The British have a dark, sardonic
sense of humour. It’s what got them through depressions, Nazi bombing raids and
even socialist governments! So it took only a day or two late last month for
the joke to circulate that the British intelligence services were so clever
that their agents could commit the most extraordinary suicides in the world.
The reference was to Gareth Williams, a young man seconded to MI6, whose body
was found in a padlocked and sealed sports bag in the bath of his apartment.

Not funny for his friends and family
of course. The 31-year-old was actually an employee of GCHQ, the Government
Communications Headquarters based in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire. It is part
of three main branches of British intelligence along with MI5 (domestic intelligence)
and MI6, also known as the SIS or Secret Intelligence Service (foreign
intelligence). GCHG is, as it were, the least glamorous of the trio and most of
its work involves listening to and monitoring communications and – vital work –
deciphering what potential threat targets are saying to each other.

Williams had been seconded to MI6 in
London, based on the south bank of the River Thames just down the road from the
Houses of Parliament and from MI5, both establishments across the river over
Lambeth Bridge. He lived nearby in Pimlico, which is where his body was found.
It’s likely that he wasn’t a field agent but a mathematical genius recruited
from university and employed to work on codes. He was an isolated figure, a
passionate cyclist, quiet, reliable and with few if any friends. It is also
claimed that his body was found two weeks after he was killed, that there were
no signs of struggle or even of how he died and that various identity cards
were arranged in his home as if to leave some sort of signal.

I say “claimed” because there is no
way to know if any of this is true. Would even a low-level member of the
intelligence community not be searched for by colleagues if he had not checked
in for work for two weeks? Front-line agents have to call in under a secret
code at regular, usually daily intervals but even ordinary staff members are
scrutinized. The police still claim to have no leads and the story is no longer
receiving much coverage in the British press but all sorts of questions remain
unanswered.

One being why there were suggestions
of sexual violence – the implication being of a homosexual variety – made
within 24 hours of the story breaking. There was never any evidence of this but
some newspapers ran with the report that bondage equipment was founded in
Williams’ home. According to local police officers who later spoke to the press
this was utter nonsense. As was the idea that the poor man cruised gay bars –
there is a gay bathhouse directly across the road from the MI6 offices – or
that he had some sort of guilty and clandestine double life.

This is British intelligence for
goodness sake. They know about double lives and investigate every person who
works for them. Gay men and women are openly employed by MI6 and MI5 – it is
the possibility of blackmail and not sexual preference that determines the
suitability of an applicant. In other words, as long as there is nothing to
hide there is nothing to worry about. in any case, his relatives have furiously denied that he was a homosexual and say that he is being smeared by the government. 

Was it MI6 who discredited Williams or
was it a foreign agency? Was his death political and if so was he killed by a
friend or an enemy? We may know eventually but likely not for some time. There
is and always has been a reciprocal if not symbiotic relationship between the
intelligence services and the media in Britain – less a case of the “spooks”,
as they are known, exploiting the press than the intelligence people letting it
be known that if journalists want good stories and leaked information they need
to do what they’re told at other times.

When I was at university in England
one of my professors, an avuncular and kindly man, told me that I was
“Intelligent and lazy. You’ll make a good journalist or a good spy.” I laughed,
went on my way and eventually became a journalist. I realize now that he was
probably making preliminary recruitment inquiries. A talent spotter. Not that I
was very talented. A fellow student who was studying Russian did eventually
join the MI5 – something he did not tell his friends until he had left. He
refused to say very much about what went on – “boring really, just lots of
listening to the radio and reading Soviet newspapers” – but did tell us that
what surprised him was how untidy the offices always were.

“Thing is, you see, it’s quite
difficult to do thorough security checks on people who clean offices and empty
the bins. So the cleaning up is left to the people who work there and we
resented doing it. Always argued about whose turn it was to do it. So most days
it was a mess. Not as glamorous as I’d hoped.”

Not glamorous at all for the
unfortunate Gareth Williams but British intelligence still enjoys a fine
reputation and, apart from a bad period during the cold war, has performed its
tasks extremely well. The problems of double-agents working for Moscow in the
1940s, 50s and early 60s was that many of the men and women who has done such
excellent work spying on and monitoring the Nazis and their supporters during
the 30s and the Second World War had a sympathy for Communism based on their
hatred of fascism. Thus their loyalties became clouded once the war was over.
It led to betrayal and to lack of faith on the part of the always more
bellicose CIA.

The intelligence war against Irish
extremism, the modern hard left and small far right was and is far more successful
but today an estimated 70 percent of the efforts, energy and finance of the
security services is devoted to Islamic fundamentalism. Mosques are certainly
infiltrated, Arabic, Farsi and Urdu speakers recruited and trained and a whole
network of informants and intelligence-gatherers maintained. The country is on
a permanent “high alert” level and it’s estimated that more than a dozen
serious and up to a hundred potential Islamic terror attacks have been
prevented by MI5, MI6 and their support group within the police – Special
Branch.

So whatever happened to the
unfortunate Mr Williams – may he rest in peace – is fascinating but has no
effect on the work of a constantly challenged and, apparently, untidy British
intelligence service. Will all of the secrets eventually be revealed? Don’t bet
on it. The river Thames that back on to MI6 hides its treasures darkly and
deeply; so do the spies who work next to it.


Michael Coren is a broadcaster and writer living in
Toronto, Canada.

Michael Coren is host and producer of the nightly Michael Coren Show on CTS television. He is a weekly columnist with the Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg Sun and The London...