The death of Gareth Williams: the questions raised

With the close of the inquest into the death of Gareth Williams, the GCHQ/MI6 officer who was found dead in highly mysterious circumstances in 2010, one thing is for certain. Whatever else this case has shown, it remains first and foremost a terrible tragedy for the young man’s family. Unfortunately the inquest has not been able to ease their pain in any way. In fact, it has ended with an open verdict, meaning that the precise reasons for and circumstances of Gareth’s death cannot be established. Indeed, the coroner noted that these questions may never be answered, such are the perplexing circumstances of the case.

There are serious questions raised in this episode for the management of MI6 and GCHQ. How on earth did they fail to raise the alarm over Gareth’s disappearance for over a week? This would be negligent for any sort of organisation, but for organisations dealing with staff deployed on covert and secret activities, and in potentially vulnerable situations, such a delay is unfathomable. It led to the fact that his body was so decomposed on its discovery, DNA analysis has so far been unable to establish a cause of death. It has also allowed all manner of conspiracy theories about MI6’s role and intentions to proliferate. That could have been avoidable.

From an analytical point of view, what is the evidence and what does it tell us about possible hypotheses for Gareth’s death? The case for his death being linked to the activities of secret intelligence activities, whether home or abroad, is the fact that there is so little evidence: no fingerprints, no foot-prints, very little DNA. In this case, the absence of evidence might be significant. It suggests, if we follow the coroner’s logic that someone else must have been present in Gareth’s final hours, that something reasonably professional happened rather than a random accident or crime – something connected with the “dark arts” of secrecy.

The case for there being someone else involved is based largely on the perceived impossibility of Gareth getting himself into the position in which he was found, in a locked bag placed within an empty bath.  A couple of experts tried for hundreds of times to replicate the situation in support of the inquest, and were unable to do so. Significantly, they announced that it was “almost impossible” for someone to lock themselves inside a bag in this way, but only on the basis that they had not been able to do so: there is always the possibility, as acknowledged by the experts, that a “black swan” happened here. You can usually never say definitively that something is impossible.

What if Gareth’s death was not about his professional life, but about his private life? The evidence of his attendance at drag acts; the curious discovery or large amounts of unworn women’s clothes in his flat; the small but present evidence that he had occasionally visited bondage websites; and the fact that a women’s wig was found draped over a chair when his body was found, all potentially point to some sort of personal issue leading to his death, either through a bizarre accident, or through a blackmail situation.

This may be a viable hypothesis – at this stage I would suggest it is the most likely – but something about the obviousness of that wig draped over the chair troubles me. For intelligence analysts, the “deception hypothesis” has to be considered. If you were trying to make something look like something else and to throw investigators off the correct pathway, what might you do? For a start, you would plant clues that suggested alternative and erroneous hypotheses.

Somehow, it all looks too clean, too staged, too professional.

Sadly, what this all adds up to at the time of writing is that we are all none the wiser about the circumstances in which this young man died. The police are continuing their investigations and have appealed to the conscience of anyone who may have significant information. There are two critical questions here. The first is the question of how Gareth died. Unfortunately, it has to be the case that we may never know the answer to that. The second question is how the intelligence agencies managed to neglect their duty of care to Gareth to such a degree that the case may end up as ultimately unsolvable.

The chief of MI6 has apologised “unreservedly” to Gareth’s family for the mistakes made in the management of him as a member of staff. I am certain that this will mean MI6 and GCHQ are both taking this incident extremely seriously, and will be reviewing their management procedures and training as a result. But that will be bolting the stable door to a certain extent. The uncomfortable truth is that these mistakes have led to a tragic case, the resolution of which may never be established.

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