise. Gender equality issues are a regular feature reported to the Chief of the General Staff’s Briefing Team, a rolling outreach programme offering a shortcut to the head of the organisation for the most serious or widespread gripes.  Partly as a response, in 2011 the Army Women’s Network (AWN) was created, immediately attracting some boringly predictable responses questioning the need for such a group in the online discussion forum of ARRSE, the (unofficial) army rumour service website. The AWN will be re-launched this summer.

There are clear differences in culture and role between the intelligence agencies and the army. But can these account for, let alone explain comments (on ARRSE) such as “I hear the first 50 to sign up [to the AWN] will be entered into a draw to win a pony. The runners up will receive some nice flowers and knitting patterns”? Is the military less likely to see as a concern issues traditionally thought of as concerning women only, such as childcare and glass ceilings, because it calls for selfless commitment and is built for extreme violence?

Responsibility for childcare is seen in the report (and anecdotally in the army) as the primary reason for a lack of women in senior leadership positions. (Although it is interesting to note that whereas 23% of FTSE 100 Board Members are women, the figure for Britain’s intelligence agencies’ Board members is 35%.) But is the continuation of the argument that childcare concerns in the workplace are holding women back itself an outdated concept?  Is not childcare a shared endeavour (in most cases) between two people, with the predominant model being a man and a woman? So why is the argument not put forward that men are equally vulnerable to career-damage because of childcare responsibilities?

The ‘Glass-Ceiling Index‘ published this week in The Economist, combining data on higher education, labour-force participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity rights and representation in senior jobs, suggests the Nordic countries are the best places to be a working woman, although data from intelligence agencies were not included. Britain came 22nd.


The Litvinenko Inquiry – Small details, big impact.

Days 3 and 4 – February 2nd and 3rd 

Small details can easily be muscled aside in big stories. But it is often the little things that provide the human context, especially where the subject matter is otherwise too extraordinary to allow such mundane issues to see much daylight. Marina and Anatoly Litvinenko, widow and son of Alexander, provided many such details in the evidence they gave over the last two days at the public inquiry into the Russian spy’s murder.

Marina described the evening of November 1st 2006 when Alexander first started vomiting, as he reacted to the radioactive polonium-210 he had supposedly ingested earlier that day. At first she thought she had added too much chilli to the chicken dish she had prepared for dinner in their Muswell Hill home.  Alexander moved into the spare room so as to allow Marina some sleep, so often was he dashing to the bathroom.  But within two days he was in Barnet General Hospital.

Having been transferred to University College Hospital and apparently aware he was  going to die, Alexander converted to Islam; an imam brought into the hospital specifically for that purpose. His father, Valter, arrived two days before Alexander died. Entering his hospital room Valter, a religious man, crossed himself. Alexander remarked, “Father, I am now a muslim”. “It doesn’t matter,” Valter replied, “at least you’re not communist.”

Earlier the inquiry had heard from Marina how Alexander had been a member of the Economic Security and Organised Crime unit (URPO), a secret part of the FSB (successor to the KGB) and little known even within the FSB itself.  He decided to speak out against the unit when Alexander Kamyshnikov, URPO’s deputy chief, allegedly told him to murder Boris Berezovsky, then a political advisor to the Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with the words: “you know Berezovsky – you will take him out.” In an ironic twist, after Mr Litvinenko aired these allegations Nikolai Kovalyov, head of the URPO (and a respected friend of Mr Litvinenko) resigned and Vladimir Putin took command. Marina suggested that her husband already knew of Putin’s alleged links to a St Petersburg crime syndicate, and that Mr Litvinenko’s disclosure of both the unit and it’s role in political assassinations immediately made an enemy of Putin. Thus started Mr Litvinenko’s estrangement from the Russian security apparatus, his arrest and imprisonment and eventual flight with his family from the “foul aroma of this political kitchen,” in his father’s words.

Marina’s evidence was impressively composed. On only three occasions did she falter. First, she showed extreme discomfort when discussing her husband’s allegations that Putin is a paedophile (allegedly evidenced by lifting a boy’s shirt to kiss his stomach – picture here). Whether she disagreed with her husband’s accusation or reacted to the subject matter we will not know. The second occasion was when tears came to her as she described the last conversation with her husband, on November 22nd 2006. As she was leaving the hospital he said “I love you so much.” She told the inquiry: “I tried to make a game, just like a joke, I said ‘Oh, finally’, because I haven’t listened this for a long time, because it’s usually, he says this every day, and I say, ‘I’m so happy you say it me’, and just, ‘See you tomorrow’, and ‘Everything will be fine’ “. She never saw him alive again.

The third occasion she appeared particularly animated was when questions were put to her regarding Mr Litvinenko’s relationship with MI6 (Britain’s overseas spy agency).  Among records of congestion charge payments and Tesco shopping, bank records showed a regular monthly payment from MI6 of £2000 (see here). This contradicted statements Marina had made to the Sunday Telegraph in 2007 denying he had ever been an agent for MI6. Technically, in the intelligence jargon, she was correct; Mr Litvinenko was a contractor on a rolling contract, not a salaried employee of MI6 and certainly not a paid informant directed by MI6 to provide information on specific organisations to which they have access (the usual description of an ‘agent’). But the meaning of the question would be clear to most and the paper ran the headline ‘Litvinenko’s widow denies MI6 link’ (see link). Her answer at the time was disingenuous and she appeared uncomfortable when it was raised.

More to follow…

All linked material reproduced here is courtesy of the Litvinenko Inquiry –www.litvinenkoinquiry.org.