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Britain’s top secret files, equipment go missing

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LONDON — They exposed every Nazi spy operating in Britain during World War II, inspired the creation of James Bond and once could boast of showing upstarts like America's CIA how it's done.

But today, Britain's spy agencies are preoccupied with matters far more mundane than the glory days of breaking German codes and infiltrating the communists.

They're chasing down top-secret computers mislaid or stolen from their own operatives — in one case, even placing a newspaper ad pleading for the return of a laptop and offering a reward.

They're also contending with books written by disillusioned agents and trying to shore up their reputation with an increasingly skeptical public.

"What the hell is happening with our spies," laments The Sun, Britain's most popular tabloid. "Have our spies totally lost the plot?"

The gaffes involving the internal and external spy agencies — MI5 and MI6 — would be enough to make even famously urbane special agent 007 lose his cool.

"They have a definite PR problem," said Stephen Dorril, author of "MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations" and publisher of The Lobster intelligence journal. "Because they are so secretive, they can't put their successes out, and the public gets a one-sided view of their failures . . . and there have been quite a few."

In the space of 24 hours in March, two laptop computers containing top-secret information went missing, sparking a security scare and more than a few allegations that the country's spies were beginning to resemble players in a Monty Python sketch.

The first was said to have been snatched from an agent in a busy London train station while he waited to buy a ticket. The second, eventually recovered, was lost in south London after another agent's boozy night at a tapas bar.

Meanwhile, two renegade former agents have kept up the pressure with tales of bungled operations, posted on the Internet.

Government efforts to hound them out of their European exiles have failed, and efforts to gag them have been widely condemned by the British media.

So former MI5 agent David Shayler, who also has written an upcoming book on his days as a spy, keeps updating his allegations on his "Shaylergate" Web site.

Former MI6 spy Richard Tomlinson is accused of publishing an Internet list of former and current spies and has tried to peddle a book of his own.

Understandably, lawmakers are concerned by the blunders.

"It goes right to the heart of intelligence and security," said Tom King, chairman of the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. "People risk their lives in giving the information in the confidence those agencies will keep it protected. If they don't, then it undermines the chances of getting such good information in the future."

But despite the bad press, the agencies haven't stepped up to publicly defend themselves, constrained as they are by a code of secrecy.

So, in a touch of irony, the most fawning praise of late came from a former enemy: an ex-KGB operative.

Asked which country had the best spies, Sergei Ivanov, who now heads Russia's influential Security Council, included the British along with his own country's operatives and Israel's Mossad.

"British counterintelligence has an excellent school and traditions. They prepare their agents very well," he said.

On the Net: www.MI5.gov.uk