MI6 mystery death was murder, investigator says

On August 23rd 2010, police discovered the dead body of an intelligence agent, padlocked in a bag. The circumstances were strange, and evidence was missing – could this have been a cover-up?

Missing evidence; an iPhone, memory wiped; twenty-six pairs of women’s shoes; a secretive personal life. One padlocked North Face bag – and inside it, the decomposed body of an MI6 codebreaker.

It sounds like the setup for a trashy spy thriller. But Gareth Williams was real enough. In life he was intensely private, with only a few intimate friends. When Williams took a 10-day fashion course in London, he told no one; when he died, it was eight days before he was reported missing.

Since his death, though, Williams’ affairs have been anything but private. £20,000 worth of women’s designer clothes in his wardrobe, which nobody could explain – had he worn them himself? Details of his internet history were leaked to the press. Journalists speculated furiously, but the evidence remained strange and unclear: was he murdered? And if so, was it personal – or was his intelligence work somehow involved?

The coroner who has been investigating his death has released her findings. The verdict: Gareth Williams was almost certainly ‘unlawfully killed’. By whom and with what motive, we may never know.

The reasons for this only add intrigue to the foggy affair. MI6 and the police were curiously unhelpful. The blunders started in the first week after Williams’ death, when colleagues failed to report him missing. And they continued throughout: police were not informed until the day before the case closed that MI6 had kept back nine memory sticks and a holdall found in the victim’s apartment.

Further evidence remains in the hands of British intelligence due to its ‘sensitive nature’. And Williams’ iPhone had been restored to factory settings on the day of his death. Secret services deny a cover-up; but intelligence expert Crispin Black suspects that the the case has been interfered with. ‘The police are unlikely to have been the first people around to that flat,’ he hinted.

Dirty secret service?

Perhaps so, say defenders of the secret service. But that is the nature of the job. We will never know exactly what MI6 does, but we do know it keeps our country safe. To allow it to do its jobs properly, they say, we must accept that much of their activity happens behind a shroud. Like it or not, they are a special case.

But critics argue that this goes against the very principles of democracy: in a free society, nobody is a special case. Soviet KGB, Nazi SS: it is no coincidence that totalitarian states tend to have large and unaccountable secret services. Of course the work must be confidential, they say; but when it comes to police investigations, intelligence agents need to submit to the law like everybody else.

You Decide

  1. Is secrecy always suspicious?
  2. Was it wrong of the press to report private details about Gareth Williams’ personal life?


  1. Write a short murder mystery story.
  2. Imagine you are a friend or relative of Gareth Williams. Write a short article for a newspaper calling for the withheld evidence to be released.

Some People Say...

“Nobody should be above the law, no matter how important their job.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So the secret service do get special treatment?
Yes. In this case, for instance, police were not allowed direct access to sensitive witnesses. Instead the witnesses were interviewed by counter-terrorism police, who passed on information to detectives on the case. Police were often not even told who the evidence came from..
How do we know that we’re not being spied onall the time?
There are plenty of films, novels and conspiracy theories that play on this idea, from George Orwell’s1984 to The Truman Show, in which the lead character discovers he lives inside a TV programme. But while there are important debates about security services’ access to personal information, nobody reading this lives in a police state where every action is observed. Or do they?

Word Watch

MI6, founded in 1909, is the UK’s intelligence agency for foreign affairs. Its most famous agent is of course James Bond. Since MI5 works with domestic intelligence, it is generally a less enticing subject for spy thrillers.
Gareth Williams’ regular job was at GCHQ, the ‘listening service’ where friendly communications are converted to code and foreign ones intercepted. The most famous episode in codebreaking history was during the Second World War, when British intelligence decoded the German ‘Enigma’ cipher, which was thought unbreakable. Some believe this was an important factor in the war’s outcome.
Coroners are government officials, in the UK either a doctor or a lawyer, who investigate causes of death. If the cause is unclear, an ‘inquest’ might be held. These are not trials, but if the verdict is strong enough then prosecutors may be persuaded to take up the case.
Soviet KGB, Nazi SS
The KGB were the secret service of the communist government of the USSR, and the SS were the equivalent organisation in Nazi Germany. They were accountable to nobody except the dictator, and worked by gathering rumours and information provided by people about their neighbours. Both created a terrifying atmosphere of fear and mistrust, and their victims were regularly tortured and killed.


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