FBI joins investigation into MI6 spy's death
The FBI has joined the hunt for the mystery 'Mediterranean' couple linked to the death of the MI6 spy found dead in his London safe house.
Gordon Thomas and Patrick Sawer
25 Sep 2010
The bureau has employed face recognition technology at US airports in a bid to establish whether Gareth Williams travelled in and out of the US any stage with a couple answering the description of two people Scotland Yard have appealed to come forward in connection with his death.
The couple, of 'Mediterranean' appearance, were thought to have visited Mr Williams's flat in Pimlico sometime in June or July. Scotland Yard believes the pair, in their thirties, were known to Mr Williams since neighbours do not recall buzzing them into the address.
So far no trace of the couple has been found and detectives believe they could be significant to the inquiry.
Mr Williams, a computing and maths prodigy whose funeral on Friday was attended by Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, had made regular trips to the United States, where he worked on secondment to the US National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland, helping to create defences against cyberattack on banking and infrastructure systems.
His last trip back to London from Washington was on Tuesday, August 10, following a holiday in the US. On August 15 CCTV showed him shopping at Harrods, eight days before his body was found at his flat in Pimlico.
The Sunday Telegraph understands that FBI agents have questioned baggage handlers at Washington's Dulles International Airport. None of them recall loading a large North Face holdall of the type in which Mr Williams's decomposing body was later discovered in the bath of his flat.
CCTV camera tapes at the airport have been subjected to FBI "Face Recognition" analysis to establish if Mr Williams arrived alone for his departure flight – or whether he was at any stage accompanied by the Mediterranean looking man and woman being sought by the Metropolitan Police.
Agents have also searched an apartment in the US used by Mr Williams close to the offices of the NSA, in a bid to establish if his death presents a threat to their own national security.
The 31-year-old, who had been on secondment to MI6 from the GCHQ listening centre in Cheltenham for a year, is understood to have lived in the flat while working at the NSA.
Agents have also interviewed a number of Mr Williams's colleagues and associates in the US in their attempt to discover if security has been disrupted by his death. The FBI has also checked with Internal Security at the NSA to see if the description of the couple fitted any of the small circle of friends which Williams had developed while working there.
Given his known enthusiasm for cycling the FBI has made checks along the trails through the popular Appalachian Mountains close to Washington, to see if Mr Williams had rented a bicycle in the area or travelled there during his visits.
Intelligence sources say nothing compromising has been found during either the search or the interviews, however the revelations have focused attention on Mr Williams's work in the US and his links to American security agencies.
Mr Williams is understood to have been a key member of a joint team assembled by MI6, GCHQ and the NSA at Fort Meade, where he was helping create defences for both Britain and the US against cyber attack by hostile countries.
He was given his own work station, equipped with a supercomputer with a secure link to GCHQ and MI6.
According to an intelligence source "his clearance was so high that he had access to over 30 categories of information which NSA had gathered". From Fort Meade he would also visit the Pentagon, the headquarters of the US Department of Defence.
Harry Ferguson, a former MI6 officer, said Mr Williams would have been a high-value asset if he had been recruited by a foreign agency.
It is understood that his remit at the NSA was to develop new defences that he would introduce to his post at GCHQ's Office of Cyber Security (OCS) on his return.
The FBI declined to confirm or deny whether its agents had searched Mr Williams's apartment. A spokesman at its Baltimore office, which covers the State of Maryland, said: "We don't discuss ongoing investigations."
Mr Williams's body was found in a state of advanced decomposition in the large North Face holdall, which had been padlocked from the outside and left in the bath of his flat at 23 Alderney Street, on August 23. Detectives have played down speculation that Mr Williams could have closed the padlock around the two zip handles from inside the bag. Officers are understood to believe someone else was involved in the death.
Two separate autopsies have failed to establish the cause of death and tests for other rare toxins which may evade initial examination continued last week on Mr Williams's body. A Home Office pathologist has already established that he was not stabbed, shot or strangled.
The continuing mystery over Mr Williams's death – along with the speculation, often lurid, surrounding it – has made it difficult for his parents Ian and Ellen to come to terms with the loss of their son. Mr and Mrs Williams, along with his sister Ceri, led mourners at his funeral at the Bethel Methodist Chapel in Anglesey before retreating their home in the village of Valley, overlooking the Irish Sea.
Mr Williams's uncle, William Hughes, a farmer and Plaid Cymru county councillor, said: "It's very tough for them at the moment. They are struggling to come to terms with what has happened. The fact no one yet seems to know how or why Gareth died makes it very difficult. He was a wonderful boy and Ian and Ellen were very proud of him."
Give us Gareth's body back: Dead MI6 spy's family demand independent tests to find out truth
Sam Greenhill and Charlotte Gill
11th September 2010
Concern grows over foreign involvement in spy's death
Patrick Sawer and Gordon Thomas
11 Sep 2010
Sources have told this newspaper that Britain's intelligence services – MI6, MI5 and GCHQ – are liaising closely to establish whether Gareth Williams was targeted by a foreign power.
The 31-year-old was seconded from GCHQ to work on top-secret systems to defend British banks and transport infrastructure from cyber attack and to eavesdrop on terrorist communications.
As a result he may have come to the attention of foreign intelligence agencies.
Security service sources suggest that the most likely explanation for Mr Williams's death is still to be found in his private life, but they admit they are not yet certain and are considering a range of explanations.
Some officials are starting to believe the way the killing was carried out – leaving few, if any, immediate clues as to the cause of death – could point to a professionally-carried-out assassination.
Scotland Yard, which is leading the investigation into his death, said: "We're not at the stage where we can pinpoint how Mr Williams died and all avenues in this investigation remain open. We are keeping an open mind."
It is feared that by the time of his death last month Mr Williams's presence in London had become known to foreign spies, despite the fact he was living in a MI6 safe house with an alarm system linking him to nearby MI6 headquarters.
"It would have been part of their brief", said a British intelligence officer.
The 31-year-old maths and computer expert would have been regarded as a valuable asset for his knowledge of the inner-workings of GCHQ, the government's listening post in Cheltenham, and for his work on preventing cyber attacks on the banking and transport infrastructure.
It is understood Mr Williams's job at the time of his death was creating computer defences in the City of London. Williams would have had access to information which other countries would want to obtain.
The intelligence source said: "His job was to defend the banking system on which Britain's banking, commerce and all our public services depend. It was the kind of work that would have made him prime target for recruitment.
"He was also in a position to know about huge money transfers out of the Middle East which were linked to terror groups. It would be priceless data."
One theory being examined is that Mr Williams may have had an approach from a rival agency, and either rebuffed it without informing his superiors or initially agreed to co-operate then got cold feet.
If such an approach had been exposed there would have been severe political and diplomatic repercussions, making it expedient for Mr Williams to be killed.
It can be revealed that Williams had also played an important role in creating signal intelligence equipment, known as sigint, to listen to Taliban communications in Afghanistan.
He had helped in fitting out three Brittan-Norman Islander aircraft with this equipment to be used as airborne-listening stations.
Based at RAF Northolt in West London since 2007 they have flown over selected British cities searching for communications between suspected terrorists.
A key part of the equipment is the wide-band recorders that Mr Williams helped to develop. Each has the capacity to vacuum up continuous mobile phone traffic in a city the size of Bradford.
The "product" is then downloaded to GCHQ where state-of-the-art computers analyse the voices using voice-recognition software.
Mr Williams's knowledge of US intelligence agencies would have also been valuable. He spent several months at Menwith Hill, the secret listening station in Yorkshire used by the United States to intercept coded messages, and Fort Meade in Maryland, the home of the US's National Security Agency.
Scotland Yard say detectives are now awaiting the result of toxicology tests.
These would establish whether Mr Williams was poisoned using a deadly toxin such as strychnine, cyanide or thallium, administered in such a way as to leave no mark visible to the naked eye.
Sources state that Home Office pathologists are also looking for evidence that Mr Williams was smothered to death, a method that can leave no trace and is extremely hard to detect.
Concern about the possible involvement of a foreign agency has increased further following a public appeal issued last week [Monday, September 7] by Scotland Yard detectives, who are taking the lead in the investigation.
September 6, 2010
intelNews, JOSEPH FITSANAKIS
There are, however, increasing signs that the GCHQ scientist’s murder was carried out in a professional manner, possibly by a member of a rival intelligence agency. A further clue pointing to this possibility is that Williams’ body, which was found stuffed in a padlocked sports bag placed inside a bathtub in his apartment, had been submerged into some sort of fluid. This was reported by police officers who were first on the murder scene. But the liquid substance, which was neither blood nor water, has yet to be precisely identified. There are suspicions that it was employed to hasten the decay of Williams’ body and to erase possible toxicological clues as to the former scientist’s time and cause of death. In the past few days, it has also become known that Williams, who had received top security clearance from the British government, had recently returned from an MI6 mission to Bulgaria.
01 Sep 2010
Remembered by school mates as a “maths genius”, Mr Williams was on a one-year secondment to MI6 from GCHQ, the government’s “listening post” in Cheltenham, Glos, where he worked for almost a decade.
His position regularly took him to the US where he liaised with the National Security Agency and the CIA and he is also reported to have made a number of visits to Afghanistan....
MURDER OF SPOOK GARETH WILLIAMS: NSA; MIND CONTROL
On 23 August 2010, the police found his body in an MI6 flat near to MI6 HQ in London.
According to "a source" Mr Williams’ body was found during a "welfare check" by police following a call from one of his colleagues at GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in Cheltenham. (DEAD SPY GARETH WILLIAMS A)
According to Nicholas Anderson, a Former MI6 agent, "It took nearly two weeks for the FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office) employee assistance head to follow up on why he hadn't been at work." (MI6 death: Murder most strange)
1. Reportedly he had been dead for weeks.
Jenny Elliott said: 'He definitely wasn't on annual leave as the security services woman who came to see me after they found his body told me that he wasn't on holiday." (The Daily Mail. )
How did MI6 not notice that one of its Agents was missing ? (MI6 inquiry will ask why it took two weeks to find murdered officer )
And how did they not notice he was in one of their own safe houses ? (Murdered British Spy Found Stuffed Into Sports Bag in Bath of ...)
"A source claimed detectives have been ‘blocked’ from interviewing several potentially crucial witnesses.
"Mr Williams’s ‘best friend’, a female colleague at the Government’s listening post, was posted to work for an intelligence agency linked to the Pentagon in the U.S. five weeks ago.
"The 25-year-old woman and her husband, who also knew Mr Williams, both worked at GCHQ in Cheltenham and were ‘suddenly’ transferred to Denver, Colorado, on secret duties.
Murder squad detectives are keen to speak to her in case she can offer any clues to why someone would want Mr Williams dead. (Gareth WIllams: Riddle of murder spy's money trail Mail Online)
"Echelon now eavesdrops on terror suspects and drug dealers, and searches for other political and diplomatic intelligence." (Investigation into death of British spy Gareth Williams takes ...)
"Diana, Princess of Wales may have come under ECHELON surveillance before she died." (NSA Watch Echelon FAQ)
According to Roger Graef, broadcaster and criminologist, "if he was such a hot shot at code breaking then presumably he'd have been protected." (MI6 death: Murder most strange)
Jenny Elliott said she had not been contacted since Dr Williams' body was discovered on Monday 23 August 2010.
James Mossman was a BBC reporter, interviewer and former MI6 agent. He committed 'suicide' in his cottage in Norfolk. It was reported that he was gay.
James Rusbridger, an ex-MI6 agent, and writer about spying, died in mysterious circumstances. (Sean Copland Dot Com - Spies - MI5 Murder British Author.)
His book "The Intelligence Game" is a source for:
The Hilda Murrel Story, detailing MI5's alleged role in the murder of an old lady.
The CIA Middle East car bomb, where the CIA detonated a car bomb in a packed Middle Eastern street killing 80, and maiming a further 200.
The failed Mossad plan to bomb London, where they hoped to leave enough forensic evidence to blame the Arabs, thereby ruining British-Syrian relations.
And also, the Madeline Haigh story, detailing how a housewife found herself on MI5's subversive list after writing a letter.
Stephen Milligan, was a Tory MP and Parliamentary Private Secretary to Jonathan Aitken. On February 7, 1994, Milligan was allegedly discovered bound to a chair with a plastic bag over his head and a satsuma [mandarin orange] stuffed in his mouth. (British Pol Ties to Auto-Erotic Deaths )
Aitken "was chairman of a secretive right-wing think tank known as Le Cercle, established after World War II and which was funded by the CIA, the Ford Foundation, and the Rothschilds" (echkelon)
Jonathan Moyle was in MI6 (Investigation into death of British spy.)
On March 31st 1990, Jonathan Moyle, the editor of the magazine Defence Helicopter World, Moyle was in Chile looking into a story about a Chilean firm, Industrias Cardoen which intended to convert US civilian helicopters into gunships for sale to Iraq.
"It has long been believed that Mark Thatcher, the son of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was mixed up in surreptitious weapons agreements with Chile.
"Originally, Moyle's family was informed that he had passed away as he was masturbating while hanging inside a closet in a hotel room in Chile. He was discovered suspended by his shirt with a pillow case over his head.
"As per a report in The Guardian on February 28th 1998, Moyle seemed to have been sedated. A needle mark on his leg may have indicated this." (British Pol Ties to Auto-Erotic Deaths )
"In 2005, the commander of British forces in Gibraltar, Royal Navy Commander David White, was found dead and fully clothed in his swimming pool in The Rock section of Gibraltar. White had been ordered to return to Britain and go on mandatory leave by Britain's Ministry of Defense.
"After his death, police said White had been under investigation for possession of child pornography. White, whose job put him in command of a GCHQ SIGINT installation in the British colony, was determined to have committed suicide and that there was no sign of foul play." - (echkelon)
Gareth Williams: 'backroom boy' spy was really a high-flier
The MI6 worker found dead last week was at the cutting edge of espionage technology, says Gordon Thomas
29 Aug 2010
The Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham is Britain’s last great secret. Now it is in the focus of intense speculation among its stunned staff. Never before has one of their own been murdered. In GCHQ’s cafés, the seating area around the lawn at the core of the doughnut-shaped building and behind anonymous doors simply marked “No admission”, the same question continues to be asked: who murdered Gareth Williams – and why?
Despite his widow’s-peak haircut and geeky smile, he worked at the cutting edge of computer technology. His mathematical brain made him a vital tool in the fight against terrorism and cyber warfare. Yet the security services are anxious to play down his role, so as not to alarm the world over his importance to anyone involved in his murder.
In 2000, Williams left his Cambridge University course in advanced mathematics because he had already learned all he could. By then, he had also been “tapped” – recruited by GCHQ scouts, who tour universities looking for talent.
No one can be certain why he signed up. It wasn’t the salary. His £40,000 a year was far less than he could have earned in industry. But it is very likely that, like so many of his young colleagues at GCHQ, he was attracted by the challenges, the excitement of working at the centre of events that he would often know about before even the Prime Minister.
When Williams joined in 2001, he found himself among the largest group of mathematicians gathered within one UK organisation, along with hundreds of cryptologists and analysts. It’s a big operation: the electricity required to run GCHQ’s supercomputers would light a small town. He became part of a world where computers were linked to storage systems, each holding a petabyte of data – eight times more than the entire word count of the British Library. Soon, he found himself working in the Super Computer Centre, developing techniques to speed up data encryption.
A former GCHQ employee recalled last week that staff would boast that when one of its female employees became pregnant, “our computers could capture the first birth cry of her baby and follow the infant through life to its death, no matter where on earth it happened”.
Gareth Williams died without leaving such a trace. Last year, his section leader had told him he was being seconded to the London headquarters of MI6. It was a further sign of his steady progress up the hierarchy at GCHQ.
In 2003, he spent six months at Menwith Hill, the ultra-secret RAF station in Yorkshire. In reality, it is a transplant of the United States; the only connection with Britain is the detachment of Ministry of Defence police that patrols the perimeter.
It was here that Williams learned how to analyse the findings from Menwith Hill’s radomes – the imposing white structures resembling gigantic golf balls that intercept coded messages from satellite communication systems, which are then broken before being sent to GCHQ for further analysis.
In 2006, Williams also spent time at Fort Meade in Maryland, home of the United States’ National Security Agency, GCHQ’s partner in global surveillance. As GCHQ gathers secret intelligence from Europe, Africa and Russia west of the Ural Mountains, NSA covers east of the mountains, including Japan and China, the Pacific and South America. As a new arrival, Williams was invited to listen to recordings of Osama bin Laden talking to his mother on his satellite phone in the aftermath of 9/11.
With his tenure at MI6 coming to an end, Williams was told that he would rejoin GCHQ in a new department, the Cyber Security Operations Centre, a team of traffic analysts tracking the threat posed by would-be cyber terrorists to Britain’s banks and infrastructure. He died before he could take up this promotion.
A further sign of Williams’s importance was that he had been assigned to live at 36 Alderney Street – a high-security apartment in Pimlico that MI6 would have previously used to debrief one of its agents or a defector. Like all safe houses, it was functionally furnished – but with a direct phone line to MI6 headquarters less than a mile away. Williams would have been cautioned about who he was allowed to entertain at home.
In the days since his body was discovered last Monday, conspiracy theorists have filled the internet with claims that Williams had been stabbed and poisoned; that he was the victim of a sex attack; that he was either homosexual or transvestite; that sado-masochistic bondage gear had been found in the flat; that he was murdered because he had threatened to expose a cabal of gays in the intelligence world. All such possibilities are being examined this weekend by MI6 and MI5 working with Scotland Yard detectives.
Investigators have already discounted a theory that Williams was killed elsewhere and brought back to the apartment in the sports bag. But they are investigating whether a second key was cut for the apartment; locksmiths across London are being checked. CCTV footage at nearby Victoria station, as well as other London railway terminals, is under review for images of Williams returning from a recent holiday. He is known to have been back in London since August 11, and that a sighting was made on August 15 – one of the few details police have released.
As well as having trouble gathering evidence, police are finding it difficult to discover the exact nature of Williams’s work. They have been briefed that, despite earlier denials, it “impinged on national security”.
An intelligence officer close to the investigation confirmed: “He was not just a cog in the wheel. He had an important part in making the wheel go round.”
On Tuesday, a second post-mortem will be held: an initial post-mortem proved inconclusive, ruling out stabbing or shooting, with toxicology results still pending. I have been told that the Home Office forensic pathologist will be looking for evidence that Williams was neither stabbed nor poisoned, but smothered to death.
Dr Fawzi Renomran, the London-trained pathologist who conducted the autopsy on the body of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas terrorist who was killed in Dubai earlier this year, concluded that he had been smothered by a Mossad hit team. “It was a difficult form of murder to prove,” he said.
But, apart from Mossad, there are other intelligence services with experts in murder by smothering. They include the Russian SVR and the Chinese Secret Intelligence Service. Terrorist groups are also known to have used the method.
Until the next autopsy report becomes public, those two key questions – who murdered Gareth Williams, and why? – will continue to echo around GCHQ.
August 26, 2010
Gareth Williams murder story represents an old British intelligence modus operandi
by courtesy of Wayne Madsen
The discovery of the body of 31-year old British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) officer Gareth Williams in a posh flat in Pimlico, just a mile from the "Ziggurat" headquarters of the British MI-6 Secret Intelligence Service headquarters along the banks of the Thames in Vauxhall, bears all the markings of a British intelligence hit.
Williams, who had frequently traveled in the past to visit his counterparts at the National Security Agency (NSA) in Fort Meade, Maryland and was due to return home to Cheltenham, the headquarters of the signals intelligence (SIGINT) agency GCHQ, was found stuffed in a bag in the flat's bathroom. Police estimated Williams, whose body was decomposed and reportedly, dismembered, had been dead for some two weeks.
Several cell phone and SIM cards were found neatly arranged in the flat.
There was no sign of a break-in at the flat on Alderney Street, where two former British Home Ministers, Michael Howard and Lord Brittan, also reside, and police report that Williams may have known his murderer or murderers. The flat property is owned by a company called New Rodina [Rodina is Russian for "new motherland"], said to be a Russian company registered in the British Virgin Islands. However, the reported presence of retina scanners on the flat's lock suggests the flat was used by MI-6 as a safe house of some sort. There is little known about New Rodina because of British Virgin Islands company secrets laws. New Rodina bought the property in 2000 with a mortgage from the Royal Bank of Scotland and The Guardian has reported that the agent for the property was the law firm Park Nelson, which had offices off Fleet Street in London. "New Rodina" is a term used by British intelligence members to refer to being stationed in London. It is a term used by Russian exiles living abroad -- "new motherland."
British media are now reporting that Williams was a gay transvestite who, because of the reported "Russian" connection to the flat owners, was somehow involved in a Russian gay sex plot. However, this fits a long pattern with British intelligence. Past deaths of male British officials have seen post-mortem reports of women's underwear and clothing being discovered, as well as child pornography. The resulting embarassment to the families of the deceased prevents them from seeking a wider investigation and the cases simply fade away from the public's attention. It is classic British intelligence trade craft to cover up murders carried out by British intelligence or other agents acting on their behalf.
The Sun of London is reporting that police discovered women's clothing of Williams's size in the Pimlico flat. The Sun is owned by neocon publisher Rupert Murdoch.
In March 1994, former British MI-agent James Rusbridger was found hanging in his home in Cornwall. Rusbridger's body was found suspended from two ropes and dressed in an NBC (nuclear-biological-chemical) protective suit and a rain coat. Rusbridger was wearing rubber gloves and a gas mask. Police reported they found sexual bondage photos and magazines scattered around Rusbridger's hanging corpse and they later concluded Rusbridger killed himself accidentally while engaged in a sexual strangulation act. Rusbridger was found with his legs bound at the ankles, knees, and upper thighs. Police also reported that Rusbridger was lonely, unhappy, and in financial distress.
Rusbridger was the cousin of retired MI-5 agent Peter Wright, whose book "Spycatcher" resulted in then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seeking to ban its publication in Britain and abroad due to damaging revelations that British intelligence bugged Commonwealth conferences, tried to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and failed the investigate Sir Roger Hollis, director of MI-5 as a Soviet mole.
Rusbridger, who, like Wright, was an author of intelligence books, was investigating the death of Conservative Member of Parliament Stephen Milligan, whose body was found naked, except for wearing a pair of women's stockings, in his west London home just a month before Rusbridger was found hanging in Cornwall. Milligan, a former journalist and rising political star in the Conservative Party, was parliamentary private secretary to junior defense minister Jonathan Aitken in the Tory government of British Prime Minister John Major. There were reports that Millgan had been been found gagged and bound in addition to wearing a pair of women's stockings.
Aitken was sentenced to prison in 1999 after he was convicted of perjury for his testimony in an investigation of a British arms scandal involving Matrix Churchill, the Saudis, and arms sales to Saddam Hussein. While Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Aiken signed a "gag order" preventing evidence to be revealed in the 1992 trial of Matrix Churchill for weapons sales to Iraq. Aitken had been a director of BMARC, a subsidiary of the Swiss firm Oerlikon, which stood accused of indirectly supplying anti-aircraft systems to Saddam Hussein during the 1980s. BMARC was a subject of the Matrix Churchill investigation.
Aitken was also chairman of a secretive right-wing think tank known as Le Cercle, established after World War II and which was funded by the CIA, the Ford Foundation, and the Rothschilds.
In 2005, the commander of British forces in Gibraltar, Royal Navy Commander David White, was found dead and fully clothed in his swimming pool in The Rock section of Gibraltar. White had been ordered to return to Britain and go on mandatory leave by Britain's Ministry of Defense. After his death, police said White had been under investigation for possession of child pornography. White, whose job put him in command of a GCHQ SIGINT installation in the British colony, was determined to have committed suicide and that there was no sign of foul play.
UPDATE 1X. Although Williams is reported to have orignally been from Holyhead in Anglesey, Wales, WMR has learned from a boyhood friend that he grew up in Pwlhelli, north Wales. WMR has also learned that Williams was a veteran of the elite British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos.
My so-called life as a spy
The murder of MI6 operative Gareth Williams last week has turned the spotlight on the shady world of espionage. Here, a former intelligence offer for MI5 explains why the life of a British spy is an insular one
29 Aug 2010
Spies have always loved living in Pimlico: a civilised area in central London, handy for strolling to the office, and wonderfully convenient for that midnight dash to work if your operation suddenly goes live. Plus, the local pubs are pretty good for the customary after-work moan.
I lived there myself when I worked as an intelligence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, so the murder of Gareth Williams in a nearby street gave me a bit of a jolt. While his death remains shrouded in mystery, what has been reported of his life sounds like classic GCHQ.
There are distinct cultures within each of the three major UK spy agencies: MI5, the UK domestic security service; MI6, the overseas intelligence organisation; and GCHQ, the Government Communications HQ.
MI6 officers, as people who may have to work independently and undercover abroad, tend to be confident, individualistic and “ethically flexible”, while MI5 officers need to co-ordinate a broad range of resources and people to run an operation, which requires greater team-building. Of the three agencies, GCHQ remains the most secretive and inward-looking, and is staffed predominantly with “boffin” types. Williams, with his mathematical skills and loner tendencies, would be a typical employee.
Despite the intelligence community presenting a united front to the outside world, culture clashes between the three agencies are commonplace. Staff on secondment between agencies – as Williams was, from GCHQ to MI6 – can have a rough time fitting into a new environment, working with colleagues who eye them with suspicion, as the divisions jockey for power, prestige and resources within Whitehall.
So what is life like working as a spy? The world of intelligence is not so much isolating as insulating. Even as you proceed through the convoluted recruitment process, you find yourself entering a parallel universe, one that exists alongside your everyday life.
From that first, exploratory meeting with an intelligence officer in an unmarked building in central London, you have to withdraw a little from your old existence. You are asked not to tell your family and friends, and immediately have to sign a notification of the rigorous terms of the Official Secrets Act, whereby if you talk about your work, you risk imprisonment.
The process of induction into this world is intriguing, flattering and seductive. The agencies tend to avoid the James Bond wannabes, and those inspired by the fake glamour of Spooks. The key motivation is generally wanting to do a job that can make a difference, protect the country and potentially save lives. The secret element adds spice and perhaps compensates for the anorexic pay. When I started working for MI5 in 1991, at the fast-track graduate level, the starting salary was £14,500 pa – a good £5,000 less than my peer group from Cambridge earned in their blue-chip jobs. The pay has improved somewhat since then, but you don’t become a spy for the money.
The vetting process is protracted. For MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, officers are required to have the highest clearance – Developed Vetting. This begins with a home visit. Disconcertingly, I soon found myself in the family sitting room being grilled about my sex life by a little, grey-haired lady who looked just like a favourite grandmother, until you looked into her eyes.
Then the process widens. I had to nominate four friends who were willing to be interviewed about me, and they were asked to suggest yet more people… so secrecy becomes impossible. One friend, of a Left-wing hue, disapproved of my recruitment; even those who were supportive were reluctant to ask me too much. As I couldn’t talk to them freely about my life, they felt increasingly shut out, so I lost old friends along the way.
Unsurprisingly, new officers begin to socialise increasingly with their colleagues, and close friendships grow rapidly. Within this clique, we could talk shop at dinner parties, use the same slang and terminology, discuss our work, and whinge about our bosses. With outsiders, we could never be fully ourselves. This, inevitably, often led to more than friendships. What might otherwise be called office romances flourished. I met my former partner, David Shayler, when we were both in our first posting in MI5.
Such relationships were not exactly encouraged, but were generally seen as a good thing by management – unless, of course, it was a clandestine matter that could leave the officer vulnerable to blackmail. Such affairs were seen as vetting offences.
Among spies, an old double standard held firm. There was one couple who were caught in flagrante in the office, not once but twice. The male officer was put on “gardening leave” for six months; the woman was sacked.
For the first few weeks in the job, the feeling of unreality and dislocation is strong. The only solid information you have about your new position, as you walk into the office for the first time, is the grade at which you will be working – nothing else.
My first posting was to the small counter-subversion section, F2. Even though it was a desk job, the information I was dealing with came from sensitive sources: intercepted communications, reports from agents who had penetrated target groups, police reports. And yet, within a few weeks, the handling of such secret and intrusive information became entirely normal.
Investigations can be very fast-paced, particularly in the counter-terrorism sections. Generally, officers work regular hours but occasionally, if an operation goes live, you work around the clock. If it proves a success, there might be a news item on the television about it – but obviously without the full back story. That can be a surreal experience. You feel pride that you’ve achieved what you signed up to do, but you cannot discuss it with anybody outside the office. At such moments, the disconnect from mainstream life is intensely sharp.
However, when something goes wrong – a bomb goes off in which civilians die – the feelings are even more intense. Guilt, anger, frustration, and a scramble to ensure that the blame doesn’t attach to your section. The official motto of MI5 is Regnum Defende – defence of the realm. Staff mordantly used to joke that it should more accurately be Rectum Defende.
Personal security also ensures that there is a constant barrier between you and the normal world. If you meet someone interesting at a party, you cannot say too much about what you do, and such reticence can appear unfriendly. The cover story that MI5 officers use is that they work as civil servants at the Ministry of Defence; for MI6, it is the Foreign Office. This usually stops people from asking too much more, either through discretion or, frankly, boredom. Once or twice, people pushed me for more information, and my paranoia antennae immediately began to twitch: why are they so interested? Are they spies or, God forbid, journalists?
I had the misfortune once of using this cover story at a party, only to find my interlocutor actually worked for the real Ministry of Defence, and wanted to know which section I worked in, who my colleagues were, how long I had been there… Thankfully, the magic word “Box” – slang used to describe MI5 within Whitehall, derived from the organisation’s old PO Box 500 number – brought that line of conversation to an abrupt halt.
As an intelligence officer, you quickly learn to be discreet on the telephone and in emails. Oblique conversations become the norm, and this bleeds into your personal life, too, much to the frustration of friends and family.
The internet is another challenge. As a “spook”, the last thing you want to see is your photograph on a friend’s Facebook page. Or, even worse, holiday snaps showing you in your Speedos, as the current head of MI6, Sir John Sawyer, found to his cost last year.
And what about when you come to leave the intelligence service, as I did after five years. Can you ever really have a normal life afterwards, and shake off the mindset?
Many of my former colleagues have left and built careers in a wide variety of areas. But I wonder how many still look automatically over their shoulders as they put their key in the front door; how many tear up paper before throwing it in the bin; and how many are reflexively reticent about their personal life?
Would I want to be a spy these days? No, thank you. I’m happier in the real world.
* Annie Machon is the author of Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers (Book Guild)