Tomlinson: The spy who was left out in the cold

It is difficult not to suspect a whiff of self-parody in Richard Tomlinson’s choice of interview location. He waves from a gleaming white speedboat, moored amid dozens of millionaires’ runabouts on an Antibes pier. It’s precisely the sort of setting from which the most famous veteran of Tomlinson’s former employers, MI6, might have roared off to battle a bald, cat-stroking megalomaniac in his hollowed-out volcano lair, prior to seducing some improbably named heroine as the closing credits rolled.

Tomlinson, however, is not commandeering this vessel on Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service. He’s keeping an eye on it for the Antibes yacht brokerage firm he now works for.

“I have a pretty nice life down here,” he says. “But do I miss the Service? Yeah, I do. It’s very interesting, with tremendous security, lots of investment in training, good fun, and you get a fantastic index-linked pension when you’re 55 – you retire on virtually your full salary when you’re still young enough to buy a boat and sail around the world. It’s a brilliant deal really.”

Tomlinson, 43, was sacked by MI6 in 1995. The reasons, he claims, were never made clear. Possibly, he allows, it was one of those unfathomable quirks of office politics.

Maybe someone, somewhere, just didn’t like the cut of his jib. Getting straightforward answers out of any bureaucracy in such circumstances can be a chore. Prising truth from an organisation as secretive as MI6 is a task that most people would glumly admit was impossible. Tomlinson has now spent more than a decade repeatedly tilting at this particular windmill, with the result that he has spent various portions of his post-MI6 life on the run, under arrest, in court, in prison, and now in exile – but not out of the reach of Britain’s police forces and security services.

On 27 June, 2006, French police, acting on a British warrant and with officers of the Metropolitan Police present, raided Tomlinson’s home. The French police took Tomlinson’s main computer, his laptop, a friend’s laptop, his Psion organiser, his cameras, and his New Zealand passport (as a Kiwi-born dual citizen, Tomlinson was permitted to keep his British passport, at the insistence, he says, of French authorities).

The British police, says Tomlinson, still have all these items in their possession, and won’t give them back. Scotland Yard, pressed for a comment, are not, as they put it, “prepared to discuss individuals in terms of property that may or may not have been seized”. They do confirm that Special Branch is looking into “unauthorised disclosure of information in breach of the Official Secrets Act”, and that searches in France have taken place. These searches, says the Met, are part of an investigation into “the publication of specific information on the internet”.

On 24 April, 2006, the 11th anniversary of his dismissal, Tomlinson started the “Tomlinson vs MI6″ blog. Every year on that date, he explains, he has been in the habit of writing to MI6 seeking a meeting, a discussion, an explanation for his dismissal. Despondently concluding that MI6 is no more likely to reply this year than any other, Tomlinson went public.

“I don’t know why they are worried about it,” he says. “It’s just a silly little blog. Even if I wanted to put anything secret up there, I’ve been out of MI6 for 11 years. I have nothing I could say that’s secret. “When I started [the blog], I was a bit antagonistic, I suppose. There are plenty of things to feel annoyed about with MI6, particularly the way they got us into the war in Iraq. The names I called [MI6 chief ] John Scarlett were probably a bit excessive.”

“I’ve been having problems with MI6 for 11 years,” Tomlinson continues. “They do things like using their influence to stop me getting visas to go anywhere. So I write to them, and say, ‘Look, ring me up, we’ll have a meeting, we’ll talk it out.’ I mean, I feel a grievance. Talking to someone about that grievance would make me feel a lot better. We talk it over, have a handshake over it, and forget it.

“I know it’s a wimpy American word, but it would mean a certain amount of ‘closure’ for me. I think it could be redressed easily by an honest talk with someone from MI6, but they never, ever reply to my letters.” Tomlinson’s involvement with MI6 started the old-fashioned way – the proverbial tap on the shoulder at Cambridge, where he studied engineering and cultivated ambitions of joining the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (he is a qualified pilot – his schedule for the rest of the week after our meeting includes flying across to Corsica to pick up a boat part). He initially rebuffed MI6’s interest, but thought again a few years later, after failing the naval medical examination on the grounds of childhood asthma, doing a bit of travelling, realising he was unsuited to office work, and passing the Territorial Army’s SAS selection.Tomlinson began MI6’s Intelligence Officers’ New Entry Course in 1991.

By his own account, he was a star pupil. He was subsequently dispatched, under an assortment of cover stories and false passports, to the imploding Bosnia-Herzegovina and the collapsing Russia, among other places. A discreetly glittering career seemed assured.

Then, on 24 April, 1995, Tomlinson’s swipe-card was rejected by the scanners at MI6’s Vauxhall Cross headquarters. He was then escorted to the personnel department and informed of his dismissal. When he describes this moment today, he resembles nothing so much as a man who has never recovered from an altar-side jilting. In his head, Tomlinson had pledged himself to MI6 for life. The Service’s abrupt, and, to his mind, unfathomable, disrequiting of his loyalty clearly wounded him deeply, as did their equivalent of the I-still-want-to-be-your-friend soliloquy – an offer to help find him a job at a sympathetic City firm.

Easing former operatives into cosy second careers is thought to be fairly standard MI6 practice. “It’s quite common,” confirms the journalist and author Phillip Knightley, who has written extensively about spooks and spookery. “There is a sort of club of companies they deal with. Part of the reason would be to reward the loyalty of operatives, or so that the former officers keep quiet, and the firms might expect a quid pro quo, a tip-off of commercial interest.” The offer didn’t impress Tomlinson.

“I still find that really insulting,” he spits. “Talk about imposing their narrow, venal aspirations on someone else. Nobody spent even two minutes asking me what I might be interested in.”

Looking into starting afresh in Sydney in 1997, Tomlinson met with a publisher to discuss writing a book about his time in MI6. Encouraged, he typed up a synopsis. He was, he admits, worried that this represented a clear-cut breach of the Official Secrets Act, but he was reassured by the publisher’s promise that the synopsis would remain locked in her filing cabinet while he thought about whether or not to proceed with the memoir. Still somewhat rudderless and adrift, Tomlinson returned to England. Lacking options, and with bills mounting, he resignedly accepted a job that MI6 had found for him, with Jackie Stewart’s Formula One team in Milton Keynes, and ruminated more on the book. Still anxious to do the right thing by MI6, he filed a request seeking advice about submitting a manuscript for security clearance. MI6 replied, advising him sternly not to even think about it.

Tomlinson was infuriated by their attitude, and emailed the Australian publisher from his work computer, indicating a desire to proceed with the project. A few days later, on 8 September, 1997, Tomlinson’s flat was burgled – or, as Tomlinson believes, “burgled” – and his laptop, containing what he’d written of the book, taken. The following month, the publisher was visited by the Australian Federal Police, to whom, despite her previous assurances, she handed Tomlinson’s synopsis. Back in England, Tomlinson was arrested and charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act. He was convicted, sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, and served eight.

Asked if the experience, which included being interred as a Category A prisoner in HMP Belmarsh, scarred him, he replies: “Not really, no. It was a miserable time, but you remember the good things and you forget the 22 hours of utter boredom every day.”

After release, Tomlinson’s difficulties continued. He absconded, without documentation, to France in 1998 – this seems to have been as much a means of defiantly hoisting two fingers towards Vauxhall Cross as anything else -and was arrested.

He carried on to New Zealand, where his hotel room was raided. At New York’s JFK airport, he was refused entry to the United States and deported – rather fortuitously, as Tomlinson’s original itinerary had seen him due to leave the US on Swissair flight SR111 on 2 September, 1998, which plunged into the Atlantic shortly after take-off. He was harassed in France and Switzerland, and suffered repeated interdiction of his early attempts at an online presence – one of which showed Tomlinson superimposed before Vauxhall Cross in a daft hat, accompanied by the theme from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

All that was before the surfacing of The List, the underlying cause of Tomlinson’s present travails.

In May 1998, a website belonging to indefatigable American activist/crank Lyndon LaRouche published a list of 115 alleged current and former MI6 officers. The Foreign Secretary at the time, the late Robin Cook, blamed Tomlinson. Tomlinson was thrown out of Switzerland, where he’d been staying, followed in Germany, and arrested in Italy.

His book The Big Breach – a terrific read, incidentally – did eventually appear. Its gestation was not orthodox. Initially it was published in Russia, and given away as a download on the internet. In 2001, it was published in the UK by a British house called Cutting Edge, which no longer exists.

Bill Campbell, a director of Mainstream Publishing, Cutting Edge’s then-distributor, recalls no significant interference from the government. “I think,” recalls Campbell, “they let it go because it was already in the public domain, with the Russian publication and the download. They didn’t try to stop its publication, or anything like that. There was some communication from the Treasury solicitor, stating that the author would not be allowed to benefit in any way – so all Richard’s royalties are still being held in an escrow account in an Edinburgh lawyer’s office.”

The Big Breach sold, by Campbell’s recollection, somewhere in the vicinity of 12,000-14,000 copies. It caused controversy for Tomlinson’s suggestions of links between the media and the security services (The Spectator, he alleged, once furnished an MI6 agent in Estonia with credentials), and of secret-service involvement in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales (the driver in whose car she died, Henri Paul, was an MI6 informer, according to Tomlinson). He also claimed that MI6 had been working on a plan to assassinate Slobodan Milosevic by contriving a car accident in a tunnel.

While MI6’s heat abated after the book’s publication – given the year, they may have decided that they had more pressing matters to attend to – Tomlinson’s anger did not. He drifted between jobs as a snowboard instructor, deckhand, mathematics tutor and translator (he speaks five languages), never finding the excitement or sense of purpose MI6 had given him. “Oh, yeah, it was great,” he says of his time with MI6, with almost painful wistfulness. “Brilliant fun.”

He found his current job at the yacht firm a year or so ago. Then, in April, he went online again with the Tomlinson vs MI6 blog.

“It gets quite a lot of readers,” he says. “I would say that most are either people from MI6, or crackpots. There was one bloke who kept coming on and accusing newsreaders – Jon Snow was one of them – of spying on him through his television set. He’s got a whole website about this, apparently.” Tomlinson used, and is using, the blog to outline his personal grievances, his disgust with MI6’s role in the UK’s Iraq misadventure and, curiously, to make available an updated version of The List via a link on his website. He seems determined to annoy MI6 by doing the very thing they were accusing him of doing when he wasn’t.

“Exactly,” he grins. “I’m collating all the information I can find about every single MI6 officer on the internet, and putting it in one file, so now there’s a searchable MI6 database.”

Tomlinson’s list comprises 210 names. Few of them will mean anything to most readers, with the exception of former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, whose service in the Service is long-standing Westminster legend. Other, older lists of alleged MI6 agents circulating cyberspace are longer but, Tomlinson claims, less accurate.

“That’s why,” he says, “I don’t believe MI6 really think I did it originally, because the lists were so inaccurate. Things like ambassadors listed as MI6 officers, and MI6 know perfectly well that I know that ambassadors never work for MI6. But you can work out half of MI6 by looking at the diplomatic lists, you don’t need to be a genius. I’ve just collated it and put it in one place.”

Nevertheless, isn’t there a possibility that this is, in some way, detrimental to Britain’s national security?

“Yes, it is a bit,” sighs Tomlinson, sounding suddenly rather deflated. So why do it?

“It’s all open-source information,” he says, rallying. “It only would have taken two minutes to find beforehand. And it’s MI6 who’ve drawn attention to it by arresting me.”

Do you feel guilty?

“Why,” he asks, “would I feel guilty about something I haven’t done? I’m not in the slightest guilty of what they’re accusing me of. There is nothing on my computer which is in breach of the Official Secrets Act.” Which, if true, begs the question: what are the British authorities doing getting involved with it? Phillip Knightley believes that if Tomlinson does sound paranoid, it doesn’t mean that MI6 are not out to get him. “They would feel,” says Knightley, “that he let them down, first for whatever it was they sacked him for, then for blowing the whistle. They’re a very tight-knit, loyal family, and they’ll pursue him to the ends of the earth. If he tries to make another career, they’ll do their best to ruin it. The very idea of writing a book…” Knightley draws a comparison with the story of Warren Reed, a (MI6-trained) former officer of Australia’s Security and Intelligence Service, who went on to write books, fictional and not, about working in the intelligence services.

“They [MI6] destroyed his career,” says Knightley. “Every time he had a new thing going, they destroyed him. When he found a job, they made contact with his bosses, planted nasty rumours about him. They do this partly to discourage others, but it is also possible that they want to discredit Tomlinson before he reveals something.

“There must be some deep, dark secret at the heart of this whole thing. As I understood it, he was a high-flyer, headed for great things. It doesn’t surprise me that they didn’t give him a reason, but it does surprise me that he claims to have no idea.”

“I spoke to Special Plod yesterday,” says Tomlinson. “I asked how they were getting on with my computers. They said they were still under investigation. I asked if they’d found anything to charge me with, and they said no. I asked if they were going to charge me with anything, and they said of course not, because I’m in France. So if they’ve got no realistic chance of charging me, what are they doing with my stuff?”

Tomlinson believes himself the victim of two factors. One is a desire on MI6’s part to discourage any other agents from following his path into print – although Tomlinson notes, bitterly, that Dame Stella Rimington was allowed write a memoir about her time in MI5. The other is what seems an institutional failure by MI6 to understand either the internet or public relations. Closing down a website by legal means, or by hassling its hosts, is like stamping on mercury. Making a fuss about not wanting people to see something only inflames curiosity. Tomlinson’s blog has wandered from server to server as various website hosts have been leant on – and, to the certain infuriation of his persecutors, Tomlinson has been posting all of the correspondence pertaining to this pressurising online.

“When I was in MI6,” he says, “they were scared to death of the internet. They wouldn’t have any internet connections in the office, even by the time I left in 1995. I’m sure they’ve moved on now.”

I leave Tomlinson, unsure if he has, though. His love for the job he once had is obvious in his conversation, and in the fizzingly energetic chapters of The Big Breach which recall his time in the Service.

When I ask if he ever wonders what he’d be doing now if the last 11 years had gone according to plan, he looks haunted. “Most of my contemporaries,” he says, “are heads of big MI6 stations, Geneva or somewhere like that. I’d only be working in declared posts, because my cover would have been well and truly blown. I could be anywhere. And the standard of living when you’re overseas is fantastic, it really is.”

Had he thought the job worthwhile?

“Yes,” he says, emphatically. “I did, absolutely. I think I’d find it quite hard now. I was opposed to the intervention in Iraq, and even if I was in MI6 I’d be opposed to it, as I’m sure a lot of people in MI6 are. It would be harder to feel a strong sense of justification. During the Cold War, we were fighting something being imposed on us, but in this so-called war on terrorism I do think a lot of the cause of it is the West’s double standards around the world.

“During the Cold War,” he continues, “Britain was this innocent player which did face a threat. But we’re not anymore. We’re part of the problem. So I’d find it a little more difficult now.”

Impossible though it obviously is, would he still want to work for MI6? “Not really,” he says, not entirely convincingly. “If they were to offer to shake hands on it, I’d feel fine. As recently as four or five years ago I’d have felt that I very much still wanted to be in the Service. I think that phase has gone, but I’m still very angry. I was just starting out. I only did minor things. I just look back at a lost opportunity, really.”

Tomlinson glumly anticipates further harassment. He says that he doesn’t fear for his physical safety, although starts at bumps in the night. He also intends to write a spy novel, which most armchair-educated psychologists would diagnose as an effort to stay connected in some way to the life he would rather have led. He says he wants to be left alone by MI6, but I’m not sure how true that is – like the ditched groom unable to get over it, he seems to derive some consolatory gratification from the fact that his former betrothed can’t quite get him out of their head, either.

“In general,” he says, “MI6 does work for the good, but it could have a better public image. They could sort that out without much expense or hassle. If you have a security service regarded as sinister or inept, you have a lot of problems recruiting people who are willing to help.” Certainly, MI6’s public image is not enhanced by its pestering of Tomlinson. It is impossible to argue with at least one of his statements. “I’d have thought,” Tomlinson smiles, “that they’d have a thousand more important things to do, just at the moment.”

But then maybe they have been reading Mr. Tomlinson’s affidavit on the death of Diana at [ed.]