LONDON — In what may be one of the country's more damaging security breaches to date, the British government on Thursday accused an embittered ex-spy of endangering the lives of scores of Secret Intelligence Service agents by publishing their names on the Internet.
More than 100 alleged officers in the agency--which is also known as MI6, Britain's equivalent of the CIA--were named Wednesday on a U.S.-based Web site. The British Foreign Office said the Web site had been shut down Thursday morning, but BBC-TV reported that the information was still on the Internet at nightfall.
Foreign Secretary Robin Cook insisted that the list was "riddled with inaccuracies," and called its publication "irresponsible, damaging and potentially dangerous to people who have worked in the service. It is also illegal."
But there seemed little the government could do other than appeal to the British media not to further publicize the names. It was a demonstration of just how difficult it is to eliminate information from the public domain once it enters cyberspace.
Cook blamed former MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson for putting out the list as an act of revenge against the agency that fired him four years ago.
The public acknowledgment of the intelligence disaster was remarkable for an agency that just five years ago denied its own existence. The government normally refuses to comment on any allegations about MI6 agents.
While individual agents have been unmasked in the past, such a sweeping revelation is unprecedented in Britain, according to historian Nigel West, who has written about intelligence issues.
"This is hugely damaging for us, on a scale of Philip Agee," he said, referring to the former CIA agent who published names of his colleagues in the early 1970s.
"Imagine some British second commercial secretary with no connection to the agency finds his name is on the list," a Foreign Office spokesman said. "He could be in an area where [Saudi militant Osama] bin Laden is active. Bin Laden's not going to stop and ask if he's a real agent."
Intelligence analysts said the security service would face a difficult task in recruiting and training dozens of new agents and restoring confidence in MI6 among the sources or local agents it has in foreign countries.
The government also appears to fear further disclosures about its overseas operations.
Tomlinson, 35, was a Cambridge University engineering graduate before he was recruited by the spy agency. He spent four years in MI6, serving in Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and London's Iran section, before he was dismissed in 1995 for alleged unstable behavior.
He tried to appeal his dismissal, but the government would not let his case be heard. He then sent a synopsis of a book about his spy career to an Australian publisher and was jailed for six months in 1997 for violating secrecy laws.
After his release, Tomlinson claimed he was persecuted by police and security operatives.
Intelligence analysts say the only persecution appears to have been to prevent him from publicizing what he knew about the secret service.
Tomlinson now lives in Geneva, and Britain obtained an injunction there April 30 to prevent him from disclosing information on the Internet or by other means.
Tomlinson's lawyer, John Wadham, told BBC: "Whether he did this or not, I can't say. I can say he threatened to do so some time ago."
Tomlinson later e-mailed the BBC to say that he had not put out the names on his Web site, but he apparently did not mention whether he had made them available on anyone else's Web site.