Harry Ferguson

Harry Ferguson

Harry Ferguson has been spending the week playing the new Cars 2 Video Game with his children, where you can race as an international spy.

But as Harry was an international spy himself for MI6, we had the opportunity to get the lowdown on life as a real-life British agent

- How did you find yourself working for MI6?

I was at Oxford University in the 1980s and one of my tutors was also a talent spotter for MI6. One summer day towards the end of my course he asked if I would like to 'engage in secret work overseas for my country.'

In those days I didn’t know anything about secret service work, I didn’t even know the difference between MI5 and MI6, but I said ok and shortly afterwards a plain brown envelope from an anonymous government department arrived at my flat inviting me to an interview.

About a week later one of my other tutors asked me the same question - it turned out that he was a talent spotter for MI5.

Today people are still recruited directly into the secret service at university by talent spotters, but people of any age can also apply directly through the MI5 and MI6 websites.

- Can you talk me through the training programme that you went through?

The basic work of an MI6 officer is to persuade other people to betray their country and work for the UK.

So most of the training is about strategy, psychology and manipulating people. There were lots of exercises based around persuading others to work for you. Sometimes the subjects were former spies themselves - that can be quite a buzz.

You also have to learn how to work under cover, which means pretending to be someone else 24/7. Throughout your training you maintain a number of covers and use these on the exercises just as you would when working for real.

Stella Rimington, who was Director General of MI5, once said that learning to be a spy is a bit like learning to be an actor - she was right. 

- Without giving too much away of course can you describe what your job entailed?

There are three kinds of work. First there are travelling officers. They fly to wherever there is a lead - it might be about a wanted terrorist, it might be about someone who might sell information, it might be a new nuclear facility where we want to recruit a spy. The travelling officer’s job is to get there, find out what it happening and get the information - fast.

These officers may have five or six different covers running at any one time. They just select whichever is most appropriate for the job, grab a passport and go.

The second type of officer is based for several years in a foreign country. This is known as being on a 'station'.

This used to be under diplomatic cover such as working in an embassy, but today all sorts of other covers are used. The officer will have only this one cover and much of the time will be spent in the cover job so that people don’t realise your real purpose. MI6 has forty or so stations around the world.

Both of these kinds of 'field officer' require a lot of backup - planning, logistics, research - so the third kind of officer is based in the UK at places like Vauxhall Cross in London.

Some officers only ever work behind a desk, some other officers never do. It all depends on where your skills lie.

- Is the job as exciting as it sounds?

The thrill of working for a secret organization soon wears off and much of the job becomes routine. There is danger, but it is rare.

- We see these organisations depicted in programmes such as Spooks and you have got the likes of James Bond and so on so how close are they to the real deal?

James Bond is a little better than Spooks because Ian Fleming, who wrote the books, actually worked for Naval Intelligence. But that was during the Second World War so he tends to emphasise the sort of danger and excitement which doesn’t normally occur.

The most accurate representations of real spying are the books of John Le Carré. He actually worked for MI6 and knows what the job is really like.

- How much did your family know about your work?

You are allowed to tell your wife. After all, when you work abroad there may be times when she has to cover for you. Some people tell their parents as well.

I did because my dad used to be a policeman so he understood the sort of work I was doing. But no matter who you tell, you never discuss operations. Ever.

- So why did you leave that career behind and how much do you miss it?

One of the main reasons was my wife has a very active career of her own and she didn’t want to be dragged all over the world.

- And what do you think about your career when you look back on it now?

It was fun while it lasted and the work can be really important.

- You have now published a series of books so how did you find the transition from secret agent to author?

The scariest thing of all has been working on television. I made the ten-part series 'Spy' for the BBC in 2004 and that has been broadcast all over the world. Even today I work overseas because of it. It feels really strange to give a lecture abroad and tell a load of foreigners that I was a British spy when I spent my whole career trying to avoid it.

Of course your books, such as Operation Kronstadt, are about MI6 and mission that they undertook so how easy is it to write a novel such as that - what sort of restrictions are in place?

I wrote Operation Kronstadt because people kept asking me what a real MI6 mission is actually like. Obviously I couldn’t talk about my own work because that is, as I have said, strictly forbidden. So I searched through the archives until I found the papers about Kronstadt.

Not only was it one of the most exciting missions MI6 has ever conducted, but I discovered that one of the officers had kept a diary throughout the entire mission. I found it just lying forgotten in a box of papers in a London museum.

It was like discovering buried treasure. I was constantly afraid that someone else would find the diary and tell the story before I could finish the book.

- You are currently helping promote Cars 2: the Video Game so what would be your top driving and racing tips to the hopeful Cars 2 secret agents training at C.H.R.O.M.E?

There is an important principle that MI6 agents are taught which you should use in Cars 2: be aggressive!

The game is so fast that you have to be as competitive as you can, right from the start line. I play Cars 2: the Video Game with all my teenage children and win every time. (Just don’t ask them about it..).

- Finally what coming up for you next?

I am in the middle of writing my first spy thriller. It’s called False Flag and is based on a mystery that occurred whilst I was working at MI6. It should be out next year.
 
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw

Harry Ferguson has been spending the week playing the new Cars 2 Video Game with his children, where you can race as an international spy.

But as Harry was an international spy himself for MI6, we had the opportunity to get the lowdown on life as a real-life British agent

- How did you find yourself working for MI6?

I was at Oxford University in the 1980s and one of my tutors was also a talent spotter for MI6. One summer day towards the end of my course he asked if I would like to 'engage in secret work overseas for my country.'

In those days I didn’t know anything about secret service work, I didn’t even know the difference between MI5 and MI6, but I said ok and shortly afterwards a plain brown envelope from an anonymous government department arrived at my flat inviting me to an interview.

About a week later one of my other tutors asked me the same question - it turned out that he was a talent spotter for MI5.

Today people are still recruited directly into the secret service at university by talent spotters, but people of any age can also apply directly through the MI5 and MI6 websites.

- Can you talk me through the training programme that you went through?

The basic work of an MI6 officer is to persuade other people to betray their country and work for the UK.

So most of the training is about strategy, psychology and manipulating people. There were lots of exercises based around persuading others to work for you. Sometimes the subjects were former spies themselves - that can be quite a buzz.

You also have to learn how to work under cover, which means pretending to be someone else 24/7. Throughout your training you maintain a number of covers and use these on the exercises just as you would when working for real.

Stella Rimington, who was Director General of MI5, once said that learning to be a spy is a bit like learning to be an actor - she was right. 

- Without giving too much away of course can you describe what your job entailed?

There are three kinds of work. First there are travelling officers. They fly to wherever there is a lead - it might be about a wanted terrorist, it might be about someone who might sell information, it might be a new nuclear facility where we want to recruit a spy. The travelling officer’s job is to get there, find out what it happening and get the information - fast.

These officers may have five or six different covers running at any one time. They just select whichever is most appropriate for the job, grab a passport and go.

The second type of officer is based for several years in a foreign country. This is known as being on a 'station'.

This used to be under diplomatic cover such as working in an embassy, but today all sorts of other covers are used. The officer will have only this one cover and much of the time will be spent in the cover job so that people don’t realise your real purpose. MI6 has forty or so stations around the world.

Both of these kinds of 'field officer' require a lot of backup - planning, logistics, research - so the third kind of officer is based in the UK at places like Vauxhall Cross in London.

Some officers only ever work behind a desk, some other officers never do. It all depends on where your skills lie.

- Is the job as exciting as it sounds?

The thrill of working for a secret organization soon wears off and much of the job becomes routine. There is danger, but it is rare.

- We see these organisations depicted in programmes such as Spooks and you have got the likes of James Bond and so on so how close are they to the real deal?

James Bond is a little better than Spooks because Ian Fleming, who wrote the books, actually worked for Naval Intelligence. But that was during the Second World War so he tends to emphasise the sort of danger and excitement which doesn’t normally occur.

The most accurate representations of real spying are the books of John Le Carré. He actually worked for MI6 and knows what the job is really like.


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