Spies and Their Lies: Britain's Intelligence Services Have Long Used Clandestine "Undeniable Briefings" to Release Information Both Real and False to Tame, Hand-Picked Journalists. David Rose Was One Such. He Explains How This Old Practice Gravely Damages Spooks and the Media Alike

By Rose, David | New Statesman (1996), October 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Spies and Their Lies: Britain's Intelligence Services Have Long Used Clandestine "Undeniable Briefings" to Release Information Both Real and False to Tame, Hand-Picked Journalists. David Rose Was One Such. He Explains How This Old Practice Gravely Damages Spooks and the Media Alike


Rose, David, New Statesman (1996)


My secret life began, as if scripted by P G Wodehouse, with an invitation to tea at the Ritz.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The call came at the end of the first week of May 1992. I was the Observer's home affairs correspondent, and at the other end of the line was a man we shall call Tom Bourgeois, special assistant to "C", Sir Colin McColl, the then chief of the Secret Intelligence Service. SIS (or MI6, as it is more widely known) was "reaching out" to selected members of the media, Bourgeois explained, and over lunch a few days earlier with McColl, my editor, Donald Trelford, had suggested that I was a reliable chap--not the sort, even years later, to betray a confidence by printing an MI6 man's real name.

Would I like an informal, off-the-record chat? You bet I would. "I make no apologies for the cliche," Bourgeois said, "since we do need a way to spot each other. I will be in the lobby, with a rolled-up copy of the Times."

Over the eclairs and Darjeeling a day or two later, Bourgeois explained that while the service--"the Office", as it is invariably termed by insiders--had always had a few, very limited contacts with journalists and editors, it now felt the need to put these arrangements on a broader and more formal basis. After eight decades in which the very existence of MI6 had been an official secret, the Tory prime minister, John Major, had just avowed it in the House of Commons for the first time--part of a process of incipient glasnost, Bourgeois said.

From time to time, he went on, it might be possible to "give me a steer", and if things worked out we might progress from meeting for tea to luncheon. Of course, he would be extremely constrained as to what he might ever be able to say about real, individual spy cases. If potential MI6 sources started to think their handlers might start blabbing about them to the papers, the Office's work would soon become impossible. Nevertheless, there would be things I might find interesting that would not compromise sources or security. Anyway, here was his number.

As a youngish, ambitious hack, I was enthralled. Bourgeois, a tall, slim man with an air of effortless urbanity, seemed to exude clandestine glamour--and future scoops. He was also refreshingly upfront about why the Office was taking steps to open up; as I put it in a somewhat breathless Observer feature that weekend, with the end of the Cold War, it recognised "its place in society" was going to change. "For the first time, the service is aware that it needs to protect its image, and that as it prepares to move into new and expensive postmodernist offices on the south bank of the Thames, it needs public relations." Or, to put it more cynically, it needed the media to trumpet its continued usefulness, lest the Treasury respond to the vanishing of the Soviet threat by slashing its budget.

Even then, the conditions that Bourgeois laid down struck me as odd, and perhaps a little onerous. Not only would our conversations be off the record, attributable in print merely to an unnamed MI6 official, but in public I would have to pretend they had never happened, and if I wanted to quote or paraphrase any thing Bourgeois said, I would have to use a circumlocution so vague as to make it impossible for any reader to realise that I had spoken to someone from the Office at all. Should I breach these conditions, Bourgeois made clear, I could expect instant outer darkness: the refusal of all future access. M16, in other words, would maintain a priceless advantage, a quality regarded as essential in intelligence operations of many kinds--what spies call "plausible deniability". And if, heaven forfend, the service told me something that turned out to be mistaken, or even tried to plant sheer disinformation for who knows what purpose, there would be no comeback, no accountability. I could put up, or shut up.

At the time, I pushed my misgivings to the back of my mind, accepting Bourgeois's assurance that eventually MI6 would like to have an ordinary public press office like the Home Office or Department of Health.

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Spies and Their Lies: Britain's Intelligence Services Have Long Used Clandestine "Undeniable Briefings" to Release Information Both Real and False to Tame, Hand-Picked Journalists. David Rose Was One Such. He Explains How This Old Practice Gravely Damages Spooks and the Media Alike
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