MI5 caught with its pants down

An MI5 A4 sur­veil­lance officer has had to resign because his wife sold a story to The News of the World news­pa­per that the For­mula One boss, Max Mos­ley, son of notori­ous fas­cist Sir Oswald Mos­ley, had indulged in a Nazi-inspired orgy with her and four oth­er pros­ti­tutes in a cel­lar in Chelsea, one of the swanki­est areas of London.

This raises an inter­est­ing ques­tion. Either the A4 officer, reportedly a former Roy­al Mar­ine, had no idea that his wife was work­ing as a pros­ti­tute, in which case, what the hell was he doing work­ing for the sur­veil­lance unit of MI5? Not quite the sharpest knife in the block, then. Or he knew, but chose to keep it quiet – a ser­i­ous vet­ting offence. Which was it?

The move against Mos­ley cer­tainly seems to have been a “hon­eytrap” of sorts – at least on the part of The News of the Screws, which reportedly equipped “Mrs Bond” with the cam­er­as. But bey­ond that? The Screws and its sis­ter paper The Sunday Times asser­ted that the MI5 con­nec­tion was just a coin­cid­ence, as did The Sunday Tele­graph, known in spook circles as the in-house magazine of MI6.

The Mos­ley case does have his­tor­ic­al echoes. A sim­il­ar, and notori­ous case, occurred in the 1970s. Lord Lamb­ton, at the time the RAF Min­is­ter in Edward Heath’s gov­ern­ment, was caught in flagrente with a call girl and, even worse, was caught on film smoking a joint. Lamb­ton had to resign in disgrace.

But there was more to it. The News of the Screws pho­to­graph­er lurk­ing in the ward­robe had been lent the night-vis­ion cam­era by an MI6 agent to obtain nice, clear images.

Why did MI6, the for­eign intel­li­gence gath­er­ing agency, tar­get Lord Lamb­ton? Well, accord­ing to the agent in ques­tion, Lee Tracey who first came to the public’s atten­tion in the Pro­fumo Affair, MI6 was motiv­ated by a desire to embar­rass MI5, which it deemed not to be up to scratch in its domest­ic spy­ing work.

So the “hon­eytrap” is a tried and tested meth­od to com­prom­ise your oppon­ents and score polit­ic­al points. But, unless there is some private feud with the spies, it does seem unlikely in this case. Mos­ley may enjoy an exot­ic sex life, but does the F1 boss really look like he poses a legit­im­ate threat to nation­al security? .

The more fun­da­ment­al issue is surely the effect­ive­ness of MI5’s in-house vet­ting sec­tion. How did the A4 officer­’s mar­riage to a pros­ti­tute escape their notice? The sec­tion respons­ible, C4, checks the back­grounds of employ­ees to the nth degree – a sys­tem called “Developed Vet­ting”. Any char­ac­ter “defects” must be picked up via an extens­ive series of checks.

In the wake of this scan­dal, an inev­it­able unnamed seni­or White­hall source was quoted as say­ing “I can­not talk about indi­vidu­al cases, but we do expect high stand­ards of beha­viour from all staff at all times, both pro­fes­sion­ally and privately”.

Well, sort of….

When I was recruited in 1991, MI5’s primary con­cern was that unknown trans­gres­sions could lead to black­mail. If the mis­de­mean­ours were minor but admit­ted, MI5 ten­ded to turn a blind eye.

In the 1990s MI5 still had an offi­cial policy of not employ­ing homo­sexu­als. As late as the 1980s, homo­sexu­al­ity had been deemed by the ser­vice to be a “char­ac­ter defect”, as well as a poten­tial source of black­mail. As you sign away your employ­ment rights when you join MI5, there was no point in any­one cry­ing “dis­crim­in­a­tion”. The pos­i­tion changed in 1995, and one brave soul did step out of the closet at the time. Also, when I worked there, dope-smoking was com­mon­place amongst young officers – and some coughed (if you’ll par­don the pun) to this dur­ing their vet­ting inter­views. No action was taken. Sim­il­arly, infi­del­ity was a vet­ting offense, but many (mar­ried) officers were at it like the pro­ver­bi­al rabbits.

Per­haps it has tightened up since my day. How­ever, this seems unlikely giv­en the recent scan­dal. How can we expect MI5 to adequately pro­tect this coun­try when it can’t even police its own staff?