spies, national security, espionage, counterterrorism, u.s. foreign policy, intelligence operations, CIA, special forces, counterterrorism, terrorism

Saturday, April 28, 2012

U.K. 'Spy-in-a-Bag' Mystery Piques U.S. Interest

If spy agency operative Gareth Williams brought his bondage and bike-racing hobbies to the Washington area during his many visits to NSA headquarters at Ft. Meade, he practiced them with a discretion worthy of his profession. 

The British media has been in a frenzy for almost two years over Williams, a codes-and-cyphers whiz, since his lithe body was discovered zipped up in a carryall bag in the bathtub of an MI6 safe house in London, in August 2010.

Today the NewYork Times presented the bizarre and fascinating case, an intoxicating mix of spy work and sexual picadillos, to an American audience in a front page piece, generating a big buzz in national security circles.

Williams’s death, his family’s lawyer has suggested, was the result of a plot by people “skilled in the ‘dark arts’ of spy work,” according to the Times’s account

“That theory has played prominently here, with Mr. Williams depicted alternately as a victim of Russian secret service hit men, extremists with Al Qaeda, or a multitude of other potential assassins working in the murky world of espionage who poisoned him with potassium cyanide or an overdose of a powerful sedative drug, GHB, a theory pathologists said could not be effectively tested because of the advanced decomposition.”

But it’s more likely that the 31-year-old math prodigy’s death was the result of “claustrophilia,” according to the Times, “a condition that involves getting sexual thrills from being shut in enclosed spaces.”

Evidence has mounted up that Williams, a slender, hazel eyed man on temporary loan to MI6 from GCHQ, the British code-breaking agency, was a transvestite. That, and his bondage fetish, was a secret known to at least a few of his intelligence colleagues, the court has learned. 

If he indulged his whimsies during one of his frequent visits to NSA’s headquarters at Ft. Meade, halfway between Washington and Baltimore, where he worked on highly secret counterterrorism communications projects, it went unnoticed.

Reputable sources in the D.C. bondage demimonde passed around photos of Williams for me and came up empty-handed.

Williams’s sexual tastes are not unknown in law enforcement, however.

“I’ve seen lots of cases involving auto-erotic acts with ligatures and restraints, some of which went bad,”  retired FBI behavioral profiler Cint Van Zandt told me. “One case of a guy who put himself an a military-style trunk.”

Likewise, if Williams practiced the competitive bike racing that was his other passion back home, he left no trail in the States.

“Given his known enthusiasm for cycling the FBI has made checks along the trails through the popular Appalachian Mountains close to Washington, to see if Mr Williams had rented a bicycle in the area or travelled there during his visits,” The Mail in London reported in 2010.

Similarly, Bill Luecke, head of the National Capital Velo Association, said nobody from his club remembered or recognized the pictures of Williams. 

“I didn't turn up anything from the people I polled about it,” Luecke told me, “Chances are he never raced while he was here.” 

Williams never had a brush with the cops here, either, a reliable law enforcement source told me after conducting national and local-agency records checks. 

The FBI had mild interest in the case because of Williams’s work with NSA (and perhaps the CIA as well). If FBI agents queried local police about Williams, though, nobody remembers it.

“Nobody approached them, nobody was asked about” Williams, said the law enforcement source, who maintains close relations with Anne Arundel and Prince Georges County, Md., detectives and intelligence agents.

One source said Williams was working on sophisticated counterterrorism communications programs, including in Afghanistan.

“The description of what Williams was working on is clearly RDT&E [Research, Development, Test and Evaluation] on clandestine SIGINT (CLANSIG) devices,” NSA expert Matthew Aid told me by e-mail. 

SIGINT stands for intelligence-gathering by analyzing a target's electronic communications.  CLANSIG refers to clandestine communications, the type used by military and intelligence units.

“The devices that the source described are right out of Hollywood (see the devices used by the character portrayed by Gene Hackman in the movie Enemy of the State), which used laptops to clone cell-phone signatures, allowing you to listen in on all calls coming in and out of a specific cell phone,” Aid said. “Some of these devices (called ‘black boxes’ by some CIA operatives) were used a few years back to take down a number of al Qaeda officials in Pakistan.”

It’s “very secret stuff,” Aid said. 

Just like his personal life.