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Wednesday, November 30, 2011 

More Clouseau than Smiley.

You can't exactly fault MI5 for having suspicions about Ekaterina Zatuliveter. Having seen the Americans flush out a whole batch of Russian "deep cover" agents (including Anna Chapman), so deep it seems that they barely did any spying at all, Zatuliveter must have seemed a no-brainer. She went to a university which according to MI5, the FSB has a "substantial" presence at. Beginning during this period, and continuing over the rest of the last decade, she had romances with a series of older men, all involved in either diplomacy, politics and lastly, in NATO. She worked for (and became the mistress of) an MP with a penchant for all things Russian, a man notorious for asking questions which could potentially be useful to them. Lastly, she met on a number of occasions someone known as "Boris", whom SIS claim was a Russian intelligence officer, although it seems she never took up invitations to meet him on a one-to-one basis.

Sadly for MI5, all this circumstantial evidence was simply unsubstantiated. In an extraordinary ruling (PDF), the Special Immigration Appeals Committee, with a former head of MI5 on the judging panel no less, has decided on the "balance of probabilities" that Zatuliveter was not and is not a Russian agent. Her decision to appeal against her removal from the UK on the grounds that her presence "was not conducive to the public good" was in itself perhaps a clue: not many spies once caught decide to fight to prove their innocence in a foreign nation when their duty is first and foremost to another state. It's also though a remarkable indictment of MI5, which it seems is still just as paranoid and stuck in the Cold War age as it ever was.

Take for instance the insistence of one witness from the security service that Zatuliveter's visit to see the Great Game, a play on Afghan culture and history was evidence of her spying, purely it seems on the basis that the name is taken from what Kipling described as the rivalry between Britain and Russia over the country. Or that Zatuliveter's diary, described so wonderfully as with a Klimt painting on the cover, was an incredibly elaborate fake. Indeed, even if it were genuine, it was their case that the entries did nothing to disprove their assessment of her as an agent. Siac agrees that it's a "very important document", in that the entries, first on the Dutch diplomat she was having a relationship with, and then later on Mike Hancock, are "of an immature, calculating, emotional and self-centred young woman – in our judgment, an
accurate characterization of the appellant then, and allowing for greater maturity, now".

According to MI5, Zatuliveter was tasked with seducing Hancock. If anything, it seems the opposite was the case. By chance, she came to be chaperoning the British delegation he was a part of when they visited St. Petersburg, whereupon it seems he broke out his old routine: inviting her for a coffee, then a meal, before finally asking whether she'd like to accompany him back to his hotel room, which she for now declined although they kept in contact. Although he offered her a traineeship at Strasbourg at this point, regardless of there not being a position available, it was only once she accepted his invitation to meet him in Moscow that she decided to "use" him to, as Siac quotes from her diary "to further her ambition to gain experience, at first hand, of Western European politics and, possibly, to get “a very good chance in life”. Regardless of her intentions, Siac are convinced both by the subsequent entries in the diary and from the witness statements of Zatuliveter's sister and her husband that the two genuinely fell in love, "however odd it might seem".

It wasn't until Zautuliveter received a place at Bradford University to do her masters that she first became Hancock's unpaid intern, although he also provided her with an allowance. The report and her diary both skirt around it, but it seems through the references to a "health problem" that he may well have made her pregnant. She later became Hancock's researcher when his previous one resigned, giving her full access, or as much as he ceded, to information which may have been of interest to the Russians. The curious case of "Boris" then commences: he met her by chance it seems at Temple tube station, where they exchanged business cards. He later emailed her to invite her to meet him. She agreed, only later to make what she described as a "lame" excuse, Hancock having told her not to go. Hancock himself confirms this, although Siac doesn't believe his explanation for why he told her not to. MI5 maintained that the fact he didn't renew this invitation is evidence she was already an agent, which seems counter-intuitive: why did he approach her in the first place, if he was who they say he is, unless he's thoroughly incompetent? Siac unsurprisingly concludes much the same.

Perhaps the entire case is explained by Zautuliveter's affair with Y, a NATO official working in Moscow, who she was introduced to at the Russian embassy. With her relationship with Hancock souring somewhat, she began swapping emails with him. Another piece of evidence MI5 relied upon was a exchange between the two while Zautuliveter was on a train, where she asked him if there was "anything interesting happening at NATO" and then whether "[Madeleine] Albright had said anything interesting". She explained this as being an attempt at showing off to him, and that she knew about Albright's meeting from Twitter, which again Siac accepts.

That, in essence, was MI5's entire miserable case. Zautuliveter repeatedly had relationships with older men in prominent positions, all of whom could provide information helpful to her home country, ergo she must have been doing it for that reason. Instead it simply seems she had a thing for older men, with whom she shared an interest in international politics, and in Hancock thought could help give her a better life, which he did. Yes, it was suspicious, but proper, rigorous investigation ought to have shown it was at best unlikely and at worst laughable. Siac for their part, perhaps prodded somewhat by Lander, rejects the similar criticisms made by Zautuliveter's lawyer. They also accept wholeheartedly that in her position as Hancock's researcher she had access to material which would have been interesting to the Russians, which seems dubious in itself, although the history of security services worldwide is full of inconsequential men and women who spied and never provided anything of real worth to their handlers.

All of which raises the obvious question: if MI5 can get something this wrong, who else has been wrongly accused, or where else are they failing? Or is this simply a consequence of the lack of resources being devoted to espionage as opposed to counter-terrorism? It's a case that is crying out for an investigation by an independent body, something which will most certainly not be provided by the hopelessly ineffective Intelligence and Security Committee.

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