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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MI6 Raises Cloak of Secrecy Online

LONDON -- If there is an institution that the fictional James Bond made famous with all his derring-do, it was, to quote from the thriller and movie of the same name, Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Since Thursday, the service has not been quite as secret as it once was.

At midnight, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, introduced its first publicly accessible web site, raising the hem of its cloak (if not its dagger) to just a modicum of scrutiny.

So intense was the interest in this move by an intelligence service -- once so secret that it denied its own existence -- that the site recorded 3.5 million hits in its first few hours, slowing access to a crawl, said Nev Johnson, a British Foreign Office press officer who speaks on behalf of the Secret Intelligence Service.

"It's been pretty astronomical," he said.

Girding for the fight against global terrorism, the agency developed the site primarily to recruit agents, operatives and analysts from a much broader academic and social background than in the past and to let would-be spies know how to join.

So wide is the net that the site has versions in Spanish, French, Arabic, Chinese and Russian -- hardly the kind of overture that would have been expected in the Cold War heyday of writers like John le Carre, or double-agents like Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, when the point was to keep foes at bay by the most devious of means.

But times have changed.

In the mythology of British espionage, moreover, an agent might once have been recruited by an Oxford or Cambridge don, harvesting likely operatives from undergraduate sherry parties. Recruitment, so it was said, came with a discreet tap on the shoulder and a whispered introduction to a diffident spymaster in some anonymous office.

The new web site, by contrast, cites what it calls three case studies of graduates from universities in Bristol, Durham and Edinburgh who joined the service in their 20s, doing other jobs before turning to espionage as a career change.

"I've already been in some pretty testing situations abroad," says one supposed 28-year-old spy, identified only as Andrew.

There is, too, a woman from what seems an ethnic minority background.

"It is a much more diverse and down-to-earth place than anyone might think," said Naheed, a 27-year-old lawyer whose family moved to Britain from Kenya in the 1970s -- according to her web site "legend," as spies in novels call cover stories. "And my background has been a professional bonus."

In some ways, the Secret Intelligence Service is playing catch-up to MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence agency, whose web site draws in the bulk of its recruits. MI5 has already said it wants to increase its officers by 50 percent to 3,000 by 2008, while the SIS has not made known its targets.

While its advertising is web-based (www.mi6.gov.uk or www.sis.gov.uk), anyone wishing to either join or offer a snippet of intelligence is urged to do so by regular mail.

That, in itself, might seem an advance on the thriller writer's world of microfilm and "dead-letter drops" marked by chalk marks on crumbling walls in the dingier parts of Berlin or Moscow. But the host of the site is a server outside London that has no links to the SIS's own computer systems, Johnson said.