Stories from MI5

This essay is filled with historical MI5 stories -- often bizarre, sometimes amusing. My favorite:

It was recently revealed that back in the 1970s -- at the height of the obsession with traitors -- MI5 trained a specially bred group of Gerbils to detect spies. Gerbils have a very acute sense of smell and they were used in interrogations to tell whether the suspects were releasing adrenaline -- because that would show they were under stress and lying.

Then they tried the Gerbils to see if they could detect terrorists who were about to carry a bomb onto a plane. But the gerbils got confused because they couldn't tell the difference between the terrorists and ordinary people who were frightened of flying who were also pumping out adrenaline in their sweat.

So the gerbils failed as well.

Posted on August 14, 2013 at 12:06 PM • 24 Comments


kingsnakeAugust 14, 2013 12:19 PM

So, basically, a polygraph that pees on your hand and eats its own young.

The part that is missed is that stress != lying. (Nor does lack of stress == truth.)

CraigAugust 14, 2013 12:23 PM

Not to mention people who are just afraid of gerbils...

This is the classic lie-detector problem: You can't actually read someone's mind to know whether they're lying or not, so you look for secondary phenomena that you think will correlate with lying. The problem is it doesn't correlate very well, because other things can also cause the same phenomena and some liars don't manifest the phenomena at all. It's beyond me, though, why they thought gerbils would do any better than polygraphs, which are useless to begin with.

beachbuddahAugust 14, 2013 1:10 PM

So, while America had the men who stared at goats, the UK had the men who fostered gerbils?

MichaelAugust 14, 2013 1:23 PM

This is a still a problem in the government, and not just in the realm of security. Managers put systems in place to measure *something* because they believe it's an indicator of a desireable complex behavior that's too hard to measure directly.

Management's happy because they have metrics. Employees are happy because they can game the system by inflating a specific metric. Meanwhile, the complex behavior isn't understood and changes (or doesn't) independent of the metric.

FigureitoutAugust 14, 2013 1:40 PM

You probably should've said "hysterical" than "historical". The beginning statement about how spies aren't good at their job sums it up (I've only been impressed w/ a few, in particular a female agent who wouldn't raise any alarms w/o prior intelligence or tech.), and they can't reveal how they protect you until it's too late to eliminate the incompetence. It's why I would never want to work in such an agency, (did the failure happen b/c of a mistake on your part or do you work w/ moles?) Paranoid delusions, they've affected me too and I've made some false accusations b/c at some point you have to make a judgment w/ the incomplete evidence. In the end it's all just a waste of time and it's better to get all your spy-game fantasies out while you're a kid; and get a real job when you're an adult.

MpHAugust 14, 2013 2:14 PM

Funny, The current TSA gerbils are no better then the MI5 gerbils from the 1970s. At least MI5 figured it out and stopped using gerbils. -MpH

ShacharAugust 14, 2013 2:42 PM


You can't actually read someone's mind to know whether they're lying or not, so you look for secondary phenomena that you think will correlate with lying.

Actually, functional MRI claims to do just that. I know of no scientific test to prove its efficiency (which is not to say there isn't one - I'm not an expert on the subject), but the claim is that they do just that - check your mind to see whether you are lying.

Which is not to say it cannot be fooled, mind you.


Petréa MitchellAugust 14, 2013 2:55 PM


"functional MRI claims to do just that"

A few people using fMRI have made claims that they can use it to do that. No one's managed to duplicate anyone else's results.

Please also be aware that there are equally valid claims that it can be used to read the mind of a dead fish.

nonesuchAugust 14, 2013 3:29 PM

So , if you coated the gerbils in cocaine would they be good at detecting gay terrorists ?

Clive RobinsonAugust 14, 2013 5:37 PM

It was not just MI5 that "did gerbils" various other organisations tried other furry quadrapeds, and there was found to be another problem...

Some creatures are "prey animals" others are those doing the hunting. In many rodents the smell of cats or dogs will cause an "overriding" reaction in it's hind brain.

So can you imagine Miss Moneypenny senior who has numerous cats in her home being given the "gerbil" treatment? Especialy when her clothes etc will be riddled with trace smells of feline....

kingsnakeAugust 15, 2013 5:12 AM

nonesuch raises a good point: Is an eight year old who jams a firecracker up a gerbil (or frog's) ass, a terrorist guilty of keyster bombing?

Clive RobinsonAugust 15, 2013 8:46 AM

@ Kingsnake,

I don't know what the age of criminal responsability is in your juresdiction but I would hope it was more than eight.

That said "kids" do do some stupid things for "fun" especialy when egging each other on, it's one of the reasons we get children getting killed in fenced off areas where there is dangerous machinery such as trains.

Some times it deffies logic, one such was what was belived to be a small group of boys who had found a domestic cat that had been road kill and was now putrid. They wired the corpse to a roller skate and used fireworks as a propulsion system. This they set of on an urban railway station in the evening rush hour. Apparently the cat got half way down the platform and exploded splattering rotting cat all over commuters that had just got off the train... needless to say it caused a bit of an outcry and made it into the local paper. Apparently quite a few people pointed fingers at a couple of boys and the school authorities got involved and not just punished them but also informed the RSPCA and Police. It looked quite serious for the boys untill it was pointed out that their alibis (that had been disbelived) upon investigation by the police was found to be true. Unfortunatly after the alibis were confirmed by the police , they took no further action and whoever did it was not found out. However as is often the case the innocent received no appology official or otherwise and because the guilty parties remained unknown many knowingly still falsely accused the boys of the act several years afterwards. Even people who were definatly not involved but vaguly associated with the familes became part of local gossip, such is the evil of small minded communites and the self appointed bigots who hold themselves as the guardians of the local morals...

RogerAugust 15, 2013 9:05 AM

Curtis's research is so poor -- or perhaps selective -- his article almost begs for a good fisking.

Rather than doing that, which would be tedious, I'll just give one of the more amusing examples. After repeatedly arguing that MI5 is incompetent, Curtis loses his train of thought and quotes Oleg Gordievsky (out of context) to suggest that in the 1970s MI5 so devastated KGB operations in the UK that they had little left to do.

The punch-line is that this is the same Oleg Gordievsky who much more recently claimed that the BBC is riddled with communist propagandists! But he doesn't mean you Adam! Oh no, no, no, of course not.

Incidentally, Gordievsky contradicts many of Curtis's other points, such as his claim that the "Fifth Man" did not exist. This selective quoting of sources who strongly oppose your main line of argument, is only to be expected when Curtis's principle method is randomly trawling through old, unindexed TV news reports. It's amusing, but scholarship it ain't.

What is less acceptable is the way his arguments stagger drunkenly from side to side. For example, the trite case of Cecil Day-Lewis, who wanted to be a communist revolutionary hero, but wasn't. MI5 asked the local plods to have a look at him, found nothing of interest, and left it at that. Curtis is outraged at MI5's incompetence! They missed everything important! Even though by sheer chance their assessment turned out to be completely right! But they shouldn't be spying on writers at all! But they should do it more thoroughly! Not sure which! Just so long as we know spies are bad, m'kay?

Clive RobinsonAugust 15, 2013 9:05 AM

@ Nebris,

At one time I had the misfortune to have "proffessional" contact with the UK's DWS, what had become of MI8 and MI6 (the service) and MI5.

I've mentioned some of their behaviour before on this blog and how various groups held each other in contempt. For instance the head of MI6 was called 'Sir C' but pronounced as 'Circe' who was the witch/godess of Greek mythology. Likewise the head of the Met Police as 'Sir Met' but prounounced as 'cerment' as in concreat over shoes, which would 'make you the cheif Plod'.

The funny side of this is the DWS and MI8 were involved with the BBC, who host the link you post to ;-)

Dirk PraetAugust 15, 2013 1:33 PM

The gerbil project sounds very much like one of Baldrick's cunning plans in the imaginary television series Blackadder (MI)5.

Eric BlackAugust 15, 2013 1:46 PM

This is a truly amazing line:

"and MI5 was set up - created in large part by the dreams of a socially excluded novelist, and the paranoid imaginings of the readers of the Daily Mail."

RogerAugust 15, 2013 5:07 PM

@Eric Black:
"This is a truly amazing line"

Yes it is. It isn't true; but it is amazing.

Kevin an AuditorAugust 16, 2013 1:14 PM

Roger - I am in complete agreement with you. Adam Curtis seems less coherent in his smears than his targets (Le Queux, perhaps, excepted) did in their assertions.

I am also curious as to how many of the posters/readers of this blog have read Peter Wright's "Spycatcher".

Curtis claims that MI-5 has not, ever, of its own, caught a single spy. Without consulting the book, the names Gordon Lonsdale and the "Krugers" (Cohens) come to mind.

Wright tried to reason out a foggy and difficult terrain. Curtis merely paints wide swaths of it with innuendo, half truths, and in a least one instance, an out right lie.

Ken MAugust 19, 2013 7:45 AM

The Adam Curtis style is lovingly parodied on Youtube under the title "The Loving Trap".

Bill SmithAugust 21, 2013 4:30 AM

Sounds like a Monty Python sketch, along the lines of the Spanish Inquisition and The Comfy Chair.

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