For your eyes only: The intriguing truth about life as a 21st century spook
By MICHAEL BURLEIGH | August 26, 2010
Whether he was killed by Islamic extremists, Russian gangsters or someone altogether closer to him, MI6 operative Dr Gareth Williams died a spook's death.
Murdered in his Pimlico penthouse - which is owned by a Russian-named, British Virgin Islands-registered company - his body was found in the bathroom, in a sports bag.
Nearby, a mobile phone and numerous SIM cards had been laid out on a table. As murders go, it is the stuff of Bond films.
Williams usually worked in Cheltenham, inside the vast doughnut-shaped complex that is the Government's top secret communications monitoring agency, GCHQ - and was reportedly on secondment to MI6.
Indeed, 'Ceaucescu Towers', as MI6's brutally modernist Vauxhall Cross HQ is known, is just across the River Thames from his apartment, overshadowing a huge bus terminal, and the gay clubs and saunas of 'VoHo' - the area's red light district.
But are GCHQ and MI6 operatives such as Williams really James Bond figures? And what exactly do they do?
Gone are the days when agents were recruited after a discreet word from their Oxbridge tutor. In the 21st century, spooks are recruited like anyone else. Posts are publicly advertised, and hopefuls must first sit the kind of psychometric test - devised to reveal their powers of analysis and observation - that many blue chip companies now employ.
Nor are the successful candidates guaranteed an exotic life of high jinks and murky subterfuge. While television series such as Spooks - which is about the domestic intelligence service, MI5 - have glamourised life in Britain's secret services and have certainly proved a useful recruitment tool, the daily reality is rather less dramatic.
Many of the workers at GCHQ, for example, spend their days - and often nights - trawling through billions of emails, text messages and telephone calls, looking out for the one communication that might prove crucial.
They seek to glean intelligence on a wide range of targets, including terrorists, organised criminals and hostile foreign governments. They also seek to foil the growing threat of cyber attacks launched against Britain's banking system.
In 1998 they played a major role in locating the fugitive murderer Kenneth Noye - after he fled to southern Spain - by tracking his mobile phone.
During the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, GCHQ waged a sophisticated electronic war against the IRA. It used electronic signals to prematurely detonate radio-controlled bombs, or listened in on telephone conversations between terrorists, looking out for such phrases as 'Are you coming out for a drink then?' - meaning an attack was imminent - or 'the bricks are in the wall' - a bomb is in place.
Much of this expertise will now have been re-directed, along with GCHQ manpower, to pick up fanatical Islamists using coded language about the imminence of a 'big wedding', a favourite code for a bomb attack.
But some of their operations seem downright bizarre. After the entire electricity grid in Auckland went down in the late 1990s, for example, GCHQ helped the New Zealand authorities trace the cyber-attack back to a group named the 'Anti-Christ Doom Squad', which had managed this feat from a laptop in an Amsterdam drug café.
GCHQ also eavesdropped on UN diplomats from six (friendly) nations crucial to the Security Council's second resolution on the permissibility of the Iraq War. Some, including Mexico, are still demanding an official apology from the UK.
Holding a doctorate in maths, Williams would have been wellqualified to work in a service which uses extremely complicated decryption methods to access sensitive - and heavily protected - information.
No wonder one former landlady said that the only noise she heard from Williams's otherwise hushed flat was the whirr of audio tapes.
Much of the work of GCHQ overlaps with that of MI6, who deal with real people rather than data pulsing through the ether. But most of MI6's agents are also worlds apart from the fictional figure of James Bond.
The majority of MI6 agents work in office jobs, inside the Vauxhall Cross complex. Here, they also sift through masses of data, about 90 per cent of which is 'open source'.
That means it is available to you or I, in newspapers or via the internet. They certainly bring acute analytical skills to the table, but several former ministers have openly questioned the value of what they yield.
Indeed, only 150 or so MI6 personnel are actually stationed abroad as secret agents. They are usually 'camouflaged' as counsellor, first secretary or protocol officer on the official lists of serving British diplomats working in key embassies.
Their main job is to recruit foreign agents, often people with inside knowledge on defence or commercial matters - the links between the security services and British business run deep - that might give an edge to British interests.
Some of these contacts will volunteer their services; others will have to be blackmailed or coerced into co-operating.
These operatives will spend much of their time hanging around the sort of places where lonely businessmen, civil servants, politicians or journalists congregate.
In fact, it used to be said that MI6's real work began after 6pm, when the interminable round of diplomatic cocktail parties started.
Being the life and soul of the party, rather than a gormless wallflower, was essential to the job, which may explain why so many men like Guy Burgess or Donald Maclean - the notorious KGB double agents - became hopeless drunks.
It was a tradition that continued with rogue MI5 officer Michael Bettany. On one occasion, when caught the worse for wear travelling on a train without a ticket, he shouted: 'You can't arrest me, I'm a spy.' Indeed he was, selling British secrets to the Russians, for which he was jailed in 1984.
Of course, nowadays, MI6's contemporary Al Qaeda and Taliban opponents are not to be found sipping gin at embassy receptions.
And so a handful of MI6 agents will be getting down and dirty, not just with their opposite numbers in the Middle East, but with the local people who inhabit dusty mountain encampments.
Chief among their tasks will be monitoring British subjects who claim to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan attending family weddings when they are really planning the next London Tube bombing in a terrorist training camp.
These agents will also be directing covert strikes on Taliban leaders, while simultaneously seeking to peel off the more amenable or corruptible ones to join the Afghan government.
This is extremely dangerous work, requiring a clear sense of purpose and nerves of steel. But they are also the minority.
Regardless of how Dr Williams died, and it may be that he was killed by someone close to him for reasons that were obscurely personal, he was part of a highly secretive, but often surprisingly mundane, culture.
And that, presumably, is why his mysterious death is the exception, rather than the rule.
MICHAEL BURLEIGH is the author of Blood And Rage: A Cultural History Of Terrorism (Harper Perennial, £9.99).