The Second Act of the Great British Spy

The fictional 007 has many outs and never leaves service. The reality is quite different.
Illustration: Camilla Perkins

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 telecom firm 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 said. “We enjoy telling people things they don’t know.”

Cameron Colquhoun has Britain's intelligence services on his resume and now runs his own firm.
Photographer: Leo Johndon

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 ($37,500). 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 spooks was thrown into sharp relief by the publication last week of an unverified dossier of information about President-elect Donald Trump, and the unveiling of its author’s second career as a private spy-for-hire. Christopher Steele, 52, was an officer with MI6, Britain’s secret intelligence service, before entering the private sector.

Headhunters say they often see many quit the game in less than a decade.

Britain employs around 12,000 in its three intelligence branches: MI5, which is broadly responsible for domestic intelligence; MI6, foreign intelligence; and GCHQ, responsible for electronic monitoring. Like any employer, there’s regular staff churn.

Moving between the private and public sectors is encouraged, as former U.K. 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.”

GCHQ, or the Government Communications Headquarters, the British surveillance service.

Having spy services on your resumé is clearly beneficial. “There’s a perceived level of intelligence and competence,” said Annie Machon, 48, a former MI5 officer who left the secret service in 1996 on bad terms after blowing the whistle on U.K. 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 ex-spooks can find it frustrating to work within the legal limits placed on regular civilians, without the access to special government tools.

Unlike graduates fresh out of international-relations master’s programs, spies have expertise in building rapport and connections—and real-world training, recruiters and former spies say. “They’ve got procedures to pretty much every problem,” said Alex Bomberg, chief executive officer of International Intelligence, a private U.K. firm founded in 2002 that regularly hires ex-spooks.

Everyone wins. Companies get highly skilled individuals who have thrived in high-pressure situations—along with bragging rights of hiring former James Bonds. And ex-intelligence workers make a lot more money.

“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 up spooks looking for a pay raise (or a change of lifestyle) with private companies.

Last year, 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,” he said.

Former British intelligence officer Annie Machon

But it’s not all about the money. “Quite often, people just want to get their lives back,” Machon said. The career is like “putting a pane of glass between you and the normal world.”

Colquhoun has seen plenty of his ex-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 said. “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 said he worked for several U.K. intelligence agencies; his work for GCHQ involved collecting and analyzing intelligence. It was a high-pressure, high-stakes environment, he said. (GCHQ wouldn’t 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 said. Not that it’d never come 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 ex-spies who are teaching. Colquhoun says former colleagues have become personal trainers, café owners and activists at human rights organizations.

“Some of us get very excited about the whole idea of working in intelligence,” he said. “For other people, it’s just a job.”

But unless you really burn your bridges, it’s hard to ever leave the secret service.

“There will always be a friendly contact maintained, if not a slightly less formal arrangement,” Machon said.