Boiling a Frog

Last Sunday George Bush gra­ciously flew into the UK for a final offi­cial visit before he steps down as pres­id­ent in Janu­ary next year. PM Gor­don Brown looked dis­tinctly uncom­fort­able at their joint press con­fer­ence, par­tic­u­larly when he had to announce that the UK would con­tinue to sup­port US mil­it­ary adven­tur­ism in the Middle East by send­ing yet more troops out there.

Of course, over the years many mil­lions of us opposed these illegal wars, but to no avail. This was the last oppor­tun­ity for peace pro­test­ers in the UK to vent their feel­ings towards Bush. The police respon­ded in an increas­ingly heavy-handed way, pen­ning the peacen­iks up, beat­ing inno­cent people around the head for no reason, and call­ing in the armoured riot police.

One friend of mine said that they were stand­ing there play­ing protest songs when sud­denly a wall of Rob­ocop lookalikes appeared and began to advance on them. My friend, a seasoned act­iv­ist, had never seen any­thing quite like it; even he was unnerved. Another decided to make a stand. Well, to be exact, he lay down at their feet, pro­tec­ted only by Solomon his trusty Peace Dog.

Des­pite all this, the police per­sisted in blam­ing the pro­test­ers. Deputy Assist­ant Com­mis­sioner Chris Allison announced that the Met would hold an enquiry and said: “We are ser­i­ously dis­ap­poin­ted by the irre­spons­ible and crim­inal action of those who have chal­lenged police….”

Allison then went on to make a state­ment that chilled my heart: he said that the protest could have been used as a “cover” for ter­ror­ists tar­get­ing George Bush.

So this is what it has come to. Many intel­li­gent com­ment­at­ors over recent years have said that politi­cians and police use the threat of ter­ror­ism to gain more and more dra­conian powers. Time and again we have seen inno­cent people stopped for no good reason under Sec­tion 44 of the Ter­ror­ism Act. Infam­ously, this Act was also used to throw 87 year old Wal­ter Wolfgang out of a Labour Party con­fer­ence for heck­ling Jack Straw. Police can even arrest you now purely to ascer­tain your identity.

But for a senior police­man to claim that viol­ence is accept­able against peace cam­paign­ers as they might be har­bour­ing ter­ror­ists is one step bey­ond. The tac­tics the US army has used so dis­astrously on the streets of Bagh­dad have now been impor­ted to the streets of Westminster.

I have been say­ing for a long time that the laws are already in place for the UK to be defined as effect­ively a police state. The only reason that this is not yet obvi­ous to all is because these laws are not applied more widely. But per­haps we are see­ing the first signs of this now.

Where will this end? The Ger­man people did not just wake up one day in 1939 and find that they lived under a fas­cist régime. The pro­cess was slow, and the erosion of demo­cracy incre­mental. The vast major­ity was not even aware of what was hap­pen­ing to their coun­try until it was too late.

They say that if you put a frog in cold water, and then gradu­ally heat up the pot, the frog can­not detect the change in tem­per­at­ure fast enough and will sit there boil­ing to death. This, I fear, is what is hap­pen­ing to our democracy.

 

Lost Document Débâcle

So another intel­li­gence offi­cial has mis­laid some highly clas­si­fied doc­u­ments — this time by leav­ing them lying on a com­muter train depart­ing Water­loo sta­tion. And while the Cab­inet office (his soon to be former employer?) is des­per­ately try­ing to down­play the sens­it­iv­ity of these doc­u­ments, let’s not be fooled. “Top Secret – Strap – Can/Aus/UK/US Eyes Only” is very high level clas­si­fic­a­tion indeed.

In this case, it appears that the offi­cial may not even have had per­mis­sion to remove these doc­u­ments in the first place. Cab­inet Min­is­ter, Ed Miliband, is quoted in the Daily Mail today as say­ing that there had been ‘a clear breach’ of rules for­bid­ding the removal of doc­u­ments without author­isa­tion. Then, hav­ing removed these doc­u­ments illeg­ally, the intel­li­gence offi­cial appears to have taken them out of the secur­ity briefcase and read them in pub­lic, before leav­ing them on the train.

One can only spec­u­late whether he was drunk, simply care­less, or whether this was a timid attempt to blow the whistle and draw the BBC’s atten­tion to yet fur­ther proof that the “war on ter­ror” is overhyped.

The secur­ity breach is not unusual. Over the years, drunken spies have mis­laid count­less doc­u­ments in pubs and on the jour­ney home. In 2000 an MI6 officer even left a laptop in a Vaux­hall bar. How­ever, the secret inform­a­tion usu­ally has a degree of low-level pro­tec­tion – the com­puter is encryp­ted or the doc­u­ments are locked in a secur­ity briefcase, not left lying around in an orange folder.

When I was work­ing for the spooks, the drink­ing cul­ture was endemic. Senior man­agers set the pace, with some going to the pub most days for lunch – one pub was fam­ously called Base Camp Two – sink­ing a few pints, and then doz­ing the after­noon away. Of course, the younger officers fol­lowed suit, reg­u­larly meet­ing after work for a drink and a moan. Often, they would have secur­ity briefcases with them to take away the next day for work, and it was a mir­acle that more doc­u­ments were not lost.

There is spec­u­la­tion in the media that the man will be dis­cip­lined. He has already been sus­pen­ded. But the media appears to be miss­ing a trick: this is also a breach of the Offi­cial Secrets Act 1989. In this case, Sec­tion 1(1) will apply:

A per­son who is or has been—

(a) a mem­ber of the secur­ity and intel­li­gence ser­vices; or

(b) a per­son noti­fied that he is sub­ject to the pro­vi­sions of this subsection,

is guilty of an offence if without law­ful author­ity he dis­closes any inform­a­tion, doc­u­ment or other art­icle relat­ing to secur­ity or intel­li­gence which is or has been in his pos­ses­sion by vir­tue of his pos­i­tion as a mem­ber of any of those ser­vices or in the course of his work while the noti­fic­a­tion is or was in force.”

So, if this offi­cial was drunk and care­less with the nation’s secrets, he deserves to face the music. The doc­u­ments were seen by a mem­ber of pub­lic and by BBC staff, so the “clear bright line” against dis­clos­ure that is always argued in whis­tleblower tri­als had already been breached.

If this was a cov­ert attempt a get­ting the inform­a­tion to the media, as happened, then this per­son is a whis­tleblower and deserves pro­tec­tion. The law makes no dis­tinc­tion based on intent, as the pub­lic interest defence was removed from the OSA in 1989 (des­pite the fact that Blair, Straw and most of the Labour gov­ern­ment past and present voted against this measure).

How­ever, such an action is clearly mor­ally dif­fer­ent from drunken care­less­ness, and if that was indeed his intent, he would have done bet­ter to have had the cour­age of his con­vic­tions and gone dir­ectly to the media. He would still not have had any defence under the OSA for his prin­cipled stance, but the impact and poten­tial for change would have been greater. Bet­ter to be hung for a sheep than a lamb.

The Media and the Spies

The UK main­stream media has made much this week of Home Sec­ret­ary Jac­qui Smith’s asser­tion that MI5 had not reques­ted the government’s pro­posed exten­sion of the impris­on­ment without charge of ter­ror­ist sus­pects from 28 to 42 days.

This state­ment has caused a furore in the UK, and there is a chance that the PM may lose the key vote in Par­lia­ment on this amend­ment tomorrow.

In fact, such has been the uproar that the Dir­ector Gen­eral of MI5, Jonathan Evans, is repor­ted by Reu­ters to have made a rare pub­lic statement:

Since the secur­ity ser­vice is neither a pro­sec­ut­ing author­ity nor respons­ible for crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions, we are not, and never have been, the appro­pri­ate body to advise the gov­ern­ment on pre-charge deten­tion time lim­its,” he said in a state­ment on the MI5 website.

We have not, there­fore, sought to com­ment pub­licly or privately on the cur­rent pro­pos­als, except to say that we recog­nise the chal­lenge posed for the police ser­vice by the increas­ingly com­plex and inter­na­tional char­ac­ter of some recent ter­ror­ist cases.”

What par­tic­u­larly strikes me about this is an appar­ently insig­ni­fic­ant phrase, “raised pub­licly or privately”.

In con­trast to the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Com­mis­sioner Sir Ian Blair, who admit­ted to “unin­ten­tion­ally mis­lead­ing” the par­lia­ment­ary Joint Com­mit­tee charged with assess­ing the need to increase the deten­tion limit, Evans had refused to give evid­ence about the 42 day issue. So he has cer­tainly not raised this in a pub­licly account­able way.

It’s the word “private” that intrigues me. It reeks of sotto voce dis­cus­sions between old school chums at the grander gentlemen’s clubs in Lon­don: of unat­trib­ut­able brief­ings between anonym­ous MI5 officers and chosen journ­al­ists; and of cosy lunches with Fleet Street edit­ors in the DG’s din­ing room at Thames House, MI5’s Lon­don HQ.

While Evans denies using this meth­od­o­logy around the 42 day issue, his state­ment con­firms that such private dis­cus­sions do indeed play a part in influ­en­cing policy decisions and media perception.

I saw this approach first-hand in the 1990s dur­ing the whis­tleblow­ing years. In fact, it was then that MI5 stepped up its charm offens­ive with politi­cians and journ­al­ists. It was dur­ing one of the first of these cosy media lunches in Thames House, hos­ted by the then DG Stephen Lander, that the respec­ted BBC Dip­lo­matic Editor Mark Urban asked a fate­ful ques­tion about the Gad­dafi Plot and was reportedly told by Lander that “he was not here to answer half-baked ques­tions from smart-arse journ­al­ists”. So there were cer­tain short­falls in the charm, even if the lack of account­ab­il­ity held up well.

But there are other, more sin­is­ter ways for the spies to manip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion. MI6 has a sens­it­ive sec­tion called Inform­a­tion Oper­a­tions (I/Ops), which exists purely to set the news agenda for the spies. I/Ops man­ages this either by mas­sa­ging the facts, spin­ning the tone of the story or, more wor­ry­ingly, plant­ing false stor­ies in a qui­es­cent press.

In the 1990s there was a fam­ous case. Col­onel Gaddafi’s son, Saif Al Islam, applied for a visa to come to Bri­tain. I/Ops planted a com­pletely false story in The Sunday Tele­graph that he was involved in money laun­der­ing with Iran and, lo and behold, MI5 had the per­fect excuse to deny him a visa. Al Islam sub­sequently sued the news­pa­per which, faced with Shayler’s evid­ence, settled out of court.

A few months ago the ex-head of MI6, Sir Richard Dear­love, gave a talk at the LSE about the intel­li­gence agen­cies and the media. I went along to have a laugh, and was gra­ciously allowed to ask a ques­tion. Nat­ur­ally I raised the issue of I/Ops, its rela­tion­ship with the media, and whether such a role was accept­able in a mod­ern democracy.

In the con­text of the talk, what could have been more per­tin­ent? How­ever, Dear­love declined to answer. In fact, he went so far as to say that such a mat­ter was “within the ring of secrecy”. At which point a journ­al­ist from a pres­ti­gi­ous national news­pa­per who was sit­ting next to me, turned and said glee­fully that this at last proved that I/Ops exis­ted. Grat­i­fy­ing as this was, I shall reit­er­ate my ques­tion: is the role of I/Ops accept­able in a mod­ern demo­cracy, where we are sup­posed to enjoy free­dom of inform­a­tion, trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity from the powers-that-be?

Spooks leave UK vulnerable to Russian mafia

Accord­ing to the Daily Mail this week, Rus­sian secur­ity expert, Andrei Sold­atov, reck­ons the UK is wide open to the threat of the Rus­sian mafia. He primar­ily blames the froid­eur that has blighted Anglo-Russian rela­tions since the Litv­inenko affair. How­ever, he also states that MI5 no longer has a role to play in invest­ig­at­ing organ­ised crime, and that has con­trib­uted to our vulnerability.

Nat­ur­ally res­ist­ing the tempta­tion to say that MI5’s involve­ment would not neces­sar­ily have afforded us any mean­ing­ful pro­tec­tion, I would say that this is down to a fun­da­mental prob­lem in how we organ­ise our response to threats to the national secur­ity of this country.

The secur­ity infra­struc­ture in the UK has evolved over the last cen­tury into a ter­ribly Brit­ish muddle. For his­toric reas­ons, we have a pleth­ora of intel­li­gence agen­cies, all com­pet­ing for fund­ing, power and prestige: MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), spe­cial branches in every other police force, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and HM Rev­enue and Cus­toms et al. Each is sup­posed to work with the other, but in real­ity they guard their ter­rit­ory and intel­li­gence jeal­ously. After all, know­ledge is power.

MI5 and MPSB have always been the lead intel­li­gence organ­isa­tions oper­at­ing within the UK. As such, their cov­ert rivalry has been pro­trac­ted and bit­ter, but to the out­side world they appeared to rub along while MI5 was primar­ily focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ical sub­ver­sion and the Met con­cen­trated on the IRA. How­ever, after the end of the Cold War, MI5 had to find new tar­gets or lose staff, status and resources.

In 1992 the then Home Sec­ret­ary, Ken Clarke, announced that MI5 was tak­ing over the lead respons­ib­il­ity for invest­ig­at­ing IRA activ­ity on the UK main­land — work that had been done by MPSB for over 100 years. Vic­tory was largely cred­ited to clever White­hall man­oeuv­er­ing on the part of the head of MI5, Stella Rim­ing­ton. The Met were furi­ous, and the trans­fer of records was frac­tious, to say the least.

Also, there was a year’s delay in the han­dover of respons­ib­il­ity. So MI5 arti­fi­cially main­tained the per­ceived threat levels posed by polit­ical sub­ver­sion in order to retain its staff until the trans­ition was com­plete. This meant that there was no real case for the aggress­ive invest­ig­a­tion of sub­vers­ive groups in the UK – which made all such oper­a­tions illegal. Staff in this sec­tion, includ­ing me, voci­fer­ously argued against this con­tin­ued sur­veil­lance, rightly stat­ing that such invest­ig­a­tions were thereby flag­rantly illegal, but the senior man­age­ment ignored us in the interests of pre­serving their empires.

How­ever, in the mid-1990s, when peace appeared to be break­ing out in North­ern Ire­land and bey­ond, MI5 had to scout around for more work to jus­tify its exist­ence. Hence, in 1996, the Home Sec­ret­ary agreed that they should play a role in tack­ling organ­ised crime – but only in a sup­port­ing role to MPSB. This was never a par­tic­u­larly pal­at­able answer for the spooks, so it is no sur­prise that they have sub­sequently dropped this area of work now that the threat from “Al Qaeda” has grown. Ter­ror­ism has always been per­ceived as higher status work. And of course this new threat has led to a slew of increased resources, powers and staff for MI5, not to men­tion the open­ing of eight regional headquar­ters out­side London.

But should we really be approach­ing a sub­ject as ser­i­ous as the pro­tec­tion of our national secur­ity in such a haphaz­ard way, based solely on the fact that we have these agen­cies in exist­ence, so let’s give them some work?

If we are really faced with such a ser­i­ous ter­ror­ist threat, would it not be smarter for our politi­cians to ask the basic ques­tions: what is the real­istic threat to our national secur­ity and the eco­nomic well­being of the state, and how can we best pro­tect ourselves from these threats? If the most effect­ive answer proves to be a new, ded­ic­ated counter-terrorism organ­isa­tion, so be it. We Brits love a sense of his­tory, but a new broom will often sweep clean.

 

IT Defense Conference, Hamburg January 2008

In Janu­ary 2008 I spoke at the IT Defense Con­fer­ence in Ham­burg in Janu­ary 2008.  This is a sum­mary of my talk.

The Spy­ing Game? – Annie Machon

I gave a present­a­tion about the role of intel­li­gence
agen­cies in the cur­rent era of the unend­ing “war on ter­ror”, how they
mon­itor us, and the implic­a­tions for our democracies.

In the name of pro­tect­ing national secur­ity, spy agen­cies are being
given sweep­ing new powers and resources. Their intel­li­gence has been
politi­cised to build a case for the dis­astrous war in Iraq, they are
fail­ing to stop ter­ror­ist attacks, and they con­tinue to col­lude in
illegal acts of intern­ment and tor­ture, euphemist­ic­ally called
“extraordin­ary rendi­tion”. Most west­ern demo­cra­cies have already given
so many new powers to the spies that we are effect­ively liv­ing in
police states. As an informed com­munity, what can we do about this?
t-style: nor­mal; font-variant: nor­mal; font-weight: nor­mal; font-size: 7pt; line-height: nor­mal; font-size-adjust: none; font-stretch: nor­mal;”> The illegal MI6
assas­sin­a­tion attempt against Col­onel Gad­dafi of Libya

International Islamic Fair, Malaysia 2007

In July 2007 I was invited to speak at the Inter­na­tional Islamic Fair in Malay­sia along with 9/11 hero Wil­liam Rodrig­uez.

The Fair is designed to increase under­stand­ing and co-operation between Islamic and non-Islamic com­munit­ies.  Politi­cians, dip­lo­mats and cam­paign­ers from around the world are invited to speak.  Thou­sands of people atten­ded the four day event, and the Fair made head­lines across the Far East.

Here is the photo gal­lery of the 2007 IIF Conference.

I was hon­oured to receive a stand­ing ova­tion, and com­ments included:

Former Brit­ish MI5 agent & Amer­ican depleted uranium expert among best received paper presenters”

and

“The IIF2007 Con­fer­ence ful­filled most of its pre-event prom­ises – as far as con­tent goes. In addi­tion to the pres­ence of Wil­liam Rodrig­uez (last sur­vivor of 9/11) as a ses­sion mod­er­ator, the con­fer­ence par­ti­cipants were also ‘thrilled’ by the lec­tures of other over­seas speak­ers includ­ing Sheikh Imran Hosein (former N.York mosque imam), H.E. Mahdi Ibrahim Muhammad (Ambas­sador / mem­ber of National Assembly, Sudan), Annie Machon (former Brit­ish Intel­li­gence MI5 agent) and Khaled Taha of Aljaz­eera, Qatar.”

Iran Threat — First the Spooks, now the Politicians

As I pos­ted on on 7 May, Israeli intel­li­gence is claim­ing it has new intel­li­gence that proves the recent US National Intel­li­gence Estim­ate wrong in its assess­ment of the nuc­lear threat posed by Iran.

Mossad claims to have solid intel­li­gence that proves Iran is still try­ing to develop a nuc­lear mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­ity. There have been recent high-level talks about this between the intel­li­gence agen­cies of the US, UK and Israel.

A report in The Guard­ian today now indic­ates that the politi­cians are fol­low­ing suit. Israeli Prime Min­is­ter, Ehud Olmert, is set to meet Pres­id­ent Bush today to dis­cuss the threat from Iran. It would not sur­prise me if the US soon announces that it has proof of Iran’s nuc­lear intent, and tries to push for another a “pre-emptive”, and highly illegal, attack.

Pay peanuts, get monkeys

So the spooks are yet again try­ing to recruit IT pro­fes­sion­als. MI6 is cur­rently advert­ising for a, quote, “world class enter­prise archi­tect”, but is offer­ing a salary sig­ni­fic­antly below the mar­ket rate. MI5 is con­stantly on the lookout for IT staff –as recent adverts in the press will attest.

My sense is that the agen­cies are still des­per­ately play­ing IT catch-up. In the 1990s, when I worked as an intel­li­gence officer, we were still writ­ing out everything longhand and get­ting our sec­ret­ar­ies to type it up – with all the attend­ant typos, revi­sions and delays. Inform­a­tion data­bases, such the sys­tem code­named Durbar, which held the ter­ror­ist records, could only be accessed via 1970s, beige, monitor-and-keyboard, all-in-one computers.

In the early 1990s MI5 did try to develop its own inform­a­tion man­age­ment sys­tem from scratch, rightly think­ing that buy­ing off-the-shelf from an Amer­ican mega­corp was prob­ably not good secur­ity. How­ever, MI5 man­age­ment still thought IT was a low pri­or­ity – des­pite the fact the effi­cient pro­cessing of inform­a­tion should have been the core work. So, the agency paid sig­ni­fic­antly below the mar­ket rates for IT pro­fes­sion­als, and pos­ted main­stream intel­li­gence officers, with no pro­ject man­age­ment exper­i­ence, to run the depart­ment for 2 year peri­ods. Need­less to say, moral was rock-bottom. The IT bods were unmo­tiv­ated, the IOs demor­al­ised at being pos­ted to a career grave­yard slot and the unwieldy sys­tem, code­named Grant, never got off the ground.

In the middle of the dec­ade MI5 in des­per­a­tion bought an off-the-shelf pack­age which was based on Win­dows 95. Even then officers had to fight to have access to a ter­minal to do their work. And, of course, Win­dows is not known as the most stable or secure sys­tem avail­able. I also heard recently that MI5 is still using this pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware, and thinks that it can pro­tect its inform­a­tion sys­tems by patch­ing up secur­ity prob­lems. It gives one such faith that MI5 can really pro­tect this coun­try from ter­ror­ist attack.

But this leads us onto a more ser­i­ous issue regard­ing our national sov­er­eignty. What the hell is our gov­ern­ment doing, shov­el­ling bil­lions of pounds every year over to US IT com­pan­ies to pay for licences that then per­mit our gov­ern­ment depart­ments to use their soft­ware pack­ages? And with the cur­rent con­cerns about ter­ror­ism and the sub­sequent datamin­ing activ­it­ies of a para­noid US admin­is­tra­tion, how can we be sure that the NSA is not sneak­ing a peek at the work of our secur­ity forces via back doors in this software?

So, to pro­tect our sov­er­eignty, as well as develop our know­ledge base and grow our eco­nomy, why does the UK gov­ern­ment not encour­age all gov­ern­ment agen­cies and depart­ments to switch from pro­pri­et­ary to open source soft­ware? After all, many other coun­tries around the world are already doing this for pre­cisely these reasons.

No doubt it’s that pesky “spe­cial rela­tion­ship” kick­ing in again.….