Spying is a dangerous game, in reality as in fiction. It is also exotic. Sometimes the sheer adrenaline and excitement can make the spy drop his – or her – guard and judgment can be affected. Spies – both spymasters and their agents – can be seduced by the prospect of praise heaped on them by their political masters.
MI6 may have succumbed to these pressures and temptations in their handling of the former KGB spy, Alexander Litvinenko – and also of two prominent Libyan dissidents it helped to abduct and render to Muammar Gaddafi. The two cases are separate but they will both bring unwelcome publicity to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service for months to come.
Litvinenko was killed in November 2006, poisoned by the radioactive isotope polonium-210. Yesterday, at a pre-inquest hearing into her husband’s death, Litvinenko’s widow, Marina, articulated her belief that MI6 failed to protect him. Her counsel, Ben Emmerson, said: “Mr Litvinenko had been for a number of years a regular and paid agent and employee of MI6 with a dedicated handler whose pseudonym was Martin.”
He added that at the behest of MI6, Litvinenko was also working for the Spanish security services, where his handler was called Uri (the Russian was supplying the Spanish with information on organised crime and Russian mafia activity in Spain, the hearing heard). Emmerson said the inquest should consider whether MI6 failed in its duty to protect Litvinenko against a “real and immediate risk to life”.
He suggested there was “an enhanced duty resting on the British government to ensure his safety when tasking him with dangerous operations involving engagement with foreign agents”. Emmerson continued: “It is Marina Litvinenko’s belief that the evidence will show that her husband’s death was a murder and that Andrey Lugovoy [also a former KGB officer] was the main perpetrator”.
It is easy for victims of espionage to blame the spymaster. MI6 should know that. What risks the MI6 handlers took with Litvinenko, what advice and warnings they gave him, whether or not he heeded them, may – or may not – emerge during the inquest.
MI6 did not emerge well from another inquest earlier this year. The coroner at the inquest into the death of Gareth Williams a GCHQ employee seconded to MI6 and found dead in a zipped-up bag in his London flat, sharply attacked MI6 officers for hampering the police investigation into the case. For more than a week after Williams’s disappearance, MI6 did not alert the police or get in touch with any member of his family. A senior MI6 officer identified as F blamed G, Williams’s close colleague, referring to a “breakdown in communications”.
Ironically, perhaps, in light of Emmerson’s comments at Thursday’s pre-inquest hearing, G said Williams was frustrated by the bureaucracy – what he called “the amount of process risk mitigation” – inside MI6. Williams’s family solicitor said their grief was exacerbated by MI6’s failings.
Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6 apologised “unreservedly”, saying lessons in the Williams case had been learned, “in particular the responsibility of all staff to report unaccounted staff absences”.
Lessons may have been learned over Litvinenko’s death. We can be sure they are also being learned over the abduction in 2004 of two prominent Libyan dissidents – Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhaj – and their families. Al-Saadi settled on Thursday, accepting an offer of £2.2m in compensation. Belhaj intends to keep fighting and pursue his court case against ministers and officials.
Gaddafi, once an enemy of Britain, mastermind of the Lockerbie bombing, provider of weapons to the IRA, became a friend of Tony Blair (and, potentially, of British business) after promising to give up his nuclear weapons programme – mainly as a result of an operation, in which MI6 was heavily involved, which discovered nuclear cargo on the way to Libya.
Government officials said MI6 was authorised by ministers to help arrange the rendition of the two Libyan dissidents and Gaddafi’s intelligence chiefs gave assurances they would not be ill-treated. Straw suggested on Thursday he wants to say more about the Libyan operation, currently the subject of a police investigation.
Britain’s spies may have to be more careful in the future.