By Lord Peter Hennessy

08 Dec 2014

Peter Hennessy interviews former MI5 chief Eliza Manningham-Buller about the three decades she spent tackling the Soviet threat, the IRA and Islamist terrorism

When in the mid-1970s the young Eliza Manningham-Buller was recruited to MI5 – the Security Service, which she’d lead between 2002 and 2007 – the selection processes were as mysterious and secretive as counter-intelligence itself. “I didn’t really know I was being drawn into it,” she explains.

“I was looking for a job and I met somebody at a drinks party – rather shaming! – who said: ‘Why don’t you go and see somebody in Room 055 at the Ministry of Defence?’ And I can’t remember what the term was – a wonderful euphemism. I think it was an ‘independent branch of the Ministry of Defence’, some slightly sort of weird formulation. 

“I don’t recall any tests; any means of checking whether I was competent or capable or literate or anything. And I joined only half realising what I was joining, partly out of curiosity. There was a good deal not said until you were inside.”

A few years later the then-prime minister, Jim Callaghan, invited the former head of the civil service, Lord Croham, to review MI5 recruitment. He recommended that candidates for intelligence officer posts should undergo the same selection process as fast streamers – and that “was extremely good in altering the range and breadth of recruits to the service,” says the cross-bench peer. “Women, up to that stage, were sort of second-class citizens.”

When she joined MI5, “men were in all the dominant posts.” What’s more, “there were a number of jobs that women were not allowed to do. It was not thought acceptable for women to put themselves in any danger. And it was assumed without question that women weren’t suitable to do various jobs, like seeking to recruit a source agent, because what self-respecting Palestinian terrorist, Irish terrorist, Russian intelligence officer, would consider being recruited by a woman? 

“This failed, of course, to take into account that half the world are women; and, secondly, failed to take into account that certainly in some cases – like the Russians – they weren’t able to see you coming. So that was complete nonsense; but it changed.”

“What surprised you most when you joined?”

“The intrusiveness. The fact that – this will sound so naïve – telephones and mail were intercepted. And also, although there was no legislation governing this, the care and thoroughness of the way it was done. It wasn’t: ‘Oh, let’s do this…’ It was a pretty rigorous procedure in applying for a Home Office warrant. The hoops you had to go through, the arguments you had to make. And it wasn’t something you did lightly.”

“What was the relationship like between MI5 and the rest of the civil service?”

“There hardly was one! There was obviously a relationship with the Home Office and bits of the Northern Ireland Office. But that would change: the service began to have much closer links to all sorts of other departments, recognising that to achieve success in a small organisation, you needed to work closely with others.”

MI5’s tasking was powerfully shaped by the Soviet threat during Baroness Manningham-Buller’s first 15 years of service. How would she explain that threat to today’s young people?

“You had a substantial, heavily-armed enemy who, under the Communist ideology, wished to spread Communism throughout the world, and was using a whole variety of covert methods to achieve that... It was a very real fear which dominated us – probably for longer than it should have, because the thing was hollow at heart. But for many, many years, it was a pretty worrying threat.”

One of Lady Manningham-Buller’s jobs in the early post-Cold War years was to lead MI5’s work on the Provisional IRA in mainland Britain; in 1992 the Metropolitan Police Special Branch had reluctantly handed over this task. Was it intelligence successes against PIRA that made the terrorists realise they couldn’t win, prompting the first peace feelers?

“I don’t think it was just that; I wouldn’t wish to claim that for my profession. I think that the Provisionals did not believe they had lost, but I think they came to the view that, for a range of reasons – economic, political, [the 1985] Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the intelligence – the route to the ballot box was going to be for them. 

“Intelligence played a role. The economic improvement of Northern Ireland, the Republic and the EU played a role. And I think the decision of the [British] government to engage politically was also very important. I don’t think much is solved by intelligence alone. 

“It was also quite brave for [Martin] McGuinness and [Gerry] Adams to move as they did, and that’s what people in this country are often reluctant to acknowledge. And all credit to Mrs Thatcher for the Anglo-Irish Agreement, John Major for the work he did, and Tony Blair – who worked to the point of exhaustion and beyond any degree of reasonable patience to get to where we got to.”

Before moving to the third of the threats that shaped her service – jihadi-related terrorism – I ask Lady Manningham-Buller if there are particular skills required for the successful running of agents.

“An ability to feel empathy; to see yourself in the position they’re in. They’re risking their lives in many cases to cooperate with you. I think that you have to make a relationship with them. You have to be their friend, but an objective friend. And you have to understand and listen to what worries them and also, of course, listen to what they don’t tell you. And all the time you are judging them. Am I being told the truth? Am I being misled?”

Was MI5 surprised by the rise of jihadi-related terrorism in the early 21st century – not least from young people who’d grown up here?

“Not really… We warned the government… well before 7/7 [that] we had a problem with some young British men,” she replies. “And part of that was the decision to go to Iraq. Undoubtedly, undoubtedly.”

“The decision to take part in the Iraq War fuelled it?”

“Yes, fuelled it. But to put it another way round… a small number have accepted the narrative that the West is trying to kill Muslims”.

The 7 July 2005 must have been an extraordinary day?

“Well, yes and no. I wouldn’t call it extraordinary, because we’d dealt with these horrors before – Lockerbie, Birmingham pub bombings, all sorts of things. And we trained for it and we planned for it, so everybody knew what to do. I went straight to Cobra. The prime minister was at Gleneagles and the service, with the police, did what it was trained to do. 

“To begin with, of course, we didn’t know that all the terrorists had been killed – till the forensics came back, and it was clear these were suicide bombers. So to begin with we were looking for the rest of the team. The emotion of the day, the horror of the day, only hit me when I got home and started to think about the human tragedy and the human cost.”

Given the current political sensitivities and ongoing inquiries about what Lady Manningham-Buller describes as an “arms race” in communications technologies, she’s reluctant to go into detail on the topic. But does she agree that in an open society, the state always has to be a reluctant intruder?

“I think the state still wants to be a reluctant intruder… It only wants to focus on the people who wish us serious harm.”

Looking back over her three decades-plus of secret service countering that remarkable array of threats, what strikes her?

“I think the privilege of working with people who are absolutely committed to a common purpose – people who weren’t in it for self-advancement or publicity, or recognition in the eyes of the world, but to protect their fellow citizens. And it was also quite a lot of fun!”

You really believe in Crown Service, don’t you?

“Mmm,” she replies. “I do.” 


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