Under the headline “Mystery of Stewart’s past links with MI6”, the Daily Telegraph has revealed that Rory Stewart, 46, a contender for the leadership of the British Conservative party, was an SIS officer for seven years in the 1990s with postings to Montenegro and Indonesia. (Stewart joined SIS as an Intelligence Branch officer in 1995 having been talent spotted at Oxford University. He was posted to Jakarta in 1997 and Banja Luka in 1999. It has been officially acknowledged that his father, Brian Stewart was a senior SIS officer.) The Telegraph, which backs the leadership bid of Boris Johnson, is clearly hoping to damage Stewart’s chances by making this disclosure. This action by the Telegraph is astonishing for four reasons:
1) Since when did working for SIS become a source of shame – particularly for the right-wing press in the UK? No-one working for Spying Today can remember a time when working for the British secret service was described as anything other than a positive factor.
2) We suspect that the real reason that the Telegraph ran the story was because one of its “Whitehall security sources” claimed that Stewart was only viewed as a mediocre officer during his time in SIS and that this was one of the reasons that he left after only seven years.
3) Revelation of the identity of an SIS officer is normally an imprisonable offence under the Official Secrets Act. The Telegraph could easily be putting Stewart’s life in danger and/or allowing foreign intelligence services to “back track” his activities and reveal the identities of British agents and other SIS officers. Stewart has been doing exactly what he should do by refusing to comment on the claims. The decision of the Telegraph to out him for political gain is both astonishing and disgusting.
4) Furthermore, the Telegraph source clearly has access to SIS even if he is not a former SIS officer himself. Eliciting this kind of information – or even pretending to – is another offence. The Telegraph appears to be trying to justify its actions by citing a New Yorker story from 2010, but repeating a story in the public domain is not normally regarded as a defence. Yet the Telegraph is unlikely to be prosecuted in the way that others would. It is part of the “establishment” in British society and different rules apply.