Inside the secret state
Ever get the feeling you?re being watched? That doesn?t mean you?re paranoid, discovered Alan McCombes when he met up with two former MI5 agents, Annie Machon and David Shayler, who have blown the lid on the British secret services.
From sending agents to socialist organisations? meetings to funding an al Qaeda bombing campaign, they tell how British Intelligence operates at home and abroad, utterly unaccountable and with little regard for laws or lives.
A dossier used to justify the invasion of a foreign country so far-fetched it could have been written by JK Rowling. Fearsome weapons of mass destruction that turn out to be more elusive than Lord Lucan. The cold-blooded shooting of an innocent young man following a botched up surveillance operation that would have embarrassed Austin Powers.
Among the general public, the credibility of the British intelligence services was already in meltdown even before Stormontgate. The revelations that the security services may have been involved in orchestrating a plot to
bring down the elected Northern Ireland Assembly is unlikely to shock anyone who has read Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5, MI6 and the Shayler Affair.
This explosive book was written by ex-MI5 agent, Annie Machon, with the assistance of her partner, David Shayler. It ranks alongside Tony Bunyan?s 1970s classic, The Political Police in Britain, as one of the most important exposures of the British intelligence services ever published. For 15 months, the Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers book was banned. The main publishing houses were then warned off touching it. Eventually a small publisher took it on. Even then, it was subjected to MI5 censorship, with chunks of text blacked out under orders from the faceless men and women who lurk in the undergrowth of the British state.
The book has been systematically ignored by most of the mainstream media - raising serious questions, it has to be said, about the influence of the British secret intelligence services within the newspaper industry. During a recent visit to Scotland, David Shayler and Annie Machon told the
Voice the extraordinary story of how they became spies, then fugitives, then pariahs in the eyes of the British establishment. Along the way, David has fought court battles and served several prison sentences. Their long road to international notoriety began back in the days when Tony
Blair was still a fresh-faced, backbench, opposition MP.
When Shayler, a Dundee University graduate, spotted a job advert in the Sunday Times under the headline, ?Godot is Waiting,? he was intrigued. In Samuel Beckett?s acclaimed play, Waiting for Godot, two tramps wait for a mysterious individual who never arrives and whose character is never
revealed. Eventually, the organisation behind the Godot recruit advert did reveal itself - but only after several gruelling interviews, in which David was was given the third degree about his politics and background. He admits he was shocked to discover the identity of his cloak-and-dagger
Shayler was an unlikely recruit for M15. As a student he had participated in demonstrations and had been a member of Anti-Apartheid and CND. As the editor of the Dundee University student newspaper, he had even been served
with an injunction after publishing extracts from Spycatcher, the banned autobiography of former MI5 officer, Peter Wright.
Shayler admits that, by the time of his recruitment to MI5, his earlier radicalism had diminished: ?The miners strike had been defeated, then the printers at Wapping. Like a lot of people at that time, I had become disillusioned with left
wing politics. But I still couldn?t understand why MI5 would want to take an interest in someone with my background. Some of my friends were convinced I was winding them up about the whole thing. But to my surprise, I kept getting through each stage of the recruitment process and ended up in the service. Shayler had also been subjected to the highest level of security vetting. This involved Special Branch interrogating former friends and neighbours to build up a detailed picture of his character and behaviour. There was only one glitch. That was when MI5 discovered they held a personal file on one of Shayler?s referees - a friend from student days who had come to the attention of the security services after attending a couple of SWP meetings.
Annie Machon had joined MI5 a couple of months before. Hers was a more conventional security services background. She was born and bred on what she
calls the ?somnolent island of Guernsey?.
Later she graduated from Cambridge University with a degree in Classics. At the time Annie was, in her own words, ?totally apolitical?. Annie had originally applied to join the diplomatic service. ?But then, after sitting the Foreign Office exams, I received a letter on MoD-headed paper suggesting there may be other jobs I would find more interesting.?
Annie had some vague, patriotic ideas about fighting terrorism. She was explicitly told by her interviewer - ? a tall slim 30-something woman with hair down to her hips and a layered hippy skirt? - that M15 was no longer interested in investigating ?reds under the beds?. The new MI5 of the 1990s would be mainly involved in counter-terrorism, she
was assured. But after sailing through the recruitment process, Annie was allocated to F2 - the counter-subversion department, dedicated to monitoring ?political
extremists?. ?In the 1980s, before we joined, MI5 had 40 desk officers, each with a team of clerical support workers, concentrating purely on the old Communist Party. By the time I joined, Militant had become the big threat.?
Annie herself was put in charge of co-ordinating surveillance of the SWP. She says that ?F2 deliberately exaggerated the threat of Militant and the SWP to maintain staff levels and funding.? Annie recalls that, when she joined, there were informants in two thirds of SWP branches. ?These weren?t all necessarily MI5-run agents... Some of them
would have reported to Special Branch... I found it morally and ethically dubious that we should be investigating these perfectly legal organisations.
?Over two years I ran down the operation. We managed to get rid of most of the agents, but I couldn?t get rid of all of them. We had to keep about five or six.? Meanwhile David was in charge of the anarchist group Class War. He insists
that, for some time, the organisation was held together by a full time intelligence officer. ?Usually agents were just people who provided information, but this was actually a full time officer who lived six days a week as an anarchist and
one day a week as a normal family man... One day I went to debrief the officer. He had been involved in undercover
work for about three years. If you spend that amount of time as an anarchist, you eventually become one. He was drinking special brew and kept denouncing the ?uniform bobbies?
and stuff like that. We pulled him out - and soon after we did that, Class War fell apart. This guy was actually keeping Class War together. They were not a threat to anyone, frankly. They made a lot of noise but they had no serious organisation.? During their time in F2 - where the couple first met - David and Annie saw personal files on a vast range of individuals suspected of being subversives. They included cabinet ministers, trade union leaders, journalists and lawyers. Well-known subversives who have files held by F2 include the jazz musician, Ronnie Scott; the comedians, Mark Steele and Mark Thomas; the businessman
Mohammed al-Fayed; the first Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Lord David Steele; and the old Etonian former Labour MP, Tam Dalyell. The couple even came across a file called ?Subversion in Contemporary
Music?, which consisted of press clippings on bands including the Sex Pistols and UB40. All of this could dismissed as a childish game played out by cardboard
spies. But David and Annie gradually began to discover a more sinister element at work within the secret intelligence services.
They allege that the intelligence services are involved in widespread corruption, with officers ?lining their own pockets to the tune of tens of millions of pounds in sting operations?.
These normally involve arranging the sale of bogus drugs or weapons consignments. On one occasion, MI5 stitched up a loyalist paramilitary group by pretending to ship a cargo of weapons from Poland. But the cargo of weapons was in fact a stack of boxes filled with sand and other materials. MI5 took the money and claimed to have foiled a major arms deal. They also arranged for some few guns to be on display for the benefit of press photographers. According to David, the money generated by these shadowy operations
disappears into a black hole?. David and Annie suggest that some of the money is used to finance unofficial operations? including illegal phone tapping and the running of agents provocateurs using shadow private security firms, which act as unaccountable satellites of the intelligence services.
There are official and unofficial operations,? explains David.
?In MI5 they tell you that you won?t know if your phone?s tapped. But since I left MI5 I?ve had playback on my phone - I?ve ended the call, then heard a recording of my conversation played back. The difference is that some taps are official - they?re done through the Home Secretary, with official warrants, through the telephone exchange. Others are unofficial, carried out by agents of the service, private
security firms - often ex-MI5 or MI6 people - who?ll then report their findings. The same with agents provocateurs... This allows MI5 and MI6 to keep their hands clean.?
Annie says that there were fewer warrants for official telephone taps at that time on left wing groups than people might expect: ?When I joined F2 in 1991, telephone tapping wasn?t practised directly by MI5 to any great extent. There was a tap on the SWP HQ and on Militant?s national and
regional HQs.? Even then, it was slapdash. When the Provos began a bombing blitz in England in the early 90s, the full time staff who had been dedicated to transcribing tapes from Militant and the SWP HQs were switched to IRA-associated work. Months of tapes then stacked up so high that no-one could process them, so they were never transcribed, and were eventually just thrown away. This in itself showed that these organisations were never any serious threat to national security.?
In Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers, Annie describes an incident when a formerm member of Militant, who had not been politically active for a number of years, was vetoed for a civil service job based on an innocent social call he had made to Militant?s HQ in London. Although they found this side of the work of MI5 distasteful, they were prepared to carry on and try and change the culture from within - naively,
as they now acknowledge. The Victoria Brittan case shook them further. The Guardian journalist had received several large payments into her bank account from Libya to fund a libel action. When the payments were reported to MI5, the service jumped to the wrong conclusion without carrying out any elementary checks. They decided that Brittan was laundering money to fund a terrorist operation, and spent around £750,000 in a futile surveillance operation. At one point in the investigation, Brittan?s London flat was burgled by MI5. To clear the way for the break-in, Brittan?s daughter, a keyholder, was arrested on trumped up charges while on holiday in the United States. In another disturbing sequence of events, two Palestinians were jailed for 20 years - Samar Alami and Jawed Botmeh - after a bomb explosion at the
Israeli embassy in London in 1994. Machon and Shayler believe they are victims of an outrageous miscarriage of
justice. Annie says that two crucial documents were never revealed at the trial. One pointed to the possibility of an Iranian group being responsible. The other was from a senior manager in MI5. ?He had seen all the evidence. In his assessment, Mossad (the Israeli Secret Services) had bombed its own embassy. London at that time was a haven for Palestinian dissidents. A controlled explosion at the embassy, in which there were no deaths, achieved two
things ?First, it achieved a clampdown on the activities of potential terrorists. And secondly, the arrests and jailings splintered the whole Palestinian network in London - which has only now regrouped after ten years. Shortly before the attack, nearly a hundred people had died in an attack on
the Jewish Mutual Association building in Buenos Aires.
?As a result the Israelis were paranoid about security. But now, in one stroke, Mossad had achieved two key objectives.?
Annie and David finally reached breaking point over MI6?s funding of an Al Qaeda plot to assassinate Libya?s Colonel Gadaffi. Shayler is no apologist for the Libyan regime. As head of MI5?s Libyan Department, he investigated the Lockerbie bombing - and notwithstanding the controversy surrounding the eventual conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi,
Shayler remains convinced that Libya was responsible for the bombing of the Pan-Am airliner. But when David?s counterpart in MI6, the head of the Libyan Bureau,
approached him around Christmas 1995, he was shocked:
?He told me there had been a ?walk-in? at the British embassy in Tunis - a senior Libyan military intelligence officer, who was involved with an Islamic extremist group.
?Even though Islamic terrorism was supposed to be the new threat to the West, MI6 became involved with him anyway.?
The plan was to assassinate Gadaffi, which in turn would trigger off an Islamic coup. ?Finance was integral to the whole operation. And MI6 paid for it, they made it happen. They financed this Al Qaeda plot to the tune of £100,000 to buy guns, jeeps, tents and other materials.? In the event, the attempt on Gadaffi?s life failed - but innocent onlookers,
including children, were killed in the car bomb blast and the subsequent gun battle. David says he was ?physically sickened by the fact that MI6 sponsored Islamic extremists to carry out an act of terrorism which killed innocent people?.
David knew about the plot well in advance, but did not imagine it would ever be carried out. MI6 live in this fantasy world of James Bond and Boy?s Own. They fancied themselves swanning around Monte Carlo casinos, hatching up coups and other adventures. So, although I did raise concerns with my bosses, I honestly didn?t think it was going to happen. The innocent civilians who died were described as ?collateral damage?, but that only confirmed to me how many psychopaths there are in the British
upper classes,? says David. You can live with the idea of somebody?s flat being wrongly tapped or burgled. It?s wrong, but it?s not necessarily by itself something that?s
going to make you blow the whistle. But when you realise that British Intelligence are funding people who are
supposed to be our new terrorist enemies, Islamic extremists, and they go on to kill innocent people, that?s of a completely different order.? David and Annie believe that MI6 hoped that the coup would succeed in establishing an Al Qaeda state in Libya. ?This would either be a puppet
state, or it would give them an excuse to invade Libya on the grounds that the people now in charge of the country are associates of Bin Laden?. They would then go into Libya, take control of its oil resources, and begin to build military bases right in the heart of a key region. Exactly what they?ve since done in Iraq.?
David Shayler and Annie Machon are passionate opponents of the war on Iraq. Their inside knowledge of the British secret state has clearly heightened their understanding of the intellectual and moral corruption that led the UK to follow George Bush into this barbarous bloodbath. Most people who have entered the murky world of British intelligence remain forever in the shadowlands. Silence is golden, says the old cliché. And for most of those who have come through the ranks of the British intelligence services - including even those who have become disillusioned - silence is the only alternative for an easy life. Few are brave enough to break the code of Omerta to speak out for truth and justice.
David Shayler and Annie Machon courageously chose to expose the rampant crime, corruption and incompetence at the heart of the British secret state. They may not have many friends in the upper echelons of the British state,
but the bravery and honesty of Shayler and Machon will be remembered long after corrupt institutions like MI5 and MI6 have been swept away like yesterday?s rubbish.