Independent : Leading article: MI6 has only itself to blame

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Leading article: MI6 has only itself to blame

May 3, 2012

After a seven-day inquest, there are, if anything, more unanswered questions about the death of Gareth Williams than there were before. How did a "world-class" spy come to be padlocked in a bag in the bathtub of his London flat? Was he the victim of a sex game gone wrong, or was he killed in connection with his job in the security services?

Despite testimony from 39 witnesses, three pathologists and two experts in confined spaces, coroner Fiona Wilcox could only conclude that, although the balance of probabilities points to an unlawful killing, it is unlikely that the death will ever be explained.

Not only is such a verdict unsatisfactory for Mr Williams's grieving family, it also might have been avoided. And a significant portion of the blame for the confusion must fall on the security services. Serial irregularities in MI6's handling of the matter added needless muddle and mystery to an already complex situation, fuelling a whirlwind of speculation that yesterday's judgment in no way diminishes.

Had Mr Williams's disappearance been noticed earlier, for example, then vital toxicological evidence of poisoning – or not – would not have been lost to the decomposition process. Yet MI6 managers took a whole week to notify the police that one of their staff was missing. Administrative incompetence is, of course, rife in organisations of all kinds. But it must surely be in the nature of the security service's business to keep tabs on employees, and the profound apologies offered to the dead man's family does not mitigate so woeful an oversight.

Neither did the trouble stop there. Having failed so egregiously in the first instance, MI6 might have been expected to work hard to assist the police investigation. Instead, vital evidence was not disclosed, and so piecemeal were the details collected from security service staff that the counter-terrorism officer acting as intermediary was accused of bias. Is it any wonder that there have been squeals of cover-up?

Given his job, Mr Williams's death was always likely to catch the attention of conspiracy theorists. By a combination of dilatoriness and obfuscation, MI6 has only made matters worse.