Gareth Williams ... what happened to him? Photo: AP/Metropolitan Police
To hear shrieks, and then sobbing, at any inquest is harrowing. Such high emotion seems particularly at odds with the detached image many of us have of the world of spying. Yet last week during evidence into the death of the intelligence officer Gareth Williams, a female family member dramatically broke down in tears, and the hearing had to be adjourned.
Last week, the outside world had a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of MI6. At the coroner's court in Westminster, London, the focus of attention was Gareth Williams, a 31-year-old GCHQ technician on a three-year secondment to MI6, whose naked body was found in a padlocked holdall at his Pimlico flat in August 2010.
He had accumulated a collection of women's designer clothes, shoes and boots - valued at £20,000 - lipstick and an orange wig
At the opening on Monday, the coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox promised she would oversee "a full, fair and fearless inquest into this highly controversial death", with more than 30 witnesses questioned. And indeed, this was the first time that many of us could learn some of the details of the circumstances surrounding Williams's bizarre death.
Was it possible? ... a combination of still photographs taken from video shows a man trying to lock himself in a holdall in this undated image received from the Metropolitan Police in London. Photo: Reuters/Metropolitan Police
I was one of the spectators in the court. Having spent more than 30 years studying and recording the history of the British intelligence community, I can honestly say it was one of the strangest events I have witnessed. Because of the presence of Williams's parents and sister, it was agonising and troubling, too.
The family has long been convinced that "dark arts" were involved with his death, and that a third party was present, either at his death or who later destroyed evidence. There have also been blunders.
At an interim hearing ahead of last week's inquest, it was revealed that DNA evidence found on Williams's body came from a forensic scientist at the scene, a fact it took the forensic team more than a year to realise. And a Mediterranean couple who had visited the flat in the weeks before Williams's death, and who the police were keen to track down, turned out to be insignificant to the case. These mistakes have only helped fuel the conspiracy theories surrounding Williams's death.
Bizarre death ... a police officer guards Gareth Williams's flat. Photo: Reuters
Since we were dealing with British intelligence, security in the court was paramount. Members of MI6 were referred to by a letter rather than their names. Large blue screens were used to protect their identities (the family was allowed behind the screens, the rest of us were outside). The atmosphere was subdued; a rare moment of levity only when someone's mobile phone went off, and the coroner joked she had done the same herself some weeks before.
Yet if the entire episode were not so tragic, it could have been an exercise in absurdity. Even by the end of the week, the coroner had yet to grasp some of the basics of the espionage world, such as the difference between MI6 "officers" and their "agents".
So who was Gareth Williams? He was a tech wizard, regarded as a "world-class" expert in his field, who had joined GCHQ at the age of 21 and had then taken a postgraduate course at Cambridge in advanced mathematics. His precise skills - or their application by MI6 - cannot be discussed in public. We do know, however, that in 2007 he applied for a transfer to MI6, only to flunk the aptitude test administered by GCHQ, which suggested he lacked the requisite self-confidence. A year later he re-sat the exam and passed, which resulted in him moving in 2009 into an office - shared with Witness G (a member of MI6 who gave evidence) and three others - in "Legoland", as MI6's embarrassingly ostentatious headquarters at Vauxhall Cross are known.
The inside of a flat in which the body of British MI6 agent Gareth Williams was found. Photo: Reuters/Metropolitan Police
Williams was a geek: private, shy and, reportedly, with a slight stammer. He did not socialise with colleagues, and none are known to have visited his top-floor flat. His sister had said in court last Monday that he "disliked office culture, post-work drinks, flash car competitions and the rat race".
Instead, he enjoyed cycling and running, and was fiercely competitive, but declined to join his fellow officers who shared the same pastimes, and exercised alone.
His private life was just that, and it came as a shock to those who thought they knew him that he had attended a six-week course in fashion design at the Central St Martin's College, and had accumulated a collection of women's designer clothes, shoes and boots - valued at £20,000 - lipstick and an orange wig.
Such interests, according to MI6, were of no concern to the organisation, although an audit of his office computer revealed some database searches that did not appear to be connected with his work. Under the terms of a Public Interest Immunity Certificate signed by the Foreign Secretary, we are not allowed to know the precise nature of this unauthorised activity. According to a senior MI6 officer - identified only as F - Williams might have been able to provide a satisfactory explanation for his apparently illicit access.
On Thursday, a particularly upsetting detail of Williams's death was revealed. The officer known as F had said the secret service was "profoundly sorry" that his absence went unreported for five days after Williams, a meticulous time-keeper, had failed to show up for work. She blamed his line manager - Witness G - for a breakdown in communication, but said G should not face any disciplinary action. This confession greatly distressed Williams's mother, Ellen, sitting with her family inside the partition screening witnesses from the public area.
Later, it was revealed that when MI6 realised that Williams was missing, F had telephoned the police. In the conversation, taped by the police and played to the court, F said that Williams had been missing for the whole of the previous week and - after a question about his state of mind - she said he had been recalled from a job he had wanted to do, and was uncertain about how he had taken the news. The implication was obvious.
Key to the inquest was whether Williams - whose naked, decomposing body was found inside a padlocked holdall placed in his bath - could have locked himself in the bag. Given his apparent interest in bondage, fetish clothing and claustrophilia - as demonstrated by his web-surfing - could he have fastened the brass padlock himself, the keys to which were found in the bag, under his body? And if so, where did the other unidentified DNA traces, found on the lock and the zipper, come from? Put simply, was Williams alone when he died in the early hours of that summer morning, or, though there was no sign of a break-in, was someone else involved?
On Friday we heard from Peter Faulding, a former Parachute Regiment reservist and an expert in confined spaces, who said he was convinced another person was involved in putting Williams into the holdall and locking it. The court was shown a video of an attempt to climb into and lock a holdall of the same size. Mr Faulding said he had tried it 300 times and had failed every time. "My belief is that he was placed in there by a third party," he said.
The other question, then, is whether Williams's death was linked to his job. A police investigation concluded that he had died from unknown causes, but most likely asphyxiation and dehydration. Detective Superintendent Michael Broster of Counter-Terrorism Command - who has spent 31 years in the police and acted as the liaison between MI6 and the detectives - opined that there was nothing to link the death to Williams's professional occupation, and no sign of a cover-up. Mind you, there was not much need for any covering up: for motives unknown, Williams had been quite successful in deleting the internet browsing history of his laptops, and completely reset one of his mobile phones, thereby emptying its memory.
According to MI6, in May 2009 Williams had filled a GCHQ slot at Vauxhall Cross, but had recently been granted a transfer back to Cheltenham. He had found his work boring, constrained by too much administration. Instead, he longed to resume his technical research and live in the countryside. Although he had undergone five training courses, and had passed an operational deployment course in February 2010 with flying colours, he had been determined to return to Gloucestershire. Once his request had been approved, he appeared much more relaxed.
The conspiracy theories - that Williams was living in an MI6 safe-house and had been engaged in dangerous missions overseas; or had been categorised as a high-security risk, or should have been - have all been scotched. His flat was rented by GCHQ, and he had never been sent on any foreign operations. He only ever met two MI6 agents, defined with bureaucratic accuracy by MI6 as "covert human intelligence sources", and the operations he participated in had been undertaken in England.
In short, he was a loner who failed to fit in at Legoland. As for his private life, MI6 is now very broadminded about individual lifestyles, and anything legal is considered acceptable. Kinky sex is fine; the days when the wretched former MI6 Chief Maurice Oldfield had felt obliged to lie for decades on his enhanced vetting questionnaire about his homosexuality are long gone.
Still, the delay in reporting him AWOL is reminiscent of MI6's past culture, when officers were encouraged to show initiative, be self-starters, think laterally and exercise some independence. Now the organisation is wholly risk-averse, awash with lawyers, and resembles a particularly staid branch of the Department of Work and Pensions.
Although in theory G should have followed the protocol and started to suspect a problem when Williams failed to show up for a meeting scheduled for Monday, August 16 - the very day he died - there is a straightforward explanation. MI6 personnel are often called at short notice to work on a particular, compartmentalised project or operation, and not everyone is likely to be indoctrinated into some of these activities. Raising the alarm because a team member has slipped away for a secret assignation is de rigueur. It is equally probable that a line-manager would be reluctant to acknowledge that he or she had been left out of the loop.
Another problem for today's MI6 is its dependency on personnel seconded from other organisations where there is not a clearly defined chain of command and responsibility. As Williams was due to leave London permanently, the assumption was that he was already preparing for his move.
Significantly, his apparent lack of office friendships may be part of the reason why he was not missed by any of his colleagues. Although an earlier intervention would have allowed the forensic scientists to be more precise about what had happened, his life could not have been saved by battering down his door on that Monday afternoon.
* Nigel West is the pen name of Rupert Allason, a military historian and author specialising in intelligence and security issues. His new book, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence, will be published in July.
The Sunday Telegraph, London