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 cafe. 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

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 naive 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.