An MI5 Whistle
From MI6 Al Qaeda
Plot to Kill Gaddafi to Spying on Domestic Dissent
The Real News
Network Interview on Whistleblowing
Annie Machon is a former intelligence officer for MI5, the UK
Security Service, who resigned in 1996 to blow the whistle on
the spies' incompetence and crimes.
PT2 Annie Machon (MI5
whistle blower): The culture of MI5 and MI6 is even worse since
SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul
Jay in Baltimore.
In 1997, Annie Machon, a member of MI5 British intelligence left
the intelligence agencies, blowing the whistle, alongside her
partner, for what she said was corruption, incompetence, and
illegality. She's now a writer, a media commentator, a public
speaker on a variety of intelligence-related issues. She's also
the director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, in
Europe. She now joins us to tell us her story. Thanks very much
for joining us, Annie.
ANNIE MACHON, FMR. MI5 INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: Thank you.
JAY: So give us a little bit of background. How do you get into
MI5 in the first place? And then what happened?
MACHON: I was recruited at the end of the Cold War. They were
looking for a new generation of counterterrorism officers,
moving away from the old political work they'd been doing up
until that point. And they also at that point had just been put
on a legal footing for the very first time in their 80-year
history. So they reassured me that they had to obey the law,
just like the rest of us.
JAY: What do you mean, for the first time in their history on a
MACHON: Well, they were established in 1909, and until 1989 they
didn't officially exist. There was no oversight. No member of
Parliament could ever question what they got up to. They could
do what they wanted. In fact, Peter Wright, the 1980s author of
Spycatcher, said notably that they could bug and burgle their
way around London with impunity. So—and they did.
JAY: And MI5 is the domestic service.
MACHON: That's right, yes. And MI6 is the international service,
like the CIA. And we also have a listening post as well. So we
got three key—.
JAY: So a domestic service above the law, not just the
international service above the law, which was sort of the
culture here for the longest time.
MACHON: Yeah, no, the domestic service could do what they want,
and they did. In fact, they investigated almost a million U.K.
citizens purely for their political activity, and not only the
citizens: they also had files, secret files, on a number of
government ministers in the 1990s. And they did this because it
was the Labour government and some of those ministers in their
youth had been involved in left-wing politics. So, yeah, it
was—it's a strange situation where you have the spies—.
JAY: This is all justified first of all by the Second World War,
and then the Cold War.
MACHON: Yes, very much so, and they got very paranoid about
penetration of Soviet moles.
JAY: Well, they did such a good job kicking them out.
MACHON: Exactly, yeah, exactly. So that gave them justification
to investigate what they called subversives, the political
JAY: So they—with all the Soviet moles that in fact did
infiltrate MI6, MI5 would have been investigating them? Or MI6
is supposed to have investigated them?
MACHON: MI5 should have been investigating them, and they
failed, obviously. And, of course, all these people who were the
Soviet moles were very much establishment figures. They were
very posh, top-drawer. And so none of them was ever prosecuted.
They were allowed to flee.
JAY: Okay. So jump us up to you get recruited. What year, and to
MACHON: I actually started working there in 1991, and I left in
'96, and I had three postings during that time. First of all, in
fact, my very first posting was in the political section, even
though they said they no longer did it. And this is iiwhen I saw
these files on government ministers, because there was a general
election and we had to review them. So you have a situation in a
democracy where the spies have secret information on people who
are supposed to be their political masters, and so it's a
JAY: A bit of what Hoover did in the FBI here.
MACHON: Very much so. I mean, less cross-dressing, though,
JAY: As far as you know.
MACHON: As far as we know. Then I worked against Irish terrorism
for two years. And then my final posting was to international
terrorism. And it was during my very first posting that I met my
former partner, a man called David Shayler, who went on to
become a very notorious, very well known whistleblower in the
late 1990s, and we both ended up leaving and blowing the
JAY: So what happened? First of all, when does the coin drop?
MACHON: Well, the coin dropped pretty quickly, because, of
course, they lied to me during recruitment, saying that they
didn't do political work.
JAY: What do you mean by political work?
MACHON: Looking at subversives, people who are radical, either
very left-wing [incompr.]
JAY: So investigating people simply 'cause of their political
MACHON: Exactly. And when I say investigating, I mean incredibly
invasive. So they could put bugs in their properties, they could
bug their phones, they could follow them around, they could send
undercover people in to report on them.
JAY: And what kind of people were they targeting?
MACHON: Oh, tiny little Trotskyist groups, things like—they were
called "militant tendency" or Socialist Workers Party.
JAY: Why would they bother?
MACHON: Well, indeed. It was illegal to do that, because
Trotskyist groups did not represent a threat to national
JAY: And anyone—certainly everyone on the left knew that.
MACHON: Well, quite. So this was a problem. They were shutting
down the section. So at least that sort of stopped in the mid
1990s. Unfortunately, then the role of spying on left-wing
groups was taken over by the secret police, who then ran
undercover cops into these groups. And there was a big scandal
only last year.
JAY: It sounds a bit like some of the discussions we've been
having with some of your colleagues at LEAP, Law Enforcement
Against Prohibition, and they're talking about how it's sort of
become self-generating that you need to create the problem to
justify some of the jobs and some of the money. So it sounds
like some of this left-wing spying is sort of like that. I mean,
everybody knows it's not a threat, but you keep saying it is,
'cause you keep getting more work out of it.
MACHON: It's jobs for the boys, very much. And as the Cold War
drew to an end and the Berlin Wall came down, suddenly the MI5
was casting around for new areas of work. That's when they
focused on the IRA, the provisional IRA in Northern Ireland.
They took that work off the police. And that's what I thought
I'd been recruited to do, to be a counterterrorism officer. And,
in fact, my second posting was to that section.
And David also moved into T Branch, as it was called, and then
moved into G Branch, which was international. And we saw a sort
of escalation of issues that troubled us in both those sections.
I mean, certainly in the Irish section, bombs that could and
should have been prevented by MI5 were detonated on the U.K.
mainland, killing people, and MI5 would then lie to government
to cover up their mistakes.
JAY: And these were mistakes?
MACHON: They were mistakes, yes.
JAY: I mean, sometimes there's been some suggestion they're
errors of deliberate omission, that sometimes it's not so bad if
a bomb goes off here or there, 'cause it again justifies even
more effort to stop such things. Any whiff of that?
MACHON: There's certainly a whiff, yes. And, of course, when
they were working against the IRA, it was very different from
working against al-Qaeda, because the IRA had a system of
issuing passwords, codewords before an explosion. So they were
quite sophisticated in their PR offensive. They would put a bomb
down and then warn the police so that nobody would get hurt, so
they'd just have sort of the PR hit of the bomb detonating. So,
yes, I think some of that might have happened as well.
But it was really in the third posting that we saw the major
issues. There was, first of all, an illegal telephone tap on a
very famous left-wing journalist in the U.K. on The Guardian
newspaper. There was also the imprisoning and the conviction of
two innocent people for conspiracy to bomb the Israeli embassy
in 1994 in London, and MI5 had evidence that they were innocent,
and still let them go ahead and be convicted.
MACHON: Why? That's a very good question, because MI5's
assessment, after they'd looked at all the evidence around this
case, was that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, had
carried out a controlled explosion outside their own embassy in
order to, one, increase the security around all their interests
in London—which they'd been pushing for for years, and MI5 kept
telling them to, you know, take a hike—and also to frame these
two innocent people who were involved in Palestinian support
networks in London. And that network was gaining a lot of
traction politically and financially. And, of course, once you
finger two innocent people, the whole network just disappeared.
JAY: So you're saying this as if you know this to be true. Has
this evidence risen to the public level? Has anything happened?
MACHON: Oh, absolutely. I mean, during the whistleblowing years,
this was one of the things that came out. And there was indeed
an appeal for the two people in prison. And they admitted that
there were documents within MI5, but they weren't going to
disclose them, because they didn't have to under the secrecy
laws. So the two people who had to finish their sentences, they
got 20 years in prison each.
JAY: They did?
MACHON: Yeah. So the judge went against all—.
JAY: They did most of 20 years?
MACHON: They did most of 20 years.
JAY: That's insane.
MACHON: It was a young woman called Samar Alami and a young man
called Jawad Botmeh. And there was a huge campaign to release
them and everything. It was a big, big scandal. But the judge
just ignored all case law and let them rot in prison.
JAY: Alright. So was that one of the things that starts to
inspire you that this is—I can't live with myself doing this?
MACHON: Pretty much, yes. I mean, it was a sort of process of
boiling the frog when we were in MI5. Things got worse and
JAY: So when's the moment you look around and say, okay, I'm
turning into frog's legs?
MACHON: Well, that sort of came to a head, came to the boil in
1995, because David Shayler, my partner at the time, was the
head of the living section in MI5. And he had an unusually close
working relationship with his counterpart in MI6, the foreign
intelligence agency. And he was briefed officially about a plot
that MI6 was involved in—and some of his colleagues were, too;
it wasn't just David. And this was basically MI6 funding a bunch
of Islamic extremist terrorists in Libya. And this group had
links with al-Qaeda, which was a known terrorist group even
then, which MI5 was investigating. And MI6 was funding this
group. And what they were doing was helping to foment a coup
against Gaddafi. So the group—.
JAY: But to investigate, they just, I assume, could have phoned
the CIA and asked, because the CIA had, certainly at the
beginnings of al-Qaeda, at least, something to do with it.
MACHON: Absolutely, yes. I mean, you know, all the support they
gave them during the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, no doubt about
it. But no, MI6 always liked to talk the talk. They liked to
think they were big James Bond figures. And this was an
opportunity to do something, I think. And also, the quid pro quo
was that if Gaddafi was toppled, this group would seize power
and then would start building nice, lucrative oil contracts with
British Petroleum and all the other companies. So that seemed to
be what they were after.
JAY: Yeah, it worked out really well in Afghanistan.
MACHON: Yeah, I know. They never seem to learn from history.
They're doomed to make the same mistakes again and again.
So this group was funded by MI6. And David was concerned about
this and reported it all the way up the management chain, but
sort of thought they wouldn't do it. MI6 always talked big and
did little. But then, in early 1996, a lot of intelligence
JAY: [incompr.] he's in MI5 or MI6?
MACHON: He's in MI5 along with me. He's the—.
JAY: And you get wind of this MI6 plan.
MACHON: He is officially briefed by his counterpart in MI6 over
a period of months. So this was building up for a while.
JAY: And he, up the food chain of MI5, says, are you guys aware
of what MI6 is planning to do.
MACHON: Yeah, and nobody seemed bothered, partly because MI6
JAY: So just to get clear, this is a plan to use al-Qaeda type
groups in Libya to assassinate the leader of Libya.
MACHON: Yes, at a time when al-Qaeda was known to be an enemy of
the West. So MI5 was investigating them; MI6 was funding them.
And that was how crazy it was. Crucially, as well, this
operation was illegal under U.K. law, because under the
Intelligence Services Act 1994, MI6 can commit crimes abroad
with legal impunity, but only if they get the prior written
permission of their political master, the foreign secretary. In
this case, they didn't get it, so it was illegal as well as
immoral and unethical.
And in early 1996, Gaddafi was returning from Sirte, in Libya,
to Tripoli in a cavalcade of cars, and an explosion occurred
under one of the cars—obviously, the wrong one, because Gaddafi
survived. But there was a security shoot-out afterwards, and
innocent bystanders were gunned down. So we're looking at an
illegal operation funding our terrorist enemies, which goes
wrong and also kills innocent people.
JAY: Now, just to back up, MI6 doesn't have the official
sanction. But is there a suggestion here this is being done
without the political masters knowing?
JAY: So it's—I mean, this is a kind of rogue MI6 operation.
MACHON: Yes, completely rogue and completely illegal. And yet
roll forward a few years, and David has blown the whistle on
this and gone to prison for it. The MI6 officers involved were
never even arrested, certainly not charged or convicted. They
were just protected by MI6.
JAY: Why would MI6 do something like this without the political
masters knowing? I mean, how much of this goes on, do you think,
where they have their kind of own agenda about how the world
MACHON: Well, it's very much a sort of network of old public
schoolboys, so, you know, as chaps might talk casually to each
other. But I think the major problem is cultural, because until
1994, MI6 had operated outside the law. It was only in 1994 the
new law came in which said they should get permission to do this
sort of thing. And I think by 1995 the old boys hadn't really
got to grips with the fact they had to follow the law. I think
it was just that simple.
I mean, it's noticeable now, of course. You roll forward to 2011
and the war in Libya, the NATO invasion, and MI6 people were on
the ground in Libya helping the Benghazi rebels, and most of
those rebels were the very same groups that they'd been funding
in 1996 secretly. This time they were funding and training and
helping them overtly.
JAY: I think it is important, I think, from what I know of the
Benghazi situation, that is, one segment of the rebels, 'cause
there were a lot of people involved in that rebellion that were
not al-Qaeda and not linked to MI6 or, we should add, French
intelligence, 'cause the French were up to their eyeballs in all
MACHON: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
JAY: And also, just for the sake of the record, we shouldn't
jump over the fact that after this '96-'97 period you're talking
about, Gaddafi made his grand bargain with Cheney and Bush and
had kind of had his rapprochement, including with the British,
and Gaddafi's son was running around with British lords and
Rothschilds and other people.
MACHON: Well, again, there's some interesting history there,
because we know (it's on the public record) that the Shayler
case was one of the negotiating factors between the Gaddafi
regime and the Tony Blair government, that and the Lockerbie
trial, you know, the two suspects that were wanted for the trial
of bombing Pan Am 103 in 1988. So we have a situation where that
was one of the sort of hot potatoes that helped Gaddafi use as a
lever to get a deal with Blair and come in from the cold.
JAY: Right. So let's go back to your story. So you decide you've
had enough and your partner decides he's had enough. And what
MACHON: Well, there's not much you can do if you're concerned
about crimes inside the intelligence agencies. And in the U.K.,
under the Official Secrets Act, a bit like the U.S. Espionage
Act, it's a crime to report a crime.
JAY: Okay. You know what? We're going to stop here, and we're
going to do a part two of this interview.
JAY: So this is a cliffhanger. So if you want to know what
happens next, you've got to watch part two of our interview with
Annie Machon on The Real News Network.
End Part 1
Transcript Part 2
SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network.
We're continuing our interview with Annie Machon.
Annie was an intelligence officer for the U.K.'s MI5 in the
1990s. She left after blowing the whistle on the incompetence
and crimes of the British spy agency. She's now a writer and a
political speaker, a public speaker. And she's also director of
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, based in Europe.
Thanks for joining us again, Annie.
ANNIE MACHON, FMR. INTELLIGENCE OFFICER, MI5: Thank you.
Alright. So we left off—you got to watch part one, 'cause I'm
not going to summarize it. We're going to just pick up where we
were. You left off with you had had enough. And then what?
MACHON: Well, after David was briefed about the Gaddafi plot and
he saw it unfold, he decided he had to do something about it. So
we took the decision of resigning and going to the newspapers,
because under British law, the Official Secrets Act, the only
people you can report a crime to legally are the heads of the
agencies you're reporting on, so, of course, you can imagine how
many complaints are upheld. And he had tried taking it up the
management chain. They weren't interested. So he made contact
with a British newspaper just before he resigned, and then we
resigned. It took a long time to build the relationship of
JAY: [incompr.] just clear on timing here. This is before this
bomb goes off or after?
MACHON: It's—no, no. This is after the Gaddafi attack in—.
JAY: So the attack has taken place.
MACHON: In February 1996.
JAY: So the motive for doing this is you think it was illegal,
there should be some accountability, you don't want it to happen
MACHON: Well, innocent people—.
JAY: And why do you guys stick your necks out?
MACHON: Innocent people have died. I mean, we weren't the only
people resigning at the time. Many of our colleagues had equally
valid reasons for leaving. They were flooding out of the agency
because they were concerned about the ethics of the
organization. But most of them didn't go public. They had ties
and kids and mortgages and things. But yeah.
So the bomb occurs in late February, early March 1996. We resign
in the summer of 1996. In the meantime, David makes contact with
a national newspaper in the U.K., because he reckons if you're
going to stick your neck out and go public about something, you
want as much fuss as possible to push for an inquiry into this
crime. It took a long time for the whistleblowing to happen,
because the journalists were suspicious it might be a sting
operation, and David was paranoid about being shopped by the
journalists. So it took a few months. And then, finally, in
summer 1997, the story started to break.
Now, the newspaper was too frightened to go with the Gaddafi
JAY: Which paper are we talking about?
MACHON: It was The Mail on Sunday, which is a big national
newspaper, and it's independently owned, crucially. So it
belonged to Viscount Rothermere, who was very anti intelligence
agencies. So it was a good newspaper to go with.
So, yes, the story finally breaks. They were too frightened to
go with the Gaddafi plot. They wanted to research it themselves.
So they start with the low-level stuff like files on government
ministers, illegal phone taps.
And we flee the country. We literally have to go on the run
around Europe, because we don't want to sit in our flat waiting
to be arrested by the secret police. So we flew off to the
Netherlands, we backpacked all around Europe for a month. And
the government took out an injunction, of course, to try and gag
David Shayler and gag the whole of the U.K. media to stop other
stories coming out. And it all looked good, because once they
did that, the whole of the national media was saying, you can't
do this, we're the free press. The injunction occurred at the
end of July '97. We went to bed happy.
The next morning, we woke up to the news that Princess Diana had
died in Paris that night. So that was the end of any media
support we could conceivably have had in our case. So we sort of
found ourselves lost in Europe. And I went back after a month,
knowing I'd be arrested, knowing I'd be questioned by the
counterterrorism police. I found that our flat, our home had
been completely ripped apart in a counterterrorism-style search.
They found nothing. They also arrested David's brother, two of
his best friends, on trumped-up charges to put pressure on him.
I was never charged. I was never tried of anything And then I
returned to France, where David had found a little farmhouse to
hide in. And we spent almost a year there, where he tried to
negotiate with the government.
JAY: Now, when you say "hide", they were looking for him and
couldn't find him?
MACHON: Yes. Yeah. They were sort of chasing us all around
Europe. And then we found this little place through a friend of
JAY: With an arrest warrant?
MACHON: Not at that point, no. It was the intelligence agencies,
not the police. But we were there for about a year. And David
finally got the newspapers and the BBC to come out with the
Gaddafi plot story in the summer of 1998.
And after all this time hiding in France, suddenly there's an
urgent extradition request from the British government to the
French, saying, David Shayler's a traitor, you've got to
extradite him back to us. So they arrested him and put him in
prison, and he was there for a few months.
JAY: And then what happens?
MACHON: The French released him. They do not extradite people
for political actions, which is what they deem whistleblowing to
be. So a handy hint to anyone who has to go on the run from spy
agencies: go to France.
JAY: And what happens to you?
MACHON: I'm stuck in Paris. My partner's in prison.
JAY: They haven't been chasing you. They didn't try to extradite
MACHON: They didn't, no. No. They wanted David because of the
Gaddafi plot story. So I spend my time sort of shuttling
backwards and forwards between France [crosstalk]
JAY: 'Cause he was the lead whistleblower—
MACHON: He was.
JAY: —on the Gaddafi plot story.
JAY: The stuff that you blew the whistle on was what?
MACHON: On a whole range of—well, mainly the political stuff,
the more low-level stuff.
JAY: Going—the investigation into political activists and stuff.
MACHON: Yeah, that sort of thing. Yeah.
JAY: So then what happens? What do you do? They do extradite him
MACHON: They don't, no. They fail.
JAY: They don't. France lets him go.
MACHON: France lets him go.
JAY: But they don't—. Then what?
MACHON: Then we have—then he is safe in Paris. So we live in
Paris in exile for two years. So he's there. They can't touch
him, so long as he stays in France. I travel backwards and
forwards between France and London trying to lobby MPs and deal
with the journalists, deal with the lawyers, and at that time
more evidence comes out from the CIA and from the French DGSE,
which is the French CIA—actually, backing up, the fact the
Gaddafi plot had happened, because the British tried to brush it
aside as fantasy. And also, crucially, a document was leaked
from MI6 which supported the Gaddafi plot, too.
So at this point, of course, there's another huge push for an
investigation into this criminal action by MI6, and the
government managed to spin its way out of having an inquiry.
JAY: So there never is an inquiry.
MACHON: There's never an inquiry. To this day, they still
haven't officially taken the evidence.
JAY: And how many people were killed in that bombing?
JAY: And who were they?
MACHON: Mainly bystanders. I gather two of Gaddafi's entourage
were killed, too.
JAY: But just—.
MACHON: Just people standing on the street, watching the cars go
JAY: So this is collateral damage, as they like to say.
MACHON: They do now, yes.
JAY: So then what? So this is never—then this is never
unravelled, this issue, in terms of any kind of public
MACHON: No. No.
JAY: And has—do you think—I guess you weren't inside after this,
but do you think anything changes in terms of the culture of
either MI5 or MI6?
MACHON: I gather it's got worse, actually, because there was a
crackdown in the wake of our going public. They very much
tightened up security. They threatened anyone that we'd known in
the services with prosecution if they spoke to us. And I know as
well, post-9/11, of course, when the security gloves came off,
that the culture spiralled out of control.
So we have a situation now where MI5 and MI6 are being
investigated for involvement in torture of terrorist suspects,
along with some of the American agencies, and when I was there
in the 1990s they did not torture people. I mean, one, of
course, it's ethically wrong, but two, they knew it was
counterproductive—they'd seen it being counterproductive in the
civil war in Northern Ireland in the '70s. They didn't do it.
But I think since 9/11, opinion has hardened and it—I'm sure
there are many, many more people, potentially, who could blow
many, many more whistles now than we ever could in the 1990s.
It's just, you know, they're too frightened to.
JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.
MACHON: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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