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Wednesday, November 13, 2013 

The continuing mystery of the death of Gareth Williams.

Amid all the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, one thing seems to have been forgotten, including by myself.  Despite the attempts of intelligence agencies since they were first created to appear omniscient, they are not.  GCHQ may well have "mastered the internet" through the Tempora programme, but can they actually use it, as those of us critical of the security services believe, to spy on practically any piece of internet traffic if they wanted to, or is it, as Charles Farr additionally argued yesterday, that it does not provide them with the same capabilities as they wanted ISPs to give them via the data communications bill?  Could it be that Tempora merely exists because GCHQ and the government wanted to see if it was possible, and to help the Americans?

We obviously can't know.  What we do know is that down the years GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, despite having some major successes, have also from time after time failed disastrously.  As David Anderson said to the Home Affairs Select Committee, us Brits tend to think of the security services as Bletchley Park and James Bond. Not many of us are aware for instance that MI5 was first set up to combat an invented menace, or how the security services themselves never succeeded in discovering the traitors in their midst.  They failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 (although there most certainly were warnings that the American agencies didn't act on), or the Arab Spring.  The head of MI6 Sir John Sawers responded to that latter failure last week at the ISC by saying his agents aren't "crystal ball gazers".  Fair enough, but when they've been found wanting on so many occasions, including when intelligence agencies across the globe believed the lies of Curveball, isn't it something we should be concerned about? Or should we accept lessons truly have been learned this time?

We come then to the continuing mystery of the death of GCHQ employee Gareth Williams.  Seconded to MI6, he was found dead in the bath of the safe house where he lived, locked inside a holdall.  The inquest, hindered at pretty much every turn by MI6 demanding secrecy and the severely limited inquiry undertaken by the Metropolitan police, which seemed to take every statement given to it by GCHQ and MI6 staff at face value, ended with the coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox deciding on the balance of probabilities Williams had been unlawfully killed.  Her verdict was slightly undermined when footage emerged a couple of days later of a reporter advised by a retired army sergeant successfully locking herself into the same holdall, something two other experts to the inquest had failed to do.

Suitably chastened by the criticism, the Met relaunched their investigation, with MI6 second time around apparently deciding to be more cooperative.  A year and a bit later, Detective Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt has concluded that rather than being the victim of murder, on the balance of probabilities Williams most likely locked himself in the bag, and failing to get out, was quickly overcome by CO2 toxicity. He nonetheless admits he cannot be certain, and that it remains a possibility others were involved. Nor are there any answers as to why there were no fingerprints, including Williams', found on the padlock used to secure the holdall, or on the sides of the bath. It would though have been "theoretically possible" to get in the bath and holdall without leaving fingerprints, so this anomaly is not necessarily sinister.  Also unexplained is why Williams's iPhone had been reset to factory settings, or if he did get into the bag himself, how he was found in such a "neat" position.  Presuming this wasn't an extremely elaborate suicide, surely he would have been struggling to get out, unless he gave up and accepted his fate.

Understandably, Williams' parents are not convinced, and continue to think the coroner got closer to the truth. If we are to accept Hewitt's conclusion, there are only two explanations as to what happened. Either Williams, contrary to Wilcox's verdict, did have an interest in bondage and escapology, as perhaps indicated by his once having to be released from binds to his bed, or his work for MI6 and GCHQ included being trained in how to escape from and/or deal with extremely tight situations. This isn't entirely far-fetched: US special forces for instance have undergone waterboarding as part of their training. This isn't to say spies are being asked to emulate Houdini, but that perhaps Williams, becoming more confident in his training, felt he could go further on his own. This would also explain why the heating was turned up, and also how he managed not to leave any fingerprints on the bath.

If this is what happened though, it doesn't properly explain why MI6 weren't forthcoming from the outset. They could have told SO15 about the training, and intimated to the coroner as to why a secret session was absolutely necessary, but apparently did neither. If they have since come clean to Hewitt, then good, but why have they not decided to do so with his parents? Human fallibility explains why Williams' absence wasn't investigated until 8 days after he failed to turn up to work, but it still seems odd.

The other circumstances, such as the wiped iPhone, are similarly strange.  It's not beyond belief that the entire thing was part of a sex game, Williams having made contact with someone who killed him and then covered their tracks extraordinarily well, but if so it was done in public rather than over the phone or internet, there being no records of any calls or emails/messages.  As alluded to above, other agents have successfully concealed their sexuality, or in the case of Geoffrey Prime, paedophilia, but neither of the investigations have turned up any evidence to suggest Williams was gay or this was sex based.

We are then almost back where we started, none the wiser to the circumstances in which Williams died.  Using the respective razors of Occam and Hanlon would suggest Williams did manage to climb into and padlock the holdall himself, and that MI6 were incompetent rather than conspiratorial in their actions, backing up Hewitt's conclusions.  Can anyone possibly be blamed though for imagining more sinister forces may well have been at work?  We only learned that Alexander Litvinenko was an active MI6 agent last year, something which put his murder in an entirely different light.  As outlandish as it seems that Williams could have been killed by a foreign agency, MI6's failure to notice he was missing and to follow it up meant his body was decomposed to the point where it was impossible for any short-acting poison to be detected, while their initial actions in not revealing to the police that there was another identical holdall owned by Williams in their possession along with 9 memory sticks invites suspicion.  If anyone really does know what happened to Williams, they seem determined for the rest of us not to find out.

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