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Philip Hensher: The spies who failed to notice a dead co-worker

You would expect a faster response to a disappearance if you worked on a till at Tesco

The sad inquest into the shocking death of the MI6 agent Gareth Williams has had to be conducted, in part, behind screens. But some things are, inevitably, going to emerge about the secret world of the security services. When the body of an employee of MI6 is discovered in bizarre circumstances, as Mr Williams's was, it is proper for the inquest to try to establish what the chain of events was.

Employees of MI6 giving evidence have not been able to confirm that any unusual predilections of Mr Williams were known to the agency; they limited themselves to saying that these would not necessarily have been a problem (which is easy for them to say). More to the point, following his death, Mr Williams didn't turn up to work for a whole week, including two meetings, and MI6 failed to take any action. You would expect a faster response to a disappearance if you worked on the checkout at Tesco.

The security services have been behind a general move in recent years to investigate the private lives of large numbers of innocent individuals. But listing the things the security services failed to discover doesn't encourage confidence in their ability to handle private information. Politicians were saying at the beginning of the 1980s that one day before long, the citizens of eastern Europe would rise up against their oppressive governments. The professional observers went on denying any possibility of change virtually to the day the Berlin Wall fell. Nor should it have been hard to foresee the immense change which followed the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in Paris in 1979. Did the Foreign Office or MI6 do so? Did they notice anything was happening in advance of the Arab Spring?

Over and over again, major plots, immense changes slip through their awareness. We are told the security services prevent all manner of things we can never be told about, and only their rare failures come to our attention. When a Gareth Williams disappears from his office for a week, and apparently nobody notices, or a coup or an invasion astonishes a desk officer who has supposedly been observing the region, we glimpse how little, really, some of these agencies know or understand of the most obvious matters.

A few years ago, I had the misfortune to review a "thriller" by a former head of one of the security services which revealed its author's surprising belief that, in Britain, you can hire a car from a major hire agency with cash alone. We are to accept without question that when the services fail, it is inevitable and rare. Still, when we hear about an organisation that doesn't notice one of its employees has gone missing for a week, inevitably, one wonders. Where will the next coup be? Don't ask the spooks.