007s shaken and stirred

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 April, 2000, 12:00am

A series of recent blunders has meant Britain's intelligence agencies have lost something of their James Bond image and instead developed a reputation for incompetence.

Two laptop computers loaded with sensitive information have gone missing in separate incidents that have raised questions over internal security and just who gets to be a secret agent.

The first incident happened four weeks ago when an MI5 agent had his computer snatched at Paddington Underground station in central London.

Days later it emerged that an MI6 operative had apparently lost her laptop after a night out in a London bar.

MI5 is principally concerned with intelligence work within Britain. It said that although information on the stolen computer concerned the security situation in Northern Ireland, its loss did not represent a threat to national security and no lives were at risk.

The information stored on the laptop had been encrypted and security officials said they were confident it could not be accessed by what they said had been an opportunistic thief.

However, the incident was a serious embarrassment to the agency and the agent concerned faces disciplinary action.

Then, after the MI6 agent lost her laptop a few days later, the security agency took out an advertisement in the classified columns of a London evening paper purporting to be from an academic and offering a 'substantial reward' for its return.

In an effort to recover the missing computer without making it obvious where it had come from, the advertisement claimed that the top-of-the-range Toshiba machine contained vital research notes essential for the academic's PhD.

Agents visited local bars and taxi companies inquiring about the missing computer, but it was finally recovered by the police before the story broke in the press.

MI6 is primarily involved in gathering intelligence overseas but its reputation has been tarnished recently following allegations that it has been involved in assassination attempts and other unscrupulous activities.

The secret organisation makes great play of the fact that it never reveals details of operations and has even refused to release its historical archives relating to World War I, claiming that to do so would risk dissuading potential agents from signing up if they thought their names one day might be revealed.

Senior MI6 officers were reported saying that the information stored on the laptop was for training purposes and not something that would be of any use to a foreign government.

Experts say secret agents now routinely carry laptops which they use for filing reports and accessing information in the same way that people in other industries do.

The computers used by the agents had been specially adapted by the Ministry of Defence to increase security in case of theft.

Despite the intelligence agencies' assurances that security has not been compromised, the incidents have led to calls for a thorough overhaul of their operations and questions being asked about the type of people they employ.

Traditionally, MI5 and MI6 recruited their agents from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, favouring students with a public-school background, but recent years have seen them look further afield and even advertise jobs in the media.

The chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, Tom King, said he expected full reports on both incidents and would decide whether it was necessary to take the matter any further.

'Any breach of security is serious. We have continually hammered the agencies on the importance of security at all times,' Mr King said in an interview on BBC radio.

'The fact that people working in the agencies are taking laptops around in public which may have intelligence information on them, even if it is encrypted, is a very serious matter.

'I don't think sufficient thought has been given to what the impact of this new technology is.

'They may be a great convenience to people working in the agencies but if you're going to carry them in public places then how they work, what safety devices there might be, what protection there might be - I don't think enough thought has been given to these areas.' He said the issue of computer security went to the very heart of the intelligence agencies.

'They depend on people, often very brave people, who give them information on terrorist threats or outrages, or serious crime.

'They do so in the confidence that these agencies will keep this information protected, and if they don't it compromises the chances of getting such good information in the future.' Simon Macklin is the Post's London correspondent