Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/212/8611
Inside Britain's Secret State: Interview with David Shayler
DAVID SHAYLER is a former MI5 agent who left its pay in 1997 saying that MI5 and MI6 had been involved in an attempted assassination of Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi in 1996.
After blowing the whistle, he endured involuntary exile in France for two years following a British government warrant for his arrest. At one stage he was imprisoned in France but later released. He returned to Britain in 1999 where he was again arrested then released on bail.
Recently, he spoke to Ken Smith and Molly Cooper about his battle against the British government's secret state.
AS WE left the bar where we interviewed David Shayler a young man shouts out: "Mr Shayler, let me shake your hand" and promptly gives a warm handshake saying he admires Shayler's courageous stand.
Amongst many people there is undoubtedly support for David Shayler's whistleblowing on MI5's sinister activities.
Yet, for some on the Left coming to terms with David Shayler has been quite a struggle precisely because he was an MI5 agent. Something he shyly complains about.
From a working-class background he was temporarily involved in left-wing politics during the 1980s and a member of the Labour Party for a time. He hates what Thatcher did to Britain and feels that Blair has gone further in many respects, at one stage calling Blair a "dictator".
His experience since 1997 has hardened his views, especially about MI5, which he now believes should be abolished. He seems determined to continue his expose of MI5 and outlines how his legal team hope to get Tony Blair and former MI5 head Stella Rimington to appear in court when his full trial starts, which is likely to be in November.
Introducing ourselves, we said that he probably knew more about us than we knew about him, which he found amusing.
He commented that he had seen Dave Nellist the previous night on Newsnight and said he would vote for him if he had lived in the area where Dave stood. A few weeks later, just before election day, he sent an email wishing the socialists and Socialist Alliance good luck.
Why join MI5?
DAVID SHAYLER admits he was involved in the Labour Party and flirted with left-wing groups while a student. Why then did he go into MI5 when he would have been aware of its notoriously shady and right-wing set-up?
"Some people say I was naive but people have a very skewed impression of MI5. A lot of the stuff you read in the papers is not true.
"I joined principally to work against terrorism. I felt that being inside an organisation like that you can actually see what they're doing and hope to reform it from within.
"After the miners' strike I became disillusioned about left-wing politics. I wanted to improve myself, I was editing my student union newspaper.
"After college I got a journalists' traineeship in 1989-90 at the Sunday Times.
"And the reason I became an MI5 officer was because I was an unemployed journalist at the time.
"When I was recruited they told me they didn't do [investigate] subversives anymore. When I got there I found myself in the counter-subversion section.
"I can put my hand on my heart and say that I never investigated subversives. Indeed, I did the opposite and closed down the study of the Communist Party of Britain and Class War. Most of the work I did was against terrorism."
The future of MI5
HOW THEN does he think that MI5, MI6 and the other wings of Britain's secret services should be dealt with?
"The reason I've done this is to point out the way that so-called accountability systems don't work. That it's all too easy for people in MI5 to lie, either by omission or by telling outright lies.
"The government cannot and does not know the truth of what goes on in MI5. It takes everything on trust. If MI5 had any real ability to balance the public's right to know and its right to maintain certain secrets it would have volunteered to give up documents dating from 1909 a long time ago.
"The first MI5 file ever made was in 1909 on Lenin. You could not say that a file on Lenin then cannot be divulged now, or damage 'national security'. Yet, MI5 say it will reveal their operational techniques.
"I think MI5 and the Official Secrets Act should be abolished. I think they should take the brighter people in MI5, Special Branch and the National Criminal Intelligence Service and put them in an organisation that is properly accountable."
Blair's police state
ALTHOUGH HE is not active in any political party David Shayler puts across views that are liberal or left-leaning. He is scathing of both Thatcher and Blair: "I think Margaret Thatcher ruined this country and we are now paying for that through under-investment, through our lack of basic rights, through our cocked-up parliamentary system, through too much power in the office of prime minister and so on.
"People no longer have access to a decent education to improve themselves. This was all a part of Britain moving towards becoming more like a police state, which has continued with Tony Blair.
"When I first went on the record, [about what MI5 and MI6 were up to] Blair was trying to push through Parliament, the new 'anti-terrorism' Act. If there was a freedom of information act in Britain then nobody would accept the Terrorism Act and other things Blair and Straw have pushed through.
"If the Gadaffi plot had occurred under Labour's new 'anti-terrorism' act then Blair would have been privy to information about a terrorist act and would be liable to prosecution. It is an offence under the Act not to report terrorism."
So how does David Shayler see this leaving the state of democracy in Britain today: "I was in central London on May Day and it was incredible how bad the police's behaviour was. There was rows and rows of police vans, horses everywhere, a helicopter over head. It was like being in a police state, all because a few businesses might have their shopfronts done in. It was a massive over-reaction.
"If you fail to investigate and oppose crimes committed by the state then that's the start of totalitarianism. I think that a lot of the restrictive laws that are in place now are not just there to be used against terrorism but against the trade unions also, anti-capitalist protesters and the Left in general.
Monitoring the Left
ONE OF of the main things we wanted to ask was what exactly did MI5 get up to when monitoring the Left: "The surveillance of the Left was absolutely enormous", he says.
"If you think that 'subversives' are trying to undermine the security of the country then it all makes sense. But I never accepted that initial proviso. With the exception of the Angry Brigade, so-called subversives in Britain were never people who took up arms. The Left were using democracy as it was intended, they had meetings, went on demonstrations, stood in elections, tried to recruit people using argument. Now these are all things that should be protected.
"When I arrived in MI5 and was sent to the counter-subversion section in 1992 they were still bugging Militant [the Socialist Party's forerunner] and Socialist Workers' Party HQs.
"Eventually the reason that they didn't continue large-scale telephone tapping [which he claims eventually stopped in 1996] is because it's too resource intensive. There's no lack of room to do it. MI5's automatic reaction is often to tap somebody's phone. We saw this in the case of Victoria Brittain, the Guardian journalist. They tapped her phone for a year in an operation that cost three-quarters of a million pounds to do absolutely nothing, where they didn't even follow procedure.
"As MI5 took over more Irish work [after the end of the Cold War] they had fewer and fewer English language transcribers to do the 'subversive' stuff. So they had this backlog of tapes and they destroyed them.
"So on the one hand they'd applied for a warrant saying these people are a threat to national security, then they have all this stuff about them and just destroy it. The arguments don't work one way or the other.
"The desk officer for Militant said once they had ceased being to be 'entryist' [ie, working in the Labour Party] there's no reason for surveying these people any more. Although their declared aims are to try and create a different form of democracy, they're not doing that by any form of underhand means. Therefore we should stop intercepting these phones.
"This went all the way up through management as everything does in MI5 and everybody agreed up until the Branch Director. Now, Branch Directors in MI5 are like feudal lords protecting their own little fiefdoms and he just said no. He said what I want you to do is take information bump it up and put up a case to government.
"Which she was forced to, because in MI5 you don't have a trade union to stand with you, management will always stand together.
"Telephone tapping is not as expensive as physical surveillance but it's very expensive nevertheless. So you have all this expense because the Branch Director wants to keep his own little fiefdom.
"In the 1980s, MI5 was obsessed with surveillance. Militant were a big part of that. Degsy [Derek] Hatton has got one of the biggest files in MI5.
"And during the miners' strike, agents were reporting on Scargill throughout the entire strike. This was to ensure the government always knew what the miners were doing. And if you knew what they were doing then that puts you in a position of power."
In The Socialist 29 June 2001: