Emel Magazine, November 2007

Inter­view in Emel Magazine, Novem­ber 2007

Table Talk

Espi­on­age, intrigue and life-on-the-run are all part and par­cel of Annie Machon’s his­tory. Sadia Chow­dhury speaks to the former MI5 agent about the con­sequences of expos­ing what goes on behind the scenes at one of the world’s most renowned secret
services.

It was the Sat­urday night of the August bank-holiday  week­end in 1997 when Annie Machon and her boy­friend packed their bags and took the first two seats they could find out of Bri­tain.  They had spent the last ten months of
their lives try­ing to settle into their new jobs know­ing that a day would come when they would blow the whistle on  their former employer
and turn their lives upside down.

Machon had turned her back on a six-year career as a spy to stand by the man she loved.  Her boy­friend was David Shayler, a high-flying MI5 officer who exposed, what he said, was the Intel­li­gence Service’s plot to assas­sin­ate the Libyan leader, Muam­mar Gaddafi.

The two are no longer together but as we meet for cof­fee in a Lon­don hotel, Machon shows no regret at the way things took shape.  Dressed entirely in black, it’s her sun­shine blonde hair that lights up an oth­er­wise dull back­ground to the city’s scaffold-clad landscape.

Her life as an MI5 officer was no James Bond film, but you can still see that Machon is the per­fect spy.  With an unsus­pect­ing face and a hand­shake that feels like you have known her all your life, the 39 year old cam­paigner res­cinds the myth of the glam­or­ous, martini-sipping spy world.  “No, it’s much, much more mundane”, she laments before telling me that much of the job can con­sti­tute mind numb­ing behind-the-desk work.

But unknown to Machon at the time, a career that star­ted off as a simple applic­a­tion to work for the For­eign Office, soon developed into a plot fit for a block­buster Hol­ly­wood movie.

My first reac­tion was ‘It’s MI5!’  I was really quite frightened”, she says, recall­ing a let­ter from the Min­istry of Defence which offered her altern­at­ive jobs with the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices.  “My father was with me when I opened the lat­ter and he just said ‘let’s see what happens’. ”

What ‘happened’ was ten months of intens­ive applic­a­tion pro­cesses for the Cam­bridge Clas­sics stu­dent to undergo at the estab­lish­ment. Recov­er­ing from a post-Cold War repu­ta­tion marred with embar­rass­ing rev­el­a­tions and intel­li­gence fail­ures, Machon says her recruit­ers insisted they were aim­ing to work within the legal frame­work for the
first time.

It was 1990, only one year after the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act placed the Ser­vice on a stat­utory
basis: a fact that helped Machon believe what she was being told. “They were say­ing ‘we obey the law, we work within the law; we don’t do all the polit­ical stuff like we used to’.  But unfor­tu­nately my first post­ing was in the polit­ical sec­tion so I learnt quite quickly that they had lied to me.”

Machon con­fesses a scep­tical atti­tude soon developed after she was instruc­ted to uncover “old com­mun­ists” sum­mar­ising files on any­body who stood for par­lia­ment in the 1992 elec­tions.  Shar­ing her strong con­cerns was one David Shayler, a former Sunday Times journ­al­ist who had worked with her in F2, the counter-subversion sec­tion of MI5.

Within a year, the two fell in love — a bond that was to see them stand together against what she describes as a cata­logue of errors and crimes com­mit­ted by MI5.  “There was a lot of con­cern about how MI5 wasn’t obey­ing the law and how it was get­ting its pri­or­it­ies wrong,” Machon says, hasten­ing to add that other officers had approached man­age­ment with their con­cerns only to be told to shut up.  “Most organ­isa­tions are pyr­amid shaped and MI5 has this bulge in the middle, full of man­agers who aren’t going any­where because they’re not very good at their jobs.  But they don’t get sacked and they were the ones block­ing a lot of the new ideas that were com­ing in.”

One con­sequence of this incom­pet­ence, Machon explains, left MI5 with blood on its hands. Machon and Shayler were moved to T Branch, where they worked on coun­ter­ing Irish ter­ror­ist threats.  Shayler was to claim later that MI5 could have pre­ven­ted the 1993 IRA bomb­ing of Bish­opsgate in the City of Lon­don, which left one dead and 44 injured.

You’re in the fir­ing line,” Machon tells me plainly, paus­ing a moment as the wait­ress brings cof­fee to our table.  She goes on to describe the events that lead her to leave MI5 before slowly push­ing down on the fil­ter.  It was still the early 1990s and Machon’s part­ner Shayler was now head of the Libyan desk, respons­ible for ‘Middle East­ern terrorism’.

He was allegedly briefed by his MI6 coun­ter­part about a plot to assas­sin­ate the Libyan leader.  It is thought the plan involved fund­ing and equip­ping a Libyan oppos­i­tion group which Machon describes as an “Islamic extrem­ist net­work” to carry out the deed.  In March 1996, a bomb exploded in the coastal city of Sirte, miss­ing Gaddafi’s motor­cade but killing sev­eral civil­ians.  Shayler claimed that MI6 had been involved in the failed assas­sin­a­tion attack without the author­isa­tion of the then for­eign sec­ret­ary — as
required under Eng­lish and inter­na­tional law.  The Intel­li­gence Ser­vices denied any involve­ment in this, or sev­eral other cases that Shayler accuses the Ser­vice of being com­pli­cit in.  One of those incid­ents took place in July 1994, when a car bomb exploded out­side the Israeli embassy in Lon­don injur­ing 20 people: an attack Shayler says had prior know­ledge of and could have prevented.

Half-way through her cof­fee, Machon goes back to the events of 1996 when she and Shayler decided to leave.  “It was incre­mental because you got pos­ted every two years to a new sec­tion and you think ‘okay, that sec­tion was wrong but the new sec­tion has dif­fer­ent man­agers and is going to be bet­ter’.  But we moved three times and every time we saw the same mis­takes hap­pen.  Then the Gad­dafi plot pushed our decision to leave.”  Nor was it just Shayler and Machon who quit the Intel­li­gence Ser­vice that year.  Four­teen other officers who had all been recruited around the same time left MI5 in the same year — up from an aver­age of two or three depar­tures a year.

It took about a year to get the whole thing work­ing.  After about ten months, we got this
phone call — David was called by The Mail on Sunday to meet the editor and we were given three days notice that our lives were going to be turned upside down.”  Machon recalls how the Mail’s editor offered Shayler cash to leave the coun­try and avoid arrest.
“At that stage after a year of build-up, we just packed up and left.

The couple flew out to Hol­land, then on to France, spend­ing the next month on the run mov­ing from hotel to hotel almost every night.  Machon then decided to return to the UK, and doesn’t hes­it­ate as she relates the story — one she’s prob­ably told a thou­sand times but one that still brings a look of amuse­ment to her face.  “I flew back with my law­yer John
Wadham, head of Liberty, the human rights organ­isa­tion.  He had already told the police that I was com­ing back — on which flight, at what time, and that I was going to hand myself in.  So it was a bit of a shock to be met at immig­ra­tion by six Spe­cial Branch officers who pulled me off to a counter-terrorism suite in Char­ing Cross police station!”

Machon was released after a day of ques­tion­ing and a week later joined Shayler back in
France.  “We had ten months holed up in this freez­ing cold, really remote farm house.  And dur­ing that time we tried to nego­ti­ate with the gov­ern­ment say­ing ‘look, we have all this other evid­ence to give you so you can build an enquiry’, but they just strung it out, kept us quiet, and did nothing.”

It was a par­tic­u­larly stress­ful time for both Shayler and Machon; as whis­tleblowers they had depended on sup­port from the press, but with Diana’s death just a week after their story broke, Machon says they lost the sup­port that had been build­ing amongst the media.  “We didn’t know what to do.  We had no chance of get­ting another job because once you blow the whistle, other big organ­isa­tions don’t trust you.”  But does she regret what she did?  “No.  You can’t regret any­thing in life.  I am still proud of what David and I did.  Someone has got to take a stand sometimes.”

The ques­tion is of course, whether she will have trouble tak­ing that stand now: espe­cially as after a dec­ade since The Mail on Sunday art­icle was released and after hav­ing spent years on the run together, Machon and Shayler split up last year.  David Shayler now lives in Devon and fre­quents the media over a dif­fer­ent rev­el­a­tion:  his recent con­vic­tion that he is the Mes­siah.  In a recent tele­vi­sion appear­ance he said “As the Holy Spirit is God incarn­ate as essence, I am God incarn­ated as spirit and man.”  Machon takes a moment to con­tem­plate and in reac­tion to my ques­tion simply says, “The stress just got to him.”  Her answers now become shorter and shorter.  “We sep­ar­ated last year”, before adding, “I’m sure even­tu­ally we’ll regain our friendship.”

But doesn’t Machon think her former partner’s claims will ruin their cred­ib­il­ity?  “I think yes, it has des­troyed his cred­ib­il­ity and I think that’s tra­gic.  It’s a gift for the intel­li­gence agency — they can turn around and say ‘oh, well, he always was mad — he’s a fan­tas­ist’,
which is unfor­tu­nate because what we were talk­ing about was so import­ant in terms of where our demo­cracy is and who really runs this country.”

A final sip of cof­fee con­cludes our meet­ing as Machon pre­pares to leave the grey city­scape back­drop for yet another appoint­ment.  Though scorn of recent rev­el­a­tions seeks to under­mine what the two ex-spies were fight­ing for, when it comes to strug­gling to unveil the truth, Annie Machon for one can­not be as eas­ily dismissed.