Sunday Tribune Interview, 2005

Irish Sunday Tribune, July 2005

What really went on in the secret service?

Suz­anne Breen

THEYRE prob­ably out there now, walk­ing about, look­ing for tar­gets, ” says former spy,  Annie Machon, as she sur­veys the bust­ling bars, res­taur­ants and shops in Gatwick Air­port.  MI5 used Heath­row and Gatwick in train­ing courses.  Officers would be sent to the air­ports and instruc­ted to come back with one person’s name, address, date of birth, occu­pa­tion and pass­port or driv­ing licence num­ber … the basic inform­a­tion for MI5 to open a per­sonal file.

They’d have to go up to a com­plete stranger and start chat­ting to them. One male officer nearly got arres­ted.  It was much easier for women officers … nobody’s sus­pi­cious of a woman ask­ing questions.”

Tall, blonde and strik­ingly eleg­ant, Machon (37) could have stepped out of a TV spy drama. She arrives in a simple black dress, with pearl ear­rings, and per­fect oyster nails.  She is charm­ingly polite but, no mat­ter how many ques­tions you ask, she retains the slightly detached, inscrut­able air that prob­ably made her good at her job.

A Cam­bridge Clas­sics gradu­ate, her book, <em>Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers</em>, has just been pub­lished. She worked in ‘F’ branch … MI5’s counter-subversion sec­tion … and ‘T’ branch, where she had a rov­ing brief on Irish ter­ror­ism.  MI5 took 15 months to vet the book. Sec­tions have been blacked out. If Machon dis­closes fur­ther inform­a­tion without approval, she could face pro­sec­u­tion under the Offi­cial Secrets Act.

She left MI5 deeply dis­il­lu­sioned. In 1997, she went on the run from the UK with her boy­friend, former fel­low spy David Shayler (39). He was sub­sequently jailed for dis­clos­ing secrets, includ­ing that MI6 had allegedly fun­ded a plot to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Gaddafi.

Machon had “respons­ib­il­ity and free­dom” in MI5 when com­bat­ing Irish ter­ror­ism. “It was won­der­ful when you got res­ults, when you stopped a bomb. That was why I’d joined.  There was a huge under­stand­ing of the IRA and the North­ern Ire­land con­flict.  We weren’t just a bunch of big­ots say­ing “string up the ter­ror­ists”. Some man­agers might have had that atti­tude but it wasn’t shared by most officers.  They acknow­ledged the IRA as the most pro­fes­sional ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tion they’d dealt with. Loy­al­ists, and repub­lican splinter groups like the INLA, were a lot less sophisticated.”

Machon didn’t wit­ness state col­lu­sion but is “watch­ing with interest” as cases unfold. She voices some eth­ical con­cerns: MI5 ran a Garda officer as an undeclared agent, which was illegal in the Repub­lic.  If it wanted to tap a phone in the Repub­lic, no war­rant was needed and there was no over­sight pro­ced­ure. An MI5 officer simply asked GCHQ, which inter­cepts com­mu­nic­a­tion, to set it up.

MI5’s approach to the law led to bizarre situations:

Officers cov­ertly entered a house in North­ern Ire­land to install bug­ging equip­ment.  They trashed it up and stole things to make it look like a burg­lary. But MI5 law­yers said it wasn’t leg­ally accept­able to steal so the officers had to go and put the goods back which made it look even more suspicious.”

Machon atten­ded secur­ity meet­ings in North­ern Ire­land. Her life was never in danger, she says. The only col­leagues she knew who were killed were on the Chinook heli­copter which crashed off the Mull of Kintyre in 1994.

Machon had joined the intel­li­gence ser­vices three years earlier. She worked from an office in Bolton Street, May­fair, one of MI5’s three build­ings in Lon­don.  “It was very dilap­id­ated.  There were ancient phones, with wires cross­ing the floor stuck down with tape.  It had battered wooden desks and thread­bare car­pets. There were awful lime-green walls. The dress code in MI5 was very Marks and Spen­cer. MI6 (which com­bats ter­ror­ism abroad) was much smarter, more Saville Row.”

MI5’s pres­ence in the build­ing was meant to be a secret but every­body knew, says Machon: “The guide on the open-top Lon­don tour bus which passed by would tell pas­sen­gers, ‘and on your right is MI5’.  We were advised to get out of taxis at the top of the street, not the front door, but all the drivers knew any­way. Later, we moved to mod­ern headquar­ters in Thames House.”

Being a spy isn’t what people think, Machon says.  “It wasn’t exactly James Bond, with glam­or­ous, cocktail-drinking espi­on­age.  There were excit­ing bits, like meet­ing agents in safe houses, but there were plenty of bor­ing days.  Mostly, I’d be pro­cessing ‘linen’ — the product from tele­phone taps … or read­ing inter­cep­ted mail or agents’ reports. You get to know your tar­gets well from eaves­drop­ping on their lives.  You learn all sorts of things, like if they’re sleep­ing with someone behind their partner’s back. It’s sur­real know­ing so much about people you don’t know; and then it rap­idly becomes very normal.”

Machon claims the intel­li­gence ser­vices were often sham­bolic, and blun­ders meant three IRA bombs in 1993 … includ­ing Bish­opsgate, which cost £350m …could have been pre­ven­ted.  “MI5 has this super-slick image but some­times it was just a very Brit­ish muddle.  Tapes from tele­phone taps would be binned without being tran­scribed because there wasn’t the per­son­nel to listen to them.  On occa­sions, MI5 did respond quickly, but then it could take weeks to get a war­rant for a phone tap because man­agers pondered so long over the applic­a­tion word­ing … whether to use ‘but’ or ‘how­ever’, ‘may’ or ‘might’.

Mobile sur­veil­lance (who fol­low tar­gets) were bloody good. There were some amaz­ingly cap­able officers who were often wasted.  Des­pite everything prom­ised about MI5 mod­ern­ising, it remained very hier­arch­ical, with the old guard, which had cut its teeth in the Cold War, dom­in­at­ing.  They were used to a static tar­get. They’re not up to the job of deal­ing with mobile extrem­ist Islamic ter­ror­ism. We’ve been play­ing catch-up with al Qaeda for years.”

Machon says MI5 pays sur­pris­ingly badly: “I star­ted on £15,000 … entrants now get about £20,000. A detect­ive con­stable in the Met was on twice my salary.  Of course, it’s about more than money but you must reward to keep good people.  If you pay pea­nuts, you end up with monkeys.”

Machon grew up in Guern­sey, in the Chan­nel Islands, the daugh­ter of a news­pa­per editor. “I was apolit­ical. My only know­ledge of spy­ing was watch­ing John Le Carre’s drama Tinker, Tailor, Sol­dier, Spy.”  After tak­ing For­eign Office exams, she received a let­ter on MoD note­pa­per.  “There may be other jobs you would find more inter­est­ing, ” it said. Intrigued, she rang. It was MI5.

Dur­ing the recruit­ment pro­cess, every aspect of her life from the age of 12 was invest­ig­ated. “I’d to nom­in­ate four friends from dif­fer­ent phases of my life. After they were ques­tioned, they had to nom­in­ate another four people.  I con­fessed to smoking dope twice. I was quizzed about my sexual his­tory by a sweet old lady who looked like my grand­mother but resembled Miss Marple in her inter­rog­a­tion.  She asked if I was gay.  The rules have since changed, but then MI5 regarded homo­sexu­al­ity as a defect. If you lied and were found out, you’d be sacked on the spot.  In the­ory, they regarded promis­cu­ity as a weak­ness, but there were plenty of extra-marital affairs. One couple were twice caught shag­ging in the office.  The male officer, who was very bad at his job, was put on ‘garden­ing leave’ … sent home on full pay. The woman, an Arabic-speaking trans­lator who was great at her job, was sacked.”

A cul­ture of “rampant drunk­en­ness” exis­ted, says Machon: “There was an oper­a­tion against a Czech dip­lo­mat who was also a spy.  The officer run­ning it got pissed, went round with his mates to the diplomat’s house, and shouted oper­a­tional details through the letter-box at him.”

Recruits were encour­aged to tell fam­ily and close friends they were MI5, and any­one else that they worked for the MoD.

MI5 had one mil­lion per­sonal files (PFs), Machon says. “I came across files on celebrit­ies, prom­in­ent politi­cians, law­yers, and journ­al­ists. It was ridicu­lous. There were files on Jack Straw, Mo Mow­lam, Peter Hain, Patri­cia Hewitt, Ted Heath, Tony and Cherie Blair, Gareth Peirce, and Mohamed Al Fayed.  There was a file on ‘sub­vers­ives’ in the music industry, includ­ing the Sex Pis­tols and UB40.

At recruit­ment, I was told MI5 no longer obsessed about ‘reds under the bed’, yet there was a file on a school­boy who had writ­ten to the Com­mun­ist Party ask­ing for inform­a­tion for a school pro­ject.  A man divor­cing his wife had writ­ten to MI5 say­ing she was a com­mun­ist, so a file was opened on her. MI5 never des­troys a file.”

The rank­ing in import­ance of tar­gets could be sur­pris­ing. PF3 was (and is) Leon Trot­sky; PF2, Vladi­mir Ilych Lenin; PF1 was Eamon De Valera.

MI5 cur­rently has around 3,000 employ­ees. About a quarter are officers; the rest are tech­nical, admin­is­trat­ive and other sup­port staff, accord­ing to Machon.

In recent years, MI5 appoin­ted two female dir­ector gen­er­als … Stella Rim­ming­ton, and the cur­rent dir­ector gen­eral, Dame Eliza Manningham-Butler. “I always found Stella very cold and I wasn’t impressed with her cap­ab­il­it­ies. There was an ele­ment of token­ism in her appoint­ment.  Eliza is like Ann Widdecombe’s bossy sis­ter, ” says Machon, mis­chiev­ously rais­ing an eye­brow. “She scares a lot of men. She is seen as hand-bagging her way to the top.”

Machon says the only way of respond­ing to the grow­ing ter­ror­ist threat is for the present intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture to be replaced by a single counter-terrorist agency.  The intense rivalry between MI5, MI6, Spe­cial Branch and mil­it­ary intel­li­gence means they’re often more hos­tile to each other than to their tar­gets. ID cards and fur­ther dra­conian secur­ity legis­la­tion will offer no pro­tec­tion, she says.

Machon was act­ive in the anti-war cam­paign. She believes there is an “80% chance” that Dr David Kelly, the gov­ern­ment sci­ent­ist who ques­tioned the claim that Iraq could launch weapons of mass destruc­tion within 45 minutes, didn’t com­mit sui­cide but was murdered on MI5’s instructions.

Other sus­pi­cious minds won­der if Machon and Shayler ever left MI5. Could it be an elab­or­ate plot to make them more effect­ive agents? By pos­ing as whis­tleblowers, they gain the entry to rad­ical, leftwing circles.

Machon dis­misses this the­ory: “It would be very deep cover indeed to go to those lengths. Gareth Peirce is our soli­citor. She trusts us and she’s no fool.” Machon says while they have no regrets, they’ve paid a huge emo­tional and fin­an­cial price for chal­len­ging the secret state. They sur­vive on money from the odd news­pa­per art­icle and TV inter­view. Home is a small ter­raced house in East­bourne, east Sus­sex, where they grow toma­toes and have two cats.

Are they still friends with serving MI5 officers? “No com­ment!” says Machon with a smile. These days, she goes places she never did.

When she addresses leftwing meet­ings, someone often approaches at the end.  “You must know my file?” they say.

Spies, Lies & Whis­tleblowers’ by Annie Machon is pub­lished by The Book Guild, £17.95