Express : What Does MI6 Have To Say About The Spy In The Bag?

Saturday, May 05, 2012


By James Gillespie | May 5, 2012

THE bizarre case of Gareth Williams has thrown the spotlight on an intelligence service whose shadowy work leads some critics to ask whether it has become a law to itself.

There is an address in South London where even the police can’t go. Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, the officer leading the investigation into the baffling death of MI6 agent Gareth Williams – the so-called “Spy in the Bag” case – must have wished her powers extended to 85 Vauxhall Cross. But they don’t.

That address is the home of MI6 and although Sebire is a highly-experienced murder detective she doesn’t have security clearance to even enter the building much less question its inhabitants.

Instead her investigation depended on the mediation of Detective Superintendent Michael Broster of SO15, the counter-terrorism branch, which works closely with the intelligence services.

Only in the final stages of the inquest into Williams’s death this week did it emerge that no verbatim notes were taken of interviews with his MI6 colleagues and that a black holdall and nine memory sticks had been found at his desk but not handed over to the investigating officers.

Now 50 MI6 staff are facing DNA tests after the coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox, in a narrative verdict, ruled that it was likely Williams was “unlawfully killed”. Investigators are understood to believe that a colleague either from MI6 or the Government’s secret listening post at GCHQ was in the Pimlico flat when Williams died.

For his family – sister Ceri and parents Ian and Ellen – the inquest has raised as many questions as it has answered. And the most disturbing question of all is: does MI6 think it’s above the law?

The family has accused the intelligence service of withholding vital clues and failing to make “basic inquiries” until a week after Williams disappeared. “We are also extremely disappointed over the reluctance and failure of MI6 to make available relevant information,” they added.

Dr Wilcox echoed those concerns when she said that the forgetfulness of some employees at MI6, where Williams was on secondment from GCHQ, “stretched probability” and she refused to rule out the possibility that someone from the world of intelligence was involved.

From the moment the 31-year-old’s body was discovered in a North Face bag in the bath of his flat the response of MI6 has been puzzling. It took staff seven days even to report Williams – a conscientious time-keeper – missing then they appeared keen for police to be first into the apartment that MI6 has used for many years as temporary accommodation for employees.

The flat’s heating had been turned up high, despite the warmth of August, speeding up the decomposition of the body. The placing of the bag containing Williams into the bath prevented the giveaway leakage of fluids through the floor.

There were suggestions that the flat had been “swept” by someone who was forensically aware, to remove as many clues as possible.

Dr Wilcox said there was no evidence to suggest MI6 was involved in the death but “it is still a legitimate line of inquiry” and she added that “many agencies fell short” in the aftermath.

Sir John Sawers, MI6 chief, has apologised “unreservedly”, saying that lessons had been learned. But have they?

The problem may be that deep within MI6, in its culture and attitudes, lies a belief that the law is for other people.

The very nature of its work (MI6 deals with foreign intelligence, MI5 with domestic) means it is often on the boundaries of legality. The service is already under investigation for its part in sending Libyan dissidents into the hands of Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police.

Conservative MP Andrew Tyne, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, this week called on Foreign Secretary William Hague to investigate whether MI6 officers had briefed journalists over the Libyan case – in breach of the Official Secrets Act.

The 1994 Intelligence Services Act allows MI6 officers to carry out acts abroad that if done in Britain would be in breach of criminal law. It would be hardly surprising if that attitude spreads to their staff at home.

Michael Smith, author of SIX: The Real James Bonds, says: “MI6 would recoil at any suggestion that it sees itself as above the law but the inherent secrecy of organisations like MI6 does tend to make them think that keeping everything they do secret, even the slightest thing, is so important that it transcends everything else.

“We’ve definitely seen that here, which is why the coroner and some police officers are so angry, justifiably so.”

But who are the people who spend their days working in the modernistic building on the banks of the Thames at 85 Vauxhall Cross?

There are about 2,500 people working for MI6 of whom about half are support staff.

The others are divided into two types: Intelligence Branch (IB) officers and General Service officers.

General Service officers asses reports.

It is the IB officers who are the real James Bonds. They train in the "killing houses" of the SAS and SBS at Hereford and Poole and have their own firing range at the MI6 training school at Fort Monckton on the Solent.

Within their shadowy world there are as many tensions and disagreements as in any workplace but these are hidden. In the Williams case a senior MI6 officer identified as F blamed his subordinate G for a "breakdown in communications" but G was not disciplined and no one will ever know who they are.

But Williams was a computer expert on secondment from GCHQ in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. What sort of people work there?

“Geeks,” said one who knows GCHQ staff but did not want to be identified. “They are brilliant in languages, maths or computers but they tend to be the sort of people who don’t mix easily. At university they are always the top ones in their class but they’re loners. A bit awkward.”

That description certainly fits Williams. He was a fitness fanatic who loved competitive cycling but also had a £20,000 collection of women’s clothing in his flat. When it came to the inquest, friends were few and far between.

HOWEVER those who did know him believe the picture painted during the inquiry was misleading. Some have claimed the clothes were gifts for female friends and talk of him visiting claustrophilia websites turned out to be based on four visits in two years. Hardly evidence of a dangerous obsession, as Dr Wilcox pointed out.

Perhaps the truth about what happened to Williams has fallen victim to MI6’s rather ambivalent attitude to the law.

“The secret world lives in a bubble,” says Smith. “It very often seeks to keep secret even things that are freely available on the internet.”

Another intelligence services expert, author Michael Burleigh, says: “After imagining that it could outmanoeuvre Plod, meaning highly-competent detectives, MI6 needs to think about how it lost track of its ‘vital’ employee – for tracking people is what it allegedly does on a global stage.

“It needs also to think about how it can allay the understandable distress of the Williams family while helping DCI Sebire, who has every right to feel short-changed.”

By protecting its right to secrecy every step of the way in the case of Gareth Williams, MI6 may actually be doing nothing more than what it does best: keeping secrets. What it does not appear to have done is to have helped significantly in finding out the truth of what happened in that Pimlico flat.

And MI6 seems to have shown scant regard for the others involved, not least Williams’s sister and his parents.

Because MI6 appears to think of itself as being above the law it hasn’t convinced anyone that it did the right thing.

It has just made itself look guilty.