Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Security Breach Waiting to Happen: Serving Officers as Consultants

Last week, Sam Hallam was acquitted by the Court of Appeal, after serving eight years in prison for a murder he couldn't have committed. Counsel for the Crown seems only to have read the full case files about halfway through the hearing, because that was the point where the Crown suddenly withdrew its opposition to the appeal without any public explanation. Interestingly, Mr Hallam uses his first major interview, with the Mail on Sunday, to express, not merely his indignation at the way he was treated by an inquiry team led by then-Chief-Inspector Michael Broster, but also his concern that the conduct of the now-Superintendent Broster in the Gareth Williams case may have fatally compromised what is now and always should have been, a murder inquiry. See several articles in this blog about the Williams case, below.

Mr Hallam rightly observes that the Gareth Williams case was "really important" and mistakes were unacceptable, let alone near duplicates of the kind of mistake which led to his own wrongful conviction and the escape from justice of the real killer. (Broster and his team ignored compelling evidence against one Tyrone Isaacs even as they ignored compelling evidence supporting Mr Hallam's claim to innocence.)

Above all, Broster failed to keep a  "policy book" which is a document designed to allow their superiors or any future inquiry team, or those working on a parallel case, to understand their reasons for taking specific actions, interpreting evidence in a particular way or why they should have pursued one line of inquiry whilst abandoning others. Without a policy book, other records reveal almost nothing about why an investigation went wrong. The only time anyone benefits from a policy book not being kept, is when the reason why an investigation went wrong is itself unacceptable: i.e: something more sinister than a mistake.

The action which, above all others, cries out for explanation, is why Broster's team actually gave back a stick that had been taken from Tyrone Isaacs as a potential murder weapon. It's simply impossible to see why an essentially valueless possession should be returned when it might still have yielded forensic evidence of value if subjected to the most modern techniques. It's almost as if Mr Isaacs had a kindly sponsor.

Medawar isn't going to draw the reader's attention to the ways in which all of this is an exact parallel with the ways in which Superintendent Broster and his SO15 colleagues systematically derailed the murder investigation in the Williams case, because they are quite obvious to anyone comparing the details of the two cases.

Medawar would like, instead, to draw the reader's attention to the ways in which Superintendent Broster's career trajectory parallels that of two former executives of "News Data Services", a News Corporation company which has been thoroughly implicated in a global hacking fraud designed to drive competitors to News Corp broadcasters, (On Digital, for example) out of business, causing News Corp to profit by billions of pounds and gain considerable global political power for its principals.

Superintendent (latterly "Commander") Ray Adams was the head of Scotland Yard's Criminal Intelligence Branch, SO11, and Reuven Hasak was a former deputy Chairman of the Shin Bet, Israel's security service. Like SO15, SO11 officers have a very high security clearance, which the unscrupulous can exploit to prevent other officers questioning or even knowing about, their activities, whether properly sanctioned or not. Especially not. The same goes for Shin Bet officers in general, let alone the deputy chairman.

In recent years, the high security clearance of SO11 and SO15 officers has led to their being given exclusive access to classified material, so that any senior investigating officer needing access to classified material, secure premises or military and intelligence personnel in order to solve a murder (or multi-billion pound fraud), have to channel all their requests via SO15 and simply accept whatever they are given or told, without question. Somewhere in the mind of successive Home Secretaries, this arrangement "serves national security". In practice, of course, it does the opposite:

Exclusive access to privileged information gives officers a very high market value. And being effectively beyond being questioned by their colleagues gives those officers the opportunity to exploit that market value for all it's worth.

Both Ray Adams and Reuven Hasak had top jobs at NDS within weeks of leaving public service, and it's simply impossible for them to have been up and running so quickly without overlap: they must have been briefed into their new roles, and had an idea of the (criminal, as it happens) large-scale enterprise they would be engaged in, even while between them they still had access to the most secret and sensitive files of both the UK's police and security services and those of Israel.

And since neither of them is exactly an ace programmer or experienced financier, what was it that made them ideal candidates for senior roles in News Corp's software arm, if it wasn't their security clearances and unfettered access to national secrets?

Now we learn that Superintendent Broster is due to leave the Metropolitan Police, later this year. But he is already advertising and presumably selling, his services as a "security consultant". This is precisely the same highly questionable overlap, which does not so much open the door to corruption as send hawkers round the streets, seeking out corruption and issuing invitations.

How in the world is this system more secure than simply allowing a senior investigating officer, whose investigation touches on military or intelligence matters, to go and talk to the relevant agencies and their officers on her or his own account? They would be in a much better position than SO15 or SO11 to judge what evidence was actually pertinent, and they would almost certainly occupy the attention of military and intelligence officers for less time in consequence. Not having a privileged "elite" position, their conduct could be scrutinised and any "mistakes" rectified. They could also benefit from the advice of peers and superiors in a way that "elite" officers never seem to.

Moreover, it wouldn't be possible for a foreign power or major criminal gang to predict which officers would end up having access to classified material, and when they did have access, it would indeed be limited to that pertinent to a single inquiry at a time. By reducing both the opportunity and the payoff for anyone corrupting an officer, in whatever way, national security -and the rule of law- would be strengthened.

Above all, allowing serving officers, with high security clearances, to enter private practice and advertise their services, is a suicidal practice in terms of national security and should be replaced with something like the quarantine period imposed on former ministers. Senior police officers have generous pensions, precisely to compensate them for all the opportunities for personal enrichment which they supposedly forgo in the public interest. So how come they need to be allowed to flaunt their security clearances on the internet and around City boardrooms -as if they were standing in a doorway in Soho with a set of  doorkeys in their hands and a look of bored acceptance, if not enticement, on their faces?

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Stairway to Hell

The Westminster Coroner has given a narrative verdict in the unexplained death of Gareth Williams. This link is to the Daily Mail article; Medawar has had trouble finding a link to the original narrative itself, which would be far more useful, but this link, to the Guardian's report, contains more of the narrative and less speculation. Dr Wilcox did say, very clearly, that Gareth Williams was not gay, not a cross dresser, not actively interested in bondage, and that all the "leaks" (via News Corporation media in almost every case) to the effect that he was, may well have been an attempt to manipulate perceptions of the evidence. This vindicates Medawar's position on this from the earliest days of the investigation. Even if, by some strange quirk, this were not a murder, the crime of perverting the course of justice has still been committed, on a very large scale. But, as Dr Wilcox has determined, the overwhelming probability is that this was an unlawful killing, and where these involve the concealment or manipulation of evidence and deliberate non-reporting of the death, they generally are murders and not negligent manslaughters or culpable homicides.

The truth about his interest in women's fashions, so far as it matters, is that Gareth Williams was heterosexual and also admired women as objects of beauty, which can be how some gay men see them. He delighted, not in wearing women's clothes, but in putting beautiful clothes on the women he loved. He seemed to be taking steps to acquire the skills needed for fashion design, and this would have been a remarkably suitable creative hobby for him to adopt. Especially as his day job was so secret, and presumably quite stressful. A bit of recognition for his fashion ideas would have compensated for the necessary secrecy of his work, and would not have been a security risk in the slightest. It would certainly have been more rational and less risky than some of the recreational activities attributed to his erstwhile colleagues at MI6. (Such as racing sports cars through the Swinehead tunnel!)

The BBC reports last night were of the general disparaging tone that Dr Wilcox's narrative would allow "conspiracy theorists" to weave elaborate theories. We have a murder and manipulation of evidence and public perceptions of evidence. In such circumstances, it is completely irrational to believe in anything other than a conspiracy! However, care must be taken to avoid fastening on the obvious and slow-moving target of MI6, because the evidence and perceptions of it have indeed been manipulated, probably by an individual or small group with an eye to letting MI6 take all the flak. And it's always best to avoid elaborate conspiracy theories, because conspiracies that involve murder tend to be brutally simple when the truth is finally known.

Various articles below detail Medawar's view that the motives for the murder of Gareth Williams are most likely to be found in the late nineties, while he was a Phd student at Manchester and before he was recruited by GCHQ during further studies at Cambridge. GCHQ were by no means the first entity to recognise his skills: it is known that a News Corporation company, NDS, was recruiting hackers and computer-games experts from 1996 onwards, for what turned out to be completely illegal work. Articles below name two suspects, with the capability (and experience) to do all that Dr Wilcox suspects was probably done, including the manipulating of evidence and perceptions of evidence. For what follows, though, we'll leave their names where they are, because this is about how Gareth Williams could have been murdered, regardless of whether Medawar's suspicions about those two senior NDS employees are right or not.

Mr Williams' top floor flat in number 36 Alderney Street was not "highly secure", in that there were only fairly ordinary locks (the letting agent had a key) and no high technology entry system to log every visitor and keep strangers at bay. However, it was eminently defensible, and that is important, because it means that a surprise attack would have been necessary and there was probably only one circumstance tn which an unusually fit and agile occupant, such as Gareth Williams, could have been taken by surprise with any degree of certainty:

The front door to his top floor flat was actually on the floor below, opening onto a narrow staircase up to the main living area of the flat. This is defensible in the same way that many areas of Skipton Castle were designed to be defended: a strong man at the top of narrow stairs can hold off several men trying to get up the stairs. Even if the adversaries have firearms, it's still not a straightforward thing to get up such a flight of stairs if someone at the top is determined to resist. It's certainly not a thing which could be done without alerting every other resident of the building to a battle in progress! Chairs and tables would have been hurled down, the first face to poke its way round the top of the stairs would have collected Mr Williams' fist or his foot, on arrival. A kick in the head from a champion cross country cyclist ought to fell the toughest of men.

And although the door to those stairs could be fairly easily opened, it wouldn't be possible to force, unlock or pick-lock that door, and ascend the stairs, without a person in the living area of the flat knowing that someone was on their way up. The only place in that flat from where a covert entry could not be immediately detected and countered, would be the bathroom. Especially if the occupant was standing in the bath to have a shower. (There is a full height transparent shower screen at one end of the bath, rather than a separate shower cubicle.) The screen, and the bathroom door, would have partially shielded Mr Williams from any noises at his front door or on that flight of stairs, and if the shower was running, he would have heard nothing.

Timing an invasion to coincide with Gareth Williams taking a shower would probably have required a certain amount of stalking beforehand, but experienced men who knew what they needed to know and weren't too bothered about other things, could have done this without raising too many suspicions. Although, some lady friends of Mr Williams (there do seem to have been rather more of these than the smear campaign suggested) have reported that he claimed that he was being followed. Stalking to determine his habits would only have been sufficient to insert a couple of men into the building at the right sort of time. They would have needed confirmation that he was indeed using the shower, or taking a bath, before tackling the flat's front door and sneaking up the final flight of stairs into the living area of the flat.

This could have been provided by an external observer, who wouldn't necessarily have needed to be able to see in any of the windows. Line of sight to a boiler flue, bathroom extractor fan, or the bathroom waste water pipes, would have been enough. Especially if a Thermal Imaging camera or even just a laser thermometer were available. (These are not exactly James Bond devices and are widely available at modest cost.) Any steady flow of steamy air out of a bathroom vent, or warm water down a pipe, would have been proof of showering.) The Russian emigre who spotted Russian Embassy cars in the general vicinity reported one of them in a multi-storey car park directly behind Mr Williams' building, which sounds like an excellent vantage point for this kind of surveillance, against not only his flat, but quite a few others owned by MI6 as well.

The observer might have communicated by some means other than a mobile phone call or text message, to avoid leaving evidence. A cheap set of walkie-talkies (no licence required) and a couple of syllables would have been enough. The two men in the building would have opened the door, by whatever means (it's not impossible they could have copied the letting agency key) and quickly gone up the last flight of stairs. One would have concealed himself by the bathroom door, the other would have waited in a more visible position to occupy Mr Williams' attention when he emerged, in his bathrobe. (If the relevant pipes are inside the building, it's entirely possible that two men in the building could have managed without an external observer. Might the place where the pipes run also offer concealment while they waited?)

Any confrontation with a man unexpectedly in direct view when he came out of the shower, would have been swiftly terminated by one who hid, and some incapacitant applied. This could have been a Taser, but the dart-firing variety also distribute tiny little tags with the serial number of the cartridge on. A chemical incapacitant or a direct-contact electronic stun gun would be more likely. Mr Williams would have collapsed on the carpeted living area floor, rather than the tiled bathroom floor, pretty much where his discarded bathrobe was found. That space, and that forgiving surface, would have made it relatively easy to get him into the holdall he was found in, without damaging the bag.  Two men could have lifted the holdall with him in it, straight back into the bathroom. 

It is undetermined whether the holdall his body was found in, belonged to him or was brought to the scene by his killers. He did own a similar one if a different colour which he used to store items beneath his desk at the MI6 building at Vauxhall Cross, and some images taken inside his flat show another bag from the same maker on a sofa. If it was one of his own holdalls, the odds are there was something in it when his killers entered the flat, and this may account for the various items neatly laid out on the table and bed.

All this could have been accomplished within a few minutes. If there are any traces (or by-products) of chemical incapacitant left, the most likely places would be the carpet near the bathroom door, and the bathrobe. If a Taser was used, the little tags would most likely be in the same places.

Turning the heating on, in August, not only accelerated the decomposition of the body (which may or may not have been intentional) and would certainly have accelerated the evaporation and/or oxidisation of any chemical incapacitant.

Traces of GHB were found in the body, and if sprayed in the face, this would be an incapacitant. However, given the strength and fitness of the victim, something much more instant and decisive might have been used. High pressure spray cans (like MACE or Pepper Spray cans) of Fentanyl have been on the market in other EU countries, and have figured in some murder attempts and many more kidnaps, rapes and robberies. If planning to employ such a weapon, indoors, the two killers would have certainly worn some kind of mask to prevent inhaling the incapacitant themselves, and this would have helped minimise the amount of forensic evidence they left behind them, too. But were they ever to be found, the filters of any such masks would be a goldmine of forensic evidence, of many kinds.