The film is the latest in a long line of spy thrillers inspired by the covert operations of MI6. With its origins going back to 1909, MI6’s existence was not officially acknowledged until 1994, with the Intelligence Services Act.
Ahead of the film’s release on 13 May we spoke to retired covert action British intelligence officer Nicholas Anderson about the history of espionage. Describing himself as an “institutional killer” while working for MI6, Anderson now lives just south of the French region in which Our Kind of Traitor was filmed…
Q: When, why and by whom was MI6 established?
A: According to its own website, which I quote verbatim: In the early 1900s the British government was increasingly concerned about the threat to its empire posed by Germany’s imperial ambitions. This led to scare stories of German spies and even the director of military operations was convinced that Germany was targeting Britain.
These rumours proved to be overblown, but the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, reacted to popular concern. He ordered the Committee of Imperial Defence to look into the matter and they established a Secret Service Bureau in July 1909.
Q: What types of people were recruited to the original Secret Service Bureau and what did their roles entail?
A: Well this is before my time, please understand! I was born half a century after it was founded. But I would say it needed both office-based administrators and derring-do field operators. The latter would be required to submit both a verbal and written sitrep (situation report) to the people in charge. Nothing beats an eyes-on witness behind enemy lines who can assess what is actually happening out there.
Q: What role did MI6 play in the First and Second World Wars?
A: Its predecessors played an important role in both wars, and other conflict zones then and now. Of course, the outcome from Bletchley Park’s sterling decryption work during the Second World War was pivotal to us being on the winning side.
The registration room in hut 6 at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, 1943. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Q: What role did MI6 play in the Cold War?
A: I would regard myself as a Cold War warrior… but only from 1970 to 1989. MI6’s role was completely integral to the collapse of communism. Actually, I like to say that the Russians and the Americans could not agree to build a bridge, so they dug a hole for all of us. Looking back we British did so much behind the scenes. If we hadn’t succeeded in our objectives it is entirely possible that we would be having this conversation in Russian. And for that matter, if my father and grandfather’s generation hadn’t succeeded [in winning the First and Second World War] I may have grown up speaking German.
Q: Why was the abbreviation ‘MI6’ adopted?
A: It stands for Military Intelligence section six, which focused on foreign intelligence as opposed to domestic. The latter is the domain of the Security Service (MI5).
Q: How has MI6, and espionage more generally, changed over time?
A: Threats and ways of countering them are always evolving. The public never gets to know about most of what goes on.
Q: Who would you say are the most important spies in history?
A: History has a long list of successful and failed spies. Each successful one probably wasn’t known about until much later. Many persons’ names will never be known. When a name is divulged to the public it is usually a part of government propaganda. There are many quiet heroes the public never gets to know about.
Q: Before the age of digital communications, MI6’s work must have involved a ‘paper trail’ – how did the organisation combat this ‘occupational hazard’?
A: I wouldn’t exactly use the word ‘combat’ in this instance – it is much more mundane than that. Many files were put into many filing cabinets, yes. There was a fairly efficient index for cross-referencing in place. I can tell you that much.
Q: Would you say espionage is more or less difficult to conduct in our digital age?
A: Well today it is conducted with modern technology through computers, internet, drones, satellites etc. I believe it is easier than working the hardscrabble streets the old way. However, the latter way provided deeper insights. It must never be discarded, ever. Nothing beats humans face-to-face in gleaning the best information.
The SIS Building, the headquarters of MI6, from across the River Thames, London. (Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Q: How has MI6’s relationship with the CIA changed over time?
A: Hmm. We are supposed to work together. My career started in 1970 and ended in 2008. I did three tours of duty with SIS: 1971–83; 1992–93 and 2003–07, having volunteered for one field trip in 2008. Regrettably it is my opinion that we don’t see eye-to-eye as much as we did. The pond between us has definitely widened.
Q: MI6 releases none of its departmental records to the British National Archives – how, then, are historians and academics to understand the history of espionage in Britain?
A: Well its records are disclosed once it has been declassified. Understand, please, this is only for material that was filed in the first place. Anything verbalised, of course, never was. Select SIS officers’ files are put in a vault for 30 years hold-back on the day they retire. On that 30th year, and presumably one day, it is opened for review. If the content is then deemed alright to disclose to the public then it is declassified or at least certain parts are redacted. If it is deemed ‘unfit’ then it goes back in for an undetermined further period.
Due to the nature of the work I undertook, my file is withheld for 50 years from my last operational task in 2008. So the file will see the light of day in 2058. Of course, I won’t be around then!
Q: How accurately does Our Kind of Traitor depict MI6 dealings?
A: John le Carré (the penname of David Cornwell) was an SIS (MI6) intelligence officer who spoke fluent German. He had previously worked for the Security Service, which is known as MI5. I would say he has based a lot of his novels on his time working for both agencies.
Interestingly, I have been to Pralognan-la-Vanoise in the French Alps a couple of times, where the film production crew were on location. It is a spectacular mountainous area east of the town of Chambery, which has seasonal direct flights from Britain. I now live south of that region on the French Riviera between the city of Nice and the Principality of Monaco, on the beach.
Damian Lewis as Hector in ‘Our Kind of Traitor’. (Studiocanal)
Q: On your website you describe yourself as having been an “institutional killer” while working for MI6. What can you tell us about your work and how you came to be recruited?
A: Most, but not all ‘R’ (for requirements) SIS officers are recruited from five British universities. This would be Oxford, Cambridge, London, Exeter and Durham. However, most but not all ‘P’ (for production) SIS officers are cherry-picked from the British armed forces.
I’m originally from the Fleet Air Arm and was seconded to SIS. We undertook training in Fort Monckton, near Gosport in Hampshire. There we did martial arts and weapons training, including how to use a knife. In my third book, NOC Three Times, I have addressed at length the legal aspects of being an institutional killer. It would be too long to explain here and it will be denied. The British government and its security apparatus’s policy is never to confirm or deny anything.
Q: Espionage – and MI6 in particular – is the subject of countless films, novels and television dramas. Why do you think it continues to fascinate?
A: Probably because its very nature of business is to be secret, so it attracts like flying insects to light! I should take this opportunity to say that the media have a tendency to describe intelligence officers as secret agents. Unfortunately the reality is that agents are individuals not employed by SIS and MI5. Agents are, in fact, outside people the officers (who receive a salary) get information from. It’s a misnomer in the real world of intelligence.
Nicholas Anderson is a retired covert action British intelligence officer and now author of The NOC Trilogy. He lives in the French Riviera. To find out more, click here.
Our Kind of Traitor is released in UK cinemas on 13 May. Click here to find out more or watch the trailer below.