Russian spies killed Dawn Sturgess.
They did not plan to kill the 44-year-old British mother of three in July 2018. But they are responsible for her death.
The manner of Sturgess’s death is the stuff of nightmares. A confluence of intended and unintended events that conspired to extinguish the life of an innocent woman who was loved by her family and boyfriend, Charlie Rowley.
The Russian spies’ mission was to murder another Russian spy – turned double agent – living in Salisbury, England. Their weapon: Novichok, a nerve agent. The double agent and his daughter were found on a park bench on March 3, 2018, foaming at the mouth while drifting in and out of consciousness. Both survived.
Weeks later, Rowley was rummaging through a bin when he discovered an expensive-looking perfume box, sealed in plastic. He gifted the happy, if unexpected, find to Dawn, his “soul mate” who was helping him to recover from a hard, indigent life.
Dawn sprayed the perfume on her wrists. Within moments, she was foaming at the mouth, unresponsive. Frantic, Rowley had a friend summon an ambulance before he began to suffer the same shocking symptoms.
Rowley spent weeks on a ventilator. When he woke, a doctor told him Dawn was gone. Police confirmed the perfume bottle was laced with Novichok. His home and belongings had to be destroyed.
“I didn’t mean to, but I killed my girlfriend. How do you ever get over that? I can’t,” he told the British newspaper, The Mirror.
“I want justice for Dawn. I want people to be caught, but I don’t expect that to happen. I carry a lot of guilt. I literally poisoned my girlfriend. Unknowingly, but I still did it. It’s not a good thing to live with.”
Four years later, Sturgess’s family and Rowley wait for answers to still urgent questions about what happened to Dawn and how it could happen and if the government-trained thugs guilty of her sickening death will indeed ever be held to account.
A commission of inquiry convened in March to try finally, if possible, to find those answers has stalled – a victim of the secrecy that shields anonymous spies, whatever the country they swear allegiance to, from the often fatal, inhumane consequences of their covert actions.
The horror that Sturgess and Rowley endured – forgotten casualties of a grubby war waged by grubby spies called “espionage” – is an antidote to the fiction promoted by Hollywood and starry-eyed company that the subterranean world populated largely by banal bureaucrats has a glamorous, if not noble, cachet.
The marquee spy who epitomises this fantastical caricature is, of course, the suave assassin James Bond – the once indestructible creation of writer Ian Fleming.
The Bond franchise was slowly losing its lucrative lustre until it experienced a renaissance after actor Daniel Craig assumed the cartoonish role.
Craig’s reimagination of Bond was rooted, producers insisted, in a grittier interpretation of the genre. Craig’s terse, muscular Bond combined the usual tropes – signature cars, tailored suits, scenic vistas, and sexual prowess – with a brutish edge.
While the refashioned, modern Bond proved fabulously popular, Craig’s iteration of 007 was as divorced from the actual plodding, pedestrian nature of so-called “intelligence” services as any of the other “super spies” concocted in Bond’s long, absurd shadow.
But success breeds imitation. Spies are in vogue these days: from the robotically efficient killing machine known as Jason Bourne to Dan Chase, the ageing CIA officer who is forced out of agreeable retirement by an Afghan strongman with a grudge.
The unlikely and talented Jeff Bridges plays Chase in the new series, appropriately titled, The Old Man, with sophistication and gravitas absent from any spy you or I will encounter outside a streaming service or the “action/thriller” aisle of a bookstore.
Given that much of my former career as an investigative reporter was steeped in the aforementioned grubby orbit of grubby spies, I know that the Dan Chase archetype – the tough spook with a contemplative disposition – is as ridiculous as James Bond.
The other pernicious conceit that runs through The Old Man like a winding river is that Chase and the other spooks, young and old, are not grey functionaries, but philosophers who share erudite observations about all things connected to the human condition – love, loss, sacrifice, grief, loyalty, disloyalty, death and everything in-between – with a facility and clarity that no spy I have met even remotely possesses.
The grand-spook emeritus – mentor to the show’s two principal protagonists – is the wise patriarch who, predictably, prefers tweed jackets, the comfort of deep leather chairs and painting in the study of his book-lined mansion that he bought, no doubt, on a civil servant’s salary.
Their easy eloquence is matched only by the characters’ near-universal ability to play what amounts to three-dimensional chess in the midst of a maze of competing motivations and alliances on both intimate and geopolitical scales.
Most of the working spies I knew long ago preferred checkers to chess and gorging on beer after a pick-up hockey game since these were much less taxing and cheaper than the pretentious pursuits of their fictional brethren.
The histories of any spy service, particularly Anglo-American agencies, are testament to the sordid stories of “senior” intelligence officers who were exceptional in one way: the ease with which they sullied their oaths to satisfy their mundane appetites and abiding narcissism.
Aldrich Ames, a CIA officer, was known for his rotting teeth. He also had a rotted soul. For approaching a decade beginning in 1985, Ames fed his grateful Soviet handler secrets in exchange for money.
Ames had divorced and he and his girlfriend used the millions in cash pipelined from Moscow to pamper themselves. Ames flaunted his subterfuge-fuelled wealth, driving a Jaguar to his CIA office at Langley, Virginia.
Despite coming under suspicion as the agency worried that a mole was lurking in its midst, Ames kept getting promoted into positions that gave him carte-blanche access to nuclear secrets and the identities of scores of Soviet agents doing what he was doing – betraying their country.
It took a five-person CIA team almost eight years to nab Ames in spite of his sloppy “tradecraft” and profligacy. He was arrested in 1994. After pleading guilty to tax fraud and conspiracy to commit espionage, Ames was sentenced to life in prison, where he reportedly dabbles in literary criticism.
Greed and the prospect of love with a stripper prompted a member of the devout Catholic sect, Opus Dei, and a top-tier FBI counterintelligence agent, Robert Hanssen, also to sell secrets to the Russians circa 1985.
Like Ames, Hanssen earned millions in cash and jewellery over his 21-year career as a prized Soviet “asset”. Hanssen showered a lot of that treasure on an exotic dancer he met and befriended at a Washington District strip club. She claimed that her pious admirer – who secretly videotaped himself having sex with his wife – was only interested in saving her soul. Right.
Among the other costs of Hanssen’s treachery: several Soviet moles working for the Americans were executed.
The FBI’s crack spy catchers let Hanssen run amok for decades even though, according to a Washington Post reporter, his FBI agent brother-in-law learned in 1990 that Hanssen was secreting thousands of dollars in cash in his home and “spending too much money for someone on an FBI salary”.
Eventually, the FBI stirred from its institution-wide coma and Hanssen cut a lethal injection-avoiding deal. Along with Ames, Hanssen will die in prison.
Hanssen and Ames are blunt real-life rejoinders – there are so many others – to the make-believe paragons of duty and service to cause and country celebrated on TV screens and in movie theatres.
Yet, there is hope.
When we last saw James Bond, he was standing alone on an island having chosen a hero’s death over exposing his family – yes, his family – to a lethal toxin.
It would be a welcomed and refreshing relief if 007 remained dead.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.