Lifting the lid on the state within the state
Review by Paul Feldman
When Annie Machon and David Shayler joined the domestic spy agency MI5 in 1991, they were led to believe that the organisation had changed from its Cold War days. It no longer targeted the "enemy within" in the shape of trade union militants, the peace movement, left-wing groups and others who clashed with the state. Instead, its focus was now on international terrorism. Moreover, Annie and David were led to believe, it now operated within the law.
Five years later, both had quit, deeply disillusioned and disturbed by what they had experienced in MI5 and its sister organisation MI6, which operates outside Britain. They learned there was an MI6 plot to fund Al Qaeda operatives in their bid to kill Libya's leader Colonel Gaddafi and take control of the country. There were illegal searches and arrests in Britain and a perversion of the judicial process through the withholding of documents. Personal files on one million Britons gained through illegal spying were maintained and still used.
Annie's book*, written in collaboration with partner David, is important for a number of reasons. It provides a rare insight into the workings of the secret state, particularly in relation to the Libya plot. Far too few people understand, or feel it important enough to concern themselves with, the role of hidden state agencies like MI5 or MI6.
Yet the spy agencies play a critical role in the formation of state policy and the sustenance of the status quo. That was the case, for example, in the run-up to the Iraq war. Despite some internal misgivings, the agencies helped prepare the flimsy "evidence" used by New Labour to justify the 2003 invasion. During the 1984-85 miners' strike, state agents inside the union made it easier for the Thatcher government to make strategic decisions.
Annie's book is also consequential because she locates the crimes and misdemeanours of her former employer in a contemporary political context. She, like many others, welcomed the election of New Labour in May 1997. It seemed like a good opportunity to put right what was happening in MI5 and MI6. Not long after the election, David blew the whistle and lifted the lid on some of the underhand and illegal activities of his former employer in newspaper articles and interviews.
But the incoming Blair government's response was far from heeding their very real concerns about MI5 and MI6. Instead it set about persecuting them viciously. Special Branch officers smashed their London flat and drove them out of the country. David was imprisoned in France on the orders of New Labour. Then he became a victim of a show trial in Britain when he returned voluntarily, believing he would find justice. He was smeared in the media and in parliament and all at the hands of New Labour and its spin doctors.
By describing this process in some detail, the book demonstrates that New Labour and the secret state work hand-in-glove with each other, with parliament not far behind. Her book is further proof that there is indeed something rotten in the state of Britain, something which requires radical surgery rather than the sticking plaster treatment. As she says:
"Tony Blair has sent a clear message to the services: they do not have to obey the rule of law or respect democratic rights, as the government will simply refuse to hear evidence against them. At the same time, their critics will be prosecuted."
Soon after the couple joined MI5, it was clear that the agency was up to its old tricks. Annie was initially involved in monitoring the Socialist Workers Party, where a number of agents had been run against the organisation for decades. Although she succeeded in terminating individual telephone taps, the SWP was still considered a legitimate target when she was moved on. As was CND and the Greenham Common women, which MI5 had 10 thick volumes on.
Similarly, David was responsible for monitoring the anarchist group, Class War. Special Branch, the police arm of MI5, had an agent inside who was so disoriented by his experiences that he had become an anarchist himself! Annie writes:
"David's and my experiences in F2 [counter-subversion branch] had opened our eyes to state abuses of power, which most recruits in the 1990s just did not see. These ranged from the continuing and unlawful existence of files… through the absurd files made on the basis of little security information, to the retention of deeply embarrassing personal material on influential figures."
David was later particularly enraged by the unauthorised and illegal investigation of Guardian journalist Victoria Brittain. She was treated as if she were a terror suspect despite the fact that money transfers were clearly intended to help fund a legal case. MI5 management continued to flout the law even when officers brought this to their attention. Ministers were misled in order to provide MI5 with a legal cover and Brittain's daughter was unlawfully detained so that a bug could be planted. David was not allowed to bring these facts out at his eventual trial in 2002.
Bigger shocks were to come, however, most notably the MI6-funded plot to assassinate Gaddafi through an Al Qaeda group within Libya. There is no evidence that MI6 had government authorisation for this operation. David says:
"I joined the service to stop terrorism and prevent the deaths of innocent people, not to get involved in these despicable and cowardly acts. I still cannot believe that the Prime Minister has refused to take my evidence or investigate this matter as this decision has sent out a clear message to the intelligence services that they can fund terrorism; conspire to murder people with impunity; and take enormous risks with our security."
David, who was working on MI5's Libya desk, was first briefed on the plot in the summer of 1995 by his MI6 counterpart. He learned that £100,000 was supplied to a group led by a man who had openly offered his services to MI6. Shayler reported this to MI5 management who declined to check whether the plot had the British government's authorisation. An attempt on Gaddafi's life was made early in 1996, leading to the deaths of innocent people. Soon afterwards, Shayler left MI5.
When Robin Cook became New Labour's foreign secretary, he was asked to comment on Shayler's revelations. He described them as "pure fantasy" with "no basis in fact". Cook said that the previous Tory administration had not authorised any such operation. This has remained New Labour's position, even though in 2000 an MI6 document appeared on the Internet giving details of the plot. Shayler himself later persuaded the police to investigate allegations of MI6-sponsored murder. Even though they could not find the evidence, taking the allegation seriously undermined Cook's position.
After they left MI5, Annie and David were able to show that the agency operated as a law unto itself. MI5 withheld vital evidence when two Palestinians, Samar Alawi and Jawed Botmeh were indicted for the 1994 bombing of the Israeli embassy. The evidence indicated that Mossad, Israel's spy agency, may well have had a hand in the bombing. Thanks to Shayler's persistence, these facts were forced out into the open, only to be ignored by the courts. To this day, Samar and Jawed are languishing in jail. In another incident, he exposed the flimsy nature of MI5 evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry into the killing of unarmed civilians by the British army in 1972.
The book gives a powerful account of these and many more misdemeanours and is a testament to two people who refused to yield to arbitrary state power, despite the enormous pressure they were under, and the price they have been made to pay. David was sent to prison in 2002 for six months after a show trial in which he was not allowed to put forward a defence to breaking the Official Secrets Act. Their reputations have been rubbished and a whispering campaign has produced a news black-out. Despite that, they both took up public and prominent positions in the anti-war movement and continue to speak out.
In her conclusions and recommendations, Annie is clear that, to use her words, we live in "in an autocratic state led by a despot" which uses third parties to attack dissent. She believes that the secret state can and will break ministers and governments if they get on the "wrong side" of MI5/MI6. She shows how New Labour has gone down the authoritarian road with its laws that undermine basic human rights. Her book rightly indicts the Common's security and intelligence committee as Blair's poodle.
You could not disagree with her call for a Bill of Rights and the abolition of the spy agencies as they are constituted today in order to recreate them in an entirely new and democratic framework. The question is: how are we to achieve these aims when, as her book explains, government, parliament and the secret state operate together to maintain the status quo?
Following the recent general election, we live under the yoke of an elected dictatorship, which has the reluctant support of only one in five registered voters. New Labour is pressing ahead with a raft of dictatorial measures aimed at minority communities, asylum seekers, the disabled and the population in general through ID cards.
To defend democracy in these circumstances means we have to build a movement and a momentum that takes us beyond the present autocratic state, which is clearly incapable of defending human or social rights and is equally incapable of self-reform. Annie's book speaks for those many millions in Britain and elsewhere who reject and oppose the slide to dictatorship and who, given half a chance of a democratic alternative, would surely seize it with both hands.
* Spies, lies and whistleblowers. Annie Machon. ISBN 1 85776 952 X The Book Guild, £17.95