Spying games

Spooks is stuttering towards its overdue conclusion on Sunday evenings on BBC 1. In the penultimate episode, top MI5 man Sir Harry Pearce kidnapped his CIA counterpart and then accidentally handed him over to some Serbian mercenaries posing as the US government. Or something. He was later thrown out the back of a van and left dying in the street. Meanwhile the saintly Ruth managed to steal laptop from a high security vault in the American embassy by pretending to have a cold. Said laptop was then re-stolen by Harry's secret Russian love-child, whose mother is the wife of a prominent diplomat.

Peter Firth, the actor who plays Harry, defended the series' creative invention of the security services in an interview a few weeks ago by saying that since no-one has the faintest idea how they operate you might as well make it up. Intriguingly, he dismissed MI5's website as a "shop window" and occasional speeches by current and former security chiefs as merely "what they want you to think." But it might be even worse than that. The preposterous world of Spooks might actually be less ridiculous than the reality.

What is one to make of the saga of Mike Hancock's Russian researcher, who strongly denies being a spy but is happy to admit sleeping with him? And not, it would appear, for fun.

He made it clear from the beginning that he was interested in me romantically. He asked me back to his hotel room but I didn’t go. He tried to kiss me on the lips in the lounge of the hotel. He said he wanted to sleep with me.

She was twenty when they met, and a student in Moscow; the Lib Dem lothario was nearly sixty. But he got his way the next time he was in Russia - the direct approach sometimes works - and when she came to study at Bradford University they would meet for sex at weekends. A year later she went to work for him. Katia Zatuliveter had other embarrassing things to reveal, like the assignation with a Dutch diplomat referred to only as “L”, who thought she was an escort.

Zatuliveter had been working for Hancock for more than three years before the security services got suspicious, largely because of the large number of Russia-related Parliamentary questions the MP was putting down. (Although Hancock's enthusiasm for Russia long predates his employment of this particular Russian intern.) Her arrest also came in the wake of the Anna Chapman affair, when everyone was on the lookout for young sexy Russian female agents. So she was taken for interrogation "by MI5 and MI6 officers in a series of meetings at top London hotels including the Savoy", which is a fascinating snippet of information in itself. If this was Spooks, she would have been taken to some top secret underground lair. And do MI5 and MI6 really work together?

The Home Office case has a superficial plausibility, if only because Mike Hancock's enthusiam for all things Russian and female would make it absurdly easy for the SVR to plant a young woman in his office and bed, were they minded to do so. But the evidence so far seems rather circumstantial. They couldn't believe she could afford to rent a flat in London unless Russian intelligence was paying for it. She says Hancock was picking up the bill. For me the most suspicious element in her story isn't the rent money (easily proven one way or the other, I would have thought) but Katia's change of heart. In April 2006, when he first propositioned her, she refused to take his money (was this another "L" situation?). A couple of months later, she was apparently happy to meet the ageing beardie to "improve her English".

The "sensitive" parts of the evidence against her will be presented in secret hearings, so we'll probably whether no what it amounts to. So far, though, the case appears to be that her being a spy is the only plausible reason for her wanting to sleep with Mike Hancock.

Would that all his "researchers" had such a good excuse.


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