David Bickford spent his career as the Legal Director for both MI5 and MI6, Britain’s premier intelligence services. The job was to make sure that the agencies complied with legislation, as well as ensuring that the balance of rights between the agencies and the individuals they dealt with was respected.
Only recently allowed out of the shadows, if you will, he’s one of just a handful of people with clearance to discuss his experiences publicly.
Bickford recalls the first operation he was involved in as a lawyer, teamed up with the United States FBI in the Caribbean.
“We were trailing a drug trafficker who had a vast house on a tropical island at the edge of the sea,” he says. “The place had gold taps in the bathroom.”
The moneyed excesses are actually what tipped them off to the illegal activity, he says. The two institutions organized a sting operation and sent in one of their agents, acting as a drug trafficker from a Colombian cartel.
The operation came to a disappointing but humorous close when the trafficker invited the agent to conduct their negotiations outside. While the view of waves being whipped up by the wind and crashing onto shore was undoubtedly beautiful, the waiting agencies heard absolutely nothing from the moment the subjects stepped outdoors.
It took a second setup – arranged to take place in a tapped hotel room in Miami – to gather the intel for the trafficker to be locked up by American courts. Later on, that same agent was sent to do another job against the cartel. This time, sadly, he was found out and killed.
New career direction
Just one of a career’s worth of stories, it shows both the humor of intelligence operations as well as the danger that hangs over the heads of all involved. These experiences – from the amusing to the challenging – are now the inspiration for Bickford’s next career: author.
KATYA hit shelves July 5, published by Coinkydink, Bickford’s son’s new independent publishing company. Swiftly following the debut will be an additional prequel and sequel, making their way into the world in late 2023 and early 2024.
“What we’re talking about here is fiction,” Bickford explains. “It’s all based on experience, but it’s not fact.”
“People like reading escapist books. They like to sit on the edge of their seats.”
The novel’s wide-ranging missions span the globe, from Berlin to Afghanistan, Russia to China, involving money-laundering schemes, prostitution, violence, terrorism – and a stolen fortune. Katya’s team must go up against the most dangerous and corrupt elements of society to reach a conclusion – all while racing against time.
“The question there, of course, is one that’s close to any internal agent who’s chasing a large amount of money,” Bickford says. “Are you going to go through with the operation? Or are you going to be tempted by the money?”
That, ‘Would I, wouldn’t I’, question, the fast-running plot and just enough insider detail will keep readers hooked to the end.
“People like reading escapist books,” he says. “They like to sit on the edge of their seats.” He mentions the silent, black-and-white films during which, inevitably, a damsel ended up tied to railway tracks.
Bickford’s title character Katya, however, isn’t one to wait around for a last-second rescue. As the chief operator in the eponymous book, she’s drawn from the strong, incredibly capable women in his work and life.
“The women officers in the agencies are very, very fine indeed. They have this ability to analyze and think of about eight different things at once, whereas males sort of tend to have a single line of thought,” he says. “I have nothing but the greatest admiration for women agents.”
“There’s a vast number of Russians out there who do not agree with what’s going on. They are the people we need to remember and try to keep in contact with to show that actually, behind all this, there’s a better future.”
The fictional Katya is Russian – a detail that might give some readers pause in this current global climate, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sets the world on edge.
“I made her a Russian because both the character herself and her fictional agency were imagined before the disintegration of relations with Russia, when Russia was cooperative with us,” Bickford says.
In order to chase the novel’s depraved international criminal, the countries must work together.
“The message here is that we have to keep channels open with all states,” he says. “There’s a vast number of Russians out there who do not agree with what’s going on. They are the people we need to remember and try to keep in contact with to show that actually, behind all this, there’s a better future.”
Despite the worries he has for the state of the world – from the current crisis in eastern Europe and the growing prevalence of AI, to China’s latest antics and beyond – that optimism doesn’t waver.
“I don’t think you can improve unless you’re optimistic, if you don’t have that sort of super confidence that things will be alright in the end,” Bickford says. “I think pessimism can sometimes halt progress in the way of, ‘Oh, we better not try this because it’s all too difficult.’ But we don’t know the ultimate result. So you just have to go for it.”
In that spirit, Bickford’s gone to battle for years to upend the detrimental systems surrounding issues close to his heart.
“There are certain ambitions I hope to see fulfilled,” he says.
“I think pessimism can sometimes halt progress.”
There’s the ongoing push to allow telephone intercept to be used as evidence in the United Kingdom, the last country he knows of to prohibit this.
“The objection from White Hall is that, ultimately, it costs too much,” Bickford says. An infuriatingly feeble argument that, despite the opportunity to put away more criminals and terrorists, is frequently spouted by preoccupied politicians.
In the case of sexual assault trials in the United Kingdom, Bickford has long been a proponent of introducing an examining judge into the process. Victims, who are currently questioned by police in what amounts to be at best a harrowing experience, would be able to interact with someone specially trained to conduct these interviews. It would allow for more sensitivity and discretion before the matter goes to court, he says.
Another topic politicians won’t – or rather, haven’t yet – touched, he says.
Whether as the CEO of a large company, the editor of a magazine or someone involved in government, there are always incredibly frustrating things that go on.
“It’s the same for anyone in any position where they want to see forward movement and improvement,” Bickford says. “But you just have to keep pushing ahead. We have to deal with all things in the most optimistic way possible.”
Main image photo credit: Adam Whitehead