MI5 cannot stop another Salisbury-style attack because Russian poisons can easily be smuggled into Britain, a serving spy warned yesterday.
The senior intelligence officer, named only as Tom, revealed that the Kremlin continues to take ‘quite an active interest’ in a number of people living in Britain.
As a result of the attempt to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former double-agent, and his daughter Yulia three years ago, MI5 increased security for those individuals.
However, Tom warned: ‘I cannot say with certainty – having discussed with you the sort of size and shape of that novichok bottle, and how easy it would be smuggle another one of those into the UK – I cannot say with certainty that we are safe.
‘We live in a liberal democracy. In the same way that our counter terror colleagues would say we can’t prevent every attack, we can’t prevent an incredibly well resourced and ruthless adversary from getting something like novichok in.’
He added that MI5 was better placed than it was then to detect threats, but because of how quickly technology is evolving ‘it’s an absolute arms race’ to keep up with developments in things like encryption.
Since the poisoning in Salisbury there has been no let up to Moscow’s intelligence war and it is carrying out cyber attacks on Britain ‘on a daily basis,’ Tom warned.
Speaking to Sky’s Into The Grey Zone podcast, he said Russia has expanded its sights, evolving to use ‘non-intelligence’ actors such as hackers, academics, visiting businessmen or even tourists to interfere ‘in our democratic way of life at the behest of the Russian state’.
It is the first time that an MI5 counter intelligence officer has spoken publicly about their efforts to combat hostile state attacks, which was sanctioned by Security Service director-general Ken McCallum.
Tom also gave a fascinating insight into the work of spies, revealing that MI5’s counter intelligence team were on a ‘management away day’ at the time of the Skripal attack on March 4, 2018.
He recalled: ‘It came as a complete shock to everybody in my team.
‘I remember we were we were on a management away day, believe it or not, when we received a message that two people had been found on a park bench in Salisbury, Russian nationals, and that they appeared to be exhibiting symptoms of poisoning.
‘By the time we were back in Thames House [MI5’s London headquarters] it became apparent who these individuals were, and at that point, MI5 and partners swung into action.’
He said Moscow was now keen to rebuild a team of spies at its London embassy after the UK expelled 23 Russian intelligence officers in the wake of the novichok attack, which the Kremlin has continued to deny any involvement in.
Since then, the Russia threat has been ‘evolving and diversifying’, with the Kremlin now taking ‘an active interest’ in a number of ‘at-risk’ individuals in the UK.
The security services and police have had to work closely to protect those at risk from giving advice to boosting physical security arrangements around their property and movements.
‘There is not much doubt that the Russian state continues to conduct attacks against the UK, including cyber-attacks on a daily basis,’ Tom said.
‘We know that the Russians are keen to rebuild their embassy intelligence officer cadre, we are very keen to ensure that doesn’t happen.
‘So a lot of our work goes into that. But it has also expanded beyond that into the other nature of the threat.
‘And we’ve been able to devote more resources to looking at people who might not be associated with the embassy – people who might be here either permanently or visitors under business cover or as journalists or academics or tourists or others who might want to come into the UK.’
He went on: ‘We are also looking at what you might describe as the non-intelligence actors, those actors who are potentially trying to influence or interfere in our democratic way of life at the behest of the Russian state, but potentially with the knowledge of the intelligence services as well.’