The spy in the bag: Did MI6 agent’s kinky sex games lead to his death?

ON PAPER, Gareth Williams had all the makings of a perfect spy. Prodigiously intelligent (he gained a first-class maths degree at the age of 17), he was enough of a geek to be content to spend hours deciphering codes, but not so much that he stood out as a social misfit.

ON PAPER, Gareth Williams had all the makings of a perfect spy. Prodigiously intelligent (he gained a first-class maths degree at the age of 17), he was enough of a geek to be content to spend hours deciphering codes, but not so much that he stood out as a social misfit.

Outwardly pleasant, he possessed an uncanny ability to keep even close friends at bay and to compartmentalise the different identities he was required to inhabit. So for some, he was a hard-working cryptologist, to others a valued – if intensely private – friend. And in the privacy of his home, it seems, he was an enthusiastic cross-dresser, and claustrophiliac: a man who was aroused by being trapped in enclosed spaces.

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It was this aspect of his personality that contributed to his downfall. Last August, in a plot that makes the TV drama series Spooks seem humdrum, Williams’ naked body was found in a zipped-up red holdall in the bath of his Pimlico safe house days after he was supposed to return to GCHQ in Cheltenham from a year-long secondment at MI6.

As tidbits of information leaked out, speculation mounted. Had Williams trussed himself up in the bag for sexual kicks (and then been unable to get himself out)? Did he die accidentally when a sex game with another person went wrong? Or, since MI6 failed to raise the alarm for more than seven days after he failed to report for duty, could he have been the victim of shadowy elements within the British or other intelligence services?

Last week, the inquest into his death produced a stream of sensational revelations. We discovered, for example, that £20,000 of women’s clothes, including 26 pairs of designer shoes and an orange wig, were found in Williams’ flat; that he had accessed fetish websites; and that the bag in which he was found was padlocked on the outside, suggesting someone else was involved.

We heard testimony from friends, who claimed Anglesey-born Williams, an obsessive cyclist, hated the “flash car and drinking culture” of MI6, and a former landlady told how she once had to cut her tenant free after finding him tied to his bedposts, wearing only his boxer shorts.

With much forensic evidence lost due to decomposition, and a number of the intelligence service witnesses allowed to give their testimony from behind a screen, evidence has been fragmentary, but a clearer picture of what happened in the Pimlico flat is beginning to emerge. Semen stains found on Williams’ quilt and near his sink, and small blood stains from both Williams and another unidentified person on the bag, do point to a sexual encounter gone wrong. But the inquest has thrown up fresh mysteries as well: if another person was involved in putting Williams into the bag and lifting it into the bath, why has only the tiniest amount of unidentified DNA been discovered? Could the flat have been “dry-cleaned” of fingerprints and other incriminating evidence? And why were Williams’ laptop and phone left out as if waiting to be found?

These conundrums have encouraged conspiracy theorists who along with Williams’ parents believe intelligence agents specialising in the “dark arts” may have been involved. Disconcertingly, the inquest has also highlighted the cavalier attitude of the intelligence services not only towards one its own officers, but towards national security. According to Professor Anthony Glees, director of security and intelligence studies at the University of Buckingham, Williams should have been vetted on a yearly basis, with his secondment to MI6 prompting further thorough scrutiny of his private life. Why weren’t his unusual sexual interests – which could make him susceptible to blackmailers – picked up on?

And why were his bosses so blasé when he fell off their radar? “Gareth Williams was a cyber-expert and was privy to some of our nation’s most important secrets – for that reason alone the failure to check out what had happened to him is outrageous,” Glees says.

Williams’ death has opened the country’s eyes to a fetish that was hitherto known only to aficionados. Those curious enough to log on to claustrophilia websites will have discovered that it is not uncommon for patrons of S&M clubs to wear straitjackets, and that those who enjoy cramming themselves into enclosed spaces come up with ever more ingenious – but not always effective – mechanisms for their confinement and release.

Last week, Westminster coroner’s court was treated to the bizarre spectacle of escapologists attempting to zip themselves up in similar hold-alls to establish if someone of Williams’ build and expertise might have been able to padlock themselves inside, with one, Peter Faulding, telling the inquest he had tried and failed 300 times.

Other experts have revealed that, if he wasn’t unconscious before he was placed in the bag, Williams would have passed out within three minutes, as the temperature rose to 30 degrees and oxygen levels fell, and that he would have suffocated within half an hour.

It’s all very embarrassing for MI6. But then British intelligence is no stranger to sex scandals. From Mata Hari to the Profumo affair to the recent discovery of honey trap Russian agent Anna Chapman in the US, sex has proved both a powerful tool and an Achilles heel for spies of all nationalities.

Perhaps the insularity of the job attracts people with clandestine predilections and vices, but many secret agents have had something to hide. Maurice Oldfield, the inspiration for George Smiley in John le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, successfully hid the fact he was gay (at a time when homosexuality was illegal) throughout his career in the intelligence services. Almost three decades earlier, Alan Turing, the father of computer science, who worked as a cryptologist at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, was chemically castrated before committing suicide after his homosexuality came to light.

The world of spooks also has a history of auto-asphyxiation; in 1990, Jonathan Moyle, the editor of Defence Helicopter World and suspected MI6 agent, was found hanging in a wardrobe with a pillow over his head in a hotel room in Chile (though foul play was later suspected); and in 1994, author of spy novels and sometime intelligence officer James Rusbridger was found hanging, clad in black oilskins and a gas mask.

Because of the security risk such individuals pose, vetting procedures at the intelligence services are rigorous. In the past, Annie Machon, a former spy and partner of MI6 whistleblower David Shayler (who was himself last heard of living as alter ego Dolores Kane in a squat in Surrey) has described the scrutiny she was subjected to on joining up. “Developed vetting begins with a home visit,” she has said. “Disconcertingly, I soon found myself in the family sitting room being grilled about my sex life by a little, grey-haired lady who looked just like a favourite grandmother.

“Then the process widens. I had to nominate four friends who were willing to be interviewed about me, and they were asked to suggest yet more people, so secrecy becomes impossible.”

That Williams played a vital role within GCHQ is beyond dispute. The precise nature of the work he was doing for MI6 at the time of his death has not been revealed. But at his funeral service the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, paid tribute to a “hugely talented man” who he said had done “really valuable work with us in the cause of national security”.

“Mathematicians, of whom Gareth Williams was one, lie at the beating heart of what GCHQ does – they are the codemakers and the codebreakers,” says Glees. “They are the direct descendants of the codebreakers of Bletchley Park. They are regarded as an elite. That puts an additional burden on the vetters.

“We know that very gifted people often do strange things, but that’s not a reason for turning a blind eye, it’s a reason for keeping a very careful look. A young man of Gareth’s age, who was not married, would definitely be asked about his sexuality. Either he told them the truth, in which case, he should not have been doing the job, or he didn’t and the vetters should have checked it out more.” The fact that Williams had never introduced a sexual partner to family or friends makes this omission even more remarkable.

So the intelligence services have been incompetent. But is there anything more sinister at play? Do the unauthorised searches carried out by Williams suggest he was being placed under pressure by foreign agents who had discovered his sexual predilections? Does the delay in reporting his absence suggest MI6 was busy destroying (or planting) evidence?

Former secret agent Nicholas Anderson believes the time lapse suggests MI6 found Williams’ body before the police. “When a field officer doesn’t turn up, the normal time they would leave it before reporting him missing would be two to four hours,” Anderson says. “Given that Pimlico is only a few minutes drive from MI6 HQ, it would have taken nothing for them to check up on him. I am not given to conspiracy theories, but everything tells me the duty team must have discovered him dead and been instructed to ‘hoover up.’ ”

Glees, however, believes the most obvious explanation is the most likely one. “From everything I know about our secret intelligence services it is off the wall to think they would kill or conceal evidence,” he says. “I think the evidence suggests Gareth Williams was on a personal journey to explore his sexuality, that when he came back from holiday in the US he decided to explore it in more detail, that he in some way contacted a buddy to help him do this, that things went terribly wrong and he died tragically as a result.”

Even accepting Glees’ version of events as the most plausible, there are a number of loose ends; if Williams was a willing participant in a consensual sex act, why are there no signs that he fought to get out when it started to go wrong? If he was unconscious when he was put in the bag, as Faulding suggests, why isn’t there any sign of a struggle in the flat?

These are questions which, given the passage of time, may never be answered. But there are already signs that Williams’ death will have an impact on the way the security services operate.

Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox was scathing over the failure of Williams’ MI6 line manager, known only as witness SISF, to raise the alarm earlier, and was assured that lessons had been learned. Professor Glees believes the affair suggests the intelligence services are suffering from the same cost-cutting and morale problems as everywhere else. “I think the reason John Sawers’ went to the funeral was not – as his parents think, and I do feel terrible for them – that their son died a hero’s death in the interests of his country,” Glees says. “I think he was calling on MI6 officers to realise they are a team and to remind them they are engaged in a national security project. He was rallying the troops.” «