"I worked for the Secret Intelligence Service as a contract laborer," John Fullerton said.  "In this instance, as head agent -- or cut-out -- between sub-agents I recruited and Intelligence Officers (IOs) working under diplomatic cover."  photo credit:  Photo provided by John Fullerton

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A former wartime British spy in Afghanistan and Pakistan for Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, says he regrets disguising himself as a foreign correspondent but is proud of his espionage among mujahideen guerrillas during "the last act of the Great Game" in Central Asia.

After spying from early 1981 until the end of 1983 -- during British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's administration -- John Fullerton became a career foreign correspondent and editor for Britain's Reuters news agency for 20 years, based in Hong Kong, New Delhi, Beirut, Nicosia, Cairo, and London.

Mr. Fullerton's work as a spy among Afghan mujahideen guerrilla groups was to help "the U.K. discriminate between the effective and ineffective resistance leaders," he said in an interview.

"When I told SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) I planned to apply to Reuters, they made it abundantly clear they could have no further contact," said Mr. Fullerton, 74, now living in Glasgow, Scotland.

He retired from Reuters in 2003.

Reuters and other foreign correspondents did not know Mr. Fullerton had been a spy, and that his "cover while working for SIS was journalism," he said.

"No, of course not. There may have been rumor, gossip, but you have to understand that back then, there were three major U.K. media that expressly forbade staff to work for, or collaborate with, the security and intelligence services: the BBC, the Financial Times and Reuters."

Disguised as a freelance journalist while collecting intelligence along the Afghan-Pakistan border, Mr. Fullerton "wrote mainly features and political backgrounders for U.S., European and Asian media, with a monthly retainer from the now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review," he said.

He also recruited locals in Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Most were unwitting or unconscious informants.

"I worked for the Secret Intelligence Service as a contract laborer. In this instance, as head agent -- or cut-out -- between sub-agents I recruited and Intelligence Officers (IOs) working under diplomatic cover."

Mr. Fullerton's spying included the risk of assassination.

"The U.S. seemed content to sub-contract intel to others, to take on board whatever Pakistan’s ISI [Inter Services Intelligence] told them -- and that was deliberately inaccurate and very much biased towards Islamabad’s agenda -- which included support for some really nasty people, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-i-Islami.

"Gulbuddin wasn’t that keen on killing Soviets, but in positioning himself to take over in Kabul once the Soviets eventually withdrew, as his ISI minders advised him to do. Incidentally, he put a price on my head."

Washington armed Mr. Hekmatyar, who was a hardcore Islamist, against the Soviets but declared him a terrorist when he turned against the U.S. invasion.

Among Mr. Fullerton's espionage achievements were "the odd CX [intelligence] report of mine ending up in Mrs. Thatcher’s weekly intelligence digest.

"I travelled with the mujahideen through the tribal agencies [of Pakistan] into Afghanistan, mostly on foot to [Afghan] border provinces such as Logar, Kandahar, Nangahar and Kunar."

After mujahideen emerged victorious and allowed Osama bin Laden to settle there, Washington invaded in 2001, but they were again "backing the wrong people, for all the wrong reasons," Mr. Fullerton said.

Washington used warlords, minority ethnic Tajiks, and others in a makeshift Northern Alliance against a Taliban regime comprised mostly of majority ethnic Pashtuns.

"The U.S. didn’t really understand the social and ethnic dynamics. They still don’t.

"You can’t expect Afghan armed forces composed largely of Northern Alliance personnel -- Tajiks etc. -- to hold sway in Pashtun areas.

"That helped power the internecine conflict, and drove people to support the largely Pashtun Taliban."

Britain's then-Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carington "asked SIS to find a way to get the war on television screens, in order to build public support for the Afghan resistance.

"An SIS officer came up with the idea of recruiting Afghan refugees and training them briefly in the use of Hi-8 video cameras, and sending them into Afghanistan to record the fighting.

"That was my initial role in Peshawar," the Pakistani city where Mr. Fullerton was based near the Afghan border and Khyber Pass.

"I much preferred intelligence work, and was delighted to give up the propaganda operation for a more traditional intelligence-gathering role.

"Positioning yourself alongside people with access to power and information is what HUMINT -- Human Intelligence -- is all about. There has to be empathy, understanding, sympathy, a certain meeting of minds, if it's going to work.

"It was fun. It was the last act of the Great Game," he said, using an expression popularized by British author Rudyard Kipling in 1901 to describe deadly espionage-riddled rivalry between Britain and Russia to dominate landlocked Central Asia.

"I'm proud to have worked for SIS.

"Do I think it right and proper that a journalist works for, or collaborates with, an intelligence or security agency, or for an espionage operative to use journalism as a cover?

"The answer is emphatically 'no'. 'No' ethically and 'no' in practical terms.

"A foreign correspondent is assumed automatically by the authorities to be a full time, or part time, spy and is placed under surveillance of some kind from day one -- and it’s sad," he said.

In 2021, when his "Spy Game" novel was published, Mr. Fullerton revealed on his website -- in one sentence -- that he had spied for SIS.

The book is "a fictionalized account of my time in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

Mr. Fullerton's newest, 11th novel, "Emperor" (Partisan Books, 2022), portrays a fictional leader of China plotting to nuke Taiwan.

"Who knows what lengths a narcissistic dictator will do to hold on to power?" Mr. Fuller said.

"Three famous -- or infamous -- names spring to mind: John Buchan, Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth. All were novelists, they all had connections with Reuters, and they all had worked in intelligence in one capacity or another," he later wrote.

"But few, if any of us, knew that during the post-war period, Reuters had received a considerable annual subsidy to expand its African and Middle East coverage, and this secret stream of income -- that continued until 1970 -- came out of the Information Research Department or IRD, a covert section of the Foreign Office, created to combat Soviet influence.

"The payments were paid via the BBC [British Broadcasting Corp] to ensure secrecy," Mr. Fullerton wrote on his website


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at