Comment: Britain denies murdered businessman was MI6 spy

Britain has officially denied allegations that a British businessman, who was found dead in China last November, was an intelligence operative. Neil Heywood, a financial consultant and fluent Chinese speaker, who had lived in China for over a decade, was found dead on November 14, 2011, in his room at the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel in Chongqing. Widespread speculation that Heywood may have been a spy for MI6, Britain’s external intelligence service, eventually prompted the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee to ask Britain’s Foreign Secretary to clarify whether Haywood was a spy. The Committee wanted to know whether the late businessman had ever supplied intelligence “on a formal or informal basis” to Britain’s embassy in Beijing or its consulate in the city of Chongqing. Responding yesterday to the Committee’s query, British Foreign Secretary William Hague noted that “it is long established government policy neither to confirm nor deny speculation of this sort”. However, he added, the interest in this case made it “exceptionally appropriate” for him to “confirm that Mr Heywood was not an employee of the British government in any capacity”. In response to the second part of the Committee’s question, on whether the British expat shared information with British diplomatic officials, Mr Hague said that Heywood “was only an occasional contact of the embassy, attending some meetings in connection with his business”. He added that Heywood “was not known” to the British consulate-general in Chongqing. In its report on the story, British quality broadsheet The Guardian noted that Mr Hague’s response “did not fully answer the committee’s question”.

I agree. Less than a fortnight ago, I was contacted by a major British newspaper and asked to provide background information on the question of whether Heywood was in fact a non-official-cover (NOC) agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service —MI6’s official name. I responded that I was not personally aware of anyone with serious knowledge of intelligence issues who was not completely certain, or did not deeply suspect that Heywood had indeed collaborated with British intelligence at some stage during the past decade, and probably longer. Even skeptics, I argued, would have to agree that his profile alone is prime MI6 material: educated at Harrow, with a background in international relations and a fluent Mandarin speaker, and with residence in China, to boot.

Sure, his wife was a foreign national, and in times-past that would have been considered unacceptable in the British intelligence community’s code of conduct. But exceptions are granted increasingly frequently in the post 9/11 environment. On the other hand, I noted, the Chinese would have figured out all of the above, so it would be difficult to speculate how useful or successful a spy Heywood would have been as an NOC. Which is probably why, I wrote, he was not actively engaged as an NOC at the time of his death. In fact, I added, Heywood struck me as one of those intelligence officers who eventually realize they can be far more successful as business executives, particularly in a booming place like China. Which is also why Heywood eventually founded Heywood-Boddington Associates —not in order to cover his spying activities, but to make money. It was for Heywood-Boddington Associates —not MI6— that Heywood was working for at the time of his death.

Does this mean that Britain’s Foreign Secretary is being truthful when he claims that the dead man was “not an employee of the British government”? Yes, partly; but rumors about Heywood’s alleged role in British intelligence will undoubtedly persist, until Mr Hague adds a short, but highly consequential, word to his denial: ‘never’.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

3 Responses to Comment: Britain denies murdered businessman was MI6 spy

  1. Skeptical says:

    Well they would say that, wouldn’t they?

  2. Pete says:

    Interesting choice of words by Secretary Hague “…Mr. Heywood was not an employee of the British government..’

    That leaves the possibility that Mr Heywood was a Contractor working for the British government or an agent/informant passing on information to an employee of the British government.

    Of course Mr Heywood may not have been an employee, Contractor nor an agent/informant passing on informationto an employee of the British government.

  3. Edward M Roche says:

    If he was an “agent”, it would have been more appropriate for the Chinese to expel him, rather than murder him. There is, I suppose, a type of professional courtesy between spies.

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