MercatorNet : Lonely life, lonely death

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lonely life, lonely death

The mysterious death of a British spy in the heart of London shows the hazards of the profession.

by Michael Coren | September 13, 2010

The British have a dark, sardonic sense of humour. It’s what got them through depressions, Nazi bombing raids and even socialist governments! So it took only a day or two late last month for the joke to circulate that the British intelligence services were so clever that their agents could commit the most extraordinary suicides in the world. The reference was to Gareth Williams, a young man seconded to MI6, whose body was found in a padlocked and sealed sports bag in the bath of his apartment.

Not funny for his friends and family of course. The 31-year-old was actually an employee of GCHQ, the Government Communications Headquarters based in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. It is part of three main branches of British intelligence along with MI5 (domestic intelligence) and MI6, also known as the SIS or Secret Intelligence Service (foreign intelligence). GCHG is, as it were, the least glamorous of the trio and most of its work involves listening to and monitoring communications and – vital work – deciphering what potential threat targets are saying to each other.

Williams had been seconded to MI6 in London, based on the south bank of the River Thames just down the road from the Houses of Parliament and from MI5, both establishments across the river over Lambeth Bridge. He lived nearby in Pimlico, which is where his body was found. It’s likely that he wasn’t a field agent but a mathematical genius recruited from university and employed to work on codes. He was an isolated figure, a passionate cyclist, quiet, reliable and with few if any friends. It is also claimed that his body was found two weeks after he was killed, that there were no signs of struggle or even of how he died and that various identity cards were arranged in his home as if to leave some sort of signal.

I say “claimed” because there is no way to know if any of this is true. Would even a low-level member of the intelligence community not be searched for by colleagues if he had not checked in for work for two weeks? Front-line agents have to call in under a secret code at regular, usually daily intervals but even ordinary staff members are scrutinized. The police still claim to have no leads and the story is no longer receiving much coverage in the British press but all sorts of questions remain unanswered.

One being why there were suggestions of sexual violence – the implication being of a homosexual variety – made within 24 hours of the story breaking. There was never any evidence of this but some newspapers ran with the report that bondage equipment was founded in Williams’ home. According to local police officers who later spoke to the press this was utter nonsense. As was the idea that the poor man cruised gay bars – there is a gay bathhouse directly across the road from the MI6 offices – or that he had some sort of guilty and clandestine double life.

This is British intelligence for goodness sake. They know about double lives and investigate every person who works for them. Gay men and women are openly employed by MI6 and MI5 – it is the possibility of blackmail and not sexual preference that determines the suitability of an applicant. In other words, as long as there is nothing to hide there is nothing to worry about. in any case, his relatives have furiously denied that he was a homosexual and say that he is being smeared by the government.

Was it MI6 who discredited Williams or was it a foreign agency? Was his death political and if so was he killed by a friend or an enemy? We may know eventually but likely not for some time. There is and always has been a reciprocal if not symbiotic relationship between the intelligence services and the media in Britain – less a case of the “spooks”, as they are known, exploiting the press than the intelligence people letting it be known that if journalists want good stories and leaked information they need to do what they’re told at other times.

When I was at university in England one of my professors, an avuncular and kindly man, told me that I was “Intelligent and lazy. You’ll make a good journalist or a good spy.” I laughed, went on my way and eventually became a journalist. I realize now that he was probably making preliminary recruitment inquiries. A talent spotter. Not that I was very talented. A fellow student who was studying Russian did eventually join the MI5 – something he did not tell his friends until he had left. He refused to say very much about what went on – “boring really, just lots of listening to the radio and reading Soviet newspapers” – but did tell us that what surprised him was how untidy the offices always were.

“Thing is, you see, it’s quite difficult to do thorough security checks on people who clean offices and empty the bins. So the cleaning up is left to the people who work there and we resented doing it. Always argued about whose turn it was to do it. So most days it was a mess. Not as glamorous as I’d hoped.”

Not glamorous at all for the unfortunate Gareth Williams but British intelligence still enjoys a fine reputation and, apart from a bad period during the cold war, has performed its tasks extremely well. The problems of double-agents working for Moscow in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s was that many of the men and women who has done such excellent work spying on and monitoring the Nazis and their supporters during the 30s and the Second World War had a sympathy for Communism based on their hatred of fascism. Thus their loyalties became clouded once the war was over. It led to betrayal and to lack of faith on the part of the always more bellicose CIA.

The intelligence war against Irish extremism, the modern hard left and small far right was and is far more successful but today an estimated 70 percent of the efforts, energy and finance of the security services is devoted to Islamic fundamentalism. Mosques are certainly infiltrated, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu speakers recruited and trained and a whole network of informants and intelligence-gatherers maintained. The country is on a permanent “high alert” level and it’s estimated that more than a dozen serious and up to a hundred potential Islamic terror attacks have been prevented by MI5, MI6 and their support group within the police – Special Branch.

So whatever happened to the unfortunate Mr Williams – may he rest in peace – is fascinating but has no effect on the work of a constantly challenged and, apparently, untidy British intelligence service. Will all of the secrets eventually be revealed? Don’t bet on it. The river Thames that back on to MI6 hides its treasures darkly and deeply; so do the spies who work next to it.