The clownish heirs of 007

2008-11-01 00:00

South Africans live with some of the most venal and incompetent politicians and bureaucrats in the world. So it is easy to forget that these bottom-crawling, sewage-sucking species also thrive elsewhere.

Britain appears to have more than its fair share of shameless politicians and stupid bureaucrats. Although it is invidious to single out a single department, since the competition for the dunce’s cap in Her Majesty’s (HM) civil service is daunting, it seems that the intelligence services occupy the lowest rung of the Darwinian scale of competence.

One would think that keeping secrets is the sine qua non of what a secret service is about. Not in Britain, where intelligence operatives have a tradition, dating back to the Cold War, of liberally oozing information.

It was during this period that the Russians so ably exploited the gay inclinations of the Oxbridge aristocracy, which formed the self-replicating backbone of the intelligence services. Since homosexuality was then both illegal and considered shameful, the Soviets had a ready market for blackmail and the extortion of secrets.

Consensual sex between males was decriminalised in 1967, so it no longer matters whether Britain’s intelligence officers can keep their flies buttoned. But their inability to keep their files inviolate continues.

This week a senior civil servant on secondment from the Ministry of Defence to the Cabinet Office who left secret intelligence files relating to Iraq and al-Qaeda on a train, was fined £2 500. A surprised commuter found the files and handed them to the BBC.

This year, so far, at least two sets of top-secret documents were left on trains. In days of yore, HM’s enemies had to get past Ian Fleming’s 007; now they just trawl the trains, looking for dozy MI5 officers.

The carelessness is not confined to Britain’s spies. The Metropolitan Police recently lost a rucksack crammed with anti-terror intelligence. The British military lost laptops containing sensitive unencrypted staffing details and had three more stolen.

Revenue and Customs “lost in the post” two CDs containing the personal and banking details of 7,25 million child benefit claimants, exposing them to identify theft and fraud. A private contractor to the Home Office lost a memory stick containing the personal details and intelligence on 33 000 serious offenders, as well as dossiers on 10 000 “priority criminals”.

The degree of Russian infiltration and notoriously leaky nature of Britain’s intelligence services during the Cold War led to the United States — the “American cousins” of John le Carre’s spy novels — keeping the Brits at arm’s length as much as possible. Nothing much has changed, except that the lapses have become more clownish. Well, not entirely clownish. Po-faced pomposity has a natural home in any proper civil service.

The latest James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, takes the unprecedented step of showing Bond and his boss M torturing a prisoner. It is not a depiction that has found favour. After all, Fleming created Bond with the specific intention of bolstering the reputation of the Secret Services following the steady stream of defectors to the Soviet Union.

In response, a Foreign Office spokesperson sniffed: “We do not condone or commit torture. We do not have a licence to kill. If they did make a film of the real MI6 it would not be very entertaining — there’s an awful lot of drafting and basic admin work.” And, of course, losing of files containing critical, secret information.

On the other hand, Bond was under the control of the suave and crafty M. Until recently South African agents had to manage as best they could with Ronnie Kasrils. The difference between a Licence to Kill and a Licence to Laugh.

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