Varsity newspaper interview, February 2011

The Secret Ser­vice: “A very Brit­ish mess”

Olivia Crel­lin inter­rog­ates Annie Machon on her life after MI5

by Olivia Crel­lin

Thursday 3rd Feb­ru­ary 2011

Annie Machon, former MI5 agent, is the image of glam­our and guts. Her blonde hair, of the bomb­shell vari­ety, frames a face that, far from being that of the reserved and stealthy spook, exudes energy, enthu­si­asm, and open­ness.

Andrew_Griffin_Varsity_Newspaper_2011Unlike her former part­ner, the whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler, Machon seems to have emerged rel­at­ively unscathed from the years imme­di­ately fol­low­ing the couple’s attempts to reveal ser­i­ous MI5 blun­ders in 1996.

Now work­ing as a self-pro­fessed “author, media pun­dit, journ­al­ist, cam­paign­er and prom­in­ent pub­lic speak­er”, she has made a “new way of life” out of selling her­self, her past, and her story. And she’s doing a good job.

Machon, who stud­ied Clas­sics at Cam­bridge, is the most recent in a long line of fam­ous spies to have emerged from the Uni­ver­sity – most not­ably the Cam­bridge Spies who defec­ted to the Rus­si­ans dur­ing the Cold War.

Best known for her whistle-blow­ing on issues such as MI5’s alleged involve­ment in the attemp­ted assas­sin­a­tion on Gad­dafi, Machon is an oft-con­sul­ted expert on cur­rent affairs top­ics such as Wikileaks, the infilt­ra­tion of act­iv­ist groups, and the 9/11 Truth Move­ment, cri­tiquing what she sees as con­tem­por­ary society’s des­cent into a “police state”.

Com­ment­ing on the “very Brit­ish mess” that is the cur­rent UK Intel­li­gence Ser­vices, Machon’s answers to my ques­tions blend per­son­al anec­dote with hard-hit­ting asser­tions. She sounds con­vin­cing. Des­pite no longer hav­ing any insider inform­a­tion, she still has plenty to say.

Recruited dur­ing the “mar­gin­ally golden eth­ic­al era” of the 1990s, Machon’s exper­i­ence of MI5 was nev­er­the­less riddled with anti­qua­tion, con­fu­sion, insu­lar­ity and suf­foc­a­tion.

Draw­ing atten­tion to MI5 and MI6’s “cul­ture of just-fol­low-orders”, an eth­os that former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton also acknow­ledged, Machon believes that the UK Intel­li­gence Ser­vices have, for a long time, been their own worst enemy.

Entrenched in unne­ces­sary laws, a “hangover” from the organisation’s counter-espi­on­age ori­gins, Machon states that until the spooks “open up a little bit to con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism from the oth­er side, so that [MI5] can get a bit of fresh air, they’re going to spir­al down into… tor­ture and things.”

While Machon asserts that there was no use of tor­ture in her time with the agency – it was con­sidered “counter-pro­duct­ive” and “uneth­ic­al” – she did hear some hor­ror stor­ies from the older boys’ exper­i­ence in North­ern Ire­land includ­ing one case con­cern­ing an agent, code­named Steak Knife, who was per­mit­ted to tor­ture and even kill his fel­low intel­li­gence officers in order to keep his cov­er in the “Nut­ting Squad” of the IRA – “A sick James Bond got­ten out of hand.”

Machon refers to these stor­ies as “a sort of petri dish of the abuses that we are see­ing now with the Muslim com­munity”. Just as the trend to tar­get one group of soci­ety returns, the use of tor­ture, as exper­i­enced in Ire­land, comes full circle. “It makes me shiver,” Machon tells me, “that people who were per­haps my friends, ideal­ist­ic twenty-somethings when I was an officer, who I might’ve had drinks with, had din­ner with, whatever, might be those people now.”

While there seems to be a “demo­crat­ic will” to get rid of “some of the more Dra­coni­an laws from under the last gov­ern­ment”, Machon believes that instances such as Mark Kennedy’s under­cov­er infilt­ra­tion of an act­iv­ist group demands soci­ety to take a closer look at the ways in which we pro­tect nation­al secur­ity. “Once you start erod­ing someone’s civil liber­ties on one front, it’ll cas­cade. That’s how Ger­many found itself in a Fas­cist state in the 1930s,” the former-spy asserts. “They didn’t wake up one morn­ing and Hitler was in power. It’s a very slip­pery slope.” This is why Machon, above all oth­er issues, is call­ing for an “adult debate” about the work­ings of Secret Intel­li­gence in a “mature demo­cracy”.

One organ­iz­a­tion that Machon sees as con­trib­ut­ing to this debate is Wikileaks. Machon praised this form of new media, call­ing it “fant­ast­ic” as a “high-tech con­duit to enable whis­tleblowers” in con­trast to the “self-cen­sor­ship and fear” of the main­stream press, which blocks the flow of such inform­a­tion to the pub­lic.

Machon advised stu­dents at the Cam­bridge Uni­on to find altern­at­ive sources of inform­a­tion for their news, cit­ing coun­tries’ decept­ive use of false-flag ter­ror­ism. “I’m not say­ing that every major ter­ror­ist atro­city might be a dirty trick, but you have to keep that pos­sib­il­ity in the back of your mind,” she warned.

It’s all about a sort of breach of trust,” Machon con­cludes, which is “cor­ros­ive for a demo­cracy.” Wheth­er it’s an issue like 9/11, or the bail­ing out of the banks or the war in Iraq, Machon asserts that the erosion of civil liber­ties is finally for­cing soci­ety to “become demo­crat­ic­ally engaged again, which can­not be bad.”

In many ways Annie Machon is serving her coun­try as stealth­ily and determ­inedly as if she had nev­er left MI5. Tak­ing the “same sort of fun­da­ment­al drive to try and make a dif­fer­ence, to try and change things for the bet­ter,” into this new arena of her work, she hands me a red-and-black busi­ness card with her shades-tot­ing self on it and the phrase “Using Our Intel­li­gence” emblazoned on the front.

There’s always the debate,” she tells me cryptic­ally, “is it bet­ter to be inside the tent piss­ing out or out­side the tent piss­ing in?”

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