Britain's MI6 seeking female, minority spies

Monday, July 14, 2008

LONDON -- Britain's secret spy agency is hunting for women and minorities to tackle global terrorism.

More than 20,000 people have applied since MI6 began its open recruiting campaign about a year ago, in a drive that has all but replaced the famous shoulder tap used to recruit author Graham Greene and others in World War II.

MI6's Web site encourages mothers to apply and assures women they won't be used as "honey pots," or seductresses. Disabled applicants are welcome. And a special search is directed at minorities who speak Mandarin, Arabic, Persian and the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto.

Could the future James Bond be a woman or a dark-skinned Urdu speaker?

"The key challenge is the terrorist threat," MI6's head of human resources said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Government agencies have to show they're making positive efforts [to diversify] but for us it means much more."

Suicide bombers killed 52 rush-hour commuters in Britain in 2005. A year later, intelligence agents uncovered a plot to allegedly blow up several trans-Atlantic airliners. Last year, two men failed to detonate bombs outside a London nightclub and Scottish airport.

British law enforcement says it is watching more than 21,000 people and 200 plots. Many of the suspected cells have alleged links to extremist networks in Pakistan -- most of Britain's 1.8 million Muslims are of Pakistani origin -- but new threats are emerging in Bangladesh, China, Iran and Somalia.

These days, it takes more than a trench coat to blend in with the changing landscapes.

"There are three strangers in the room that you need to get on your side. How do you get them to warm to you? Could you be an operational officer?" asks one of MI6's ads, which have appeared in British newspapers, travel magazines and The Economist.

The drive comes as Britain prepares for the Equalities Bill, which will allow organizations to give female and ethnic minority candidates preference.

Pola Uddin, the first Muslim woman in the House of Lords, said it's time Bond had a taste of affirmative action.

"We need less sexism and a symbol who doesn't always hold a martini glass," she said.

Applicants are required to be British citizens and at least 21. Salaries start at about $52,000 but senior officers can earn triple-digit sums. Applicants are told to keep the monthslong vetting process secret, but it can involve a battery of personal questions about family relationships, drug use, finances and religion.

The work's importance -- not the pay -- is the main selling point, says MI6's chief recruiter, a former field officer who also spoke on condition of anonymity. But it's still a tough sell for women.

"The perception is still that [the work] is for single men," said the recruiter. "But not all jobs are on the front line. This said, many of the women who join want to be on the front line."

MI6 hires between 250 and 350 recruits a year through the open recruitment process. The organization won't give a total number of personnel but said out of last year's recruits, 40 percent were women and 11 percent were from ethnic minorities. Positions include linguists, operational agents, technology officers, security guards, drivers and receptionists.

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