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Mystery of alleged MI6 traitor's data theft

Have you superglued the USB ports, Bond?

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Analysis Next week, a 25-year-old man will appear at the drab Magistrates' court in Westminster's Horseferry Road to answer allegations he tried to sell Top Secret MI6 files to a foreign intelligence agency for £900,000.

Daniel Houghton, who has joint British and Dutch citizenship, is accused of walking out of a meeting at a central London hotel on Monday this week with a briefcase stuffed with cash. He allegedly believed he had just sold memory sticks and a laptop hard drive containing details of British spying techniques.

In fact, he had been the unwitting target of a counter-espionage operation run by MI6's domestic counterpart, MI5. He was arrested on his way out of the hotel by officers of the Met's Counter-Terror Command, the unit that replaced Special Branch and has very close ties to MI5.

A successful prosecution under the Official Secrets Act could lead to up to nine years' imprisonment for the Birmingham University computing graduate.

Chief among the many mysteries currently surrounding the case is the big question of how Houghton - who for undisclosed reasons left the intelligence services after less than two years - accessed the information and transported it out of an MI6 location.

The charges accuse Houghton of stealing the files when he was still a member of the Secret Intelligence Service (the official nomenclature for MI6), between September 1, 2007, and May 31, 2009. That means he allegedly had the files for at least ten months until his arrest on Monday.

Reports this week suggest that after three months outside MI6, around late August, he telephoned an unnamed foreign intelligence service to discuss a deal. How this alleged treachery came to the attention of British authorities isn't yet clear. It is possible, for example, that Houghton was already under surveillance, or that the British received a tip-off from a friendly source.

According to the same reports, undercover MI5 officers met him in February this year to view the material, negotiate the price and gather covert evidence.

The chain of events suggests two possibilities that cast the intelligence services as either cunning or incompetent. The first is that Houghton was under suspicion while he was still working for MI6. Whatever prompted his early exit from the service he was deliberately allowed to take the files to allow counter-espionage officers to gather evidence and run their sting.

If Houghton was played from the very start to believe he was betraying his country for a briefcase of cash, then the embattled intelligence services have a much-needed victory. With public criticism at its most intense in years over their alleged complicity in torture, a classic counter-espionage operation worthy of George Smiley would remind many of the high stakes games they must play.

The second and more worrying scenario is that Houghton is actually accused of accessing Top Secret material at work, downloading it to memory sticks and carrying it out of a building without any scrutiny by his employer. This story, now the stuff of nightmares for IT managers in even the most prosaic government organisation following a series of huge data losses in recent years, would signal humiliation for the intelligence services.

Indeed, MI5 and MI6 are as close as possible to GCHQ, a world centre of information security expertise. They should not be beaten by a young, malicious insider armed with blank media and an undergraduate computing degree.

Whether they were or not, it may of course be that no more details emerge from Houghton's prosecution. Crown Court trials of Official Secrets Act cases are typically held in camera. He is next scheduled to appear before Magistrates on Thursday. ®

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