Spy's Eye View
SAN FRANCISCO – Dame Stella Rimington finds the whole idea of a "war on terror" a little puzzling, and when Stella Rimington is confused the intelligence community should pay attention.
With her pastel pink jacket and a demure single strand of pearls, Rimington might look like a typical society matron in Masterpiece Theater, but she's actually the real-life "M." As the first woman to head MI5, Britain's domestic secret service, from 1992-96, she was the direct inspiration for the character Judi Dench plays in the James Bond movies.
"I'd tell Judi Dench to not get too directly involved in the operation," says Rimington, who is promoting her first novel, At Risk, about counterterrorism in a post-9/11 world. "The director general needs to be at home directing things, not captured and sitting in some horrible prison like she was." After three decades in the secret service, Rimington is now retired but keeps up with new threats to global security.
"This era is different because we are dealing with suicide bombers," she says. "When people are willing to lose their lives, it means you cannot rely on there being a limit on any sort of attack they might carry out." But she's not sure the right counter-attack is a "war on terror."
"It gives the impression you will know when you have won it and then there will be no terrorism," she says. "But people will always resort to terrorism because it is so effective in drawing the world's attention."
In her days she had to deal with terrorism, too, but the security landscape was different. A diplomat's wife in New Delhi, bored with thrift sales and amateur dramatics, Rimington wandered into MI5 as a part-time clerk typist and found herself in the middle of the Cold War. When she joined the secret service, women could only hope to be assistants. When she later became the first woman to head MI5 and the first one whose name was publicly announced, her friends and neighbors were stunned.
"All of a sudden the neighbors realized this quiet lady who lived on their street might present a bit of risk, " she laughs. "I remember one neighbor telling me I wish you wouldn't go to work just when I am taking my children to school."
The danger at the time for her and her neighbors came mostly from the threat of IRA attacks. But in the middle of the Cold War the first order of business was espionage. The advantage her generation had, says Rimington, was they knew where their enemy lived. "We knew where the KGB headquarters were, we knew what they were trying to do. Now who knows where the (terrorist) headquarters are."
It's an extremely tough challenge for today's intelligence officers. "The best intelligence comes from human beings, sources deep in the heart of organizations," says Rimington. Today, intelligence services seem to be fishing in the dark for reliable sources, ending up with embarrassing episodes like the faulty warning about a ring of Chinese nationals smuggling a dirty bomb into Massachusetts.
"I was surprised that was made public seemingly before it had been fully investigated," says Rimington. She fears that hasty warnings can backfire, making people paranoid with constant orange alerts.
It also results, says Rimington, in sweeping measures like the now-discontinued special registration in the U.S. of men from mostly Muslim countries after 9/11. "A blanket security measure like that is not a particularly effective tool," she says. "Security needs to be much more related to specific intelligence, not racial analysis."
Although close allies in the war on terror, the U.S. and U.K. don't always see eye to eye. Four British citizens held for years at Guantanamo Bay were released soon after their return to the U.K. for lack of evidence. Rimington says she doesn't know the details of the case, but "on my side of the Atlantic you cannot be arrested and tried unless you can actually be shown to have done something or are planning to do something."
At the same time, Rimington says there's tremendous pressure on the intelligence community post-9/11. No one wants to be the intelligence officer who allows the next suicide bomber to slip through. Some of that pressure, she says, can lead to a breakdown in the critical assessment of intelligence, as "in the war on Iraq where we were all led to believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction."
"In my opinion the purpose of intelligence is to inform governments so they can form their policies, not to help governments justify policies they have already formed," she says, adding that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was not the easiest place to get reliable intelligence.
While the WMDs seem to have been a fiction, the threats in the new world are very real. "But we have to allow people to live with their civil liberties intact," says Rimington. "Otherwise we are really giving in to terrorism by turning our democracies into police states."