You wouldn't find James Bond in a tapas bar

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The Independent Online

What do we expect from our secret agents? The principal thing is courage. Courage and discretion. The two most desirable traits we expect from our spies are courage and discretion. And fanatical loyalty. The three chief characteristics of a British spy are courage, discretion and fanatical loyalty. And coolness under fire. The four top requirements for a British spy are courage, discretion, fanatical loyalty, coolness under fire and an ability not to mislay one's equipment when tiddly. The five leading virtues...

Is there not a touch of Monty Python about the story of the spy, the laptop and the tapas bar? It's those little details. The image of a dozen MI6 spooks and Special Branch police officers scouring the "Computers for Sale" small ads in Loot magazine in search of their missing secrets, had me in stitches (did they draw the line at Exchange & Mart?).

The fact that the MI6 agent who lost the computer in a taxi became sloshed in a bar called Rebato - which word, of course, is idiomatic Spanish for "alarm". And call me a snob, but, my dear, a tapas bar? You can just see our man in Vauxhall, can't you, surrounded by those titchy plates smeared with tortilla, sardines and calamari in tomato sauce, knocking back a jug of sangria with a pal from the Ministry of Ag and Fish...

You cannot see James Bond in such a place. Nor could you see the intrepid 007 having his computer nicked while queueing for a ticket at Paddington. Top secret agents do not travel by Tube. They travel by Aston Martin or Limo With Decolleteed Companion.

But the British way of espionage has never been ruthlessly efficient. Spying-wise, we have long been members of the Not Very Good Club. Our most high-profile operatives turn out to be either giggling exquisites such as Guy Burgess or sweetly misguided grannies like Melita Norwood, whose spying heyday was when she used to go through the wastepaper bins of her boss at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association looking for a secret plan headed "Secret Nuclear Bomb Project".

When the first tranche of files from the KGB archives was published last year, you looked in vain for some flavour of excitement, drama, unmaskings, mole-hunts, intellectual brinksmanship a la Le Carre. What did we get? We learned that Tom Driberg, the Labour MP and ex-gossip columnist, was a spy with the ludicrously camp codename of "Lepage" until he became the victim of a gay honeytrap in a Moscow lavatory; and that Harold Wilson was so chattily indiscreet with trade secrets that they opened an "agent development" file on him, codenamed "Olding".

Does inefficiency make us nicer people? Perhaps. Some years ago, Alan Coren decided that Orwell's 1984 could never happen in England because the 24-Hour Total Surveillance Screens would always be on the blink, and the Room 101 budget would never stretch to real rats. Today, there's something similarly endearing about the fact that the "M" figure at MI6, the real hard man of Military Intelligence, is called Dick Dearlove. And something rather sweet about the service employing a small-ads copywriter when they need to track down awol technology.

As for a secret agent who spends a hard day encrypting the names of British agents abroad, then downloads the information onto a portable computer and strolls off with it for a refreshing pint of rioja in the wine bar nearest to MI6 headquarters, where the least enterprising of foreign spies could get at him - well, either he's reached a level of innocence that would fit him for the priesthood, or a level of stupidity that would impress a convention of village idiots.

The British way of spying has been a farce for years. It is, presumably, only by the grace of our enemies' counter-incompetence that it hasn't become a tragedy.