Richard Tomlinson and the "Big Breach"

Tomlinson served in MI6 from 1991 until April 1995 in Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Bosnia. He was sacked in 1995 when his personnel manager Clayden claimed he "was not a team player, lacked judgment and was not committed to the service" (ST960331) which was contested by other officers including his boss. In 1996 he tried to take MI6 to an industrial tribunal; this was initially refused by the Government, but months later the ban was lifted (TM960724) by foreign secretary Rifkind.

By his own account Tomlinson did not act of his own volition in his subsequent actions against his former employers; he says, "I joined the service for reasons of patriotism. I desperately want my job back." His subsequent disclosures appear to be in retaliation for the shabby treatment he received on leaving SIS.

After leaving MI6 Tomlinson tried to publish memoirs, and approached a publisher in Sydney, Australia with a synopsis. In February 1997 MI6 attempted to neutralise his intentions by offering him financial help, but this agreement failed, and Tomlinson was arrested and tried under the Official Secrets Act. On 18 December 1997 he was jailed (TM971219) for a year for breaking the OSA. Released in May 1998, he became aware of being followed. In August 1998 he went to New Zealand, where he has citizenship, pursued by two Scotland Yard officers. He attempted to go to Australia but was denied a visa. He was briefly arrested (ST980809) in Paris but released.

The Sunday Times published extracts from T's memoirs in January 2001, and his book became widely available on the internet and in paper form.


Tomlinson made a sworn statement in May 1999 to the enquiry into the death of Princess Diana. The "Inside News press agency" in Switzerland features much material on Shayler and Tomlinson on their website; please follow this link for their collection of Tomlinsonia.

Of course what he is really known for is the list of MI6 agents which the British Government accused him of sourcing. He in turn aims the accusation at them, with the observation that the list does little actual damage to MI6, since most of the agents are either already "blown" or retired. There are at least two websites carrying this list, at Inside-News and at This list became public knowledge in May 1999 (TM990513); Tomlinson repeatedly denied publishing it; but he did previously say he would issue such a list if HMG continued its persecutory behaviour towards him. Both he and Inside-News suggest that the list is actually the work of MI6 themselves, to frame him. Inside-News publish two letters from T to John Wadham of Liberty, which were found on a net-cafe machine in Geneva, one alleging an attempt to assassinate Milosevic, the other about MI6 spying on European states.

Following the agent-list episode, Tomlinson was expelled from Switzerland. As with Shayler, he says he'll return to the UK to "face the music", provided he's allowed bail - since the remand period would exceed the likely sentence.

"The Big Breach, from Top Secret to Maximum Security"

Tomlinson's memoirs were finally published in early 2001. They were made available on the internet on cryptome in electronic form, and can also be obtained from internet bookseller, which is where I got my copy (search for "the big breach" in Books, or try to follow this link). The book's a cracking read, and well worth the 7.99 from Amazon. It details T's induction into, progress within, and subsequent ongoing battles with SIS.

Here is a review of the book in Lobster magazine, reproduced with permission.


The review ends with the words "And it is indeed a big, big breach of the Official Secrets Act". The book shines a powerful light on the internals of T's employers; while he changes names and does not disclose some details of their agents, it must be a serious irritant to have so much secrecy stripped away from the "secret" intelligence service.

The first few chapters deal with T's background and introduction into SIS. By his account an adventurous type, he had some close encounters with MI6 recruitment before taking the plunge in September 1991. He was placed on IONEC, the intelligence officer's new entry course, which started off with a talk from the Chief as detailed in the Lobster review above. McColl was keen to emphasise MI6's "bright and certain" future. At the time the Cold War was recently over and staff cuts were in force.

IONEC trained new recruits for the intelligence branch or "IB". Of MI6's 2,300 staff, around 350 were IB, and around 800 General Service or "GS" who have technical and administrative functions. IONEC trained recruits to role-play, to take on another personality and remain consistent within that role. Allied to this was training in "tradecraft" such as surveillance, counter-surveillance, dead letter boxes and other methods of covert communication. The acid test of the training was EXERCISE SOLO, located in Italy and intended to "role play" countering an arms shipment to the IRA.

Training over, T's first posting was to SOV/OPS, part of the east European controllerate. His initial project, to cultivate Russian defence journalists as possible agents, went nowhere. Next he created a "natural cover" identity in support of operations into Russia, somewhat more successfully; he was later to use this identity while escaping from MI6's clutches. A foray into Moscow in November 1992 under the assumed identity yielded a defector's notes on missile tests. Subsequently Tomlinson was involved in operations in the former republic of Yugoslavia, trying to recruit agents, running an agent in the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, and trying to fulfil productivity quotas for secrets as defined by management consultants (see Lobster review).

His final posting, in counter-proliferation, involved penetrating and breaking up an Iranian operation to acquire chemical weapons technology. His employment was abruptly terminated by negative personnel department assessments, which T refused to accept. He tried to take MI6 to an employment tribunal, which is when the fireworks really started. Foreign Secretary Rifkind signed a Public Interest Immunity certificate to stop access to a tribunal. T applied to the Intelligence Services Tribunal, which maintained its unblemished record of never finding in favour of a plaintiff. He reacted by feeding information to the Sunday Times about Bosnian-Serb donations to the Tories, which moved MI6 to inflict a unilateral agreement on him, with the carrot of a loan and job assistance, and the stick being that "we cannot guarantee your safety" had he declined.

T's approach to an Australian publisher led to his arrest and incarceration for six months under the Official Secrets Act. Fearing re-arrest, he fled to the Continent, initiating a series of houndings and arrests orchestrated by SIS.

During the UK inquest in February 2008 into the death of Princess Diana, Tomlinson showed uncertainty regarding some of his previous allegations. This was followed by his former employers acknowledging they had no grounds to dismiss him, finally, in September 2008, and blaming previous management. The Sunday Times of May 31, 2009 revealed a deal whereby he agreed not to speak to the media or make further allegations, in return for which he would be allowed to return to the UK.

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