Annie Machon is ‘not a James Bond wannabe’. In fact, the Cambridge educated classicist’s career in espionage started not with a coded and cryptic clue, but with a simple note.
‘Oh fuck, it’s from MI5!’, Annie recalls, thinking upon receipt of a ‘strange’ recruitment letter from the Ministry of Defence, suggesting she ‘call this number’ to pursue a different career path she ‘might find more interesting’ than the foreign diplomacy post, for which she’d successfully applied fresh out of university.
A phone call later, and after six years working as an intelligence office for the MI5, life became much, much more interesting for Annie.
From her base in Brussels, she recalled the ‘ancient history’ of her early days:
I applied for the Foreign Office, thinking it would be quite fun to be a diplomat, swanning round at embassy parties, swilling champagne and that sort of thing. Not the reality, I might add.
In reality, after whistle-blowing on the unlawful attempted assassination of Colonel Gaddafi, Annie quickly found the life of a former MI5 intelligence officer on the run was far from glamorous.
Quickly, Annie recalled, she and her partner became ‘gamekeepers turned poached’ animals.
She said she knew what it felt like to always feel like you’re being bugged, and on the run and looking over your shoulder, after she helped the MI5 execute orders which made other enemies of the government feel the very same way.
The Guernsey-born 50-year-old grew up in a household of journalists, and it was her father, editor of the Guernsey Press and a spy aficionado with a love for John le Carré, who convinced his somewhat ‘paranoid’ daughter to call the number.
‘The rest is history’, Annie told UNILAD, recalling:
I ended up going to a three-hour interview in an unmarked building in London and had to sign the Official Secrets Act, following another ten months of vigorous recruitment and vetting before I started working there in January 1991.
Looking back, Annie isn’t sure what, beyond her ‘educational profile’ and ‘disciplined mindset’, caught the attention of spy recruiters.
Whatever it was, it stood her in good stead for the work at MI5, tracking political activists suspected of ‘subversion’, the IRA ‘at the height of the bombing campaign in the nineties’ and international terrorists.
She had no idea what to expect on her first day beyond her rank and pay grade.
In terms of the day-to-day job as an intelligence officer, she said:
You’re given a target to investigate, whether a terrorist organisation, an enemy country, people who might be trying to conduct espionage here in Britain.
You have to employ a range of techniques to investigate them, some of which are open source.
Others are not, she explained, having witnessed first-hand covert tactics to collect ‘product’ or data from targets, which saw officers bugging their homes, cars, and workplaces as well as intercepting their calls and letters, and befriending them in subterfuge.
Perhaps, her employers failed to notice her anarchist and non-conformist streak, which she endeavours to uphold today, conducting talks and workshops about espionage all over the world and rubbing shoulders with her fellow whistle-blowers.
Annie, who now defends the privacy of the public staunchly, said:
For the first few weeks it was very dislocating because you had to get up to speed with the idea of reading people’s personal communications; emails, telephone calls all being transcribed, that sort of thing.
You’re having to read reports from agents in the field who are penetrating your targets and bringing information back to you, and manage a team of three clerks, agent runners and a secretary at 22.
But in those days you had to get ministerial permission – a warrant – to get that sort of information and make a case. But that system, even in the 1990s was abused. It was a tick-box exercise.
Annie compared her disillusionment with the MI5 to ‘boiling the frog’, a fable which narrates being slowly boiled alive.
It goes like this: If a frog is put suddenly into boiling water it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
Over the course of six years, in each aspect of her work, she saw ‘different things which gave [Annie] cause for concern’, as did her partner David Shayler, now 52, ‘who was even more concerned’.
‘The straw that broke the camel’s back’ was the Gaddafi plot, she explained:
MI6 funded Al-Qaeda in Libya to try and assassinate Gaddafi in 1996 and it went wrong and they killed 11 innocent people.
And they didn’t have political permission. That was the line in the sand when we thought, ‘We cannot work for these people any more’. So we left.
Therein followed two ‘absolutely terrifying’ years on the run, which she described as ‘appalling to the human spirit’.
Annie told UNILAD:
We knew we would automatically face arrest going public with our concerns so we did flee the country 12 hours before the newspapers hit the streets.
We knew they were hunting us. The stress levels were unbelievable and I look back and do think, ‘How the fuck did I do that’.
For months, Annie and David went on the run across Europe, from the pretty streets of the Netherlands to the open plains of the French countryside as they camped out night after night in abandoned barns, sleeping rough and keeping watch.
Suddenly they were the people they used to hunt, adopting all the techniques used to avoid surveillance they knew by heart.
Annie recounted how they evaded capture, saying:
It was the analogue era, so it was much easier then. Certainly there weren’t CCTV cameras everywhere. We used nothing but cash.
You took your cash out in a big city and then got the fuck out of there.
We checked into hotels using fake names, which you can’t do now due to the anti-terrorism laws. But just changing one’s appearance very minimally was very useful.
Annie, who was known for wearing head-to-toe black, donned some beige clothes and tied up her blonde hair and became ‘miraculously invisible’.
But back home she was on the front cover of all the national newspapers.
There was an overwhelming response condemning Annie and David’s actions, which she describes as just as shocking as the upheaval and ‘surreal experience’ of going on the run.
Annie later voluntarily returned to the UK, and to her London flat which was smashed up during a counter-terrorism police raid, to be arrested and bailed having committed no crime.
She later rejoined her partner David in a French safe house for a year, before they both returned home upon which time David, who Annie is now separated from, served six months in prison.
To this day there has been no official investigation into the allegation the pair made. Quickly, the headlines changed to news of Diana, Princess of Wales’ death in August 1997.
It just goes to illustrate the fickle and ever-changing nature of the mass media; a concept to be more wary of in the internet age.
Fast forward over two decades to a post-Snowden world of Mark Zuckerberg and Cambridge Analytica and fake news. Fast-forward to a world in which Annie is no longer publicly lambasted for an act of honesty and bravery.
Annie, who worked with WikiLeaks over a decade ago, told UNILAD about ‘spy spin’:
I grew up in a journalistic environment and living through those whistle-blowing years as an eye-opener, I drew a few conclusions.
Propaganda does go on. The corporate control of the conglomeration of media outlets does go on.
That’s obvious. But how do spies control the media, and consequentially our minds and perception of global affairs, through soft tactics, Annie asked, peeking ‘behind the curtain that most people don’t get to see’.
She said it still occurs at all levels of the media and MI5 systems, adding:
Soft power is basically a seduction of journalists. You can build up a dependency from the journalist for more stories, because it makes their name, and pays their mortgage.
Then you get the intersections of power higher up between the press offices of spies and the government spin offices, as well as senior government officials and the proprietors of organisations, which we saw with David Cameron and the phone-hacking [case].
They can trick journalists into becoming not just a useful outlet but an agent of influence, where you’re working for them to a certain extent.
Not to mention ‘the battery of law we have here in the UK trying to silence journalists investigating certain subjects’, Annie adds, referring to systems of injunctions, super injunctions and government super injunctions, as well as the Official Secrets Act of 1999.
The legacy media needs to be more careful about taking stories from ‘decent chaps’ they were at college with.
But this isn’t just a matter of a mass media boys’ club anymore. The dawn of the world wide web gave everyone a voice and the newspapers are no longer the gatekeepers of truth.
Yet, Annie says it’s naive to think GCHQ, as well as America, China, Russia, and Saudi authorities don’t operate troll farms ‘which put out stories and set up fake grassroots activist groups’ – aptly named astro-turfing – ‘in order to manipulate the online perception of an issue by feeding in ideas through below the line comments on international media article and fake Twitter accounts’.
But most mainstream media companies ‘stigmatise one country’ for these operations, which effectively constitute propaganda, as part of a tactic of political point scoring.
Now, the invasions of privacy Annie has been warning of for decades, namely ‘all of our communications being hoovered up on an industrial scale’, have made manifest.
Annie laughed as she responded to a common misconception, if a citizen ‘has nothing to hide’ they have nothing to worry about, agreeing it’s not the point.
Putting it in truly relatable terms, Annie asked:
If you want to go to the loo, would you like to do that in the middle of the street and let everyone see? It’s not that you’ve got anything to hide. You just want some privacy, right?
It’s glib. It’s not about hiding, it’s about privacy. And if you cannot have privacy you cannot be a fully informed and participating member of a democracy.
Privacy was written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights immediately after World War 2, the dark ages of colluding against family and friends, ‘because people saw that if you lose privacy as a society you begin to self-censor as citizens’.
Alluding to high-profile iCloud data hacks, and how this affects us all – you and me – Annie explained the impact on our freedoms to share our thoughts and feelings over social media in DMs or sharing intimate moments on Skype.
Indeed after Snowden uncovered Optic Nerve, 29 per cent of adults said they were self-censoring their own behaviour online.
Ironic, considering the internet was designed as a free-for-all information exchange to bring everyone closer together.
Commenting on social media in the week Mark Zuckerberg became a meme, Annie said:
Facebook is a spy’s wet dream because we willingly offer up all this information it took people like me weeks and weeks to collate before the internet.
Our data, which we offer up for free, is being manipulated, monetised and politicised by these bloody awful companies.
Annie recommends open source social media networks like Diaspora, which operate a transparent policy so we can all ‘check there’s nothing nasty going on under the hood’ after you slid into someone’s DMs after one G&T too many last night.
But don’t take our word for it.
You can watch Annie Machon speak at Funzing Talks across the country. If you’re not now scared of your own Google search, you can also follow her commentary on everything from Skripal to Syria to spies online.
If you have a story to tell contact UNILAD via [email protected]