A former MI5 agent has claimed that the agency was so short on non-white staff that one team leader considered “blacking up” as an option to gain access to suspected Islamic terrorists.
In conversation with BBC’s Newsnight programme, the former spy also said that he was effectively abandoned by MI5 when he suffered symptoms of severe stress, later diagnosed as PTSD.
The agent, codenamed Robert Acott, worked for the counter-intelligence agency for 18 years but was dismissed five years ago for misconduct.
Robert Acott (his codename) was an agent for 18 years
Acott left an M15 training manual in his garden shed, which was later found by a member of the public and handed in to police.
But he said that the service had taken the opportunity to get rid of him because of his mental health problems - which were exacerbated by the dismissal and ultimately saw him make several attempts to take his own life.
Speaking to investigations correspondent Nick Hopkins, Acott described his first panic attack.
He said: "The jobs I was really unhappy with was what they would call 'the first look up'. If they were a terrorist you had no idea at what stage they were at. I became particularly nervous of travelling on tubes with them.
"On one occasion this chap had shaved his head, which is a ritual they go through. He was on the tube and was stood by the doors in the middle. I was at the end of the tube keeping an eye on him. I had been separated from my team.
"My body comms didn't work very well underground. I was on my own. I looked around. People were on phones, doing crosswords, a woman with a toddler trying to keep it under control.
“I started having a panic attack."
He also revealed that following the 9/11 attacks, MI5 was extremely short of non-white agents, and his own team had just one Muslim member.
He claimed that one team leader even suggested that his agents “blacked up” and experimented with this on a training mission.
Acott felt that he was abandoned by MI5 over his mental health issues
Acott said the lack of diversity made it difficult to gain access to suspected Islamic terrorists - very different to when he had spied on IRA targets.
He explained: "(MI5) was totally understaffed. We weren't used to dealing with the way they acted. The good thing about following Irish targets is the Active Service Units would generally meet in pubs you could go into.
"The Islamists would meet round each other's houses or in mosques which you can't get away with going into. Also, they were living in mostly ethnic areas and often you would find the only white people on the street were surveillance officers."
Acott also said that he had been concerned about a surveillance operation regarding a suspected paedophile, because he did not think it was within MI5’s remit.
He said that Operation Saturday had involved “extremely powerful, wealthy people” but that although the suspect was found to be using drugs and prostitutes, there were no signs of child abuse and the job was stopped abruptly.
The Home Office said that it did not comment on specific cases.