Twenty Years Ago Today: Another Curious Death

Pay no attention to the SIGINT asset behind the curtain Twenty years ago today, a man was found hanging in the loft of his cottage in Cornwall, wearing a gasmask and a long, black oilskin coat. The loft was decorated with a number of pictures of women dressed as dominatrixes. The man's name was James Rusbridger, and the initial presumption was that he died in an act of auto-erotic asphyxiation, much as the MP Stephen Milligan did earlier in the month. We've already dealt with this subject - so why are we looking at this guy?

Well, to begin with, he had an interesting past: he claimed to have been a courier for Mi6, the British foreign intelligence service, and was a cousin to Peter Wright of Mi5, who embarrassed the government with his memoir Spycatcher in the 80's. He was a man with connections. And yet he dwelt alone in his cottage in Cornwall; his life was lived not in the world of action, but the world of letters. Thousands of them, sent to the major London newspapers in an unending cascade over decades on a wide variety of topics, but primarily focusing on the world of intelligence and spies. He wrote several books as well, including one that speculated on British awareness of the Pearl Harbor attack being withheld from the Americans to ensure their entry into world war 2.

To many in the establishment, he was a crank who peddled conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies. He bombarded them with requests for documents that would never be released, and this in a time before the Freedom of Information Act. Despite how much he was disliked, he was highly knowledgeable and an excellent researcher - just one who frequently annoyed people in positions of power.

Of course, there are conspiracy theories about his death. He was rumoured to be working on an expose of the sexual peccadilloes of the royal family, and those inclined to believe such things whisper dark rumours of a murder dressed up to look like Stephen Milligan's death. Of course, there are similar mutterings about Stephen Milligan as well. Conspiracy theories breed best in the absence of information, which is why they can never really be trusted.

What seems most likely is that he simply committed suicide as a result of his financial troubles, and happened to do so in a manner that reflected a taste for sadomasochism. He owed £6,000 in rent, and was facing eviction. His phone line had been cut off for non-payment of bills totalling £2,300. He'd managed to run through and beyond the £150,000 he'd earned from his books in the last couple of years, not so much from the S&M but from living as though he were a millionaire. He even told his exasperated landlord that he intended to kill himself (and his landlord reportedly then thought: well bloody get on with it, then).

So he was something of a complex character. But as for whether or not he was a crank - well, The Independent reports that the last letter he sent to them ends with a note about the NSA and GCHQ ordering that the new GSM mobile phone technology (which is still in use today) have its security system downgraded - so that they would be able to listen in on it. This may have seemed like conspiracy theory at the time, but in the light of Edward Snowden's revelations, it's easy enough to accept this as something our intelligence services would do.

Rusbridger features in this edition of After Dark, a UK discussion programme broadcast in 1989. It's a long programme, but still very interesting. And it's always fun to see a founder of the CIA incoherently defending himself in front of Tony Benn.

Rusbridger was also mentioned in this typically extensive blog post by Adam Curtis, who argues that what Rusbridger and others were really exposing was that the intelligence community is basically incompetent and exists mainly to further its own existence. As ever from Mr. Curtis, it's fascinating stuff.