Wednesday, 11 March, 2009

Dye another gray: UK spies getting older

LONDON (AP) — When 007 hits 65, should he be deep-sixed?
No, say British intelligence chiefs, who want their older officers to keep working, even if it means Her Majesty's secret service has spies who hobble in from the cold.

Lawmakers disclosed Thursday that veteran intelligence operatives are being asked to keep working after their usual retirement date to tackle an unrelenting threat from terrorism.

Britain's veteran spies — like all senior government staff — must step down at the age of 65, according to government policy — but are instead being kept in their posts as exceptions to the rule.

In testimony to lawmakers published in a new report, the head of Britain's overseas intelligence agency MI6, John Scarlett, said the knowledge and skills of veterans is crucial to his agency's work.

"We need their experience. ... Having retirement age as your major mechanism for moving people in and out of senior levels is not a good ideal," Scarlett told Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee in a hearing last year.

The committee of lawmakers takes evidence in closed-door sessions and releases partial accounts of the meetings. The panel's latest report was released publicly Thursday.

Authors of the report said most staff of MI6 — or the Secret Intelligence Service — still leave their posts at 65 but exceptions are being made for senior officers. The report redacted evidence in which Scarlett told lawmakers the exact age of his oldest intelligence staff.

"This is the second successive year that the committee has raised concerns regarding the Secret Intelligence Service's policy on retirement age," the report said. "We remain concerned that the service's policy still does not seem fully to meet its business requirements. This should be dealt with as a matter of urgency."

MI6, like Britain's domestic spy agency MI5, has undergone a huge recruitment drive since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., and the July 2005 transit network bombings in London.

In their report, committee members said Britain faces an unprecedented threat from terrorism.

"Al-Qaida and related terrorist groups have shown an exceptional level of ambition and willingness to carry out indiscriminate terrorist attacks, and the threat they pose is likely to persist for a considerable time," the report states.

In response to the committee's report, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's office said a government review will decide in the next few months whether to allow the service to continue employing spies past their 65th birthdays.

Britain's Cabinet Office said a mandatory retirement age of 65 is supposed to apply to all top-ranking civil servants, without exceptions.

Patrick Mercer, a lawmaker and former soldier who worked in military intelligence, said an exception must be made for senior spies.

"It's vital that people with that level of expertise are kept within the services, I don't think we should be pensioning off that amount of skill and wisdom," he said.

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