Flash fiction

Intimidation case. The words flashed in Hans’s mind as he listened to the speech from the man in the bright red striped shirt. As instructed Hans pulled out the contents of his pockets and put them on the table. A mobile, a packet of paper handkerchiefs, a little camera, keys, and a pen. The man in the red shirt inspected Hans’s mobile then powered it off. “Secrecy first,” he said. In this darkened corner of the coffee shop, nobody seemed to notice him or hear the menace in his words.

Hans felt himself shaking with rage at the attitude of these Englishmen. They were imposing themselves on him for their mistakes, not his. As he started putting the contents back into his pockets, he decided he did not trust them. “Not the mobile,” the man in the red shirt said. “When having little talks like this, I like to know these things stay powered down”. The mobile stayed on the table.

(Stock photograph). Intimidation cases can leave a lasting emotional impact.
Intimidation cases can leave a lasting emotional impact. [Stock photo]

Hans assumed people in the intelligence profession would wear non-descript clothes – not necessarily grey, but something that would not attract attention. The man’s colleague better fitted that description. He was maturing in age with a sullen expression and a brown corduroy shirt that had been out-of-fashion for decades. His role seemed to be to sit with his elbows on the table and glare at Hans.

The men had given names for themselves, but Hans was not convinced they were real. Their identity cards had appeared to briefly to be read. Instead there had been statements such as: “What you have seen is a state secret. You saw how we work, and you saw the person we were tracking. If that information gets out, it could effect the security of both your country and ours.”

“What do you want of me?” Hans asked.

“To say nothing, tell no-one. Not now, not ever. Just forget what you saw.”

Hans was indignant at the logic. “How can I forget? The man was clearly a foreign spy. What he was doing was wrong.”

“We pretend to forget.” A set of papers appeared, with British emblems and official wording. “Sign this.”

“No, I am a German citizen. I live in Britain, I obey your laws. I do not have to agree with them.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “There are consequences when people break our laws.”

“Is this a threat?”

The red-shirted man did not reply directly. “We are asking for an act of friendship to this country. Just as we can keep silent about your sister. That is also an act of friendship.”

Hans was confused. “My sister? What has she to do with this? She’s a hundred miles away.”

“Your sister is a chartered auditor, practicing in this country. She works for a highly reputable practice. They do not tolerate bad practices from their staff.”

Thoughts of sexual impropriety came to Hans’s mind. His sister was a free spirit in these things.

“It’s come to our notice that your sister recently approved the accounts for a company backed by Russian money.” The man in the red shirt named the dates of the audit, the company, and even the people that Hans’s sister had met.

“Who told you this?”

“It’s our job to know things about people.”

“I’m sure she didn’t know where the money came from.”

“She should have checked. This mistake could destroy her. They’ll take away her chartered status in this country. Her career will be finished here.”

The intelligence men were reluctant to let him leave. They wanted to go over the detail again, to make sure he understood. Hans waited until he was clear of them and then checked his pockets. He pulled out his pocket camera and inspected it. The little switch for Record was on, just as he had set it when he put the camera in his pocket. Through the viewfinder he could see the red light in the corner. There would be no video picture from within his pocket, but an expert could untangle the soundtrack.

Hans considered his options.

(Stock photograph of a dark wall.) Intimidation is illegal, and counter-productive.
Intimidation is illegal, and counter-productive.

Commentary on intimidation cases

In this story about a fictional intimidation case, Hans had stubbornness and good sense on his side, and he was lucky that the intelligence people made major mistakes. Other people could have been left frightened, exaggerating the threats in their mind and visualising the bad things that could happen. Intimidation can exaggerate existing mental traumas. The intelligence personnel had a duty of care to Hans. They failed to discharge it.

Intimidation is illegal, even when performed by intelligence services. That’s true of the UK and elsewhere. If it involves influencing people to change their statements to the police or law courts, it’s very serious.

Intimidation is risky for the people who perform it. In the intimidation case above, both those intelligence people could lose their jobs.

Intimidation creates enemies who can do more damage than the original issue. As an example, during the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, one of the best recruitment areas for the IRA were people who had been intimidated by British troops and intelligence personnel.

Secrecy-first is a corrupting influence, yet it dominates much of the intelligence profession. (For more, see more about Obsessive secrecy.)

Workers in intelligence agencies are monitored. In the UK there’s an independent body that polices across central intelligence services. However intelligence workers in the private sector are not so carefully monitored and it’s easier for them to get away with rule-breaking.

The consequences of “secrecy first”

These two intelligence men were incompetent. They should have retained the camera, they hurried the discussion, failed to read Hans’s body signs, mishandled the threat, researched badly, and opened themselves to prosecution and dismissal. It’s likely they were liaison or surveillance people who overstepped their training as well as their authority. Their preoccupation with secrecy-first broke them. They should have passed the case upwards, for others to make the decision.