A few days ago Gareth Williams, a civil servant who was working for MI6, was found dead in a bag in his own bath in Pimlico. It rapidly began to appear that he had an interesting lifestyle and may have been a transvestite.
For many people this raised the question - how do the security services find these strange people? Isn’t there some kind of vetting procedure?
Well there is a very elaborate vetting procedure, but - as I found out - it doesn’t work very well. About two months ago, a letter arrived at my flat from the Defence Vetting Agency. It was addressed to a person who had rented my flat four years ago. I opened it because it looked official and I figured it might be important.
The letter was interesting for what it told me about my former tenant. But it was also interesting for what it revealed – in these security-obsessed times - about the murky group of organisations which do vetting for the government.
The DVA works for the Ministry of Defence and for defence contractors. It attempts to weed out Russian spies, mad fundamentalists and anarchists, who might worm their way into the heart of our establishment. If you want a job ordering toilet rolls for the Ministry of Defence or flogging missiles to the Saudis, you’ll probably need DVA clearance.
From the letter, I learnt that my former tenant had applied for a high level job. As a result, he had to fill out a vetting form. He had failed to fill out the form properly and so it was being returned.
The fact that they had sent the form to my address was worrying. As my tenant had listed his current address on the form, it seems that the agency doesn’t even read its own correspondence properly. As with so many agencies, one of its main activities is to collect information which can then be leaked to the general public.
The form contained details of my tenant’s place of birth and early life. It told me that he was an officer in the Territorial Army (I hadn’t known this). It also told me which defence firm he currently works for and where his office is.
I learnt the name, address and phone numbers of his girlfriend, his parents and siblings. I learnt that the family are pillars of the establishment. His current flatmate, for example, is the deputy director of an influential governmental organisation. Another of his referees is an intelligence officer in a senior government body. I learnt his current income, his patterns of expenditure, his GP and his state of health (I was glad to learn that he isn’t mentally ill or addicted to drugs).
At the back of the form, there is one quite amusing section. It asks whether he had ever been involved in ‘espionage, terrorism, sabotage or actions intended to overthrow parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. Also whether he – or any relative - had ever been a member of any group involved in these activities. Nor surprisingly, he answered ‘no’ to all these questions.
Then there was a rather shady question: ‘Are you now or have you ever been involved in conduct liable to lead to susceptibility to pressure or improper influnce?’ I suppose this is a way of asking whether he is a closet homosexual.
The reason why it was posted back to him was that the information was incomplete. He had failed to include his partner’s mother’s town of birth.
The DVA seems to collects an awful lot of highly personal and dubious information. Why do they want to know the details of his overdraft facility? I suppose it is arguable that a person with a large overdraft might be more likely to betray their country. But, by that logic, around two thirds of the country would be members of the Taliban.
And why do they want to know where his family comes from? The only possible reason for wanting this information, is that they assume people from certain backgrounds – ie Pakistani or African or Eastern European – would be more likely to turn traitor.
The form was marked ‘private when completed’. Fortunately the form wasn’t completed properly, so I assume that it’s not yet private and I can write about it. Incidentally I have now sent the form back to my tenant. I wish him good luck with the job hunting! He could certainly do with the extra money. From reading the report that the DVA sent to my address, I know his exact salary and how much he spends. And I can tell you that he’s not exactly flush!
It seems that to pass this sort of vetting procedure, it helps if you are relatively well off and white. The fact that you might be a complete loner, a social isolate and generally a bit weird (like Gareth Williams) doesn’t seem to be an insuperable barrier.