MI5 spies speak for first time about their covert work - from foiling attacks to 'Secretly Come Dancing' competitions

  • Video report by ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo

What is it really like to be a spy?

For the first time on camera, spies working for MI5 have spoken to ITV News and ITV's Tonight programme to reveal the reality of the secret work they do to keep the UK safe.

Over three months, ITV News Security Editor Rohit Kachroo was given unprecedented access to MI5 to get an insight into the workings of one of the world’s oldest and most-renowned spy agencies.

For an edition of ITV’s Tonight programme to be broadcast on Thursday, we filmed with MI5 as London experienced the terror attack at London Bridge, at a time when the agency’s secretive operations were once again being scrutinised following a series of attacks in 2017, some of which were carried out by people who had been known to MI5.

Rohit spoke to surveillance officers and investigators about their jobs, the moral dilemmas they face, and the impact it has on their personal lives.

They say the reality of their work is very different to how MI5 is portrayed in TV programmes and films. And the spies shared some surprising aspects about the social side of working at the Security Service.

The staff tell few, if any, people about their jobs. But for the very first time, MI5 is allowing their workers to speak on camera. We have protected their identities for their own safety and that of national security.

  • The agent runner with the ‘biggest wardrobe in the office’

One of the roles at MI5 is an ‘agent runner’: someone who engages with members of the public to get information about a suspected terrorist.

Rob used to be a teacher before he joined MI5 - now he recruits and manages 'agents'.

"An agent can be anybody – it’s someone who...who works with us confidentially, in secret, to provide us with information."

Sometimes, these can be people with extreme views.

"We do have to speak to people who are connected to those extremist groups to understand really what’s happening and help our investigators to make sure that bad things don’t happen", Rob says.

Does Rob feel any moral conflict working with people who may have done bad things?

"I’ve never felt that kind of moral tension. I’ve been conscious of speaking to people whose views I might not agree with. But fundamentally we’re there to work together, so even if someone holds some views that I might not thoroughly agree with – fundamentally they’re here to help and want to help."

He has to be available to speak to his agents 24 hours a day, seven days a week - and has to be able to blend into a range of places and situations.

"We’re quite notorious as agent-runners to – as having the biggest wardrobe in the office. We have to fit in in all different sorts of circumstances and surroundings", Rob says.

"A big part of that is how you dress. For that you’ve got to have a suit for certain situations, or be able to dress down and you might be doing two things in the same day. So it’s important that you’ve got a whole range of different clothes available to you."

  • The investigator who helped foil a plot to kill Theresa May

Emma says the nature of the terror threat has changed over the 10 years she's worked at MI5 Credit: ITV News / Tonight

It's the job of investigators to stop attacks and convict those intending to do harm. Emma is one of MI5's investigators, and has worked at the agency for more than a decade. She and her team helped foil one of the most high-profile terror plots of recent years: to kill the then prime minister, Theresa May. Emma told us how the nature of the terror threat has changed over that time.

"When I first started investigations as a desk officer, the majority of our investigations were about networks - some quite grand plans usually involving explosives…multiple sites, multiple people involved.

"The sort of spontaneity with which we see attacks happen now is something else that we have to adapt to.

"Right-wing terrorism is a very different thing, it’s a very different set of motivations, a different target set, and they have different ways of working, communicating with each other.

"So it’s something that we have to evolve to, and our tools and techniques need to evolve to protect the UK."

  • "We had a 'Secretly Come Dancing' competition at MI5 headquarters"

"If my friends ever found out I worked here, I genuinely think they’d be really shocked", says Karina. "I do think there’s a perception of the type of person that works for MI5 or the intelligence community in general and I don’t think I necessarily fit into that box."

Karina works as an investigator who gathers information on subjects of interest to MI5. She focuses on Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

She told us what the atmosphere was like at MI5's headquarters when news of November's London Bridge attack broke.

"We see it on the TV screens, it’s all in the news first and foremost and you walk through the corridors, in the offices everyone’s just sort of almost glued to the TV screens, sort of everyone’s curious, they want to know more. They want to know exactly what’s happened. It’s upsetting and it’s sad but there is almost immediately a want to get involved and do what I can to help."

Karina told us about the perhaps surprising social events that MI5 organise – including their own versions of The Great British Bake Off and Strictly Come Dancing.

"We called it ‘Secretly Come Dancing’ of course, as spies do. And yeah, it was good fun."

Did Karina compete? "No. I watched. I wasn’t ready to unleash my incredible dancing skills in front of my colleagues."

She says these social events are necessary in an organisation to bring staff together - staff that can't take their work home with them.

"I was surprised when I first joined and found out that there were these clubs and societies and things like that but...it’s a necessity here, it's part of the culture which is insane but we need it and I think it just means that it brings us all so much closer together and it, it’s a release for all of us."

  • See more from the MI5 spies on Inside MI5: Keeping the UK Safe - Tonight, broadcast on ITV on Thursday 27 February at 7.30pm