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Internet List of Alleged Spies Multiplies

By T. R. Reid, Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 15, 1999; Page A17

LONDON, May 14 - After a futile three-day struggle in cyberspace, Britain's spy services essentially threw up their hands today and conceded that the Internet is so fast and so far-flung that no government can control the flow of information on the global network.

Lawyers from the Foreign Ministry and the Secret Intelligence Service had worked frantically this week to block distribution of an Internet data file that purports to identify more than 100 British secret agents around the world. But that turned out to be the technological equivalent of nailing jelly to the wall; each time London managed to strike the list from one Web site, it hopscotched to several others.

"We have to be realistic," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Neville Johnson. "The idea of trying to prevent publication is a dead duck. Our government, and every government, is going to have to find ways to live with the Internet, because we can't control what happens on it."

Having surrendered on the information battleground, the government instead focused on protecting the people who were named as spies.

To spread as much doubt as possible, Foreign Minister Robin Cook announced that the Internet is "highly inaccurate." Some of those named have no government connection, officials said. Others were said to be officers in the British foreign service, stationed around the world, but not involved in intelligence.

Meanwhile, some of those named were placed under 24-hour guard. Others on the list, including staffers at British embassies in some countries, will be transferred to London.

Cook said Thursday that the list was probably posted on the World Wide Web by a former agent, Richard Tomlinson. Tomlinson was fired in 1995 by MI6, roughly the British equivalent of the CIA and predecessor of the Secret Intelligence Service. He has been waging a campaign against the agency ever since. Among other things, he charges that the spy agency was involved in the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Tomlinson lives in Switzerland, but was in hiding today. "For his own protection he had to disappear," said Tomlinson's British lawyer, Madelaine Abas.

Abas said Tomlinson denies releasing the list of 117 purported spies. "yHe admits threatening to do it, when he was negotiating with the government for compensation," the lawyer said. "But these names were posted by someone styling himself as Richard Tomlinson."

Cook called the list "an extremely dangerous document" and initially insisted that its publication be blocked. Legal restraints under Britain's Official Secrets Act are fairly common here, so government lawyers prepared their warrants and set out to restrain the Internet.

In fact, London's efforts to stop information flow on the bitstream were no more effective than the efforts of an earlier British ruler, King Canute, who went down to the beach, as legend has it, and ordered the tide to stop rolling in.

The list of purported spies first appeared on a site run by a Swiss Internet service provider. When London contacted the Swiss company, it agreed to remove the list from its site. But by then, the same list had popped up on the California-based service Geocities, one of countless Web "communities" that allow anybody to set up a Web site for free.

When the British government approached Geocities, it, too, agreed to suppress the list, according to officials here. But by then Internet surfers around the world had copied the document onto other Web pages - perhaps dozens of them, perhaps hundreds. Among those posting a copy was the American political rebel Lyndon LaRouche.

As a result, a skillful user of Internet search engines could find the prohibited list in less time than it will take most people to read this news story.

With the number of Internet users reaching into the tens of millions worldwide, governments increasingly have sought to control the revolutionary new medium. From the Communications Decency Act in the United States to Singapore's "anti-pollution law," statutes have been enacted and regulations promulgated seeking to limit Internet content. None of these efforts has been successful.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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