The making of a traitor

Richard Tomlinson: the spy who couldn't take it any more
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Richard Tomlinson is not what you would expect of a renegade MI6 officer. He lives in forced exile in a private hotel in Geneva. There is nothing furtive or obsessive about his manner. He is tall, handsome and lean. He is more James Bond than Kim Philby; his appearance suggests a man of action rather than a skulking double dealer. But he is a man of many contradictions and frustrations. On the one hand he retains a great affection for MI6 and is proud to have worked for it. But he is also very bitter at the shabby way he has been treated, and is prepared to dish the dirt. He says he wants to do a deal with MI6 to allow him to return to England, but he continues to leak secret material that makes his return less and less likely.

How did MI6 get into this fine mess? The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Security Service (MI5) now have two renegade officers loose who can compromise the innermost secrets of both institutions. An attempt late last year to extradite MI5 agent David Shayler from France to face Official Secrets Act charges failed. Only a week ago, David Shayler gave a detailed account of MI5 operations to an Arab satellite TV station.

In the case of Tomlinson, it seems that old fashioned, macho management at MI6 is to blame. He worked undercover during the Bosnian war and witnessed some horrific scenes. On one occasion in Sarajevo, a young woman walking ahead of him in the street was blown to bits by an exploding shell.

When he returned to London he watched his girlfriend die of cancer. Tomlinson confided to his personnel officer at MI6's headquarters on the south bank of the Thames that he had become suicidally depressed.

These days most organisations, including the military and the media, have established counselling procedures for personnel suffering with personal problems, or with imminent or recent experience of war zones. Conventionally, such individuals are not stigmatised. This is not the case in British Intelligence, where the rule of the stiff upper lip abides. Tomlinson says he was abruptly told to pull his socks up - he was in MI6.

Then in 1995, as his training period came to and end, Tomlinson was told that his career as a spy was finished. He thought he had been taking the first steps on a career path and that, so far, he had excelled in that career. He says that MI6 threw out a few hints about finding him a job in the City, then cut him loose.

When he joined MI6, in 1991, he seemed destined for great things. Richard Tomlinson comes from solid middle class stock. He had his first dealings with MI6 in that favoured recruiting ground, Cambridge University. Tomlinson was reading Maths and Science there in the mid-1980s when he was approached about an exotic, one-off mission, which would involve flying a light aeroplane in Argentina. This evidently gave him a taste for intelligence work. After Cambridge, he became a management consultant, "didn't like it", and sought a more adventurous career. He joined the Territorial Army SAS, and found he rather enjoyed the military, but realised he was too old to start from scratch at Sandhurst.

He approached his "friends" at MI6 and was recruited. He passed his first six-month IONIC training course with flying colours, at the top of his class, learning the dark arts of cloak-and-dagger work, small arms training at Fort Monckton, secret writing methods and radio transmission.

Unusually he was sent straight out to work in the field, rather than to the conventional backwater posting. In 1992 he successfully carried out a tricky, six-month undercover operation in Moscow, then infiltrated an Iranian organisation which MI6 believed was trying to buy chemical warfare equipment in Britain. Then came the Bosnian experience.

Whether he was as suited to the spy trade as he says he was, we do not know. However, to fire him so perfunctorily, and without a cushion, seems to have been a major error of judgement - one that MI6 and the Government has repeatedly compounded since.

Dumped, Tomlinson's singular, somewhat petulant, personality came into play. He was not prepared to let things rest. It seems that hell hath no fury like a spy scorned. He went to John Wadham, of the civil liberties organisation Liberty, who took on the role of Tomlinson's solicitor in his efforts to get redress. Tomlinson tried to take MI6 to industrial tribunal. But MI6 is protected from such public scrutiny, and Tomlinson's application was rejected by the then foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind on grounds of "national security". Tomlinson then began to write a book about his MI6 experiences. He was offered a pay-off by MI6 as long as he dropped his claim for unfair dismissal and handed over the manuscript. He agreed. But then MI6 discovered that he had gone to talk to a publisher in Sydney about the project.

Following the Spycatcher Affair in the mid-1990s, the Official Secrets Act was reformed to prevent former spooks publishing anything about time spent in the employ of MI6. Worried about unauthorised disclosures, the British authorities charged him under the Act. In a trial that was held largely in camera, he was found guilty and jailed for six months.

He was released from Belmarsh prison in April of last year. Two months later he went to Paris. The British Authorities were concerned that Tomlinson - now even more angry and resentful - was still planning to spill the beans on his MI6 career. He was arrested and temporarily detained by the French police at the behest of the British. His computer and disks were seized. He then moved to Switzerland, which is indifferent to the concerns of MI6, and decided it was time to cut a deal with MI6 that would allow him to return to England without fear of arrest.

Tomlinson, though, had a growing flair for controversy. In August, following the death of Princess Diana, the errant spy allowed himself to be drawn into Mohamed Al Fayed's conspiracy theory that Diana had been killed because she was about to marry a Muslim. At the time, there were reports that driver Henri Paul had crashed in the Paris underpass because he'd been blinded by a mysterious flash of light. Tomlinson told the investigating magistrate that MI6 had conceived a plan to assassinate a foreign leader, a plan which involved blinding the victim's driver with a bright, flashing light. He is also said to have claimed that Henri Paul was a British secret service contact.

Back in Geneva in September came the next security breach. The French police still had Tomlinson's computers in their possession, so Tomlinson resorted to a local Internet cafe to communicate with John Wadham. Tomlinson left the file on the public computer where it was found by Swiss journalists.

These journalists published on their website two letters written by Tomlinson to Wadham which outlined his concerns about MI6 operations. The first letter detailed how MI6 had recruited a high-level mole inside German's central bank, paying him large sums of money to betray his country's most sensitive economic secrets. The mole, codenamed Orcada, is said to have betrayed Germany's negotiating position during talks on the Maastricht Treaty. This story was widely picked up by the international press and can have done MI6 no good at all.

The second letter was possibly more damaging. It revealed a 1992 plan by a member of MI6 to assassinate President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. This in turn revealed the names and positions of eight senior MI6 officers. The British press did not publish the names, but they are still there on the website. If there is one thing MI6 hates, it is having the names of its staff published for all to see.

Tomlinson's defence to this security breach is that it is the British authorities' fault for having his personal computer seized and forcing him to use a public computer. This is not a compelling defence, and adds credence to the claim that Tomlinson is trying to pressure MI6 into a deal. Or worse, exact revenge on his former employers.

To compound matters, last December Sunday Business newspaper revealed that Tomlinson was claiming that the editor of a national newspaper was a paid MI6 agent. It was later alleged that the editor was Dominic Lawson of The Sunday Telegraph. Both Lawson and Tony Blair denied the allegation.

MI6 is still refusing to do a deal with Tomlinson and seems to be putting considerable pressure on this increasingly fragile exile. In January his parents visited him from England, and the family set off for a skiing holiday in the nearby French Alps. At the French border the car was pulled over and Tomlinson was refused entry. The family's proposed destination had only been discussed in a phone call between Tomlinson and his parents back home in England. Tomlinson is convinced that MI6 monitored the call and asked their French contacts to intercept him.

One can but wonder at why the British authorities are choosing to act this way. To make Tomlinson feel more and more isolated as he runs out of money in Geneva seems pointless and dangerous. He is a time-bomb waiting to explode. He sits in Geneva, capable of telling any curious person the deep secrets of British Intelligence. It does not take a Le Carre-like imagination to conceive of a scenario in which Tomlinson is kidnapped by a hostile intelligence service and forced to reveal his secrets, before being dumped as a corpse in Lac Leman.

Certainly, Tomlinson has been exhibiting signs of desperation. He has taken to running an anti-MI6 website. The first, established on a Swiss- based network, was closed down after the intervention of British authorities. The second, on the Californian-based Geocities site, was shut down for a few hours but is up and running again. This is the site that contains the threat to publish the list of MI6 names.

Whether Tomlinson has carried out the threat is not yet clear. In a telephone conversation with me on Wednesday he categorically denied that he had done it. The only names he has provided have already been disclosed, he maintains.

Whether the pressure on Tomlinson is real, or a product of his own siege men- tality, it would seem pointless for the Intelligence Services to see if he is prepared to take it to the limit. A second prosecution under the Official Secrets Act would be a pyrrhic victory for MI6 if Tomlinson's secrets were indeed published for all the world to see.

Born New Zealand

A son of the middle classes, Tomlinson enters the world to the distant rumble of the Cuban missile crisis

Cambridge University

He takes a First Class science degree from the spymaster's favourite prestige educational institution

The City

On graduation, he fails to enjoy a brief stint as a management consultant - not nearly exciting enough

Territorial Army

Joins the weekend SAS - much more fun, but he's too old for Sandhurst and a permanent military career


Old Cambridge contacts recruit him to the cause; passes training with flying colours

Service overseas

His first posting is a big one - he's off to Moscow, then Iran, then the war in Bosnia


Suddenly, he's sacked, deemed "unsuitable". There's a suspicion he's too loose a cannon to be trusted


Attempts to take MI6 to an industrial tribunal, then skulks off to Spain to fume and plot


The first MI6 agent to be tried under the Official Secrets Act since George Blake in 1961


Serves six months in prison then decamps to Paris - he is detained by the police, who seize his computer


Implicates MI6 in plots involving Princess Diana, President Milosevic and newspaper editor Dominic Lawson


Tomlinson is accused of disclosing the identities of British agents on a Californian website