A former security guard at the British embassy in Germany has been jailed for more than 13 years for selling secrets to the Russians. David Smith was caught in an undercover MI5 sting operation, after it emerged that he was cashing in by passing on details of the embassy and the staff within it.
The 58-year-old pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey to eight charges under the Official Secrets Act, by committing an act prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state. In sentencing him, Mr Justice Wall said Smith had “put people at maximum risk.”
The ex-RAF serviceman had been collecting classified documents from 2018 until his arrest in 2021, and was motivated by his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his own “hatred” of the UK, the judge found.
The police were of the opinion that his actions had been both “reckless and dangerous”, after it was revealed how the “spy” had been caught in a “remarkable” investigation, which involved two fake Russian agents working for the British security services, successfully deceiving him.
From security to what he believed was secrecy
Smith worked at the Berlin based embassy and was sent to prison for 13 years and two months for his offences. He had been employed in security for four years and it was discovered that he had written to a Russian general to pass on the names, addresses and phone numbers of colleagues, along with documents and information about security passes.
His correspondence found its way into the hands of the Metropolitan Police and then on to MI5. This had the effect of triggering a major investigation which included the assistance of German officers.
Evidence against him nicely “packaged” up
A sting was set-up to enable additional evidence to be gathered to comprehensively prove Smith’s involvement. It was in August of 2021, that a message was given to Smith to arrange for somebody he was led to believe was probably a Russian defector named Dmitry, to pass through embassy security without approach.
As part of the operation designed to catch Smith out, he was asked to copy “secret documents” which Dmitry had, as far as Smith was concerned, brought with him. He was also asked to dispose of some mobile phone packaging that was from a Sim card, seemingly handed to the “Russian”. It was in actual fact all part of the set-up and all of the documents and the packaging with the “defector’s” phone number on it, were discovered later at Smith’s home.
Caught on camera
Investigators had also placed a covert camera in the workplace of Smith and were able to monitor CCTV images which captured around 45 seconds of him looking through footage of Dmitry’s “visit”, and taking numerous pictures. He could also be heard talking to himself, mulling over the facts and suggesting to himself that it was possibly nothing, but at least he had done it, so convincing himself his back was covered.
Dmitry was in actual fact a member of the MI5 team and the judge said Smith had done as much as he could to ensure that his identity was revealed. Had he been genuine, the judge pointed out, “It is impossible to know what would have been the consequences for him.”
Sting part two
On top of that action, MI5 also arranged for another Russian speaker, named Irina to approach Smith at a tram stop posing as an officer in Russian military intelligence. She presented him with story that she needed his help because she knew of someone passing information to the British and she had been sent from Moscow to ask him to get involved, which he was more than happy to oblige.
In his flat, video evidence was seized showing Smith carefully filming offices, safes, the insides of drawers and a whiteboard which recorded details of staff deployments at the British embassy. It was concluded that his activities were leading towards creating a significant risk to UK interests and individuals.
Admission of guilt
Smith admitted eight charges, but denied being a Vladimir Putin supporter, or having far right sympathies. This though was challenged by the prosecution who were able to point to a collection of Russian military memorabilia in his possession, as well as his past support for Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Shame at action comes across as shallow
He said he was now “ashamed” at his behaviour and counted himself as a proud Scot. His weak defence was that he had become angry at his employer, and was depressed and drinking heavily, after his Ukrainian wife of 20 years, returned to her home country and he claimed that he had only wanted to embarrass the embassy, nothing more.
When his work locker was searched, investigators found a cartoon of Mr Putin with his hands around the neck of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, in Nazi uniform. It mirrored Putin’s false narrative for his illegal invasion of Ukraine, and this was highlighted by the prosecution.
Upon arrest police interrogated his bank accounts and found that his regular salary was not being touched, implying that he had an alternate source of income.
Judge pulls no punches
In the televised court case Mr Justice Wall made the point that Smith’s spying could have harmed Britain’s international trade negotiations and put his colleagues’ lives in serious danger. Addressing him ahead of sentencing he said: “You were fully aware that you should not have copied any of those documents and were equally aware that, were those documents to get into the wrong hands, they might harm British interests, or pose a threat to the safety of people working at the embassy.”
High level of potential harm
He made the point to Smith that he had established regular contact with someone at the Russian embassy and his contact was a conduit through which material, which Smith himself had illegally obtained, was passed on. He told Smith that he was aware that the Russians had paid him for his “treachery” in an “on-going relationship” and that the level of harm was “high”.
He also highlighted the real danger he had put the embassy staff in by passing on their photographs.
The judge dismissed Smith’s expressions of remorse as nothing more than “self-pity”, insisting that it was clear that he had failed to acknowledge the “potentially catastrophic consequences for others” that his actions could have had.
Upon receiving his lengthy sentence Smith gave no reaction.
“Traitor” exploiting privileged position
After sentencing Commander Richard Smith, the head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism command, slammed Smith’s actions saying that his offending had “exploited the privileged position and access that it gave him.”
Security Minister Tom Tugendhat tweeted: “David Smith is a traitor. He betrayed us all and put our embassy and our country at risk.” He went on to say he was grateful to not only MI5 and their amazing officers, but also the police in the UK and in Germany for putting him on trial.
Nick Price, from the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “David Smith was motivated by a combination of two things: greed and a hatred of our country. That hatred was palpable and led him into engaging in what only can be described as despicable behaviour.”
Who are MI5 and what is the Official Secrets Act?
MI5, or to give it its official title: Military Intelligence, Section 5, is the UK’s counter-intelligence and security agency.
The Official Secrets Act 1911 criminalises espionage, by prohibiting certain conduct that is carried out with a purpose prejudicial to the safety of interests of the UK, including obtaining, or disclosing information which would be “useful to an enemy”.