Guardian : Gareth Williams case should make us all uneasy

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Gareth Williams case should make us all uneasy

Michael White | May 3, 2012

The MI6 officer's unexplained death has accidentally shone a light on things security folk would love to have covered up

Are MI6 and its domestic counterpart, MI5, entitled to keep some secrets? Of course they are. Why, only this week when Alex Healey and I were out filming Boris Johnson for the Guardian we patriotically avoided causing the spooks embarrassment. But when an inquest exposes MI6's shoddy behaviour over the death of codebreaker Gareth Williams, Ken Clarke can surely kiss goodbye to his hopes of secret court hearings for intelligence-sensitive evidence.

Why? Because the bizarre, still unexplained death of the mathematical wizard and fitness fanatic has accidentally shone a light on what can only be interpreted as incompetence or callousness by his employers – I rule out more sinister explanations, tempting though they always are – which the security folk would love to have covered up.

As Caroline Davies and Sandra Laville set out in Thursday's paper – most papers wisely give the case a lot of space – they had already covered up enough to make the coroner, Fiona Wilcox, consider suspending her inquest.

This happened after she discovered only this week that MI6 had withheld from police investigators the existence of nine memory sticks and another holdall at Williams's MI6 HQ office on the south bank of the Thames. It wasn't the only problem.

As usual the intelligence community pleaded "sensitive information" on the memory sticks. This seems to have been enough for counter-terrorism officers from the Met's SO15 branch, who have clearance to visit MI6 HQ and also kept it from the copper actually investigating what may yet turn out to be murder (rather than a sex game that went wrong?). But what about the other holdall, just like the one the 5ft 8ins and 60kg Williams was found locked inside?

Taken together with the discovery that the flat was unusually clean of prints and other human detritus – wiped by a third party? – the whole incident is baffling. What's more, you may recall, it took Williams's sister, not his workmates, to call the alarm – even though he hadn't been in for a week.

The spy writer Nigel West suggests in an article that they may have assumed he was off on some secret mission, that no one would want to show themselves out of the loop by asking where Gareth was.

Surely some primitive form of line management must exist to cover the possibility that the seriously talented Welshman from GCQH in Cheltenham might be kidnapped by Russians or even little green Martians?

Not our problem, though we do pay for ever-larger budgets to keep us all safe from threats which are – some of them – very real. But the affair serves to remind us all – as Richard Norton-Taylor writes here – that the security services can act like a self-interested producer lobby as much as Bob Crow at the RMT union or Bob Diamond at Barclays Bank.

The scope for wrapping themselves in national security and acting outside the law without being held to account is thus very considerable. So when the justice secretary produces a green paper suggesting that US co-operation over intelligence material is at risk if sensitive stuff like that made public in the Binyam Mohamed case is revealed in future cases, we are entitled to be sceptical.

So, incidentally, are some ex-CIA types reported here.

All government departments have their own agendas – the permanent government agenda immortalised by Yes Minister's Sir Humphrey – and MI5/MI6 are no different.

Chances are they sold this one to a jittery coalition, much as they did to New Labour. Yet Clarke of all people is an old soldier, precisely the sort of no-nonsense politician not to be hoodwinked. The joint Lords/Commons intelligence and security committee (ISC) should also be standing up for the public interest – but doesn't seem to be doing so in this instance.

Labour's Kim Howells, who used to chair the ISC, was on Channel 4 News on Wednesday night expressing puzzlement and dismay about the fate of his fellow Welshman.

I spoke to another ex-ISC MP a few minutes ago, who said the same: "What on earth are the security services up to? Don't they realise we live in the 21st century, when greater openness is essential?"

It's not that we need to or should be told everything, of course not. But judges and coroners, sometimes juries and certainly investigating police officers from the Met need to be told what's going on. Why was the Met so deferential to MI6 and is only now taking DNA swabs from Gareth Williams's immediate colleagues?

It's not as if they're on Rupert Murdoch's payroll. And they certainly weren't so deferential to Tony Blair over those loans-for-honours allegations, when no one died except in a political sense.

How did Alex Healey and I do our bit for MI6, I hear you ask? Well, we were on a suburban train with Boris Johnson, travelling from Wandsworth to Waterloo when I spotted the MI6 HQ looming out of the mist. Alex filmed it and I said to camera: "Let's wait to see if we can spot a few spooks getting out at Vauxhall station."

Do you know, right on cue, a well-dressed, faintly smart sort of chap in a beige overcoat with a brown collar, got out at Vauxhall, looking as if he was straight from George Smiley's version of central casting. "Switch that camera off, Alex," I said. "We must protect this man."

Let's hope he'd do the same for us if we went missing for a week.