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A Former British Spy Tells Us What It’s Really Like Working For MI6

A Former British Spy Tells Us What It’s Really Like Working For MI6

​It’s more like James Bond than you’d think.

Shortlist has done an excellent interview with a former MI6 spy. (MI6 being British foreign intelligence).

And some of it could be more akin to the fictional world of James Bond than you might think.

Nicholas Anderson had a stellar career in espionage, spanning over 40 years and including many years working for the secret services during the Cold War.

He retired in 1983, before being recalled in 1992 and then again in 2003. He knows his stuff.

He's now an author living in the south of France. Here's what he had to say.


So it appears there are a set number of skills that make you an excellent spy. Williams quotes from one of his books and explains that successful spies are people who can see the larger picture and are also lateral thinkers, as well as someone you can depend on.

"I will quote myself from a piece in one of my books. What SIS [Secret Intelligence Service] sought to fast-forward in a prospective covert action operator is a person that ticks all of the select boxes of the following (in no particular order), and more: Macro thinker (as opposed to micro). Innovative. Juxtapositional. Multi-cultured. Pioneering. Crosses borders. Out of the box. Original. No copycats. Dependable under pressure. Recognises that if you dance with the devil, you may have to factor the fiddler."

What a final metaphor that is! He also explained that he'd add being multi-lingual to that list, and that he can speak nine languages himself.

Credit: United Artists


So do you get gadgets or not? Apparently you do. His favourite gadget sounds like something Q himself (Desmond Llewelyn or Ben Whishaw), would be proud of.

"Many. There's a location just outside North London that looks like a garage from the outside that works on these things. The best one I ever handled that they invented had no name given to it. So I coined it A Thinking Operational Mine, an ATOM. It was originally meant to be a listening post - about the size of a toiletry bag - that could send messages along a chain of other ATOMs, say, placed in a desert and covered lightly with sand. But it could become a revolving machine gun, when needed."

A listening post that can be made into a machine gun! WTF!

He also speaks about a robotic spider that could climb walls and basically worked as a live camera.

Credit: United Artists


According to Anderson, any such activity would be coordinated between Britain and the other intelligence service. He also believes that there's a lot of back-scratching that goes on between nations, too:

"... It is known that we Brits do the Americans' dirty work for them, and vice-versa. I wouldn't be at all surprised [if] the Russians came in and did a number on behalf of the British, really I wouldn't. It is very rare but it has been known to happen, to work in conjunction in order to repay some deed in the past, so we have been known to work with our perceived enemy. Then we went in afterwards and cleaned it up."

Brits doing the dirty work for America? Who would have guessed?

Credit: United Artists


Although not giving the specifics, Anderson does admit that he has killed people as part of his job, but always in self-defence. In an earlier question he also pondered why everyone thinks the method of killing is a gun. Here's what he had to say:

"Certainly in almost 20 years in the field abroad I am not innocent of that charge and did so in self-defence, but to enquire the numbers and preferences would make me out to be a bit of a sicko. I'm not. We were following orders."

Not sure I like that last sentence too much. I've heard that one before. But it is amazing that (certainly during the height of the Cold War), he claims state killings seemed something of the norm.

For even more details into the world of espionage from Anderson's perspective, as well as his opinions on the murder of British spy Gareth Williams, please read it in full in Shortlist. It's a compelling interview.

And to find out more about Nicholas and his books, click here.

And, finally, if you fancy working for MI6, here are some positions available. Remember, though, that the Cold War is over and you may just be checking data on a computer.

Featured image: United Artists

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