07/12/2016, by CLAS
Britain’s “Tippex” Spies
Britain’s intelligence services have a diversity problem. That was the stark message delivered in a recent interview by Robert Hannigan, the Director of GCHQ, the UK intelligence agency responsible for intercepting and analysing electronic communications. In GCHQ’s case, less than 3% of its workforce has an ethnic minority background. To make Britain’s intelligence services truly representative of the national community that it serves, this figure would need to rise by a factor of four. As one commentator has reflected ruefully, GCHQ is currently “so mono-cultural, it may as well have been dipped in Tippex.”
Citizens cannot rely on intelligence agencies to adequately protect them if the great majority of their employees think in narrow and culturally homogenous terms when faced by ever more complex and diverse transnational threats. To paint this challenge solely as a British problem, however, would be a mistake. Britain may be playing catch-up when it comes to addressing cultural diversity in its intelligence workforce, but it should be remembered that the United States was facing similar questions at the turn of the new millennium. Canada, too, faced comparable criticisms when its civilian intelligence organisation was established in 1984. How far both the United States and Canada have succeeded in addressing this issue is still a matter of debate.
Some commentators have suggested that multiculturalism renders a nation vulnerable to attack. This is only really true if its minority communities are left feeling ostracised, somehow less a part of the nation than more established and powerful ‘majority’ groups. If minorities are made to feel an integrated part of the national community this risk lessens considerably. (This is not to say, of course, that it is only minorities that are susceptible to radicalisation nowadays, but British intelligence and security services have no shortage of spies capable of infiltrating white communities.) Intelligence services have been left playing catch-up as the pace of globalisation has quickened since the end of the Cold War. The emergence of a security gap between what is needed and what is possible is perhaps most evident in the scarcity of collaborative links forged between intelligence services and minority communities. Intelligence agencies need diverse personnel in order to think and act more effectively in a fluid global environment. They also require the trust and cooperation of the minority communities that they serve and which can be vulnerable to radicalising influences. Fixing the former may well go some way to providing a solution to the latter.
Francesca Speed is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of American and Canadian Studies working on North American intelligence agencies and multiculturalism.