MI5, The War on Drugs, and the Internet


Annie Machon is a former intelligence officer for the MI5 who resigned in 1996 with then-partner David Shayler to whistle-blow on the crimes and incompetence of the UK Security Service. Now the director of LEAP Europe (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) and an avid political campaigner, Annie speaks to
Beatrice Xu about her experiences, and how they provide an insider’s commentary on the ‘three wars’ that threaten our civil liberties today.

What was it like working for the MI5 and why did you finally decide to resign and blow the whistle?

The most incendiary [department of MI5] in literal terms was working for G branch: International Terrorism. Right from the start, it was a disappointment and a surprise, because during the recruitment process they said that they wanted a new generation of intelligence officers to work against counter-terrorism threats. They could see the writing was on the wall about their usual areas of work: subversion, the political stuff, and espionage, because the Cold War was ending. Shamefully, they knew they were going to get some new work coming in: the investigation of the IRA on the UK mainland had been announced in parliament but the implementation was delayed until October 1992. This meant that they had recruited all these new people but had no jobs to put them in. So we were farmed out to these old sects. That’s partly why the counter-subversion section was kept artificially going long after it was realised there was no threat there: to make sure there were jobs to put the officers in, in order to have the right number of officers when they took on this new stream of work. What we’re talking about here is illegal investigations into UK political activists, extended even when they were deemed not to be a threat to national security, purely to give jobs to the boys! So that was quite an early shock.

What was it like to be ‘on the run’ in Europe immediately after the whistle-blowing?

Intensely stressful. It was very frightening because we had no other options, as we saw it at the time. The only people we could legally take our evidence to about crimes are the heads of agencies we wanted to report for committing the crimes. You can’t go to your MP; you can’t even go to the police under the draconian terms of the Official Secrets Act 1989. David [Shayler] had some experience because he started working life as a journalist, so he had some notion of the concept of what it would mean to blow the whistle. He decided it would be better to go straight to the press and create a bit of a stink. Then, because of the pressure from the media, there would have to be an inquiry into the crimes he was reporting.

How did your MI5 work get you interested in the drug trade? 

One of my jobs with MI5 was working in T-branch on the Irish issue, looking at terrorist logistics – which is the import and export, infiltration and exfiltration of weapons and personnel. I was working very closely with customs across the UK and hearing all sorts of horror stories from them. This was the Investigations division of customs, the hardcore undercover section, and they were saying: “Well we can stop one or two shipments [of narcotics], but actually it’s a drop in the ocean”. I was living and working in central London in my twenties in the 1990s; anyone could get whatever they wanted on the streets of London. Then of course, roll on a few years and Shayler gets convicted with the breach of Official Secrets Act and is sent to Belmarsh High Security Prison – even there the prisoners could get whatever drugs they wanted. He said on his first night he was sharing a cell with some man who was chasing the dragon. The whole idea of a drug-free world might be a nice utopia but realistically, it’s not happening. So really it’s a case of how to manage the issue.

You are very much against the “war on drugs”. As the director of LEAP (Europe), you are calling for a repeal of drug prohibition. What is the “tight system of legalised regulation” that you propose in its place?

We’re looking at a system where drug flow and drug consumption has drastically increased over the same time and the price of drugs has usually drastically decreased. The war on drugs is an abject failure. And it’s funding organised crime: Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UNODC at the time of the financial crisis in 2008, went on record and said that the only thing keeping the banks from liquidity was drug money – so that’s how big this trade is. It’s about $500bn a year- and it could be regulated by governments.

How we would go on to regulate it is the interesting question. There are various proposals: Uruguay is considering is legalising cannabis and making sure that the government has control over the growth, production and sale of it – that it is regulated in the same way as tobacco and alcohol, and taxing it as well. This financial argument is becoming stronger now as countries are becoming more broke. Then you have slightly wider models like Portugal or the Czech Republic, who have decriminalised all drugs. Decriminalisation is different from legalisation. Decriminalisation is where the users are not penalised for their use, but the drug trade is still illegal and the organised criminals still have control of the trade – a bit like with the Dutch coffee shop system.

Until we get proper, controlled legalised regulation we won’t know quite how effective the system could be. But prohibition has failed so publicly that any other policy would have been abolished years ago – yet everyone has an emotional investment in [the belief] that drugs are bad. [Drugs] are inanimate things.

But your work on drugs is merely one piece of a triptych: what you call the ‘three wars’ of drugs, terror and the internet. Could you explain where you see these three issues overlap?

It evolved from a belief in the original intentions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 – that has always informed my critique of how the intelligence industries work, how police forces within democracy should work. That took me into looking at digital civil liberties where you get the copyright lobby trying to stamp out what they call ‘piracy on the internet’, even though it’s legal in many European countries and beyond, to protect their profits. And they use the same arguments: “We’ve got to clamp down on the internet, we’ve got to data mine everybody and store every message and look at deep-packet stuff in order to protect against organised crime, terrorists and paedophiles”. They are trying to strip away hard-won basic rights of freedom of expression and privacy from the internet in order to protect us from these greater crimes. This very much overlaps with the war on drugs because in the last 40 years we’ve seen the pressure from the state to take away our basic freedoms in order to investigate organised crime in the drug trade and terrorism. It’s estimated by the Drug Enforcement Administration that at least half of the recognised terrorist groups are funded by the drug-trade, so the overlap between organised crime and terrorism is very strong. In Afghanistan, since our intervention, the west has blown about $6bn on that war. One of the things they said was to eradicate the poppy growth industry, and in fact the acreage has doubled in that time. I think it comes down to basic freedoms, basic human rights and basic dignity.

Since your days on the run, are you continuing to take online security measures?

I don’t think I’m of interest to [the MI5]; they have far more pressing things to investigate, but it’s not just about the state spies. I think any concerned citizen now needs to be aware of all the data-mining that’s done by the Americans (and reports of the Government Communications Headquarters about to start in the UK – if it hasn’t already) and where we don’t have any privacy on the internet. Things like the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000) have been used and abused, not just by intelligence agencies but even local councils to snoop on citizens living in their boroughs. Just taking basic precautions on the internet like using PGP to encrypt your emails is a way of ensuring your privacy. You now can’t guarantee that you will have privacy in your communications from your government.

From your research on surveillance and the internet, is there anything you think avid users of social media should be aware of?

I would say that big companies like Facebook and Google are a spy’s wet dream. When I was in the intelligence agencies, if you had a target you thought was of interest or threat to national security, one of the jobs was to profile or investigate them. ‘Investigating’ meant bugging their phones, bugging their flats, following them around, perhaps even sending in an agent to report on them. And by that you found out who they were talking to, who their contacts were and potentially what they were trying to organise – be it political activism […], terrorism or radicalism. Now of course we all do it to ourselves by saying what we’re up to, who we’re talking to and who our friends are on Facebook.

There’s a wonderful talk I saw recently by a man called Professor Eben Moglen at an event called Re:publica (Berlin, 2012).By using all these cunning arguments about copyright, piracy, paedophilia, terrorism, organised crime … big companies and governments are trying to strip away those freedoms to put in place ways that everything can be monitored and information can be removed. So it could be our generation that gives away freedom of thought, because freedom of thought depends on free information and free media.

But the ethos of something like Wikileaks, for example, is that all information should be available and stored. It’s a sort of modern Alexandria library, through which people can realise the levers put on national governments by big corporations, so they can be informed citizens and make the right choice.


LEAP (http://www.leap.cc/) asks for support from students and is currently seeking a student platform from which to speak, represented by two former UK chief constables amongst other spokespersons. For more information on Annie’s campaigning, visit her website: www.anniemachon.ch

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