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Monday, December 06, 2010 

A Russian spy farce.

There is more than something faintly farcical concerning the curious case of the Liberal Democrat MP and the alleged Russian spy he was employing as his research assistant. Of all the MPs' offices the SVR could have attempted to infiltrate, one of the last you would have suspected they'd have been interested in was that of Mike Hancock, the 64-year-old member for Portsmouth South. Even considering his constituency's naval links and his long-standing position on the parliamentary defence committee, he doesn't exactly strike as the person most likely to get his hands on the sort of material the Russians couldn't get elsewhere, and the questions he was asking, which some newspapers have found eminently suspicious, back that up. The idea that our friends from beyond the Vistula don't already know about the "location ... of each Royal Navy submarine operational berth" or don't have something approaching a "full historical inventory of the UK's nuclear arsenal" is fairly small.

The Russians have, it must be said, always had their eye on recruiting some of the less glamorous individuals within what can be at a stretch described as the British establishment, if we are to believe the somewhat dubious claims of the likes of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB colonel who defected to Britain to 1985 after he was outed as a double agent for MI6. He fingered, amongst others, Michael Foot (who successfully sued the Sunday Times over the allegations), Denis Healey, the trade unionist Jack Jones, the famously promiscuous Tom Driberg and Richard Gott, the Guardian journalist who resigned as literary editor back in 1994 over the claims. Hancock would probably not find it too insulting to be included among such luminaries, although whether he will personally be accused of being a Russian asset remains to be seen.

While the KGB may have targeted distinctly unglamorous males to become spies during the Cold War, it seems that in the current era its successor the FSB and its foreign branch the SVR has no problems whatsoever with sending across "sleeper" agents whom, upon discovery, cause the priapic element among the Western media to all but lose all control of themselves. Earlier in the year Anna Chapman found herself at the centre of global attention mainly on the back of sultry photographs which she'd posted on Facebook, while you can almost guarantee that the shots of Katia Zatuliveter currently gracing British newspapers were raided from the same source. Somehow it's difficult to shake the impression that the story may not have had the same impact if the alleged agent was male. Alongside the allegations of spying are the almost inevitable questions concerning just what a 64-year-old man was doing employing a 25-year-old blonde from Dagestan as his assistant, whom if we're to believe the word of Mátyás Eörsi, was just one of a succession of similar young women accompanying him to the Council of Europe's liberal grouping. Innuendo is almost all we have to go on, if that isn't an innuendo in itself, especially when we also have to consider Hancock is currently on bail following accusations of indecent assault.

The only other thing we really know is that Hancock was so sympathetic towards Putin's Russia that was he ousted as head of the all-party Russian group by Chris Bryant as a result of his stance, something which apparently incensed and upset Zatuliveter. As useful as those with a predilection for suspected kleptocrats can be in the parliaments of the West, it's difficult to disagree with Hancock's own assessment: "[W]ho the hell could be interested in what the Lib Dem delegation was doing and what we were thinking?" Certainly almost no one even in this country was interested in anything the Liberal Democrats were doing until very recently.

The whole debacle reflects the continuing disconnect between security and openness which we've now spent more than a week experiencing following the release of the US cables. No one seems to be seriously suggesting that anything Zatuliveter might have obtained or had access to was so secret or sensitive that she's damaged the security of the country; rather, it's that she's simply meant to be in some way connected to the SVR that makes her continuing presence not "conducive to national security", a catch-all phrasing if there ever was one. In the same way that the Sun seems to imagine that simply knowing the location of our "nuclear bases" is in some way a security threat, like it previously claimed Google Earth to be, it's becoming clear that the current rules on what can and can't be allowed to become public knowledge are in danger of falling into open disrepute. As the head of MI6 argued a few weeks, secrecy doesn't need to be a dirty word. It's that both the previous and current governments, not to mention the intelligence services themselves, rather than having as a rule that everything should be out in the open unless there are incredibly good reasons for such information remaining secret, put into practice the exact opposite philosophy. As Wikileaks has shown, never has this been more dubious and unsustainable than in the current interconnected world.

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