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MI6 chief’s hacked emails attacked MI5 and betrayed British spy operations in China

Former UK spy boss Richard Dearlove leaked names of MI6 secret agent recruiters in China to back an aggressive right-wing US campaign against tech company Huawei. His emails were hacked and then leaked – probably by Russian intelligence

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Emails published by Russian hackers and systematically analysed by Computer Weekly reveal that in January 2020 the former “C” (chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6) Richard Dearlove linked up with hard-Brexit campaigners and White House lobbyists to send a threat-laden briefing to 10 Downing Street warning about telecoms company Huawei.  

Dearlove’s exposure of former MI6 spy colleagues – in support of a Donald Trump government campaign – came as a secretive group of hard-Brexit supporters attempted to clandestinely replace advice from Britain’s main national security organisation, the National Security Council (NSC). Dearlove also attacked every other British security and intelligence organisation, including MI5, GCHQ and one of his successors as chief of MI6.

This group, formed with Dearlove’s help, used a variety of cover names to push its agenda and was launched on 18 August 2018 by former historian and retired LSE research professor Gwythian (Gywn) Prins. The conspiratorial group initially campaigned to replace then prime minister Theresa May with Boris Johnson, according to emails published this year by Russian hackers. The group labelled its “super top secret” plans “Operation Surprise”.

Johnson did replace May less than a year later, in July 2019. Six months after that, Prins and his group thought they had made it to the very top. Two weeks before the event they had dreamed of and campaigned for – the UK’s departure from the European Union (EU) – Prins was invited to the Cabinet Office for a 90-minute meeting with Michael Gove, then chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and number two to Johnson.

According to leaked emails Prins sent out after he met Gove on 16 January 2020, Gove offered him a top job. “I shall likely head up a small geo-strategic assessment unit in the Cabinet Office,” he wrote. “It will … be a rival to the NSC behemoth … Gove understands that.”

Wanting the group to campaign against official MI5 advice on Huawei, Gove had also asked for “a short, hard-hitting note which explains why Huawei should not be touched in any aspect”.

“The Prime Minister … should NOT take the advice of the current head of MI5 and allow Huawei a role in UK G5 [sic],” Prins then wrote to a US collaborator

Exposed: extremist group’s campaign to manipulate UK post-Brexit science and technology policy

This article is part of a series being produced with the support of a generous grant from the Association of British Science Writers. The grant has supported the development of a new database enabling research and reporting into lobbying activities by a previously unknown offshore-financed organisation of hard-Brexit supporters. The database will be available online in 2023.

Research for the series started with the analysis of 22,000 leaked private emails and documents obtained from a secrecy-obsessed group of former intelligence and military officials, academics and politicians who wanted control of key UK policy decisions. The group, assisted by a leading politician, aspired to take over UK national security policy.

The hacked email trove was distributed anonymously on the internet earlier in 2022 by a Russian hacking group following Russian state policy objectives. Computer Weekly downloaded the files as soon as they were identified, checked for malware, and loaded all the emails, files and metadata into free text and structured query systems for full analysis and future projects.  

The main targets whose emails were collected have confirmed they were hacked. They have not disputed the accuracy of any material in our reports.

Reporting team: Bill Goodwin, Meike Eijsberg, Duncan Campbell, Crina Boros.

Database development and support: Brandon Roberts.

Technical support: Matt Fowler.

Prins told Computer Weekly that he would not “offer any opinion” on the authenticity or accuracy of his leaked correspondence and plans, describing them as “Russian material”.

Dearlove told Computer Weekly: “As this is Russian origin material and not in fact the original uncontaminated material from a proton account which carried some of my private and personal emails, it is unfortunately not possible for me to respond to your questions.”

Dearlove did not respond to a request by Computer Weekly to state whether his report on Huawei had been tampered with.

The group had been irked by an interview MI5 director Andrew Parker had given to the Financial Times four days before. Parker said he had “no reason to think that the UK would lose out on intelligence relationships with the US if the UK went ahead and used Huawei’s equipment in the 5G network”. 

Over encrypted Protonmail email links, Prins told Dearlove: ‘‘MG [Michael Gove] is worried. He thinks that BJ [Boris Johnson] is being swayed by weaselly Parker.”

Dearlove, who had long been opposed to Huawei, was delighted by the “terrific” request: “This is straight into the centre of the machine and much better.’’ 

The campaigning note they sent the next day was headed “Urgent & Confidential Briefing Note for the PM and DC [Dominic Cummings] from Sir Richard Dearlove and Professor Gwythian Prins”. A diagonal bold red watermark stamped across each page read “strictly confidential No 10 eyes only”.

Leaked document: Briefing note from Richard Dearlove and Gwyn Prins to the prime minister and Dominic Cummings

In the note, Dearlove and Prins claimed that the use of allegedly bugged Huawei radio and switching equipment in the UK’s core future phone network would be “undermining Five Eyes”, the English-speaking intelligence collaboration network.

The briefing stridently attacked assessments by Britain’s other spy agencies, GCHQ and the Security Service, MI5, whose chief had recommended allowing Huawei procurement to go ahead. They and MI5 chief Parker were “wrong, technically and geo-politically”, Dearlove claimed, and so was John Sawers, one of Dearlove’s successors as “C”, who had been interviewed the same day on the BBC Today programme. “His public intervention” was, they claimed “incorrect and irresponsible”. 

The message to Johnson was forceful. “It is complacent to think that the US would not punish us for diverging from them on Huawei,” Dearlove and Prins claimed, adding that if the UK chose that route, the US would never “relent”.  

Dearlove names MI6 officers

Pressing his point, Dearlove’s report revealed the names of three “retired senior SIS officers” who he said were the “leading experts on Chinese intelligence” and who had run agents while working as diplomats in China. 

“[They] all speak fluent Mandarin, have all served in Beijing, have all been involved in the running of penetration cases of the MSS [Ministry of State Security] and PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” he wrote. “Their cumulative knowledge of the realities of China’s attitude to the exploitation of intelligence collection opportunities is unparalleled.”

Computer Weekly has withheld the MI6 identities revealed by Dearlove. Their CVs reveal their work in the diplomatic service, a standard cover role for intelligence officers.

According to Dearlove, all three were ‘‘adamantly opposed’’ to allowing Huawei equipment in the UK’s 5G network. The common view, he suggested, was that “to be complicit with Huawei in facilitating its access to our 5G networks is akin to asking the PRC to manufacture the combination locks on our security cupboards”. 

A former intelligence officer confirmed that the exposure of former MI6 colleagues as British spies who ran agents in China would be likely to cause damage by revealing or confirming their intelligence roles, thus leading Chinese security teams to investigate or re-investigate the trio’s Chinese contacts as suspect British agents.   

US team sent to fight ‘madness’

Dearlove’s attack on UK intelligence advice backed up efforts by a US delegation that had arrived in London three days earlier. Speaking in similar terms to Dearlove, the American team claimed that allowing Huawei equipment anywhere in the UK network would be “madness … like putting Russia in charge of anti-doping of world athletes”. 

Led by US deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger and assistant secretary of state Christopher Ford, the US officials handed over “an intelligence document containing new technical information showing that it would be harder than the UK thinks to secure the system”, the Financial Times reported.

“We wanted to make sure the new government had the benefit of all our insight – including some relevant recent information,” one official present was reported as saying. Washington believed the close relationship between the Chinese government and Chinese companies meant that Huawei could be “asked, and indeed ordered” to spy on the UK on behalf of the Chinese state. 

After Gove’s request, Prins immediately mailed The Lindsey Group, a team of Washington global economic advisers. His contacts were Kevin, Adam and Larry. Kevin Hassett was a recent Trump advisor. Adam Lovinger was a former US National Security Council analyst. Boss Larry Lindsey had been an economic advisor to president George W Bush.

Using a conspiratorial term for the hidden influence of the intelligence services and the military industrial complex popularised by Trump, they told Prins: “It’s a deep state issue as well and goes as deep as it can go.” 

Leaked document: Email between Gwyn Prins and Lindsay Group contacts

“PLEASE no attribution,” their response emphasised, in an email sent to Prins – and now exposed because of his failures in computer security.

A fourth US contact claimed that Huawei’s surveillance tricks included systems for tracking people by monitoring photos being sent though their communications equipment, in the form of “a capability to access innocent ‘selfies’ and extract biometric data which can be inserted into Chinese Intelligence profiling software”.

“Location data on persons of interest can be accessed,’’ the contact, identified as an advisor to current president Joe Biden, revealed.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, tweeted nine days later to warn the UK that it had a “momentous decision ahead on 5G” – a sign of continued pressure on London to follow Washington’s lead.

US secretary of state tweets warning to UK

Huawei knocked down

Eleven days after the Gove meeting, the UK National Security Council, chaired by Johnson, U-turned and designated Huawei a “high-risk vendor”. Huawei would be excluded completely from “core” parts of the UK’s mobile and fast broadband networks and from sensitive locations including military bases and nuclear sites, as well as all safety-critical applications.

Telecoms companies could continue to use Huawei on the periphery of their networks, for connecting devices and equipment to mobile phone masts, but only up to a limit of 35% of a network. This move was to be accompanied by incentives to encourage other suppliers to develop equipment with the same capabilities as Huawei, if not at the same competitive prices. The ban decision, BT warned, would cost it £500m.

Downing Street refused to say whether the Dearlove group’s intervention influenced these decisions.

A long game

By 2020, the campaign against Huawei products was almost a decade old. In the US, a 2013 law had banned the supplier from competing for government contracts. In 2018, the Australian government banned Huawei and Chinese technology company ZTE from supplying equipment.

In May 2019, president Trump followed up with an executive order banning Huawei from sales in the US. It was followed by further US clampdowns on Chinese technology.

According to Nigel Inkster, a senior advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and an expert on China, the Trump administration wanted to sever, once and for all, any technological leverage China had over the US.

“It became increasingly clear that the hawks in the Trump administration were promoting an explicitly ideological agenda and seeking to put US-China relations beyond the point where a possible Democractic administration could reverse the downward trend,” he wrote in his 2020 book The Great Decoupling.

But in Britain in April 2019, the May government and its security advisers had given Huawei a limited go-ahead.

Dearlove went public, criticising the May government for an “appalling” decision. He told The Telegraph: “This is a risk to the Five Eyes, there is no question about that.”

Image: Cate Gillon/Getty

Theresa May’s decision to allow the use of Huawei equipment in Britain’s 5G network “is a risk to the Five Eyes, there is no question about that”

Richard Dearlove, ex-MI6 chief

The leaked emails reveal that after May was forced to resign and as Boris Johnson campaigned to take her place, Dearlove told an American supporter, Nick Khuri, that he had become “preoccupied” with feeding Johnson briefings on national security.

“I am reasonably confident that the Huawei decision will be reversed by Boris’s team,” he told Khuri, who founded a real-estate business in New York after studying International Relations and Security at Cambridge. Boris “is very quick and able (an excellent classical scholar in fact)”, but with Johnson, “the challenge is making sure the material is thoroughly read and digested”.

A month after Johnson moved in to Downing Street, Trump national security advisor John Bolton flew over to push US concerns about Huawei with UK counterpart, Mark Sedwell. Johnson, however, appeared to remain reassured by reports from GCHQ that Huawei’s technology could be safely managed by limiting it to the periphery of the UK’s 5G network.

US national security advisor John Bolton tweets meeting with UK counterpart Mark Sedwell and their commitment to US-UK special relationship

Johnson’s January 2020 decision to “cap” Huawei did not pacify US critics. The Financial Times reported a week later that Trump “had vented apoplectic” fury at the prime minister in a “tense phone call over Britain’s decision to allow Huawei a role in its 5G mobile phone networks”.

Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney tweeted: “By allowing Huawei into UK 5G network, Boris Johnson has chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship.”

Dearlove and Prins continued to push the US position. In March 2020, Dearlove used a podcast to call on the government to disentangle Huawei from the UK’s 5G infrastructure, even if it took years.

In July that year, he claimed again that the close link between Huawei and the Chinese military was a “strategic security reason” for the government to make a full U-turn.     

By July 2020, the Johnson government was in the corner, following a new US ban on sales of components to Huawei. This left the company unable to procure components from trusted western suppliers. The UK had no choice but a complete ban. Purchasing new Huawei 5G equipment was banned after December 2020. All Huawei equipment had to be removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027.

“By allowing Huawei into UK 5G network, Boris Johnson has chosen the surveillance state over the special relationship”
Liz Cheney, Republican Congresswoman

Then Michael Gove got in touch again.  

According to leaked emails Prins sent to key collaborators on 29 July 2020, Gove wanted to talk more about their plans for “the unit”. The recipients included Dearlove, and a vociferous climate change denier and a civil service infiltrator. 

They had a new set of secret plans for “the unit”. They listed more than a dozen new projects to interfere in scientific, technical, medical, defence and energy policy. They had a secret name for their unit, which, Prins suggested, echoed the top secret codename chosen in 1943 for Britain’s role in developing the A-bomb. 

In two years, they had seen a prime minister fall, the EU and UK disconnect, and Huawei face a complete ban. And now they had been asked to set up a clandestine unit with a direct line into government.

This story is one of a series of articles investigating the campaigning tactics of a secretive group of hard-Brexit supporters and their efforts to influence government policy on science, technology and security.

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