Book review in The Sunday Express

Noth­ing like being paid to read a book — a win-win situ­ation for me. 

Here’s a link to my review in the Sunday Express news­pa­per of a new his­tory of MI6, called “The Art of Betray­al” by Gor­don Corera, the BBC’s Secur­ity Cor­res­pond­ent.

And here’s the art­icle:

REVIEW: THE ART OF BETRAYALLIFE AND DEATH IN THE BRITISH SECRET SERVICE
Fri­day August 19, 2011
By Annie Machon

THE Art of Betray­al: Life and Death in the Brit­ish Secret Ser­vice
Gor­don Corera Weiden­feld & Nich­olson, £20

THE INTRODUCTION to The Art Of Betray­al, Gor­don Corera’s unof­fi­cial post-war his­tory of MI6, raises ques­tions about the mod­ern rel­ev­ance and eth­ic­al frame­work of our spies. It also provides an anti­dote to recent offi­cial books cel­eb­rat­ing the cen­ten­ar­ies of MI5 and MI6.

Corera, the BBC’s secur­ity cor­res­pond­ent, has enjoyed priv­ileged access to key spy play­ers from the past few dec­ades and, writ­ing in an enga­ging, easy style, he picks up the story of MI6 at the point where the “offi­cial” his­tory grinds to a halt after the Second World War.

Spy geeks will enjoy the swash­buck­ling stor­ies from the Cold War years and he offers an intel­li­gent explor­a­tion of the men­tal­ity of betray­al between the West and the former Soviet Uni­on, focus­ing on the notori­ous Philby, Pen­kovsky and Gordi­evsky cases among many oth­ers.

For the more cyn­ic­al read­er, this book presents some prob­lems. Where Corera dis­cusses the aim­less years of MI6 post-Cold War attempts at rein­ven­tion, fol­lowed by the mus­cu­lar, mor­ally ambigu­ous post‑9/11 world, he ref­er­ences quotes from former top spies and offi­cial inquir­ies only, all of which need to be read with a healthy degree of skep­ti­cism. To use a mem­or­able quote from the Six­ties Pro­fumo Scan­dal, also men­tioned in the book: “Well, they would say that, would­n’t they?”

In Corera’s view, there has always been inher­ent ten­sion in MI6 between the “doers” (who believe that intel­li­gence is there to be acted upon James Bond-style and who want to get their hands dirty with cov­ert oper­a­tions) and the “thinkers” (those who believe, à la George Smi­ley, that know­ledge is power and should be used behind the scenes to inform offi­cial gov­ern­ment policy).

He demon­strates that the “doers” have often been in con­trol and the image of MI6 staffed by gung-ho, James Bond wan­nabes is cer­tainly a ste­reo­type I recog­nise from my years work­ing as an intel­li­gence officer for the sis­ter spy organ­isa­tion, MI5.

The prob­lem, as this book reveals, is that when the action men have the cul­tur­al ascend­ancy with­in MI6 events often go badly wrong through estab­lish­ment com­pla­cency, betray­al or mere enthu­si­ast­ic ama­teur­ism.

That said, the oppos­ing cul­ture of the “thinkers”, or patient intel­li­gence gather­ers, led in the Six­ties and Sev­en­ties to intro­spec­tion, mole-hunt­ing para­noia and scler­osis.

Wor­ry­ingly, many former officers down the years are quoted as say­ing that they hoped there was a “real” spy organ­isa­tion behind the appar­ently ama­teur out­fit they had joined, a sen­ti­ment shared by most of my intake in the Nineties.

Nor does it appear that les­sons were learned from his­tory: the Oper­a­tion Gla­dio débâcle in Albania and the top­pling of Iran’s first demo­crat­ic­ally-elec­ted Pres­id­ent Mossad­eq in the Fifties could have provided valu­able les­sons for MI6 in its work in Afgh­anistan, Iraq, and Libya over the past two dec­ades.

Corera is remark­ably coy about Libya des­pite the wealth of now pub­licly-avail­able inform­a­tion about MI6’s med­dling in the Lock­er­bie case, the illeg­al assas­sin­a­tion plot against Gad­dafi­in 1996 and the dirty, MI6-brokered oil deals of the past dec­ade.

Corera pulls togeth­er his recur­ring themes in the final chapters, explor­ing the com­prom­ise of intel­li­gence in jus­ti­fy­ing the Iraq war, describ­ing how the “doers” pumped unveri­fied intel­li­gence from unproven agents dir­ectly into the veins of White­hall and Wash­ing­ton.

Many civil ser­vants and middle-rank­ing spies ques­tioned and doubted but were told to shut up and fol­low orders. The res­ults are all-too tra­gic­ally well known.

Corera does not, how­ever, go far enough.

He appre­ci­ates that the glob­al reach of MI6 main­tains Bri­tain’s place in an exclus­ive club of world powers. At what price, though?

Here is the ques­tion he should per­haps have asked: in light of all the mis­takes, betray­als, liber­ties com­prom­ised, les­sons unlearned and deaths, has MI6 out­lived its use­ful­ness?

Annie Machon is a former MI5 intel­li­gence officer and author.

Ver­dict 4/5

The Israeli Embassy Two — a gross miscarriage of justice

Samar_Alami Jawad_Botmeh Over the last few years there have been a num­ber of egre­gious cases of police and state cov­er-ups in the UK around the deaths and wrong­ful pro­sec­u­tions of inno­cent people.

This brings to my mind the appalling mis­car­riage of justice that occurred in the 1990s when two Palestini­an stu­dents, a young woman called Samar Alami and a young man called Jawad Bot­meh, were both wrong­fully con­victed of con­spir­acy to bomb the Israeli embassy in Lon­don in July 1994. 

In this case a highly soph­ist­ic­ated car bomb as det­on­ated out­side the embassy.  Thank­fully nobody was killed, but a num­ber of people suffered minor injur­ies.   Alami and Bot­meh had con­nec­tions to Palestini­an polit­ic­al sup­port groups based in Lon­don at the time, many of whom were roun­ded up dur­ing the invest­ig­a­tion.  Bot­meh had naively helped out a shad­owy and nev­er-iden­ti­fied fig­ure called Reda Moghr­abi, who asked for assist­ance in buy­ing a second-hand car at auc­tion.  This was the car that was used in the explo­sion.

Why is this case an example of estab­lish­ment cov­er-up?  Well,  this was one of the cases that former MI5 officer Dav­id Shayler blew the whistle on dur­ing the 1990s.  He revealed the exist­ence of two rel­ev­ant doc­u­ments that should have been dis­closed to the defence but, for some unac­count­able reas­on, were not.

The first, an agent report from a cred­ible and trus­ted source, poin­ted to a non-Palestini­an group plan­ning the attack before it had even occurred.  This report was not acted upon by the MI5 officer respons­ible, who then tried to cov­er up her mis­take.  She was caught out, and there was a much-dis­cussed intern­al inquiry into the mat­ter with­in MI5’s G Branch (inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism) in late 1994.

But there was anoth­er doc­u­ment — one writ­ten by G9/1, the seni­or MI5 officer who over­saw the post-incid­ent invest­ig­a­tion.  His view was that Mossad, the extern­al Israeli intel­li­gence agency, had car­ried out a con­trolled explo­sion out­side its own embassy (the shad­owy and uniden­ti­fied Reda Moghr­abi being the poten­tially cru­cial miss­ing link) in order to acquire the long-deman­ded addi­tion­al secur­ity pro­tec­tion around Israeli interests in the UK, and also to shat­ter the Palestini­an sup­port net­works in Lon­don — a long-term object­ive of Mossad.

The gov­ern­ment at the time tried to dis­miss these dis­clos­ures.  How­ever, the much-missed Private Eye invest­ig­at­ive   journ­al­ist, Paul Foot, and the indefatig­able law­yer, Gareth Peirce, fol­lowed them up and pur­sued them tire­lessly through the media and the courts

And guess what?  It turns out that these two key doc­u­ments had indeed not been dis­closed to the leg­al defence team dur­ing the tri­al of Alami and Bot­meh — and not just by the hap­less spooks.  It emerged dur­ing the appeal hear­ing that no few­er than sev­en people from a vari­ety of police and intel­li­gence organ­isa­tions had failed to dis­close the rel­ev­ant doc­u­ment­a­tion to the defence.  This can­not be explained away as an inno­cent over­sight, a cock-up — it bears all the hall­marks of a delib­er­ate, sys­tem­ic estab­lish­ment cov­er-up.

All this rep­res­en­ted, at the very least, a need for a retri­al but also a pos­sible gross mis­car­riage of justice.  And yet, while acknow­ledging that these doc­u­ments did indeed exist dur­ing the appeal hear­ing and bey­ond, the presid­ing m’luds decided to ignore all case law and European law and let those two inno­cents rot in pris­on.  After all, it would be ter­ribly embar­rass­ing to vin­dic­ate the actions of an intel­li­gence whis­tleblower, would­n’t it?

As a res­ult, the poor pawns in this sick estab­lish­ment game, Jawad Bot­meh and Samar Alami, ended up serving their full sen­tences, des­pite the over­whelm­ing body of evid­ence prov­ing their inno­cence, and were finally released in 2008 and 2009 respect­ively.

For any­one inter­ested in the detailed hor­ror story behind this flag­rant mis­car­riage of justice, here is the rel­ev­ant chapter from my long-defunct book: Down­load The_Israeli_Embassy_Case

From Russia with Love (to the USA)

I’ve been fol­low­ing with interest the retro, Cold War spy saga cur­rently unfold­ing in the USA.  The head­lines being that 10 alleged Rus­si­an sleep­ers (“illeg­als” in spy lingo) have been arres­ted by the FBI and are now charged with “work­ing as agents of a for­eign power”, which car­ries a sen­tence of five years in pris­on.

These Rus­si­an “illeg­als”, some of whom reportedly have been liv­ing openly as Rus­si­an immig­rants, some as oth­er for­eign nation­als, have allegedly been infilt­rat­ing the US since the mid-1990s, and were tasked to get friendly with Amer­ic­an power-brokers, to glean what inform­a­tion they could about the thoughts of the US great and the good about Rus­sia, Iran, defence plans etc.

Whatever the truth of this case, and the charges are detailed, I find the tim­ing and media atten­tion giv­en to this story inter­est­ing for three key reas­ons:

From what has been repor­ted of the court papers, the FBI invest­ig­a­tion has been going on for years.  Appar­ently they have known about the spy ring since 2000, and have included com­mu­nic­a­tions inter­cept mater­i­al in the indict­ment dat­ing from 2004 and 2008, as well as sting oper­a­tions from the begin­ning of this year.  So it’s curi­ous that the FBI decided to swoop now, in the imme­di­ate after­math of a suc­cess­ful and, by all accounts friendly, meet­ing between the Rus­si­an and Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents in Wash­ing­ton DC

Many people are com­ment­ing on this aspect of the tim­ing.  And, indeed, one might spec­u­late about wheels with­in wheels — it appears that there are still hard­line fac­tions with­in the US admin­is­tra­tion that want to ensure that a warm­er work­ing rela­tion­ship can­not devel­op between Rus­sia and the USA. A strategy of ten­sion is good for busi­ness – espe­cially com­pan­ies like Hal­libur­ton and Xe (formerly Black­wa­ter) which profit from build­ing vast US mil­it­ary bases in Cent­ral Asia.

But what also intrigues me is the pos­sible behind-the-scenes action. 

OurManInHavanaThis story is get­ting blanket media cov­er­age.  It’s a good, old-fash­ioned, Cold War-style coup, hit­ting all the jin­go­ist­ic spy but­tons, just at a time when the US spooks are under pres­sure about their per­form­ance in the neb­u­lous and ever-shift­ing “war on ter­ror”, the shred­ding of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, the illeg­al sur­veil­lance of domest­ic polit­ic­al act­iv­ists, and com­pli­city in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture. It’s a use­ful “remind­er” that the bloated US secur­ity infra­struc­ture is worth all the money it costs, des­pite the dire state of US nation­al fin­ances. Pure pro­pa­ganda.

I’m also will­ing to bet that there is a more cov­ert aspect to this story too — some behind-the-scenes power play.  There are, at the last count, 17 acknow­ledged intel­li­gence agen­cies in the US, all com­pet­ing for prestige, power and resources.  By mak­ing these arrests, the FBI will see this as a step up in the spy peck­ing order.  It reminds me inev­it­ably (and per­haps flip­pantly) of the clas­sic spy nov­el by former intel­li­gence officer Gra­ham Greene, “Our Man in Havana”.  In this no doubt entirely fic­tion­al work, a Brit­ish MI6 asset invents a spy ring to increase his stand­ing and fund­ing from Lon­don HQ.

Also curi­ous is the role played by one Chris­toph­er Met­sos, allegedly the 11th man, not ini­tially arres­ted, who is repor­ted to have passed money to the spy ring.  He was caught yes­ter­day in Cyprus try­ing to board a plane to Hun­gary, and inex­plic­ably gran­ted bail — inex­plic­able at least to the Greek police, who always worry that their sus­pect will flee over the bor­der into the Turk­ish seg­ment of the island, nev­er to be seen again.  And this has indeed happened, accord­ing to The Guard­i­an news­pa­per this even­ing. Per­haps he has some urgent appoint­ments to sell vacu­um clean­ers north of the bor­der.….

 

Spy Chiefs attack UK Police State

DearloveSir Richard Dear­love, ex-head of MI6 and cur­rent Mas­ter of Pem­broke Col­lege, Cam­bridge, has been much in the news recently after gra­cing the Hay on Wye book fest­iv­al, where he gave a speech.  In this, he is repor­ted to have spoken out, in strong terms, against the endem­ic and all-per­vas­ive sur­veil­lance soci­ety devel­op­ing in the UK

Ex-spy chiefs in the UK have a charm­ing habit of using all these sur­veil­lance meas­ures to the nth degree while in the shad­ows, and then hav­ing a Dam­as­cene con­ver­sion into civil liber­ties cam­paign­ers once they retire.  Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, the ex-head of MI5, used her maid­en speech in the House of Lords to argue against the exten­sion of the time lim­it the police could hold a ter­ror­ist sus­pect without charge, and even Stella Rim­ing­ton (also ex-MI5) has recently thrown her hat in the ring.  They nick all my best lines these days.

Would­n’t it be great if one of them, one day, could argue in favour of human rights, pro­por­tion­al­ity and the adher­ence to the law while they were still in a pos­i­tion to influ­ence affairs?

Dear­love him­self could have changed the course of world his­tory if he had found the cour­age to speak out earli­er about the fact that the intel­li­gence case for the Iraq war was being fixed around pre-determ­ined policy.  As it is, we only know that he objec­ted to this because of the notori­ous, leaked Down­ing Street Memo.

The Guard­i­an news­pa­per repor­ted that Dear­love even touched on the real­ity of obtain­ing min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion before break­ing the law.  Which, of course, is the ulti­mate point of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and does indeed enshrine the fabled “licence to kill”.  It states that MI6 officers can break the law abroad with impun­ity from pro­sec­u­tion if, and only if, they obtain pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion from their polit­ic­al mas­ter — in this case the For­eign Sec­ret­ary.

How­ever, accord­ing to The Guard­i­an, he seems to have mis­un­der­stood the spir­it of the law, if not the let­ter:

He said that the intel­li­gence com­munity was “some­times asked to act in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. When it does, it asks for leg­al opin­ion and min­is­teri­al approv­al … It’s about polit­ic­al cov­er”. 

Moment­ar­ily put­ting aside the not unim­port­ant debate about wheth­er the spies and the gov­ern­ment should even be allowed tech­nic­ally to side-step inter­na­tion­al laws against crimes up to, and includ­ing, murder, I am still naively sur­prised by the shame­less­ness of this state­ment:  the notion of min­is­teri­al over­sight was put in place to ensure some kind of demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity for the work of the spies — not to provide polit­ic­al cov­er, a fig leaf.

I think he’s rather giv­en the game away here about how the spies really view the role of  their “polit­ic­al mas­ters”.

Echelon and the Special Relationship

Journ­al­ist and writer James Bam­ford, has a new book, “The Shad­ow Fact­ory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eaves­drop­ping on Amer­ica” (Doubleday), which came out this week in the United States.

Bam­ford is a former pro­du­cer at ABC News of thirty years’ stand­ing, and his book has caused quite a stir. One of his key gripes is the fact that for­eign com­pan­ies try to acquire work in sens­it­ive US depart­ments. He cites in par­tic­u­lar the attempt in 2006 of Israeli data secur­ity com­pany, Check Point Soft­ware Tech­no­lo­gies, to buy an Amer­ic­an com­pany with exist­ing con­tracts at the Defence Depart­ment and the NSA. This deal was stopped after the FBI objec­ted.

For­eign soft­ware and secur­ity com­pan­ies work­ing with­in intel­li­gence agen­cies are indeed a prob­lem for any coun­try. It com­prom­ises the very notion of nation­al sov­er­eignty. In the UK, MI5 and many oth­er gov­ern­ment depart­ments rely on pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware from com­pan­ies like Microsoft, notori­ous for their vul­ner­ab­il­ity to hack­ers, vir­uses and back door access. Should our nation’s secrets really be exposed to such eas­ily avoid­able vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies?

Anoth­er sec­tion of the book to have hit the head­lines is Bam­ford’s claims that bed­room “con­ver­sa­tions” of sol­diers, journ­al­ists and offi­cials in Iraq have been bugged by the Nation­al Secur­ity Agency (NSA).

Bam­ford, who is by no means a fan of the NSA in its cur­rent rampant form, makes the mis­take of think­ing that in the inno­cent days pre‑9/11, the agency respec­ted demo­crat­ic rights enshrined in the US con­sti­tu­tion and nev­er snooped on US cit­izens in their own coun­try.

While tech­nic­ally this might be true, does nobody remem­ber the ECHELON sys­tem?

ECHELON was an agree­ment between the NSA and its Brit­ish equi­val­ent GCHQ (as well as the agen­cies of Canada, Aus­tralia, and New Zea­l­and) whereby they shared inform­a­tion they gathered on each oth­ers’ cit­izens. GCHQ could leg­ally eaves­drop on people out­side the UK without a war­rant, so they could tar­get US cit­izens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agen­cies could evade any demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity, and still get the intel­li­gence they wanted.

Spe­cial rela­tion­ship, any­one?

Poor Bloody Infantry

There is an ongo­ing cam­paign to save Bletch­ley Park for the nation, in the teeth of gov­ern­ment oppos­i­tion. As his­tor­ic Brit­ish monu­ments go, the ques­tion of wheth­er to pre­serve it for pos­ter­ity should be a no-brain­er. Bletch­ley is not only where Hitler­’s Enigma code machine was decryp­ted, along with many oth­er sys­tems, which argu­ably gave the Allies the intel­li­gence advant­age that led to vic­tory in World War 2, it is also where the first digit­al elec­tron­ic com­puters, code­named Colos­sus, were oper­ated. Two land­mark events of the 20th cen­tury.

Recently The Times repor­ted on this cam­paign. The art­icle also the dwells at some length on how long Bletch­ley’s secrets were kept by the 10,000 people who worked there dur­ing the war. Although this inform­a­tion was declas­si­fied after 30 years, the habit of secrecy was so deeply ingrained that many former employ­ees nev­er breathed a word. The art­icle laments the passing of this habit of dis­cre­tion from Brit­ish life, stat­ing that politi­cians and seni­or intel­li­gence officers now appear to view the pos­ses­sion of insider know­ledge as a good pen­sion fund when they come to write their mem­oirs.

Over the last dec­ade we have see a myri­ad of books emer­ging for the upper ech­el­ons of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence in the UK: Alastair Camp­bell, Robin Cook, Wash­ing­ton Ambas­sad­or Sir Chris­toph­er Mey­er, ex-MI5 chief Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton. Even Tony Blair has appar­ently signed a sev­en fig­ure deal for his mem­oirs.

All these books have a num­ber of char­ac­ter­ist­ics in com­mon: they are lengthy, but say little of rel­ev­ance about the burn­ing issues of the day; they appear to have been writ­ten for profit and not in the pub­lic interest; and not one of these writers has ever even been arres­ted under the Offi­cial Secrets Act, even when there is clear prima facie evid­ence of a breach.

Yet these dili­gent authors are the very people who are the first to use the OSA to stifle legit­im­ate dis­clos­ure of crime, cor­rup­tion and incom­pet­ence in the highest levels of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence by real whis­tleblowers, who risk their careers and their free­dom. The hypo­crisy is breath­tak­ing.

But was the old-fash­ioned, blanket dis­cre­tion, vaunted by The Times, really such a good thing? The code of “loose talk costs lives” may have made sense dur­ing the Second World War, when this nation was fight­ing for its life. The work at Bletch­ley was mani­festly a suc­cess, obvi­at­ing any need to blow the whistle. But who can tell how these pat­ri­ot­ic men and women would have reacted had they wit­nessed crimes or incom­pet­ence that dam­aged our nation’s secur­ity, led to the deaths of our sol­diers, or even pos­sible defeat?

Also, was the 30-year non-dis­clos­ure rule around the work of Bletch­ley really neces­sary? After all, the war had been won, so how could dis­clos­ure bene­fit the enemy? This unthink­ing applic­a­tion of the stand­ard rules cost the UK dearly. In fact, it would be accur­ate to say that it severely dam­aged the UK’s eco­nom­ic well­being – some­thing the OSA is sup­posed to pro­tect.

In 1943 the Brit­ish were the world lead­ers in digit­al elec­tron­ic com­put­ing. The dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act pre­cluded the devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial use of this know­ledge in Bri­tain after the war. In fact, mind­bog­glingly, the Colos­sus com­puters were dis­mantled and the research des­troyed.

There were no sim­il­ar pro­vi­sions affect­ing the Amer­ic­an cryp­to­graph­ers who had been sta­tioned at Bletch­ley. Con­sequently, after the war they enthu­si­ast­ic­ally applied Brit­ish research and tech­no­logy to devel­op the US com­puter research pro­gramme and even­tu­ally the mar­ket, pav­ing the way to the suc­cess of Sil­ic­on Val­ley and the dom­in­a­tion of the world’s IT mar­kets for dec­ades. What price the famed Brit­ish stiff upper lip and dis­cre­tion then?

Of course, there need to be leg­al pro­vi­sions to pro­tect real secrets that could affect Bri­tain’s nation­al secur­ity. How­ever, this should be pro­por­tion­ate and bal­anced, and should not pre­vent the devel­op­ment of new research and tech­no­lo­gies, the expos­ure in the pub­lic interest of crime, and cer­tainly not the fact our coun­try was taken into war on the basis of lies.

Real­ist­ic­ally, how­ever, in the age of the inter­net such leg­al pro­vi­sions are increas­ingly mean­ing­less. Des­pite this, more and more coun­tries appear to be adopt­ing Bri­tain’s mod­el of anti­quated and dra­coni­an secrecy legis­la­tion.

We live in a coun­try that crim­in­al­ises any dis­clos­ure of sens­it­ive inform­a­tion – unless it comes in the form of mem­oirs from seni­or politi­cians, White­hall offi­cials or spooks of course. As always, there is one rule for the gen­er­als and one for the poor bloody infantry.

For the good of our coun­try, we need to rethink this legis­la­tion.

The Rise of the Mercenary

Steph­en Arm­strong pub­lished an inter­est­ing art­icle in today’s New States­man magazine. Based on his new book War plc: the Rise of the New Cor­por­ate Mer­cen­ary, it exam­ines the rise of the cor­por­ate secur­ity con­sult­ant. Or in basic Eng­lish – mer­cen­ar­ies.

I met Steph­en when I was invited by James Whale to review the book on Press TV. I was impressed with his research and depth of know­ledge on this sub­ject. It was an unusu­ally har­mo­ni­ous talk show — rather than arguing, we all took a broadly sim­il­ar approach to the issue of mer­cen­ar­ies, over­sight and account­ab­il­ity.

The increas­ing privat­isa­tion of intel­li­gence is an insi­di­ous devel­op­ment in the world of espi­on­age and war. For many dec­ades there have exis­ted on the fringes of the offi­cial intel­li­gence world a few private secur­ity com­pan­ies; think Kroll, Black­wa­ter, Aegis. These com­pan­ies are often the last refuge of .….. former intel­li­gence officers of the west­ern spook organ­isa­tions.

These people, often frus­trated at the overly bur­eau­crat­ic nature of the gov­ern­ment­al spy organ­isa­tions, resign and are gently steered towards these cor­por­a­tions. That, or the relo­ca­tion officers get them nice juicy jobs at mer­chant banks, arms com­pan­ies or inter­na­tion­al quan­gos. It’s always use­ful to have reli­able chaps in use­ful places, after all.

In the last dec­ade, how­ever, we have seen an explo­sion in the num­ber of these com­pan­ies. One of my former col­leagues is a founder of Dili­gence, which is going from strength to strength. These kinds of com­pan­ies spe­cial­ise in cor­por­ate spy­ing, the neut­ral­isa­tion of oppos­i­tion and protest groups, and secur­ity. The lat­ter usu­ally boils down to provid­ing mil­it­ary muscle in hot spots like Iraq. While I can see the attrac­tion for sol­diers leav­ing crack regi­ments and won­der­ing what on earth they can do with their spe­cial­ised expert­ise, and who then decide that earn­ing £10,000 a week risk­ing their lives in Bagh­dad is a good bet, this has wor­ry­ing implic­a­tions for the rule of law.

Leav­ing aside the small mat­ter that, under inter­na­tion­al and domest­ic UK law, all wars of aggres­sion are illeg­al, our offi­cial Brit­ish mil­it­ary pres­ence in Afgh­anistan and Iraq is at least to a cer­tain degree account­able. The most egre­gious war crimes have res­ul­ted in court mar­tials. But the new mer­cen­ar­ies live in a leg­al no-man’s land, and in this ter­rit­ory any­thing goes. Or can at least be covered up.

This is the same prin­ciple that has guided these unof­fi­cial spook com­pan­ies over the years – plaus­ible deni­ab­il­ity. What little demo­crat­ic over­sight there is in the UK of the intel­li­gence com­munity still does give them lim­ited pause for thought: what if the media hears about it? What if an MP asks an awk­ward ques­tion? By using former col­leagues in the cor­por­ate intel­li­gence world, MI5, MI6 et al can out source the risk.

The over­sight and account­ab­il­ity for the offi­cial spooks and the army are bad enough. The privat­isa­tion of intel­li­gence and mil­it­ary might makes a fur­ther mock­ery of the feeble over­sight pro­vi­sions in place in this coun­try. This is a wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment in leg­al and demo­crat­ic terms; more import­antly, it has a dir­ect, daily impact on the rights of inno­cent men, women and chil­dren around the world. We need to ensure that the offi­cial and unof­fi­cial spooks and mil­it­ary are account­able under the law.

Spies,Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair

My book about the Shayler affair (includ­ing the MI6 plot to assas­in­ate Col. Gad­dafi) and my exper­i­ences as an Intel­li­gence Officer in MI5.

I was invited on to “The Richard and Judy Show” in 2005 to talk about my book, and it is fea­tured on the show’s web­site.

Wil­li­am Pod­more was kind enough to review my work:

In this remark­able book, Annie Machon makes ser­i­ous alleg­a­tions against the Brit­ish state’s intel­li­gence ser­vices, MI5 and MI6. Ms Machon and her part­ner Dav­id Shayler are former high-rank­ing MI5 officers, both now retired from the ser­vice. The book’s alleg­a­tions derive from their exper­i­ences and deserve at least to be the sub­ject of inquiry.

She asserts that MI5 has illeg­ally invest­ig­ated thou­sands of Brit­ish cit­izens for their polit­ic­al views; that there was col­lu­sion between the Army Forces Research Unit and loy­al­ist ter­ror­ists; that MI5 failed to stop four major ter­ror­ist attacks in Bri­tain, even though it had reli­able evid­ence; and that MI5 and MI6 let a known Liby­an ter­ror­ist into Bri­tain and let him set up a ter­ror­ist net­work here.

She alleges that MI6’s counter-Ira­ni­an sec­tion used the Sunday Tele­graph (and the journ­al­ists Con Cough­lin, John Simpson and Domin­ic Lawson) to try to blame Iran for the 1988 Lock­er­bie bomb­ing, the destruc­tion of flight PA103. MI6 was try­ing to deflect atten­tion from the fact that it was actu­ally a Liby­an retali­ation for the US bomb­ing of Tripoli (backed by Thatch­er) in 1986.

The book’s most sig­ni­fic­ant alleg­a­tion is that MI6 illeg­ally paid tens of thou­sands of pounds to Al-Qa’ida in 1995–96 to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi and seize power in Libya. In the attemp­ted coup, sev­er­al inno­cent civil­ians and secur­ity police were killed. If this is true, MI6, a Brit­ish state agency, sponsored our ter­ror­ist enemies in a con­spir­acy to murder, which res­ul­ted in the killing of inno­cent civil­ians.

But Blair refuses to hear any evid­ence against the intel­li­gence ser­vices, and pro­sec­utes and har­asses crit­ics and whis­tleblowers. The Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee, set up under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act to over­see the ser­vices, is no use, because it is appoin­ted by and reports only to the Prime Min­is­ter.

The intel­li­gence ser­vices should work under the rule of law and respect demo­crat­ic rights. Ter­ror­ist sus­pects should be arres­ted and brought to tri­al under crim­in­al law, not detained, or executed, without tri­al, as has happened in North­ern Ire­land and else­where.

The intel­li­gence ser­vices are sup­posed to pro­tect us, but it would appear that they have instead con­nived in ter­ror­ism, put­ting us at great­er risk of ter­ror­ist attack.

The Cam­paign for Press and Broad­cast­ing Free­dom (CPBF) also high­lighted it.

The book can be ordered through Amazon.

Sunday Tribune Interview, 2005

Irish Sunday Tribune, July 2005

What really went on in the secret ser­vice?

Suz­anne Breen

THEY’RE 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

May 2005 — The Times

MI5 kept schoolboy on its files

The partner of David Shayler reveals how a letter to the Communist Party brought its youthful author to the attention of the security services

August 2005

A BOY who wrote a let­ter to the Brit­ish Com­mun­ist Party for a school pro­ject ended up with his own MI5 file, a former Secur­ity Ser­vice officer claimed yes­ter­day.

The boy had asked for inform­a­tion for his school top­ic, but his let­ter was secretly opened by MI5 in the 1970s when the Com­mun­ist Party was still regarded as a hot­bed of sub­ver­sion, accord­ing to Annie Machon, who worked for the domest­ic intel­li­gence ser­vice from 1991 to 1996.

Ms Machon is the part­ner of Dav­id Shayler, the former MI5 officer jailed under the Offi­cial Secrets Act for dis­clos­ing inform­a­tion acquired in the ser­vice.

In a book which has been passed for pub­lic­a­tion by her former employ­ers, Ms Machon says that the schoolboy’s let­ter was copied, as was all cor­res­pond­ence to the Brit­ish Com­mun­ist Party at that time, “and used to cre­ate a PF (per­son­al file), where he was
iden­ti­fied as a ‘?com­mun­ist sym­path­iser’ ”.

On anoth­er occa­sion, a man who was divor­cing his wife wrote to MI5 claim­ing that she was involved in Com­mun­ism, and she was the sub­ject of a per­son­al file, Ms Machon claims in her book, Spies, Lies & Whis­tleblowers.

She saw the two files, among “more than a mil­lion” when work­ing at MI5, and claimed that they had been in the Secur­ity Ser­vice archives for 20 years. “Why was this inform­a­tion still avail­able to desk officers some 20 years after these indi­vidu­als had first come to atten­tion, in less than sus­pi­cious cir­cum­stances?” she writes.

Mr Shayler also made alleg­a­tions about the con­tents of per­son­al Secur­ity Ser­vice files
in 1997, after he left the agency. He said that there were files on Jack Straw, Peter Man­del­son, Peter Hain, Mo Mow­lam, John Len­non and the Sex Pis­tols, among oth­ers. Mr Shayler was charged under the Offi­cial Secrets Act for dis­clos­ing oth­er secret inform­a­tion acquired when he was a serving intel­li­gence officer, and was sen­tenced at the Old Bailey
to six months in pris­on in 2002.

Ms Machon, 36, who worked in three depart­ments of MI5 — counter-sub­ver­sion, Irish ter­ror­ism and inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism — joins a rel­at­ively short list of former Secur­ity Ser­vice officers who have man­aged to write books without end­ing up in jail.

The last former MI5 officer to get clear­ance was Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton, who was
Dir­ect­or-Gen­er­al of the ser­vice from 1992 to 1996.

Peter Wright, who made alleg­a­tions of bug­ging and burg­lary by the Secur­ity Ser­vice in Spycatch­er, pub­lished in 1987, got away with it by mov­ing to Tas­mania.

Ms Machon repeats alleg­a­tions made by Mr Shayler that MI6 helped to fund an assas­sin­a­tion attempt against Col­on­el Gad­dafi, the Liby­an lead­er, in 1996. It was dis­missed by Robin Cook, the former For­eign Sec­ret­ary, as “pure fantasy”.