That fictional master spy James Bond, the quintessential male chauvinist intelligence agent, might be found brooding darkly these days at his Pall Mall club. More and more, the espionage specialists who are moving up in the British intelligence services are the Jane Bonds.
Britain's MI-5, the Internal Security Service, and MI-6, its overseas espionage network, are increasingly recruiting women. Recently, MI-5 named Stella Rimington its first female director-general. It was almost as if Miss Moneypenny, executive secretary to James Bond's spymaster boss, "M," had taken over the service.
The Home Office announcement on Rimington was the first public disclosure of the name of an MI-5 chief. Beyond saying that she will take over in February, when the present chief, Sir Patrick Walker, retires, the announcement had little else to say about her--nor was there even a current photo.
Although details are classified, Rimington is said to be only the most visible member of a growing number of female agents--spies, counterspies, and spymasters--in the formerly all-male bastions of British intelligence.
MI-5 is concerned with counterespionage, mainly inside Britain, monitoring the activities of suspected subversives, foreign agents and terrorist groups such as the Irish Republican Army. Its role is comparable to a combination of the FBI and the counterespionage wing of the CIA, and its members are known collectively as "the Spycatchers."
MI-5 is thought to have about 2,000 officers, of whom half are under 30--and of that younger group, about 50% are women.
"Women are extremely good in intelligence jobs," said one diplomat with intelligence connections. "They have all the right talents and are very good at keeping their eye on the ball."
Rupert Allason, a member of Parliament from the Conservative Party who has written authoritative accounts of the British intelligence services under the pen name Nigel West, said: "I am pleased that Mrs. Rimington has been appointed and that it has been done in such a public way. Women have always been good security operatives. While men tend to gossip about their job to impress friends, women gossip about trivia and keep their real secrets."
Certainly, Stella Rimington has kept her secrets. The biographical facts offered by the Home Office are so scarce as to be almost nonexistent.
But other sources indicate that she attended private schools and Edinburgh University. In 1963, she married John Rimington, also a civil servant, and accompanied him to at least one of his overseas postings in India. There, he served as first secretary in the embassy as a commercial attache--and possibly as an intelligence officer.
One of the few published photos of Stella Rimington shows her performing in a British Embassy play in New Delhi in 1967.
Around 1969, she formally became a member of MI-5. She has specialized in anti-terrorist activities and is said to have been an excellent spymaster, putting together a dossier on the leading IRA terrorists.
She rose to director of counterterrorism in the 1980s. Having focused on counterterrorism rather than on the activities of the KGB and other espionage agencies, Rimington is thought to be ideally placed to move MI-5 in a new, post-Cold War direction.