The secrecy of being in MI6 is tough - but life gets harder once you leave

Harry Ferguson
Former spy Harry Ferguson says Rory Stewart has done better than most former intelligence officers - Andrew Crowley

If the rumours that swelled this week are to be believed – that Rory Stewart followed in his father’s footsteps by joining MI6 – then he has done the decent thing. Although life as a spy may have brought opportunities his way, he has kept quiet about his alleged incognito career, and tried to build a new life: just what former Secret Intelligence Service recruits are supposed to do. When we leave, we even sign documents stating that we will not make use of our previous employment. But not all of us achieve that.

I was recruited at Oxford University during the Cold War, which felt like something out of a John le Carré novel. My tutor asked me one day whether I had “ever thought of working for your country” – not understanding quite what he was referring to, I said yes, after which followed a letter in my pigeonhole (from an anonymous government department) asking me to London for an interview.

I would go on to work an intelligence analyst and operational officer, a period that included time undercover among heroin smuggling gangs, and looking into the trafficking of terrorist weapons.

But what do you do once your spy career ends? Some seek out politics: Paddy Ashdown, Daphne Park and Meta Ramsay – who served as MPs for different parties – were all in the SIS. Contrary to popular belief, they show what a range of political views are held by officers, a bill Stewart fits too, having admitted to voting both Labour and Conservative in the past.

Some choose to work for think tanks such as the Royal United Services Institute, or work in academia – but they all tend to be outed as former spies sooner or later.

Yet no matter what career we follow, it is hard for former spies, who may have many years invested in developing their espionage skills, to make their way in a new career without revealing their past. For instance, when I left SIS, I joined the National Investigation Service. SIS wanted me to keep my past a secret and I was happy to do that. Unfortunately, on my very first day in my new job, I was assigned to a team that worked closely with MI5 and included a former SAS NCO with whom I had worked undercover only the year before – my story that I had been a simple diplomat at the FCO lasted about five minutes. 

Then there are those who appear in the media such as Richard Barratt, the former head of counter terrorism at SIS. In 2004, after writing several books in which I was allowed to refer to my SIS background, I was selected to appear in the BBC TV series Spy. This appearance was permitted only after considerable negotiation. The show was distributed to 129 countries and I have lectured and made media appearances all over the world – from demonstrating how to kill a man with a ballpoint pen on Japanese television to supervising a televised break-in at a modern art museum in Belgium. In 2008, I appeared on the BBC Radio show Saturday Live to talk to Clare Balding about life as a spy.

Stewart was accused of being a former spy

My SIS liaison officer thought that this might help to boost recruitment. What we did not know was that the show was broadcast on the same day as an important SIS dinner. ‘C’ spent much of the evening being asked by elderly retired officers why they could not also appear on the BBC with Clare Balding? Not knowing that this was an authorised interview, he ordered that I should be prosecuted. Fortunately that order was rescinded, but it shows just how confused the situation can be.

Former Chiefs and Deputies of SIS tend to be the worst of us when it comes to using their intelligence backgrounds. Sir Richard Dearlove, who was ‘C’ of SIS between 1999 and 2004, has felt free to issue statements on a range of political issues from Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn’s loyalties; others, meanwhile, may lead a quieter life, but they still make a great deal of money from their SIS experience.

Former Chief Colin McColl (who held the post from 1988-94) was non-executive chairman of Securisys Group, while John Sawers, who served in the role from 2009-14 went to BP. John Scarlett – ‘C’ between 2004-09 (the era of the ‘dodgy dossier’ that paved the way for the Iraq War) – formed a company called SC Strategy together with Alex Carlile, the former Parliamentary reviewer of terrorism legislation, which offers “strategic advice on UK policy and regulation.” It is hard to imagine that all these senior officers earn executive salaries without making use of their vast wealth of SIS contacts and experience.

Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a John le Carré adaptation similar to the real process of being recruited by SIS, Ferguson says Credit: Jack English

Some former officers set up their own private security companies. In 1995, Mike Reynolds and Christopher James set up Hakluyt. The company then hit the headlines amid allegations that it was spying on environmental groups for the oil industry. Barrie Gane, a former director of the Service who almost became Chief, joined Group 4 and later established Threat Response International.

The most notable recent example is Christopher Steele. He set up Orbis Business Intelligence together with fellow SIS retiree Christopher Burrows. Steele used his experience and contacts to put together the infamous dossier on Donald Trump. 

If he was an SIS officer, Rory Stewart will have been trained in how to persuade and manipulate his enemies. Whether his espionage skills will enable him to become Prime Minister remains – beyond this leadership contest, anyway – to be seen. But at least he has tried to keep his SIS past in the shadows. He is doing better than many of us.

Harry Ferguson is a former SIS officer. He has written four books: Kilo 17, Lima 3, Spy and Operation Kronstadt. He now works in the private intelligence industry.