Book review in The Sunday Express

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

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

And here’s the art­icle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corera does not, how­ever, go far enough.

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

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

Annie Machon is a former MI5 intel­li­gence officer and author.

Ver­dict 4/5

May 2005 — The Times

MI5 kept schoolboy on its files

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

August 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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