Moscow ‘spy-rock’ scandal embarrasses UK government

Clockwise from top left: Mata Hari, James Bond, George Smiley, Anna Chapman – plus plastic rock © Getty Images

Yesterday, after five years of denial, Britain admitted to using a hollowed-out stone to spy on the Russians. Should modern nations still be investing in secret agents and James Bond gadgets?

It was hardly one of Q‘s best inventions: a hollowed-out stone containing a transmitter and data memory for British spies in Moscow to use as a place to store and swap their darkest secrets.

Discovered by Russia fairly swiftly after being put to use on a Moscow street, the ‘spy-rock’ was finally exposed to the world in 2006 complete with x-rays of its hidden wiring and film clips of British spies kicking it in an apparent attempt to repair an electrical malfunction.

Russian President Putin angrily accused Britain of underhand tactics at the time. It provided him both with a justification and a media smokescreen for a clampdown on UK-funded charities working in Russia who were embarrassing him with their claims of human rights abuses and anti-democratic activities in his homeland.

Britain vehemently denied responsibility. Only now has Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell spilt the beans and admitted that it was a British blunder. ‘We were caught bang to rights’, he says.

Many might have assumed that the world of wizard gadgets was mainly for fictional characters such as James Bond. Examples include the tear gas container disguised as talcum powder (From Russia With Love); the cassette recorder hidden in a hollowed out book (Thunderball); the mini-rocket cigarette (You Only Live Twice); and the grappling cord suspenders (Diamonds Are Forever).

Yesterday there was plenty of scornful comment for British intelligence. ‘The Secret Intelligence Service has failed to provide advance warning in recent decades of nasty shocks including the oil crisis of the 70s, the Falklands invasion of 1982, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and 9/11. We have now discovered what it has been doing all these years. It’s been pretending the Cold War isn’t over. It has been looking after a pet rock in Russia,’ wrote the Daily Mail.

A rock and a hard place

Is foreign espionage actually necessary in the modern world? In the absence of a ‘cold war’, in which Russia was a real nuclear threat to the West, and in the absence of any major threat of attack or invasion what do nations need spies for? This week’s case proves, say the critics, that the thing spies do best is make the countries that use them look ridiculous.

Others disagree. The dangers in the modern world, they say, are both real and complex. Conflicts that start far away in places such as Afghanistan or Libya can suddenly involve us all. And the best way to avoid war is often through undercover operations. One reason that Iran remains unable to build a nuclear bomb is probably due to Israel’s successful espionage campaign in which its Mossad agents and Stuxnet computer worm have constantly blocked Iran’s plans.

You Decide

  1. If you really wanted to learn about a country, are you better off going undercover, or just reading one of its daily newspapers?
  2. Is international espionage a dishonourable practice or a necessary defence measure?


  1. Design your own spy gadget, with diagrams showing how it would be used, and explain why spies might need it.
  2. As a group, draw up a list of five recent innovations that might have changed the way spies work, including everything from mobile phones to facebook, explaining your choices.

Some People Say...

“Espionage should be left to Hollywood directors.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Was spying on other countries ever absolutely necessary?
In times of war, infiltrating enemy ranks, intercepting hostile messages and gathering information from them has helped to save many lives. Passing false information to the opposition can also trick them into making mistakes. During the Cold War, so much bluff information was passed back and forth between the Russia and the West that it became impossible to tell which bits could be trusted.
And what’s the value of spying now?
There is a great deal of debate on precisely that question. A huge amount has been invested in intelligence agencies, especially since 9/11, but there is a lot they don’t see coming. On the other hand, insiders say they have foiled many terrorist attacks.

Word Watch

The name of the geeky inventor responsible for all of James Bond’s gadgets in the novels by Ian Fleming. He was later played by Desmond Llewellyn in the films.
Chief of Staff
A non-elected position invented by Tony Blair in 1997. He is the Prime Minister’s closest advisor, and is seen as the third most powerful member of the government after the PM himself and the Chancellor.
Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)
Also called MI6. The UK’s civil service department responsible for gathering intelligence about possible foreign threats. MI5 protects against threats on British soil.
Cold War
The long period of political and military tension between the USSR and West, led by the USA. It lasted from the end of WWII in 1946 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Though not a shot was fired, full military confrontation seemed constantly just around the corner.


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