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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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era