A behind-the-scenes look with former British operative and author Matthew Dunn on the real life of an agent, the intense training, and how James Bond has it easy.
For several generations, the legacy of noted author Sir Ian Fleming has captured our imaginations on page and screen with tantalizing tales of the life, adventures and carnal pursuits of British MI6 agent James Bond.
We’ve come to associate Bond, through his faithful portrayers from Connery to Craig, with an exceptionally dangerous and libertine lifestyle fueled by Kina Lillet Vesper martinis and exotic conquests. The great super spy escapades are mere entertainment of a much darker profession.
Behind every great story lies a grain or two of truth, in this case the secret world inhabited by members of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, home to the double 0s, is a world as complex as it is dangerous. To glean the facts from the fiction, we sat down with former MI6 operative and spy novelist Matthew Dunn for a candid talk on the reality behind the legend. Though we can’t comment on whether the SIS was listening in on our conversation, we can reveal that his novels must be submitted for SIS approval prior to publication.
Playboy.com: How did you come to join MI6?
Dunn: It was a very covert recruitment process; one of my university professors had a discussion with me in my third year. I had expressed I wanted to do something Foreign Service–related, and the conversation went from there to “Look, there might be something interesting.”
It was a very cryptic discussion—I think we both knew exactly what we were talking about—and I went down for a discussion in London with some people. I was put through a series of cognitive tests that become increasingly harder, then a series of interviews, exercises and different programs, and after many months of those, I was offered a tentative offer with the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6. But even thereafter, the offer of employment was subject to passing security testing to make sure I didn’t have any traits that could present themselves as a security risk, double agent or whatever, and that process takes several months of interviewing your friends, family, former employers—which then led to the MI6 training programs, which, without giving away too many details, [are] designed to really be as realistic as possible.
It’s meant to test you for every conceivable situation based on what it’s like being a spy overseas, to the point that during that program there are stages where you wonder if this is an exercise or if it’s a situation where something has gone wrong.
Daniel Craig appears as James Bond in Skyfall. Courtesy of Sony Pictures/EON.
Playboy.com: What did your time with the service entail?
Dunn: I spent over five years specifically combatting the echelons of rogue states: states who were either presenting themselves to being problems in regional stability in certain parts of the world or possessed weapons programs or state-sponsored terrorism, those kind of issues. Within that, a large part of what I was doing was the recruitment and running of foreign spies, agents as we call them in the U.K.—assets as I believe they are referred to in the U.S. That process is very, very complicated. It involves identifying people who have access to secrets who are typically based in the target countries, trying to ascertain whether there is something in their character or past that could possibly make them amenable to work for Western intelligence, and then constructing a typically complex approach to that individual—getting them to be a spy—and that process could take months, if not years. Then once recruited, if successful, running those agents and getting secrets from them in relation to issues that are predetermined by the British government.
Playboy.com: So the government completely controls the agenda?
Dunn: There’s a misconception about MI6 and the CIA that we decide what it is we want to spy on, but in reality our objectives are set down by cross-party committees; they decide our objectives, and while many will remain the same, new threats and issues present themselves and we agencies react accordingly.
Playboy.com: What’s the view of an ex-MI6 agent on James Bond, do you think the films and novels over-glamorize the profession?
Dunn: I think James Bond is a larger-than-life character. Ian Fleming, his creator, worked in naval intelligence, which isn’t much of a shock. My theory of what he wanted to write was very much larger-than-life for a 1950s impoverished audience who were rationing, et cetera, and put a smile back on their face, so he presented this character. As a former intelligence agent, is this realistic? Of course not! Certainly not in terms of the gadgets, the girls, the types of baddies. Is it enjoyable? Yes it is; myself and other intelligence officers enjoy a good thriller as much as anyone else. We don’t look at it and think, “Well, this is totally unrealistic,” because of course that wouldn’t be entertaining. But in terms of “Does it encourage people’s perception of MI6 in a positive way?” Right now I think people are starting to realize that we’re not loose cannons; we are focused very clearly towards specific objectives, and the work is extremely serious, with high stakes. Celebrating that in a larger-than-life, enjoyable format is all well and good.
Playboy.com: James Bond throws accountability out the window; a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality is widely perceived to be how agents operate.
Dunn: The whole 007 concept is that they have the license to kill. Logically it’s meaningless because of course as an intelligence officer everything you do is illegal. As for shoot first, the work was typically more intelligent than that—pulling out a weapon means something has gone wrong.
Daniel Craig and Bérénice Lim Marlohe appear as James Bond and Séverine in Skyfall. Courtesy of Sony Pictures/EON.
Playboy.com: What attributes are most commonly desired to work in the profession?
Dunn: There are many quantifiable traits they are looking for: obviously intellect, lateral thinking, interpersonal skills and the ability to adapt and change one’s persona. The ability—and I think this is crucial—to believe anything is possible. That really does set SIS officers [apart] from many others who operate on the sharp end. We look at a problem, look at a requirement, and absolutely this can be done. We will achieve this; it won’t be “this is impossible.” Those particular people are a different breed of animal.
Playboy.com: What was your biggest challenge working as a spy?
Dunn: The challenges I faced were manifold. Looking at it from the human angle, the agents—assets—I ran, these are foreign spies, people that you are recruiting for very serious and very delicate situations, like me asking them to spy to access those secrets. The reality is, and this is typically lost on discussions about the CIA and MI6, is that if these people were caught in their own country, they would be executed and their families could be executed. They really are putting their lives on the line.
As a case officer running those men and women, young or old, you develop an extremely close bond to them, possibly closer than family because you’re both doing something highly unusual with a significant duty of care. I wasn’t Matthew Dunn, I was someone completely different, and so I was using falsities to run someone who was putting their life on the line.
Playboy.com: Are you still hyperaware of your surroundings?
Dunn: I am, but not to the degree of paranoia. There are—and I’m upfront about these—habits I have which I joke about: be it restaurants or a café, I prefer to sit—and this sounds so cliché—with my back to the corner so I can observe people. But that is just habit, not because I’m worried about a hit man coming through the front door. Obviously, I do operate with caution, but my name and face are now public knowledge, so I’m aware of that and prepared for that. If I’m driving, I’m constantly aware of how to drive both aggressively and defensively and what to do in a situation. I will still, I admit, find myself looking down the last three numbers of a license plate or whatever. But that rather more amuses me than being some diehard operative who can’t leave the life.
Playboy.com: Do new recruits come into the service with Bond-esque expectations?
Dunn: I think there’s always going to be a margin of people who think it’s going to be like James Bond, but naturally they are going to be weeded out in the recruitment process. But the difference between the Bond movies and what I was doing was that I could be doing that kind of lifestyle on certain occasions; it was a far darker existence in terms of the reality of what I was doing, and I would say probably much more dangerous.
Playboy.com: Is your goal with the Spycatcher novels more to entertain or to present a credible story? How do you strike the right balance between authenticity, fantasy and fiction?
Dunn: I think my writing is informed by two things. First, as a young man I was an absolutely voracious reader, and those secondhand book stores—I would spend great chunks of my time browsing the bookshelves, reading stories of early 20th century spies going around Eastern Europe; I loved all of that, it put a fire in my belly. Coupled with my experiences, and I think I mentioned something so pertinent, and that is the belief that even when faced with the most dangerous situation or complex or impossible, the operative will not back down from that and will confront it, get around it or combat it. Sometimes I’ll put Will Cochrane into a situation where as a writer, I don’t know how he’s going to get himself out of a situation, and that’s very much the theme I’d like to present. It’s the mindset of “I’ve got to get this done.” It’s really a combination of drawing on my experience and showing the reality of the mindset of an operative and throwing it into a good story—hopefully. [laughs]
Playboy.com: How factual is your character, Will Cochrane? What have you taken from the field and put into his mindset?
Dunn: The situations he faces are fictitious. They sometimes comprise components of things that have happened. But now as a storyteller, I craft and I plot like other authors, but what I do in terms of writing is put in what I would have done in that situation. The life of an agent can be very unpredictable; you think something is going in one direction and it doesn’t —you need to know how to act accordingly. One of the things that is often not shown in many of the espionage movies is the reality that as a field operative you typically operate on your own; you don’t have the ability—as is sometimes portrayed—of calling up head office halfway through a mission and asking for help or further support or updated information or whatever. You have to be able to operate and to make decisions, and sometimes decisions could be the wrong ones—dealing with that and living with it. That informs my writing. In terms of his character, that is somewhat informed by the person who I used to be and partially still am. Will Cochrane’s isolation, his fear, his loneliness—allowing people to get too close to him because of potential repercussions, his slight dislocation between him and humanity, what he does versus what the normal world does—those are real feelings and emotions that I had and have put into writing.
Dame Judy Dench appears as M in Skyfall. Courtesy of Sony Pictures/EON
Playboy.com: How has the rise of technology and cyber-terrorism affected how the industry operates? Where will it go from here?
Dunn: To take a step back from that, what is secret intelligence? Secret intelligence is information that is largely not known to other people, so in its truest sense secret. With the internet and the proliferation of information in other ways, [information] is anything but secret. What we now as intelligence officers are doing is going after information that is still not public. Do those secrets still exist? Yes, of course they do. My personal view, based on experience, is that as more things become publically available, more people are going back to the traditional method of keeping their secrets safe. In other words, you don’t put your secrets on the internet, regardless if they’re password protected, you put them into a steel safe in the basement behind grilles.
Skyfall hits theaters November 8th in the U.S. Check out our review: HERE.
Matthew Dunn was employed by the SIS between 1996 and 2001 where he conducted over 70 operations across the globe. His latest Spycatcher novel 'Sentinel' is available now nationwide.