Monty Python's Cambridge Circus

It was the thirteenth of May 1999: Ascension Day, and a public holiday in France, where I live. Stuck at home with a broken ankle, the result of a motorbike accident, I had nothing better to do than a bit of Internet surfing. Browsing through the news on the Electronic Telegraph Web Site, I was intrigued by a story about the attempts of MI6 to close down an ex-spy's Web site:

Rogue spy publishes MI6 names on the Internet
By Philip Johnston and Hugh Davies

A renegade MI6 agent was believed last night to have posted the identities of a large number of serving British intelligence officers on the Internet in one of the worst security breaches for years. Richard Tomlinson, a former officer with the Secret Intelligence Service who was jailed on secrecy charges two years ago, is thought to have used an American web site to gain his revenge on his former bosses.

As the Government strove to have the web site closed down, appeals were issued to British newspaper and media outlets not to divulge its address or contents. Publishing such details "could put lives at risk", said Rear Adml David Pulvertaft, the secretary of the defence, press and broadcasting advisory committee that advises the media on national security.

The affair has shown the difficulties that governments face in preventing publication of highly sensitive material in the Internet age. Web sites can be set up in a matter of minutes and can then be read anywhere in the world.

The Government has managed to close two other sites operated by Tomlinson - in Switzerland and California - on which he threatened to publish information he had gathered while at MI6. Last month the Treasury solicitor obtained an injunction against him and he closed down his site in Lausanne rather than risk a violation.

Always keen on a challenge, I decided to try and find these mysterious "contents" which the British Government was so anxious to hide. And of course, in the end, I did find them. The irony is that, had it not been for the heavy-handed attempts to shut down Web sites, I would never have taken the slightest bit of interest. But now, since I am someone who believes that there is no smoke without fire, I think that there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn.

Firstly, the chaps at MI6 are clearly right to be worried about the Internet, and that can only be good for the rest of us. We no longer live in an era when governments can suppress information at will. Anyone with a computer and an Internet provider has access to all the information they want (and more), and can also publish more or less anything on their Web site (as I'm doing now).

As for the accusation that Tomlinson's publishing his information is "putting lives at risk", I find the accusation hard to understand. Do secret agents actually use their real names? Haven't they watched "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"? Does this Colonel Blimp register at the Moscow Hilton as "Rear Admiral David Pulvertaft, MI6, Cambridge Circus, London"?

Logically, focussing the spotlight on the list of agents' names might be to draw attention away from something far more sensitive on Tomlinson's site, namely his allegations that the British Secret Service was involved in the death of Princess Diana. These allegations have appeared in the British press before, but in much less detail; at that time, "The Foreign Office ... dismissed his claims of MI6 involvement as 'pure fantasy'" (Electronic Telegraph, 29 Aug 98). Maybe, but if the Foreign Office can disprove these claims, why don't they do it, instead of trying to silence Tomlinson?

Anyway, now I'm in possession of this highly-dangerous list of secret agents, I'm going to take it down to the local brothel and compare it with their guest book. Who knows, maybe a few British spies popped in for a quick shag last time they were in Alsace. Think of the scandal, especially if they published that in the Telegraph.

This page was last revised on 14 May 1999.

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