Washington Post (blog) : U.S. officials: Gareth Williams death not spy-related

Friday, September 03, 2010

U.S. officials: Gareth Williams death not spy-related

By Jeff Stein | September 2, 2010

British media reports suggesting a spy-world connection to the gruesome death of U.K. code-breaker Gareth Williams are groundless, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

While refusing to comment publicly about the death of Williams, whose decomposing remains were discovered stuffed in a duffel bag in the bathtub of his London apartment on Aug. 23, the officials advised treating the British reports with great skepticism.

Williams, 30 or 31 at the time of his death, depending on reports, was said to be a "math genius" at Britain's code-breaking agency, the Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. He was on temporary assignment with the U.K. foreign intelligence service MI6. Williams's work decoding terrorist communications caused him to consult frequently with the U.S. National Security Agency at Ft. Meade, Md., according to British news reports.

But James Bamford, author of three authoritative books on the NSA, scoffed at hints of a terrorist or other intelligence-related murder conspiracy.

“There’s been a lot of hyped-up coverage in the U.K., but even codebreakers die from unrelated violence occasionally,” Bamford told SpyTalk. “Hundreds of NSA and GCHQ personnel travel back and forth between agencies every year, and leaving a body in a canvas bag sounds more like a jealous lover or drug deal gone bad than a political assassination.”

Bamford, who has developed scores of NSA sources over the years, added, “I haven’t heard anything of concern from my people on this.”

"Strange story," said a former top CIA official in London, "but I would be very surprised if it involves espionage foul play."

An NSA spokesperson, Vanee Vines, declined to comment on any relationship Williams may have had with the agency, or whether agency officials had been quizzed by British police. The CIA likewise declined to comment.

“I can tell you that we do not confirm or deny agency affiliation,” Vines said by e-mail. “I don't have any information to share with you.”

In a typical British report, the Telegraph of London reported Monday that “murder detectives say they are still looking at whether Gareth Williams may have been killed by a foreign intelligence agency seeking to stop his work on intercepting messages and code-breaking.”

“Interviews with friends and family of Mr. Williams, 30, have so far offered no clear leads as to how or why he died,” the paper said.

Still, after two autopsies, according to reports, police are treating the death of Williams as "suspicious and unexplained."