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

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.