The arrest of a British embassy worker in Germany on suspicion of selling secrets to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) is a major embarrassment to the British Security Service (MI5), not least because the drama is unfolding at a delicate time in Anglo-Russian relations.
According to the German judiciary, the British national, identified as David S, was detained in Postdam on suspicion of working “for a foreign secret service”.
A German prosecutor said that David S was a “local employee” at the British Embassy in Berlin, implying that he is not a fully accredited diplomat.
German judicial authorities also claim the suspect had “forwarded documents obtained in the course of his professional activities to a representative of a Russian intelligence service”.
“In return for providing information, the accused received cash in a previously unknown amount”, the German judiciary alleges.
The UK’s Metropolitan Police provided more details by issuing a statement claiming that a 57-year-old man had been arrested “on suspicion of committing offenses relating to being engaged in ‘intelligence Agent Activity’ (under German law)”.
It is worth noting that the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command is tasked with investigating suspected breaches of the Official Secrets Act (1989) in collaboration with MI5.
The highly public disclosure of this case is unusual as MI5 rarely publicizes its counter-intelligence failures or successes for that matter.
In recent years there have been few (if any) cases where MI5 has publicly disclosed the existence of Russian or other foreign intelligence service spies inside the British government.
By contrast, MI5 and the broader British intelligence community were at great pains to publicize an alleged Russian assassination attempt on UK soil back in 2018, centered on a Russian military intelligence (GRU) plot to assassinate the double agent Sergei Skripal.
All the signs and indications in this latest case centered on David S suggest a failure by MI5 to identify and disrupt the alleged agent’s activities in a timely fashion.
In the days and weeks ahead the British government is likely to play down the affair for fear of giving the Russian services a psychological and propaganda advantage at a tense period in Anglo-Russian relations.
Already, journalists sympathetic to British intelligence have tried to blunt the propaganda and psychological effect of a British embassy worker transmitting potentially valuable secrets to the SVR.
For example, Sky News’ Middle East correspondent, Alistair Bunkall, says he understands David S’s alleged spying “had been known for some time” and that he was being monitored by MI5.
I understand the arrested British Embassy worker in Berlin had been monitored by MI5 for sometime - it wasn’t a snap arrest.— Alistair Bunkall (@AliBunkallSKY) August 11, 2021
His deceit was first uncovered by British security services who then worked with German counterparts.