One of the themes of Spying Today has been to highlight the increasing use of civilians for routine intelligence duties. It is difficult to move intelligence officers around the world in these security conscious times so more “civilian agents” are required. They are quick to recruit and can be dispensed with just as easily. The recent case of Norway’s Frode Berg is one example.
Now another example may have appeared. UK citizen Matthew Hedges is a PhD candidate at Durham University. In May 2018, Hedges was arrested at Dubai airport as he was about to leave the country after a six month stay. The purpose of his visit was supposedly to conduct research for his PhD. The UAE authorities allege that he was spying. Hedges’ legal team claimed that the contacts which appeared to be suspicious were simply as a result of his academic research.
If Hedges was a genuine academic then he was surprisingly unlucky. Foreign security services, even in the UAE, do not pick up Western civilians just for the fun of it. They are acutely aware of the international furore that is likely to follow. Such arrests usually require clearance at a senior level in government and if there is a mistake it is usually rectified quite quickly. The fact that the UAE held Hedges for six months makes it clear that they were pretty certain that they had got the right man. Hedges was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2018, but then was officially pardoned just days later and allowed to return to the UK. This is fairly common practice in espionage cases between friendly nations. It is a way of one country saying to another: “We caught you, but we don’t want to make a big thing of it. Don’t do it again.”
Hedges certainly fitted the profile for a “civilian agent”. He had excellent cover reasons for being in the country, but the UAE will have kept him under close surveillance. The UK’s response to his arrest also tended to confirm Hedges’ guilt. Rather than being outraged, the UK’s Foreign Office tried to keep the whole matter quiet. Only remarkable efforts by Hedges’ partner, Daniela Tejada, brought the case to public attention and created the necessary pressure to secure Hedges’ release. This whole “backchannel” approach by the UK is typical of espionage cases and only served to make Hedges look even more guilty. Furthermore, it is well known that the UK has a long track record of using civilian agents (all the way back to British businessman Greville Wynne who was jailed in a Russian gulag in the 1960s for his part in the Penkovsky case).
Now Hedges is threatening to sue the UK government because of their lack of support for him while he was incarcerated. He says that he will start legal proceedings unless there is an independent inquiry into the way the case was handled. His complaint is not only about the UK’s failure to rescue him quickly, it is also about his treatment since he has returned. Hedges suffered mental trauma from being tortured (or at least roughly treated) while held in the UAE for six months in solitary confinement. The lack of any follow up support means that he is continuing to suffer both in his work and in the effects on his relationship with Tejada. Sadly, this is fairly typical of SIS. When they have finished with an asset they have an unfortunate tendency to forget all about their welfare (as attested by various Russians defectors, Greville Wynne and even former SIS officer, Bob Church).
It may be asked: “If Hedge’s was an SIS agent and he is unhappy about his treatment, why hasn’t he exposed them?”. There are three possible reasons. One is that the sort of people who are selected to be civilian agents are carefully screened during their recruitment to make sure that they are steadfastly loyal to the UK. This makes them reluctant to speak even if they feel they have been betrayed. This tendency is reinforced by the fact that all recruits are strictly warned that they will be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act if they mention in any way that they were working for SIS. Finally all agents are aware that if they speak out they may endanger some of those agents whom they have contacted. There has been an arrest of course, but as long as an agent refuses to publicly confess there is always some hope. This bond of responsibility is strong.
Of course, it may be that Hedges was simply an innocent man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But that would make him a very unlucky man indeed.