The Berlin Wall has fallen down. James Bond and George Smiley are gone forever. In their place is a cross-eyed figure in a clown cap standing in front of the Aztec temple that is the "Head Office" of MI6, the British intelligence service. No, it's not Austin Powers, it's renegade spy Richard Tomlinson, the man who blew the cover of 115 agents on the Internet, and showed up the world of spies as a pack of cards.
The spy who came in from the cold
What turned this 37-year-old New Zealander, once a star Cambridge engineering graduate student, into a noisy spook-in-exile? The story is more personal than political.
Tomlinson's girlfriend died of cancer while he was undercover in Bosnia with Special Intelligence Services. Rather than granting him the usual compassionate leave, his masters decided he was a "loose cannon." Without further explanation, he was peremptorily sacked and denied compensation. In 1996, he responded with threats to publish his memoirs on the Net. Then, when he attempted to sell the memoirs to an Australian publisher, he was arrested for breaching the British Official Secrets Act and jailed. Released a year ago, on the condition that he would not use the Internet, he went to New Zealand in search of a media job.
August 1998 was not a good month for Tomlinson. His bad reputation with the authorities caused him to be expelled from the United States and arrested in France. Then he arranged to meet with some journalists in Sydney. Seated and ready to depart, he was ordered off the plane and taken back to Auckland, New Zealand, where police and local intelligence agents searched his hotel room and confiscated all his computer equipment. It was the last straw. His revenge was quick and brutal. Within ten days, Tomlinson had entered Web history.
For Your Eyes Only
Tomlinson's private computer files, containing a series of information-rich statements drafted for his lawyer -- were "discovered" at an Internet café in Geneva, Switzerland, and then uploaded by his friend to a local Web site. Reading those files confirms that spooks are on a different planet than the rest of us.
The first file gave details of a 1992 assassination plot against Slobodan Milosevic. Three methods were proposed, including staging a car crash in a Geneva subway tunnel. Tomlinson's dossier named six MI6 staff members he said were involved in the plot. One was Maurice Kenwrick-Piercey, also known as "P4" or "STRING VEST." Now MI6's Head of Balkan Operations, Piercey was well known among British journalists in Belgrade for his unsuccessful attempts to recruit them.
Five days after this initial upload, another file was "accidentally" left at the same Internet café. It purported to unmask a well-paid, top-level British spy inside the German federal Bundesbank -- codename "Orcada." This was part of a spying project against Britain's European partners.
Tomlinson drove the point home, writing: "Espionage operations against our European allies are regarded as highly sensitive within MI6, because officers are aware that this work would be deemed illegal under European law, and has not been authorized by Parliament. All anti-European operations are given the generic codename 'Jetstream,' and are accorded the same level of secrecy and need-to-know indoctrination as highly sensitive Russian casework ... Jetstream operations are carried out by all MI6 officers working in European countries."
Billion Dollar Brain
By March, Tomlinson had started emailing this writer with complaints that, after 4 months in the hands of the French police, his computer had been tampered with by MI6. He also indicated that he was prepared to name names of British agents, if necessary, to get fair treatment. There was one more message before the storm broke: "I am trying to force them to negotiate, but I am deadly serious in my intent to carry out the threat. MI6 are obviously very worried ..."
Four days later, he launched a Web site in Switzerland featuring an short initial list of British agents. It was closed by British legal action within hours. It then re-launched in the United States on GeoCities, hopping about from address to address and eventually settling for awhile at "Paris/Jardin/8767." Simultaneously, Tomlinson's full list of 115 British agents appeared on the Web site of the Executive Intelligence Review (EIR).
EIR is no ordinary, respectable US magazine. It is run by Lyndon LaRouche, a wannabee US presidential candidate and convicted felon whose main thesis on world affairs is that they are secretly controlled by a drug cartel run by British royalty. Even among conspiracy buffs, information emanating from LaRouche lies low on the credibility scale. And yet, in an act of incomprehensible folly, the British government issued a censorship warning to the media. Suddenly, the story was plausible. The press swooped in and the government was forced to tip its hand.
Tomlinson instantly denied, and continues to deny, that the EIR list is "his" MI6 database. But no other candidate is available. Also, a telltale personal comment was accidentally left in the list: A certain operative named Timothy Clayden is described as a "wanker." Clearly, this is not a technical operational term. Clayden is the officer who sacked Tomlinson from his job. Meanwhile, even the Swiss have thrown Tomlinson out, and he seems to be nearing the end of the line.
And for what? Had the British government not drawn attention to the list by declaring it true, damaging, and from Tomlinson, it would never have been taken seriously and -- in all probability -- never read. No wonder John Le Carre called MI6 "the Circus." Despite trappings of modernism -- chic new buildings and a semblance of equal opportunities -- the Tomlinson affair shows that 80 years of espionage has done nothing but lead its recruits up a blind alley.
Duncan Campbell writes regularly about spies for the English broadsheet, The Guardian.