Cutting Edge Press, Edinburgh, 2001

Richard Tomlinson was a brilliant young spy. The UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, was lucky to have him. He was intelligent, tough both mentally and physically, skilled, brave and had loads of initiative. He was also successful.

Why then, after just a few years, was he summarily dismissed from the Service he loved – without adequate explanation, refused access to an employment tribunal, banged up in Belmarsh high security jail as a dangerous Category A prisoner, then pursued across Europe and Australasia, harried and harassed, detained and deported from one country after another, all apparently at the behest of SIS/MI6.

He was under surveillance at home and abroad. Even in London, SIS paid for a helicopter to keep a close eye on him as he roller-bladed around Hyde Park. This remarkable book was banned. Potential publishers were threatened and warned off in the UK and elsewhere. Their offices were raided by police, their computers confiscated. Allied security and intelligence services were asked to arrest Tomlinson and kick him out of their territories.

Tomlinson would like to know why. His UK readers might also want to know why SIS spent so much of the taxpayers’ money persecuting him, seemingly without rhyme or reason and almost certainly in breach of Tomlinson’s human rights as well as his rights as a UK citizen. It seems SIS was working unlawfully in its efforts to break him – not because he was a security risk or a traitor, but out of sheer vindictiveness.

At the end of this riveting account, an extraordinary tale of how an unaccountable intelligence service more or less does whatever it likes, that he makes his former employers an offer, quite a reasonable one considering what he’d been through. At this stage he’s still loyal, still a keeper of the nation’s secrets. One can’t help wondering if that’s still the case 22 years later.

‘Yet MI6 could save themselves all the effort, legal battles and the British taxpayer considerable expense if they were to accept this simple pledge from me. I will come back to the UK voluntarily, hand over to charity all my personal profits from this book, accept whatever legal charges MI6 wish to bring against me, and if necessary go to prison again, on one simple condition: that I first be allowed to take them to an employment tribunal.

‘If MI6 were a noble and fair organisation, genuinely interested in protecting national security and accountable for the public money that they spend, then they would accept this offer with alacrity. But having worked both for, and been targeted by, them for nearly a decade, I doubt that they will.’

Nor have they, apparently.

Before joining SIS, Tomlinson demonstrated a taste for adventure. He travelled widely and cheaply, in Africa and South America. He qualified as a scuba diver, won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, qualified as a private pilot, joined the Territorial Army and was badged a member of 22 Special Air Service Regiment.

This was no entitled old Etonian from a banking family who read Greats at Oxford. Maybe that was held against him, too.

One can understand why efforts were made to stop this book from being published, and when that failed, why it was banned. It was not because of the detailed description of working as a UK intelligence officer, I’m sure, though it certainly is a detailed account of real-life espionage. Instead, it’s surely because it shows an SIS/MI6 out of control, answerable for all practical purposes to no-one, able and willing to do as it pleases without legal restraints.

Even at IONEC – the Intelligence Officers’ New Entry Course – Tomlinson stood out. He was the only one of his cohort (all white, all male, all middle class) to be awarded a Box 1 grade. (This was part of an appraisal system, using a form called a ‘staff appraisal form’ or SAF. Box 1 was outstanding, Box 2 above average, Box 3 satisfactory and so on). Not only was Tomlinson the only Box 1 on his course, but he was apparently the only IONEC graduate to have ever achieved that grade.

So it went on. Working as a junior officer in SOV/OPS he did excellent work again, developing ‘natural cover’ identities. Completing one of these can take a couple of months if done properly. Working under natural cover means without diplomatic status, as a businessman, academic or perhaps journalist, but it involves obtaining birth certificates, school and academic records, financial records, and detailed personal histories that should withstand the most thorough investigations by the Russians, for example.

He helped set up a fake news organisation to attract Soviet journalists with good access in Moscow. Using journalism as a cover for covert operations is – or was – apparently commonplace. The reader also learns how the United Sates had commendably banned the manipulation of media and journalists by the CIA, so instead the CIA asked its allies, SIS in this instance, to help plant fake news to discredit targeted politicians.

At the CIA’s behest, for example, SIS is said to have planted false personal attacks on the Egyptian politician Boutros Boutros Ghali in the media in an effort to stop his bid to become U.N. Secretary-General in 1992. The slander had little impact and the plot failed.

Tomlinson helped recruit a defector with detailed knowledge of Russian missile tests, then worked in Bosnia – in the Balkans it seems he was inadequately briefed, the mission poorly prepared, but he managed to pull it off. Penetrating an Iranian chemical weapons smuggling set-up was his next assignment. It was at this point that he somehow earned the displeasure of the all-powerful SIS personnel department, in particular an officer nicknamed for good reason the ‘Poisoned Dwarf’.

Tomlinson was criticised and attacked for no good reason. Having just learned his wife had terminal cancer, he was in no state to argue or fight back. But one day he was simply stopped at the entrance of SIS headquarters in Vauxhall. His pass had been cancelled without explanation.

He’d  been sacked, just four years after joining SIS. No reason was given. The firing was a behind-doors decision, taken peremptorily, apparently signed off by senior officers who resented Tomlinson’s effectiveness and bore him a grudge. It was never clear why this was. He was offered a job in the City – something for which he’d obviously be unsuited.

Tomlinson was given three months’ pay. Denied the opportunity to take his case to an employment tribunal, Tomlinson became increasingly angry – and determined to fight against what he saw as an unfair dismissal, but he faced a barrage of rumour and innuendo in an effort to discredit him and his case.

The rest, as they say, is history and it’s not pretty.

Tomlinson’s final word:

‘The Official Secrets Act should be abolished immediately and replaced with a Freedom of Information Act, similar to the laws that exist in Australia and New Zealand. “National Security” should be clearly defined in the act. The Chiefs of both MI5 and MI6 should be replaced by a single Intelligence Tsar from outside the services who is not indoctrinated with the existing cover-up secrecy culture, and who is fully answerable to a Parliamentary Select Committee. Only then will there be full democratic control over the intelligence services.’

Maybe. My guess is it will never happen; what remains of a weak and sordid post-Brexit UK seems to have slid too far down the slope of oligarchy and corruption to ever find its way back.

January, 2023


According to Wikipedia, SIS/MI6 did agree in 2009 to allow Tomlinson to return to Britain, unfroze royalties from his book and dropped the threat of criminal charges, on condition that he stop disclosing information about SIS and speaking to the media. The Sunday Times is cited as reporting that SIS also apologised for its unfair treatment.

Tomlinson is said by Wikipedia to have settled in France and that he retrained as a professional pilot.

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