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Confessions of an MI5 whistleblower

What is it to be whistleblower? Exiled British spy Annie Machon talks about the role of intelligence agencies in the modern world on Sep 24 at Berlin Moscow. She gave us her account of life as a whistleblower for our Sep issue. Read Parts I and II.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Former UK spy Annie Machon knows first-hand what happens to people who tell the truth about intelligence agencies. She blew the whistle in 1997 with fellow agent and then-boyfriend David Shayler, triggering a two-year manhunt that culminated in Shayler’s arrest. We met the part-time Berliner on Potsdamer Platz a few metres away from RT’s bureau, where she regularly appears as a consultant for the 24-hour Russian news channel. She told her story to Ruth Schneider.

Machon talks about the role of intelligence agencies in the modern world and fields questions from the audience live on September 27, 7pm at Berlin Moscow.

Read part II of our Annie Machon feature here.

I didn’t want to be a spy. In 1990, I was 21, and I wanted to have a job that would make a difference. So I sat the Foreign Office exams. But then I received a mysterious letter from the Ministry of Defence saying that “there were other jobs I might find more interesting” and there’s a phone number. I actually ended up ringing up this number because my father – he’s an investigative journalist – wanted to see if it was indeed MI5. “Oh go on, just see…”

They said that they wanted a ‘new generation’ intelligence officer who would be working against terrorist targets, that they no longer did the old “let’s investigate political activists” stuff because the Cold War was over, etc… But then I started there and my first post was in the political activism section, doing precisely what they said they no longer wanted to do. I could not understand how they saw these groups as a threat. It was a shock, and I seriously considered resigning towards the end of my time there.

That’s when my relationship with David Shayler started. He had been recruited as part of the same generation as me, and he was also shocked at the scale of it. But then the two of us were moved to the Irish section, where it felt like we could do some good because at that point the IRA was putting bombs down at will. But even then we saw so many things going wrong. And then we went to the Middle Eastern section and saw even worse things, which is why we resigned after only six years.

Shut up and follow orders

Throughout the recruitment process you are grilled about these ethical issues. Things like internment without trial, torture, shoot to kill… I was quite outspoken about it then and they said, “Well you know, we agree with you, we don’t do this sort of thing.” So when we found out that they did, many of us were unhappy. But when we spoke out, we were told, “Shut up, don’t rock the boat, just follow orders.”

There was an intergenerational problem. The management at that time had been under the Cold War era, gathering intelligence slowly and looking at “reds under the bed”, and suddenly they were managing groups who had been brought in to investigate terrorist targets,where you have to gather evidence that you can put people on trial for. It’s a very different skill set and the targets move much more quickly. So there was a cultural clash, and I think that’s where all this disaffectation came from.

David was the head of the Libya section between 1994-96 and he was briefed on the case that made us quit, which was the Gaddafi assassination plot. We decided that we had to do something, but it took more than just one day. There were a lot of heart-wringing episodes where we thought, “Why us?” because we knew we’d have to leave the UK, we knew we’d have to face prosecution and we knew we’d be unemployable afterwards… but it just felt like the right thing to do, I suppose.

We took the decision to go public in early 1996, and he resigned in autumn. He had already taken steps to approach the media – he decided on the Mail on Sunday because the owner of the Mail group at the time, Viscount Rothermere, was known to be very anti-intelligence agency. I wasn’t terribly involved in those early stages because David wanted to protect me. He acted as a buffer between me and them.

Life in exile

It took 10 months for the story to break. My understanding is that only three days beforehand they suddenly said, “This is what’s going to happen this weekend, what do you want to do? Get out of the country or what?” He said “yes”. They offered him a certain amount of money to live in exile for up to six months. Of course the establishment in the UK made great play of this and said, “Oh yes, he sold documents.” We actually offered to give it back if we could return to the UK without arrest and give evidence in parliament. MI5 refused.

We couldn’t even warn our families that we were going to do it. So the first they heard of it was on the front page of the newspaper with David’s picture on it…

We flew out on the morning of August 23, 1997, 12 hours ahead of the newspapers hitting the streets in the UK. There had already been certain indications that MI5 were beginning to get suspicious, so we were pretty strung out with tension. We felt like we couldn’t talk in our flats, we couldn’t even warn our families that we were going to do it. So the first they heard of it was on the front page of the newspaper with David’s picture on it. That was quite dramatic!

First we went to Amsterdam, then Utrecht. We moved around all over the Netherlands for the first week and fled all the way down the southwest of France to Bayonne. We wanted to get as far away from where they knew we were. Then we just moved around from town to town in the south of France and Spain, staying in cheap hotels, fake names, cash payments, the whole thing.

After a month, I went back to the UK for a week to pack up our flat. I was picked up at Gatwick airport and taken off to a counter-terrorism suite in London and grilled for a day. But they never charged me with anything – I was just David’s girlfriend at that point, I hadn’t done anything, so how could they? When I made it to our flat, I saw it had been smashed up in a raid; they had ripped it apart for no reason.

While I was in the UK, David found this little place to hide in the centre of France in Lachaux, which is in the middle of nowhere! We were sort of stuck there with no car, no TV, no nothing. It was surreal, actually, because on one hand we were supposed to be on the run but on the other hand we were living in this strange rural idyll. It was two kilometres outside the local village. We had a little van that came round once a week with food and things and the bread van every day, it was that primitive. So, from the centre of London to that was quite a culture shock!

Back then there was no Facebook, there was no Google, there was nothing. Whereas of course now if someone did this and you were on the run, it would make it more difficult … but then there would be much more media exposure of what you were saying and what you were doing, so it’s horses for courses I suppose.

David’s arrest

At that time, the most serious allegations had not yet been reported by the UK media because they were too scared of the Gaddafi plot, they wanted to try and investigate it themselves. So the early disclosures were only files on government ministers and activists, which were bad enough. The British government took out an injunction against the whole of the UK media, and David Shayler personally, to ban any new revelations in the summer of 1997.

Finally – after a year! – the BBC exposed the Gaddafi plot, in summer 1998. They had to submit the story for approval under the terms of the injunction. This happened on a Friday afternoon within two hours. We were in Paris at that point, working with the journalists on the story, so we were in a hotel. David went out, and he got arrested coming back in. The first I heard of it was the knock on the door from the DST saying, “We’ve got Mr. Shayler downstairs and you can’t see him.” I asked, “Are you arresting him?” and they said no, and I didn’t see him for two months. They said he was a traitor. But when the French got the paperwork from the British government, they realised he was actually a whistleblower, so then they eased up and let me see him in prison.

After four months, Dave was actually released by the French and we had another two years in Paris, got the stories out, more campaigning, etc. But then he decided to go back in 2000 to go on trial. It took two years and he was only ever charged with a very early disclosure, not the Gaddafi plot. Of course he was inevitably found guilty, there was no defence under UK law. Even the judge said what he had done lay in the public interest and he hadn’t done it for financial reasons. But if you work for the intelligence agency and you blow the whistle, you are guilty, that’s it. There’s a clear bright line.

He was sentenced to six months – but you can serve a third of your sentence if you are then electronically tagged, so he got it down to two months. It’s not that bad when you think he was facing six years with three charges. But, you know, to have your liberty taken away for exposing the crimes of others is difficult. The process was a very, very high price to pay even then. Now what whistleblowers are facing is 35 years in prison, at least in America. So the courage it takes for people to do that is huge.

The war on whistleblowers

The worst part of the whole thing was the media rape of reputations – that’s what it felt like.

The worst part of the whole thing was the media rape of reputations – that’s what it felt like. Where each media organisation has its agenda, doesn’t actually listen to the evidence of the whistleblower but wants to use it for whatever purposes and how it can be controlled and spun. The fact that David went to prison and took “his beating like a man” as the judge said was actually minor compared the reputation damage done to him forevermore.

People who blow the whistle have no experience, they’re virgins when it comes to the media. So what I try to do is explain to potential whistleblowers the issues they might need to think about before they go ahead. I think that seeing what Snowden did has shown that people do learn from earlier cases and do try to do it more safely and more effectively because the key thing is to get the message out. It’s not about narcissism or personal glory.

I have seen so many whistleblowers from different backgrounds… the whole idea is to crush them, destroy them. I think particularly coming out of intelligence you’re automatically criminalised. It’s even harder. There’s that polarisation of being a hero and being a traitor, which is very difficult to live with over the years, and it took its toll on David. The last time I saw him was in the summer of last year, and he seemed happy in his new life. He seemed at peace. But I don’t know what he’s up to. Considering the intensity of the years we had together it’s sad that we’ve lost touch. I just hope he stays safe and stays happy.