Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Man on the Spying Trapeze

Who is the spy at the Ambassador’s reception? That is the question. Is it the junior diplomat drinking Scotch at the bar, or the worn-out, platinum blonde wife of that know-it-all Counsellor in the Political Section? Perhaps the Third Secretary in Economic/Development, the one who drinks shandy and watches Sex and the City. There are a lot of unsavoury characters in the ranks of the intelligence community, and he’s a bit of a “red flag,” isn’t he? I heard that he’s got a first in gay from Cambridge. For all we know, he could be Moscow’s man at the UK Mission. Let’s face it: any one of these characters at the Ambassador’s reception could be the man, or woman, on the spying trapeze.

The identity of a member of the British Secret Service (MI5) or the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) is top secret, need to know, bricked and mortared by the Official Secrets Act and a Public Interest Immunity Certificate. Squeal and you get done (but it’s OK for your employers to leak the odd name). Don’t write memoirs or talk to Press. Betray the Service and the Service will betray you. They will make an example out of you and discredit you to deter others from pursuing the path you chose to pursue. Your life will become a bad dream in HMP Belmarsh. Just follow orders and keep your trap shut. It’s bad for Britain to do otherwise. Besides, nobody will believe you. Spying is lying and spies are liars.

Because of the influence of popular culture, books, films and TV shows, we tend to have a James Bond image of the modern British spy. But it is usually someone from Oxford or Cambridge University, scholastic, slightly patriotic, with a few languages into the bargain. Like all operations officers, they go through the Civil Service Selection Board, sit the Foreign Office entry examination and get schooled in tradecraft; ciphers and communications, recruiting and running agents, organizing and servicing dead letter drops, small arms and foreign weapons recognition. Despite the Bond myth, and all the rigorous training, the reality of operations is writing up reports and getting your head round the ever changing IT. Spying is open-plan, office bound and dead boring.

Intelligence work is routine for embassies throughout the world. But what is the purpose? To collect, analyse and evaluate information and transmit it back to an organization or government. Sometimes this is obtained clandestinely or under false pretences. But a lot of espionage is done openly with diplomacy. Diplomats are an expert body, covering military, commercial, legal and technical affairs, with an open duty to gather information from a wide range of sources on their area of expertise within the country to which they are posted.

Every Embassy has a “station”. The set up is simple. Depending on the size or classification (A-D) there will be one head of station, one deputy, 1-3 officers as well as a back up staff of secretaries, clerks and IT engineers. Just like diplomats (and journalists!) intelligence officers get lazy in the field. They have no choice about the location. And often have a dilettante’s knowledge of the posting, cadged from back issues of The Economist. They don’t know the language, the principal players or its political, social and historical narrative. So they rely on friendly journalists as sources of help and information on gaps and trouble spots for CX reports to London. A great deal of time is spent grooming hacks at social events and official functions, targeting ones who are not a potential security breach by appealing to their patriotism (and not paying them for leg work or information received).

New to post as a male trailing spouse, I was wary of diplomats and intelligence officers. Bangkok was full of shady people – officials, criminals and illegals (undercover intelligence officers). In a lead-lined, thick door world everyone was a suspect. Whenever I met DFID and UN colleagues of the wife, the alert status was Bikini Black Special. If they asked questions, I’d return fire: who are you, what are you doing here, where did you go to University, do you speak Thai, who were your mother and father’s friends at Oxford? And so on. I suspected everybody. And everybody suspected me.

I wasn’t the only paranoid. There was another DFID spouse, a fan of the BBC series Spooks (MI5 in the USA), who was always on the lookout for “field officers attached to the Embassy.”  She told me that Bangkok was a “low risk category posting,” and that she had been “targeting diplomats, gathering intelligence and listening to misinformation” at cocktail parties.  The bored housewife had drawn up a list of suspects.

Tinker was “obviously a spy” because his Dad was Tailor. Soldier was a spy because she worked for Sailor in the secure wing of the Embassy. Then there was Beggar Man, a First Secretary in Political, who had fluent take away Thai (despite immersion language training, the majority of British diplomats are too thick to accommodate a second language).

But chaps from the FCO Co-Ordinating Staff were attached to the Embassy and around my circle. It was only a matter of time until we’d meet. It came at an Embassy party in December 2005 when I was introduced to a pair of diplomatic valets from the FCO. One of them, a “press officer,” immediately said to me, “X doesn’t have a good word to say about you.”

This fella was trying, rather bluntly, to set me up against X, a correspondent for a UK newspaper with whom the Embassy had a beef. X had written some tough stories about the Embassy and allegedly gatecrashed a memorial service for a DFID staffer who had perished in the 2004 tsunami. I told him that I did not know X. Which was the truth.

“Even still,” he said, “X doesn’t have a good word to say about you.”

This is an old trick of the trade. Using cocktail parties and diplomatic functions to spread gossip, disinformation and play divide and rule. This guy had taken me for a mug. I looked him over. He was short, mousey and lean (not for long in Thailand, the “10 kilo posting”). And bourgeois scruffy: in a pale blue shirt and old khaki trousers.  There was no Pentel pen in the shirt pocket and one of his blue socks had a hole in the toe. The “press officer” had an air of arrogance and assurance beyond his rank and physical stature. It was bit of a giveaway. All the same, who was he?  An upper-middle class lad of sound background who went to Oxford, landed gentry, a public school educated Marxist who had read PPE at LSE? He had sized me up quick. I wouldn't do the same back.

“So,” he asked, “how does it work between you and X?”

I told him that X was the SEA correspondent of a newspaper that I occasionally contributed to.

“I don’t understand,” he asked, “so how does it work between you and X?”

I snapped.

“It does not work between me and X. I do not know this person. You are a press officer, and you don’t know how the Press works? That alarms me. Allow me to explain to you how it works. X is the SEA correspondent. I-am-freelance-scum. And a trailing spouse. You see that pretty little lady over there? Well, that’s my wife, and I came here with her because, like you, she got posted here by HMG.”

He asked whom I had worked for as a hack. I mentioned Index on Censorship.

“I’ve heard of Index,” he said.

“Good,” I replied. “So have others.”

The “press officer” went off for a refill and a slice of Hawaiian pizza in the kitchen. I was left with “Rich Man”.  He had come to Bangkok to “work with local charities” post tsunami. Rich Man began to complain, in what sounded like a faux posh accent, about journalists and journalism. Broadsheet, tabloid, radio or television, we were “all the same” to him. One columnist who had raised his hackles was Cristina Odone. She had mentioned the Ferrero Roche ad in an article about the Embassy and the tsunami.

“Bloody stupid reference to that ad in her article. The FCO isn’t like that, not in this day and age…”

(Nah, ya don’t say!)

“Embassy life is nothing like that commercial on the television. Articles, like that one by Cristina Odone, give the FCO a bad name. It’s not good for our image. Every time they (the UK Press) write about us, the FCO launches an internal investigation. And we get the brunt of it.”

“But the Ferrero Roche ad conjures an image,” I said. “The world of diplomats is exotic and glamorous and baffling to the outsider. And when we think of that hidden world, people of a certain age tend to think of that silly old commercial.”

“Huh,” he guffawed, “it’s all wrong. Sends out the wrong message. Makes people think we are partying when we are not. These journalists writing about the Embassy and the FCO don’t know how much damage they are doing." He went wild, like a bulldog with eyes up its own arse, “They are not being very patriotic and they are damaging the country!”

“Miss Odone is Italian,” I said. “And, like Italy, we still have a free press in the UK.”

(Not if this lot had their way, I thought to myself, they would line us up against a wall and shoot us in the national interest).

A few days later, at the house party of a UN colleague of my wife, another errand boy from the FCO did the very same thing shortly after being introduced.

“According to X from REDACTED, you are not a proper journalist.”

You don’t have to be Philip Marlowe to know that twice isn’t coincidence. The Embassy must have hated X. And hoped, because I am a drug-crazed nak muay (kickboxer), that I would beat him up after hearing this gossip. The late spymistress, Baroness Park, summed up the ploy best, “Set people up against each other. They destroy each other. You don’t destroy them.”

Pity the shit backfired… 

More espionage related blog reading can be found here.