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Thursday, August 26, 2010 

The sad, fascinating, prurient death of a "spy".

Gareth Williams is dead. That much we know. We also know that he worked at GCHQ, and was on a year's secondment to the Secret Intelligence Service. He was found, so we have been told, in a holdall, in his bath, where he may well have lain for two weeks. The reason he apparently wasn't missed at work was because he was on leave. He was, in any case, an extremely private person, as we've also been told. Despite this however, on the basis of the fact that women's clothing "which fit him" was found in his flat, he may well have been or either was a cross dresser, and could well have been killed by a gay lover. Or, alternatively, he could have been bumped off by another intelligence service, or even murdered by al-Qaida, although other sources are saying that is "pretty low down the list of possibilities". Whatever the truth yet to be established, he was a maths genius, a logician, socially naive, and loved cycling.

Anyone feeling slightly uncomfortable with knowing so much, or alternatively so little so quickly, and I do realise that through repeating the speculation here I'm wholly complicit in spreading it, will hardly be reassured with how his parents only identified his body today, having been "too upset" to comment yesterday, as if that somehow needed stating. Interesting however is just how the news either came to be leaked or publicised that he worked for the intelligence services, even if he was hardly the "spy" or "agent" which he is now being described as. And it's intriguing especially because the fact that he happened to work for SIS and GCHQ seems to be, based on that same speculation, both completely irrelevant and absolutely central to the attention the case is getting.

Not, it should be clear, that it's just the gutter press which is so anxious, as always, to delve into the private life of someone either murdered or missing and where the case is as yet unexplained. Jonathan Freedland, who as Sam Bourne writes Dan Brown-esque thrillers, as he both explains and plugs, mentions both Alexander Litvinenko and Georgi Markov, even though both were dissidents living in London and both were almost certainly assassinated by aggrieved foreign intelligence agencies because they either knew too much or had the insolence to defect. Williams was instead an unknown without foreign enemies (presumably), until he had the misfortune to be murdered, and while his work for MI6 and GCHQ might well have been of great worth to them, he was hardly an internationally known asset considered to be of such interest and danger that foreign agencies would have wanted him dead.

Freeland goes on to say:

The reality is much shabbier, the solitary life led by Gareth Williams surely more typical.

Well yes, although I'm not sure I'd say shabbier. The whole point of the security services and those who work for them, with the exceptions of those who rise to the very top, is that they are unknowns and have to be unknowns to remain of any worth. The likes of Gareth Williams would be highly prized by the security services, if, as friends have suggested, he was this intensely private person to begin with. Not being able to discuss your work, to have to lie to friends and family unless you can take them into your confidence, to have to potentially always be on alert, all will be so much easier on those who were already if not insular, then at least reserved.

All this is however avoiding, or rather ignoring what perhaps should be the obvious point. The very fact that Williams' employment was so willingly revealed suggests (here we go, speculating and criticising that very thing at the same time again) that his murder was almost certainly nothing to do with it. And without that detail, while his death is certainly mysterious and unusual in the way in which his body was left, with the cause of it not being immediately apparent, it would otherwise have not resulted in anywhere near the coverage and speculation which it has, and with it the almost certainly heightened discomfort his friends and family are currently experiencing. There are, admittedly, trade-offs: the coverage could result in his murderer being caught quicker than they would have been otherwise, or alternatively it could force those responsible even further into the undergrowth. Whether that will even begin to make up for the truly unnecessary photographs of his body, shrouded by a red blanket, being placed into an ambulance outside his flat and for the innuendo and prurience of so much of the speculation remains to be seen.

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