Spooks, spies & plausible deniability

Ricky Tomlinson has stirred up a little media storm by accusing the late Richard Whiteley of being an MI5 agent when Mr T was fitted up with the other flying pickets of the Shrewsbury 24. This had led Whiteley’s partner to claim that he was not in any way capable of such a rôle. Now I don’t know the details of the accusation but the lady and possibly the accuser seem to share the same confusion most people have between ‘agents’ and members of the security forces. The latter, the real spooks, are employees of the British state with military ranks and are, for the most part, ‘handlers’ while the latter are mainly civilians or possibly members of the armed forces of other states who do the actual spying, possibly for pay or out of ‘patriotism’ or for other personal reasons. They don’t have to steal real secrets, often they just report what they see to add to the general picture the handlers are building up of their targets, whether those are individuals, organisations or whole countries. Anyone can be an agent, aka informant or ‘useful idiot’. Others can actually do things, like spreading lies and counter-propaganda or even acts of sabotage. It depends on the job. I’m not saying that security officers never do any spying of their own, GCHQ is an obvious example, but it’s rarer than you think. And let’s not forget Special Branch, who are just policemen who carry out most of the leg-work for MI5, including surveillance, undercover work and, when they get lucky, arrests of suspects because the spooks don’t have those legal powers.

James Bond has created an image of the spy as a super-hero with ‘a licence to kill’, but he’s the fictional creation of a former spook. The heads of our secret police, MI5, and our spies, MI6, have consistently denied that they kill people and the double-0 squad does not exist. Of course it doesn’t, that’s what the SAS is for. The Special Air Squadron was created during WW2 for, initially airborne, guerrilla actions like those of the Marine Commandos. It has been suggested that its later activities have been more like those of the special tactical team of the Waffen-SS led by the infamous Otto Skorzeny, who rescued Mussolini from his first captors in 1943. This was a military outfit for political objectives. While they may operate in overt military activities, they also do so in situations where the involvement of the UK government should not be visible. For years they worked in the states of Muscat and Oman and the other sultanates of the southern Arabian Peninsula, where they kept the local rulers, who’d made deals with western oil companies, in power and fought off rivals, nationalists and supposed communists. This under-the-radar counter-insurgency was fictionalised by Patrick McGoohan in the ‘Danger Man’ series and mentioned in passing by Ranulph Fiennes on Radio 4. At other times it’s obvious that they were labelled ‘advisors’ or ‘mercenaries’. Their most high-profile action was the execution, or murder depending on your point of view, of an IRA team in Gibraltar in 1988. That’s the doctrine of ‘plausible deniability’ in action.

So, when your heart stops beating with pride at the display Daniel Craig put on with Lizzie’s stunt double at the London Olympics, consider how these secret police, spies and assassins protect our liberties. The question then is whose is the ‘our’?

RA 2.3.17