Over the past 50 years, James Bond has become as much of a British institution as the royal family, fish and chip shops and mindless soccer hooliganism. In fact, with the release of Spectre earlier this week, Bond has now gone on 24 missions for Her Majesty's Secret Service.
However, although Bond has now become the iconic and quintessential secret agent, the real work of an MI6 operative couldn't be further from the booze swilling, lady fondling and car crashing antics he gets up to on the big screen. Here are 7 major differences between Bond and a real MI6 secret agents.
1. The Name
First of all, technically speaking, James Bond doesn't work for MI6. The organization, which was established in 1909, was originally titled the Directorate of Military Intelligence Section 6 which spawned the common acronym, MI6. It was tasked with external intelligence gathering, while its sister organization, Military Intelligence Section 5 (MI5), worked on internal security and counter-intelligence.
In reality, MI6 and MI5 are just colloquial names of convenience developed partly because the organizations frequently changed titles in their early years. Officially, MI6 is now known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) while MI5 is called the Security Service. As you can imagine though, MI5 tends to use their old title more frequently, as Security Service results in a rather unfortunate acronym.
However, Bond does get one thing right: certain figures are known only by a single letter, although the head of MI6 is referred to as 'C' as in 'The Chief' and not 'M'. Moreover, C is the only MI6 employee who is allowed to sign papers in green ink.
2. MI6 Doesn't Have Spies Like You Imagine
Although MI6 are in the secret-gathering business, they surprisingly have very few - if any - spies like you'd imagine. In reality, MI6 mostly consists of 'intelligence officers' some of which are 'agent-runners'. It is their job to communicate with nationals in foreign countries who actually act as the agents.
In this sense, the job of the agent handler is to find and then persuade foreign individuals with knowledge in certain areas to tell the UK their secrets. Various incentives can be used to persuade potential agents, including cash, promises of sanctuary in Britain or simply support for a mutual cause. However, as 'Kamal', an MI6 officer, told BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, they all share something similar:
“People have different motivations for working with the UK but the thing that underpins them all is that they willingly enter into a relationship where they’re passing intelligence to the United Kingdom.”
Furthermore, they might not be 'secret agents' trained in hand-to-hand combat, but all MI6 employees are given cover stories to explain their work. 'Kirsty', a recruitment officer for MI6, explains:
“When people join the organisation they are given a cover role. They get a number of security briefings to help them manage that cover and actually it becomes second nature. So most people may tell their nearest and dearest but to everyone else they would live that cover story for the rest of their career.”
And like Bond, it seems they often have fun with their secret roles. 'Kamal' adds:
“It is one of the best parts of the job. It’s theatre. On occasion it allows you to engage your more flamboyant side, which of course is wonderful.”
3. MI6 Agents Rarely Work Alone
Bond is something of a lone wolf. Sure, he might pick up an ally or sexy accented femme fatale along the way, but for the most part, Bond must rely on his wits and skills to save the day.
The reality is somewhat different. Any kind of intelligence operation is usually a collaborative effort between various different organizations including MI6, MI5 and GCHQ (Britain's secret codebreaking and listening service).
In fact, Bond's renegade nature would mean he would be unlikely to even get a basic job at MI6. Kamal explains:
"Our officers operate within the law…The fact we need to ensure we continue operating in the shadows means we wouldn’t dream of having anybody like Bond in our organisation. He has got all manner of personal issues, which I think would be very, very unhelpful in an organisation like ours."
SIS have actually directly answered whether Bond's application to their organization would be successful. As part of a new recruitment drive, SIS told Buzzfeed Bond would 'would probably not be successful in joining SIS' adding:
"Teamwork is central to SIS’ ability to deliver intelligence, and heroes working alone rarely achieve much. They want people with a real passion for human interaction, understanding others, and dealing with the sometimes complex nature of human relationship."
4. MI6 Don't Just React To Bad Guys
James Bond would make us believe MI6 springs into action whenever a villain or terrorist raises its head. Of course, MI6 does react to active threats, however its day-to-day job is to simply provide information for British officials in the government, instead of actively fighting the enemy.
For example, MI6 works on the basis of "the intelligence cycle", which broadly goes like this:
- Political leaders in Whitehall want to know something not publicly available. Examples include the location of Islamic State leaders or perhaps how many nuclear weapons Pakistan has in its arsenal.
- A targeting officer then locates individuals who would know this information and a team of MI6 officers develop plans for how an agent handler can best approach them.
- If the individual agrees, the intelligence is passed to a reports officer, who assesses its credibility against other sources.
- If it is deemed credible it is passed onto the individual in Whitehall who requested it.
Although MI6 might not go in guns-ablazing, James Bond movies do still have some scrap of truth - they are against a myriad array of threats. Bond often has to tussle with super villains, terrorists of many different stripes and hostile states, and although volcano-base owning billionaire bad guys might be rare, the others are very real. Kamal states:
"It’s a variety of different threats. Traditionally, we have faced states and organisations that have sought to penetrate the heart of the UK government and key UK institutions and then steal their secrets. Those still exist, they haven’t gone away. Alongside those threats we have the terrorist threat, we have states and organisations looking to proliferate weapons of mass destruction and nuclear technology. We have states with territorial ambitions and more recently we have people looking to conduct cyber espionage against the UK.”
5. It's Not Actual As Dangerous As You Think
Working with people possibly associated with terrorists doesn't exactly sound safe, however the intelligence officers interviewed by Gardner suggest it is much safer than the Bond films depict. Kirsty explained:
"It would be untrue for me to say that all of our work is free of danger. However, we have a team of security advisors who ensure that both we and our agents are as secure as we can be. No operation would go ahead if we had any doubts about our security, or that of our agent.”
Intelligence officers are of course incredibly valuable assets and in most cases, they are more valuable than the information they have been asked to retrieve. With this mind, rarely are MI6 agents required to risk their lives on Her Majesty's Secret Service. Kamal adds:
"...We are not like Bond, we don’t have officers that seek to fulfil their missions at any cost."
A veteran of the Cold War spying days, Harry Ferguson, also stated Bond actually works much more akin to the US intelligence services than the British. He claimed:
"In the US it is slightly different because they see themselves as semi-military and put themselves in danger in a way that British officers don't. Normally what happens in the services is that the risks are run by the agents – the people you, as an officer, recruit. For example, if I wanted to find out about Iranian nuclear production tomorrow I couldn't wander into a facility in that country, no matter how good my cover was. But I can recruit a scientist who is already there. Of course, if the operation goes tits up, the person who is going to suffer is the agent, not me."
6. There Is No Licence To Kill
This one probably isn't a huge surprise, but MI6 agents do not have a licence to kill. In fact, they're rarely even armed.
Despite what the films depict, MI6 isn't in the assassination or killing business as that would be entirely counterproductive to their job. Kamal explains:
"The mythology around espionage and around SIS in particular is extremely misleading. We are an organisation that revels in subtlety and the methods 007 employs – crash-banging across cities in both hemispheres – is entirely misleading. We seek to operate in the shadows and we don’t like to draw attention to ourselves. Having a licence to kill is the antithesis of that.”
7. There Are Gadgets, But Not Deadly Ones
One thing that is true about the Bond films is Q Branch, the special department dedicated to developing gadgets and gizmos. This does really exist, although it is now more concerned with developing computer programmes and technology than laser watches. In fact, MI6 does not develop any kind of lethal weapons. Kirsty explains:
"I think. Ian Fleming would be surprised at the technology we have in the modern-day MI6. We have brilliant technologists who can come up with some amazing devices that can help enable intelligence officers to do their jobs better... We stop short of anything that will do harm to other humans and certainly nothing related to knives coming out of tyres and exploding pens."
However, this wasn't always the case. The Special Operatives Executive, a wartime body which actually operates much more like Bond than MI6 does, did develop some rather nifty gadgets during the Second World War. The group, also known as "The Baker Street Irregulars" or "The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare", had a large arsenal of weapons - some more common than others. Take a look at some of their gadgets below:
Sneakers that leave false footprints
Shaving cream with secret container
Plastic logs for smuggling weapons
The SOE was dissolved in 1946, however it is believed Ian Flemming's version of a secret agent was perhaps inspired more by the operations of this group of individuals than strictly MI6.