Daily archives: October 5, 2009

Fools Believe in James Bond

Tom Harris MP being the fool in question. He thinks that the people who concocted the lies about Iraqi WMD, thus launching a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, are the best choice to be in parliament:

I would have thought it in our country’s interest to have an MP ?” of whatever political persuasion ?” with a background in covert intelligence work.


Tom’s article is based on a huge number of preconceptions. The truth is, that the wonderful James Bond opus has fundamentally affected the perception of MI6 in the British people, including the politicians. But James Bond is fiction. It bears no resemblance at all to the real MI6.

In particular Tom Harris has swallowed the idea that MI6 officers put themselves in particular danger in the course of their work, That is simply untrue. Watson’s attempted contrast in “The View From The Residence” between comfortable diplomats and brave MI6 officers is offensive. He may be interested to know that consistently since World War II more FCO than MI6 staff have been killed or injured on active service.

MI6 officers only work abroad with diplomatic immunity. Their “Cover” is almost always as Embassy staff. The following single true story tells more truth about MI6 than Tom Harris will ever experience. Names have been changed.

I was First Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw, in charge of the Political and Economic Sections. One day I was having lunch with a well known Polish restaurateur, Wlodek. Wlodek ran Warsaw’s most exclusive restaurant and catered for many government functions. He was also a well known social figure in his own right, and a great purveyor of political gossip.

Over lunch Wlodek told me a story about the then Polish Prime Minister. I was able to tell him that I had been present on the occasion he described and the story was untrue.

There was another First Secretary in the Embassy, we will call him Bill, with a theoretical job description very similar to mine – only he was really an MI6 officer. A couple of days later I was having lunch in another restaurant with another contact (now you know why I am so fat). Ensconced in a corner together were Bill and Wlodek.

A couple of days further on I received a copy of an intelligence report issued by MI6. It described the source as “Regular and reliable, with good access”. It contained the same story Wlodek had told me.

I minuted on it – “Bill – you got this from Wlodek. He told me the same thing. It’s not true. I was there.” and sent it back to him. I got told off for the cardinal sin of writing the name of the source on the report.

A couple more days, and I met Wlodek again.

“Wlodek, why did you tell Bill that story”, I asked, “I told you it wasn’t true”.

“Ah yes,” Wlodek laughed, “But Bill paid me ten thousand dollars for it”.

Which is what MI6 mostly do. They buy information. By definition, of course, people who sell you intelligence are apt to be unreliable. Much of the key “intelligence” on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction was bought from an Iraqi Colonel. If you hand over briefcases of used dollars to Iraqi Colonels in Egyptian hotel rooms, they will give you lots of information on WMD. Absolutely as much as you want. Just keep the dollars flowing.

Forget the entertaining Ian Fleming. Read Graham Greene, who saw much further into the human soul. Our Man in Havana is much closer to truth than James Bond.

There is also the question of the huge sums of taxpayers’ cash doled out. I had to account in detail you would not believe for ever penny of FCO cash spent. Every British Ambassador spends two full working days a month carrying out accounts and receipts and stocks checks.

But I frequently in my career had to sign for large sums in cash (MI6 officers do not sign for it themselves) which I then handed over to my MI6 colleagues. You can’t ask a paid traitor for a receipt, so this money was, literally, unaccountable. The largest cash sum I ever handed over was US$120,000. Did I ever suspect MI6 officers might be stealing some of this untraceable money? Yes, bluntly I did, in one case in particular. There are absolutely no safeguards.

Not all information is paid for. Informers can have other motives. Interestingly one effect of the invasion of Iraq has been that far fewer informants are willing to cooperate with British intelligence because they see the UK as a force for good in the world. But “Human Intelligence”, or HUMINT, always has to be carefully assessed for the motive of the teller and his credible access to the information. Very often, it is wrong.

HUMINT reports arrive around Whitehall with red cardboard covers and SIGINT – communications intercepts from GCHQ – in blue jackets. I recall Tristan Garel-Jones, when a FCO minister, asking his Private Secretary in a meeting about Cyprus “Now remind me again, which colour is reliable and which colour is speculative?” Broadly, he was not wrong. GCHQ information is viewed generally in Whitehall to be better quality than MI6 information, and I certainly found this true in my 20 years of dealing with intelligence.

All this is broad bush. MI6 are sometimes involved in Sigint operations. They sometimes produce good human intelligence. But they failed disastrously their two most important tests – over Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, and over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. Both failures led to war.

The other source of MI6 HUMINT is foreign liaison. This is where MI6 stand accused of accepting large quantities of dubious intelligence and turning a blind eye to the fact that it was obtained by torture.

But the biggest source of UK intelligence is the United States. Most reports issued by MI6 are CIA reports, as most reports issued by GCHQ are NSA reports. An alpha-numeric code is the only thing that shows the difference. It was the CIA’s adoption of torture that caused Jack Straw’s change of policy to accept it.

The fallibility of HUMINT has been very well understood in Whitehall for generations. The reports are fed in by MI6 but then go through a number of sceptical filters, in the FCO, MOD and Cabinet Office and other government departments if relevant, formalised in the Joint Intelligence Committee and its sub-committees. With New Labour enforcing true belief in the War on Terror, the scepticism filters have been opened wide. That was the scandal of the Iraqi WMD dossier. The appalling quality of the bought and torture intelligence being fed in was just par for the course from MI6.

A final observation. I had no MI6 officers with me in Tashkent because MI6 said the operating environment was too dangerous. Meantime I was visiting alone and unarmed all through the Ferghana Valley and Tien Shan.

There, Tom Harris MP. That is the view from the Residence. Evidently it is a damn sight clearer than the view from the New Labour benches of the House of Commons.

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