It is just short of 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and suddenly there comes a reminder of how the world used to be. A member of staff at the British Embassy in Berlin has been arrested in Germany on suspicion of spying for Russia. The arrest took place in Potsdam, which used to be in East Germany, and the Glienecke Bridge separating the town from Berlin proper is where Cold War spies used to be exchanged.
The suspect has been identified only as David S, and it is believed he worked in a security role at the embassy. Two details that are known, however, are that he is a British citizen and that he was what is known as a ‘local hire’. This means that he was recruited on the spot rather than being sent out from London on a diplomatic tour of duty – which, along with the nature of his work, suggests that he does not enjoy diplomatic status and would not have had access to classified information. That, at least, is the relatively optimistic take of UK officials. We’re not talking a latter-day Kim Philby, they say.
Whether his status should be quite as reassuring as it is being spun, though, it another matter. Security officers, while low in any embassy pecking order may well know where to find things that are not supposed to be found. What is more, as a ‘local hire’, David S was most likely already living in Berlin when he started work for the embassy, which calls into question the quality of any vetting procedures. The case could also prompt a wider consideration of the principle, as well as the practice, of local hiring. I doubt that it will, but it should.
I am not sure when Western diplomatic services started the practice of ‘local hiring’, but it probably came in after the Cold War.