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31 December 2007, 13:55

24C3: From the diary of a spy

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Annie Machon, a former agent of the British MI5 secret service, told tales out of school at the 24th Chaos Communication Congress (24C3) in Berlin last Saturday. Apart from revealing details about the agency's computer problems she also gave insight into the thought processes and methods used by spies and called emphatically for more democratic control. Disappointed with the mass media as a means of controlling state power, Machon emphasised the importance of the internet in uncovering further intelligence scandals.

Machon claims that she took her job with MI5 in the early 1990s for quite idealistic reasons. At the peak of IRA terror, her motivation had been to protect her country. Despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, she and her young colleague David Shayler had initially spent most of their time collecting material about ageing communists. Machon and the smart Shayler - with whom she eventually fell in love and lived until about a year ago - were later transferred to a department which did deal with preventing future IRA attacks. According to Machon's report, however, the pair had to witness the suspect driver of a lorry full of bombs being turned free because of apparent MI5 upper management issues, enabling the same driver to carry out an attack in the City of London and killing one person a few years later in 1993.

The pair was also appalled to witness a 3-million-euro wiretapping operation against a Guardian correspondent whose only fault was her alleged left-wing political orientation. According to Machon, the 1994 bombing of the Embassy of Israel in London could have been prevented, or at least been solved. A high-ranking MI5 agent had clearly expressed the opinion that their Mossad colleagues were responsible for the attack. Despite this, no action was taken to prevent the wrongful conviction as alleged bombers of two Palestinians who operated a support network for their comrades at home which was unwelcome by Israel. In addition, MI5 had supported a failed assassination attempt on Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi with 100,000 US dollars in 1996, which had finally prompted Machon and Shayler to leave.

However, the two spies didn't want to just sweep their bad experiences under the carpet. Since in-house complaints could only be made to the agency's top management, their complaints hadn't yielded any results and since there had generally been no room for constructive criticism or ability to learn from mistakes, Machon said the only way of uncovering the grievances was to alert the press. Shayler approached the Mail on Sunday, which published a lead story about the intelligence scandals in August 1997.

Using the 40,000 pounds, which, according to a newspaper follow-up, the whistleblower had received, the former MI5 agents disappeared to the Netherlands and later to France. They lived on a farm in the South of France without TV or car for a while. Later they spent two years in Paris after a French court refused to extradite Shayler. When Shayler fell seriously ill and they had both had enough of living in exile for what in their view was a simple act of assuming their freedom of information rights in the interest of the public, they went back home. Shayler, whom Machon had left after he developed a taste for the esoteric, was soon tried for breach of secrecy. He was sentenced to six months in prison, but only had to serve a few weeks.

"We should have used the internet much more to promote our cause", Machon assesses in retrospect. However, at MI5 she had initially been introduced to a culture which didn't use computers. Even in 1993, IRA information had still been stored in an old database on a mainframe computer. Later, the service had attempted to build its own in-house information processing systems. After several unsuccessful attempts, the service's entire IT landscape had been migrated to Windows 95 "in desperation", and without making any alterations or taking additional security measures. Shayler had initially also tried to publish his experiences on a web domain of his own. However, the site had been hacked immediately and could only go online after it was moved to a Californian provider. Only rudimentary parts of it have survived in archives.

Machon is also convinced that the secret service joined forces with politicians for fear of the spies. MI5, for example, maintained a file for every Labour MP which could always be used to exert indirect pressure when necessary. She asserts that the major media were completely controlled by the government and by secret service spin doctors. Editors felt fawned on when slipped the occasional piece of information by agents and didn't want to let these "sources" run dry. Therefore, even the "fourth power" couldn't be used as a regulatory force, and Machon was not surprised that ministers in the UK are now able to declare a state of emergency almost single-handedly. Only a "legislative reform act" granting the government the power to simply overrule legislation passed by parliament had been blocked by the House of Lords. (Stefan Krempl) /


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