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Addressing Security in a More Complex World


Dame Stella Rimington had a rather auspicious start in the intriguing world of espionage.

Rimington was living in India in the late 1960s where her husband has been assigned a position for the British High Commission. She was, in her words, a “diplomat’s wife” until “one day, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘psst, want to be a spy,´ or something like that.”

That “someone” turned out to be the representative in India of the British Security Service known as MI5.

Rimington, whose background was as a historical archivist, would join the service officially as a typist—she didn´t know how to type—and go on to become the first female director general of MI5, a position she held from 1992 to 1996 in a career that spanned 27 years. The announcement of her appointment would be the first time the director general was made public in Britain.

Rimington shared her story Wednesday during the keynote presentation at ibtm world in Barcelona.

“What connects the security world to the world of travel?” she said. “Your job is to make sure that people can travel comfortably and our job was to make sure you could travel safely.”

In today´s complex world, the job of security is much more challenging, she said, a fact the meeting and event industry has certainly come to learn, so much so that safety and security is the top issue for meeting professionals.

The U.S. industry is still reeling from the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history after a gunman opened fire on a crowd at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in October, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500.

Last August in Barcelona, a terrorist drove a van into pedestrians on the famed La Rambla in the heart of the city, killing 13 and injuring at least 130, one of whom later died.

Rimington explained how the traditional methods of intelligence gathering—intercepting communications, surveillance and people—can, at times, be ineffective against today´s terrorist.

“How do you know about the guy in a bedroom,” she said. “He´s been radicalized by what he reads on the internet. There is no way that intelligence services can get to that. I´m afraid it will go on. The nature of this is all very different.”

Asked who she sees as the greater threat today, the Russia or Islamic terrorists, she responded by saying she is not afraid of the Russia. “I think they will try to stir things up a bit. (The Russia) is still keen on destabilizing the West to protect itself. The biggest fear will be Islamic terrorism.”

Rimington, who has authored seven novels and an autobiography, took a standing room audience on a journey through her career. After returning to London from India in 1969, she decided to apply for a permanent position at MI5. At the time, women were relegated to mostly secretarial roles. 

“I was a bit disappointed by the culture of the organization,” she said. “It was very biased and incestuous.”

But by the 1970s, she said the women´s revolution in Britain gained momentum and she was the first woman selected to “go into the course,” or training in intelligence gathering and espionage. She would advance through MI5, experiencing the height and end of the Cold War, the political and terrorist upheaval in Northern Ireland and the challenges with forging friendships and working relationships with former adversaries from Eastern European countries. Except for the Soviet Union, now Russia.

She recalled several meetings with Soviet KGB agents and “it was clear they had no intention of running their operation like a democracy,” she said. “It was like we were animals and they were looking at their food.”

When she was publicly announced as the director general, she endured scathing coverage from the British press, especially the tabloids.

She remembers the headlines: “Housewife Super Spy”; “Mother of Two Gets Tough with Terrorists.” She joked about one article in particular, with the headline “British Woman in Public Life: Why do They Look So Much Worse than the French,” and a photo of “rather beautiful French woman.”

“They always took photos of me on Saturday morning as I came home from grocery shopping, and you all know what we look like on a Saturday morning,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience.

While she could not keep her image out of the newspapers, she was adamant about opening up to the public as much as possible about the secretive MI5´s work and believed it was important to gain the public trust.

She was asked if she succeed because she able to become “one of the boys.” “No, I was a woman and we don´t need to be one of the boys,” she said. “Women just need to be confident of who they are.”

The character M, played by actress Dame Judi Dench, in the recent James Bond movie series was based to a degree on Rimington. She was very disappointed when the character was killed off in one of the movies.

As far as which actor is her favorite Bond, “I´m waiting for a woman.”

About the Author

Rich Luna

Rich Luna is director of publishing for MPI and editor in chief of The Meeting Professional.