Leading article: We should not panic about these renegade spies

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IT HAS been, to put it mildly, a bad week for British secrets. First, the publication on the Internet of the names of 117 people alleged to have been agents of MI6, a deed assumed to have been the work of the disaffected former intelligence officer Richard Tomlinson, and which could place dozens of careers, if not lives, in jeopardy. And now, we are told, thanks to the theft of computer files from the Los Alamos research laboratory, China may have been handed the key to unlock our Trident submarine nuclear deterrent. Any more of this, you might imagine, and the old country will be defenceless. But somehow we will muddle through these threats to our national security. What the episodes truly reveal is the old country's post-imperial obsession with its spies - and its apparently incurable inability to look after them intelligently.

Nothing improves a newspaper headline like the magic letters M-I-5 or M-I-6. But does our protection truly depend on them? Few secret agents (still less ex-agents) change history. In recent decades, Oleg Penkovsky indubitably did, by providing information on the Soviet Union's backwardness in strategic missiles, which enabled Kennedy to face down Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis. Arguably the Soviet spies (among them our own Donald MacLean) who stole America's atomic secrets in the 1940s belong in this number. But not Kim Philby, for all the legend which encrusts his name, nor Philby's more recent and grubbier American equivalent, Aldrich Ames, both of whose treachery was such that Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and the US in the 1980s and early 1990s, would have been better off with no intelligence operation against the Russians whatsoever. And certainly not the unhappy Mr Tomlinson.

His case is above all proof of how, in the information age, secrets are ludicrously easy to gather but so much harder to keep. The United States National Security Agency may be able to eavesdrop on practically any phone conversation on the planet. But the same technology makes it possible for the most sensitive data on the satellite tracking of ballistic missile submarines to be downloaded from a computer at a supposedly impregnable defence laboratory in New Mexico and handed to the Chinese, and for the names of MI6's finest to be cast like confetti on to the Internet. How those who aspire to protect us must pine for the good old injunction or D-notice. But those days are gone, and the intelligence agencies must adjust accordingly.

A paradox of our age is that the power of technology makes humans more, not less, important - and, above all, humans who are former secret agents with a grudge. In an age when information moved more slowly, a renegade could be contained. Had our disgruntled British spy been employed by the KGB, he would have been dispatched to the labour camps (or worse). Or take Mordechai Vanunu, kidnapped by Mossad in Rome a dozen years ago, taken home and jailed for life for revealing what everyone already took for granted, that Israel possessed nuclear weapons.

Many in our secret services must wish that they could deal with Mr Tomlinson (assuming he is the culprit) in a similar fashion. But in Britain, the conventions of a ruthless trade are in some respects enduringly genteel. The mysterious "accident" to rid itself of a troublesome former employee does not form part of MI6's modus operandi. Back in May 1951, the security services put off the interrogation of MacLean and his fellow spy Guy Burgess from Friday until the following Monday morning because you didn't do that sort of thing over the weekend. That weekend, of course, the two fled to Moscow.

Instead, and absurdly, you persecute your renegades in smaller ways. Thus it was with the former senior MI5 officer Peter Wright, who published his memoirs, Spycatcher, among other reasons, because he considered that he had been cheated on his pension entitlement. A little more generosity, a slightly more relaxed attitude towards official secrets, and Britain might have avoided an embarrassment which made it the mockery of the world. Thus it seems to be with Mr Tomlinson (and, to a lesser extent, with the former MI5 officer David Shayler, who is now apparently telling all to an Arab television station). Mr Tomlinson's is a sad case, of a man depressed by personal tragedy and then dismissed by an agency which he loved. He has shown petulance and vengefulness. But when a former employee sets up an anti-MI6 website, you provoke him and isolate him at your peril. In spying, as in many walks of life, a threat must either be eliminated or accommodated. Given that spying is perhaps not as important as all that, we prefer the latter.