Author Archives: gusonk17

Progress

So MI5 has come top of Stonewall’s annual survey of the best places to work for LGBT employees. Good news, but don’t believe everything you read. A friend who has a considerable interest in this story has pointed out that there is actually very little to choose between many of the more enlightened employers, especially those who are part of government service where the same standards and personnel policies apply. And how do you tell the difference between first and second place or, more importantly, between MI5 at number one and MI6 at number thirty-six!? Is the difference really that great?

 
I suspect that the answer lies more in the need to capture a headline which is, of course, good news for Stonewall. If Lloyds Bank, which was placed second, had come first would so many news organisations have paid attention? MI5 at number one is much more eye-catching and in the long term there is really no harm done.

 
It is still very good news. But for the life of me I can’t find out what SIS is doing wrong. They claim to be following the same policies, so why are they thirty-five places behind? I wonder if anyone knows?

Typical

I have just taken part in a television programme for the BBC and by chance the question again arose: “What is a typical British secret service officer really like? Is there an example from films or literature?”

Now, I am a little tired of James Bond movies – don’t misunderstand me, they are first-rate entertainment, commendable acting, superb special effects, just…. not a lot to do with real secret service work. They tend to suggest that the greatest danger to a British secret service officer is that he might drown in his own testosterone.

So where does one look for an accurate example?

There is a rather forgotten little movie from 1941 called “Pimpernel Smith” which is, not surprisingly, a modern rendering of the Scarlet Pimpernel story. The lead role of Professor Horatio Smith is played by Leslie Howard, a British actor who also produced and directed the film. He was killed shortly after the film was completed when the plane he was travelling in was shot down by German fighter aircraft. The film is not perfect: one has to get past the fact that it is a propaganda piece packed with rather comical Nazis and there are attitudes towards women that can only be excused in that they are “of their time” (but perhaps no worse than the imprint of misogyny in the DNA of every James Bond movie). There is however, more than a kernel of truth in “Pimpernel Smith”.

Howard knew members of the British secret service very well and was indeed involved in some of its work, so he knew what he was talking about. Horatio Smith is, in my opinion, a typical British secret service officer. He is, in essence, an English gentleman: courteous, cultured, tolerant, loyal and above all, fiercely determined to resist injustice. Often apparently bumbling, but actually deeply thoughtful, Smith never uses violence. He prefers to rely on his wits, especially in the matter of misdirection. He is a loner and his social skills are not always the best, but he forms firm friendships and makes a point of keeping his word.

Not all the world’s secret service officers are like this. For instance, the majority of CIA officers are different to this model. They tend to be (although there are considerable exceptions) more military in their approach, more direct. This is not to suggest any sort of moral superiority for a British officer – rather it has much to do with training and the availability of resources. American officers usually have more than enough money, personnel and equipment to get the job done; British officers are often scraping around just to fund their air fare.

Of course, it is an ideal, but please take my word for it that, in many parts of the world, this reputation for trustworthiness has often stood the British secret service in good stead.

It is an asset that the Service would do well not to endanger.

Cash

We really do live in a golden age for the collection of intelligence. Much has been said here and elsewhere about the interception of communications and how modern technology has magnified exponentially the ability of intelligence agencies to monitor the activities of its own and other citizens.

But the opportunities (or threats, depending upon your perspective) continue to grow. Today Apple activated contactless payment by i-phones and other Apple devices. Android devices are expected to follow soon. At the moment this function is limited to payments below £20 although that limit will be increased to £30 later this year. For certain participating traders the limit can already be much more. On privacy grounds Apple has been careful to point out that it does not keep a record of these transactions. However, it will collect certain other data including location data of the user. It may use this data for various purposes such as marketing. Apple may not collect transaction data at the moment but it may do so in the future and, perhaps more importantly, there are others who may gain access to these systems (either legally and illegally) and they will be able to obtain very precise data about individuals who are of interest.

I am ancient enough to remember how difficult it used to be to construct a picture of a target’s activities: Interception of communications meant bugging phones or visiting anonymous offices where letters were actually steamed opened by hand and packets were secretly examined using all kinds of specialised tools and techniques. Cash was always the ultimate guarantee of anonymity. You spent it and, unless someone found the receipt, no-one knew where you had spent it. I remember evenings spent studying lengthy account details and wishing that I knew where all the money had gone, not just the large amounts, so that I could understand the target a little better.

Then came credit cards and then debit cards and now even the smallest transaction will be recorded electronically on a database somewhere. It will be possible to build up a picture of every facet of a target’s life at the touch of a few buttons on a computer keyboard – an ability undreamt of thirty years ago. I’m tempted to say that the intelligence officers of today have it easy…. but of course experience has shown us that expanding the cloud of available data sometimes actually makes life more difficult not less.

As for the younger generation of users, many of them seem to think that all this electronic convenience is wonderful. I wonder how many of them actually consider the price that they may be paying in freedom for the few seconds saved in reaching for a handful of coins?

Of course, as long as they never do anything that upsets the State, they never need to worry….

Christmas

Intelligence historians know that the very first agent recruited by MI6 was Agent “WK” and that his real name was Walter Christmas. “WK” for Christmas, get it? Ho, ho, ho. (I try to be seasonal here). It couldn’t be WC, a) because it conjures certain other images and b) because Cumming, the first Chief, reserved that letter to apply to himself in supposedly “secret” correspondence. Strewth. MI6 tradecraft was appalling in those early days. Cumming often either allotted an agent’s initial from his surname as the code letter or, as he quickly ran out of letters, chose a word which reminded him (and anyone who got access to his records) of their name. So Byzewski was “B”, Bywater was “H2O”, Trench was “Counterscarp”, etc. One of the great myths of MI6 is that Cumming was some kind of intelligence genius. In fact he was a rather a blunderer who never even made the key naval rank of Captain until long after he had been an intelligence chief – and by then the powers that be assumed he must be pretty bright if he was running the show. But that is a subject for another day.

Walter’s full name was, rather splendidly, Captain Walter Christmas-Dirckinck Holmfeld. In truth, it isn’t even fair to say that he was MI6’s first recruitment since he wasn’t recruited by them, but rather by the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) in April 1909. The NID handed Christmas over to Cumming, together with several other sources, as a sort of “starter set” of field agents. He was an officer in the Royal Danish Navy, placed on the retired list, who was looking for an “honourable” way to supplement his income. Assisting an ally with naval intelligence about an enemy, Germany, was his way of doing this. Realising that he was on to a good thing, he soon recruited other members of his family and there was quite a little “K network” – “2K”, “KK”, etc. (Although it didn’t last long when it was realised that they were doing little more than rewriting stories from the Danish press. Anyone who thinks times have changed should read the verdict of the Franks Inquiry on MI6 reporting during the Falklands War….).

There are many stories about Walter which there isn’t room to relate here, but a friend in Denmark has just made me aware of a new one which is mildly amusing. You see there is a strict ban on MI6 officers writing books, especially spy novels. One or two, notably, “John Le Carre”, have worked a way around that, but they are the exceptions. So I was surprised to find that Walter was not only MI6’s first agent, but also one of the very first spy novelists. He is better known in Denmark as the creator of the “Peder Most” series of adventures. Peder is a red-haired, boy sailor who travels the world becoming mixed up in all sorts of fun including spying. He is a sort of Danish “Biggles” and was, in his day, very popular.

What makes this even more interesting is that the well-known author and MI6 officer, Compton Mackenzie was successfully prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act in 1932 for having written a book in which he named Christmas as a British agent. (They had met and Mackenzie thought his reporting was “utter nonsense”). This  prosecution was laughable because it was well-known in Denmark that the author of Peder Most had been a British spy. Indeed Mackenzie’s defence team provided witnesses to that effect. Walter had been exfiltrated in 1916 when the Germans became aware of who he was (thanks to poor MI6 tradecraft) and he had returned in triumph to be awarded the official title “Knight of Dannebrog” for his work. So the entire case was a waste of time. It is not the first time that the Service has attempted to slam the stable door long after the horse has bolted and it also led to Mackenzie publishing “Water on the Brain”, one of the bitterest, best and least known of books about espionage ever written.

Bond

Today it was announced that there is to be a new James Bond film, this time called “Spectre“. Well, fine. I like a James Bond film as much as anyone else, although to be honest I haven’t seen one for quite a few years. I tend to be more of Jason Bourne fan these days – it being easier to suspend disbelief about a service you have never worked for. By coincidence, today I took part in a Radio 4 programme about the potential for a Scottish intelligence service (should independence ever become a reality). One question was about James Bond and whether I thought that his image was a help or a hindrance in real-life espionage.

Colin McColl, a former Chief of SIS, once remarked that James Bond was “the best recruiting sergeant the Service ever had” and it is true that his image does get feet over the threshold when recruitment talks are held at universities – if only because he’s about the only public image the Service has and people are curious. But does that outweigh the seriously misleading elements of the Bond image? There are almost too many to count, but here are three of the most important ones:

  1. Bond gives the impression that the job is dangerous. And yet no SIS officer has been killed on an operation during the 105 years of the Service’s existence.
  2. Bond’s role confuses that of officers and agents, which are two completely different things. Officers run agents, agents are people with access. It is the agents that run the risks. Hundreds of agents have lost their lives – but that would never be James Bond. The key skill of an officer is to befriend, build trust and to recruit people. It is not to break into top secret bases. The reason for this is that a well-selected agent can simply walk in – because he or she works there.
  3. Bond gives the impression that the British services (and possibly intelligence services as a whole) are far more effective than they really are. During my lectures and book promotions I often come across people who claim “we have the best intelligence service in the world!”. But when you ask them what evidence they base that idea on, the answer often comes down to little more than memories of James Bond. They never seem to consider the real-life cases of Philby, Blake, Venlo, SOE, the Falklands, the dodgy dossier, etc. If we had a better idea of just how poor our services are, we might be more able to oversee their perfomance and make them truly effective.

I suppose the truth is, if you really want to get an idea of what the intelligence services are like, you should read the works of David Cornwell (John Le Carre). He worked there, he knows the services inside out and almost all informed observers agree that he tells like it is. I thought his latest, A Delicate Truth,  was one of his most accurate ever.

And that is very troubling.

Security

So, as expected, Cressida Dick, Assistant Metropolitan Police Commissioner and the woman responsible for the operation which resulted in the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes, is on her way to SIS in January 2015… or at least that’s what everyone assumes. The announcement (or rather non-announcement) of the appointment has raised two interesting issues.

The first is the manner of the delivery of the news. The Metropolitan Police issued a statement that she would be retiring and taking up a post at the Foreign Office. Naturally, the Foreign Office was contacted by various media outlets asking what post she would be taking up. The Foreign Office mumbled that it really couldn’t say….

This is quite pathetic. If Ms Dick was heading for a legitimate FCO post then their spokesperson should simply have been able to say so. Instead, by making the appointment seem all very cloak-and-dagger, the FCO has led observers (hostile and otherwise) to assume that she is going to SIS. This may well have increased the security threat to her. They should either have come clean about the SIS appointment which would leave them in no worse situation than they are now or they should have had an FCO cover role prepared as traditionally happens with other SIS appointments (see Dorrill’s MI6 and elsewhere). The FCO’s apparent excuse is that they do not comment on intelligence matters. But why not? SIS is an official government department. Either SIS should have asked the FCO to disguise her move or they should have admitted it (in PR terms, the appointment of a senior woman to SIS might, arguably, be very productive – see below), but instead they have been left hanging about like a small child trying to explain where its homework went – very much to the amusement of numerous journalists. (BTW, I am told that the Daily Mail actually said on its website that she was joining SIS, but then changed the headline to their story. I can’t confirm that as I didn’t see it, but at present their website talks of her appointment to “a secretive job in the Foreign Office” which is simply Press code for the same thing.)

One might ask how SIS ended up in this predicament. It is not hard to imagine why. It was the Met who made the announcement of Dick’s retirement. Chances are that they did not bother to let SIS know. It seems unbelievable, but the Met and SIS are two separate and rather jealous empires. Furthermore, intelligence history teaches us that this sort of SNAFU is far from uncommon. When John Sawers was appointed as the new Chief of SIS five years ago, the security branch of SIS was supposed to “clear his coat-tails” i.e. make sure that there were no embarrassing traces of him or his family left in the public record. Apparently (and astonishingly) they forgot that something called “Facebook” existed (which is a bit ironic given the ISC’s report as described below). As a result of this “oversight”, a picture of Sawers in his swimming trunks was published around the world. Rather unflattering comparisons were drawn with the iconic image of Daniel Craig emerging from the surf in his speedos and a copy was reportedly on every officer’s wall in Yasenevo (the SVR’s headquarters in Moscow). The omission was so unbelievable that there was even a story that the picture had been left up as a protest by some SIS officers against having an “outsider” appointed as their new boss. Whatever the truth, the question remained: if you can’t get it right for something as important the appointment of a new Chief, when can you get it right?

The second issue arises from the first: why appoint an external and senior female candidate to what must surely be a high-ranking post at SIS? A Director level appointment has been suggested, possibly Director of Counter Terrorism. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is the continued effort to raise the level of SIS’s performance. As was stated above, five years ago the then Labour government appointed an external candidate to be the new Chief because SIS’s performance had been so poor in the lead-up to Iraq. This was a considerable slap in the face for the organisation and the first time it had happened since the Philby and Blake debacles of the 1960s. Furthermore, we have just seen the publication of the ISC’s report into Lee Rigby’s murder by Islamic extremists. In that report, buried deep in civil-service language, were trenchant criticisms of SIS’s recent performance. It was described as “deeply unsatisfactory“. One sentence of the report read: “SIS must ensure that their procedures are improved so that this does not happen again.” From this it seems that the Sawers appointment did not achieve its aim or at least, not fully. The appointment of an outside expert to a key counter-terrorism post just two days after a damning report would seem an unsurprising development – but it is also another slap in the face for the current management of SIS. Cynics might remark that this might be another reason why the announcement was bungled…

The other reason for this particular appointment is the need to get senior women into positions of power at SIS – which still appears to be very much of an old boys club. Women have made it up the ladder as far as Director level in the past, but while MI5 has already had two female leaders, SIS has not had one and will not do so for at least the next five years. If they cannot come up through the ranks, then you have to appoint them from outside as a way of breaking up the various tribal loyalties within the organisation. But the problems with this apparent solution are two-fold: in the first place, Dicks, if she really is going there, will be hampered by being both a woman and an outsider, a double handicap which may severely hamper her effectiveness. The outsider element in the equation should not be under-estimated: it was also a factor in the Gareth Williams incident. In PR terms it is not a straigtforward win either. Dicks still has the de Menezes affair hanging around her neck. Any credit that will be built up amongst the Service’s usual critics for appointing a woman will be quickly lost because she was the officer who allowed what amounted to an execution of an innocent man followed by an investigation that was widely condemned by independent observers.

Her appointment, if it is such, is not the easy solution that it might appear to be.

Chatter

There was some criticism expressed on Wednesday about my contention that even if social media conversations were to be passed by internet service providers (ISPs) then this would create such a mass of “chatter” (the technical term for unimportant bulk communications data) that the services would be faced with an almost impossible task in pinpointing the key intelligence.

“Aha!”, said the critics, “in the case of the murder of Lee Rigby, the message was sent en clair. There was no encryption. It must be easy for the ISPs to set up a programme looking for key words such as “murder” or “jihad” and this will quickly highlight any dangerous information.” Sadly this is not so – and don’t just take my word for it. My old boss, Richard Barratt, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, who also served with MI5, was questioned about this very issue on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday. He said: “Facebook has about one and a third billion users and about five billion posts a day, so clearly on a worldwide basis it would be almost imposible to deal with the amount referred.

You see, the problem is, and always has been since before 9/11, not that the intelligence services do not have enough information , but that they have too much. This was the key conclusion of the Congressional Commitee of Inquiry into 9/11. The trick is not to get more information, but to get the right information. A desk officer only has so much time to assess the intelligence in front of him (or her).

Seeing as I am forbidden from discussing my intelligence work here, an illustration from my law enforcement days might assist. As is well known, the electronic communications of specific criminals are often bugged to determine when their next robbery/drugs smuggling operation/kidnapping will take place. But even where we were tapping specific people for specific periods, it was extremely difficult to turn that raw data into specific leads. This is for a number of reasons: criminals disguise what they are talking about; they use family members to pass seemingly innocuous messages; often they seem certain to do something on a particular date, but then for some reason they fail to get their act together and suddenly do the deed on a completely different date (remember the key conversation from Adebelajo in the Rigby murder was sent a full six months before the murder was actually committed). Imagine how much more difficult that task is when you are asking untrained organisations to scan billions of messages and then to select the important ones. You might as well ask them to send you the phonebook.

An objective observer might sympathise with the unnamed Silicon Valley executive quoted in the Guardian who said: “Given all the information they have, with and without our permission, it is outrageous that they should try and blame Facebook. The conclusion of the [ISC] report was – if only Facebook had been doing our job here.”

It is the usual problem when people who do not understand the world of espionage try to regulate it. The underlying issue seems to be that the thinking of these law makers is something like: “The intelligence services are very, very good. If they are not working properly, then the problem must lie elsewhere.” The fallacy with this is that the British intelligence and security services are not very good. In fact their record is extremely poor in comparison to other services around the world. This is hardly a secret. As an intelligence services historian I am frequently struck by just how much information about this there is in the public record. And yet the old myths persist and it is that, more than anything else I think, which prevents a proper examination of how to improve the efficiency of our intelligence system.

Why do those myths persist? A subject for a separate post… possibly.