(or: My Frank Gardner Obsession - a Confession) [LONG]
For some years I have been suffering from a strange obsession with the BBC’s security correspondent, Frank Gardner. Despite efforts to overcome it, it’s not getting any better. I’m hoping that, by writing some of it down, here on this blog, its infernal grip upon me might be loosened and I might begin the process of healing. Of course, the words that I write are but products of a fevered mind and probably bear no relation to any person, place or thing, living or deceased.
It wasn’t until after Frank was shot and severely wounded in Saudi Arabia, when profiles of him started appearing in the press and, as he recovered, interviews with him too, that I twigged that he and I had attended Marlborough College together in the 1970s. I had been a year ahead of him and have no conscious recollection of him as a teenager. But I have wondered whether our former proximity mightn't have been an explanation for why, especially post-9/11, I had had such a strong reaction, mostly negative, to his journalism. I decided that, whilst it may have added subconsciously to my response to him, it didn’t affect the basic problem, which was that I believed that Frank Gardner was a spook (I use the term loosely) pretending to be a journalist and it bothered me.
So when, in June 2004, Frank and his cameraman, Simon Cumbers, were ambushed and shot while filming in a sensitive area of Riyadh, I wasn’t at all surprised. (Cumbers was killed – he plays no further part in this narrative and I suspect him of nothing except being in the wrong place with the wrong man.) But I was surprised when al-Qaeda or its sympathizers were blamed. Because, I reasoned, if I had been a Saudi security officer, I wouldn’t have been at all happy having a spooky Brit poking about and asking questions under the guise of journalism, and I might well have engineered his shooting, to discourage any others.
I had wanted to share my obsession before now but felt inhibited by Gardner’s terrible injuries. Until, that is, several months ago, when my local charity-bookshop carried a secondhand, hardback copy of his autobiography, Blood and Sand. Thinking it might cure my condition, I bought it. Unfortunately, it has only made things worse. I suspect Frank had hoped people wouldn’t read his text too closely, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘Secrets, lies and videotape’ could have been its sub-title.
Here follow some extracts from his memoir, where necessary supplemented by information from other sources, that I think help decipher the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that is enveloped in the persona of Frank ‘I’m not a spook’ Gardner.
Family and Schooling
Frank is the only child of career diplomats. Both were skilled linguists and wanted their son to follow them into the Foreign Office. Frank doesn’t specify what rank they achieved at the FCO.
At prep school he was,
(S)omething of a goodie-two-shoes; head prefect, scholar, captain of shooting, victor ludorum in athletics, winner of obscure prizes like Chess and Reading. [Blood and Sand: 22]
He received an Exhibition (a minor scholarship) to Marlborough,
(B)ut then my academic prowess took a nose-dive. Suddenly there seemed to be so many distractions, especially drama which I threw myself into. Since I seemed to be good at shooting and running, the school contacted the British biathlon Olympic ski team and over two winters I trained hard with the Army in the Austrian Alps (..)
Almost my sole achievement [at Marlborough] was to become captain of shooting (again) and win a place on the British cadet rifle team to Canada, which included a summer canoe trip in the woods and lakes of upstate Quebec with the Canadian army. [ibid.]
So whilst I, one year ahead of him, was spending my time on normal stuff like onanism, drugs and rock n’ roll, young Frank was active in the drama society, excelling at shooting, skiing and distance running, and he was being trained in the holidays by British and Canadian soldiers. No wonder I don’t remember him. (Then again, I don’t remember much.)
In my second year at Marlborough, 1974-5, which was Frank’s first, our head boy was one Rupert Wise, whom we shall meet later in this tale.
The story goes that the 16-year-old Frank and his mum were on a London bus and bumped into the explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger, an old friend of hers. ("They had known each other briefly in the 1950s; in fact my mother even suspected his mother of trying to pair them off at one stage, but Thesiger was not the marrying kind" [BS:17]). They went to have tea with him, and the young man was entranced and resolved to become an Arabist. Thesiger was, though, more than just a writer/explorer. In the war he had fought with Orde Wingate in East Africa and had won a DSO, as had Wingate; worked for the Special Operations Executive in the Middle East; fought with David Stirling’s newly formed SAS regiment; and, after the war, continued to carry out the occasional special operation for the British in the region up to the 1960s. I’d suggest that it was that adventurer-warrior, as much as the writer-explorer, side of Thesiger that stirred young Frank’s imagination. Frank maintained the mentored relationship with Thesiger until the old man’s death.
Frank left Marlborough with sub-par A-level results – mine were even worse – but he was offered a place at Exeter to read Arabic and Islamic Studies on a four-year course, which included staying the third year in an Arabic country. He and a few mates decided to spend their third year in Cairo, where they attended lectures. He writes:
Not long after our arrival in Cairo, Peregrine and I joined a group of diplomats from the British Embassy for a gallop over the sands.(..) We entered a narrow track beside a cemetery and I rounded a bend to see a riderless horse galloping straight at us. There was just time to swerve abruptly and I was thrown clear, landing with a bump on the sand. As I was picking myself up and dusting off the sand, I was introduced to one of the better horsemen in our party, a young first secretary (a middle rank in the Foreign Office) who was said to be going places fast. He was Sherard Cowper-Coles, the man who was to save my life twenty-two years later in Riyadh with his swift and decisive action there as ambassador in June 2004. [BS: 55-6]
Firstly, Frank doesn’t explain how and why he joined the group of British diplomats for the gallop, yet it's surely unusual for a student to receive such an invitation. Secondly, Frank hadn’t before mentioned in his tale that, in addition to his other skills, he was an accomplished horseman. Thirdly, Sherard Cowper-Coles’s name is on a disputed list of alleged MI6 officers. (More on Cowper-Coles below.) Now, consider this later anecdote from Blood and Sand:
Rather to our surprise, we all achieved our degrees – in my case an unremarkable 2.2, known as a ‘Bishop Desmond’ (as in a Tutu). Now that we were graduates in Arabic and Islamic Studies, our lecturers brightly informed us that the world was our oyster. (...) I took a rather casual approach to job hunting, in fact I even omitted to draw up a CV. I did go to one interview before I graduated, though, which was for MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). In the small community of Western expatriates living in Cairo I had come across a British diplomat who turned out to be an SIS officer there. I had no idea of this when I took him on a tour of my favourite backstreets, nor that he was assessing me for possible recruitment, but some time later he asked if I would be interested in being put in touch with ‘the right people’ in London. Why not? I thought this could be fun. But once I had signed a copy of the Official Secrets Act, the initial interview turned into something of a disappointment and it successfully put me off a career in the espionage business. ‘I should warn you now,’ said the man in the grey suit behind the desk, ‘that if you choose this career you will never be able to tell your friends about it, you will have to lie continually about what you do and,’ here he leaned closer towards me as if letting me into a great secret, ‘you will be unlikely ever to get any public recognition for your achievements.’ Well, that rules me out, I thought, I’m much too vain for this outfit. If I achieved something I wanted to see it recognized, so a career of tight-lipped modesty in the world of spooks simply did not appeal, either then or since. [BS: 85-6]
Note the possible ambiguities raised by his use of the words ‘initial’ and ‘simply’ above. In any case, it’s quite likely that Sherard Cowper-Coles was the SIS officer who tried to recruit Frank. Consider this recent anecdote by Robert Fisk:
Indeed, I remember way back in the late 1970s - when I was Middle East correspondent for The Times - how a British diplomat in Cairo tried to persuade me to fire my local "stringer", an Egyptian Coptic woman who also worked as a correspondent for the Associated Press and who provided a competent coverage of the country when I was in Beirut. "She isn't much good," he said, and suggested I hire a young Englishwoman whom he knew and who - so I later heard - had close contacts in the Foreign Office.
I refused this spooky proposal. Indeed, I told The Times that I thought it was outrageous that a British diplomat should have tried to engineer the sacking of our part-timer in Cairo. The Times's foreign editor agreed.
But it just shows what diplomats can get up to.
And the name of that young British diplomat in Cairo back in the late 1970s? Why, Sherard Cowper-Coles, of course.
However, ex-SIS officer Richard Tomlinson has stated somwhere that SIS officers may not become ambassadors, whereas Cowper-Coles later became our ambassador to Israel, then to Saudi Arabia and now has been sent to Kabul, Afghanistan. My guess is that either some sensitive postings are exempt from the ban, or that Cowper-Coles formally resigned from SIS when first appointed to the top job in Tel Aviv, or that the ban has been lifted.
Other tidbits about Cowper-Coles (pron. 'Cooper', I believe):
* Also according to Robert Fisk [ibid.], Cowper-Coles was instrumental in the abandonment of the Serious Fraud Office investigation into the allegedly corrupt al-Yamamah arms-deal scandal involving BAE Systems, princes Turki and Bandar, Wafik Said, kickbacks, prostitutes and so on. Not only in the memoir is Frank tight-lipped about his friend – when addressing BBC audiences about the BAE Systems affair, I don’t remember hearing him disclose that an old friend of his, who'd recently helped him survive the shooting, had been a key actor in persuading the SFO to drop the case.
* This anonymous writer at Democratic Underground says he’s known Cowper-Coles for 25 years, calls him an "MI6 spook" and alleges his activity in covering up various FCO screw-ups.
* Sherard Cowper-Coles served as a political counsellor at the Paris embassy from 1997-99. Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris in August 1997. According to the alleged MI6 list, only three SIS officers were posted to Paris in 1997 – ‘Sherard Louis Cowper-Coles’, ‘Colin Roberts’ and ‘Richard David Spearman’.
Frank the Banker
After a few years, vaguely narrated, of doing odd jobs and travelling, Frank got hired as a banker.
A friend of a friend passed my CV to Sir James Craig, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now head of the Middle East Association. His Arabic was so flawless that he could hardly have been impressed by mine, but the following week I was summoned for an interview in the City at Saudi International Bank (SIB), a joint venture between the Saudi government and a handful of Western banks. I tried to make it clear that I had no grounding in finance or economics, but the interviewer droned on about interest rates, leverage and product placement. I had no idea what he was talking about and was about to write off the interview as an afternoon wasted when they offered me a job on double my present salary. [BS: 89]
He worked at SIB for several years, learning the trade. Then, circa 1989,
Back in London, two summers later, I was introduced at a drinks party to Rupert Wise, who was also an Arabist and a banker. ‘You’ll have so much in common,’ said our mutual friend, leaving us to circle each other like wary sharks. It reminded me of when I was about five years old and was being nudged by my parents to ‘Go and make friends with those children over there’. Rupert was short, fit and tanned, with a boxer’s build and a steely glint in his eyes (he turned out to have been a boxing blue at Cambridge). He now launched into a stream of flawless Gulf Arabic; I replied in backstreet Egyptian. At the time I thought it was a pointless pissing contest to see who could speak the best Arabic, but in fact he was checking me out as his possible successor to run the Bahrain office of Flemings, a small but successful Scottish investment bank named after its founder, Robert Fleming.
A few weeks later I was summoned for an interview at the bank’s elegant head office in the City, which was decorated with the world’s finest collection of Scottish paintings. I was quite happy where I was at Saudi International Bank, and Flemings were not even offering much of a pay rise, but Rupert took me aside and told me this was an opportunity of a lifetime and I would be a fool not to take it. He proved to be right [sic]. [BS:113]
Note that Frank mentions Rupert Wise’s university career but not that he and Rupert were contemporaneous Marlburians. More on the dashing Rupert later.
About Flemings the bank, Wikipedia says:.
Robert Fleming & Co was a London-based asset manager and merchant bank founded in 1873 and sold to Chase Manhattan Bank for over $7 billion in 2000. It was a 50% partner in the highly successful Asian investment bank Jardine Fleming. At its height in 1997, Robert Fleming Holdings reported over 8,000 employees and operations in 44 countries.
The bank was proud of its Scottish heritage. When it was extant, it was reported that:
As with any firm with a 100+ year old history, Flemings has an entrenched culture. The firm is said to revel in its Scottish roots, and Institutional Investor reported that the receptionist at the company's London headquarters greets visitors every Tuesday and Thursday with traditional Scottish bagpipe music.
According to Moneyweek,
For the best part of a century, Robert Fleming & Co remained in the investment trust business, says the FT. Although it later moved into merchant banking, "it differed radically from other merchant banks", where banking was the core business. Privately held throughout its existence, Flemings was always "something of an enigma". The group published little information about itself and questions about strategy "met with the quizzical look of the classic British amateur". But although it remained old-school in style, it was the "boldest and most far-sighted of any institution in the Square Mile". Connections helped: the 1970 Jardine Fleming Hong Kong venture, which established the group in the Far East long before competitors got there, was prompted by the long-standing family links between the Flemings and the Keswicks, who run Jardine Matheson.
Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, was a grandson of Robert Fleming. Frank doesn’t mention that noteworthy connection. (Ian never worked for the family firm – he and his brother Peter were rather more interested in cloaks and daggers than in bulls and bears.)
Frank at Flemings
When I turned up for my first day of work at Flemings I was put under the wing of my new mentor, Mark Bullough, who immediately took me out for a champagne lunch. [BS:114]
Although Mark Bullough turns up several times in Frank’s story, the reader is left unaware by the author that Bullough went on from Flemings to co-found the private security company AEGIS Defence Services with the controversial Lt Col Tim Spicer and two others, one of whom, Dominic Armstrong, was Bullough’s deputy at Jardine Flemings. Bullough and Tim Spicer had been comrades in the Scots Guards and had fought together in the Falklands.
"I can recall Mark and me liberating a bottle of champagne and drinking it by the sea wall and then getting into a slight confrontation with a staff officer," Spicer wrote in his autobiography, recalling the day after the British routed the Argentine army in the Falklands in 1982. [CorpWatch]
In 2004 AEGIS won the contract from the US government to run and co-ordinate private security operations in Iraq. So Frank’s former Flemings mentor is now Tim Spicer’s sidekick in AEGIS. And Tim Spicer used to be the sidekick of General Sir Peter de la Billiere (see below), during the years when De la Billiere was a member of the Flemings board.
Frank took over Flemings' Bahrain office from Rupert Wise circa 1990. Whilst in Bahrain, Frank meets up with an old pal from Marlborough, ‘Disco’ Ron Matheson. Disco suggests they go skiing in Lebanon. Mark Bullough joins them. On the way back down from the piste,
Driving back past Beirut’s Green Line I stuck the video out of the window to film the shattered buildings. But as we passed the St Georges Yacht Club there was a coarse shout from the side of the road. ‘Wagaf!’ It was a Syrian soldier ordering us to stop the car. I glanced at Ali, our Lebanese driver, who looked absolutely terrified and brought the car to an abrupt halt. Had I known that I had inadvertently filmed Syria’s Military Intelligence HQ in Beirut I would have shared Ali’s concern, but, as it was, when the Syrian conscript thrust out his hand to demand the tape I shook it warmly, gave him a huge smile and a traditional Arabic greeting. This took him aback at first, but he soon recovered his scowl and demanded the tape again. Unwilling to hand over all the footage we had shot up on the ski slopes, I reached into the car and handed him Dire Straits’ Greatest Hits. I was sorry to see that go (‘Brothers in Arms’ hit the spot for Beirut) but it did the trick. [BS:130-1]
Frank does not reveal what happened to the videotape of the Syrian Military Intelligence HQ, leaving us only to speculate.
‘You’ll have so much in common’. Indeed, though Frank withholds parts of that commonality from his memoir and from his BBC audiences. Rupert Wise was at Marlborough College from 1970-75 (B3 house) and, in his final year, was the senior prefect, i.e. head boy. I was there between ’73 and '78 (Preshute); and Frank from ’74-79 (Littlefield). Whilst I’ve repressed all memories of Frank, I vaguely recall Rupert as a somewhat glamorous figure with military interests. It’s unlikely that Frank and Rupert met each other at Marlborough but it's possible.
A few years ago Rupert got into a bit of a dramatic scrape. This Telegraph report is worth quoting at length.
The banker with a CV out of a spy novel
(By Ben Fenton 12/11/2005)
Rupert Wise, the British businessman detained with his wife, Linda, for 13 days by the Iranian authorities for trespassing on a secret island, must be glad today that his captors had not read his CV.
Because on the face of it, it looks like the biography of a British intelligence agent from the realms of popular fiction.
Mr Wise, 48, was head boy at Marlborough College, one of Britain's leading public schools, and a leader of its Combined Cadet Force.
He read classical Arabic at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and, according to a friend, went through the university on an Army-assisted scheme. Having studied martial arts at school, he won a Blue for boxing at university.
Mr Wise served in the Army for six years after leaving Cambridge, although none of the former schoolfriends contacted yesterday knew which regiment he belonged to. A rumour that he had been an officer in the SAS was discounted by sources with knowledge of the regiment's recent history.
Around 1984, he joined the investment bank Robert Fleming. Mr Wise became managing director of its Middle East division.
In 1995, Mr Wise met and married Linda Davies, an Oxford graduate who had given up her own investment banking career to write thrillers. The couple went to Peru, where Mr Wise was to lead Robert Fleming's efforts to establish a new arm.
Mrs Wise, 42, has written of an incident in Lima when gunmen started a firefight around their high-security compound. In her description, she said that Mr Wise, on hearing the gunfire, "grabbed a pistol and ventured outside" with the couple's bodyguard.
Mrs Wise later wrote a novel about Peru in which Helen Jenks, a banker, becomes involved in a high-level conspiracy and falls in love with Evan Connor, "apparently a tour guide but in reality a former SAS soldier working for British intelligence".(…)
It was the Wises' passion for sailing that got them into trouble. On Oct. 28, they set off from Dubai in their new £300,000 catamaran Sinbad for the island of Abu Musa, 60 miles north of the coast of the United Arab Emirates. It was an odd choice for a maiden voyage because the island has been the subject of dispute between the UAE and Iran.
Apart from asking local experts, the Wises, accompanied by Paul Scholten, the Australian yacht broker who had sold them the boat, had also looked at up-to-date Admiralty charts and checked information on the GPS navigation system to assure themselves that they would be safe to visit Abu Musa, and apparently they were unprepared for the hostility of their reception.
No public statement about the detention of the Wises and Mr Scholten was made in Britain or the UAE while the British embassy in Teheran successfully negotiated their release.
The embassy had negotiated a release last Monday, but the three were re-arrested at the airport by Iranian justice department officials and taken to Teheran.
Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday: "I am very glad that they have been released safely and without any charge. It took a good deal of work behind the scenes."
The island of Abu Musa is one of the most politically charged hot-spots on Earth [see, for example, here, here and here]. Trust one of Frank’s friends to get as close to it as any living Briton has, get caught and cause a diplomatic incident.
After their release, the BBC interviewed the Wises in Dubai, and Frank did a piece about the story from London. Whereas a real journalist might have recused himself from this story, or have disclosed his relationship to Rupert, Frank didn’t do so, even though he had had 13 days to think about it. Whereas the Telegraph journalist above pointed out the obvious spookiness of Rupert’s CV, Frank instead delivered an anti-Iran propaganda piece, portraying the Wises as innocent victims. Frank’s ability as an actor meant that the uninformed viewer would never have guessed that he and Rupes were good friends with much in common.
General de la Billiere
General Sir Peter de la Billiere is a lurking presence throughout Frank’s memoir. He makes his first appearance when Frank happens to witness the early stages of the Iranian embassy siege in 1980.
It was a warm day in May and walking through Hyde Park I stopped to investigate what was going on in Prince’s Gate. The whole street appeared to be have been closed off to traffic and there were police and cordons everywhere.(…) While the police opened negotiations, the Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) Counter-Terrorist Unit was preparing for the possibility that its soldiers might have to retake the embassy by storm. The SAS team leader on the spot was Major Peter de la Billiere. Descendant of a French Huguenot family and known as ‘DLB’, he was already a veteran of counter-insurgency operations in Malaya, Oman and Aden. I was eighteen at the time and had no idea that twelve years later we would both be investment bankers, attending meetings together with Gulf rulers. [BS:23-4]
Parenthetically, the leader of the units that actually entered the embassy (reportedly) was Major Jeremy Phipps, who now works with Frank’s friend(s) Mark Bullough and Tim Spicer in AEGIS Defence Services as its head of security. Phipps, whose mother was a cousin of SAS founder David Stirling, is the stepson of Sir Fitzroy MacLean, upon whom Ian Fleming partly based the character of James Bond. No, Frank doesn’t tell us any of that – his book could have been so much more interesting if he wasn’t so tight-lipped about his associates and associations.
In the 1990s, De la Billiere worked closely with Tim Spicer and with Simon Mann, a mercenary now in jail for organizing a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. The following background information on De la Billiere is from a Sri Lankan Sunday Times article on Spicer and the mercenary business :
In 1978, Peter de la Billiere, then a brigadier, became director of the U.K. Special Forces. De la Billiere was responsible for overseeing the SAS's most famous operations of the decade, among them the recovery of hostages from the Iranian Embassy siege in 1980, and for commanding Special Forces operations in the 1982 war with Argentina to recover the Falkland Islands. In 1990-1991, as general, he commanded British forces in the Gulf War against Iraq.
In April 1992, de la Billiere returned to London and retired from his military career. He immediately took up a new post as the British government's "Middle East adviser." The job involved selling military services to and obtaining or retaining British bridgeheads in the Gulf. Spicer, who had spent the Gulf War as a lecturer at the British Army's staff college, heard that de la Billiere would need a military assistant.
He applied for and got the job, and finally entered the secret world of the Special Forces. De la Billiere's office was in the Duke of York's headquarters off Sloane Square in London, where the offices of the directorate of Special Forces were also located. Soon after joining de la Billiere, Spicer contacted fellow ex Scots Guards officer Simon Mann and "co-opted" him into the operation, according to Spicer's autobiography. Mann, an anti-terrorism and computer specialist, who had left the SAS in 1985, later went on to found Executive Outcomes in the United Kingdom in 1993.
According to Spicer, de la Billiere and Mann were employed "as liaison with the rulers of the Gulf States." According to a business associate of Mann's at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity, this story was "absurd." British ambassadors were hired to do that job, and given the staff and resources to do so. Mann's "real job," according to the associate, was "to help Peter de la Billiere market the training services of 22 SAS" and thus gain new clients for Britain's official mercenaries. Meanwhile, according to his autobiography, Spicer moved "down the corridor" to work directly for the Director of Special Forces on "highly classified" projects.
The government's motive in employing de la Billiere and Mann was not necessarily or even primarily to earn money. By placing British appointees in key security or defence posts, Britain could gain information; win influence, influence policy, recruit informants and even agents.
De la Billiere joined Flemings as a non-executive director in 1992, the year he was tasked with his Middle East mission by the British government. Not long after, Frank was moved back to London from the Bahrain office by Flemings, even though he had done well there. And by May 1995, reportedly because of his performance, he left Flemings, and banking, for journalism.
General Sir Peter de la Billiere showed a paternal concern for what was to become of me. The man who had commanded 45,000 British troops in the Desert Storm campaign of 1991 seemed genuinely worried that my departure from Flemings was going to lead to a tailspin of unemployment and self-doubt. He took me to lunch at his club, the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge, where portraits hung of various SAS characters included [sic] one of Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had joined David Stirling’s band of marauders in the Second World War to go raiding airfields deep in the Western Desert, and his weathered features now stared down at me as if willing me to take a chance. I told Sir Peter that my mind was made up – I was determined to get into the news business. [BS:140]
Or, as I now believe possible, it was DLB who suggested to Frank that he become the BBC's Middle East correspondent.
The Scots Guards and SAS
These two regiments are other discernible presences behind Frank’s tale. The founder of the SAS, David Stirling, was a Scots Guard, and Wilfred Thesiger and Fitzroy Maclean fought with the SAS in the war. Tim Spicer and Mark Bullough were Scots Guards, serving together in the Falklands – Spicer went on to join the SAS. Simon Mann too was a Scots Guardsman before joining the SAS. De la Billiere led the SAS. Rupert Wise was rumoured to be in the SAS (although the manner of his capture points to the SBS).
Frank mentions the Scots Guards only once (I think – it’s not indexed; the SAS is, but only once, for the Iranian embassy siege, even though it appears elsewhere in the text). In late 1990, Frank was sent by Mark Bullough to run Flemings' Bahrain office in the months after Saddam had invaded Kuwait and before Operation Desert Storm was launched. In preparation,
I was told to report to the Scots Guards barracks in Hounslow, where a favour had been called in by one of the regiment’s former officers who was now working in the bank. A gruff Scots quartermaster handed me a cardboard box packed with respirators, NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare) suits, rubber overboots and several decontamination kits, enough to protect me and the staff of the Bahrain office from Saddam’s chemically tipped Scuds. [BS:116-7]
Now, there may have been other former Scots Guardsmen, apart than Mark Bullough, working at Flemings, but it seems reasonable to assume that it was Bullough who arranged for Frank to be kitted out. It would seem to be another example of Frank’s determination to keep the reader unaware that his bank-mentor Bullough was now Lt Col Tim Spicer’s colleague in AEGIS.
(I only gathered this fact recently, and not from his book, and it fills in a significant blank.) Reading Frank’s book had led me to wonder why he hadn’t joined the Army. In particular, he seemed like a perfect candidate for the SAS. The only reference to such an idea was this, re. his career prospects:
The trouble was that, like most twenty-two-year-olds, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do. Because of my love of running and keeping fit I had made some enquiries about taking a short service commission in the Parachute Regiment, but my parents sensibly persuaded me this would be a waste of four years of Arabic studies. [BS:86]
When Simon Cumbers was killed and Frank shot in Riyadh, many people posted messages of sympathy to the BBC website. One began:
Frank is an ex-colleague of mine from his Territorial Army days and my best wishes go to him and his family for his full and speedy recovery.
The message appears to me genuine. No, Frank’s memoir does not mention his joining the TA. But if he did sign up with the TA, and I assume it is true, then it raises all sorts of questions. Why the secrecy about it? When did he join, what rank did he attain, and when, if at all, did he leave? Was he ever deployed and, if so, to where? Could it be a secret, I feverishly speculate, because he served as a reservist in a special forces regiment, such as with the 21 or 23 SAS, for example?
Parenthesis: The Army, Freemasonry and the Duke of York’s HQ
I add this with reluctance but it seems to belong to this narrative. Researching this, I came across several references to the Craft. For example, the Colonel of the Scots Guards is the Duke of Kent, who is the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. [See also.] In Inside the Brotherhood, Martin Short’s book about freemasonry, written in the late ‘80s, he writes,
No British institution, not even the police, is more steeped in Freemasonry than the army. 
He backs that up with convincing examples and mentions,
[T]he use by Freemasons of one publicly owned military building in central London: the Duke of York’s Headquarters in King’s Road, Chelsea. Here twenty-eight lodges meet, including the Army & Navy, National Artillery and Victoria Rifles. They contain very few serving officers, but there is greater overlap with the part-time Territorials, whose national HQ is in the Duke of York’s HQ. It is also home for the TA’s most glamorous regiment: the 21st Special Air Services, which supports the regular 22nd SAS in acts of derring-do and counter-terrorism at home and abroad. 
Short goes on to cite a non-Mason in the 21st SAS, who claims that his regiment and much of the TA is dysfunctionally dominated by Masons.
The Duke of York’s HQ was, of course, where De la Billiere’s Middle East operation was based, where he, Tim Spicer and Simon Mann concocted ways to advance British interests in the Gulf region. It was also the home of the directorate of Britain’s Special Forces. Add to that the TA, including the SAS(Reserve), and 28 Masonic Lodges meeting there a week.
The possible relevance to Frank Gardner is this: I posit that, in the ‘80s and ’90s, Frank would have come across the influence of freemasonry within the TA and in the Army’s elite and special forces regiments. Within banking, too, perhaps. Overall, many of his peers and seniors may have been Masons. Yet the subject is not mentioned once. Secret cells of al-Qaeda terrorists, yes; of Masons, no. I’m not suggesting that Frank is a Mason himself but I’m curious as to its absence from his tale.
The Army sold the Duke of York’s HQ to hyper-rich nobility, Cardogan Estates, for commercial development in the late ‘90s.
James Bond, back on parade
One final anecdote from Frank’s book. For services to journalism, Frank was awarded an OBE in the mid-year honours of 2005. After receiving it from the Queen at the Palace in October,
That evening I was back on parade for a BBC party in my honour; it was one of the happiest moments in my career. There in a large room were gathered over one hundred of my closest colleagues, many of whom had known me ten years ago when I was making the difficult transition from banking to journalism. As I tottered in on my callipers – for most people this was the first time they had seen me standing up since the shooting – the James Bond theme played over the sound system. [BS:368-9]
By that choice of music, were his colleagues referring to the Flemings/Bond connection and/or had they been made aware that there's more to Frank than meets the eye, I ask myself.
There can be no conclusion to my quest because the truth remains out of reach. I decided to write this once I felt I had a story to tell about Frank’s friends – Cowper-Coles, Bullough and Wise, and the more peripheral figures such as De la Billiere, and even Tim Spicer, who nowadays commands the second largest military force in Iraq - and how Frank tries to obscure the connections. By itself, it was a good enough yarn, which Frank didn’t want told. But stumbling upon Frank’s Territorial Army career, if true, whilst writing this, has added new intrigue, such as, if he omitted that experience from his book, what else might he have left out?
In the absence of the honest truth from Frank, whose name is surely a cosmic joke, I currently speculate that his TA career drew him into the SAS Reserve, or something similarly elite and hush-hush, and also that it opened the door to his becoming a Gulf banker, a career move otherwise inexplicable. Because of the trajectory of his TA career, he would not be able to reveal anything about it in his book, even though it would have explained much. And I would guess that, once you’re inside that world of special forces and spooky operations, the boundaries between the different organs of the secret state – SIS(MI6), MI5, SAS, SBS, SAS(R), et al – would effectively dissolve. And mightn't it just be the case, and it fits with the timing and with his known associations, that Frank's career trajectory could have continued on into De la Billiere's unit, where his skills would have fitted like a glove?
I could have written even more on this. On the shooting, for example, as I don’t believe Frank’s account of it and nor, do I believe, does he. Or about the low-level bombing campaign in Saudi Arabia starting November 2000 with the possible complicity of SIS, which Frank appears to help cover up. Or about the excellent contacts and access he has. But any more would be a symptom of my fever worsening. I must stop now, publish this (hopefully without being damned), and let the healing begin.
[See follow-up: Frank's Army Years]