Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 has opened its doors to a popular radio program, part of its bid to recruit the minorities and female officers it says it needs to spy on the country's enemies.
MI6 allowed BBC Radio One — a station aimed mainly at young people — to conduct the first ever interviews inside its London headquarters.
The interviews were tightly policed — the MI6 chief of recruitment was referred to by a fake name, while the reporter's movements inside the building were strictly controlled. The recruiter spoke about Britain's need for a more diverse bunch of spies.
"People who have a different ethnicity can often go places and do things and meet people that those from a white background can't," he said. "There are some places that white males can't go."
MI6 is trying to shed its James Bond-inspired image, something the recruiter said gave others a "a false impression of what working for the organization is actually like.
"It does tend to turn up quite a lot of thrill seekers and fantasists, and we're really not interested in them," he said.
MI6 recently advertised for Somali speakers and parts of the weeklong program featured by the BBC seemed aimed at recruiting from Britain's large Muslim community. One Muslim agent emphasized that her work and her faith were completely in tune.
"The way I feel is my duty to God is totally compatible with my duty to my country," she said. "I feel very, very strongly that if you are able to do something to make a difference you should make that difference."
MI5, the spy agency's domestic counterpart, is also trying to enlist more recruits from minority backgrounds as it expands its staff from 3,000 people to 4,000.
MI5 agents from minority backgrounds spoke to the BBC's Asian Network in interviews broadcast Monday, saying their work helped defend — not betray — their communities.
"I think you realize this isn't about spying on your own community, or letting your own community down," one agent told the BBC.
Both agencies and police have faced criticism from Muslim communities that they are unfairly targeted during inquiries into terrorism. Police have been accused of using heavy-handed tactics and acting on flimsy intelligence to detain Muslim suspects.
Minorities make up only 6.5 percent of the staff of MI5. The service — which has had two female chiefs since 1992 — is also struggling to attract female agents.
Women comprise 43 percent of MI5, down from 51 percent in the 1990s.
"Ideally we'd like to be back at 50/50 again," a government security official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the work.
The official said MI5 needed people of all backgrounds, particularly for surveillance duties — when agents must blend in with the community.
Source: AP (English)