It’s the (Intelligence and Security) Services, Stupid: A review of Annie Machon’s Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5, MI6 And the Shayler Affair
By Ronald Bleier
We joined the services to stop terrorism, not become involved in it.”
“It appears that we have given up on the notion of due process, fair trials and democratic rights in Britain.”
-- Annie Machon
In August 1997 two ex- MI5 officers, David Shayler and his companion Annie Machon, fled to France in connection with their plan to expose corruption and mismanagement in MI5 and MI6, Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence services. Both highly rated agents, they had spent years unsuccessfully attempting to redress issues of corruption and mismanagement. Spies, Lies tells their story in remarkable and eye opening detail as they blow the whistle on outmoded procedures, low officer morale and drunkenness, and on misguided and illegal operations. Their book traces the steps by which they came to the alarming conclusion that the intelligence and security services have devolved into the enablers and initiators of terror.
At the heart of the book is the exposure of a sensational case of MI6 collusion with an Islamic extremist group that tried to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi. The public didn’t learn of the plot until the New York Times (NYT) published an account on August 5, 1998 under the interrogative title: “Did the British government try to assassinate Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi the Libyan leader, in February 1996 by planting a bomb under his motorcade?” The Times noted that MI6 paid $160,000 to the group. (pp. 247- 250) The NYT story was soon confirmed on BBC’s Panorama TV program and a few months later, in November 1998, the government of Libya showed TV footage of the attack.
Machon explains that she and Shayler decided to voluntarily leave the service about a year before they fled England. They coordinated their flight with the publication of an article by Shayler in the Mail on Sunday, the sister publication of Britain’s popular newspaper, The Daily Mail. They fled in order to give the newly elected Labour government led by Tony Blair time to investigate their evidence. They were optimistic about getting a fair hearing since Blair had just won an election by a landslide on a reform platform that included human rights and an ethical foreign policy. (p. 192)
Shayler and Machon placed much of their hopes in a public interest defence, which Tony Blair, his new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and his Attorney General, John Morris, had unsuccessfully supported while in opposition when the Official Secrets Act had been updated in 1989. Moreover Machon expected that government ministers would be “outraged” to find that the “secret state” had compiled and maintained personal files on them as if they were security risks. “If there was ever a time,” Machon writes, “to make Britain’s outdated and anti-democratic system – -particularly with regard to the intelligence establishment –- more open and accountable, this was it.” (p. 192)
In the end Shayler and Machon were cruelly disillusioned when they found that the Blair government chose not to address the issues they raised, but instead launched a vicious and libelous smear campaign against them. The government’s damage control/cover up operation was largely successful, and it wasn’t until a year later that the news of the MI6 terror conspiracy rose to such a level that it required a public denial by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.
The Real Security Issue
The key issue raised by the Gaddafi assassination conspiracy is the basic one of security. Machon writes that most experts believe that assassinations of heads of state tend to destabilize a region. Such actions create a power vacuum that leads to unrest and violence. Had the assassination attempt succeeded, it might have led to the emergence of an Islamic state in Libya that could have posed a regional and international security threat. Machon wonders if “at the very least” MI5 might have been dupes of the extremists, unwittingly creating the circumstances leading to a state controlled by fundamentalists. (pp. 282-284)
Machon here limits her consideration to the least worst-case scenario. However, readers may well doubt that MI6 didn’t understand the implications of an extremist takeover in a strategic North African country. Is it not simpler to conclude that MI6 deliberately intended the very destabilization that would be the predictable consequence of the success of such a conspiracy?
Why would the services deliberately work at cross-purposes to their mission to protect the public from crime, disorder and terror? Spies, Lies argues that the intelligence and security services in Britain (and doubtless elsewhere if not everywhere) have morphed into the very enemy that they were created to defend. Instead of fighting terror, they sponsor terror.
Much of the problem lies in the natural tendency of government agencies to grow larger and more powerful. With the collapse of the Soviet Union (1989-1991) Western military and intelligence agencies scrambled to create a substitute enemy. At the time it may have seemed that Islamic terrorism would not be perceived as sufficiently threatening to justify Cold War budgets. However, since fear of Moslem terror was grounded in the Israeli-Arab conflict and the powerful pro Zionist/anti Muslim ethos, it only awaited adequate fertilization. In the academic world, Bernard Lewis, English born, Jewish professor of Middle East studies at Princeton, supplied a Zionist perspective for his scholarly justification for the clash of Western vs. Moslem cultures. In Lewis’s view, nationalist Islamists posed a threat not merely to the Jewish state that they believed discriminated against Muslims, but to the Western world and its values.
In the end it didn’t take long for militarists in the U.S. and in Europe to shift their targets. As chance or a decisive covert push from the CIA would have it, the anti-Muslim movement was propelled by Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990. There soon followed such high profile set pieces as the World Trade Center bombing in New York City in 1993, the African Embassy bombings of August 1998, the USS Cole bombing of October 2000, and others – most or all attributed to Al Qaeda. Yet these and other high profile terror events tellingly display the distinctive red flag (as does the MI6 Gaddafi assassination plot, not to mention the terror of 9/11) of a covert government connection with those accused of responsibility for the attacks.
Sadiq living in London
For example, in addition to the London based Libyan agent codenamed Tunworth with whom MI6 negotiated, the BBC TV Panorama program reported that Libya accused the UK of giving refuge to Abdullah Al-Sadiq, the leader of the Militant (or Fighting) Islamic Group (FIG), the organization which planned the Gaddafi assassination. The Foreign Office, pressured to address the media report, issued a non-denial denial; simply saying said that they didn’t know if Sadiq was in the country, which, according to Machon, was also a lie. (pp. 247-248)
Machon also devotes a chapter to the strange (or not so strange) case of Khalifa Bazelya, the charge d’affairs of the Libyan Interest section in London, a known member of a Libyan terrorist organization, the ESO. Machon claims that the ESO was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing of December 1988 in which 270 people were killed, and the 1989 bombing of a French plane, UTA 772 in which 171 people died.
Bazelya was allowed into England in 1993 on the unconvincing pretext that MI6 thought that they could recruit him. Machon argues that if the government had really wanted to do so, they could have approached him while he was in Libya, saving the British taxpayers the millions of pounds that it cost for his surveillance from June 1993 to December 1995. Moreover, as part of the intelligence services’ surveillance protocol, Bazelya was allowed to operate freely. While in the UK he intimidated opposition Libyans and created local terror cells. After a great deal of effort, Shayler finally managed to get Bazelya declared persona non grata, forcing him to return home. (pp. 139ff)
Judith Hart --How MI5 vetoed Wilson’s choice of a Cabinet Minister
Machon presents several characteristic instances revealing the services’ abuse of their powers. One of these, the case of Judith Hart, rose to the level of a cause célèbre in the 1970s in Harold Wilson’s government. MI5 prevented Hart from obtaining a ministerial post alleging that she had connections with communists. In an unprecedented move, a skeptical Harold Wilson demanded the raw intelligence on which MI5 based their allegations rather than simply the summaries usually supplied to ministers. As it turned out, a telephone tap revealed that Hart had indeed been in contact with the Communist Party HQ in King Street, but only to talk to a friend who worked there. Nevertheless, Wilson agreed to post Hart to a less sensitive area of government. (pp. 48-49)
Breaking and entering the home of an Opposition Journalist
The case of Victoria Brittain, a journalist for the left of center Guardian newspaper, was one where MI5 not only abused its powers but also engaged, Machon claims, in gross illegality. The pretext for their harassment of someone MI5 apparently considered an ideological enemy was that Brittain was involved in supporting Libyan terrorists. Shayler, who was handed the Brittain brief in 1995, soon found that the evidence against her was wholly without merit and that she was by no means a security threat. He also learned that MI5 falsified evidence that was presented to the Home Secretary in order to obtain a warrant to break and enter her home, to search her papers and to install an eavesdropping device. Shayler also discovered that MI5 also illegally collected financial information from her bank without a warrant. (pp. 158-159)
Despite Shayler’s protests, MI5 refused to shut down the operation and the case threw him into a crisis. He was faced with the choice of following orders based on illegal operations or resigning. In 1995, about a year before he finally resigned, he still had hopes of effecting change from within and he decided that it was best not to be labeled a troublemaker.
When he fled to France in August 1997, Shayler went public with his information about the “flawed” Victoria Brittain investigation, which is how she learned of MI5’s trampling her rights. Shayler’s leak of the Brittain case was specifically cited as one of the reasons that he was later convicted and imprisoned for offenses against the Official Secrets Act. (p. 199; 206)
The power of the secret government
One means by which the services secure and maintain their power in the UK and elsewhere has already been mentioned: the practice of maintaining files with potentially embarrassing or career destroying information on a wide variety of people. Machon found that MI5 was rife with personnel imbued with a Cold War, “Reds under the bed” mentality. Often senior management types, they tended to view politicians, professionals and others as enemies of the state if their views were left of center or if they pressed for reform.
Machon explains that during her MI5 induction courses she was told that MI5 had compiled over a million such files. They were taught that the files were rife with errors and recruits understood that they offered possibilities for abuse. In her almost six-year career with MI5 Machon reviewed or was shown by colleagues the files kept by MI5 on about 30 politicians, celebrities, union leaders and others, including such well known figures as John Lennon, Tony Blair and his wife Cherie, cabinet members Jack Straw, Clare Short, Robin Cook, Conservative British prime minister Ted Heath, Labour MP leader Neil Kinnock, Labour PM Harold Wilson, and others.
The judicial system – an arm of the government
Machon’s chapter on “British Justice in Action,” details Shayler’s trial and his unsuccessful appeal in all its fascinating and infuriating detail. Machon argues that Shayler’s ordeal was not about due process but was intended to shield the services from scandal and embarrassment.
As he expected, when he returned to England in 2000, Shayler was charged with offenses against the Official Secrets Act among other transgressions. In lengthy pre trial procedures the Crown successfully worked to ensure the inadmissibility of Shayler’s core contention that he was forced to go public because no one in the chain of command, including the prime minister’s office, would accept his evidence. In the end the courts accepted the fiction that he made no such effort. (pp. 322-323)
On November 4, 2002, Shayler was found guilty of offenses against the Official Secrets Act and was sentenced to 6 months in jail. Upon his conviction the media didn’t shrink from piling on, dishing out disinformation supporting the government position. One egregious lie widely broadcast was the claim that Shayler had “sold agent lives down the river for money” although no one ever produced any such evidence.
The Services Prolong the Irish Civil War
Both Shayler and Machon served in departments at MI5 that worked on IRA terror. Accordingly they could both testify that, as she puts it in one of her chapter heads, “MI5 Fails to get to Grips with the IRA.” In 1971 the British Army was sent to Northern Ireland to protect Catholics from Protestant violence since the local police forces, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, effectively took the side of the Protestants. Very soon the British Army lost the support of Catholics when they embarked on a policy of imprisoning IRA suspects without trial. This policy led directly to the events of Bloody Sunday, January 30 1972, when the British Army shot 26 Catholics (13 were killed, including 6 minors) who were marching in protest against arbitrary detentions. Over the next three decades more than 3,000 people died and hundreds of millions of pounds were spent in insurance payouts alone. (pp. 58-59)
MI5’s Failure to Prevent Bishopsgate
Machon devotes a chapter to the bombing of Bishopsgate, the IRA attack of April 1993 in the City of London, which she claims is one of four attacks that could have been prevented had MI5 acted on available information. The Bishopsgate bombing was the most financially devastating attack in UK history (one person was killed, none injured). It cost the taxpayer 350 million pounds; it hit at the heart of the UK financial infrastructure, gave PIRA (the Provisional IRA) worldwide publicity and forced the government to negotiate for the first time in the 25 years of the modern conflict. (p. 289)
In a July 2000 expose published in the British weekly magazine Punch, Shayler argues that the authorities missed two opportunities to prevent the bombing. Machon also goes into some detail about the government’s reaction to Shayler’s expose. Instead of using Shayler’s information to investigate and reform the services, the government decided to throw all its weight against the messenger and took Punch to court for alleged offenses against secrecy laws. (pp. 302-309
Jobs for the boys, secrecy for the public
The inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday conducted by the senior Metropolitan police commander, Sir John Stephens revealed that British Army intelligence conspired with Loyalist terrorists to murder innocent Catholics, most notably the Catholic lawyer Patrick Finucane in February1989. The 2003 inquiry report also found that a key British agent codenamed Stakeknife, who had deeply infiltrated PIRA, was personally responsible for the torture and execution of fellow British undercover agents. (p. 61)
Machon uses the findings of the Stephens Report to argue that the shoot to kill policy employed by the British Army in Northern Ireland “only served to prolong the conflict.” In Machon’s view, “the British intelligence establishment never wanted an end to the civil war in Northern Ireland. It wanted jobs for the boys and of course the suspension of civil liberties and secrecy [about its illegal operations] made possible by the conflict.” (p. 62)
The Israeli Embassy Bombing – a Mossad Operation?
On July 26, 1994 a bomb exploded in an Audi car parked outside the Israeli Embassy in London and another bomb exploded outside Balfour House Finchley, home to a number of Jewish groups. In all, 19 people were injured (none killed). In January 1995 the London police arrested four Palestinians, two of whom, Samar Alami and Jawed Botmeh, were convicted in December 1996 of conspiracy to cause explosions -– no one was tried or convicted for setting the bombs. The two men are currently serving a twenty-year prison sentence.
Machon’s account of the affair suggests that the intelligence services and the judicial system, not to mention the media and the political echelon, effectively joined forces to convict the two Palestinians who were apparently set up by the Israeli secret service. It seems that the Mossad targeted the two men, both engineers, because they were using their expertise to test components and delivery methods of bombs to be used against the Israelis in the Occupied Territories. Machon presents persuasive evidence indicating that the two Palestinians had no knowledge of the London bombings.
Central to Machon’s argument are two important documents that were withheld from the trial judge as well as the defendants. The first relates to Shayler’s discovery that MI5 had received prior warnings of the attack but didn’t act on them. The second was a memo written by MI5 senior manager Andrew Knight who “assessed that the Israelis themselves were responsible for the bomb in order to persuade the British authorities to increase the security around the Embassy.” (p. 226; 229-30)
Shayler’s exposures of the critical documents in Punch and in the Mail on Sunday, forced a government response and led to appeals. Nevertheless, senior British judges in the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords allowed the convictions to stand. (p. 227) Machon doesn’t speculate, but some readers might hazard the guess that sensitivities in connection with Israeli involvement might very well be the reason that to this day the two men are still in jail.
Is Reform Possible?
In the Mail on Sunday story of August 1997 that was inspired by his revelations, Shayler stressed the “inflexible management” and the “dangerous intransigence” of the bureaucracy and the MI5 mindset. Shayler’s underlying assumption is that reform of the services is a realistic possibility. However such a view is at odds with the evidence that he and Machon present throughout Spies, Lies that tends to show that the problem is much deeper and more intractable than they both seem to have imagined when they fled England. They came to find and that the entire political system effectively collaborates to destroy whistleblowers and silence potential reformers.
How do we explain Tony Blair’s reversal with regard to a public service defense once he took office? How do we explain his lack of interest in documentary evidence of widespread corruption and illegality by MI5 and MI6? Was Blair cynical while in opposition, adopting a position that he understood would be popular? It may be that once he attained high office, Blair was forced to come to grips with the realities of power and came to understand that in order to survive he would have to accommodate the services and other centers of influence.
The Machon book points to a world in which the intelligence and security services purposefully work against the public interest in order to advance their ideological agenda of militarism and endless war. Without war, without terror, their mission would evaporate and they would be exposed as superfluous and a danger to civil society.
Perhaps the most depressing section of the book when it comes to reform going forward is Machon’s description of an expensive in-depth independent study of the practices and procedures at MI5 undertaken during her term of service. For a brief moment it seemed as if effective reforms might be implemented and a significant morale boost among rank and file officers was evident. But in the end the reforms were blocked leading to the departure of another crop of energetic MI5 recruits.
Reading between the lines
There exists a tension in the Machon-Shayler narrative between the more hopeful assumption that the problem with the services is merely one of bungling and mismanagement, and the tougher, often implicit recognition that the services have become an independent power center, more dominant at times than any other British institution. Did Machon and Shayler feel that they had to soften their views at certain points in order to have their book pass MI5 censorship? Some readers will wonder if their chapter on the Lockerbie disaster supporting the official story is such an example.
In any event, they create the space to speculate on the death of Princess Diana and they provide several pages of not unpersuasive evidence pointing to the services’ involvement (pp. 211-216) as well as a brief note boldly stating that the services hastened Margaret Thatcher’s downfall when she pushed the 1989 Security Service Act through Parliament. (p. 367)
One might rationalize the current state of affairs whereby the intelligence and security services exist as an independent and unaccountable power center, if it were clear that they operated wholly or even largely in the national interest. In that case one might imagine that critical government agencies would be staffed by able idealists like Shayler and Machon, dedicated to preventing terrorism and to the civil and constitutional rights of the public.
Annie Machon, Spies, Lies, and Whistleblowers: MI5, MI6 And the Shayler Affair, The Book Guild Ltd: Sussex, England, 2005. All page references are to this edition.
 Plans to pin the blame for the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 on Islamic extremists were apparently derailed due to the intervention of loose cannon Timothy McVeigh who seemed to go out of his way to get arrested. His getaway car had no license and he neglected to remove his sidearm from his belt when he was pulled over by a state trooper.
 The Guardian newspaper offers the alternate spelling, Stevens. See “Operation Banner, 1969-2007,” available online.