The Ottawa Shootings – my RT interview

Yesterday I was asked to do an interview on RT in the immediate aftermath of the Ottawa shootings. As I said, there needs to be a full forensic investigation, and I would hope that the government does not use this terrible crime as a pretext for yet further erosion of constitutional rights and civil liberties. Calm heads and the rule of law need to prevail.


New German spy scandal – RT interview

As a second German intelligence officer was arrested for spying for the Americans, here’s my recent RT interview on the subject, plus much more:


France Inter radio interview at CCC

A short radio interview about the importance of privacy that I did at the recent CCC with France Inter radio:

France Inter Radio interview at the CCC from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Rendition and torture – interview on RT

Here’s my recent interview on RT’s excellent and incisive new UK politics programme, “Going Underground“.  In it I discuss rendition, torture, spy oversight and much more:

Going Underground Ep 22 1 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Interview on London Real TV

Here’s my recent interview on London Real TV, discussing all things whistleblowing, tech, intelligence, and the war on drugs.  Thanks Brian and Colin for a fun hour!

London Real TV Interview – coming soon

Here is a taster of my recent interview on London Real TV. It was diverse, lively and fun, and should be broadcast in full tomorrow:

Annie Machon – Whistleblower – London Real TV from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

RT interview about whistleblower Edward Snowden

The whistleblower behind last week’s PRISM leaks dramatically went public last night.  Edward Snowden gave an interview to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian explaining calmly and cogently why he chose to expose the NSA’s endemic data-mining. An immensely brave man.

Here is an interview I did about the case last night for RT:

And here is the transcript.

Film Review of “Secrecy” on Cinepolitics, January 2009

Over the last few years I have been a regular guest on political discussion programmes on the rapidly growing Press TV.  Occasionally I am invited onto the film review show, “Cinepolitics”, by the host (and film maker) Russell Michaels

The film under review is a documentary called “Secrecy”, looking at the stifling effect censorship and the creeping concept of national security have had on democracy in the USA under the former presidential regime.  When this was filmed in January, there was hope that the new presidency might roll this back.  However, “Secrecy” is just as pertinent now that the issue of torture and Guantanamo Bay is being addressed more openly by the media.

Resonance FM Interview

This is an interview I recorded for Resonance FM with We Are Change UK, a rapidly-growing  activist group in the USA and Europe, in which I get the chance to discuss the spies, their crimes, cover-ups, the media, the war on terror and the erosion of our freedoms, amongst many other issues:

Download We_Are_Change_Interview.mp3 (25.4M)

New Statesman Article, August 2008

The new spies

Stephen Armstrong

the Cold War ended, it didn’t spell curtains for the secret agent.
Private espionage is a booming industry and environmental protest
groups are its prime target



As you hunker down for the last few days of the Camp for Climate
Action, discussing how to force your way into Kingsnorth power station
in an attempt to prevent the construction of a new coal facility, cast
your eyes around your fellow protesters. Do they look entirely bona
fide to you? And don’t look for the old-school special branch officers
– Kent Police are a tiny force. It’s the corporate spies hired by
private companies you need to watch out for.

According to the private espionage industry itself, roughly one in four of your comrades is on a multinational’s payroll.

Russell Corn, managing director of Diligence, one of a growing
number of "corporate intelligence agencies", with offices high in the
Canary Wharf glass tower, says private spies make up 25 per cent of
every activist camp. "If you stuck an intercept up near one of those
camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of outgoing calls after every
meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence’," he smiles.
"Easily one in four of the people there are taking the corporate

In April this year, for instance, the anti-aviation campaign network
Plane Stupid, one of the main organisers of the eco-camp built to
protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport, announced that one
of its activists, Ken Tobias, was actually called Toby Kendall, was
working for a corporate espionage firm called C2i, and had been leaking
information about the group to paying clients and the media. He had
been hired by an as yet unknown private company to provide information
and disrupt the group’s campaigning.

When Tobias first turned up at Plane Stupid’s meetings in July 2007,
he seemed a committed former Oxford student dedicated to reducing
aircraft emissions. The group gradually became suspicious because he
showed up early at meetings, constantly pushed for increasingly drama
tic direct action and – the ultimate giveaway – dressed a little too
well for an ecowarrior. When they showed his picture around Oxford they
found an old college pal who identified him as Toby Kendall. A quick
Google search revealed his Bebo page with a link to a corporate
networking site, where his job as an "analyst" at C2i International,
working in "security and investigations", was pasted in full public

Just a month earlier, a woman called Cara Schaffer had contacted the
Student/Farmworker Alliance, an idealistic bunch of American college
students who lobby fast-food companies to help migrant workers in
Florida who harvest tomatoes. Like the cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay,
many of these workers are smuggled into the US by gangs which then take
their passports and force them to work without pay to clear often
fictitious debts to regain their papers.

Digging up dirt

Again, Schaffer’s excessive eagerness aroused suspicion, and again,
the internet revealed her true identity. She owned Diplomatic Tactical
Services, a private espionage firm which had pre viously hired as a
subcontractor one Guillermo Zara bozo, today facing murder charges in
Miami for his role in allegedly executing four crew members of a
chartered fishing boat, an allegation he denies. Schaffer turned out to
be working for Burger King – the home, perhaps appropriately, of the

The cute thing about these two bozos is that they got caught pretty
early on, but that was because they were young and had no background in

The real market is in proper, old-school spies who are suddenly
entering the private sector. For professional spooks, the 1990s were no
fun at all. The Cold War was over, defence spending was down and a
detailed knowledge of cold-drop techniques in central Berlin was
useless to governments looking for Arabic speakers who knew the Quran.

From New York and London to Moscow and Beijing, any decent-sized
corporation can now hire former agents from the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6 and
the KGB. The ex-spooks are selling their old skills and contacts to
multinationals, hedge funds and oligarchs, digging up dirt on
competitors, uncovering the secrets of boardroom rivals and exposing
investment targets. They are also keeping tabs on journalists,
protesters and even potential employees.

"MI5 and MI6 in particular have always guided ex-employees into
security companies," explains Annie Machon, the former MI5 agent who
helped David Shayler blow the whistle on the security services back in
1997. "It’s always useful to them to have friends they can tap for info
or recruit for a job that requires plausible deniability. The big
change in recent years has been the huge growth in these companies.
Where before it was a handful of private detective agencies, now there
are hundreds of multinational security organisations, which operate
with less regulation than the spooks themselves," she says.

Corn’s company Diligence, for instance, was set up in 2000 by Nick
Day, a former MI5 spy, and an ex-CIA agent, Mike Baker. Before long,
the duo had built up a roster of high-paying clients including Enron,
oil and pharmaceutical companies, as well as law firms and hedge funds.
In 2001, a small investment by the Washington lobbying company Barbour
Griffith & Rogers propelled their growth. However, BGR and Baker
sold their stakes in 2005, shortly before a scandal shook Diligence.
KPMG, the global professional services firm, accused Diligence staff of
impersonating British spies to gain information on a corporate takeover
for a Russian telecoms client called Alfa Group. Diligence settled the
lawsuit without admitting liability.

Since then, it has recruited the former Conservative Party leader
Michael Howard as chairman of its European operations. And it is that
sort of respectability and lobbying power that big players are after.
In 2007, the parent company of the US private military firm Blackwater,
which hit the headlines for gunning down Iraqi civilians in Baghdad
last September, entered this market through Total Intelligence
Solutions (TIS), a new CIA-type private operation, to provide
intelligence services to commercial clients.

Discreet investigations

Blackwater’s vice-chairman, J Cofer Black, who runs TIS, spent three
decades in the CIA and the state department, becoming director of the
Counterterrorist Centre and co-ordinator for counter terrorism, a job
with ambassadorial rank. He describes the new company as bringing "the
intelligence-gathering methodology and analytical skills traditionally
honed by CIA operatives directly to the boardroom. With a service like
this, CEOs and their security personnel will be able to respond to
threats quickly and confidently – whether it’s determining which city
is safest to open a new plant in or working to keep employees out of
harm’s way after a terrorist attack."

Black also says TIS will operate a "24/7 intelligence fusion and
warning centre" that will monitor civil unrest, terrorism, economic
stability, environmental and health concerns, and information
technology security around the world.

The established firms already operating in this area include Kroll,
Aegis, Garda, Control Risks, GPW and Hakluyt & Co. More firms are
opening every day and there is little regulation of the sector.

Hakluyt & Co was founded in 1995 by former British MI6 officers,
with a reputation for discreet and effective investigations. The
company butler, a former gurkha, greets visitors to its London HQ, a
town house off Park Lane. In winter, meetings can be conducted beside
the fire. Computers are rarely in sight. Hakluyt’s advisory board has
become an exit chamber for captains of industry and former government
officials. Members have included Sir Rod Eddington, a former BA CEO,
and Sir Christopher Gent, former chief executive of Vodafone.

"It is hard to work well for an oil company without knowing who all
the key decision-makers in a government are and having the right
contacts to reach them," explains Stéphane Gérardin, who runs the
French private security company Géos. "We have an intelligence section
where we employ some investigative journalists, people from the finance
sector, from equity banks and some from security backgrounds.

"It is an important part of image protection for our clients as
well. We have our own tracking and monitoring centre, with analysts
doing risk mapping and preparing our clients for every potential
problem. It could be about alerting them to local sensitivities. Or, in
this globalised internet age, it can be a group of students in
Cambridge who have launched a protest website, who may be sending out a

"So we need to be able to understand and prepare our own propaganda
to counter such attacks. This is work we do to protect our clients."

Trusted friend

Like the state security services, which ended up running Class War
in the 1990s after a hugely successful penetration, these spies work to
become reliable members of any protest movement. In April 2007, the
Campaign Against Arms Trade called in the police after court documents
showed that the weapons manufacturer BAE Systems had paid a private
agency to spy on the peace group.

BAE admitted that it had paid £2,500 a month to LigneDeux
Associates, whose agent Paul Mercer – accepted as a trusted member of
the campaign – passed information, including a legally privileged
document, to BAE’s director of security, Mike McGinty.

Unlike the security services, however, these services don’t bother
with penetrating the far left or anti-fascist groups. Their clients are
only interested in the protest movements that threaten corporations.
And as that is the nature of much protest in these times, it is a wide
field, but with a particular impact on environmental groups.

At any of this summer’s green protests the corporate spies will be
there, out-of-work MI5 agents tapping green activists’ mobile phones to
sell the information on to interested companies.

Russell Corn knows of incidents where a spook at a meeting has
suggested a high-street bank as a target, then left the meeting to
phone the officers of said bank, telling them that he has penetrated an
activist camp planning an attack and offering to sell the details. Corn
has no time for such behaviour, however.

"The thing about a really good private spy," he tells me, "is that you’ll never know he’s around and he’ll never get caught.

"The fact you can’t see them . . . it means nothing at all."

Emel Magazine, November 2007

Interview in Emel Magazine, November 2007

Table Talk

Espionage, intrigue and life-on-the-run are all part and parcel of Annie Machon’s history. Sadia Chowdhury speaks to the former MI5 agent about the consequences of exposing what goes on behind the scenes at one of the world’s most renowned secret

It was the Saturday night of the August bank-holiday  weekend in 1997 when Annie Machon and her boyfriend packed their bags and took the first two seats they could find out of Britain.  They had spent the last ten months of
their lives trying to settle into their new jobs knowing that a day would come when they would blow the whistle on  their former employer
and turn their lives upside down.

Machon had turned her back on a six-year career as a spy to stand by the man she loved.  Her boyfriend was David Shayler, a high-flying MI5 officer who exposed, what he said, was the Intelligence Service’s plot to assassinate the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

The two are no longer together but as we meet for coffee in a London hotel, Machon shows no regret at the way things took shape.  Dressed entirely in black, it’s her sunshine blonde hair that lights up an otherwise dull background to the city’s scaffold-clad landscape.

Her life as an MI5 officer was no James Bond film, but you can still see that Machon is the perfect spy.  With an unsuspecting face and a handshake that feels like you have known her all your life, the 39 year old campaigner rescinds the myth of the glamorous, martini-sipping spy world.  “No, it’s much, much more mundane”, she laments before telling me that much of the job can constitute mind numbing behind-the-desk work.

But unknown to Machon at the time, a career that started off as a simple application to work for the Foreign Office, soon developed into a plot fit for a blockbuster Hollywood movie.

“My first reaction was ‘It’s MI5!’  I was really quite frightened”, she says, recalling a letter from the Ministry of Defence which offered her alternative jobs with the Intelligence Services.  “My father was with me when I opened the latter and he just said ‘let’s see what happens’. “

What ‘happened’ was ten months of intensive application processes for the Cambridge Classics student to undergo at the establishment. Recovering from a post-Cold War reputation marred with embarrassing revelations and intelligence failures, Machon says her recruiters insisted they were aiming to work within the legal framework for the
first time.

It was 1990, only one year after the Security Service Act placed the Service on a statutory
basis: a fact that helped Machon believe what she was being told. “They were saying ‘we obey the law, we work within the law; we don’t do all the political stuff like we used to’.  But unfortunately my first posting was in the political section so I learnt quite quickly that they had lied to me.”

Machon confesses a sceptical attitude soon developed after she was instructed to uncover “old communists” summarising files on anybody who stood for parliament in the 1992 elections.  Sharing her strong concerns was one David Shayler, a former Sunday Times journalist who had worked with her in F2, the counter-subversion section of MI5.

Within a year, the two fell in love – a bond that was to see them stand together against what she describes as a catalogue of errors and crimes committed by MI5.  “There was a lot of concern about how MI5 wasn’t obeying the law and how it was getting its priorities wrong,” Machon says, hastening to add that other officers had approached management with their concerns only to be told to shut up.  “Most organisations are pyramid shaped and MI5 has this bulge in the middle, full of managers who aren’t going anywhere because they’re not very good at their jobs.  But they don’t get sacked and they were the ones blocking a lot of the new ideas that were coming in.”

One consequence of this incompetence, Machon explains, left MI5 with blood on its hands. Machon and Shayler were moved to T Branch, where they worked on countering Irish terrorist threats.  Shayler was to claim later that MI5 could have prevented the 1993 IRA bombing of Bishopsgate in the City of London, which left one dead and 44 injured.

“You’re in the firing line,” Machon tells me plainly, pausing a moment as the waitress brings coffee to our table.  She goes on to describe the events that lead her to leave MI5 before slowly pushing down on the filter.  It was still the early 1990s and Machon’s partner Shayler was now head of the Libyan desk, responsible for ‘Middle Eastern terrorism’.

He was allegedly briefed by his MI6 counterpart about a plot to assassinate the Libyan leader.  It is thought the plan involved funding and equipping a Libyan opposition group which Machon describes as an “Islamic extremist network” to carry out the deed.  In March 1996, a bomb exploded in the coastal city of Sirte, missing Gaddafi’s motorcade but killing several civilians.  Shayler claimed that MI6 had been involved in the failed assassination attack without the authorisation of the then foreign secretary – as
required under English and international law.  The Intelligence Services denied any involvement in this, or several other cases that Shayler accuses the Service of being complicit in.  One of those incidents took place in July 1994, when a car bomb exploded outside the Israeli embassy in London injuring 20 people: an attack Shayler says had prior knowledge of and could have prevented.

Half-way through her coffee, Machon goes back to the events of 1996 when she and Shayler decided to leave.  “It was incremental because you got posted every two years to a new section and you think ‘okay, that section was wrong but the new section has different managers and is going to be better’.  But we moved three times and every time we saw the same mistakes happen.  Then the Gaddafi plot pushed our decision to leave.”  Nor was it just Shayler and Machon who quit the Intelligence Service that year.  Fourteen other officers who had all been recruited around the same time left MI5 in the same year – up from an average of two or three departures a year.

“It took about a year to get the whole thing working.  After about ten months, we got this
phone call – David was called by The Mail on Sunday to meet the editor and we were given three days notice that our lives were going to be turned upside down.”  Machon recalls how the Mail’s editor offered Shayler cash to leave the country and avoid arrest.
“At that stage after a year of build-up, we just packed up and left.

The couple flew out to Holland, then on to France, spending the next month on the run moving from hotel to hotel almost every night.  Machon then decided to return to the UK, and doesn’t hesitate as she relates the story – one she’s probably told a thousand times but one that still brings a look of amusement to her face.  “I flew back with my lawyer John
Wadham, head of Liberty, the human rights organisation.  He had already told the police that I was coming back – on which flight, at what time, and that I was going to hand myself in.  So it was a bit of a shock to be met at immigration by six Special Branch officers who pulled me off to a counter-terrorism suite in Charing Cross police station!”

Machon was released after a day of questioning and a week later joined Shayler back in
France.  “We had ten months holed up in this freezing cold, really remote farm house.  And during that time we tried to negotiate with the government saying ‘look, we have all this other evidence to give you so you can build an enquiry’, but they just strung it out, kept us quiet, and did nothing.”

It was a particularly stressful time for both Shayler and Machon; as whistleblowers they had depended on support from the press, but with Diana’s death just a week after their story broke, Machon says they lost the support that had been building amongst the media.  “We didn’t know what to do.  We had no chance of getting another job because once you blow the whistle, other big organisations don’t trust you.”  But does she regret what she did?  “No.  You can’t regret anything in life.  I am still proud of what David and I did.  Someone has got to take a stand sometimes.”

The question is of course, whether she will have trouble taking that stand now: especially as after a decade since The Mail on Sunday article was released and after having spent years on the run together, Machon and Shayler split up last year.  David Shayler now lives in Devon and frequents the media over a different revelation:  his recent conviction that he is the Messiah.  In a recent television appearance he said “As the Holy Spirit is God incarnate as essence, I am God incarnated as spirit and man.”  Machon takes a moment to contemplate and in reaction to my question simply says, “The stress just got to him.”  Her answers now become shorter and shorter.  “We separated last year”, before adding, “I’m sure eventually we’ll regain our friendship.”

But doesn’t Machon think her former partner’s claims will ruin their credibility?  “I think yes, it has destroyed his credibility and I think that’s tragic.  It’s a gift for the intelligence agency – they can turn around and say ‘oh, well, he always was mad – he’s a fantasist’,
which is unfortunate because what we were talking about was so important in terms of where our democracy is and who really runs this country.”

A final sip of coffee concludes our meeting as Machon prepares to leave the grey cityscape backdrop for yet another appointment.  Though scorn of recent revelations seeks to undermine what the two ex-spies were fighting for, when it comes to struggling to unveil the truth, Annie Machon for one cannot be as easily dismissed.

November 2006 – Independent Interview

Forget Bond: MI5 wants cat-loving twentysomethings

Britain’s spymasters are looking for a new kind of recruit to tackle a different threat. The Independent’s Sophie Goodchild and Lauren Veevers ask an ex-agent about the job.

They seek her here; they seek her there; that damned elusive cosmetic-buying, weepy-watching, cat-owning, Italian food-loving, female couch potato with a mind like a spring trap. That is the new quarry of Britain’s spymasters.

An advertisement specifying these characteristics has been placed in magazines by that hitherto shadowy employer, the security service. It shows the back view of an Afro-haired, twenty-something woman in a T-shirt.

Those seeking work in the domestic secret intelligence service, MI5, are referred to:, where the invisible ink brigade says: “We particularly welcome applications from women and ethnic minorities.”

Salaries for a mobile surveillance officer start at £24,121 for what MI5 describes as: “A
remarkable job, undertaken by remarkable people. But you would never know to look at them. Because they need to blend into the background, officers are of average height, build and general appearance.” The selection process can take up to eight months and consists of intense interviews and rigorous aptitude tests.

For the post of intelligence officer, hopefuls receive a lengthy application form which
asks for examples of how you have worked co-operatively, used initiative and judgement, and shown “drive and resilience”. Applicants who pass interview stages will, of course, be required to sign the Official Secrets Act.

One woman who did fulfil the role for real is Annie Machon. Ms Machon, 38, joined MI5’s political and counter-terrorism department in 1991 on general duties. Annie was so
disgusted by the security service’s failings that she and her agent partner, David Shayler, went on the record, breaking the Official Secrets Act. They spent two years on the run and David was jailed six months in 2002 for breaking the Official Secrets Act.

Her advice for new recruits? “Don’t do it! When I started, there were quite a few women that worked there but many of them were admin based. The main problem the security services have is retaining agents. When David and I left, lots more did too – just not so publicly.”

The BBC’s popular Spooks and the American equivalent, 24, have raised the profile
of MI5 as a female career option. But Ms Machon says, “Programmes like Spooks are not really accurate and so glamorise the job a bit, but I also think they highlight the dangerous side to the job which may put some women off. I never saw the skills involved in gender terms. An officer requires a broad range of skills; intellect, organisational skills, analytical skills and the skill to identify a threat in the first place.

“I don’t think that women make particularly better spies than men – but I suppose the general perception of an agent is male, so when interviewing people they may open up more to a woman than a man.”

Ms Machon author of Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair, said: “MI5’s wish list as far as recruits go is huge – but that doesn’t mean that the people who get through have all those things. When I was there the level of staff who were incompetent was a real worry. They have clearly broadened their recruitment policy but I expect that the long process with still be just as stringent. When I was a recruiter we had 20,000 people applying to be James Bond, but only about five got through.”

Jane Featherstone, executive producer of Spooks, said: “At first the intelligence services were resistant, and they let that be known through former members who acted as technical advisers on Spooks. Then they thought it might help to recruit new spies. They even used the first series to help with their advertising campaign. But they were deluged with people who thought the job involved walking around in Armani saving the planet.”

Miranda Raison, who plays MI5 agent Jo Portman in Spooks, said the production team tried to make the portrayal of female operatives as authentic as possible. She said the original cast had met members of the intelligence service to discuss how to play
their roles.

“They got a lot of literature together from that, and since then, cast members have been given a pack full of stories on genuine operations to learn from. There are lots of things you wouldn’t expect in there: for example, how to operate undercover, or as a honeytrap – but it’s much more brutal than you’d imagine.”

MI5 is keen to receive applications from ethnic minorities to help infiltrate Muslim terrorist groups. Its director general, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, recently warned that MI5 is investigating 30 known terror plots in the UK.

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

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 cafe table writing a letter to the man no longer codenamed G9A/1.