Sources close to the intelligence services say MI6 officers have long posed as reporters, a disguise more popular than that of businessmen or academics. "Around 40 per cent of MI6 officers sent abroad on missions use journalistic credentials," said one former British intelligence officer. MI6 has a special unit that produces forged documents.
The NUJ has condemned the practice. "If spies pose as journalists some people will see journalists as legitimate targets," said the union's general secretary, John Foster. "Every year hundreds of proper journalists put their lives at risk while reporting and many are killed. Using falsified documents would make journalism even more dangerous."
Mr Foster is writing to the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook - who oversees Britain's spies - seeking clarification. The Foreign Office refused to comment. The Independent's sources say several newspaper and magazine editors provide full journalist cover for MI6 officers. One MI6 officer who posed as a magazine journalist abroad even had a letter from the editor. The officer's identity is revealed in the list of 116 names of MI6 officers on the Internet a month ago.
Former intelligence officerssay British spies use their forged NUJ card to open doors, get into places and talk to officials, tasks that other foreigners, especially diplomats, would find difficult, if not impossible.
One intelligence source told The Independent he gained entrance to a Yugoslav TV station using a forged NUJ card. MI6 officers abroad are told if their identity is challenged they should give the phone number of an editor who has been briefed to say the officer is working for them. "I'm glad to say the TV station didn't bother to check," said the source.
There have been suspicions that MI6 has used journalist cover for years. During the Afghan War four Britons were killed in the Panjshi Valley by troops of the Afghan government, which was then pro- Soviet. They were posing as journalists but operating as military trainers to the mujahedin. Forged documents including a passport and letters from a news agency were found on the bodies. One man was using the name Stuart Bodmin. The real Stuart Bodmin had never left Britain.
There have been many allegations that journalists have worked for MI6. The most famous example was the double agent Kim Philby who was found a job by MI6 on The Observer. He fled to the Soviet Union after being uncovered.
More recently the renegade MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson claimed the Sunday Telegraph editor Dominic Lawson was a paid MI6 "asset". Mr Lawson strenuously denied the charge.Reuse content