By Asad Ismi
Annie Machon was an intelligence officer for the British domestic security service MI-5 (Military Intelligence) during the 1990s and worked in units dealing with international terrorism and domestic subversion. She thought she would be fighting international terrorism, but discovered that MI-5’s sister agency, MI-6, was actually involved in financing and promoting this activity and so resigned and became a whistleblower. MI-6 is in charge of foreign intelligence and operations.
Machon spoke about her experience in a speech in May at the University of Toronto. She is a Classics graduate from Cambridge University. This article is drawn from her speech and my interview with her.
“Military intelligence is the greatest oxymoron on the planet,” Machon said. “When I was approached to work for MI-5 in 1990, they had a stinking reputation for investigating left-wing political activists and anti-nuclear groups, and for penetrating trade unions.”
Machon was assigned by MI-5 to investigate the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), a legal Trotskyist organization engaged in open democratic debate. Twenty-five MI-5 agents were spying on the SWP, and Machon shut down this operation. She said there are about a million official files held on U.K. citizens for their political activity. This includes MI-5 files on the very politicians who are supposed to control the spy agencies. These files, according to Machon, undermine democratic oversight of the agencies, and result in governments “bending over backwards” to meet the spies’ demands for more powers, money, laws, and staff.
Machon discovered that MI-6 was involved in worse activities than MI-5. “The case that really made me decide to quit MI-5 and to go public,” she said, “was something that the media called ‘The Gaddafi Plot’.” Machon’s former partner, David Shayler [who quit with her] was head of the Libyan sub-section in MI-5. In 1995, Shayler’s counterpart in MI-6, David Watson, started briefing him about an unfolding plot in Libya. Watson said that a “walk-in” (a volunteer) had come into the British embassy in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. He claimed to be a Libyan military intelligence officer who was head of a group that wanted to carry out a coup against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. They wanted to overthrow him and take power. The group needed money from MI-6 to buy the equipment to carry out an attack on Gaddafi. Watson told Shayler that MI-6 gave the Libyan officer about $120,000 at secret meetings in Geneva and [elsewhere in] Switzerland.
The Libyan officer described his group as “rag-tag Islamic extremists with links to al-Qaeda or the Bin Laden organization.” As Machon put it, “So this is 1995 and MI-6 is funding people who at that point were being deemed our terrorist enemies. That same year, MI-5 set up a new section called G-9C to investigate al-Qaeda. So one hand is doing the complete opposite of the other hand.”
In February-March 1996, Shayler received reports from different sources saying there had been an explosion underneath a car in Gaddafi’s cavalcade while it was proceeding along a street lined with people, waving flags. Gaddafi was not hurt by the blast, but it killed eleven innocent people, some of whom had been in the car and the others caught in the subsequent exchange of gunfire. Shayler asked Watson, “Was this what you were talking about?” Watson replied, apparently with a note of triumph in his voice, “Yes, we did it. That was our man.” That Gaddafi was still alive while eleven innocent people were killed did not seem to matter to MI-6. “They were just glad that they had done something,” said Machon, “even if they got it wrong.”
“The Gaddafi Plot was just too much for Shayler and me,” Machon said. “We had joined up to work against terrorism and not with agencies that were involved in terrorism. So Shayler and I decided to blow the whistle on the Gaddafi Plot. Not only was this operation immoral, unethical, and highly reckless in a very volatile part of the world, but it was also illegal under U.K. law.”
According to Machon, “One of the few things that is true about James Bond is that, under the law which regulates MI-6, if its operatives get the prior written permission of their political master, the Foreign Secretary, they can carry out any illegal act abroad, including murder, with legal immunity from prosecution. This is the license to kill. Crucially, with the Gaddafi Plot, they had not got that prior written permission, so this was an illegal operation.”
Machon and Shayler went to the Mail on Sunday newspaper with their account of the Gaddafi Plot, and in August 1997 the paper decided to run the story. The couple left England for various European countries, where they were on the run for the next three years with spies hot on their trail. Shayler tried to negotiate with the British government through his lawyer. He wanted to present the evidence he had of MI-6’s criminality and incompetence in the Gaddafi Plot to the government so there could be an inquiry, but to this day the government has refused to accept his information.
Machon and Shayler returned to the U.K. in 2000, and Shayler was jailed for six months after what Machon calls “an unfair two-year trial process during which he was not allowed to defend himself adequately.”
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Machon draws several lessons from her experience. “Firstly, we saw that the government chose to cover up the criminal acts of spies rather than prosecute them. The official instinct is to protect the intelligence agencies. This could be because of the files the agencies hold on government officials or because they are all part of the same circle. Also, we could see how much the media could be manipulated by the spies and the government spin doctors. Inside MI-6, they have a section called Information Operations, I-OPs for short, and this department’s job is to plant fake stories in the media and to spin and massage other stories.
“They can also target journalists who specialize in intelligence matters and invite them into a charmed secret circle, which is flattering to the journalists who get briefed about events in the intelligence community and get some good stories out of it. However, if they question what the spies tell them, they don’t get the briefings any more, so they can’t write the stories and lose their jobs.”
One journalist who went public in 2007 about having been an “agent of influence” is David Rose, who wrote for The Independent and The Guardian newspapers. According to Machon, “He said that he had done that and that he got inducted gradually [by MI-6] where they get tidbits to begin with and then they get stronger stuff. It’s a bit like being a drug addict. Agents of influence are a reality within the British media and other media in Western democracies.”
Conversely, the left-wing journalist Victoria Brittain, who was deputy foreign editor for The Guardian and is critical of official policy, had her phone illegally tapped for six months by MI-5 at a cost of $1.5 million.
Another lesson Machon learned is that “we can’t rely on our judicial system to uphold basic rights. We can’t rely on our judges to uphold the law or human rights.”
The final lesson Machon draws from her experience is “the historic fact of false flag terrorism, which happens when a terrorist attack blamed on one party is actually carried out by another party for political gain and advantage.” According to her, “This is a perfectly standard weapon in the arsenal of spy agencies which has been used in many cases. For example, there was [British] security service involvement in the bombing of two pubs in Dublin in the early 1970s which was blamed on Loyalist terrorists (those in Northern Ireland who wished to stay loyal to the U.K.). This was done to ensure that the government of the Republic of Ireland didn’t give too much leeway to Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorists who took shelter in the Republic, and ensure that it would extradite them for trial in the U.K.
“There was collusion between [British] security forces and the IRA, as well, at certain points. The security forces would sometimes ignore warnings of massive bombings such as the Omagh bombing. MI-5 knew that it was going to happen. A whistleblower said that he had warned MI-5 about it, but they ignored him, so innocent people died. [It is well-documented that British intelligence had massively infiltrated the IRA.-A.I.]
“Even at the moment,” said Machon, “there’s a case going on New York where we have an alleged al-Qaeda cell of four terrorists on trial. They were planning, apparently, to blow up some synagogues in New York. It turns out that there was an agent-provocateur [working for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation] who gathered members of this group together, organized the acquisition of guns and a Stinger missile, and basically set these guys up. So even at the moment in the headlines there’s a false flag plan. This goes on time and time again.”
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Canadians are not safe from British spy agencies. According to Machon, “The intelligence agencies of the Anglo-Saxon countries [Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand] do cooperate quite closely, particularly with the interception of communications. There’s a project called ‘Echelon’, made up of the Anglo-Saxon countries’ intelligence agencies all eavesdropping on each other’s citizens without warrants and without democratic oversight, and sharing that information. This means that, if a Canadian intelligence agency wants to spy on Canadian citizens, they can’t because it’s illegal in Canada, but any of the other Anglo-Saxon agencies can, and then give it to the Canadians. The same goes for the other countries. This is a key way of evading democratic oversight. This is regular practice and has been going on for years.”
The British eavesdropping agency is called Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Machon describes it as “a listening station which intercepts telecommunications or emails out of the other countries and then gives that information to the intelligence agencies of those countries. You can intercept telecommunications traffic from anywhere through satellites. The Anglo-Saxon intelligence agencies share a lot and work on operations [in addition to Echelon] very closely.”
Machon considers British foreign policy to be an extension of U.S. imperialism. “Britain for a long time has been a client state of the United States,” she says. “It represents the American interest within Europe.” In the Global South, Britain’s role has been to facilitate the U.S.’s imperial wars. “The so-called war on terror and the wars in the Middle East,” she said, “could not have been justified politically if British Prime Minister Tony Blair had not supported U.S. President Bush in the invasion of Iraq. It was Blair and his intelligence agencies that came up with the fake intelligence that justified the invasion, including that Iraq was ready to deliver weapons of mass destruction against the U.K. within 45 minutes and that Saddam Hussein was buying uranium from Niger. This was based on fake intelligence documents presented by MI-6. There is no justification for the Iraq war under international law, so Bush and Blair should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague for war crimes.”
Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July/August 2009.
Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He did his Ph.D. on the CIA at the University of London. Annie Machon’s website is www.anniemachon.com.