The Blacklist – how to go on the run

Recently I did this interview for BBC Click to promote the third series of the excellent US spy series “The Blacklist”:

How to go on the run from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
The series is apparently huge in the USA – and I can see why, as it is good – but little known to date in the UK.

Karma Police

As I type this I am listening to one of my all-time favourite albums, Radiohead’s seminal “OK, Computer”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spellbound by its edginess, complexity, experimentalism and political overtones. My partner at the time, David Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admittedly tone deaf, he never understood what he laughingly called the “music conspiracy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.

ST_Spies_on_the_RunHis opinion changed drastically over the summer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes committed by the UK’s spy agencies. As a result of our actions – the first reports appeared in the British media on 24 July 1997 – we had fled the country and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this surreal backpacking holiday I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ransacked home, and try to comfort our traumatised families who had known nothing of our whistleblowing plans.

“OK, Computer” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. Taking random trains, moving from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dislocated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recreate a sense of homeliness – some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essentials for our unknown future life, I had managed to squeeze in my portable CD player (remember those?), tiny speakers and a few cherished CDs. Such are the priorities of youth.

The joy of Radiohead broke upon David during that month – particularly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encapsulated our feelings as we fled the UK together. Once we were holed up in a primitive French farmhouse for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, holding onto each other tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Revelling in the music, we also drew strength from the dissident tone of the lyrics.

So it was with some mirthful incredulity that I yesterday read on The Intercept that GCHQ named one of its most iniquitous programmes after one of the classic songs from the album – “Karma Police”.

In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to develop a system that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a profile of each of our lives online – our interests, our peccadilloes, our politics, our beliefs. The programme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed functional in 2009. Who knows what information GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, everyone, since then?

As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many others began to expose the out-of-control spy agencies, this is disproportionate in soi-dissent democracies. It is certainly not lawful by any stretch of the imagination. UK governmental warrants – which are supposed to regulate and if necessary circumscribe the activities of the spy snoopers – have repeatedly been egregiously abused.

They are supposed to make a case for targeted surveillance of people suspected of being a threat to the UK’s national security or economic well-being. The warrants, blindly signed by the Home or Foreign Secretary, are not designed to authorise the industrial interception of everyone’s communications. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.

Talking of crimes, after a month on the run with David, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arrested, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was David Shayler’s girlfriend and had supported his whistleblowing activities. In fact my lawyer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liberties union, Liberty, had negotiated with the police for me return to the UK and hand myself into the police for questioning. He flew out to Barcelona to accompany me back to the UK almost exactly eighteen years ago today.

Annie_arrestDespite the pre-agreements, I was arrested at the immigration desk at Gatwick airport by six burly Special Branch police officers and then driven by them up to the counter-terrorism interview room in Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for the maximum six hours before being released with no charge.

The music playing on the radio during this drive from the airport to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.

One can but hope that karma will come into play. But perhaps the ending of “Exit Music…”  is currently more pertinent – we hope that you choke, that you choke…..

After all, the spies do seem to be choking on an overload of hoovered-up intelligence – pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been carried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies.  Too much information can indeed be bad for our security, our privacy and our safety.

Exile – ExBerliner Article

My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:

What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.

However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.

As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.

However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.

It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.

Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.

Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.

Swedish SVT TV Interview, November 2014

Here’s an interview I did while at the excellent Internetdagarna conference in Stockholm last month.  It covers all things whistleblower, going on the run, and spy accountability:

Interview on Swedish SVT TV, November 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Newsletter Excerpt re Edward Snowden

For readers who have not yet signed up to my monthly newsletter, here is the excerpt about Edward Snowden from my June edition, with a little update at the end:

The Edward Snowden saga is riveting for me on so many levels.You’ll no doubt be aware of the case, unless you have been living in a cupboard for the last few weeks.  Snowden is the brave young NSA contractor who has blown the whistle on a range of global surveillance programmes that the Americans and the Brits have developed over the last few years to fight the war on terrorism spy on all of us.

The sheer scale of his disclosures so far is incredible and has huge implications for what remains of our democratic way of life. Just today more information emerged to show that the NSA has been spying on key EU institutions – which might go some way to explaining why so much recent EU legislation appears to favour the interests of US corporatism over those of European citizens….

Pundits have been calling him the most significant whistleblower since Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam war 40 years ago.  But I would go further.  In my view Edward Snowden is the most significant whistleblower in modern history because, while Ellsberg disclosed vital information, it was largely a matter that affected the Americans and the hapless Vietnamese.  What Snowden has exposed, just to date, impacts all of us around the world.

Snowden has confirmed the darkest fears of legal experts, geeks and concerned global citizens about the sheer scale of the surveillance society we all now live under.  Not only are our intelligence agencies running amok, they do so using the infrastructure of the global internet megacorps.  What he has laid bare is the fact that we are all already living under full-blown fascism.

He played it so well with that early film stating very clearly his motivation to go public – to defend a way of life that he saw was under threat. He appears to have learned from the mistakes of previous whistleblowers.  He chose a journalist who understands the issues and has the fire in the belly and the international profile to fight his corner.  Glenn Greenwald is a fearless campaigning lawyer-turned-journalist who for years has been defending the work of Wikileaks, with the irony being that he is now the new Assange, being attacked, threatened and smeared for reporting the disclosures.

Of course, I and many other former whistleblowers have been swamped by the usual frenzied media tsunami, called up for interview after interview.  For me this began just as I was about to turn in for the night at 11.30pm on 9th June, when RT rang me up asking for an urgent live interview just as the identity of Snowden was emerging across the world’s media.  After a frantic 15 minutes sorting out the makeup and the tech (in that order, naturally), I was wide awake again and speaking on live TV.  From that came a slew of other requests over the next few days, including many programmes on the BBC, Sky News, and multiple radio and newspaper interviews.  I could barely find time to leave my phone and computer to get to the bathroom….  Then the wave receded for a few days before Snowden fled to Russia, when the whole cycle began again.

Reading about Snowden going on the run also brought back a number of personal memories for me. In 1997 I fled the UK with David Shayler only 12 hours ahead of his initial disclosures about MI5 criminality breaking in the UK media. We were pursued across Europe, and had a month literally on the run, followed by a year living in hiding in la France Profonde before David was arrested, pending extradition, at the request of the British government.  He spent almost 4 months in a Paris prison before the French released him – their view being that he was a whistleblower, which was deemed to be a political offence for which France specifically does not extradite.  We lived more openly in Paris for another two years, although David was trapped in France – had he travelled to another country the whole ghastly extradition process would have started again.

Well, there are worse places than France to be trapped in exile, but even so it was difficult for him.  How much more so for Edward Snowden, whose options are more seriously constrained and who faces life in prison in the US if he is caught?  Knowing the penalties he faces and being aware of the tracking capabilities and the ruthless disregard for the law and human rights of the modern US intelligence infrastructure, his bravery in exposing the global US surveillance state is truly breath-taking.

To finish, here is one of my recent Sky News interviews about the Edward Snowden case:

Sky TV interview on Snowden case from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Addendum: today’s news told us that Bolivian President, Evo Morales’s official, diplomatically protected, plane have been barred from flying home from Moscow over much of Euro airspace, where he had been participating in high-level talks.  The reason being that Edward Snowden might have been be on board. Morales was grounded in Austria and had to submit to a police search of the plane, against all diplomatic protocol.  No Snowden was found, naturally.

I see this as a very clever move by persons unknown – testing exactly what the international response would be if Edward Snowden tries to fly out of Russia.  And the Europeans, under undoubted pressure from the US, have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

The US-Euro complicit patsies have been flushed out by this diplomatic scandal. Demonstrations are apparently already occurring against the French embassy in Bolivia.  And this on the same day that the French President, Francois Hollande, used the Snowden disclosures to delay the rightly-maligned US-EU trade agreement.

So, even as the French use the Snowden disclosures for political advantage, they apparently refuse to assist the source.  Which is unfortunate – my memory of French law is that whistleblowing is deemed a political act and the French specifically do not extradite for alleged political offences.

Perhaps the French constitution and law have changed since Sarkozy took France into NATO….

The Real News Network on Whistleblowing, Part 2

Part Two of my recent interview on the excellent, independent and fearless Real News Network:

The Point of No Return

This interview by E Jane Dickson was published in The Independent newspaper in January 1999, and covers the time “on the run”, the failed extradition attempt, and living in exile in Paris.

The pale noon of Paris fails to penetrate the hotel lobby where David Shayler is waiting. It is not a fashionable establishment; rather, one of those rackety joints where Anglophones gather to swap memories of Hershey bars and HP sauce. But, for the professional couple in the back booth, this is both a refuge and an operational HQ. This is where Annie Machon stayed when she came to visit David Shayler in gaol. This is where they gather their friends and resources and try to work out how on earth Shayler is going to get home.

Last November, when David Shayler walked free from La Sante prison, he looked like New Labour’s worst nightmare: an unreconstructed hairy lefty in a Middlesbrough FC shirt, shouting the odds about freedom of information in our brave new Britain. The French court had refused to extradite  Shayler, a former MI5 agent who blew the whistle on  incompetence in the Security Service, on the grounds that his revelations were a political act. He is, for the moment, a free man, but should he set foot outside any French border, it is understood that the extradition process will start all over again. “It could be worse,” says Shayler, on the way to lunch at a nearby restaurant. “lt could have been Belgium that I wasn’t extradited from.”

The grim humour is typical. For a man going nowhere, Shayler laughs a lot, but his eyes are deeply shadowed by 18 months of uncertainty. In August 1997, five months after the left the Service, Shayler decided to speak out against the culture of obsessive bureaucracy and bungling he had witnessed in MI5.

In an article in the Mail on Sunday he alleged that secret files had been held on prominent Labour politicians, including Jack Straw, Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson. For many, this revelation was so unsurprising as to be hardly worth breaking the Official Secrets Act for. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, the thrilling prospect of your very own MI5 file was all too often the prime reason for joining university Labour clubs. It was enough, however, for the Government to slap an injunction on the Mail on Sunday to prevent any further revelations and for Shayler to skip the country with pounds 20,000 from the Mail on
Sunday for expenses.

Much more damaging were Shayler’s subsequent claims that the Government had been party to an assassination attempt on Colonel Gadaffi, the Libyan leader, something the Foreign Office strenuously denies, and that the Government had had prior warning of
terrorist attacks including the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Kensington Palace Gardens and the IRA bombing of the City of London. Because of a chain of incompetence within MI5, Shayler alleged, these warnings were not acted upon, resulting in avoidable injury and loss of life.

“I’m not a spy and I’m not a traitor,” says Shayler. His words are measured and inflected, like a mantra or confession of faith. “I’m not a spy and I’m not a traitor. I simply raised issues that I believe are of great importance to the nation. If I had wanted to be a traitor,
it would have been very easy for me to do it while I was in MI5. I could have sold information for millions of pounds and nobody would have been any the wiser. I didn’t do that because I believe in standing up for what I believe in.”

The Government, however, takes a dim view of Shayler’s patriotic principles and has pursued him with the full weight of international law. After a year on the run, when they buried themselves in rural France, Shayler and Machon were tracked down to Paris where he was appearing on the David Frost breakfast programme. Shayler was watching Middlesbrough play on satellite television when he was arrested. Two months in prison gave him plenty of time to consider his position, and he paces his argument like a marathon runner who knows every inch of the track.

Occasionally, however, he gathers a head of outrage that sends him pumping for the finishing line. “At one point,” he says, pink with indignation, “it looked like I was going to be extradited and General Pinochet wasn’t. Jack Straw stood up and said that they were thinking about sending Pinochet back to Chile on compassionate grounds. I read that in a French newspaper, in a French prison, and I was thinking `this is absolutely ridiculous’. This is a man who has murdered and tortured thousands of people. I have written a
bloody newspaper article and he {Straw} is going for me and not for this other guy. IRA prisoners are being released, people who have been in campaigns to murder people, and yet I’m being hounded for telling the truth.”

David Shayler hardly fits the perceived idea of a secret agent. Born in Middlesbrough and educated at state schools and Dundee University, he was part of MI5’s redbrick recruitment drive, a post- Cold-War initiative to democratise the Security Service. He applied for the job through the careers pages of The Independent in 1990. “Are you waiting for Godot?” ran the enigmatic advertisement, which stressed the need for people with interviewing and analytical skills.

Shayler, who had previously failed to complete The Sunday Times graduate training
programme, thought that he was applying for a job in newspapers. In the course of his second interview, he explained how, as editor of his university newspaper, he had courted controversy by publishing the banned text of Spycatcher. This information, which might have given less subtle minds pause for thought, did not deter his future employers.

Shayler rose, not rapidly, but respectably through the ranks.  He met Annie Machon, a Cambridge graduate with an impeccable service record, in the MI5 library and, by 1997, the couple were sufficiently disaffected to leave and find jobs “outside” as management consultants.

“The obvious question,” says Machon, a neatly glamorous woman in ankle-length fake fur, “is why didn’t I blow the whistle when I had been there even longer than Dave? I know exactly what he’s talking about and so do a lot of other people there. They all agree with him but most people just say, `Well, you can’t change the system,’ and quietly leave to go on to other jobs. At the time, I really didn’t want Dave to go public. I knew what it would mean for us and I asked him not to do it. But in the end,” she says, threading her fingers round Shayler’s, “somebody has to stand up and be counted.”

Shayler seems faintly bewildered by the drubbing he has received at the hands of a free press. Much has been made of a quote by Shayler’s old headmaster, who remembers a clever boy who liked to “sail close to the wind”. “The papers just fell for this idea that because somebody was slightly rebellious when he was 17, he must be Public Enemy Number One,” says Shayler. The same teacher, pressed for further details of Shayler’s
contribution to school life, recalled a creditable performance as a madman in the school play. “The Sunday Telegraph ran a piece saying `Shayler was a madman’ and when my mum, who has been a Telegraph reader all her life, wrote to complain, they ran another photo with the caption, `Mummy’s Boy’.” Shayler spreads his curiously cherubic hands,
the soft, scrubbed paws of a choirboy, with nails gnawed to the quick. “You just can’t win.”

If Shayler is bewildered by his media image, Machon is “bloody furious” about it. “The name-calling makes me so indignant and it’s so personal. Dave is a big, well-built chap, and this is used against him, as if a heavy build is somehow morally dubious. It’s medieval,” she murmurs, gazing over to the flying buttresses of Notre Dame, “on a par with saying a hunched back is a sign of wickedness”.

Certainly the articulate and easy-humoured man on display today bears no resemblance to this shambling bogey of the Right. If he didn’t know the rules of engagement before, he certainly knows them now, so why on earth did he choose to have his image flashed
around the world in that filthy old football shirt? For the first time this afternoon, Shayler seems rattled. “I did it for the obvious reason that I wanted to stick two fingers up at `them’ and I thought that was the best way of doing it.”  Annie sighs and pleads prettily for a spoonful of Shayler’s tiramisu. A woman less in love might have settled for a kick on the shins.

Whatever else it is, this is one hell of a love story. It has been said that Machon, the  daughter of a Guernsey newspaper editor, is Shayler’s best asset, and while she spits fire at the idea, Shayler is the first to agree.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,”  he says, “I couldn’t have done it without Annie. We have always had a very close relationship and this is the biggest and most controversial thing that came into it. When I was just starting with the whole idea of going public, Annie didn’t want to know about it; not because she was frightened for herself, but in case things went wrong, so that she couldn’t say anything that might damage me. That did put a bit of a
strain on our relationship, but the way it’s worked out has made us much closer. By far the worst thing about being in prison was being away from Annie. Not being able to hold her or kiss her; it sounds incredibly corny, but it was like a physical craving.”

It is the kind of closeness few couples could withstand. Since Shayler’s arrest, the
two go everywhere together, even to the shops for their morning baguette. When they were hiding out in la France profonde, 30km from the nearest train station, they often wouldn’t see another soul for days on end. “Fights were just impossible,” recalls Annie. “I’d stamp my foot and say, `Right then, I’m going … I’m going … up the lane.'”

Right now the big problem is finding reasons to get up in the morning. There is a limit to the number of romantic walks a couple can take, even in Paris. Neither has a job and funds are running low; to be precise, they have pounds 5,000, a gift from Shayler’s parents. Both speak competent French – Shayler’s improved dramatically while he was
in prison – and Shayler talks about taking up teaching English as a foreign language. They have found a cheap studio flat, but it is a temporary measure; soon they will need to apply for a Carte de Sejour, a permit to stay in France, and for that they will need proof of

At the moment, they give shape to the week by regular visits to one of Paris’s Internet cafes, where they correspond with friends and supporters in Britain, and WH Smith, where they bone up on day-old news from home. There are almost daily calls to Liberty, the British civil liberties organisation, which has taken up Shayler’s case. Parisians,
Annie is pleased to report, have been amazingly friendly, not at all the stand-offish stereotype, but following family visits at Christmas the couple now find themselves feeling rather flat.

Shayler misses Middlesbrough FC and proper fried breakfasts; Annie misses having her
own things about her. After their Pimlico flat was raided by Special Branch, their worldly goods were parcelled out to friends and relatives around the UK. “You just don’t expect to be still living like students when you’re in your thirties,” she says. “There is a basic human need to settle down, which you don’t really understand until it’s denied you. And even though Dave is `free’ in France, we’re constantly looking over our shoulders. You never know if you’re being followed. And even if you’re not, the paranoia is exhausting. I think people underestimate what fear does to you on a daily basis. There were huge periods when we were absolutely terrified. “The one good thing to come out of all this,” jokes Machon, summoning feminine vanity like a reminder of normality “is I’ve lost loads of weight.”

The paranoia is understandable. While Britain may not want to do a deal with Shayler,
he remains vulnerable to other, possibly less scrupulous, agencies, who could use the information he is party to. “Our lives are far more like something from a Le Carre novel now than they were when we were working for MI5,” says Shayler, who started a novel of his own while he was in prison. He knows, however, that any work of fiction with the faintest reference to his former life will be injuncted before you can shake a Martini.

Meanwhile, his negotiations with the Government appear to have reached stalemate. The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee has refused to hear his evidence and the Home Office has stated that while Shayler “insists on immunity from prosecution as his price for settling the civil proceedings, an agreement will not be possible”. For Shayler’s part, he has offered to return the money he received from the Mail on Sunday, some pounds 40,000 in total (hardly a sum to retire to Rio on). He also knows that any further revelations will risk redoubled attempts for his extradition, but he is running out
of ideas. “I said no new revelations,” he points out, “but that’s not a position I can maintain for ever.”

For all his bravura, you feel that in his heart, Shayler still can’t quite believe that the Government doesn’t care what he has to say; they just don’t want him to say it. And it is surely not unreasonable to expect more from a party that ran its Opposition on a civil liberties ticket. Most galling of all is the knowledge that if he had made his disclosures before the Conservative government tightened the Official Secrets Act in 1989, he could have cited the public interest defence which existed then and was only repealed after strenuous opposition from the Left.

“It is a matter of record that Tony Blair, Jack Straw and John Morris, the Attorney General, all voted against removing the public interest defence precisely because it would deter political whistleblowers,” explains Shayler. “So why have they changed their stance now they are in government? It seems there is no longer any embarrassment threshold in
these matters.”

Still he hasn’t given up hope – he still has his Middlesbrough FC season ticket. For Machon, without such an incentive, the prospect is not so bright. “I’m not sure how easy we’d find it to settle in England now, after everything that has happened,” she says.
“I’ll fight for the right for Dave to go back, but I’m not sure I want us to stay once we get there.” The point is, in any case, academic. “I can only assume,” says Shayler, with obvious hurt, “that the Government is quite happy to let me rot out here. I suppose they think that maybe I’ll just shut up and go away.”

The problem, both literal and metaphysical, is that Shayler simply has nowhere to go. So he might as well take the scenic route. He gathers Annie into him and their shadows merge on the grey bank of the Seine as they stroll, slowly, back the way they came.