April 28, 2006

Secret agent blues


I spy? Not today, mate.

I'm afraid I'm being left out in the Canadian cold. Despite my best attempt to infiltrate one of the world's best known cloak and dagger agencies, I have been rejected by English spy masters at MI6.

Though they suggested I'd make a far better CIA operative.

For the first time in their almost 100-year history, Britain's super secretive intelligence service yesterday began an advertising campaign to find the next James and Jane Bond. It includes newspaper ads that boast: "We operate around the world to make this country safer and more prosperous."

Traditionally spy agencies have relied on "taps on the shoulder" to recruit agents -- quietly pulling aside university students to find those willing to go undercover for life.

The effort to fill MI6's mysterious ranks mirrors an effort by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to actively, and publicly, put out a call for fresh new recruits.

In Canada, that has meant CSIS handing out pamphlets in Arabic and Chinese, featuring photos of young ethnic men and women. In fact, an estimated 40% of CSIS personnel are female, though only 8% are visible minorities.

With the Mounties who have filled our spy ranks since 1984 slowly ending their careers -- "once you've had the experiences we've had since 9/11, suddenly (quiet retirement) sounds better than another assignment," one longtime agent recently told me -- CSIS is hunting for a large number of intelligence officers, and watchers, for surveillance work.

While I'm as patriotic as the next guy, CSIS spooks don't get a licence to kill, or even thrill. They don't even typically carry guns or make arrests. What kind of freakin' spy doesn't pack something in the cummerbund of his tux (which, as far as I know, is usually draped over a chair in an expensive hotel room where some female Russian counter-agent is curled up in bed, waiting to make you talk)?

Oh, she can try, my friend. She can try.

So with permission from my wife -- I don't know whether she was really listening as I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror in my boxers, posing, Bond-style, with her hair dryer -- I offered my unique services to MI6.

And not to be an administrator or clerk, which they're also searching for. I want to be an "operational officer."

"The role of the Operational Officer is to plan and execute covert intelligence operations overseas," reads the description of the career on the SIS website -- the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6. "Working in London and abroad, Operational Officers gather the secret intelligence which government needs to promote and defend U.K. national interests. Resilience is important, as is the ability to deliver results under pressure, often in difficult and stressful environments."

Let's compare that with how CSIS describes their agents.

"A career in intelligence is one filled with diversity and the pursuit of knowledge," reads CSIS' own rundown of a job which sounds a lot like it's done with a calculator. "Intelligence Officers conduct investigations, perform research, analyze information and prepare clear and concise reports on matters related to national security."

And for that, they promise $41,500 to $66,810 a year.

But all I want is a car with ejector seats. The pen that blows stuff up. A tracking device in my molar. I want to kick some terrorist butt -- not do his taxes.

Which is why I called MI6 yesterday, where I was one of more than 200 people to try to sign up on the first day of the campaign. Nev Johnson, spokesman for Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office -- which also speaks for MI6 -- took the call on a phone that I can only assume was flashing red.

"I'd like to be a spy please. Is there an oath I can take now? A password? When should I expect my gun?" I asked.

"I'm afraid normally you have to be British or have at least one parent who comes from the U.K," he explained.

"I'm Canadian. That's British-lite. Queen on the money, streets and schools. Except for the way you speak, and that football nonsense, we're really all the same," I continued.

"Well, your Canadian accent would give you a good cover as an operative. No one would think you're British," he allowed.

"Then it's set," I pushed.

"I'm afraid not," Johnson insisted. "Most security agencies will only accept you if you're a citizen of their country. It cuts down on the possibility you're really working for hostile intelligence (interests)."

Seeing a boyhood dream slip away down the Thames, I sighed: "Crap. That leaves CSIS, who aren't hostile to anyone. And I'd be really good at spy stuff. No one would suspect a balding, 40-something father of four ..."

Johnson interrupted, quickly offering me a glimmer of hope: "Oh. It sounds like you'd be more qualified for the CIA."