The Official Secrets Act — when will the British media learn?

I have been watch­ing with a cer­tain cyn­ic­al interest the unfold­ing of Oper­a­tion Weet­ing, one of the pleth­ora of Met­ro­pol­it­an Police invest­ig­a­tions into the UK phone hack­ing scan­dal, involving many of our favour­ite play­ers: shady private invest­ig­at­ors, pred­at­ory journ­al­ists, bent cop­pers, and politi­cians con­tort­ing them­selves in an effort to pro­tect both their own repu­ta­tions and their Friends in High Places.  And the ripples are spread­ing inter­na­tion­ally.  Noth­ing like a little bit of globil­isa­tion.…

Rupert_and_Rebekah The Guard­i­an news­pa­per has made most of the early run­ning in expos­ing the cor­rupt prac­tices of the now defunct News of the Screws, high­light­ing all the dubi­ous tabloid prac­tices of hack­ing, blagging, pinging, and god knows what else.  All this done with the help of bot­tom-feed­ing private invest­ig­at­ors, but also mani­festly with the help of cor­rupt police officers who were not averse to the idea of tak­ing a bribe to help their friends in Wap­ping.  And how far might this “trickle down cor­rup­tion” might have gone, um,  up?

Des­pite the self-right­eous­ness of oth­er UK news­pa­pers, it has also now become appar­ent that these dubi­ous and poten­tially illeg­al prac­tices were com­mon through­out Fleet Street, and oth­er nation­al news­pa­pers are also under invest­ig­a­tion.

And yet it appears that all this could have been nipped in the bud over a dec­ade ago, when Steven Nott, a con­cerned Brit­ish cit­izen, tried to expose the vul­ner­ab­il­ity of mobile phones after he stumbled across the prac­tice by acci­dent.  He took his find­ings to a vari­ety of nation­al news­pa­pers, all of whom seem to have ini­tially thought there was a good story, but every time the news was bur­ied.  Well, I sup­pose it would be, wouldn’t it — after all, why would hacks expose a prac­tice that could be so use­ful?

But back to the dear old OSA and the media.

Police_news_international In yesterday’s Observ­er news­pa­per, it was repor­ted that the police have threatened the journ­al­ists at The Guard­i­an with the Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) to force them to dis­close the iden­tity of their source amongst the police officer(s) in Oper­a­tion Weet­ing who leaked use­ful inform­a­tion to the news­pa­per to help its expos­ure of illeg­al prac­tices.  And, rightly, the great and the good are up in arms about this dra­coni­an use of a par­tic­u­larly invi­di­ous law:

John Cooper, a lead­ing human rights law­yer and vis­it­ing pro­fess­or at Cardiff Uni­ver­sity, echoed Evans’s con­cerns. “In my view this is a mis­use of the 1989 act,” Cooper said. “Fun­da­ment­ally the act was designed to pre­vent espi­on­age. In extreme cases it can be used to pre­vent police officers tip­ping off crim­in­als about police invest­ig­a­tions or from selling their stor­ies. In this instance none of this is sug­ges­ted, and many believe what was done was in the pub­lic interest.

Cooper added: “The police action is very likely to con­flict with art­icle 10 of the European Con­ven­tion on Human Rights, which pro­tects free­dom of speech.”

But I think he’s miss­ing a bit of recent leg­al his­tory here.  The UK had the 1911 OSA which was sup­posed to pro­tect the coun­try from espi­on­age and trait­ors, who faced 14 years in pris­on upon con­vic­tion.  Need­less to say this pro­vi­sion was rarely used — most of the cold war Soviet moles in the estab­lish­ment were allowed to slink off to the USSR, or at the very most be stripped of their “K”.

How­ever, as I’ve writ­ten before, the revised 1989 OSA was much more use­ful for the estab­lish­ment.  It was spe­cific­ally put in place to stop whis­tleblow­ing after the embar­rass­ment of the 1980s Clive Ponting/Belgrano case. 

Ponting The new act was spe­cific­ally designed to strip away the “pub­lic interest” defence used by Pont­ing in his tri­al, and also to pen­al­ise journ­al­ists who had the temer­ity to report leaks and whis­tleblow­ing from the heart of the estab­lish­ment.  The OSA (1989) has been used extens­ively since the late 1990s, des­pite the fact that many seni­or fig­ures in the former Labour gov­ern­ment opposed its pro­vi­sions when it went through Par­lia­ment.   Journ­al­ists are just as liable as whis­tleblowers or “leak­ers” under the pro­vi­sions of this act (the infam­ous Sec­tion 5).

So, back to The Guard­i­an and its leg­al cham­pi­ons.  I agree with what they are say­ing: yes, the 1989 OSA  has a chilling effect on free­dom of speech that unduly vic­tim­ises both the whis­tleblower and the journ­al­ist; yes, it is a uniquely dra­coni­an law for a notion­al West­ern demo­cracy to have on its books; yes, there should be a defence of “act­ing in the pub­lic interest”; and yes, the OSA should be deemed to be incom­pat­ible with Sec­tion 10(2) of the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights, guar­an­tee­ing free speech, which can only be cir­cum­scribed in the interests of “nation­al secur­ity”, itself a leg­ally undefined, neb­u­lous, and con­tro­ver­sial phrase under Brit­ish law.

David_Shayler_High_Court But if all the out­raged law­yers read up on their case law, par­tic­u­larly the hear­ings and leg­al dog­fights in the run up to Regina v Shayler cases, they will see that all these issues have been addressed, appar­ently to the sat­is­fac­tion of the hon­our­able m’luds who preside over Brit­ish courts, and cer­tainly to the estab­lish­ment fig­ures who like to use the OSA as their “get out of jail free” card.

So I wish The Guard­i­an journ­al­ists well in this con­front­a­tion.  But I have to say, per­haps they would not have found them­selves in this situ­ation today vis a vis the OSA if, rather than just a few brave journ­al­ists, the media insti­tu­tions them­selves had put up a more robust fight against its pro­vi­sions dur­ing its bas­tard birth in 1989 and its sub­sequent abuse.

It has been repor­ted today that the police may have down­graded their invest­ig­a­tion to a purely crim­in­al mat­ter, not the OSA.  Whatever hap­pens does not obvi­ate the need for the media to launch a con­cer­ted cam­paign to call for reform of the invi­di­ous OSA.  Just because one of their own is no longer threatened does not mean the chilling threat of this law has gone away.  As Mar­tin Luth­er King said while imprisoned in 1963:

Injustice any­where is a threat to justice every­where.”

I would also sug­gest the new gen­er­a­tion work­ing in the Brit­ish media urgently read this excel­lent book­let pro­duced by John Wadham of Liberty and Art­icle 19 way back in 2000 Down­load Article_19_Liberty_on_OSA_2000,  to remind them­selves of fun­da­ment­al argu­ments against dra­coni­an legis­la­tion such as the OSA and in favour of the free­dom of the press.

UK Intelligence and Security Committee to be reformed?

The Guardian’s spook com­ment­at­or extraordin­aire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has repor­ted that the cur­rent chair of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in the UK Par­lia­ment, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, wants the com­mit­tee to finally grow a pair.  Well, those weren’t quite the words used in the Grauny, but they cer­tainly cap­ture the gist.

If Rifkind’s stated inten­tions are real­ised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, mean­ing­ful and demo­crat­ic over­sight for the first time in the 100-year his­tory of  the three key UK spy agen­cies — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to men­tion the defence intel­li­gence staff, the joint intel­li­gence com­mit­tee and the new Nation­al Secur­ity Coun­cil .

FigleafFor many long years I have been dis­cuss­ing the woe­ful lack of real demo­crat­ic over­sight for the UK spies.  The privately-con­vened ISC, the demo­crat­ic fig-leaf estab­lished under the aegis of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (ISA), is appoin­ted by and answer­able only to the Prime Min­is­ter, with a remit only to look at fin­ance, policy and admin­is­tra­tion, and without the power to demand doc­u­ments or to cross-exam­ine wit­nesses under oath.  Its annu­al reports are always heav­ily redac­ted and have become a joke amongst journ­al­ists.

When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apo­plect­ic that Par­lia­ment should have any form of over­sight what­so­ever.  From their per­spect­ive, it was bad enough at that point that the agen­cies were put on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time.  Spy think­ing then ran pretty much along the lines of “why on earth should they be answer­able to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomor­row politi­cians, who were leaky as hell and gos­siped to journ­al­ists all the time”?

So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, col­lect­ive sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994.  They really had noth­ing to worry about.  I remem­ber, I was there at the time.

This has been borne out over the last 17 years.  Time and again the spies have got away with telling bare­faced lies to the ISC.  Or at the very least being “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”, to use one of their favour­ite phrases.  Former DG of MI5, Sir Steph­en Lander, has pub­licly said that “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee [ISC] early on…”.  Not to men­tion the out­right lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whis­tleblower testi­mony, tor­ture, and counter-ter­ror­ism meas­ures.

But these new devel­op­ments became yet more fas­cin­at­ing to me when I read that the cur­rent Chair of the ISC pro­pos­ing these reforms is no less than Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, crusty Tory grandee and former Con­ser­vat­ive For­eign Min­is­ter in the mid-1990s.

For Sir Mal­colm was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary notion­ally in charge of MI6 when the intel­li­gence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gad­dafi Plot when MI6 fun­ded a rag-tag group of Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to assas­sin­ate the Col­on­el, the key dis­clos­ure made by Dav­id Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.

Obvi­ously this assas­sin­a­tion attempt was highly reck­less in a very volat­ile part of the world; obvi­ously it was uneth­ic­al, and many inno­cent people were murdered in the attack; and obvi­ously it failed, lead­ing to the shaky rap­proche­ment with Gad­dafi over the last dec­ade.  Yet now we are see­ing the use of sim­il­ar tac­tics in the cur­rent Liby­an war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our gov­ern­ment openly and shame­lessly call­ing for régime change.

Malcolm_RifkindBut most import­antly from a leg­al per­spect­ive, in 1996 the “Gad­dafi Plot” MI6 appar­ently did not apply for pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion from Rif­kind — which they were leg­ally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (the very act that also estab­lished the ISC).  This is the fabled, but real, “licence to kill” — Sec­tion 7 of the ISA — which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illeg­al acts com­mit­ted abroad, if they have the requis­ite min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion.

At the time, Rif­kind pub­licly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanc­tion the plot when the BBC Pan­or­ama pro­gramme con­duc­ted a spe­cial invest­ig­a­tion, screened on 7 August 1997.  Rifkind’s state­ment was also repor­ted widely in the press over the years, includ­ing this New States­man art­icle by Mark Thomas in 2002.

That said, Rif­kind him­self wrote earli­er this year in The Tele­graph that help should now be giv­en to the Benghazi “rebels” — many of whom appear to be mem­bers of the very same group that tried to assas­sin­ate Gad­dafi with MI6’s help in 1996 — up to and includ­ing the pro­vi­sion of arms.  Rifkind’s view of the leg­al­it­ies now appear to be some­what more flex­ible, whatever his stated pos­i­tion was back in the 90s. 

Of course, then he was notion­ally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any polit­ic­al fall-out.  Now he can relax into the role of “quis cus­todiet ipsos cus­todes?”.  Such a relief.

I shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments around Rifkind’s pro­posed reforms with interest.

Just how many unaccountable spy organisations are out there in the UK?

Black_sheep?Unsuc­cess­fully res­ist­ing the tempta­tion to say that the obvi­ous ones (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) are still pretty unac­count­able, I was intrigued by a few recent art­icles in The Guard­i­an

George Mon­bi­ot, someone I have enorm­ous respect for but don’t always see eye-to-swiv­el­ling-eye with, wrote an excel­lent piece about the after­shocks of the Mark Kennedy/undercover cop scan­dal earli­er this year. 

Mon­bi­ot calls for the abol­i­tion of that demo­crat­ic­ally unac­count­able seni­or plod organ­isa­tion and PLC, the Asso­ci­ation of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).  This was the organ­isa­tion under whose aegis the under­cov­er cops spied on hap­less envir­on­ment protest­ors — the very people who are now being encour­aged to appeal against their con­vic­tions by Dir­ect­or of Pub­lic Pro­sec­u­tions, no less.

Mon­bi­ot quotes a couple of acronyms cov­er­ing this shady world of police spy­ing: NPOIU and NECTU.   But in anoth­er Guard­i­an art­icle today — about the police tak­ing pre-empt­ive steps against so-called anarch­ists in the run-up to the roy­al wed­ding — I saw this:

The Met is also get­ting intel­li­gence from the Fix­ated Threat Assess­ment Centre, a police unit set up in 2006 togeth­er with men­tal health agen­cies to identi­fy indi­vidu­als who are obsessed with mem­bers of the roy­al fam­ily, politi­cians or celebrit­ies.”

Que?  When was this unit set up, and who runs it?  What about data pro­tec­tion and pri­vacy of med­ic­al records?  Or are these notions already just quaint ana­chron­isms, and a de facto Big Broth­er data­base is already in place?

Per­haps it is time for ACPO to make a clean breast of all the little group­ings it has set up over the last dec­ade.….

My article in The Guardian, 24 January 2011

Annie_1_Heleen_Banner Here’s a link to my art­icle in The Guard­i­an today, explor­ing the con­fused roles of mod­ern Brit­ish spies, and look­ing at some ways to sort out the mess. 

Both the police and the spooks seem to be hav­ing a bit of an iden­tity crisis at the moment…

MI5 must back use of phone-taps

This is an art­icle of mine that appeared in The Guard­i­an on Wed­nes­day August 03 2005 .

Calls for justice

MI5 must back use of phone-taps

When I worked in MI5 in the 1990s, the use of tele­phone inter­cept mater­i­al (code­named Lin­en) was even then a hot top­ic of dis­cus­sion. Most of the new­er officers and the leg­al advisers advoc­ated its use. The MI5 old guard tried to claim that it was a sens­it­ive
tech­nique and if used in court, tele­phone intel­li­gence would be lost.

Every­one knows tele­phone lines can be bugged. And if, in a spe­cif­ic court case, evid­ence of par­tic­u­lar sens­it­iv­ity occurred in an inter­cept, its exist­ence could be pro­tec­ted by pub­lic interest immunity cer­ti­fic­ates.

The with­hold­ing of Lin­en is a hangover from the cold war, when tele­phone taps were used purely to gath­er intel­li­gence on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al tar­gets. Now that MI5 is doing largely police-style, evid­en­tial work to bring ter­ror­ists to tri­al, it needs to update its meth­ods.

Intel­li­gence gathered from bugs planted in a suspect’s prop­erty is already used as evid­ence in Brit­ish courts, although this is argu­ably a more sens­it­ive tech­nique. Most west­ern demo­cra­cies allow the use of intel­li­gence derived from tele­phone bugs.

Most Bel­marsh internees are incar­cer­ated on the basis of “secret and reli­able intel­li­gence” — ie tele­phone taps — which can­not be used in a court of law to charge them. Per­haps MI5 does not want Lin­en exposed to the scru­tiny of a court of law in these cases because the intel­li­gence is so weak.

In the early 1970s, the then prime min­is­ter, Har­old Wilson, was dis­suaded from employ­ing Judith Hart as a min­is­ter because of “secret and reli­able intel­li­gence”. It turned out that all she had done was ring up a friend who happened to work in the Com­mun­ist party HQ and call her “com­rade”, a prac­tice com­mon in leftwing circles at the time.

MI5 needs to drag itself into the 21st cen­tury and allow its intel­li­gence to be used as evid­ence. It needs to ensure that the new breed of ter­ror­ists threat­en­ing our coun­try can feel the full force of Brit­ish justice, nota bul­let in the back of the head.

Annie Machon is the author of Spies, Lies and Whis­tleblowers: MI5 and the Dav­id Shayler Affair

Guardian Interview 2002 — The spy who loved me

Stu­art Jef­fries of The Guard­i­an inter­viewed me in Novem­ber 2002:

The Spy who Loved Me

Annie Machon quit her job at MI5 and endured three years on the run — all for the sake of her part­ner Dav­id Shayler, who was jailed last week. She tells Stu­art Jef­fries why.

Annie Machon fell in love with a spy code­named G9A/1. It was 1991 and she had been work­ing in MI5’s counter-sub­vers­ives sec­tion for two months. “The first thing I noticed about him is that he’s leon­ine,” she says over lunch. “I think he’s drop-dead gor­geous. We’d be in sec­tion meet­ings which we’d get dragged to occa­sion­ally and told what to think. He stood out because he asked the awk­ward ques­tions. He was very clear-cut and chal­len­ging.”

G9A/1 was Dav­id Shayler, the reneg­ade Brit­ish spy who last week was sen­tenced to six months for break­ing the Offi­cial Secrets Act after leak­ing secret doc­u­ments to the press. He’s the one reg­u­larly branded as a fat, sweaty, boozy, big-mouthed trait­or. The kind of upstart who might take his mar­tini stirred rather than shaken. “Yes, that’s what they say, isn’t it?” says Machon, as she lights anoth­er cigar­ette. She exhales. “He’s noth­ing like that. Every­body loves to por­tray him as this slob from the north-east. But he’s not only a whis­tleblower try­ing to do some­thing hon­our­able. He’s also really intel­li­gent. I love him, and am very proud of him for what he did.”

Some people think you’re the brains behind Shayler. “That’s not true. When I star­ted at MI5, I went in as GD5. GD stands for gen­er­al duties. It’s very gradist. Dave went in as GD4, which meant that they were fast track­ing him. They thought he was really sharp. And they were right. In fact, he’s very sparky and great com­pany. We just clicked, basic­ally.” How did MI5 bosses feel about office romances? “They encour­aged them. They regarded those sorts of rela­tion­ships as polit­ic­ally expedi­ent, and oper­a­tion­ally quite sens­ible. There were quite a few couples at MI5.”

How did Annie Machon, a clas­sics gradu­ate from Gir­ton Col­lege, Cam­bridge, get recruited as a spook in the first place? A nudge in the quad, a glass of sherry with a shifty don? “No, I had sat the exam to be a dip­lo­mat. Then I got a let­ter.” She was impressed by the 10-month recruit­ment pro­cess. “It was very thor­ough with lots of tests and back­ground checks. It seemed like a pro­fes­sion­al organ­isa­tion. We were sup­posed to be part of the new gen­er­a­tion. People from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and dif­fer­ent exper­i­ences were sup­posed to be brought in — people who could think on their feet and think lat­er­ally. We both joined think­ing it soun­ded good for the coun­try, which sounds quite ideal­ist­ic now.”

When did scep­ti­cism set in? “Very quickly.” Machon and Shayler were employed to look for reds under the bed, but they couldn’t find any, even though they stud­ied the file on that dan­ger­ous leftwing sub­vers­ive Peter Man­del­son ever so assidu­ously. “We were basic­ally try­ing to track down old com­mun­ists, Trot­sky­ists and fas­cists, which to us seemed like a waste of time. The Ber­lin Wall had come down sev­er­al years before. We were both hor­ri­fied that dur­ing the 1992 elec­tion we were sum­mar­ising files on any­body who stood for par­lia­ment. We were also hor­ri­fied by the scale of the invest­ig­a­tions. We both argued most voci­fer­ously that we shouldn’t be doing this.”

After two years, both Machon and Shayler were moved to T-branch, where they worked on coun­ter­ing Irish ter­ror­ist threats on the main­land. “We were both doing well. We were good oper­at­ives and they wanted the best in that sec­tion. I don’t want to be egot­ist­ic­al but that was the truth.”

The pair hoped that this rel­at­ively new sec­tion would oper­ate bet­ter. “There were sev­er­al young and tal­en­ted agents who did their best. But because of man­age­ment cock-ups they couldn’t do their jobs prop­erly and peoples’ lives were lost.” What was the prob­lem? “They had all these old man­agers who had been there for donkey’s years. They were caught in the wrong era — instead of deal­ing with stat­ic tar­gets, they had a mobile threat in the IRA and they just couldn’t hack it. It was a night­mare, espe­cially because there were so many agen­cies involved — MI5, Spe­cial Branch, the RUC, GCHQ. They all had their own interests. That was why Bish­opsgate happened.” Shayler later claimed that MI5 could have stopped the 1993 IRA bomb­ing of Bish­opsgate in the City of Lon­don, which left one dead and 44 injured.

Why didn’t you leave then? “It was very easy to get into a stas­is. You have lots of friends there. But when you get to a more estab­lished sec­tion like the Middle East ter­ror­ism sec­tion and you see it’s the same, then you think about quit­ting.”

In 1995, Shayler dis­covered that MI6 had paid an agent who was involved in the plot to assas­sin­ate the Liby­an lead­er, Muam­mar Gadafy. Why was that wrong? “Apart from the immor­al­ity of it, the gen­er­al con­sensus from the intel­li­gence com­munity was that the assas­sin­a­tion of a well-estab­lished head of state by an Islam­ic fun­da­ment­al­ist in a very volat­ile area was not a good idea. It was crazy, but these bozos at MI6 wanted to have a crack at him.”

Then there was the case in which MI5 tapped a journalist’s phone. “For us, that’s what broke the camel’s back. A tap was only to be used in extremis, and this was noth­ing like that.”

Why didn’t you go quietly? “Well, oth­er officers did. In the year we left, 14 officers resigned. The aver­age fig­ure was usu­ally four. It was very scary. Dave is someone who thinks he should fight for what he believes in. And I knew what he was talk­ing about. I knew he had to have the sup­port against the massed forces of dark­ness. When you work there, the only per­son you can report some­thing to is the head of MI5 but if you’re com­plain­ing about alleged crimes on behalf of MI5, they’re not going to allow you to do that, so you’re in a Catch 22 situ­ation.”

In August 1997, Shayler sold his story to the Mail on Sunday. The day before pub­lic­a­tion the couple fled to Utrecht in Hol­land. “We left before the piece came out because they would have knocked down our doors and arres­ted Dave. I felt ter­ri­fied. But we man­aged to stay one step ahead.” Why was he the whis­tle­bower rather than you? “He had more access to what was going on — he was right in the middle of the Gadafy plot — and felt very strongly about it.”

The couple ended up in a French farm­house. “It was in the middle of nowhere. No TV, no car. For 10 months we spent every day togeth­er. He would write his nov­el dur­ing the day.” What were you doing? “I was keep­ing house. We enjoyed each other’s com­pany.” No rows? “Plenty.”

The couple tried to nego­ti­ate to return to Bri­tain without Shayler being pro­sec­uted, but with an under­tak­ing that his alleg­a­tions be offi­cially invest­ig­ated. “We got a com­plete lack of interest.” Then, dur­ing a stay in Par­is, Shayler was arres­ted in a hotel lobby. “We’d just been watch­ing Middles­brough on TV. They lost, of course. Then I didn’t see him for two months.” He spent nearly four months in La Santé, Paris’s top-secur­ity pris­on which also houses Car­los the Jack­al who used to yell “Dav­id Eng­lish!” to the reneg­ade spy from his cell. “I was bereft.” How are you going to deal with his cur­rent impris­on­ment? “I’ll just deal with it. It’s hor­rible, but I’m tough.”

A French judge ruled the extra­di­tion demand was polit­ic­ally motiv­ated and released him. The couple then ren­ted a flat in Par­is and holed up for a year. “As far as the Brit­ish author­it­ies were con­cerned, we could rot. They didn’t want us to come back. We made a little money from journ­al­ism, but this wasn’t the life we wanted.” Why in August 2000 did the spies decide to come home? “We had man­aged to nego­ti­ate a return without risk­ing months of remand. Dave thought he would be able to present his case to peers: yes, he did take £40,000 from the Mail on Sunday but that isn’t why he told the story. He nev­er got the chance. In the tri­al they tied his hands behind his back. He couldn’t say any­thing to the jury. The report­ing restric­tions were extraordin­ary.”

She vis­ited Shayler in jail for the first time on Tues­day. How was he? “He’ll be all right.” Now what? “I wait. And in the mean­time, we get our leg­al case togeth­er. We’re going to Europe, Brit­ish justice is use­less.”

Wouldn’t you like to put all this behind you and get on with your lives. “We will. But not yet. It could take five years to clear his name.” Machon, poised and clad in black, turns a cigar­ette in her fin­gers. “You know, when I star­ted this case I was in my 20s. Now I’m 34. I don’t think I’ll have fin­ished with it until I’m in my 40s. I wish I’d nev­er got involved with MI5. I wouldn’t touch them with a barge­pole if I had my time again.” I leave Machon alone at a café table writ­ing a let­ter to the man no longer code­named G9A/1.

Guardian Interview 2000 — No place to hide

The Sabine Dur­rant inter­view with me in The Guard­i­an, April 2000
No place to hide

How big a price can a woman pay for stand­ing by her man? The part­ner of exiled MI6 whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler lives and loves on the run — with Big Broth­er watch­ing her every move

Annie Machon and her boy­friend, Dav­id Shayler, the former MI5 officers now liv­ing in Par­is, have got used to feel­ing watched. Their phone plays up. Their emails go miss­ing. Even the walls of their flat seem to look down on them. If they want to dis­cuss “an issue”, they find a safe café to do it in. A dif­fer­ent one each time? “Of course,” says Machon with a slight curve to her lips. And in bed? “We have dis­cussed that, yes,” she says. “You just try and blank it out and get on with your life.”

She is poised and con­trolled. She remains cool even when recall­ing “sweaty cop­pers” read­ing out her love let­ters in the course of an  inter­rog­a­tion. Even when describ­ing the state of her under­wear (“inside out, with the crotches turned up as if they’d been sniff­ing them”) after their flat in Pimlico had been searched.

Machon, who is 31, has been at Shayler’s side since he fled to France in 1997 to escape pro­sec­u­tion for break­ing the Offi­cial Secrets Act when his claims of MI5 incom­pet­ence were first pub­lished in a Sunday news­pa­per. They packed for a fort­night. They’ve been gone two and a half years.

Shayler is a straight­for­ward love or hate fig­ure. He is either the whis­tleblower, fired by mor­al pur­pose to draw atten­tion to bungling with­in the intel­li­gence ser­vices, from rev­el­a­tions that they mon­itored “sub­vers­ives” includ­ing such threats to nation­al secur­ity as Har­riet Har­man and the reg­gae band UB40, to his more recent alleg­a­tions that MI6 was behind an illeg­al assas­sin­a­tion attempt on Muam­mar Gadafy, the Liby­an pres­id­ent. Or, as MI5 would have it (in an inter­est­ing mélange of con­tra­dic­tions), he is the trait­or, the self-pub­li­cist, the break­er of offi­cial secrets, the fan­tas­ist.

Machon has remained a much more enig­mat­ic fig­ure. At first she was just “Shayler’s girl­friend”. With her blonde hair and big blue eyes, she looked like a deb, a nurs­ery school teach­er, caught up in events bey­ond her con­trol. A former MI5 officer her­self, she made no dir­ect alleg­a­tions while sup­port­ing Shayler in his. But this may not have been cau­tion so much as sound man­age­ment.

Unlike Shayler (who spent four months in jail before extra­di­tion pro­ceed­ings failed; he is now being sued in the civil courts) she is at liberty to come and go in Bri­tain. “It’s import­ant that I remain free to travel, import­ant I remain out of reproach.”

Machon was in Lon­don to deliv­er to Scot­land Yard a dossier sup­port­ing Shayler’s Gadafy claims (an MI6 file recently pos­ted on the inter­net also appears to con­firm the alleg­a­tions). She holds press con­fer­ences. She meets with MPs. With law­yers. She wants account­ab­il­ity. She wants free­dom of expres­sion. She wants amnesty. She wants Shayler to be listened to. Taken ser­i­ously. To be allowed home. Then she wants to be left alone.

We meet at Vaux­hall under­ground sta­tion, close by the MI6 build­ing, although she doesn’t
want to hang around long. The closest café is too close. She walks very fast to the next. She doesn’t look over her shoulder once. She sees con­nec­tions where oth­ers might see blank walls. There are advert­ise­ments for laptops nearby. She refers to the recent stor­ies of the mugged MI5 officer, whose laptop was nicked and the drunk­en MI6 officer who mis­laid his. “What a coin­cid­ence,” she smiles sar­don­ic­ally. If she and Shayler win their case, she says she doesn’t think they’ll ever come back to Lon­don. “Dave would feel quite uncom­fort­able liv­ing here,” she says. “I would too. It’s just that sense of unease all the time.”

She is all in black, although her nails are gold. She is pale and slim, unlike Shayler whose plump­ness in pho­to­graphs can make him look like a yob. (“He put on weight at MI5, actu­ally. Social­ising after work — that drink­ing cul­ture he talked about — and also a sense
of unease. He eats when he’s feel­ing stressed. He’s joined a health club now. He swims nearly every day.”)

It’s not the only reas­on they seem an unlikely couple. A Middles­brough boy, with work­ing-class roots, Shayler is said to be chippy about pub­lic-school Oxbridge types.

Machon, who is the daugh­ter of a pilot turned news­pa­per­man, and from an old Guern­sey fam­ily, went to a private girls’ school and then to Cam­bridge, where she stud­ied clas­sics. “Yes, yes, I know. I think he did think I was a bit posh at first, but he squared it with the fact that I was a schol­ar­ship girl. Also we both moved around a lot when we were young. We had that in com­mon.”

Machon says that as soon as they met in an MI5 lib­rary they made each oth­er laugh and that their rela­tion­ship is “pas­sion­ate”. There are hints of that in her story. The night before she came back to Eng­land for the first time, sus­pect­ing she would be arres­ted, but not sure wheth­er they would con­fis­cate her pass­port, they lay in bed and held each oth­er and cried, “not know­ing when we would see each oth­er again”. Then, after 10 months in hid­ing at a farm­house in south-west France, when he was sud­denly taken into cus­tody, for days she walked around with “no one’s hand in mine”.

Inter­est­ingly, too, while Machon looks as though but­ter wouldn’t melt in her mouth,
she found out soon after join­ing MI5 (after sit­ting the for­eign office exams), that  psy­cho­lo­gic­al pro­fil­ing had marked her out as a mav­er­ick. “I was hav­ing a bit of a debate with my man­ager in the office and she said, ‘I’ve been warned about you’.” She smiles enig­mat­ic­ally. “I was quite flattered.”

She and Shayler had already left MI5 when Shayler decided to go pub­lic, both had nice well-paid jobs as man­age­ment con­sult­ants. They had a nice social life, nice Pimlico flat.
She didn’t want him to go to the papers. “It wasn’t so much doubt as fear. I knew they’d come after us and I knew what they could do against us. If you’ve worked for MI5 it doesn’t help your para­noia, put it that way.”

She slips a light­er out of her cigar­ette pack­et and lights up. “And I must say I was shown to be right. Not that I’d ever say I told you so to Dave.”

The papers ran the story on a bank hol­i­day week­end. Machon and Shayler got the last plane out of Heath­row on the Sat­urday night, to Ams­ter­dam. They braced them­selves. Then Diana, Prin­cess of Wales was killed. “In one sense it was a relief because the pres­sure was taken off us. In anoth­er it was ter­rible. An injunc­tion had been put on the paper and if she hadn’t died, Fleet Street would have been up in arms about gag­ging the free press, they would have been more bal­anced in their assess­ment of Dave, demand­ing
inquir­ies. As it was, there were a lot of back­room brief­ings against him, say­ing he was a loud­mouth, unbal­anced, and we were bur­ied there.”

She uses the word “bur­ied” a lot. It’s hard to tell wheth­er it is a good thing or a bad thing for someone who needs pub­li­city (“it’s our only pro­tec­tion”) and yet longs to hide. On the run, they “bur­ied them­selves” in the French coun­tryside, a dif­fer­ent hotel every night, pay­ing cash.

After that they were “bur­ied” again in a remote farm­house near Per­pig­nan, “freez­ing cold, miles from the shops”, liv­ing off their £40,000 news­pa­per earn­ings, where Shayler wrote his nov­el (it has since been banned) and she kept house. The Brit­ish gov­ern­ment pre­ten­ded to nego­ti­ate with them, she says. “They thought we’d run out of money and rot abroad. They wanted to bury us.”

It was only when Shayler was in pris­on, when the worst had happened, that she got
her con­fid­ence back. “I found I was tough­er than I thought. Dave had always been the more ebul­li­ent char­ac­ter. And sud­denly when he was arres­ted, even though I was des­per­ately lonely, it was, ‘Right, you’ve got to do it.’ ”

Actu­ally, there was worse to come: an approach by an armed Liby­an a week after Shayler’s release. He offered a six-fig­ure sum in exchange for names linked to the Gadafy plot and evid­ence on Lock­er­bie (Shayler had been an expert). He fol­lowed them
when they refused. A few nights later their buzzer rang for five minutes in the night: “We cowered in the corner with our kit­chen knives.” They repor­ted the incid­ent to MI5, and were told it was a mat­ter for the French, who told them it was a mat­ter for the Brits.

What does Machon hope for now? She says she can’t think what to do with her life. “I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son to the one I was two years ago.” Maybe an old house in Nor­mandy: Shayler could con­tin­ue writ­ing, nov­els, his column for Punch.

What about chil­dren? “I don’t want those. Neither of us does. We nev­er have. I’m not at all mater­nal. I’ve nev­er felt the desire. My broth­er is 11 years young­er and I don’t have a
romantic view of chil­dren. I know what they’re like.”

I was going to sug­gest that when she hits her mid-30s she might change her mind, but then I saw the look in her eye and changes of mind didn’t seem to come into it.

Interview with Francis Wheen, 1999

An interview with Francis Wheen of The Guardian, August 1999:

The spy left out in the cold

Fran­cis Wheen on the hound­ing by the author­it­ies of MI5 whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler:

Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer liv­ing in France, came to Lon­don last week. On a pre­vi­ous vis­it, in 1997, she was nabbed at Gatwick air­port by a goon squad from Spe­cial Branch. This time her only ordeal was a couple of hours with me in a Soho café. It was pro­gress of a sort, I sup­pose; but little else has changed​.It is exactly two years since Annie’s part­ner, Dav­id Shayler, hit the head­lines with his com­plaints of mal­prac­tice and incom­pet­ence at MI5. Since then the gov­ern­ment has con­sist­ently refused to heed or
invest­ig­ate his alleg­a­tions, pre­fer­ring to load up its rusty blun­der­buss and shoot the mes­sen­ger.

In his ori­gin­al inter­view with the Mail on Sunday, Shayler exploded the offi­cial myth that MI5 mon­it­ors only those “sub­vers­ives” who wish to “over­throw demo­cracy by viol­ent means”, reveal­ing that, in fact, it kept files on such harm­less pussy­cats as Jack Straw, Peter Man­del­son, Har­riet Har­man and the reg­gae band UB40. The gov­ern­ment was out­raged — not by the evid­ence of spooky skul­dug­gery but by Shayler’s whis­tleblow­ing.

Tony Blair’s spokes­man warned the news­pa­per that “the heav­ies would move in” unless future art­icles were sub­mit­ted to Down­ing Street for vet­ting. When the edit­or refused to obey, the treas­ury soli­cit­or obtained an injunc­tion ban­ning the media from report­ing any fur­ther remarks by Shayler about mis­con­duct or mis­man­age­ment in the secur­ity ser­vice.

Shortly after­wards, at MI5’s request, Spe­cial Branch officers raided the Lon­don flat Shayler had shared with Machon. The search war­rant per­mit­ted them to look for
“evid­ence of an offence under the offi­cial secrets act” — which they inter­preted, rather eccent­ric­ally, as a licence to smash the fur­niture, hurl table lamps to the floor and remove sev­er­al pairs of Machon’s knick­ers.

Then came the absurd pan­to­mime at Gatwick air­port. Machon was obvi­ously not going to put up a struggle: her law­yer had told the police when and where she was due, and she was armed with noth­ing more leth­al than an overnight bag. Nev­er­the­less, Spe­cial Branch
thought it neces­sary to send no few­er than six brutes to hustle her away. This crude intim­id­a­tion con­tin­ued dur­ing six hours of ques­tion­ing at Char­ing Cross police sta­tion, when her inter­rog­at­ors read out love let­ters she had exchanged with Shayler — bil­lets doux that had no con­ceiv­able rel­ev­ance to the Offi­cial Secrets Act.

If Shayler had com­mit­ted a ser­i­ous offence, as Straw main­tained, why were no charges brought against the edit­ors and journ­al­ists who pub­lished his dis­clos­ures? The ques­tion answers itself: bul­lies pick on the power­less, and min­is­ters were reluct­ant to ant­ag­on­ise the mighty Asso­ci­ated News­pa­pers. Instead, the author­it­ies took out their frus­tra­tion by har­ass­ing inno­cent bystand­ers. Shayler’s broth­er, Philip, was detained, as were two of his friends.

Like Machon, they were even­tu­ally released without charge — although not before the police had help­fully informed Philip’s employ­ers that he was wanted in con­nec­tion with “fin­an­cial irreg­u­lar­it­ies”.

From his French exile, Shayler con­tin­ued to press for an inquiry. In Octo­ber 1997, the
gov­ern­ment set up a cab­in­et office review of the intel­li­gence agen­cies to be chaired by John Alpass, a former deputy dir­ect­or of the secur­ity ser­vice. As Shayler points out, Alpass was scarcely a dis­in­ter­ested party, as “any adverse cri­ti­cism of MI5 would have reflec­ted badly on his time there”. Nev­er­the­less, Shayler sub­mit­ted a 6,000-word memo on “man­age­ment prob­lems in MI5”.

The com­mit­tee refused to read it. He was giv­en a sim­il­ar brush-off by the par­lia­ment­ary intel­li­gence and secur­ity com­mit­tee, sup­posedly respons­ible for hold­ing the spooks to
account.

Last sum­mer, in the hope of excit­ing some offi­cial interest, Shayler told the Mail on Sunday that MI6 had secretly paid a Liby­an emigré £100,000 to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Muam­mar Gadafy. Although  the point of Shayler’s rev­el­a­tion was that min­is­ters had neither known nor approved of the plot, Robin Cook felt able to issue an instant deni­al. “I’m per­fectly clear that these alleg­a­tions have no basis in fact. It is pure fantasy.”

Why, then, did the gov­ern­ment refuse to let the MoS pub­lish the art­icle, arguing that it would endanger nation­al secur­ity? And why did Straw imme­di­ately ask France to arrest
and extra­dite Shayler? If the story was fantasy, he hadn’t broken the offi­cial secrets act. If it was true, and Brit­ish intel­li­gence had indeed con­spired to murder a for­eign head of state, then it would not be Shayler who had some explain­ing to do.

Unable to cope with this glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion, his enemies took refuge in invect­ive. “In a
bet­ter world,” the Daily Tele­graph har­rumphed, “Dav­id Shayler and his like… would be horse-whipped.”

After his release from a French jail last Novem­ber, the Sunday Tele­graph came up with an even more extreme solu­tion, point­ing out that if he were a reneg­ade French spy his former employ­ers would prob­ably have killed him. “One won­ders how Shayler would react to being shot at by MI5 agents,” the news­pa­per mused. “But these days,” it added  regret­fully, “MI5 is scru­pu­lous in its obser­va­tion of the let­ter of the law.”

Scru­pu­lous as ever, MI5 tried assas­sin­at­ing his repu­ta­tion instead, let­ting it be known
that he was always regarded in the ser­vice as “a Wal­ter Mitty, a loose can­non” and “a rebel who likes to sail close to the wind”. (The last phrase, incid­ent­ally, came from a school report writ­ten before Shayler had even taken his A-levels.)

Many tame MPs and hacks have repeated these insults without paus­ing to think through their logic. If Shayler is as mani­festly dotty as they claim and yet man­aged to join the fast track at MI5 and win a per­form­ance bonus in his final year, doesn’t this con­firm that the secur­ity ser­vice is indeed run by dan­ger­ous clod­hop­pers, as Shayler claims?

Logic, how­ever, is sel­dom allowed to intrude into this case — except for the deranged logic of Catch 22. Shayler wrote a spy nov­el, The Organ­isa­tion, assum­ing that this at least would be allowed. No such luck.

The treas­ury soli­cit­or con­tac­ted the major Lon­don pub­lish­ers warn­ing that Shayler must not write any­thing, “wheth­er presen­ted as fact or fic­tion, which may be con­strued as relat­ing to the secur­ity ser­vice or its mem­ber­ship or activ­it­ies or to secur­ity or intel­li­gence activ­it­ies gen­er­ally .” (My ital­ics.) In oth­er words, Shayler can’t pub­lish true stor­ies, even if the gov­ern­ment says they are fic­tion; but he can’t pub­lish fic­tion for fear that it might have a ker­nel of truth. And yet oth­er ex-spies — John Le Carre, Ted All­beury — have writ­ten ump­teen nov­els about Brit­ish intel­li­gence without hav­ing injunc­tions hurled at them.

It is barely believ­able in this day and age that a UK cit­izen should have to live in exile for telling the truth — or, if you believe the gov­ern­ment, for mak­ing up stor­ies about the intel­li­gence ser­vices,” Shayler says. “It is doubly dif­fi­cult to accept when we see that this has happened at the behest of a Labour gov­ern­ment.”

Per­son­ally, I don’t find it at all dif­fi­cult: Labour politi­cians have always been suck­ers for cloak-and-dag­ger non­sense. Lest we for­get, it was the last Labour gov­ern­ment that expelled the Amer­ic­an journ­al­ists Philip Agee and Mark Hosen­ball at the behest of MI5, without troub­ling to give any reas­ons, and then tried to jail a col­league of mine from the New States­man for the hein­ous offence of col­lect­ing min­istry of defence press releases. “New” Labour has revived the tra­di­tion by pro­sec­ut­ing a respec­ted defence orres­pond­ent, Tony Ger­aghty, and tor­ment­ing the hap­less Shayler.

Only last month the treas­ury soli­cit­or sent a stern let­ter to Shayler’s law­yers. “Your cli­ent has been writ­ing to vari­ous mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment, enclos­ing a pamph­let which he has writ­ten entitled Secrets and Lies,” he noted. “The dis­clos­ure of this inform­a­tion con­sti­tutes yet a fur­ther breach by your cli­ent of the injunc­tion against him… I am not instruc­ted to deal in detail with the points made by your cli­ent, save to say that his  alleg­a­tions of impro­pri­ety on the part of the secur­ity ser­vice are rejec­ted.”

How can min­is­ters know that the alleg­a­tions are false without both­er­ing to check? Easy: MI5’s dir­ect­or, Steph­en Lander, has assured Straw that everything is tick­ety-boo.

At the height of the Spycatch­er pan­ic, the Brit­ish cab­in­et sec­ret­ary admit­ted that White­hall often found it neces­sary to be “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”, and there are very few people naïve enough to assume that the pro­fes­sion­al dis­sim­u­lat­ors who run MI5 and MI6 can always be believed. For­tu­nately for Lander, this select band of cred­u­lous oafs includes every seni­or mem­ber of the Labour cab­in­et.

If Dav­id Shayler were a mem­ber of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA, Tony Blair would be happy to nego­ti­ate deals and  indem­nit­ies with him. Since he is merely a pub­lic-spir­ited whis­tleblower who has nev­er murdered any­one, he is con­demned to har­ass­ment, vili­fic­a­tion and indef­in­ite exile.