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Russian Hacking, Spies, Wikileaks: "Breaking Cover" Has A Lot In Common With The Week In Politics


Stella Rimington has written a new Liz Carlyle spy novel. Boy, it's a good week for it. The book features leaks, hacks, Russian skullduggery and Vladimir Putin seeking revenge. Dame Stella Rimington was the first woman to be director general of MI5, Britain's vaunted domestic security agency. She stepped down in 1996 and brought out her first Liz Carlyle novel, "At Risk," in 2004. This novel is called "Breaking Cover." Dame Stella joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

STELLA RIMINGTON: Not at all, it's great to be here.

SIMON: Liz Carlyle in this book has to find a potential assassin on British soil who wants to harm opponents of the Russian regime. Your story inspired by the poisoning of a former supporter of the regime in London in 2006.

RIMINGTON: Partly yes. Alexander Litvinenko, you mean...


RIMINGTON: ...I think, who was - who was poisoned by, we think, we believe, some of his former colleagues. Yes. I think it was partly inspired by that. But it was partly, I think, inspired by the fact that Russia and particularly the Russian intelligence services seemed to be getting more aggressive. And now I'm an outsider, you have to remember, so I have no inside knowledge. But we read that there are just as many Russian intelligence officers in London, in the West in general, as there were during the Cold War. And you have to ask yourself what they're all doing. And that's one of the things I do ask myself when I'm writing fiction.

SIMON: We have to crack open the story of this week. U.S. security services this week say they're convinced that it was Russian hackers working for the government who hacked into the files of the Democratic National Committee. And they leaked material to have some palpable effect on the elections. Does that strike you as plausible?

RIMINGTON: It's plausible. But then there are many people who could have hacked into those files, not only the Russian intelligence service. So you have to remember that, you know, there are many people with that capacity and many reasons for leaking. I very much doubt that it's all as straightforward as it might appear.

SIMON: I've read that you were the first official from British intelligence to meet with the KGB after the change.

RIMINGTON: Yes, that's true, yes. In 1991, when the Cold War was coming to an end as we saw it then, we started a whole series of meetings with our former enemies, as we called them in the Eastern European intelligence services, and finally in December 1991 with the KGB. And I went off to Moscow, something I'd never thought I would do because you have to remember most of my career was spent during the Cold War.

SIMON: Yeah.

RIMINGTON: So off I went to Moscow with a couple of colleagues to talk about how intelligence services should work in democracies. And I found myself sitting in the Lubyanka, their headquarters, which over the years had been sort of prison death cell torture chamber, facing a long line of KGB officers and talking to them about democratic oversight and such things. It was certainly one of the strangest events of my working life I think.

SIMON: (Laughter) Forgive me, but this is a week to ask - do you think they took good notes? Were they paying attention to this democracy?

RIMINGTON: (Laughter) No, I don't think they were actually. They looked at us with rather hard, cynical eyes. And I wrote somewhere that it seemed to be like two wild animals surveying their prey but not being able to get at them. But I don't think they were particularly interested in all this oversight and democracy stuff, no.

SIMON: And may I ask you, just based on your experience and the way you survey events, what does Russia want these days?

RIMINGTON: I think Russia wants what it's always wanted, which is to establish its own security. I suspect that Mr. Putin, in his heart of hearts, would love to re-establish the borders of the old Soviet Union. And security, to them, consists of trying to defend yourself against everybody else. I think that's what they want. And so they regard all the rest of us with great suspicion and as potential enemies.

SIMON: You write about people in intelligence looking over their shoulders at what you called the Snowdenistas. How has Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks hacking changed intelligence agencies and security work?

RIMINGTON: Well, I think it has changed. I think they need obviously, if they're going to be able to keep us safe, to see what their targets - and that is a broad word - are doing online. And yet, obviously, naturally, the civil liberties lobby is interested in our civil liberties and our right to privacy and so there's tension there. And I think that that is very much now a feature of the way intelligence services have to work in Western countries, particularly in my country. And the government is trying to introduce legislation which will actually give them the powers that they now need. But it's a very difficult business to get this right in the face of people's natural concern for their privacy.

SIMON: Dame Stella, I fell hard for one of your characters in this novel, Jasminder.


SIMON: A beautiful, brilliant woman. She meets the wrong guy, doesn't she?

RIMINGTON: She does. I'm afraid she is both beautiful and brilliant and clever but also rather naive, and she meets the wrong guy. She isn't...

SIMON: She's naive because she's lonely, Dame Stella.

RIMINGTON: She's lonely. She is lonely, yes, but she's also - I think she's also naive. I have to say that. I mean, you can be lonely and cautious. But, I mean, she is an example, I think, of somebody who believes in civil liberties, as do I, as do many people. But she also believes, you know, in the need for our intelligence services to have the right powers. And she finds herself, I suppose, torn in the middle of that debate. And, as you say, unfortunately, she falls for the wrong guy whose interests are not hers.

SIMON: Dame Stella, is MI5 ever worried that you'll just wake up one morning and say, oh, remember when this happened? I think I'll make it a novel.

RIMINGTON: No, I don't think they are. And I have to submit all my novels for clearance anyway. So even if I did do that, they would say, oi, this is not a suitable subject for one of your plots, so I think we're all safeguarded on that front.

SIMON: Dame Stella Rimington - her book, "Breaking Cover" - thanks so much for being with us.

RIMINGTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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