Have You Got What It Takes To Be A Real Spy?

loaded spoke to a former MI6 operative to find out.

Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr No
Dr No Sean Connery as James Bond in the first 007 movie. Image Picture Eon/MGM

The world of TV and film is awash with espionage thrillers featuring spies in all kinds of high speed, high octane situations.

It all sounds exciting enough, but what about the reality? Could you hack it as a real spy? loaded spoke to real life former MI6 Intelligence Officer Nicholas Anderson (not his real name obviously) to find out.

loaded: What are the five most important qualities someone wanting to be a spy must have?

Nicholas: Scott Fitzgerald, the famous writer, said: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence officer is the ability to hold two-opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’  But to my mind five ideal qualities would be: 

  1. Macro Thinker
  2. Out of the box
  3. No copycats
  4. Dependable under pressure
  5. Have foresight

loaded: Does MI6 ever approach people they think might be suitable for the role of spy?

Nicholas: Yes. I was a Fleet Air Arm helicopter pilot in SAR (search and rescue) stationed in Scotland and was selected to go to London to meet the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), only I didn’t know it at the time. The large majority of the ‘Bond characters’ that end up working in field ops are actually recruited from the armed forces, the Royal Navy more so than the British Army or RAF.

The Royal Marines are a part of the navy, just like the Fleet Air Arm. They are called P officers for production. The R officers for requirements, working inside, are usually spotted by academic dons at five universities, those being Oxford, Cambridge, London, Durham and Exeter. But of course not always.

James Bond jetpack Thunderball
Lift off! Sean Connery with the Thunderball jetpack. Image MGM/United Artists/Eon

loaded: Say if someone has an interview coming up with MI6 – how can they best prepare for it?

Nicholas:Be who you are. The moment you project somebody that you aren’t the vetters will know – they are particularly good at spotting it. It’s no different to any other job interview. The only difference is in the name of work – you could die one day for your country! Oh, and being fluent in a foreign language goes a long way to helping your cause. The whole idea is not to be a risk to the UK’s Official Secrets Act that you will be required to sign.

loaded: What’s the worst possible thing you can say in an interview with MI6?

Nicholas:Same with any interview! Remember to smile and make eye contact. Try not to shift uncomfortably in your seat, sweat, fidget or have a visible bad twitch. Worse than that though is to respond in the third person about yourself. And worse still is to rant on about politics or the Prime Minister.”

loaded: Can you give an example of the kinds of tricky questions a candidate might face in one of these interviews?

Nicholas: Well its called psychogramming actually, half psychology, half programming. The main one I liked to use when questioning others, who were normally from the special forces, was this: ‘We must guard even our enemies against injustice. How do you interpret that?’ And you learn the why, the what and the who about a person from their answers. 

For me it’s okay to lose here and there, but not to get beaten by yourself from the onset. MI6 doesn’t want those kinds of losers. You should know though that before you get in there they’ve already done some deep vetting on your background, including your family, your education, your political beliefs, etc., so if you deviate widely from anything they’ve already learnt about you, you are in deep shit.

So always stick to the truth. And if you don’t know an answer, say you don’t know the answer, rather than prattle yourself into a deep hole you can’t dig yourself out of.

James Bond gun barrel sequence
Bond. James Bond. 007's gun barrel sequence. Image MGM/Eon

loaded: What sort of personality traits/habits would result in immediate rejection from this kind of role? i.e. social activities, drinking etc.

Nicholas: The usual no-no’s, like for example, that you are sexual deviant, you get smashed on booze every night, like taking some dope once in a while… And don’t remark on the questioning party’s dress-code or hair. Use common sense obviously. Erasing the coffee stain on the CV would help a lot, too.

loaded: Can you recall any of the worst candidates you have seen for these kinds of roles? What made them so bad?

Nicholas: Well, please remember, I got through grammar school, university abroad, passed out from Dartmouth’s Royal Britannic naval college for officer training, and soon after was selected for six months on IONEC (intelligence officers new entry course), among other fast-track courses…and still somehow some idiots squeak through to become intelligence officers.

There were many different kinds, too, so to answer your question, I’ll refer back to the special forces answering my favourite psychogramming question (see above) and one lad wrongly responded, ‘I’d kill the fucker, no problem. Pump him full of lead.’ This sort of hothead gets us all killed. The Geneva Conventions is there for a reason and we have to observe the rules even if the other side doesn’t.

Nicholas Anderson served nearly 20 years in field operations for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). He is the author of three best-selling books under The NOC Trilogy. A fourth manuscript will be completed in 2018. A TV miniseries based on his life is currently under development. http://nicholasanderson.info

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