Orange UK News : Errors hindered spy death probe

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Errors hindered spy death probe

May 2, 2012

The bizarre circumstances of Gareth Williams's death left detectives faced with a perplexing case, but mistakes made after he died hardly helped in the quest for answers.

A week elapsed before MI6 raised the alarm over the spy's disappearance. With his undiscovered body decomposing, crucial evidence could well have been lost.

Various reasons for the delay were offered, based on false assumptions about the agent's whereabouts.

One MI6 line manager said he thought Mr Williams must be stuck on a train when he missed a meeting seven days before his remains were found.

Other colleagues believed for days he might be packing for his return to GCHQ from his London secondment.

Either that, or he was working on coursework, they thought.

Yet Mr Williams was so punctual one colleague was said to have likened him to a Swiss clock, with non-attendance at a meeting being most out of character.

A contrite secret services boss - named only as SIS F - acknowledged the blunders, admitting Mr Williams's no-show should have been flagged two to four hours after being noted.

"We are profoundly sorry about what happened," she said.

"It shouldn't have happened and we recognise that the delay in finding Gareth's body has made it even harder for the family to come to terms with his dreadful death and we are truly sorry for that.

"I also appreciate the delay had some impact on the police investigation."

The family's lawyer, Anthony O'Toole, pulled no punches in describing this impact.

"Because of the decomposition of the body, any forensic evidence that could have been derived from it has disappeared, so the police investigation has in essence been almost defeated," he said.

Scientists were left with little to go on when trying to establish how the spy died and could not rule out poisoning, despite lacking hard proof.

The slow response of the secret services was not, however, the only error feared to have hampered the inquiry.

As the inquest neared its end, MI6 and a senior detective were accused of failing to disclose vital evidence.

Nine computer memory sticks and a black bag were overlooked for 21 months after the death, with the lead detective on the case told of them only this week.

The North Face bag - similar to the one in which the agent was found dead - was discovered by officers under his desk at MI6's London HQ.

MI6 also examined computer equipment belonging to Mr Williams without telling police.

And the spy's relatives were left shaking their heads as Detective Constable Colin Hall, of the Met's counter-terror SO15 branch, said his search of the agent's Vauxhall headquarters was called off shortly after the death was discovered.

The case was then plagued by further false steps when forensic teams mistakenly identified what they thought was a significant spot of DNA on Mr Williams's hand in 2010.

It took them until March this year to realise it matched a scientist at the crime scene.

Human error was blamed, with the wrong number for the sample being logged on a computer.

Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox spelt out the damage done: "My concern, and I'm sure the police's concern, was the amount of time spent in the investigation on what was a false lead."

Scientific adviser Ros Hammond, of LGC Forensics, said she had never witnessed this sort of mix-up.

The forensic officer responsible, Paul Stafford Allen, apologised for any "distress" caused to the family by his transcription error, expressing his "deep regret".

But apologies, and promises that changes have since been made to prevent such slip-ups recurring, will not give the family the answers they crave.