Guardian Interview 2002 — The spy who loved me

Stu­art Jef­fries of The Guard­ian inter­viewed me in Novem­ber 2002:

The Spy who Loved Me

Annie Machon quit her job at MI5 and endured three years on the run — all for the sake of her part­ner David Shayler, who was jailed last week. She tells Stu­art Jef­fries why.

Annie Machon fell in love with a spy code­named G9A/1. It was 1991 and she had been work­ing in MI5’s counter-subversives sec­tion for two months. “The first thing I noticed about him is that he’s leon­ine,” she says over lunch. “I think he’s drop-dead gor­geous. We’d be in sec­tion meet­ings which we’d get dragged to occa­sion­ally and told what to think. He stood out because he asked the awk­ward ques­tions. He was very clear-cut and challenging.”

G9A/1 was David Shayler, the reneg­ade Brit­ish spy who last week was sen­tenced to six months for break­ing the Offi­cial Secrets Act after leak­ing secret doc­u­ments to the press. He’s the one reg­u­larly branded as a fat, sweaty, boozy, big-mouthed traitor. The kind of upstart who might take his mar­tini stirred rather than shaken. “Yes, that’s what they say, isn’t it?” says Machon, as she lights another cigar­ette. She exhales. “He’s noth­ing like that. Every­body loves to por­tray him as this slob from the north-east. But he’s not only a whis­tleblower try­ing to do some­thing hon­our­able. He’s also really intel­li­gent. I love him, and am very proud of him for what he did.”

Some people think you’re the brains behind Shayler. “That’s not true. When I star­ted at MI5, I went in as GD5. GD stands for gen­eral duties. It’s very gradist. Dave went in as GD4, which meant that they were fast track­ing him. They thought he was really sharp. And they were right. In fact, he’s very sparky and great com­pany. We just clicked, basic­ally.” How did MI5 bosses feel about office romances? “They encour­aged them. They regarded those sorts of rela­tion­ships as polit­ic­ally expedi­ent, and oper­a­tion­ally quite sens­ible. There were quite a few couples at MI5.”

How did Annie Machon, a clas­sics gradu­ate from Gir­ton Col­lege, Cam­bridge, get recruited as a spook in the first place? A nudge in the quad, a glass of sherry with a shifty don? “No, I had sat the exam to be a dip­lo­mat. Then I got a let­ter.” She was impressed by the 10-month recruit­ment pro­cess. “It was very thor­ough with lots of tests and back­ground checks. It seemed like a pro­fes­sional organ­isa­tion. We were sup­posed to be part of the new gen­er­a­tion. People from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and dif­fer­ent exper­i­ences were sup­posed to be brought in — people who could think on their feet and think lat­er­ally. We both joined think­ing it soun­ded good for the coun­try, which sounds quite ideal­istic now.”

When did scep­ti­cism set in? “Very quickly.” Machon and Shayler were employed to look for reds under the bed, but they couldn’t find any, even though they stud­ied the file on that dan­ger­ous leftwing sub­vers­ive Peter Man­del­son ever so assidu­ously. “We were basic­ally try­ing to track down old com­mun­ists, Trot­sky­ists and fas­cists, which to us seemed like a waste of time. The Ber­lin Wall had come down sev­eral years before. We were both hor­ri­fied that dur­ing the 1992 elec­tion we were sum­mar­ising files on any­body who stood for par­lia­ment. We were also hor­ri­fied by the scale of the invest­ig­a­tions. We both argued most voci­fer­ously that we shouldn’t be doing this.”

After two years, both Machon and Shayler were moved to T-branch, where they worked on coun­ter­ing Irish ter­ror­ist threats on the main­land. “We were both doing well. We were good oper­at­ives and they wanted the best in that sec­tion. I don’t want to be egot­ist­ical but that was the truth.”

The pair hoped that this rel­at­ively new sec­tion would oper­ate bet­ter. “There were sev­eral young and tal­en­ted agents who did their best. But because of man­age­ment cock-ups they couldn’t do their jobs prop­erly and peoples’ lives were lost.” What was the prob­lem? “They had all these old man­agers who had been there for donkey’s years. They were caught in the wrong era — instead of deal­ing with static tar­gets, they had a mobile threat in the IRA and they just couldn’t hack it. It was a night­mare, espe­cially because there were so many agen­cies involved — MI5, Spe­cial Branch, the RUC, GCHQ. They all had their own interests. That was why Bish­opsgate happened.” Shayler later claimed that MI5 could have stopped the 1993 IRA bomb­ing of Bish­opsgate in the City of Lon­don, which left one dead and 44 injured.

Why didn’t you leave then? “It was very easy to get into a stasis. You have lots of friends there. But when you get to a more estab­lished sec­tion like the Middle East ter­ror­ism sec­tion and you see it’s the same, then you think about quitting.”

In 1995, Shayler dis­covered that MI6 had paid an agent who was involved in the plot to assas­sin­ate the Libyan leader, Muam­mar Gadafy. Why was that wrong? “Apart from the immor­al­ity of it, the gen­eral con­sensus from the intel­li­gence com­munity was that the assas­sin­a­tion of a well-established head of state by an Islamic fun­da­ment­al­ist in a very volat­ile area was not a good idea. It was crazy, but these bozos at MI6 wanted to have a crack at him.”

Then there was the case in which MI5 tapped a journalist’s phone. “For us, that’s what broke the camel’s back. A tap was only to be used in extremis, and this was noth­ing like that.”

Why didn’t you go quietly? “Well, other officers did. In the year we left, 14 officers resigned. The aver­age fig­ure was usu­ally four. It was very scary. Dave is someone who thinks he should fight for what he believes in. And I knew what he was talk­ing about. I knew he had to have the sup­port against the massed forces of dark­ness. When you work there, the only per­son you can report some­thing to is the head of MI5 but if you’re com­plain­ing about alleged crimes on behalf of MI5, they’re not going to allow you to do that, so you’re in a Catch 22 situation.”

In August 1997, Shayler sold his story to the Mail on Sunday. The day before pub­lic­a­tion the couple fled to Utrecht in Hol­land. “We left before the piece came out because they would have knocked down our doors and arres­ted Dave. I felt ter­ri­fied. But we man­aged to stay one step ahead.” Why was he the whis­tle­bower rather than you? “He had more access to what was going on — he was right in the middle of the Gadafy plot — and felt very strongly about it.”

The couple ended up in a French farm­house. “It was in the middle of nowhere. No TV, no car. For 10 months we spent every day together. He would write his novel dur­ing the day.” What were you doing? “I was keep­ing house. We enjoyed each other’s com­pany.” No rows? “Plenty.”

The couple tried to nego­ti­ate to return to Bri­tain without Shayler being pro­sec­uted, but with an under­tak­ing that his alleg­a­tions be offi­cially invest­ig­ated. “We got a com­plete lack of interest.” Then, dur­ing a stay in Paris, Shayler was arres­ted in a hotel lobby. “We’d just been watch­ing Middles­brough on TV. They lost, of course. Then I didn’t see him for two months.” He spent nearly four months in La Santé, Paris’s top-security prison which also houses Car­los the Jackal who used to yell “David Eng­lish!” to the reneg­ade spy from his cell. “I was bereft.” How are you going to deal with his cur­rent impris­on­ment? “I’ll just deal with it. It’s hor­rible, but I’m tough.”

A French judge ruled the extra­di­tion demand was polit­ic­ally motiv­ated and released him. The couple then ren­ted a flat in Paris and holed up for a year. “As far as the Brit­ish author­it­ies were con­cerned, we could rot. They didn’t want us to come back. We made a little money from journ­al­ism, but this wasn’t the life we wanted.” Why in August 2000 did the spies decide to come home? “We had man­aged to nego­ti­ate a return without risk­ing months of remand. Dave thought he would be able to present his case to peers: yes, he did take £40,000 from the Mail on Sunday but that isn’t why he told the story. He never got the chance. In the trial they tied his hands behind his back. He couldn’t say any­thing to the jury. The report­ing restric­tions were extraordinary.”

She vis­ited Shayler in jail for the first time on Tues­day. How was he? “He’ll be all right.” Now what? “I wait. And in the mean­time, we get our legal case together. We’re going to Europe, Brit­ish justice is useless.”

Wouldn’t you like to put all this behind you and get on with your lives. “We will. But not yet. It could take five years to clear his name.” Machon, poised and clad in black, turns a cigar­ette in her fin­gers. “You know, when I star­ted this case I was in my 20s. Now I’m 34. I don’t think I’ll have fin­ished with it until I’m in my 40s. I wish I’d never got involved with MI5. I wouldn’t touch them with a barge­pole if I had my time again.” I leave Machon alone at a café table writ­ing a let­ter to the man no longer code­named G9A/1.