Irish Independent : Loner's death shines light on UK's shadowy spies

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Loner's death shines light on UK's shadowy spies

By Nigel West | April 29, 2012

TO hear shrieks and sobbing at any inquest is harrowing. Such high emotion seems at odds with the detached image many of us have of the world of spying. Yet last Thursday, during evidence into the death of the intelligence officer Gareth Williams, a female family member broke down in tears, and the hearing had to be adjourned.

Last week, the public had a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of MI6. At the coroner's court in Westminster, the focus of attention was Mr Williams, a 31-year-old GCHQ technician on a three-year secondment to MI6, whose naked body was found in a padlocked holdall at his Pimlico flat in August 2010.

I was one of the spectators in the court; having spent more than 30 years studying and recording the history of the British intelligence community, I can honestly say that this was one of the strangest events I have ever witnessed.

Mr Williams's family has long been convinced that "dark arts" were involved with his death, and that a third party was present either at his death or later destroyed evidence. There have been blunders from the beginning.

At an interim hearing ahead of the inquest, it was revealed that crucial DNA evidence found on Mr Williams's body came from a forensic scientist at the scene, a fact it took the forensic team more than a year to realise. And a Mediterranean couple who had visited the flat in the weeks before Mr Williams's death, and who the police were initially keen to track down, turned out to be a red herring. These mistakes have helped fuel the conspiracy theories surrounding the death.

Since we were dealing with British intelligence, security in the court was paramount. Members of MI6 were referred to by a letter rather than their names.

So who was Gareth Williams? He was a tech wizard, regarded as a "world class" expert in his field, who had joined GCHQ at the age of 21 and had then taken a postgraduate course at Cambridge in advanced mathematics. In 2007 he applied for a transfer to MI6, only to flunk the aptitude test, which suggested he lacked the requisite self-confidence. A year later he passed, which resulted in him moving in 2009 into an office -- shared with G and three others -- in MI6's headquarters at Vauxhall Cross.

Mr Williams was a geek. He did not socialise with colleagues, and none are known to have visited his top-floor flat in Alderney Street, Pimlico. His sister said in court that he "disliked office culture, post-work drinks, flash car competitions and the rat race". Instead, he enjoyed cycling and running, and was fiercely competitive.

It came as a shock to those who thought they knew him that he had attended a course in fashion design, and had accumulated a collection of women's designer clothes, shoes and boots -- valued at £20,000 -- lipstick and an orange wig.

On Thursday, an MI6 officer -- identified only as F -- had said the service was "profoundly sorry" Mr Williams's absence went unreported for five days after he had failed to show up for work. She blamed his line manager -- witness G -- for a breakdown in communication.

Later, it was revealed that when MI6 realised Mr Williams was missing, F had phoned the police. In the conversation, taped by the police and played to the court, F said that Mr Williams had been missing for the whole of the previous week and -- after a question about his state of mind -- she said he had been recalled from a job he had wanted to do, and was uncertain about how he had taken the news. The implication was obvious.

Key to the inquest was whether Mr Williams -- whose naked, decomposing body was found inside a padlocked holdall placed in his bath -- could have locked himself in the bag. Given his apparent interest in bondage, fetish clothing and claustraphilia -- as demonstrated by his web-surfing -- could he have fastened the brass padlock himself, the keys to which were found in the bag, under his body? And if so, where did the other unidentified DNA traces, found on the lock and the zipper, come from? Put simply, was Mr Williams alone when he died, or, though there was no sign of a break-in, was someone else involved?

On Friday, an expert in confined spaces said he was convinced another person was involved in putting Mr Williams into the holdall and locking it.

The other question, then, is whether Mr Williams's death was linked to his job. Detective Superintendent Michael Broster of Counter-Terrorism Command opined that there was nothing to link Mr Williams's death to his professional occupation, and no sign of a cover-up.

The conspiracy theories -- that Mr Williams was living in an MI6 safe-house and had been engaged in dangerous missions overseas; or had been categorised as a high-security risk -- have been scotched.

In short, Mr Williams was a loner who failed to fit in at MI6. As for his private life, MI6 is now very broadminded about individual lifestyles.

Although in theory G should have followed the protocol and started to suspect a problem when Mr Williams failed to show up for a meeting scheduled for Monday, August 16 -- the very day he died -- there is a straightforward explanation. MI6 personnel are often called at short notice to work on a particular, compartmentalised project. Raising the alarm because a team member has slipped away for a secret assignation is de rigueur. It is equally probable that a line-manager would be reluctant to acknowledge that he or she had been left out of the loop.

Another problem for MI6 is its dependency on personnel seconded from other organisations where there is not a clearly defined chain of command and responsibility. As Mr Williams was due to leave MI6 permanently, the assumption was that he was already preparing for his move.

Significantly, his apparent lack of office friendships may be part of the reason why he was not missed by any of his colleagues. Although an earlier intervention would have allowed the forensic scientists to be more precise about what had happened, his life could not have been saved by battering down his door on that Monday afternoon.


Nigel West is the pen name of Rupert Allason, a military historian and author specialising in intelligence and security issues. His latest book, 'A Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence', will be out in July

- Nigel West