Britain admits that it was spying on Russians with "fake rock"

Jonathan Powell reveals that the 2006 allegations were true.

It could have been straight out of a Cold War spy thriller: the claim that British agents had hidden a transmitter inside a fake rock left on a Moscow Street.

Now, Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to Tony Blair, has admitted that the 2006 allegations were true. Appearing in a BBC documentary series, Putin, Russia and the West, he said:

The spy rock was embarrassing. They had us bang to rights. Clearly they had known about it for some time and had been saving it up for a political purpose.

The rock, just 30cm wide, grew to Gibraltar-sized proportions when it sparked a diplomatic row after Russian TV broadcast the story six years ago.

In scenes with clear echoes of Ian Fleming and John le Carré, the report included a video of a man slowing his pace and looking down at the rock (with some seriously shifty eyes), before walking quickly away. Other videos included a man kicking the rock, and a different man walking past and picking it up. The broadcast showed that the rock was hollowed out and filled with circuitry, a device of such crude simplicity that it seemed unrealistic.

The Russian security service, the FSB, alleged that Britain was making secret payments to pro-democracy and human rights groups in Russia. Soon after the incident, there was a clampdown on foreign funding for these groups and many went under.

Tony Blair downplayed the affair at the time, playing on its almost farcical nature by attempting to laugh it off. "I think the less said about that, the better," he told journalists, smiling.

Yet he was careful not to deny it outright. At a news conference, he said:

Look I only saw myself on Teletext this morning, the business about Russia. I'm afraid you're going to get the old stock-in-trade, of never commenting on security matters. Except when we want to, obviously.

Although the UK was cagey on the rock itself, the Foreign Office was unequivocal in its denial of any improper conduct with NGOs in Russia, saying that all their contributions were entirely above board. Of course, there are plenty of other reasons Britain might want to spy on Russia: it's nuclear and military intentions, its dealings with Iran and Iraq, and its geopolitical use of gas resources.

Shortly before "rock-gate", MI6 launched a new recruitment website, saying: "Whether you have the skills to design hi-tech gadgets or deploy them in a hostile environment, SIS may have the career for you". One wonders whether the recruitment drive has resulted in any improvements in technology.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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“It was like a religious ceremony”: What happened at Big Ben’s final bong?

Both inside and outside Parliament, people gathered to hear the clock’s final midday chime before undergoing repairs.

“It’s just hacks everywhere,” a photographer sighs, jamming his lens through a gap in Parliament’s railings to try and get a closer look.

New Palace Yard, Parliament’s courtyard directly below Big Ben, is filling with amused-looking journalists, waiting for the MPs who have promised to hold a “silent vigil”, heads bowed, to mark Big Ben’s final chime before four years of silence while the tower’s repaired.

About four of them turn up. Two by accident.

It’s five minutes to twelve. Tourists are gathering outside Westminster Tube, as tourists do best. A bigger crowd fills Parliament Square. More people than expected congregate outside, even if it’s the opposite within the Palace. The world and his phone are gazing up at the sad, resigned clock face.


“It’s quite controversial, isn’t it?” one elderly woman in an anorak asks her friend. They shrug and walk off. “Do you know what is this?” an Italian tourist politely asks the tiny press pack, gesturing to the courtyard. No one replies. It’s a good question.

“This is the last time,” says another tourist, elated, Instagram-poised.

“DING DONG DING DONG,” the old bell begins.

Heads down, phones up.


It finishes the on-the-hour tune for the last time, and then gives its much-anticipated resignation statement:

“BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG. BONG.”

Applause, cheers, and even some tears.


But while the silly-seasoned journalists snigger, the crowd is enthusiastic.

“It’s quite emotional,” says David Lear, a 52-year-old carer from Essex, who came up to London today with his work and waited 45 minutes beneath Big Ben to hear it chime.

He feels “very, very sad” that the bell is falling silent, and finds the MPs’ vigil respectful. “I think lots of people feel quite strongly about it. I don’t know why they’re doing it. During the war it carries on, and then they turn it off for a health and safety reason.”

“I don’t know why they can’t have some speakers half way down it and just play the chime,” he adds. “So many tourists come especially to listen to the chime, they gather round here, getting ready for it to go – and they’re going to switch it off. It’s crazy.”

Indeed, most of the surrounding crowd appears to be made up of tourists. “I think that it was gorgeous, because I’ve never heard him,” smiles Cora, an 18-year-old German tourist. “It was a great experience.”

An Australian couple in their sixties called Jane and Gary are visiting London for a week. “It was like a religious ceremony, everybody went quiet,” laughs Gary. “I hope they don’t forget where they put the keys to start it again in four years’ time.”

“When we first got here, the first thing we did was come to see it,” adds Jane, who is also positive about the MPs who turned up to watch. “I think it’s good they showed a bit of respect. Because they don’t usually show much respect, do they?”

And, as MPs mouthing off about Big Ben are challenged on their contrasting reactions to Grenfell, that is precisely the problem with an otherwise innocent show of sentimentality.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.