Interview in Emel Magazine, November 2007
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
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.