Sir David Spedding; Ex-Chief of British Spy Agency

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spies are averse to publicity, and Sir David Spedding was no exception.

Until his death this week, no contemporary photograph of him had ever been published. His official biography was purposely sparse, identifying him only as a career diplomat and civil servant for Britain.

But in the fictional world of James Bond, Spedding was the embodiment of "M," the dashing spy's mysterious boss who writes memos in green ink.

He was, in the real world of British espionage, "C," the traditional moniker for the head of MI6, Britain's equivalent of the CIA.

Spedding, who retired in 1999 after three decades in the spy business, died in London on Wednesday at 58. Britain's Foreign Office, which oversees the intelligence service, said his death came after a long illness.

Appointed spy chief in 1994, when he was 51, Spedding was the youngest "C" in the 89-year history of MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service. His elevation was seen by some observers as the end of the era of the British gentleman spy, epitomized by Spedding's predecessor, Sir Colin McColl.

He also was the first "C" to have a background in Middle East intelligence. Given a long history of MI6 chiefs who were Soviet specialists, Spedding's elevation symbolized the sea change in post-Cold War priorities. The new agenda was to fight nuclear, chemical and biological weaponry, the international drug trade and, Spedding's specialty, terrorism.

MI6 got its name in the 1930s when it was known as Section Six of British military intelligence. Although it has suffered embarrassing security lapses in recent years, MI6 was long regarded as one of the most effective and secretive espionage operations in the world. Unlike the CIA, which has a listed phone number, MI6 was so steeped in stealth that the British government denied its existence until just seven years ago, when the agency began to yield to public pressure for more openness.

Famously eccentric, it reportedly included among its 2,000 employees a spiritualist, a flamboyant country and western music buff and a Brit who took notes in perfect Chinese. One former chief, Sir Mansfield Cumming, amused fellow spooks by propelling himself on a scooter, using his wooden leg.

MI6's mystique also was cultivated by novelists such as John le Carre, Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, whose spies were debonair, world-weary, neurotic. They bore grudges, like Deighton's Bernie Samson, or were high-flying, Aston Martin-driving Lotharios, like Fleming's Bond.

Spedding, according to James Adams, author of the 1994 book "New Spies," represented "the more prosaic reality."

The son of a lieutenant colonel in the British Border Regiment, Spedding grew up in comfortably middle class surroundings. He went to Sherborne, a public school in Dorset remarkable for the fact that le Carre, the spy-thriller master, and Christopher Curwen, another future MI6 chief, also went there. At Oxford, Spedding listed as his chief interests walking, medieval history and golf. But he was a run-of-the-mill duffer, with a handicap, Adams noted, of 20.

Along with Bond creator Fleming, Spedding belonged to Huntercombe Golf Club in Oxfordshire. When his appointment to the top job at MI6 was announced, the club secretary told a London paper that there was "nothing James Bondish about Mr. Spedding. He's a perfectly ordinary, average looking man. . . . No one had any idea of his position or work."

Former schoolmates and teachers agreed that as a youth he was unmemorable--"neither a good scholar, rugby player, nor a naughty boy," one recalled.

He was so faceless that he was, in hindsight, perfectly suited for espionage.

His career began when he was plucked from postgraduate studies at Oxford at age 24 to attend the Middle East Center for Arabic Studies in Lebanon, a training center for British spies. Fluent in Arabic, French and Spanish, he became an intelligence officer in 1967.

In 1970 he was assigned to Beirut, but the following year his cover was blown by Kim Philby, the most notorious double agent of the Cold War, who exposed a number of British agents in retaliation for Britain's expulsion of 105 Soviet diplomats, journalists and other officials.

His subsequent postings included Santiago, Chile, from 1972 to 1974--a period that coincided with the CIA-backed coup that toppled Salvador Allende's Marxist government--and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. He was assigned to Jordan in the 1980s when that country was being used by Iraq as a conduit to buy Western arms. He also reportedly ran all of Britain's secret Gulf War operations.

Spedding became operations director of MI6 in 1993. The following year his selection as the new head of MI6 was publicized. The public announcement of a new spymaster was only slightly less startling than the unprecedented participation in a news conference the year before by Spedding's predecessor. Making it clear that he was unwillingly dragged in from the cold by a movement to make the spy outfit accountable to Parliament, McColl defended the agency's preference for anonymity. "Secrecy," he said, "is our absolute stock-in-trade."

Spedding apparently agreed. The new chief refused to be interviewed or to pose for photographs. The Daily Mail newspaper of London obtained one picture that was probably of little use in skulduggery but was nonetheless published with glee. It showed Spedding as a schoolboy in the 1950s.

That schoolboy went on to play in a world of Machiavellian intrigue. When the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal targeted Queen Elizabeth for assassination during a royal visit to Jordan in 1984, Spedding was stationed in Amman and helped to foil the plot. Although the queen subsequently made Spedding a commander of the Royal Victorian Order, the reason for the high honor was not explained until this week.

Because of the premium on secrecy, most such details of Spedding's life as a spy may never surface. That probability was alluded to by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw when he paid tribute to the late spymaster.

Spedding "was a determined and effective leader whose contribution to British security," Straw said, "has to be unsung."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°