Former spies find a home for skills in private sector
A UK-based private investigations company CIEX, headed by former spy Michael Oatley, secured a contract to investigate apartheid plunder, writes Chris Stokel-Walker
Cameron Colquhoun delighted his audience with a big reveal. The 33-year-old former spy for Her Majesty’s government had uncovered a hidden asset.
The asset wasn’t a turncoat, but a yacht. The client? A telecommunications company researching a potential takeover target, and the yacht had been left out of financial disclosures. The dossier raised enough concerns to help kill the deal.
"I really get a kick out of — when we’ve done an investigation — meeting a client and saying, ‘This is what we’ve found’, and seeing the surprise on their face," Colquhoun says. "We enjoy telling people things they don’t know."
A job in British intelligence services — the birthplace of the modern spy agency — can be thrilling, stressful and challenging.
What it can’t be is lucrative. Starting salaries are as low as £30,490 a year. So after a few years on the job, many agents leave for the private sector. Instead of hunting terrorists and despots, they’re chasing cheating husbands and a rival’s intellectual property.
The life of former spies was thrown into sharp relief by the recent publication of an unverified dossier of information about President Donald Trump, and the unveiling of its author’s second career as a private spy-for-hire. Christopher Steele was an officer with MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, before entering the private sector.
The booming field of corporate intelligence usually involves investigating former employees or future acquisitions. But some former spies can find it frustrating to work within the legal limits placed on regular civilians, without access to special government tools
And in 1997, a UK-based private investigations company called CIEX secured a contract from the South African government to investigate apartheid plunder. CIEX delivered a secret report two years later to several senior Cabinet ministers that
claimed to have identified about R26bn that was stolen, laundered or held offshore illegally by apartheid-era bankers, arms dealers and senior politicians.
CIEX’s director, Michael Oatley, formerly a senior agent of MI6, offered to ensure the return of these funds to state coffers, in exchange for a handsome percentage.
Headhunters say they often see British spies leave the game in less than a decade.
Britain employs about 12,000 people in its three intelligence branches: MI5, which is broadly responsible for domestic intelligence; MI6, for foreign intelligence; and GCHQ, which is responsible for electronic monitoring.
Like any employer, there’s regular staff churn.
Moving between the private and public sectors is encouraged, as former UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne said, to bring "the best minds and deepest expertise into the private sector, and the latest innovation back into government".
Having spy services on your résumé is clearly beneficial. "There’s a perceived level of intelligence and competence," says Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer who left the secret service in 1996 on bad terms after blowing the whistle on UK spycraft. "If you come with the recommendation of MI6 or MI5, then that, of course, intrigues people."
The booming field of corporate intelligence usually involves investigating former employees or future acquisitions. But some former spies can find it frustrating to work within the legal limits placed on regular civilians, without access to special government tools.
Unlike graduates fresh out of a master’s programme in international relations, spies have expertise in building rapport and connections, and they have real-world training, recruiters and former spies say.
"They’ve got procedures to pretty much every problem," says Alex Bomberg, CEO of International Intelligence, a private UK firm founded in 2002 that regularly hires former spies.
Everyone wins. Companies get highly skilled individuals who have thrived in high-pressure situations — along with bragging rights of hiring former James Bonds. And former intelligence workers make a lot more money.
"Quite often, people just want to get their lives back," says Machon. "There comes a time when all your other friends who went to university are out there, working for banks or big corporations, earning about three times what you’re getting," Machon said. "That can be frustrating."
At that point, the headhunters come calling. At global headhunting firm Barclay Simpson, Chris Meager’s job is to match intelligence officers looking for a pay raise (or a change of lifestyle) with private companies. In 2016 Meager placed a former intelligence officer into a position as
global head of security for a private company. "He got a £20,000 increase on day one."
But it’s not all about the money. "Quite often, people just want to get their lives back," Machon says.
"The career is like "putting a pane of glass between you and the normal world."
Colquhoun has seen plenty of his former colleagues leave. "It can be quite intense and a lot of pressure, because you’re always dealing with bad news, risk and preventing things going wrong," he says.
Everyone wins. Companies get highly skilled individuals who have thrived in high-pressure situations — along with bragging rights of hiring former James Bonds. And former intelligence workers make a lot more money
"For a lot of people, it’s natural to say: ‘I’ve had
enough of that world, I want
to go and do something a bit more pleasant.’"
Colquhoun says he worked for several UK intelligence agencies; his work for GCHQ involved collecting and analysing intelligence. It was a high-pressure, high-stakes environment, he says.
GCHQ would not confirm nor deny that he worked there.
When Colquhoun left government in 2013, he worked for a private firm before setting up his own, Neon Century,
in 2014. When pitching
himself to clients, Colquhoun stays coy about his past employment. At first.
"I would never go into a meeting and lead off with the fact that I was ex-government," he says.
Not that it never comes up in conversation: "I’d mention it, maybe, at some point."
Corporate intelligence isn’t the only landing pad for former government gumshoes.
Some end up in the oddest places, leaving intelligence work entirely.
Bomberg knows of former spies who are teaching. Colquhoun says former colleagues have become personal trainers, café owners and activists at human rights organisations.
"Some of us get very excited about the whole idea of working in intelligence," he says. "For other people, it’s
just a job."
But unless you really burn your bridges, it’s hard to leave the secret service entirely.
"There will always be a friendly contact maintained, if not a slightly less formal arrangement," Machon says.
Bloomberg, with Staff Writer