Her Majesty's Secret Agent
On a morning in mid-March 2007, a dark blue car with a Scotland Yard Special Branch driver at the wheel made its way through the west suburbs of London toward the city center. The single passenger in the backseat, Sir John McLeod Scarlett, looked intimidating, the embodiment of the British establishment, a banker, perhaps, or the chairman of a large company. His customized suit, tailored by Gieves & Hawkes, a handsewn shirt with double cuffs and his Travellers Club tie enhanced the impression.
Scarlett was Her Majesty's Secret Agent, a spymaster who had long understood that the chessboard of intelligence gathering has no rules. Now fifty-nine years old, he still had the cultivated drawl from a prep school education (Epsom College) and three years at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied history before joining MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, entering a world where deception and betrayal would remain the cornerstone of his work. For thirty-two years his talents at spying and counterespionage steadily brought him promotion until finally he became its chief, the fourteenth to hold the post, and early in the year he had been knighted by the queen. Married with four adult children, three boys and a girl, he enjoyed collecting history books, visiting medieval churches, and fine dining.
Those pleasant pastimes fitted in with the massive mahogany desk in his office, which once graced the cabin of Admiral Lord Nelson on Victory and behind which Scarlett's predecessors had sat. On the desk was a Victorian inkwell, its pot filled with green ink, and beside it the Parker fountain pen Scarlett used to sign all his correspondence. A desk communications console had direct links to the prime minister, the head of MI5, the director of the CIA, and the chiefs of Europe's intelligence services. There was also a button that activated a phone three thousand miles away on the desk of the director-general of Mossad.
The office furnishings were completed by a grandfather clock constructed down to the last flywheel by the first chief, Sir Mansfield Smith Cumming; almost a century later, it still kept perfect time. Cumming's order that all communications emanating from him were to be known as "intelligence product" and marked with the prefix "CX," an abbreviation for "Cumming Exclusive," remained in force. In his will he had bequeathed the agency a large oil painting of a group of French villagers facing a Prussian firing squad during the war of 1870, and as MI6 had moved from one headquarters to another around London, the picture followed. With it went the custom that Cumming was only addressed as Chief.
When Scarlett had been appointed on May 6, 2004 as director-general of MI6, the queen had addressed him as such. He called her the first time "Your Majesty" and thereafter "ma'am." Protocol with both was inbred.
Attached to Scarlett's console was a tamper-proof computer that contained the current state of MI6 missions across the world: in Moscow, Beijing, Baghdad, and Tehran; in the depths of Amazonia and the jungles of Central Africa; in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan: in all those places where Scarlett and his senior staff detected terrorist threats to the United Kingdom. It was hugely expensive to maintain the field operations, often requiring a score of people to service a single field agent "down the pipe."
MI6 is Britain's external Secret Intelligence Service and has a worldwide mandate. MI5, the Security Service, is responsible for internal security. MI6 is answerable to Britain's foreign secretary; MI5, to the home secretary. Both service heads are appointed by the incumbent prime minister and are represented on the Joint Intelligence Committee ( JIC), the link with the government. However, both the chief of MI6 and the director-general of MI5 also have immediate access to the prime minister of the day. The services work closely together in the current threat from global terrorism.
Since the al-Qaeda attack on the United States, September 11, 2001, however, budget considerations were no longer the main concern; MI6 was flush with money to conduct espionage, counterespionage, and electronic surveillance, whose gadgetry in 2007 remained the growth industry of the secret world. Scarlett's computer had a map listing the current state of the terrorist threat to the United Kingdom; on that March morning it was "severe," one level below "critical."
Superimposed over London on the map was the figure 35, representing the number of Islamic networks MI6 believed were in the capital. Eighty were identified as operating within the Muslim communities in the Midlands, in Leicester, Birmingham, Derby, and Nottingham. Further north in the conurbation of Leeds, Bradford, and Manchester, there were another sixty networks. West, in the port city of Liverpool, twenty networks had been uncovered. Across the border into Wales, ten were pinpointed not only in the cities of Cardiff and Swansea but in the Brecon Beacon mountains, where suspected terrorists had been spotted training before the London bombings in July 2005. Twelve other networks were in Scotland, and across the Irish Sea were two more.
Most of the networks consisted of two or three members; a few comprised up to a dozen men and women. After becoming radicalized, they had melted into their community as sleeper agents maintaining contact with each other at Friday mosque prayers and biding their time for instructions to carry out an attack. Their deep cover was protected through their daily jobs as schoolteachers, college professors, doctors and nurses, shopkeepers and salespeople. The popular image of the uneducated terrorist of the IRA had long gone. Al-Qaeda sought to recruit university graduates rather than the street-corner dropouts. While the jihadists waited to be activated, they observed any procedural, legal, or cultural weaknesses in their society that could be exploited.
The networks had produced Richard Reid, a British-born convert to Islamism who, in December 2001, tried to blow up a U.S. airliner bound from Paris to Miami with a bomb in his shoe. The July 2005 London bombers all belonged to a network; two, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, had trained as terrorists in Pakistan before returning to England to become sleeper agents. Four others had set up a poison factory in a peaceful suburb of north London, using techniques they had been taught by a chemist at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan before coming to Britain.
Even knowing the jihadists were there, taking action against them before they were about to strike was not easy. Neither MI5 nor MI6 had the power of arrest, and Britain's human rights lawyers made full use of the country's laws to challenge arrests made by the police.
In a briefing to his senior managers on the day he became director general, Scarlett reminded them, "As we are in a global and totalitarian war against terrorism, we must continue to fully engage it on those terms."
In January 2007, a team of MI5 officers had flown to the war-torn African state of Somalia to try to obtain DNA samples from four Britishborn terrorists, who had been among a hundred jihadists killed in a U.S. bombing raid on an al-Qaeda training camp on the remote island of Lamu in the Indian Ocean. The men had been born and raised in Leeds and had told their families they were going to visit relatives in Islamabad. Instead they traveled to Somalia, joining other jihadists from France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. The passport details of the four Britons had provided an electronic footprint for their journey to Lamu, tracking them through Athens airport on to Mogadishu in the Horn of Africa. From there they had traveled to Lamu, arriving only days before the U.S. fighter-bombers struck. Immediately after the bombing their bodies were buried along with the other dead by their instructors, who then fled back to Mogadishu.
The MI5 officers had flown from London to Kuwait and then to an American carrier on patrol in the Arabian Sea, from which U.S. Navy helicopters took them to Lamu. For three dangerous days, guarded by a combined force of SAS and Delta Force commandos, the officers had helped to dig up bodies buried in shallow graves. On the fourth day they unearthed the four Britons. Each still carried his passport.
Their DNA samples were flown out to the carrier and processed on board before being flown to London so forensic pathologists could match them against other DNA obtained from the unsuspecting families of the dead men. Experts from MI5's technical support department, using the passport information, had located addresses for members of the dead men's families. An officer posing as a local health employee checking on contamination of the local water supply due to broken pipes after unseasonable flooding, had called on each address and taken swabs. These had been driven to London, where a Home Office scientist conducted comparison tests on the DNA recovered from the Lamu bodies. In each case there was a perfect match.
MI6 calculated there were still some 1,600 potential terrorists spread across Britain. It had been one of the first points Scarlett made to Gordon Brown, the prime-minister-in-waiting, during his initial intelligence briefing.
Tony Blair, in the sunset of his ten-year premiership, had been Scarlett's political mentor and protector in the jungle of Whitehall. Yet against Scarlett's advice, Blair had made an extraordinary choice and announced his early retirement from politics with two years of his term remaining. It left him a lame-duck leader, the object of media ridicule and fierce internal sniping within his own cabinet. Within MI6 there was speculation that when Blair left office, Scarlett would soon follow. Critics had not forgotten the damage he had brought upon MI6 following those halcyon days when the Blair Crisis Cabinet had met in the runup to the Iraq War in 2003 and Scarlett had read aloud, from his buff-colored file with the red cross of St. George on its cover, the latest intelligence from Baghdad. Blair had given him a place at the cabinet table, as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and had seized upon every word of Scarlett's to support his own belief that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, or WMD. The claim was enshrined in a document signed by Blair and presented to Parliament, one to which Scarlett had made a major contribution.
By the time the Crisis Cabinet became the War Cabinet after the invasion of Iraq, Scarlett surely knew Saddam had no warheads filled with smallpox to rain down plague on his enemies, no mobile chemical weapons laboratories roaming the Iraqi deserts at night to launch mass death, no nuclear rockets capable of being fired in forty-five minutes against the coalition forces mustering in Kuwait. There were no WMD of any kind to be found.
When it emerged that it had been Scarlett who pressed for the inclusion of what became known as "the golden nuggets"—the very reason Bush and Blair had gone to war with Iraq—and that those "nuggets" turned out to be fantasies based on highly dubious intelligence sources, Scarlett became the object of intense public criticism calling for his resignation.
Instead Tony Blair had appointed him as the director-general of MI6. Within the Secret Intelligence Service there was stunned disbelief. The appointment was seen by many officers as no more than repayment by Blair for Scarlett's support over WMD. That view was shared in the corridors of the Ministry of Defense and at Langley. One CIA officer who had been directly involved in the search for WMD told the author, "Until the golden nuggets, Scarlett had a good reputation. Not anymore. If Blair was Bush's poodle, Scarlett was Blair's donkey."
In Washington the issue of WMD had ensured Scarlett's footprint would be clear in all subsequent assessments of the Iraq War; he was the intelligence chief who had made a disastrous error.
John Scarlett now had an opportunity to show his peers that MI6, under his command, could carry out an operation that would become a hallmark of careful planning and derring-do and would restore his reputation in the secret world of intelligence and with the new government of Gordon Brown. For the rest—the media commentators on the Sunday morning talk shows, the retired analysts turned pundits—he would continue to dismiss them as "legless men trying to teach running." The operation would be a fitting climax to his long career.
ONE OF HIS OXFORD INSTRUCTORS was a talent spotter for MI6. After Scarlett had passed through its training school at Fort Monkton near Gosport in Hampshire, he was posted to Nairobi. Among his first calls was to the Oasis Club near the city's venerable Norfolk Hotel. The club had long been a favorite among Kenya's business and political communities and the city's foreign spies. Patrons could drink from dusk to dawn in its gloomy interior and risk taking a bar girl to one of the rooms out back after checking that her latest medical certificate promised she was free from AIDS.
Moshe Goldberg, a Mossad katsa, a field officer, had met Scarlett when he was familiarizing himself with the city and had invited Scarlett to have a drink in the club. Late in the evening they had been joined by a South African intelligence officer: Sober, the man was an amusing raconteur; drunk, he could become boorish and violent. When a barman brought them a new round of drinks, he accidentally spilled a glass over the South African's safari suit.
"The man lunged at him. Scarlett stood up and restrained him. The whole club fell silent. Scarlett quietly told the waiter to bring fresh drinks and turned to the South African and said this wasn't Cape Town. It was an object lesson in the use of confidence coupled to certainty," recalled Goldberg.
In Kenya, Scarlett used his social skills to good advantage; he was well read and enjoyed watching polo and partying. His reports to London were regarded as some of the best informed on the impact that the Russians and Chinese were having on Kenya. His time there was followed by a posting to Moscow, the most dangerous place for a spy.
Scarlett was completing his second tour in the Russian capital when, in January 1994, the KGB caught him meeting one of his contacts, Vladimir Sinstov, whom Scarlett had recruited the year before at an arms fair in London. Sinstov was the export manager for a Moscow weapons company. Russian intelligence officers had pounced on the two men in a café near the Kremlin. Scarlett had just paid Sinstov for the most recent details of arms sales to Syria and Iraq and the names of Sinstov's contacts in Budapest, Paris, and Damascus. Scarlett was expelled and Sinstov sentenced to ten years' hard labor in a Siberian gulag. He would die there. In all, Scarlett had paid him eight thousand pounds in the ten months they knew each other.
Scarlett was given a desk job at MI6 as director of security and public affairs. The post required him to act as the service's internal watchdog; his only role in "public affairs" was to ensure that as little as possible about MI6 appeared in the media. He imbued both jobs with what one former officer, Richard Tomlinson, described as "cold efficiency. A number of officers who did not measure up to Scarlett's yardstick suddenly found themselves out of a job."
In 2001, Prime Minister Tony Blair had appointed Scarlett as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the invisible bridge over which all important intelligence went to Downing Street. The appointment caused raised eyebrows within MI6. The incumbent head of the JIC, Peter Ricketts, was not only popular within the Secret Intelligence Service but also understood how to define the correct distance between intelligence and politics. Now, after only seven months in the post, Ricketts was sent abroad as Britain's representative at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The move was seen by many within MI6 as a demotion.
It also probably marked the time when Scarlett became a man to watch. Career officers like Mark Allen, long regarded as the service's most gifted Arabist, did not bother to hide his concerns. Like Scarlett, Allen had joined MI6 after graduating from Oxford. His worry was that Scarlett's appointment would lead to the "inevitable politicizing" of intelligence—not least because of Blair's longtime friendship with Scarlett. The prime minister had also graduated from Oxford, along with Nigel Inkster, the deputy director of MI6. Allen thought Inkster's overseas tours, including lengthy periods in the Far East that had given him considerable insight into Chinese intelligence—already a burgeoning threat—made him the ideal choice to replace the current chief, Richard Dearlove.
Dearlove had informed Blair he was "seriously considering" retiring to fulfill a lifelong ambition to become master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, one of the most prestigious positions in academia, and had told his old classmates at Monkton Combe School, near Bath, that he'd had his "fill of those places where the streets change their names depending on who is running the show."
Dearlove had given Blair no time frame for leaving, but he had gently indicated that when he did, Inkster would be a safe pair of hands to steer MI6 through the storms that required cool judgment. Instead Blair had casually asked Scarlett, when the time came, whether he was ready to take up the challenge of being the next chief. Richard Tomlinson would later claim, "Knowing the kind of overly ambitious type Scarlett is, it could only have been an offer he could not possibly refuse."
Three days after Scarlett's appointment as JIC chairman, 9/11 happened. Scarlett saw how the grimly effective simplicity of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had struck with numbing abruptness within the U.S. intelligence community. He wrote that what clearly emerged from the disaster was "a devastating pointer to U.S. intelligence failure."
Yet the signs had been there: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the First Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the collapse of Soviet Communism, the slide into anarchy in the Balkans, the emergence of al-Qaeda, the revolt of militants against the regimes in power across the Muslim world, and the rise of religious ideology into a powerful cohesive force that was daily expanding not only among the urban poor but to middle-class professionals.
"In none of these matters did U.S. intelligence provide its policy makers with information to allow them to use pre-emptive leverage on these events," wrote Scarlett.
He had gone on to argue that, for Britain, the most effective way to deal with the threat terrorism posed was to recognize that surveillance on a global scale was essential. In forty-eight hours Scarlett had pulled together all the multiple strands of British intelligence to provide Blair with a clear picture of the extent of the threat. He hand-carried his report to Downing Street in a buff-colored file bearing the red cross of St.
George, an outward clue to his patriotism.
Now, in his third year as director-general of MI6, John Scarlett was satisfied he had proved his argument.
THE SWEEPING VICTORY of New Labour in the election in May 1997 had led to corrosive rumors within MI6. Some of them were damaging, suggesting that John Reid, a future home secretary and an admitted former member of the Communist Party, still had ties to Moscow. Files on other Labour politicians were dusted off and the contents circulated among MI6 managers. Jack Straw, a future British foreign secretary who had expressed misgivings about going to war with Iraq, and Peter Mandelson, who became a European Commissioner, each had a file, along with Cherie Booth, the wife of Tony Blair (a fact Blair later insisted he was not told by Scarlett). Other files included one on Mohamed al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods and the future bête noire of the royal family over his claims Prince Philip had been involved in the death of Princess Diana. There were files on John Lennon and the rock bands the Sex Pistols and Primal Scream. In all there were a hundred files on celebrities, leading trade unionists, politicians, and human rights lawyers. Long-serving MI6 officers remembered that when Labour held power under Harold Wilson there had been deep distrust toward Downing Street because of the fear that Wilson, too, had links with Moscow.
In October 2008, it was MI6 who raised the issue of suspicious contacts when Gordon Brown invited Peter Mandelson to join his government as Business Secretary. Newspapers, led by the London Sunday Times, established that Mandelson had enjoyed a long relationship with a Russian billionaire oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, the world's tenth richest man and a close friend of Vladimir Putin, Russia's former president and later its prime minister. More disturbing for MI6 was that Deripaska had alleged links to a powerful Russian Mafia gang, the Izmailovo Organization, a fact the media seized upon to demand that Mandelson should resign. He did not. Deripaska denied any connection to the Mafia. But Mandelson's previous MI6 file had been upgraded to "Y-category"—the most secret category—and stored on the Secret Intelligence Service's Scope database, which can only be accessed by the heads of MI6, MI5, and GCHQ. Beyond them only the incumbent prime minister and foreign secretary have access to Scope.
Scarlett believed Tony Blair would be a different political master than Wilson. For him, the new prime minister was "refreshingly open, ready to listen and, though he had no real knowledge of how intelligence operated, he was ready to learn."
When Scarlett saw an opportunity to brief Blair on the work of MI6, Richard Dearlove readily acceded. In no time Scarlett was a regular visitor to Downing Street. Cherie Blair often cooked supper for him, dishing up her favorite Lancashire hot pot [similar to a Crock-Pot stew], and the Blairs became guests in the Scarlett home, eating off their walnut dining table. In June 2001, Labour was reelected with a majority of 179 seats, and the Scarletts were among their friends who danced the night away.
Despite Scarlett's efforts to build trust, however, mutual suspicions remained, with Labour politicians calling for a detailed account of MI6 spending and the Secret Intelligence Service arguing that revealing this would "prejudice its operational security." A Cabinet Office inquiry had concluded that MI6 "lacked focus" and had recommended some "downsizing as it appears to have run out of things to do." Scarlett had rejected this and crisply reminded Blair that the party's election manifesto had no "discernible" intelligence policy. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, under whose political control MI6 came, had been among the fiercest critics of the service for "its lack of performance and often [being] a waste of taxpayers' money."
Once more Scarlett had used his skills to smooth over such attacks. Recognizing that the majority of Labour politicians who had come into office had previously little or no contact with MI6, he set out to host private dinners for them at which he revealed a heady mixture of what MI6 did: daring missions in the Balkans and the Middle East in those places where the streets had no names and it was kill or be killed. The stories were interspersed with racy tales of the human side of MI6: the officer who had paid for his divorce by pocketing expenses for a fictitious informer he had created for his reports drawn from the pages of the Economist. There was the spy who had sold fake British passports to a Middle Eastern businessman to sell on to drug dealers; when the documents were presented at Immigration, the holders were arrested. Eventually the businessman was murdered in a Beirut back street. Robin Cook later said, "Scarlett saw this as a win-win situation for Labour as all these shenanigans had happened on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's watch."
Scarlett promised to make sure there would be no repetition during his tenure. The guarantee, as he surely knew it would, had been passed back to Blair, further cementing the new relationship between Downing Street and MI6. This was regularly refreshed by Scarlett's skill at assiduously cultivating an air of mystique and conveying the importance of intelligence work. Selected senior politicians were invited to MI6 headquarters. Scarlett would give them lunch and smilingly see them off in their government cars for the short drive back to Whitehall.
On that March Morning of 2007, as Scarlett's car took him toward MI6 headquarters, the London Eye, the giant Ferris wheel that gently hoisted tourists into the sky for a panoramic view of the capital, and the towering arch over the new Wembley stadium were lost in the predawn. In April 2006, a plot to destroy them had been discovered on an al-Qaeda Web site by one of the scores of computer experts, collectively called the Surfers, who worked in the half-light of a large, open-plan, windowless room in Central London, the home of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC), which had opened in 2003. The Surfers could locate a radical Web site, spot a threat, and pass the data on to analysts in milliseconds. Along with MI6 and MI5, the CIA and Mossad were among those who received the "product."
A growing number of al-Qaeda Web sites operated out of Pakistan, a country that was both the epicenter of worldwide Islamic extremism and an important ally of the West. Its president, Pervez Musharraf, identified the struggle against terrorism as his top priority, but increasingly it was becoming clear al-Qaeda was a dominant force in the country. Musharraf had barely survived several assassination attacks. He was ousted from office in 2007.
From his redoubt somewhere in the mountains of the Northwest Frontier, Osama bin Laden had turned the streets of scores of cities and towns into a bloody battlefield in which non-Muslim minorities—Christians, Hindus, and Parsis—were killed. In adjoining Afghanistan, entire towns and villages had become "Talibanized," their populations given an ultimatum to support extremism or die. Village youths were ordered to attend training camps where they were taught to become suicide bombers and given travel documents to go to Europe and join the hundreds of highly trained and motivated extremists who were waiting to strike. John Kringen, head of the CIA analysis directorate, had warned, "We see more trained extremists. We see more money being spent to prepare them. And we see that activity rising."
The threats to the London Eye and the Wembley Arch had been traced to a Web site in Karachi. A priority signal from Pakistan's Counter Terrorism Center (CTC) confirmed the details; jointly funded by the CIA and MI6, the center was set up after the 9/11 attacks, supervised on the spot by officers from both services, and had become a well-run operation staffed by young Pakistani intelligence officers trained in either London or Washington.
Part of their equipment included ultrasophisticated direction-finding devices that could pinpoint a radical Web site's source to within a few hundred yards. It was a D/F (direction finding) team in Karachi that confirmed where the Web site operated. Two hours later a Pakistani police detachment accompanied by an MI6 officer raided the apartment. Six al-Qaeda suspects were bundled into a truck along with two Dell computers. Within the hour the officer had opened up a line in cyberspace to the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham and transmitted the contents of the computer hard discs. It took only seconds to do so. Another small victory in the war on terrorism had been achieved.
Since the Karachi Episode, thirty-two other plots had been uncovered by the Surfers. All had been initiated by groups across the Middle East, Asia, and the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. "But the enemy is not only at our electronic gate; it is within this country," Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director-general of MI5, had said in her last public speech on terrorism (she retired on April 20, 2007). Though she was careful not to identify any radical group, the claims were seen as being directly aimed at Britain's two million Muslims.
To deal with the enemy at that electronic gate, the Internet, Scarlett had expanded the Global Issues Controllerate (GIC), amalgamating six existing departments within MI6, and local station commanders in the Middle East, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Far East were absorbed into it as well. Some officers lost their jobs; others resigned in anger. Morale within MI6 began to sink. Rumors about Scarlett's methods when he had been stationed in Nairobi and Moscow surfaced. "Hard-nosed" and "cold" were two epithets attached to his name. A story circulated that he had failed to "properly protect" a valuable source in Pretoria, who had credible evidence that Pakistan was headhunting South African nuclear scientists to work on its own nuclear program.
The whispers did nothing to sway Scarlett's determination to mold MI6. The clearest evidence of his success was how money was poured into the GIC. It took up a significant amount of the MI6 annual budget of £2.5 billion. The funding came from the government secret fund, the Single Unified Vote, which covered the costs of running a modern-day intelligence service. Every major Western country had such a fund, but Britain's was second only to the vast sums that ensured the U.S. intelligence community would never face a financial drought.
Among much else, the MI6 budget paid for the regular attachment of Secret Intelligence Service officers to the CIA and to the Mossad. After GCHQ opened its own office, close to the National Security Agency (NSA) complex in Maryland, Scarlett had stationed a senior officer to deliver specific MI6 targets for NSA's satellites to track. As the majority of requests dovetailed with the NSA's own targeting, there was rarely a challenge from Fort Meade as to whether the cost and repositioning of a satellite would be worthwhile. These umbilical links with the NSA, the largest "spy in the sky" organization in the world, were further reinforced by the stationing of two Secret Intelligence Service officers at the NSA station at Menwith Hill in the north of England.
An uncertain future, which MI6 had faced at the end of the cold war with threatened budget and staff cuts, had all but vanished with the emergence of al-Qaeda. Scarlett's negotiating skills had persuaded the Treasury to end the long-running backstairs struggle between successive chancellors and intelligence chiefs. What Scarlett asked for he got. New staff was recruited and offices rented behind Harrods, the Knightsbridge store, and in Sloane Square, where the renegade spy Kim Philby had been interrogated. In all, a dozen locations were obtained for MI6 after Scarlett became chief. Money to pay for the expansion was disguised in the annual budgets of the Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Office. Supported by the Blair government's encouragement for outsourcing, Secret Intelligence Service officers taking retirement were found berths in a network of private consultancies like Control Risks, which specialized in kidnap negotiations. Those companies provided useful cover for MI6's own secret operations.
Before Scarlett took over, MI6 had undergone major restructuring following the end of the cold war, when the JIC decided to add terrorism and global crime—narcotics, economic espionage, and counterproliferation—to the Secret Intelligence Service's list of prime targets. Scarlett had insisted on the need to support the traditional role of the spy with state-of-the-art technology to defend Britain against the enemy at the gate.
Communication facilities had been expanded at Ayios Nikolaos on Cyprus to support covert operations in the Middle East, especially Iran. A joint facility with the CIA operating on the Pacific island of Guam had been upgraded to increase the monitoring of the Republic of China and North Korea.
The idea of using "front" companies behind which MI6 agents could hide had been a cherished one since the 1930s when the service's second chief, Hugh Sinclair, a film buff, had persuaded Alexander Korda to allow his London Films company to provide cover for Sinclair's agents. In 1947, Marshall's Travel was purchased, followed by the Casuro Travel company.
Like all intelligence services, MI6 had recognized the value of black propaganda, and after World War II, its purchasing department bought the Britanova news agency to pump material into the Soviet Union and ANA, the Arab news agency, to do the same in the Middle East. On Scarlett's direction, the global number of safe houses had been increased and their locations made known only to those agents who needed to use them. Each was fully maintained and swept regularly for bugs.
On that March 2007 day, John Scarlett headed a global organization employing 2,500 people full-time and twice that number on contracts. What had begun as a one-man operation in 1909 now had two helicopters and detachments from the Special Boat Service (SBS) and the Special Air Service (SAS) permanently on call. As well as Control Risks, there was the Bahamas-registered Sandline International, with offices in London's King's Road. The staffs of those organizations were known as "the King's Road Irregulars," ready to do MI6's bidding, knowing their activities would be protected by the Intelligence Services Act of 1994.
Since the London bombings of 2005, there had been a major increase in security at Britain's air- and seaports, nuclear power stations, railway terminals, and major bridge crossings; as well as armed police, officers from MI5 and MI6 stood watch alongside Immigration officers. The most significant development had been the spread of closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. By 2007, over £500 million had been spent installing 4.2 million cameras, one-fifth of all CCTV cameras in the world. Every government building had its quota of unblinking lenses linked to a monitoring station inside the building. Shopping malls were fitted with cameras to warn of a terrorist attack. On the streets of London and other English cities and towns, a person was filmed on average three hundred times a day. Over three million citizens had their DNA samples taken and stored on police computers. They were told, "It is in the interest of national security."
No other nation, except China, equaled such surveillance. Sufficient film to encircle the equator was downloaded daily and analyzed, and "appropriate" images were stored for future use. A Home Office spokesman said, "The question of what is appropriate is decided on a national security basis."
A surveillance network was devoted to automatic license plate recognition: Its cameras tracked vehicles used by suspected terrorists or criminals and had the capability to handle fifty million plate readouts in a day in any weather conditions and transmit them to one of the scores of optical software recognition stations positioned across Britain. From snapshot to target recognition took seconds.
Hidden among this forest of silent watchers were the cameras deployed by MI6. It had doubled its film coverage since Scarlett became chief. Many of the cameras were sited on the approaches to predominantly Muslim areas and linked to a monitoring center in the south of London. The building resembled a warehouse and appeared no different from others bordering the River Thames. However, it was enclosed by a security fence strengthened to resist a Baghdad-style bomber, and from within the building came the low hum of an air-conditioning system cooling the computers. Day and night they sifted and matched many millions of pieces of information, slotting them into place among the billions of pieces already stored in the databases. The material included details about a person: address, employer, bank, salary, spending patterns. E-mails, faxes, and telephone calls all were stored and could be downloaded in milliseconds.
The technicians who worked in the building had the latest equipment to turn images into three-dimensional pictures, enhance the contrast between a person and his or her background, and, if need be, remove the person totally from the background for closer inspection. The vast monitoring station was an example of the shifting parameters of intelligence in the growing world of cyberwarfare, which marked MI6's own shift from espionage against the Soviet Union during the cold war to fighting the terrorism of al-Qaeda.
The demise of Soviet Communism saw the end of a recognizable enemy, the KGB and its associate service the GRU, military intelligence. They had more or less operated in the same way as MI6, or any of the other major Western intelligence services, turning up in the world's trouble spots: Berlin in 1961, Cuba in 1963, and the Middle East from 1967 onward. From time to time stories about their activities appeared in the media, among them claims about suitcase nuclear bombs and missiles with biological warheads.
Since 9/11 the claims were laid at al-Qaeda's door, and it became part of both MI6's and MI5's brief to track dual-purpose equipment that could be used to make a "dirty" nuclear bomb, from vacuum pumps used in hospital imaging scanners to the rods used in nuclear medical equipment.
In 2007, a significant portion of their work continued to focus on sourcing the funding of al-Qaeda. The money came from the many private Islamic charities in Britain, which were often funded by the fabulously wealthy princes of Saudi Arabia's ruling monarchy. An MI6 document in December 2006 claimed, "There are now over 300 members of the Saudi royal family providing money to al-Qaeda." With their mansions in the center of London and in the countryside around the capital, many of the princes were members of the Wahabi sect, named after the extremely puritanical founder of modern Islamic fundamentalism. From bank accounts in the City of London held by these petrodollar billionaires came the cash to endow new mosques and Muslim colleges and schools. Within their classrooms the first seeds of terrorism were often sown by imams. For every radical preacher who had been deported, another had taken his place. From this background came the London bombers. That knowledge had furthered Scarlett's belief that surveillance was the only way to preempt the threat.
"It is the most effective way to uncover the paymasters of terror and lead to the closure of those places which advocate terrorism," he had told Prime Minister Tony Blair at a Downing Street Christmas party in 2006. An MI6 operation had led a few weeks later to the closure of the Jameah Islamiyah faith school in its fifty-four acres on the edge of a beautiful English village in Sussex. The radical preacher Abu Hamza—now serving seven years in Belmarsh high-security prison in London for "promoting murder and taking part in terrorist activities"—had run a summer training camp for Muslims at the school. The details emerged after an MI6 officer had interrogated an English Muslim prisoner held at Guantanamo Bay. The youth had been a pupil at the school. The school's imam, Bilal Patel, admitted he had received £800,000 from wealthy Muslims living in Saudi Arabia. He refused to name them on the grounds it would be "beyond my religious beliefs to do so."
Shortly after the police raid on the school, an MI6 surveillance team had identified fourteen other Muslims in London who had links to the school. They included Abu Abdullah, who regularly preached at the city's notorious Finsbury Park mosque that he "would love to see our jihadists go to Iraq and kill British and American soldiers." All were arrested.
These successes had led to the installation of new surveillance equipment in 2007 in London and other cities where there were sizable Muslim communities; tall, weatherproof, matte-painted steel poles had been erected. Each was filled with fiber optics linked to a camera bolted to the top of the pole. Each camera contained eight powerful lenses to provide a panoramic view. Software enabled each camera to pinpoint up to fifty behavior traits. The moment a target was identified, a ninth lens mounted in the base of the camera zoomed in to follow every move by a suspect. It would then track him or her along a street or in and out of a building. Image clarity was ensured by each highly polished lens being continually adjusted by a computer chip inside the camera to compensate for exhaust fumes and other kinds of pollution.
As well as terrorist-linked suspects, the MI6 cameras monitored scores of foreign intelligence officers operating in London. Some working for the United States, Canada, and the member states of the European Union did so under diplomatic immunity, usually listed as a third secretary or press officer at their embassies. Others headed trade missions and tourist offices. On a list circulated within the intelligence community they were identified as coming from "friendly" nations. Some had been "declared" as intelligence officers to the Foreign Office and subjected to minimum surveillance.
Spies from less friendly countries, like the two agents operating out of the Syrian Embassy, were placed on an MI6 watch list making them subject to closer scrutiny, which included electronic surveillance. The list also named fifty-two officers from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SUR), who made up a quarter of that embassy's staff list. None had been "declared."
What MI6 calls "intermittent surveillance" had enabled its officers to track the search by the Russian spies for biological weapons that the KGB had secretly planted in the English countryside during the cold war. Dr. Alexander Kouzminov, who held a senior post in the Russian biological warfare program, Biopreparat, and had moved to New Zealand after the collapse of the Soviet Union, claimed that the vials of deadly germs contained Ebola, anthrax, and smallpox and that some were designed to release toxins "to control human emotions and [were] capable of creating uncontrollable feelings of fear and panic among the population."
Kouzminov insisted he was never told where the vials were deposited, but he did reveal the operation had been controlled by a KGB woman officer, code-named "Rosa," who had come to work in England under the cover of being a research microbiologist. Kouzminov claimed he believed her real task was to locate targets, which included reservoirs and pharmaceutical and biological research centers. A thorough search of MI6's copious files on the KGB failed to turn up "Rosa," but early in 2007 a car bearing the license plate prefix given to all Russian diplomatic vehicles—2480—was seen close to Britain's biological research establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire. Kouzminov confirmed "the establishment would most certainly have been a target for a Soviet biological attack," and he speculated the car was there "to recover embarrassing evidence, but there is also the possibility if the vials were located they could be sold to a terror group."
The prospect that al-Qaeda was planning an attack on Britain had increased after Meir Dagan, the director-general of the Mossad, had sent Scarlett and other European intelligence chiefs a document in which he concluded, "Al-Qaeda will soon be in a position to create arti-ficially engineered biological agents which will spread disease on an unparalleled scale. There is an urgent need to check the backgrounds of all foreign students studying chemistry and biology at your universities. The same science they are taught can be adapted to create the world's most frightening weapons."
Tracking the spies of the People's Republic of China posed a more difficult and growing problem for MI6. By 2007, only a few of the forty-six agents so far identified worked out of their country's embassy. The others were undercover operatives, with no diplomatic cover, functioning as employees of China's banks in the City of London and as students or, in the classic espionage cover, as importers of one kind or another. Their prime task was to obtain economic, industrial, and defense information. University campuses and defense contractors had all been warned of the threat the spies posed in their hunt for British weapons and systems technology, but for every suspected Chinese operative uncovered and usually expelled, there appeared to be many more ready to take his or her place.
The growth of the Internet had given the Chinese Ministry of State Security (MSS) an even greater global reach and coincided with Israel signing a significant intelligence agreement with Beijing that "obliges both parties to work together in the investigatory process where a leakage takes place and also permits China and Israel to mount joint operations." It was an unsettling prospect for MI6.
Early in February 2007, Scarlett sent officers to America's top-secret nuclear research establishment at Los Alamos near Albuquerque, New Mexico, to check whether Britain's latest Trident nuclear submarine secret had been among those just stolen from the facility. Under a secret agreement between London and Washington made during the cold war, details of Britain's nuclear weapons were stored at Los Alamos when it was feared the Soviet Union would destroy Britain's nuclear arsenal in a preemptive strike.
The theft of highly classified discs had been discovered during a "routine" police check for drugs inside Los Alamos by the facility's police force. Hours later an FBI team swooped down on what it described as "a trailer trash mobile home" near the complex. The trailer was owned by a known drug dealer who sold drugs to Los Alamos employees, but hidden under a mattress the FBI found computer drives marked "highly classified material." They had been smuggled out of Los Alamos by a technician who worked in X Division, buried deep underground and only accessed by swipe cards whose codes changed every day. It was there that Britain's Trident secrets were stored. The woman insisted she had shown no one the discs, let alone allowed them to be copied. Despite intensive interrogation she did not change her story. She was finally charged with theft of government property. The MI6 officers flew home unable to resolve the matter of whether or not the hard disks had been copied by spies. Michael Anastasio, the director of Los Alamos, said in a telephone interview with the author, "My ability to discuss the matter is still constrained by the seriousness of what happened. The international implications here are far-reaching." David Dastych, a veteran CIA specialist in nuclear terrorism, added, "We should not forget it was the Chinese who stole the technology for the neutron bomb from U.S. labs."
All told, in 2007, there were over a hundred foreign spies in London. They included two who worked for ANI, Chile's Agencia Nacional de Inteligencia, the six operatives of SASS, the South African Secret Service based in well-appointed offices in their embassy overlooking Trafalgar Square, and the three officers from NIB, the National Intelligence Bureau of Burma. The Mossad had its own base in Israel's embassy in Kensington. In a northern suburb, North Korea's single spy worked under the guise of that embassy's second secretary. He was a regular guest at the parties hosted by the Foreign Office, Buckingham Palace, and foreign legations celebrating their national holidays. The North Korean stood out in his morning dress suit. Scarlett, who had met him at a Canada Day cocktail reception, remarked that the Korean reminded him of Oddjob, the servant in the James Bond film Goldfinger. Cuba, Sudan, and Zambia each had a spy who used diplomatic pouches to send reports that MI6 had long established were mostly based on material published in the British press. The spies of MITI, Japan's agency responsible for gathering economic and commercial intelligence, and those of Argentina, Mexico, and other Latin American nations were all represented in London. For many it was a posting that offered a good social life in between gathering data.
Ireland had a member of its country's small intelligence service at its embassy. He had played his part in identifying five Islamic terror groups based in Dublin and linked to al-Qaeda. They were Egyptian Islamic Jihad, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, the Algerian Armed Islamic Group, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. All were identified "as providing financial and logistical support to other terror organizations abroad." The names and details of the two hundred members of the groups went onto MI6 computers. Again it was Irish intelligence who first sounded the alert that young Muslims from the Middle East and Asia working in Ireland's booming information technology (IT) industry were being recruited to travel to Pakistan to learn the techniques needed to launch cyberterrorism, which could seriously disrupt Britain's airports, power stations, and communications networks. All their names were placed on an MI6 watch list, a copy of which was sent to the MI6 station in Islamabad. From there it was passed to Pakistani intelligence. In 2007, they arrested three Muslims from Ireland.
Al-Qaeda's links with Irish terrorism dated from the days in 2000 when its paymaster, Hamid Aich, operated from Dublin. The slim, darkly handsome, smartly dressed Algerian had three addresses in Dublin's upmarket suburbs. From these he had orchestrated funding for the 9/11 attack through the Mercy Relief Agency, an Islamic charity that was a front for al-Qaeda. Aich had left Ireland a few days before the attacks. He was probably killed in an American bombing raid on the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
On a regular basis Scarlett met with the CIA's London station chief over dinner, usually in a private room at the Travellers Club. The view was widely held by Scarlett's enemies that a secret would then be shared or a reputation discreetly tarnished. Those enemies were politicians and disaffected intelligence officers who believe MI6 has made secrecy an end unto itself to protect its activities and that Scarlett was the past master of this. More certain is that both men held a deep conviction that the European Union, and Germany in particular, had provided what Scarlett called "the rear assembly area which had led to a decade of Islamic terrorism." From Hamburg had come some of the al-Qaeda pilots who had launched the September 11 attacks.
In the privacy of the dining room the spymasters could use the language of their profession: "playback," the placing of false stories in the media; "flap potential," the risk of embarrassment to an intelligence service stemming from disclosure of an illegal or questionable activity; and "discard," an informer who had to be exposed in order to protect another more valuable asset. There was a lexicon of such words. Richard Tomlinson recalled that "learning the language was among the first lessons an agent had to master at MI6. Once taught we were warned never to use it except among ourselves and then only under secure circumstances because it would identify us as spies. We had to know about two thousand descriptions also used by the CIA, Mossad, the French, and, of course, the Russians." Tomlinson claimed that Scarlett, after his expulsion from Moscow, had regularly given the talk on Russian expressions: dubok, a dead letter box, and Nashi (youth organization), a defector, were among those Tomlinson recalled scribbling in his notebook.
Now, early on that March day in 2007, the most important operation by MI6 involving a defector during Scarlett's tenure as chief had come to its conclusion.
Excerpted from SECRET WARS by Gordon Thomas
Copyright © 2009 by Gordon Thomas
Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press
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