The Week : Spy-in-bag death can be solved if police are allowed to do their job

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Spy-in-bag death can be solved if police are allowed to do their job

Crispin Black | May 2, 2012

THE WESTMINSTER Coroner investigating the death of GCHQ mathematician Gareth Williams in 2010 has delivered a narrative verdict after listening to the evidence of 39 witnesses over seven days. This means that the circumstances of a death are recorded without attributing the cause to a named individual. But it’s a narrative verdict with a twist. She has made it clear that she believes that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ Gareth Williams was unlawfully killed.

She has shown both ingenuity and common sense in framing her formal verdict in this way. But it’s not a surprise. It was clear from the outset that Madam Coroner suspected foul play - she referred in court to the police investigation a number of times as a "Category A Murder Investigation". Technically, it is only an investigation into a ‘suspicious death’.

Towards the end of the process, her own dissatisfaction with the police investigation became abundantly clear. In an electrifying moment mid-afternoon yesterday she snapped. Visibly wearying of the answers of Detective Superintendent Michael Broster, the counter-terrorism officer acting as liaison between MI6 and the police investigation, she suggested angrily that he had not been "totally impartial".

He was coming to the end of a rough hour or so in the witness box trying to explain why he hadn't passed nine memory sticks found in Gareth Williams's locker at MI6 to Detective Chief Inspector Jackie Sebire, the detective in charge of the investigation.

The spooks had apparently assured him they were not relevant.

He hadn't seen fit to mention to anyone that a black North Face holdall similar to the one in which Williams was found dead had been found beneath his desk at Vauxhall Cross. It didn't help that Broster's account of the search of the locker didn't seem to tally with the account given earlier in the day by an equally evasive and unimpressive subordinate who had assisted him.

Broster's uncomfortable experience in the witness box - he looked absolutely furious as he left the building - made embarrassingly clear the shortcomings in the police investigation.

Because DCI Sebire and her team do not have the security clearances to deal with Top Secret matters of national security, they have not been allowed to enter MI6 HQ or question any of Gareth Williams's colleagues at either GCHQ or MI6. These aspects of the investigation have been undertaken by officers from Counter Terrorism Command like Broster who have been security vetted.

Quite why Sebire and her team can't be put through the 'developed vetting' procedure isn't clear. It does not take that long and she and her team have been on the case for 20 months now. The absurdity of this was underlined in court on Tuesday.

When Williams's overall boss at MI6 'Witness D' gave evidence, it was entirely proper that he did so from behind a screen. He is a spook and therefore his identity should be protected. The Coroner, the family and the lawyers could all see him face to face but court officials and journalists could not. We could hear the questions and answers but not see anything. Sitting with us also unable to see anything was DCI Sebire. One wonders what she made of Witness D's evidence. His memory didn't seem to be too good - unusual in a spook.

‘Witness G’, Williams’s immediate superior, also giving evidence from behind a screen earlier in the inquest – failed to impress. In her summing up the Coroner described his evidence as beginning ‘to stretch bounds of credibility’.

This is much more serious than just a slightly unwieldy protocol to protect national security. It is hard not to conclude that MI6 is being protected in some way from a proper investigation. Sebire hasn't been able to interview any spooks and she has had to rely on the judgment of others about physical evidence.

As the Coroner said to Broster, "Don't you think the murder inquiry and those responsible for it should have been investigating that evidence and not the person providing the evidence to you?" The Coroner's implication was clear and you could see the penny dropping with Broster as she said it. A few minutes later under heavily sarcastic questioning from Anthony O'Toole, the lawyer for the Williams family, he let slip: "I am not saying a member of SIS is not involved, I don't know."

Although I greatly admire the way Fiona Wilcox has conducted the inquest I don't agree with her pessimistic summing up that it is "unlikely" that Gareth Williams's death "will ever be satisfactorily explained". The answer is out there somewhere.

The way the police investigation has been conducted does not command public confidence and as currently organised seems unlikely to unravel the mystery. DCI Sebire, who has been convinced all along that "a third party was involved" has clearly done her best in difficult circumstances, but a whole avenue of investigation dealing with Williams's work colleagues has been deliberately closed off to her. As she made clear throughout the inquest she is convinced she can unravel the mystery. Let her do her job.