British spies have given a rare insight into the devastation and anger in the intelligence community following terrorist attacks.
Officers from MI5, GCHQ and MI6 described the impact that atrocities have on them and their colleagues.
In the first joint interview with staff from all three UK intelligence agencies, they also gave their views on depictions of their profession, explaining that most of their work is a far cry from James Bond, Killing Eve and Bodyguard.
The UK’s security services came under immense pressure last year as the country was hit by five attacks in less than six months.
“Jo”, an MI5 officer, described the aftermath of such incidents as “truly awful”.
She said: “We’re devastated when something like that happens, and you get a real awful sinking feeling.
“We wouldn’t be human if individually we didn’t think, ‘what else could we have done here?’.
“You turn it around. We’ve been trained to deal with these things but you channel your energy into seeing what else you can do, how you can support your colleagues progress your investigations, but it’s a tough time when that happens, no doubt about it.
“We know that we will not stop every attack from happening. We know that’s the case, as much as we try we know that the reality is that we cannot stop everything from happening.”
“Dia”, who works for GCHQ, said: “There’s a lot of anger around when that happens and people channel that anger, they get together and they put all their efforts into trying to address what’s happened and trying to solve and actually go after those who’ve done it.”
MI6 officer “Kate” said: “When bad things happen, we take it so seriously… we get to go to work the next day or sooner, probably, and try and work out how to never let that happen again, and to find out about the people that did it and catch them.”
While five attacks occurred last year, police and security agencies have thwarted 17 plots since March 2017.
Dia said: “It’s really important to acknowledge how many we have ended up stopping and how many people we have protected.”
Meanwhile, the portrayal of spies in TV and film can be “completely ridiculous”, according to the officers.
On Killing Eve, “John”, from MI6, said: “You have to suspend a bit of disbelief.”
“Ameesha”, who has worked for MI5 for two years, said she enjoyed the BBC drama.
“I think the acting was incredible,” she said. “But yeah, there are moments where you just want to, like, smash the TV screen and you’re just, like, ‘no, that’s not true!’”
Kate said real-life work at MI6 bears little resemblance to the world of James Bond.
“We like it a little bit because it’s quite glamorous,” she said. “No we don’t all get an Aston Martin or a speedboat. You’ll more often see us on a bus or a Tube than anything like that.”
There is one fictional creation that chimes with real-life intelligence work, however.
”We do actually have a Q – Q actually is a real thing,” said John.
“We have some brilliant technologists that supply us with all kinds of gadgets that we use, only our stuff is better than Bond’s!”
During the candid interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, which will air on Wednesday afternoon, the spies also discussed the six to nine-month vetting process for new recruits, and which of their friends and family they decided to keep in the dark about their jobs.
The names used by the officers for the interview are not their real names.