INFO NUGGET NUMBER ONE: The film From Paris With Love starring John Travolta as a big old spy and Jonathan Rhys Meyer as his big old wimpy sidekick is out on DVD right now. It’s about spies and how it’s okay to needlessly smash stuff up if you’re American. It's 7/10 exciting.
INFO NUGGET NUMBER TWO: To mutedly celebrate the release of From Paris With Love, we interviewed an ex-spy called Dave Thomas. We don’t know much about him, because he’s a spy and no one knows much about him. Even the things his wife thinks she knows about him aren’t true. He told us that, but told us not to tell anyone. We would be rubbish spies. Here's what we know: Dave Thomas was in the SAS for eight years. And Dave Thomas looks like this:
Hello Dave Thomas. You’re a semi-retired spy. How does that work exactly?
“I still sort of keep my hand in it, giving advice on various aspects of security and intelligence and what have you. I’ve certainly been involved in a lot of spying and surveillance operations and intelligence gathering operations all over the world. So yeah semi retired is a good way of putting it.”
So you give tips to young spies?
“Well I have my own company set up and we do sort of entertainment days where you can train to be a spy. Pretty much from an entertainment point of view, but I give advice to people on real things, if they’re worrying about their personal security or getting data stolen from them.”
Who do you work for when you spy?
“I have my own company. I came out of the forces and set up a company in 1991-92 where we provided specialist surveillance services to various corporate clients, mostly based in London, but they were doing operations all across the world. I followed everyone from terrorists to footballers to politicians to celebrities to executive CEOs, so a wide variety we’ve looked at.”
Who employs you?
“Well it would be possibly a government, an overseas government. Could be the police, but mostly it would be commercial enterprises. Or clients are interested in seeing if they’re being monitored. Or clients intrigued to know if someone is selling information to a third party with regards to contracts or bits and pieces like that.”
So if someone asked you to spy on, say, David Cameron, you could do that?
“I certainly could have a conversation with them and we could talk about it. Obviously I’d gain information on it and tell the British government, so turn it around on that side of things.”
Would MI5 consider what you’re doing as spy work, or as private investigator work?
“Because we operate in the commercial world, they’d see me as a private investigator. I know of many ex-MI5 people who have been in my world have joined MI5 and come back out to work in the commercial world. Ex-spies and ex-forces personnel. They’ve got to work somewhere at the end of the day and quite often they’ll get into that dark, murky environment of gathering intelligence.”
Do you spend more time in a van watching people than you do running round with a gun?
“It’s not quite like the film From Paris With Love or Spooks, where you have a gun. And it’s rare that when you’re doing a surveillance operation or gathering intelligence that you’re going to be operating with a weapon, certainly in the British Isles. But it depends on the environment. Obviously the legality of that comes into question. If you’re dealing with a situation where you need to be carrying a weapon or then it’s obviously a very hostile environment and you’d want back up from specialist officers or units that are prepared to get you out of a sticky situation. The majority of the time police forces, military or MI5 will be operating very clandestine and covertly and they won’t be carrying weapons.”
So was all that Anna Chapman Russian spy stuff an accurate representation of how unglamorous being a spy is?
“Well the last thing the American government want to be doing is saying that the six spies you caught and managed to gather mountains and mountains of intelligence about the American military and send it over to Russia. In terms of propaganda, they’re going to turn around and say they were rubbish spies and didn’t get anything of any relevance or importance. The papers depicted them as being very much comical spies, but that’s how the Americans would want to depict it otherwise it makes the American government look a bit silly. I would suggest it’s probably been played down on both sides.”
Would you have liked to do spying like that for a government? Or did you always want to be private?
“The skills I was taught and involved in are very much doing surveillance operations. The role Anna Chapman and her colleagues played was very much a covert undercover role, deep in society, building a new life and filtering it back to Russia. Whereas spies will also be involved in monitoring various electronic trappings, so the world of spying and espionage covers a multitude of skills and tasks.”
Did you have a normal life? You didn’t have two identities or anything?
“Close family would know what I did for a job, but they never ask questions about it and I wouldn’t tell exact details. I’d go to work at four of five o’clock in the morning and I’d either come back very late at night or I wouldn’t come back for several days and there was no questions asked really. I’d be flying off to Paris or Geneva or the States and see them in a week’s time. To people outside of the family I would make out that I was a telecoms engineer or doing something financial. Something very boring where they wouldn’t ask you too much about it.”
Do you like telling people now? At parties?
“It’s great! We’ve done lots of different jobs all over the world and have some great stories we can tell.”
“I’ve crashed a car in a European country on purpose to see if the recovery vehicle was filed with drugs. We watched it for a few days. Creating the car accident was a bit hairy at times. I’ve been to another European country and had to get the DNA covertly from several different targets suspected of blackmail which, again, was a bit difficult bearing in mind there’s different ways of collecting DNA. Lots of different scenarios. Blag my way into hotel rooms in New York and nearly getting caught by a target. Now I can laugh about it but at the time they were a bit twitchy.”
Were there life-threatening situations?
“I wouldn’t say life-threatening. I had situations that could have got quite physical and violent, but I had a reasonable amount of back up. If you do your preparation and planning then if it does go pear-shaped you’ve usually got an escape route worked out. I’ve been caught trying to plant bugging devices in offices at midnight, but we were dressed as decorators and looked like we were doing a quote.”
Whose office were you bugging?
“I can’t say, but it was an office in London.”
Do you investigate celebrities? Not necessarily Paris Hilton, but politicians? People who are known to the public?
“I’ve done some of that in the past with people who’ve been in the newspapers a lot. But trying to monitor mobile phone telephone calls and stuff, that’s typical paparazzi work. It’s a different type of investigator offering to do that kind of work. It’s very nitty gritty. You’re trying to dig up dirt as supposed to intelligence. I haven’t been involved in much paparazzi stuff.”
Have you ever had a newspaper approach you and ask you to work for them?
“On several occasions over the years they’ve asked but I declined. I asked what was involved and I wasn’t interested.”
Which newspaper was it?
“I can’t say. I have followed journalists over the years, actually. Followed them to various wine bars to see what they’ve been up to. They were publishing some detrimental information and facts about certain individuals and we were keen to know where getting their information from. It’s quite interesting where these journalists meet people and get their sources from.”
How do you work out whether to say yes or no to a job?
“You’ve got to do a certain amount of background work. The types of clients we work for would come though recommendations and referrals, and we’d do our own background checks on new clients that come to us, so we’re very careful who we operate for. Obviously there are a lot of criminal gangs out there that want to find out information about various people so you’ve go to be careful where you operate. If a job appears dodgy and doesn’t sound quite right then usually we’d turn it down. We’re very much involved in the right side if the law.”
Will most people who get by someone like you die never knowing they had anyone on their tail?
“I’d say 95% didn’t have a clue they were being followed and never will. It would be great to know on their doors ten years from now and say “you know what, I can tell you exactly what you were doing on this day ten years ago. What you did, what you wore” and so on.”
From Paris With Love is out on Blu-ray and DVD right now