Interview with Francis Wheen, 1999

An inter­view with Fran­cis Wheen of The Guard­ian, August 1999:

The spy left out in the cold

Fran­cis Wheen on the hound­ing by the author­it­ies of MI5 whis­tleblower David Shayler:

Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer liv­ing in France, came to Lon­don last week. On a pre­vi­ous visit, in 1997, she was nabbed at Gatwick air­port by a goon squad from Spe­cial Branch. This time her only ordeal was a couple of hours with me in a Soho café. It was pro­gress of a sort, I sup­pose; but little else has changed​.It is exactly two years since Annie’s part­ner, David Shayler, hit the head­lines with his com­plaints of mal­prac­tice and incom­pet­ence at MI5. Since then the gov­ern­ment has con­sist­ently refused to heed or
invest­ig­ate his alleg­a­tions, pre­fer­ring to load up its rusty blun­der­buss and shoot the messenger.

In his ori­ginal inter­view with the Mail on Sunday, Shayler exploded the offi­cial myth that MI5 mon­it­ors only those “sub­vers­ives” who wish to “over­throw demo­cracy by viol­ent means”, reveal­ing that, in fact, it kept files on such harm­less pussy­cats as Jack Straw, Peter Man­del­son, Har­riet Har­man and the reg­gae band UB40. The gov­ern­ment was out­raged — not by the evid­ence of spooky skul­dug­gery but by Shayler’s whistleblowing.

Tony Blair’s spokes­man warned the news­pa­per that “the heav­ies would move in” unless future art­icles were sub­mit­ted to Down­ing Street for vet­ting. When the editor refused to obey, the treas­ury soli­citor obtained an injunc­tion ban­ning the media from report­ing any fur­ther remarks by Shayler about mis­con­duct or mis­man­age­ment in the secur­ity service.

Shortly after­wards, at MI5’s request, Spe­cial Branch officers raided the Lon­don flat Shayler had shared with Machon. The search war­rant per­mit­ted them to look for
“evid­ence of an offence under the offi­cial secrets act” — which they inter­preted, rather eccent­ric­ally, as a licence to smash the fur­niture, hurl table lamps to the floor and remove sev­eral pairs of Machon’s knickers.

Then came the absurd pan­to­mime at Gatwick air­port. Machon was obvi­ously not going to put up a struggle: her law­yer had told the police when and where she was due, and she was armed with noth­ing more lethal than an overnight bag. Nev­er­the­less, Spe­cial Branch
thought it neces­sary to send no fewer than six brutes to hustle her away. This crude intim­id­a­tion con­tin­ued dur­ing six hours of ques­tion­ing at Char­ing Cross police sta­tion, when her inter­rog­at­ors read out love let­ters she had exchanged with Shayler — bil­lets doux that had no con­ceiv­able rel­ev­ance to the Offi­cial Secrets Act.

If Shayler had com­mit­ted a ser­i­ous offence, as Straw main­tained, why were no charges brought against the edit­ors and journ­al­ists who pub­lished his dis­clos­ures? The ques­tion answers itself: bul­lies pick on the power­less, and min­is­ters were reluct­ant to ant­ag­on­ise the mighty Asso­ci­ated News­pa­pers. Instead, the author­it­ies took out their frus­tra­tion by har­ass­ing inno­cent bystand­ers. Shayler’s brother, Philip, was detained, as were two of his friends.

Like Machon, they were even­tu­ally released without charge — although not before the police had help­fully informed Philip’s employ­ers that he was wanted in con­nec­tion with “fin­an­cial irregularities”.

From his French exile, Shayler con­tin­ued to press for an inquiry. In Octo­ber 1997, the
gov­ern­ment set up a cab­inet office review of the intel­li­gence agen­cies to be chaired by John Alpass, a former deputy dir­ector of the secur­ity ser­vice. As Shayler points out, Alpass was scarcely a dis­in­ter­ested party, as “any adverse cri­ti­cism of MI5 would have reflec­ted badly on his time there”. Nev­er­the­less, Shayler sub­mit­ted a 6,000-word memo on “man­age­ment prob­lems in MI5”.

The com­mit­tee refused to read it. He was given a sim­ilar brush-off by the par­lia­ment­ary intel­li­gence and secur­ity com­mit­tee, sup­posedly respons­ible for hold­ing the spooks to
account.

Last sum­mer, in the hope of excit­ing some offi­cial interest, Shayler told the Mail on Sunday that MI6 had secretly paid a Libyan emigré £100,000 to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Muam­mar Gadafy. Although  the point of Shayler’s rev­el­a­tion was that min­is­ters had neither known nor approved of the plot, Robin Cook felt able to issue an instant denial. “I’m per­fectly clear that these alleg­a­tions have no basis in fact. It is pure fantasy.”

Why, then, did the gov­ern­ment refuse to let the MoS pub­lish the art­icle, arguing that it would endanger national secur­ity? And why did Straw imme­di­ately ask France to arrest
and extra­dite Shayler? If the story was fantasy, he hadn’t broken the offi­cial secrets act. If it was true, and Brit­ish intel­li­gence had indeed con­spired to murder a for­eign head of state, then it would not be Shayler who had some explain­ing to do.

Unable to cope with this glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion, his enemies took refuge in invect­ive. “In a
bet­ter world,” the Daily Tele­graph har­rumphed, “David Shayler and his like… would be horse-whipped.”

After his release from a French jail last Novem­ber, the Sunday Tele­graph came up with an even more extreme solu­tion, point­ing out that if he were a reneg­ade French spy his former employ­ers would prob­ably have killed him. “One won­ders how Shayler would react to being shot at by MI5 agents,” the news­pa­per mused. “But these days,” it added  regret­fully, “MI5 is scru­pu­lous in its obser­va­tion of the let­ter of the law.”

Scru­pu­lous as ever, MI5 tried assas­sin­at­ing his repu­ta­tion instead, let­ting it be known
that he was always regarded in the ser­vice as “a Wal­ter Mitty, a loose can­non” and “a rebel who likes to sail close to the wind”. (The last phrase, incid­ent­ally, came from a school report writ­ten before Shayler had even taken his A-levels.)

Many tame MPs and hacks have repeated these insults without paus­ing to think through their logic. If Shayler is as mani­festly dotty as they claim and yet man­aged to join the fast track at MI5 and win a per­form­ance bonus in his final year, doesn’t this con­firm that the secur­ity ser­vice is indeed run by dan­ger­ous clod­hop­pers, as Shayler claims?

Logic, how­ever, is sel­dom allowed to intrude into this case — except for the deranged logic of Catch 22. Shayler wrote a spy novel, The Organ­isa­tion, assum­ing that this at least would be allowed. No such luck.

The treas­ury soli­citor con­tac­ted the major Lon­don pub­lish­ers warn­ing that Shayler must not write any­thing, “whether presen­ted as fact or fic­tion, which may be con­strued as relat­ing to the secur­ity ser­vice or its mem­ber­ship or activ­it­ies or to secur­ity or intel­li­gence activ­it­ies gen­er­ally .” (My ital­ics.) In other words, Shayler can’t pub­lish true stor­ies, even if the gov­ern­ment says they are fic­tion; but he can’t pub­lish fic­tion for fear that it might have a ker­nel of truth. And yet other ex-spies — John Le Carre, Ted All­beury — have writ­ten ump­teen nov­els about Brit­ish intel­li­gence without hav­ing injunc­tions hurled at them.

It is barely believ­able in this day and age that a UK cit­izen should have to live in exile for telling the truth — or, if you believe the gov­ern­ment, for mak­ing up stor­ies about the intel­li­gence ser­vices,” Shayler says. “It is doubly dif­fi­cult to accept when we see that this has happened at the behest of a Labour government.”

Per­son­ally, I don’t find it at all dif­fi­cult: Labour politi­cians have always been suck­ers for cloak-and-dagger non­sense. Lest we for­get, it was the last Labour gov­ern­ment that expelled the Amer­ican journ­al­ists Philip Agee and Mark Hosen­ball at the behest of MI5, without troub­ling to give any reas­ons, and then tried to jail a col­league of mine from the New States­man for the hein­ous offence of col­lect­ing min­istry of defence press releases. “New” Labour has revived the tra­di­tion by pro­sec­ut­ing a respec­ted defence orres­pond­ent, Tony Ger­aghty, and tor­ment­ing the hap­less Shayler.

Only last month the treas­ury soli­citor sent a stern let­ter to Shayler’s law­yers. “Your cli­ent has been writ­ing to vari­ous mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment, enclos­ing a pamph­let which he has writ­ten entitled Secrets and Lies,” he noted. “The dis­clos­ure of this inform­a­tion con­sti­tutes yet a fur­ther breach by your cli­ent of the injunc­tion against him… I am not instruc­ted to deal in detail with the points made by your cli­ent, save to say that his  alleg­a­tions of impro­pri­ety on the part of the secur­ity ser­vice are rejected.”

How can min­is­ters know that the alleg­a­tions are false without both­er­ing to check? Easy: MI5’s dir­ector, Stephen Lander, has assured Straw that everything is tickety-boo.

At the height of the Spycatcher panic, the Brit­ish cab­inet sec­ret­ary admit­ted that White­hall often found it neces­sary to be “eco­nom­ical with the truth”, and there are very few people naïve enough to assume that the pro­fes­sional dis­sim­u­lat­ors who run MI5 and MI6 can always be believed. For­tu­nately for Lander, this select band of cred­u­lous oafs includes every senior mem­ber of the Labour cabinet.

If David Shayler were a mem­ber of the Pro­vi­sional IRA, Tony Blair would be happy to nego­ti­ate deals and  indem­nit­ies with him. Since he is merely a public-spirited whis­tleblower who has never murdered any­one, he is con­demned to har­ass­ment, vili­fic­a­tion and indef­in­ite exile.