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 regime. 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 Debacle

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…..