The Berlin spy case

The Berlin spy case

The arrest of British Embassy guard David Smith uncovers the hidden world of human intelligence

Photo by Claudio Divizia on Shutterstock.

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Camilla Foster

David Smith was detained on 10th August on suspicion of selling sensitive documents to Russia after a joint investigation by German and British authorities. This is a stark reminder how human spies are still very much active today, and that Germany’s capital is yet to shake its troubled history as a hub of espionage.

Many have disregarded this case due to the suspect’s position as a security guard, rather than a diplomat. Therefore, it is more likely that Smith had limited access to the most confidential and valuable information at the embassy.

At face value, the 57-year-old former RAF junior airman seems like a harmless perpetrator where he certainly doesn’t fit the profile of a typical spy. His actions, though, showcase a scary reality – that powerful governments still use spies to gather intelligence on their allies.

It is more than likely Russia is not alone in this kind of activity. All British contracted workers at the embassy are duty bound to partake in a vigorous vetting process. The fact Smith managed to escape any initial suspicion has provoked questions about how thorough this process actually is. A public case like this is likely to create an international paranoia and a sense of uneasiness at the highest levels of government.

Intelligence that derives from human sources is synonymous with espionage and secretive activities to which a scandal like this hasn’t been at the forefront of international media since the Cold War. The primary reasons behind why people like David Smith are recruited as agents are either money, ideology, coercion, or ego. Although his trial will commence behind closed doors, recent revelations about the security guard have highlighted his acceptance of cash bribes and a fascination with Russian culture. Contents found after his arrest in his apartment included a Russian flag and Ukraine military memorabilia, which are likely to become an important focus of the upcoming investigation.

GRU, the main intelligence directorate in Russia is a large, expansive, and powerful organisation that has been criticised by Western governments for its aggressive nature. Smith has been accused of giving away counter-terrorism details which may have included things like floor plans, entry systems, emergency alarms and lock mechanisms. Although the bulk of intelligence nowadays is focused on signals and technology, human intelligence is still a powerful tool. Agents are the eyes and the ears that have the ability to collect more specific, personal information.  

Crimes of this nature are not usually projected in the mainstream press, and the great attention to this specific case shows how the West want Russia’s crimes to be showcased for the world to see. The discovery of this mole is just a small part of a bigger story as it exemplifies an underlying distrust that exists between Russia and the Western world. The important question is not whether spies still exist today, but how many more incidences of illegal activities must be unveiled before real conflict occurs?