Why I...miss the mystery of the old way of recruiting spies

July 8, 2005

The revelation that the quiet American studying at a university near you might be a trainee spy brought cries of consternation from British anthropologists a few weeks ago ( Times Higher , "CIA outrages UK academics by planting spies in classroom", June 3).

The Central Intelligence Agency has a programme, Prisp, that sponsors intelligence recruits to attend university. Since anthropology courses in Britain often attract US students, our dons fear that some could be CIA agents in the making. Quite reasonably, they worry that anthropologists working in the field - not least in the Middle East and/ or countries with large Muslim populations - could be put at risk by the link.

Well, more at risk than they are currently.

Some of the cloak-and-dagger aspect of this story rather dissipated when I discovered I could find out quite a bit about Prisp (Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, in case you wanted to know) from the helpful CIA website. It is a two-year pilot programme that started last year. The CIA recruits 150 Prisp students a year. Its "intelligence community" recruits get $25,000 (£14,000) a year. That could come in handy for a postgraduate course in social anthropology at the London School of Economics (£11,958 next year for overseas students), though not for an MBA at London Business School (fees next year: £41,970).

Likewise, if any British degree finalists find the idea of a Marks & Spencer or KPMG graduate-trainee scheme somewhat lacking in danger, they can just google MI5. It's pretty easy to find your way to jobs for graduate entrants. All is transparent and over-the-counter. Rather disappointing, really. Where is the Smiley-esque intrigue in filling out an application form? (Just don't mention it outside the immediate family.) In case something involving foreign travel is more your thing, MI5 (the Security Service) kindly passes you on to a Mr A. D. Horne at MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service), who can be contacted at PO Box 1300, London SE1 1BD. I went to school with someone called David Horn(e) (not sure if he had an "e"), and wonder if he now passes his time at PO Box 1300, somewhere in Southwark.

Searching for MI6 on the web takes a bit longer: you have to jump over a few James Bond hurdles before arriving at, predictably, a rather attenuated bit of the Foreign Office website (they have never been that comfortable with the secret side of things).

While laudable, I can't help feeling this official openness is a shame - you can even take part in live careers chats with an MI5 "service representative" on Prospects, the UK graduate careers website. It takes away the le Carre world of shadowy doorways and demi-monde liaisons, and replaces it with stuff about job descriptions and career structures.

I'm sure that isn't what Graham Greene was after when he went "a little bizarre" during his days as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, and volunteered himself as a propagandist-cum-agent for the Germans in their occupied zones in the 1920s. When he wasn't studying history (an infrequent activity) or drinking (somewhat the opposite), Greene found his days "filled by Germans". He went to Germany intent on clandestine work, but a change in political fortunes meant his services were no longer required - for the Germans, at any rate, as he later worked for British Intelligence.

For those not quite as forward as Greene, the well-worn route into espionage was usually through an Oxbridge tutor, who was often an informal talentspotter for British Intelligence, or its Soviet counterpart, for that matter. Now, however, the days of dons quietly asking promising undergraduates if they would like to do something interesting for the Government after their degrees seem to have gone. But, then, how would I know?

Stephen Court
Senior research officer
Association of University Teachers. He writes in a personal capacity.

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