Foreign Office sources stressed that all private contractors working at British embassies were subject to strict checks. But Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, said: “There are clearly questions to be asked over whether the early vetting turned up anything and if not, why not. The vetting is clearly not up to scratch.
“He’s no Kim Philby. If the vetting process can’t pick him up, and he’s low level, are they going to be able to pick up people who are deeper problems to us and on a serious scale?”
Bob Seely, the Tory vice-chairman of the all-parliamentary group on Russia, said it was “concerning” that security concerns had not been flagged during the vetting process, given the “eccentric” contents at Smith’s home.
Other items on obvious display at the apartment included several scribbled notes on a desk which appeared to be relevant to the investigation. One of them read: “Berlin police have four numbers,” while another said: “Docs for meeting at the weekend”.
Security experts last night suggested the planned “meeting” could have been set up by Western security services and used as the trigger for his arrest.
Smith kept other memorabilia linked to the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and the subsequent bloody war in Ukraine.
Through the window of his flat could be seen letters from Dnipro, a city on the front line of the conflict, as well as a coffee mug with the emblem of Novorossiya, a separatist Russian puppet state in eastern Ukraine. He also displayed a framed insignia of the Berkut riot police who were involved in violent crackdowns on pro-Western protesters in Ukraine in 2014. Outside, Smith’s silver Ford Fiesta was still parked. Bild, the German tabloid, joked that the vehicle was very different from the more glamorous Aston Martin sports cars favoured by James Bond.
Smith reportedly moved to Potsdam four years ago. Neighbours said they barely knew him, adding that he left home for work each day at 6am and returned late at night. One neighbour said: “He was friendly, smiley and a polite guy”. Neighbours spoke of a woman who used to live with him but none of them had seen her recently.
Smith has been charged under German law with “activity as an agent for a foreign secret service” and remanded in custody. He is unlikely to be extradited to the UK. Andrei Soldatov, a leading expert on Russian intelligence, said Smith would likely be accused in court of being a “walk-in” agent as Russian intelligence has largely been relying on people approaching them and offering them information rather than cultivating its own sources.
“I doubt that this was an agent they have been cultivating. Things that were possible in the 1930s don’t exist anymore,” he said. “The job of Russian intelligence staff at embassies abroad has mostly been about sitting and waiting for those people to show up.”
Scotland Yard Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said detectives had been working on the case with German police for “a number of months”.
Former national security adviser Lord Peter Ricketts said Smith was unlikely to have had access to highly classified information. However, he added: “I think the Russian intelligence threat to all our countries has grown again.”
A spokesman for the Foreign Office refused to comment.
The Telegraph, London