Spies: love them or hate them, you probably don’t know any. And if you do and you’re not a spy yourself, the spy you know is a rubbish one. At least that’s how it used to be, from fake hapless fops in the courts of the kings through to poison-tipped umbrella wielders on Waterloo Bridge, spies were anonymous shadow-lurkers that nobody ever knew about until it was too late. What’s more, not only did you never know about them, you never heard anything about them either, due mainly to their job description comprising two basic rules: a) don’t attract attention and b) Failing a), deny everything. Nowhere in their invisible ink contracts did it ever state that they should do their utmost to get slapped all over newspapers and the Internet like so much z-list celebrity Heat prolapse.
But that was back then, and despite all that seeming to work quite well, what we know these days is that spies are everywhere, like thinly concealed racism in the Daily Mail, Australians in Earl’s Court or ‘Diamond’ Bob Diamond’s bounds of immorality. In fact, it seems you can’t flail your arms wildly in any direction these days without hitting at least three; they just keep popping up out of the woodwork and getting more exposed than even Linsday Lohan’s keckless kebab. Whether they’re saucy Russian redheads in New York or hapless, bloated whistleblowers possessing all the sex appeal of a fox-exhumed corpse, it seems the world of espionage has never been more alive… or more out in the open.
So with all the fuss at the moment surrounding outted Norwegian ISI spies in Pakistan, UK spies coming up smelling of Cuban cigars in the latest round of who tortured who fingerpointing, and a particular suspicious stone in Moscow being turned, not to mention the forthcoming release of the disappointingly titled new Bond movie Skyfall (Surely You Only Ever Loved Skyfall Twice Again?), I thought it was time to turn turn my eye in the latest in my line of increasingly random articles to the world of espionage.
Spies Like Thus
Famous fictional spies have been popular for discreet donkey’s years, from everyone’s favourite international sex-pest James Bond to prematurely senile, problem-past facing Jason Bourne, from serial clock-watcher Jack Bauer to Alias’s Electra-complex battling Jack Bristow and, well, anyone else with the initials JB in between. Makes you consider Godfather of Soul James Brown in a whole new light, doesn’t it? Abseiling down a building in the dead of night, silent except for the flap of his flairs and cape, crashing through a window and forcing countless Soviet baddies into a get-up to the death. That’s the light I’m seeing now anyway. Come to think of it I may have a TV series here on a par with my Lighthouse Family detective series.
But beyond the seemingly lazy initials reliance, literature and not so literature is littered with countless other stars of spookdom, including the likes of the BBC’s Harry ‘Human Resources-bothering’ Pierce, little tinker George Smiley (the world’s first espionage emoticon), Ethan ‘Issac’ Hunt, Napoleon Solo (initially called Han Bonaparte), John Steed (a particularly furtive horse), Harry ‘Hairy’ Palmer and, of course, Secret Squirrel.
However, as Paul Ross would probably say if he was presenting a TV show on the subject for some lesser channel, fact is often stranger than fiction…
Now before you get whipped up into a frenzy of anticipation, let me stop you there, as fact is not often stranger than fiction at all. In reality fact tends to be far more tedious than fiction due mostly to it being just that – fact. When it comes to the real world of espionage you’re less likely to see one of the intelligence community’s brightest and best ducking around in a mini-helicopter in some sun-drenched exotic location and far more likely to see them stumbling drunkenly out of a London tapas bar after leaving a laptop-full of the nation’s deepest, darkest secrets in the eatery behind them.
And as to them having the suave, sophisticated sex appeal of, say, Roger Moore as James Bond, well the reality of the British spook is more liable to turn the stomach than the head. I refer you to David Shayler, the former MI5 man who cack-mindedly forgot the first rule of secret keeping: keeping secrets. Shayler was caught out passing confidential files that seemed to insinuate the Security Services had been investigating people on the sly onto that last bastion of national security, The Mail on Sunday, which promptly published an explosion of self-righteous outrage at the idea of such a surreptitious organisation being at large in the country. Here’s Shayler now. Look at Shayler; what woman could resist?
But this might just be a British Intelligence issue. After the Berlin Wall came down it seemed we’d won the Cold War by default and to celebrate the SIS went bonkers and decided to spend around £300-million on a brand new inconspicuous headquarters made out of Lego. Which was fine at the time with the Ruskies seemingly out of the picture, but then extremists started nicking planes and exploding randomly in the streets, forcing both MI5 and MI6 to look to the coffers for new staff. Bollocks, they’d spent it all on Babylon-on-Thames and could only afford the likes of Shayler.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the country that was supposed to have lost, they suddenly had roubles galore, cash enough in fact to not only fund Polonium 220 flavoured slap-up sushi in London but also to recruit and train spies that not only remember not to hand secrets to newspapers, but also look like her there.
Following the shambolic Shayler’s impressive espionage anti-success, the top cloak and daggerists at British Intelligence decided they need to try a different tack. Realising they could no longer rely on the kind of people they could afford they looked instead to something more stable, something more solidly dependable, a real rock if you will. And here it is.
Cunningly disguised to look just like the average Russian rock, as remarkable as it may seem this fake David Shaler (one for the geology fans there) managed to do exactly what the fleshy version had so spectacularly failed to by spying on ‘the other side’ without giving itself away at the first sign of a journalist. What’s more it managed to do this sitting by a Moscow footpath, transmitting intelligence to passing British agents undetected, until 2006 when an FSB agent (the smiley new face of the KGB) kicked it over one day while literally leaving no stone unturned in his search for pesky capitalist spies… pesky foreign capitalist spies that is. Naturally, we denied all knowledge, keeping stony faced despite video evidence of British ‘businessmen’ picking it up, tampering with it in a most un-rocklike way and, on one occasion, simply carrying it away as though it were the most amazing rock ever. Which it was.
Fortunately, the cover of Sergeant Shrub remains in tact.
The ultimate result of all this has been the tit-for-tat turfing out of supposed spies left, right and Iranian-mental, Russia using the evidence of My Pet Rock to kick out British diplomats while the US instantly began a wholesale clear out of the Comely Comrade and her chums, while even Canada recently joined in to remind everyone of their vital role in the world by rounding up, moose-tying and riding no fewer than four Russian ‘diplomats’ right outta town, all of which, while it may have led to all out nuclear war a mere couple of decades ago, is now seemingly laughed off as though those involved had admitted to all charges via Twitter, ended with LOL and then all had been forgiven.
Lead by example
But then you can’t blame the field operatives themselves, as the spymasters are no bloody better when it comes to being masters of spies. Starting with former Assistant Director of MI5 Peter Wright who back in 1985 published Spycatcher – a harmless kiss-kill-bury the corpse-deny everything-retire-and-tell chronology of 5 that named all its principle officers, detailed Wright’s own work on uncovering a Soviet mole in MI5, blabbed on about MI6’s attempt to assassinate President Nasser of Egypt during some barny over a canal, and included an expose of techniques, ethics (eh?) and even electronic technologies used to catch the ‘bad guys’ as an added bonus. So that was never going to cause a problem was it? Secret shit hit furtive fan, seemingly to the genuine surprise of Wright who, by this time, was wisely living in Tasmania.
But then he was only Assistant Director of one of the world’s formerly most respected security services, so how was he to know you have to keep the secrets not only after work but once you retire too? I blame HR.
Nobody higher would ever make such a monumental cock-up would they? Who? Stella Rimmington? The first female DG of MI5? The first DG of MI5 to have her name announced in the press and her photo published? The same Stella Rimmington who, during her time as head of The Security Service from 1993-96, turned the whole secret shebang into one big media love-in? There she is, pretending she’s Judi Dench. After stepping down in yet another unwarranted, unspy-like blaze of publicity, she went on to scribble down her own memoirs like someone with nothing to hide and then reinvented herself as a novelist, knocking out fictional spy novels the way Charlie Sheen knocks out hookers with titles like Dead Line, El Topo, At Risk and, presumably, Water Board, as though trying to revive the acting career of Steven Segal all on her own.
Yep, turning the whole concept of espionage on its now well-above-the-parapet head, all this publicity seeking and light-shining into dark-for-a-reason corners was always going to end badly. How badly? When you picture your own death, do you imagine slipping away peacefully in a comfortable bed with your entire family around you? Or do you like to picture your corpse being discovered locked inside a holdall in a bathtub in Pimlico? If it was the latter, seek help now.
Gareth Williams, a code breaker from GCHQ on secondment to MI6, a man who, previously, you would never have known anything about, hit the front pages when he’d failed to turn up at the spy office for several days and was found stuffed in a bag, padlocked from the outside, sat in his own bathtub. Suspicious circumstances, perhaps?
The whole charade was played out in the public eye with tests run to see if Williams could have possibly locked himself inside the holdall in the bath, but without anybody asking why, if he could, he would. Ultimately, it was concluded that someone else must have been involved. Sherlock must have been cripplingly constipated.
Of course, while we all feel for Williams’ family, the question has to be asked: why was he not just disavowed, buried in a building site and the whole thing covered up,or something, as you’d imagine it would have been handled back in the good old days of the Cold War? You can only imagine it was interference and threats of written warnings from Barry Smallcock in Human Resources again.
So, with the most secret organisations in the world now utterly exposed by ‘transparency’ rules, Julian ‘It Wasn’t Me’ Assange, the newspapers and their own rank incompetence, what is the future of the intelligence community? Does it have one? Clearly the only person with the necessary information required to answer that is Rupert Murdoch, and he has no solid memory of anything, apparently.
All I know is, if he passed on secrets to the MoS, lost his laptop in a Tapas bar while pissed, scribbled down the nation’s secrets in a tell-all novel, and got replaced by a robotic rock prior to winding up in a holdall to heaven, I would not pay to watch that Bond film again. And I’ve seen Die Another Day three times…
Stuart Pritchard will return in… Skybar. Probably. If he can be arsed.