Political Promise

I-Spy: The Mysteries of the Secret Service

In Vicky Wong on August 30, 2010 at 11:14 am

By Vicky Wong


9:00am start to the morning and the first thing I grab as I get out of bed is my recent library book; James Rusbridger’s book on Intelligence and Espionage, titled The Intelligence Game: The Illusions and Delusions of International Esponiage. A fascinating read and highly recommended.

Upon performing my morning rituals of brushing my teeth, making my breakfast and an eagerly anticipated daily cup of tea, I switch on the BBC News, assuming that I am meant to be able to multi-task, I decide to continue reading my book, whilst the BBC News team continue their commentary on the morning’s headlines. After about an hour or so, the red Banner of Breaking News flashes onto the screen and we are alerted that a man has been found dead in his flat, and is presumed to be a missing MI6 spy. The story now had my full attention, so much so that I just needed to write a blog for it.

The mysterious death of MI6 agent and spook Gareth Williams sounds like an episode of Sherlock if not the next plot for a future spy movie in which Hollywood is bound to want to have the rights for, in which they will up the budget, change the location and release it in cinematic 3D glory (that along with the story of the Chilean miners).  Little is known concerning the circumstances of Williams’ death, but it has put the mystery surrounding the secret services back into the media spotlight, which lends to its constantly glamorised image.

After the Russian spy-ring of a James Bond novel was unearthed in America, the negative reception by the Russian citizens over how little the spies achieved using wireless networks, encrypted e-mails and invisible ink to try and influence the American policy-making process, whilst living relatively comfortable lives will be their legacy. But what never fails to amaze me was at how quickly the story practically disappeared after about a week or so, especially the speed at which negotiations were made over the spy swap, and how friendly it all seemed. It was like the coalition talks all over again.

But exactly what kind of role Gareth Williams played in MI6 is not cited as the reason for his death.

The secretive world of the spy is a much glamorised one thanks to the world of fiction and fantasy, and also courtesy of the likes of Ian Fleming’s brainchild that is James Bond; an image that the real secret services may not forgive the world of creativity for bestowing unto the world. Yet despite the grandeur, the gadgets and the girls (or guys), we know little about the world of spies.

Authorities have cited Williams’ personal life as a possible reason for his death, and reports of Williams’ homosexuality has been cited, amidst cries of anger from Williams’ family denying claims that the deceased was homosexual. Of the conflicting reports emerging, the police have denied that gay pornography and bondage equipment had been found at Williams’ Pimlico flat, reports that individuals linked to Williams that police want to interview have suddenly become “unavailable”, accounts of Williams’ presence in gay bars, and further claims that MI6 are eager to divert attention away from Williams’ work in MI6 to his private life.

Some of the questions raised have included why did it take so long for MI6 to realise that one of their spies has been missing from work for many days? Are the security services intentionally interfering with police investigations? Who is Gareth Williams exactly? These are questions that no one really knows the answers to.

That the investigation should deduce Williams’ personal life as a cause for the death is likely; personal lives are often the targeted, and can be used to blackmail individuals. Cases such as that of Geoffrey Prime; a British spy during the 60s and 70s, whose paedophilia was a weakness exploited by the KGB to blackmail him into working for them is an example of such. Many are familiar with the term “honey trapping”, in the world of espionage, this involves the sexual entrapment of spies, an example that was cited by Rusbridger’s book was that of John Vassall, himself a homosexual whose antics were photographed and used by the KGB to blackmail him into providing secret information.

This is not to say that Williams may have been honey trapped or blackmailed, but nor do we have proof that Williams’ personal life may have most definitely been the reason for his death. But given past experience, it would be unreasonable to rule it out as a possible cause.

Talk of a smear campaign orchestrated by the government has also appeared side-by-side with the story. The exact nature of the government’s knowledge of MI5 or MI6’s activities is generally unknown to the public, but one thing that people need to be aware of is that the secret service is unelected, unaccountable and its activities unknown. It is this unaccountability that enables it to remain secretive, and this is further supported by the need of institutions such as MI5 and MI6 to keep intelligence secret for the purposes of national security.

Cover-ups stories over the activities of spies are not uncommon, and can only lend to further suspicion over what Williams’ role really was.

Little is known about what has caused Williams’ demise, but it is likely that MI6 will be eager to keep this one in the shadows, and will continue in the shadows, lending more to the mystery of our intelligence services.

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