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05 October 2018

'M' lands at King's

On Friday 28th September Dame Stella Rimington former Director-General – MI5 now author, visited the School of Security Studies, accompanied by a BBC film crew for a "Life Lecture".

Dame Stella Rimington
Dame Stella Rimington

On Friday 28th September Dame Stella Rimington former Director-General – MI5 visited the School of Security Studies, accompanied by a BBC film crew for a “Life Lecture”.

In 1992 Dame Stella became the first publicly revealed head of MI5 and the first woman to hold this position.  She began her career with MI5 in India where her diplomat husband was posted and joined MI5 in the UK on her return in the late 60s, rising through the previously all male ranks. This was during the fallout from Burgess, Philby and Maclean, the Cambridge spies who had been recruited by Russian Intelligence while at university.

Commenting on the current situation with Russia, Dame Stella stated: “Many of the things now that Russia are doing in cyberspace were many of the things that they did in the 1970s in a much more human way, trying to get people that they could influence into positions of influence in all the democratic institutions of the country”.

Between 1969 and 1990, Dame Stella worked in all three branches of the Security Service: counter espionage, counter subversion, and counter terrorism. In 1979 Dame Stella became an assistant director of the Inter-departmental Group on Subversion in Public Life, to identify and limit the actions of subversives in the civil service.

As Director-General of MI5 between 1992 – 1996 Dame Stella played a pivotal role overseeing counter terrorism in Northern Ireland, Dame Stella commented “what you need in the fight against terrorism are different kinds of people.  You need people who can make fast decisions, calculated risks, people who are not afraid to take decisions on the basis of inadequate information”. Considering this, she also emphasised the importance of oversight of the intelligence agencies.

Asked what was the hardest lesson that she had learnt Dame Stella stated “I learnt we (women) were second class citizens.  The second difficulty was how to go on working when there were no special arrangements made, no family friendly policies when I had two small children.  It was not a 9-5 job.  It was a moral dilemma as a woman and probably the most difficult thing was the question of whether to give it all up or to proceed with my career. I chose the latter”.

Dame Stella emphasised that MI5 are benefitting from the diversity of skills that women bring to run human sources.  Gaining trust is an important element of dealing with human sources: “The advantage of employing women obviously in this kind of work is diversity, men and women do not do things in the same way. If you are going to employ them in this kind of work they are going to do things differently.”

Dame Stella's comments raise the question what does 'diversity' look like in the 21st century in terms of race, gender, sexuality and disability?  How do the Security Services and other institutions at all levels reflect the society that exists today in the quest to counter terrorist threats? 

Dame Stella offered one piece of advice to the audience, “if you are thinking about a career in this area go ahead with it, join one of the intelligence agencies.  You will have a fascinating career.”

The BBC One Show broadcast took place on 11th October 2018 


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