Need For Military Secrets Didn't Die With Cold War

Former Director General of MI5 and spy novelist Stella Rimington talks to Mary Louise Kelly about the art of spycraft, and how those arrested on charges of allegedly spying for Russia employed tactics we often see in novels.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

It's true that if you were trying to write a spy thriller, you actually couldnt do much better than this story. It's as if they had a checklist: invisible ink - check; buried stashes of cash - check; sexy Russian agents, fake passports check, check.

Well, for some perspective from someone who actually knows the spy world, we called Stella Rimington. She used to run the British security service MI5. Rimington now writes spy novels, and she, for one, says this episode shouldnt be all that surprising.

Ms. STELLA RIMINGTON (Novelist, Former MI5 Officer): Having been a professional for many years, I know that these things go on and still go on and always will go on. Espionage is forever, really. The big surprise is the size of the group and the - maybe a bit of a surprise was the old-fashioned technology that they were using, but it seems that they were using a mixture of old-fashioned and very modern technology.

KELLY: Yeah. So many of just these great clich�s of espionage, it almost makes you sorry they didnt manage to work in, I dont know, an exploding cigar or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RIMINGTON: Maybe they had that up their sleeve.

KELLY: In this particular case, it seems as though the information they were tasked with gathering was stuff anybody you or I could be reading in the papers.

Ms. RIMINGTON: Well, you say that, but - and it may be true, actually - the days of, you know, seeking sort of military secrets, as what happened in the Cold War, well, they're not over but they've being reinforced. You know, there are many advantages to a country of stealing technological secrets - commercial secrets even, all sorts of things which might enable the country to, you know, get technological advances.

And as I understand these people, they were moving around in circles where you will meet people who know high-tech information or working in that sort of field and who can, without knowing that they're giving information away, will be passing on snippets of information that will be quite useful.

Maybe also they are able to get alongside people who they might be able to kind of talent spot, refer possibly to an intelligence officer for recruitment as a spy in a more traditional sort of way.

KELLY: And there's this whole trend these days of what in the States the CIA would call people working under non-official cover...

Ms. RIMINGTON: Yeah.

KELLY: ...or illegals, as you call them.

Ms. RIMINGTON: That's right, and illegals have been over the years, historically, extremely successful. And illegals have been used all through the Cold War and obviously still are now to do all kinds of tasks and sometimes no task at all. I mean an intelligence service like the Russians might well feel that it's worthwhile even just planting a group of people in a target country just in case they might want to use them.

KELLY: Still, though, I mean, surely the sign of a good spy is that they actually manage to steal secrets. There doesn't appear to be any evidence in this case that's come to light that they did.

Ms. RIMINGTON: No, I think that's probably true, and I don't think that they're being charged with stealing secrets, as I understand it.

KELLY: No.

Ms. RIMINGTON: There was all sorts of other more minor things. So it looks as though there may be no evidence they've actually stolen any secrets. But on the other hand, as I say, that may not be what they were after.

KELLY: Now, you write spy novels, as we mentioned. Would a plot like this, you know, as you're sitting scheming in your study and trying to come up with the next page, is it almost so quaint that you couldn't write it?

Ms. RIMINGTON: No, I think you could certainly write it. My last book does, in fact, include an illegal.

KELLY: And your novel focused on Russians as well, as I recall.

Ms. RIMINGTON: Yes, indeed it did.

KELLY: This is still the spy versus spy world of Washington versus Moscow?

Ms. RIMINGTON: Well, I think it is. The West in inverted comments, as we used to call it, of Washington, Britain perhaps, versus Russia, I mean these are countries well, particularly Russia that has very large intelligence services. It's got a lot of people and it can afford to expend them on tasks that, you know, maybe you and I might think weren't worthwhile, but they would certainly think it's worthwhile.

KELLY: Did we learn anything interesting about FBI tactics from this episode?

Ms. RIMINGTON: Well, I think what we've learned is that the FBI, like other security services, bides its time. I should think the FBI has probably learned more about current Russian intelligence techniques than the Russians have learned about American secrets because they've been watching and listening and observing for a good long time - 10 years, I think. So I would thing that they feel pretty well placed to know how the Russians are currently conducting their operations.

KELLY: Stella Rimington, thanks so much.

Ms. RIMINGTON: Okay. Thank you.

KELLY: That's Stella Rimington. She's the former head of Britain's MI5 and she has now turned her hand to spy fiction. In fact, her latest thriller is out this week. It's called "Deadline."

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