Saturday, March 31, 2012

#MI6 #Hakluyt : A Death In #China And The Very Secretive Mayfair Company Full Of Spooks.

The tone of discretion and unbridled corporate wealth is set by Hakluyt’s official website. It comprises precisely one page, with space only to list the firm’s three business premises and telephone numbers.
Head office is naturally in Mayfair, in Upper Brook Street, while the Manhattan branch is on Park Avenue, and in Singapore the company can be found at Raffles Place.

No other information is forthcoming. You click in vain for chummy little biographies of “team leaders”. There is not a hint of anything so vulgar as a corporate mission statement.

The reason for this is that if you have to ask what Hakluyt does, you will not be in a position to pay its extravagant fees for corporate and strategic intelligence. More importantly, Hakluyt does not welcome the sort of publicity it has garnered worldwide this week after the mysterious death of one of its occasional investigators in a Chinese hotel room.

Heywood, a gregarious old Harrovian and Mandarin speaker with a well-connected Chinese wife, was found dead in November last year in his hotel room in the megalopolis of Chongqing. Though he was a light drinker, British consular officials seem to have accepted the local authorities’ claim that his death was due to excessive alcohol in his blood.

Seemingly they did not quibble when the body was swiftly cremated, and his mother told the Daily Telegraph that her son had died of a heart attack.

There the matter might have rested but for a startling Chinese political scandal that has since erupted.

For a Westerner, Heywood had become extremely close to the local Communist chief, a flamboyant populist called Bo Xilai. He was friendly too with Xilai’s wife, and seems to have helped their son, Bo Guagua, gain admission first to Harrow School and then to Balliol College, Oxford (from which he was sent down temporarily for idleness).

Last month the Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun claimed to have quarrelled with Xilai when he told him of his suspicions that Heywood had been poisoned.

Wang then sought asylum at the US Consulate.

Much more sensationally, Xilai, regarded as a rising Chinese political star, was abruptly stripped of his Communist party posts, and has since disappeared from view.

Yesterday former Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane called for British police to fully investigate Heywood’s death.

It is extremely dangerous to delve too deeply into the murky, corrupt and nepotistic world where Chinese politics and big business intersect. Heywood may well have paid with his life for crossing that line.

Hakluyt was founded 17 years ago by Christopher James, a former SAS and MI6 operative, and Christopher Wilkins, a businessman who had served in the Welsh Guards.

The links between the company and MI6 have always been strong. Spies preparing for retirement are approached discreetly in St James’s clubs and asked if they would like some lucrative freelance action to top up their pensions.

"One person familiar with that world regards Hakluyt as “a convenient rest home for MI6 men” and suggests that "once an MI6 man, always an MI6 man".

Hakluyt regards itself as operating at the top end of one of the capital’s most lucrative service industries. It has the most impressive list of big corporations, with particularly close links to the big oil firms.

The company attracted unwelcome publicity in 2001 when it emerged it had used an undercover agent known as Manfred to penetrate environmental groups targeting Shell and BP. Fouad Hamdan of Greenpeace Germany said at the time: “The bastard was good, I have to admit,” which Hakluyt will have taken as a compliment of sorts.

The atmosphere in the Mayfair head office is discreet, formal, heavily biased towards former MI6 men, in large proportion ex-public school. It is a highly civilised office environment at odds with the twilight world in which its people in the field have to operate.

Apart from MI6, Hakluyt recruits from impeccably connected government people and big business. Its international advisory board includes a former US senator and an Australian foreign minister, and it rarely recruits to the board any diplomat who did not make ambassador.

The boom in the emerging BRIC economies has created huge opportunities for global businesses based in London, but great risks too. Many companies do not instinctively understand the perils of joint ventures in China or Russia, so Hakluyt will be paid to find out if a potential partner can be trusted.

“We are there to answer specific questions — what the real agenda is, who is in whose pocket and what is the role of certain people,” was how one former senior executive described the work in a rare interview in the FT.

Reports are compiled in London using information from the field provided by well-connected operators like Neil Heywood, who had done this work for Hakluyt on a freelance basis over the years — though not in the city where he died.

One unanswered question is who Heywood was working for at the time of his death in Chongqing.

Hakluyt maintains that he was not working for them on a specific project, but given the links between the two organisations, it cannot be ruled out that he might have been working for MI6.

This could explain why the British government appears to have raised Heywood’s death with Beijing only after the Wall Street Journal broke the story this week.

Lib-Dem MP Norman Baker has long been suspicious of links between Hakluyt, MI6 and government.

Yesterday he declined to comment on Heywood’s death or Hakluyt because he is now a Coalition minister, but as a backbencher before the election he put down a series of written questions about Hakluyt’s cosy relationship with government.

Baker focused on specific meetings between Hakluyt, ministers and officials at the Foreign Office, the department that oversees MI6.

The answers, available on the Hansard website, variously explain that such details were not held centrally, or that finding the information would cost more than a “disproportionate” £750. Baker drew his own conclusions from that obfuscation.

Hakluyt yesterday appeared keen to distance itself from the murky circumstances of Neil Heywood’s unexplained death.

A spokesman said his relationship with the company had been “fleeting” and “passing”.

And asked if Hakluyt employees were contractually bound to sever their links to MI6 on taking up employment in Upper Brook Street, he replied: “We would have no comment on that.”