RSC Play about the Shayler Case

In Lon­don in 2001 the Royal Shakespeare Com­pany per­formed a play called “Epi­taph for the Offi­cial Secrets Act” by Paul Green­grass (who co-wrote the notori­ous book “Spycatcher”).  The play focused on the polit­ical issues around whis­tleblow­ing and the Shayler case.

It was an excel­lent play, with an intel­li­gent ana­lysis of the cur­rent mess that is secrecy legis­la­tion in the UK, but it was rather strange to see act­ors using words your own words on stage.

The fol­low­ing report appeared in “The Observer”:

Shayler is a model spy for MI5 play

by Vanessa Thorpe, Arts Cor­res­pond­ent, 2001

Henry V, Macbeth and Ham­let, the great
Shakespearean prot­ag­on­ists who strut before audi­ences at
Stratford-upon-Avon, are to be joined tomor­row by a new name, the
former MI5 reneg­ade, David Shayler.

A new play by Paul Green­grass, the screen­writer respons­ible for ITV’s
upcom­ing film about Bloody Sunday and for the award-winning tele­vi­sion
dram­at­isa­tion of The Murder of Stephen Lawrence , is to be premiered
tomor­row night by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Epi­taph
for the Offi­cial Secrets Act will also fea­ture Shayler’s girl­friend,
Annie Machon, and the MI5’s first woman dir­ector, Stella Rim­ing­ton. ‘It
is a play about the year that MI5 first decided to recruit a new sort
of agent,’ explained Simon Reade, the RSC’s dram­at­urge, refer­ring to
1991, when the secret ser­vice briefly turned away from their
estab­lished Oxbridge source of gradu­ates and advert­ised for applic­ants
from the wider population.

The play starts with a
read­ing of the advert­ise­ment that news­pa­pers ran at the time,’ said
Reade, who developed the piece with Green­grass for its six-night run.
’The ad showed an empty chair under the words “Godot isn’t com­ing”.‘
The play then deals with some of the changes that fol­lowed as Rim­ing­ton
took con­trol of an organ­isa­tion that was fight­ing to redefine itself.

Machon and Shayler, both from the gradu­ate intake that was then new, are iden­ti­fied only by their first names.

News of their the­at­rical debut came as a shock to Shayler and Machon,
who are in Lon­don await­ing Shayler’s trial on charges of breach­ing the
Offi­cial Secrets Act. Machon said: ‘It is rather alarm­ing to find that
we are both going to played by actors.’


BBC Radio Bristol Interview

A recent inter­view on BBC Radio Bris­tol to pub­li­cise the screen­ing of an award-winning new doc­u­ment­ary called “The Ele­phant in the Room”, made by tal­en­ted dir­ector Dean Puck­ett.

I had the chance to explore the mech­an­isms by which the UK media is con­trolled by the spies and the gov­ern­ment, includ­ing the sec­tion in MI6 called I/Ops, which plants false stor­ies in the media to the bene­fit of MI5 and MI6.

August 2007 Mail on Sunday Article

David Shayler’s former part­ner reveals: How the bul­ly­ing State crushed him
By ANNIE MACHON

Link to daily mail ori­ginal — link to Daily Mail com­ments

Ten years ago this month former MI5 officer David Shayler made shock­ing rev­el­a­tions in this news­pa­per about how Britain’s spies were unable to deal with the grow­ing threat of global terrorism.

He dis­closed how MI5’s pecu­liar obses­sion with bur­eau­cracy and secrecy pre­ven­ted cru­cial inform­a­tion being used to stop bomb­ings. And he told how insuf­fi­cient agents and inept decision-making meant that ter­ror­ist groups were not prop­erly monitored.

None of his ori­ginal dis­clos­ures was shown to be wrong. Indeed, in 2005 the bomb­ings in Lon­don proved the whis­tleblower cor­rect: MI5 was not equipped to counter ter­ror on our streets.

The Gov­ern­ment response to David’s dis­clos­ures was to place a gag­ging order on The Mail on Sunday and launch a six-year cam­paign to dis­credit and per­se­cute Shayler. Alastair Camp­bell threatened to ‘send in the heav­ies’ and the whis­tleblower was forced into exile abroad, jailed twice and sued for dam­ages; his friends and fam­ily were har­assed and some arrested.

He faced a bleak, uncer­tain future and for many years he was under intense stress and pres­sure, often isol­ated and always under sur­veil­lance. I had a ring­side seat for the ‘Get Shayler’ oper­a­tion because I was an MI5 officer at the same time (1991−96) and also his girl­friend and co-campaigner until last year when I ended my rela­tion­ship with a broken man.

I wit­nessed first-hand the extraordin­ary psy­cho­lo­gical, phys­ical and emo­tional bur­den of being a whis­tleblower when the full power of the secret State is launched against you. A dec­ade on the res­ults of that per­ni­cious cam­paign became clear when I heard that David had pro­claimed him­self as “The Mes­siah” and “God” and could pre­dict the weather. I was saddened but not shocked. The story of David Shayler is not just one of a whis­tleblower but also an indict­ment of the lack of demo­cracy and account­ab­il­ity in Britain.

I first met David when we were both work­ing in F2, the counter-subversion sec­tion of MI5, where we were repeatedly reas­sured that MI5 had to work within the law. We were young and keen to help pro­tect our coun­try. I noticed David imme­di­ately, as he was very bright, and always asked the dif­fi­cult ques­tions. Over a period of a year we became friends, and then we fell in love.

In the run-up to the 1992 Gen­eral Elec­tion we were involved in assess­ing any par­lia­ment­ary can­did­ate and poten­tial MP. This meant that they all had their names cross-referenced with MI5’s data­base. If any can­did­ates had a file, this was reviewed. We saw files on most of the top politi­cians of the past dec­ade, from Tony Blair down, some­thing that gave us concerns.

We then both moved to G Branch, the inter­na­tional counter-terrorist divi­sion, with David head­ing the Libyan sec­tion. It was here that he wit­nessed a cata­logue of errors and crimes: the illegal phone-tapping of a prom­in­ent Guard­ian journ­al­ist, the fail­ure of MI5 to pre­vent the bomb­ing of the Israeli embassy in Lon­don in July 1994, which res­ul­ted in the wrong­ful con­vic­tion of two inno­cent Palestini­ans, and the attemp­ted assas­sin­a­tion of Col­onel Gad­dafi of Libya.

David raised this with his bosses at the time but they showed no interest. So we resigned from MI5 after decid­ing to go pub­lic to force an inquiry into the Gad­dafi plot.

After The Mail on Sunday rev­el­a­tions we decamped to France while David tried to get the Gov­ern­ment to take his evid­ence and invest­ig­ate MI5’s crimes, some­thing, to this day, it has refused to do. Rather than address­ing the prob­lem, the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices tried to shoot the mes­sen­ger. They planted stor­ies claim­ing David was a fan­tas­ist, over­looked for pro­mo­tion, and was too junior to know what he was talk­ing about. These are clas­sic tac­tics used against whis­tleblowers and were wheeled out again when Dr David Kelly took his life.

We even­tu­ally returned home in 2000, by which time David felt isol­ated and angry. He began to dis­trust friends and thought that many of them might be report­ing on him. He was con­vinced he was con­stantly fol­lowed and began to take pho­to­graphs of people in the street. When the trial star­ted, and with David effect­ively gagged, the jury had no choice but to convict.

He received a six-month sen­tence but the judg­ment exon­er­ated him of pla­cing agents’ lives at risk, con­ced­ing that he had spoken out in what he thought to be the pub­lic interest. David had blown the whistle with the best of motives. He had exposed hein­ous State crimes up to and includ­ing murder, yet he was the one in prison with his repu­ta­tion in tat­ters. His release from jail saw a changed man. David was full of anger, frus­tra­tion and bit­ter­ness and became depressed and with­drawn. He was drawn to the spir­itual teach­ings of kab­ba­lah, and became obsessed with the sub­ject instead of focus­ing on what we should do to sur­vive. Last sum­mer, I went away for a week­end. When I returned, David had shaved off all his hair and his eye­brows as part of his spir­itual evol­u­tion. He knew that I had always loved his long, thick hair, so it felt like a per­sonal slap in the face. He was in trouble. He was quick to anger if any­one ques­tioned him. He became obsess­ive about little details, espoused wacky the­or­ies and shunned his fam­ily and old friends. His para­noia also escal­ated. His exper­i­ence of being houn­ded and vil­i­fied for a dec­ade had left a deep per­se­cu­tion com­plex. Even­tu­ally the strain was too much and I ended the relationship.

It was dif­fi­cult as we had shared so much over the 14 years we had been together, but it felt that we were no longer a team – David was focus­ing only on eso­teric issues. Look­ing back, I am still proud of what we did. I believe that if you wit­ness the crimes that we did, you have to take action. But the price for tak­ing that stand against a bully State can be high. It is tra­gic to see an hon­our­able and brave man crushed in this way. The Brit­ish Estab­lish­ment is ruth­less in pro­tect­ing its own interests rather than those of our coun­try. Today David Shayler is liv­ing testi­mony to that.

Resonance FM Interview

This is an inter­view I recor­ded for Res­on­ance FM with We Are Change UK, a rapidly-growing  act­iv­ist group in the USA and Europe, in which I get the chance to dis­cuss the spies, their crimes, cover-ups, the media, the war on ter­ror and the erosion of our freedoms, amongst many other issues:

Down­load We_Are_Change_Interview.mp3 (25.4M)

Gareth Peirce talks to Moazzam Begg

An inter­view between Guantanamo detainee, Moazzam Begg, and human rights law­yer Gareth Peirce.

I have writ­ten before about the appalling treat­ment of people like Moazzam, who are kid­napped, tor­tured, and held illeg­ally without charge in America’s secret prison camps and Gitmo. Here he has the chance to inter­view Gareth about this and the wider implications:

 

Gareth Peirce has worked indefatig­ably over many years to defend vic­tims of mis­car­riages of justice in the UK courts and bey­ond. The roll call of those she has helped, not just leg­ally but also with emo­tional sup­port and a gentle and humane approach, includes: the Guild­ford Four, the Birm­ing­ham Six, Samar Alami and Jawed Bot­meh (the Israeli Embassy Two), David Shayler, the Bel­marsh internees, Judith Ward, the fam­ily of Jean Charles de Menezes, and now the Guantanamo victims.

Gareth is a true hero of our times.

Cynthia McKinney and Annie Machon in Amsterdam, 2007

After the Lon­don event in 2007, Cyn­thia McKin­ney and I flew over to Ams­ter­dam for an inter­view at a big pub­lic event organ­ised by new media organ­isa­tion, Docs at the Docks.

Introducing Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in London, 2007

Former US Con­gress­wo­man and cur­rent Pres­id­en­tial Green Party can­did­ate, Cyn­thia McKin­ney, vis­ited Lon­don in Septem­ber 2007.  I had the priv­ilege of intro­du­cing her at the Lon­don event.

 

Poor Bloody Infantry

There is an ongo­ing cam­paign to save Bletch­ley Park for the nation, in the teeth of gov­ern­ment oppos­i­tion. As his­toric Brit­ish monu­ments go, the ques­tion of whether to pre­serve it for pos­ter­ity should be a no-brainer. Bletch­ley is not only where Hitler’s Enigma code machine was decryp­ted, along with many other sys­tems, which argu­ably gave the Allies the intel­li­gence advant­age that led to vic­tory in World War 2, it is also where the first digital elec­tronic com­puters, code­named Colos­sus, were oper­ated. Two land­mark events of the 20th century.

Recently The Times repor­ted on this cam­paign. The art­icle also the dwells at some length on how long Bletchley’s secrets were kept by the 10,000 people who worked there dur­ing the war. Although this inform­a­tion was declas­si­fied after 30 years, the habit of secrecy was so deeply ingrained that many former employ­ees never breathed a word. The art­icle laments the passing of this habit of dis­cre­tion from Brit­ish life, stat­ing that politi­cians and senior intel­li­gence officers now appear to view the pos­ses­sion of insider know­ledge as a good pen­sion fund when they come to write their memoirs.

Over the last dec­ade we have see a myriad of books emer­ging for the upper ech­el­ons of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence in the UK: Alastair Camp­bell, Robin Cook, Wash­ing­ton Ambas­sador Sir Chris­topher Meyer, ex-MI5 chief Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton. Even Tony Blair has appar­ently signed a seven fig­ure deal for his memoirs.

All these books have a num­ber of char­ac­ter­ist­ics in com­mon: they are lengthy, but say little of rel­ev­ance about the burn­ing issues of the day; they appear to have been writ­ten for profit and not in the pub­lic interest; and not one of these writers has ever even been arres­ted under the Offi­cial Secrets Act, even when there is clear prima facie evid­ence of a breach.

Yet these dili­gent authors are the very people who are the first to use the OSA to stifle legit­im­ate dis­clos­ure of crime, cor­rup­tion and incom­pet­ence in the highest levels of gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence by real whis­tleblowers, who risk their careers and their free­dom. The hypo­crisy is breathtaking.

But was the old-fashioned, blanket dis­cre­tion, vaunted by The Times, really such a good thing? The code of “loose talk costs lives” may have made sense dur­ing the Second World War, when this nation was fight­ing for its life. The work at Bletch­ley was mani­festly a suc­cess, obvi­at­ing any need to blow the whistle. But who can tell how these pat­ri­otic men and women would have reacted had they wit­nessed crimes or incom­pet­ence that dam­aged our nation’s secur­ity, led to the deaths of our sol­diers, or even pos­sible defeat?

Also, was the 30-year non-disclosure rule around the work of Bletch­ley really neces­sary? After all, the war had been won, so how could dis­clos­ure bene­fit the enemy? This unthink­ing applic­a­tion of the stand­ard rules cost the UK dearly. In fact, it would be accur­ate to say that it severely dam­aged the UK’s eco­nomic well­being – some­thing the OSA is sup­posed to protect.

In 1943 the Brit­ish were the world lead­ers in digital elec­tronic com­put­ing. The dra­conian Offi­cial Secrets Act pre­cluded the devel­op­ment and com­mer­cial use of this know­ledge in Bri­tain after the war. In fact, mind­bog­glingly, the Colos­sus com­puters were dis­mantled and the research destroyed.

There were no sim­ilar pro­vi­sions affect­ing the Amer­ican cryp­to­graph­ers who had been sta­tioned at Bletch­ley. Con­sequently, after the war they enthu­si­ast­ic­ally applied Brit­ish research and tech­no­logy to develop the US com­puter research pro­gramme and even­tu­ally the mar­ket, pav­ing the way to the suc­cess of Sil­icon Val­ley and the dom­in­a­tion of the world’s IT mar­kets for dec­ades. What price the famed Brit­ish stiff upper lip and dis­cre­tion then?

Of course, there need to be legal pro­vi­sions to pro­tect real secrets that could affect Britain’s national secur­ity. How­ever, this should be pro­por­tion­ate and bal­anced, and should not pre­vent the devel­op­ment of new research and tech­no­lo­gies, the expos­ure in the pub­lic interest of crime, and cer­tainly not the fact our coun­try was taken into war on the basis of lies.

Real­ist­ic­ally, how­ever, in the age of the inter­net such legal pro­vi­sions are increas­ingly mean­ing­less. Des­pite this, more and more coun­tries appear to be adopt­ing Britain’s model of anti­quated and dra­conian secrecy legislation.

We live in a coun­try that crim­in­al­ises any dis­clos­ure of sens­it­ive inform­a­tion – unless it comes in the form of mem­oirs from senior politi­cians, White­hall offi­cials or spooks of course. As always, there is one rule for the gen­er­als and one for the poor bloody infantry.

For the good of our coun­try, we need to rethink this legislation.

Save Our Free Speech

The Guard­ian today repor­ted that the United Nations Com­mit­tee on Human Rights had issued a damning indict­ment of the Brit­ish government’s use of legis­la­tion to sup­press a right that is fun­da­mental to all func­tion­ing demo­cra­cies: free­dom of expression.

This is not news to me. But it’s inter­est­ing that free­dom of expres­sion is now being cur­tailed in so many var­ied, inter­est­ing and ima­gin­at­ive ways: libel laws, ter­ror­ism laws and offi­cial secrecy. That’s quite an arsenal.

Bri­tain is now infam­ous for being the “libel cap­ital” of the world. Wealthy indi­vidu­als can use our courts to sup­press pub­lic­a­tion of crit­ical books and art­icles any­where in the world, if they can prove that the book has been sold in the UK – even if it’s just one, second-hand copy on Amazon. The magazine, Private Eye, has been com­ment­ing on this extens­ively over the last year.

Then, under the slew of new counter-terrorism legis­la­tion that the Labour gov­ern­ment has intro­duced since 2001, it is now an offence to say any­thing that might “encour­age” ter­ror­ism. That defin­i­tion is so broad that, say, you or I made an inno­cent com­ment about the Palestinian or Iraqi situ­ation, and this could be mis­con­strued by another per­son as encour­aging them to viol­ence, this could be assessed sub­ject­ively as a crim­inal offence by the pro­sec­ut­ing author­it­ies. This is third party thought-crime.

These sort of laws have a neg­at­ive impact on free speech, as pub­lish­ers, edit­ors and journ­al­ists begin to self-censor rather than run informed risks for the pub­lic good.

But it’s the third area of law that res­on­ates most with me, for obvi­ous reas­ons: the 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act, which crim­in­al­ises any unau­thor­ised dis­clos­ure by serving or former intel­li­gence officers, noti­fied per­sons, and other crown ser­vants and offi­cials. These people are the most likely to wit­ness high crimes and mis­de­mean­ors on the part of gov­ern­ment, police and the intel­li­gence ser­vices, and yet they are the most crim­in­al­ised in this coun­try for speak­ing out. Whis­tleblowers in other areas of work are spe­cific­ally pro­tec­ted by the law under the Pub­lic Interest Dis­clos­ure Act (1998).

How did this hap­pen? Ever since the 1911 Offi­cial Secrets Act came into force, there has been legis­la­tion to pro­tect this nation’s genu­ine secrets against the actions of trait­ors. Under this law, crown ser­vants face 14 years in prison if they betray inform­a­tion to hos­tile powers. Of course we need to pro­tect genu­ine secrets, and this is cer­tainly safe­guard enough.

The change in this law was spe­cific­ally designed to gag genu­ine whis­tleblowers in sens­it­ive areas, not pro­tect national secur­ity. This came about in the 1980s after the notori­ous failed pro­sec­u­tion of Min­istry of Defense civil ser­vant, Clive Pont­ing. In 1984 he blew the whistle on the fact the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment knew that the Argen­tinian war­ship, the Gen­eral Bel­grano, was sail­ing away from the exclu­sion zone dur­ing the Falk­lands War in 1982. Des­pite this, the order was still given to attack it, and many were killed. Pont­ing was rightly out­raged by this, and went pub­lic. His actions were mani­festly in the pub­lic interest, and this was pre­cisely the suc­cess­ful defense he ran in court. Furi­ous, the Con­ser­vat­ive gov­ern­ment of the time re-wrote the secrecy laws, remov­ing the pub­lic interest defense to deter such prin­cipled whis­tleblowers in the future. And this is the cur­rent Offi­cial Secrets Act cri­ti­cised so strongly by the UN.

Inter­est­ingly, at the time the Labour party strongly opposed this change, rightly think­ing that this would cur­tail cru­cial inform­a­tion reach­ing the pub­lic domain. At this point, of course, many of them cor­rectly sus­pec­ted that they were on the receiv­ing end of illegal invest­ig­a­tions by MI5.

The roll call of Labour MPs who voted against the pro­posed Act as it passed through Par­lia­ment in 1988 includes such luminar­ies as Tony Blair, Jack Straw and the former Attor­ney Gen­eral John Mor­ris. All these people went on to use the 1989 OSA to threaten and pro­sec­ute the intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers of the last decade.

The blanket ban on free­dom of expres­sion for intel­li­gence per­son­nel appears to be illegal under the terms of the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights. Sure, Art­icle 10(2) does give nations the lim­ited right to cur­tail free­dom of expres­sion in a pro­por­tion­ate way to pro­tect national secur­ity. How­ever, the term “national secur­ity” has never been defined for legal pur­poses in this coun­try and is used as a catch-all phrase to pre­vent dis­clos­ure of any­thing embar­rass­ing to the gov­ern­ment and the intel­li­gence agen­cies. Plus, dur­ing these cases, law­yers and judges have con­sist­ently con­fused the notion of the national interest with national secur­ity – two very dif­fer­ent beasts. And free­dom of expres­sion can­not be leg­ally cur­tailed under the Con­ven­tion merely for reas­ons of “the national interest”.

So I was heartened to read the UN’s ver­dict on this legal mess: “Powers under the Offi­cial Secrets Act have been “exer­cised to frus­trate former employ­ees of the crown from bring­ing into the pub­lic domain issues of genu­ine pub­lic interest, and can be exer­cised to pre­vent the media from pub­lish­ing such matters”.”

Let’s hope this leads to the rein­state­ment of the pub­lic interest defence at the very least. Dur­ing this time of the unend­ing “war on ter­ror”, gov­ern­ments lying to take us into illegal wars, and the use of tor­ture and intern­ment, whis­tleblowers play an import­ant role in uphold­ing and defend­ing our demo­cratic val­ues. We need to pro­tect them, not pro­sec­ute them.

The Rise of the Mercenary

Stephen Arm­strong pub­lished an inter­est­ing art­icle in today’s New States­man magazine. Based on his new book War plc: the Rise of the New Cor­por­ate Mer­cen­ary, it exam­ines the rise of the cor­por­ate secur­ity con­sult­ant. Or in basic Eng­lish – mercenaries.

I met Stephen when I was invited by James Whale to review the book on Press TV. I was impressed with his research and depth of know­ledge on this sub­ject. It was an unusu­ally har­mo­ni­ous talk show — rather than arguing, we all took a broadly sim­ilar approach to the issue of mer­cen­ar­ies, over­sight and accountability.

The increas­ing privat­isa­tion of intel­li­gence is an insi­di­ous devel­op­ment in the world of espi­on­age and war. For many dec­ades there have exis­ted on the fringes of the offi­cial intel­li­gence world a few private secur­ity com­pan­ies; think Kroll, Black­wa­ter, Aegis. These com­pan­ies are often the last refuge of .….. former intel­li­gence officers of the west­ern spook organisations.

These people, often frus­trated at the overly bur­eau­cratic nature of the gov­ern­mental spy organ­isa­tions, resign and are gently steered towards these cor­por­a­tions. That, or the relo­ca­tion officers get them nice juicy jobs at mer­chant banks, arms com­pan­ies or inter­na­tional quan­gos. It’s always use­ful to have reli­able chaps in use­ful places, after all.

In the last dec­ade, how­ever, we have seen an explo­sion in the num­ber of these com­pan­ies. One of my former col­leagues is a founder of Dili­gence, which is going from strength to strength. These kinds of com­pan­ies spe­cial­ise in cor­por­ate spy­ing, the neut­ral­isa­tion of oppos­i­tion and protest groups, and secur­ity. The lat­ter usu­ally boils down to provid­ing mil­it­ary muscle in hot spots like Iraq. While I can see the attrac­tion for sol­diers leav­ing crack regi­ments and won­der­ing what on earth they can do with their spe­cial­ised expert­ise, and who then decide that earn­ing £10,000 a week risk­ing their lives in Bagh­dad is a good bet, this has wor­ry­ing implic­a­tions for the rule of law.

Leav­ing aside the small mat­ter that, under inter­na­tional and domestic UK law, all wars of aggres­sion are illegal, our offi­cial Brit­ish mil­it­ary pres­ence in Afgh­anistan and Iraq is at least to a cer­tain degree account­able. The most egre­gious war crimes have res­ul­ted in court mar­tials. But the new mer­cen­ar­ies live in a legal no-man’s land, and in this ter­rit­ory any­thing goes. Or can at least be covered up.

This is the same prin­ciple that has guided these unof­fi­cial spook com­pan­ies over the years – plaus­ible deni­ab­il­ity. What little demo­cratic over­sight there is in the UK of the intel­li­gence com­munity still does give them lim­ited pause for thought: what if the media hears about it? What if an MP asks an awk­ward ques­tion? By using former col­leagues in the cor­por­ate intel­li­gence world, MI5, MI6 et al can out source the risk.

The over­sight and account­ab­il­ity for the offi­cial spooks and the army are bad enough. The privat­isa­tion of intel­li­gence and mil­it­ary might makes a fur­ther mock­ery of the feeble over­sight pro­vi­sions in place in this coun­try. This is a wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment in legal and demo­cratic terms; more import­antly, it has a dir­ect, daily impact on the rights of inno­cent men, women and chil­dren around the world. We need to ensure that the offi­cial and unof­fi­cial spooks and mil­it­ary are account­able under the law.

New Statesman Article, August 2008

The new spies

Stephen Arm­strong

When
the Cold War ended, it didn’t spell cur­tains for the secret agent.
Private espi­on­age is a boom­ing industry and envir­on­mental protest
groups are its prime tar­get

                  


 

As you hunker down for the last few days of the Camp for Cli­mate
Action, dis­cuss­ing how to force your way into King­s­north power sta­tion
in an attempt to pre­vent the con­struc­tion of a new coal facil­ity, cast
your eyes around your fel­low pro­test­ers. Do they look entirely bona
fide to you? And don’t look for the old-school spe­cial branch officers
– Kent Police are a tiny force. It’s the cor­por­ate spies hired by
private com­pan­ies you need to watch out for.

Accord­ing to the private espi­on­age industry itself, roughly one in four of your com­rades is on a multinational’s payroll.

Rus­sell Corn, man­aging dir­ector of Dili­gence, one of a grow­ing
num­ber of “cor­por­ate intel­li­gence agen­cies”, with offices high in the
Canary Wharf glass tower, says private spies make up 25 per cent of
every act­iv­ist camp. “If you stuck an inter­cept up near one of those
camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of out­go­ing calls after every
meet­ing say­ing, ‘Tomor­row we’re going to cut the fence’,” he smiles.
“Eas­ily one in four of the people there are tak­ing the cor­por­ate
shilling.”

In April this year, for instance, the anti-aviation cam­paign net­work
Plane Stu­pid, one of the main organ­isers of the eco-camp built to
protest against the expan­sion of Heath­row Air­port, announced that one
of its act­iv­ists, Ken Tobias, was actu­ally called Toby Kend­all, was
work­ing for a cor­por­ate espi­on­age firm called C2i, and had been leak­ing
inform­a­tion about the group to pay­ing cli­ents and the media. He had
been hired by an as yet unknown private com­pany to provide inform­a­tion
and dis­rupt the group’s campaigning.

When Tobias first turned up at Plane Stupid’s meet­ings in July 2007,
he seemed a com­mit­ted former Oxford stu­dent ded­ic­ated to redu­cing
air­craft emis­sions. The group gradu­ally became sus­pi­cious because he
showed up early at meet­ings, con­stantly pushed for increas­ingly drama
tic dir­ect action and — the ulti­mate giveaway — dressed a little too
well for an eco­w­ar­rior. When they showed his pic­ture around Oxford they
found an old col­lege pal who iden­ti­fied him as Toby Kend­all. A quick
Google search revealed his Bebo page with a link to a cor­por­ate
net­work­ing site, where his job as an “ana­lyst” at C2i Inter­na­tional,
work­ing in “secur­ity and invest­ig­a­tions”, was pas­ted in full pub­lic
view.

Just a month earlier, a woman called Cara Schaf­fer had con­tac­ted the
Student/Farmworker Alli­ance, an ideal­istic bunch of Amer­ican col­lege
stu­dents who lobby fast-food com­pan­ies to help migrant work­ers in
Flor­ida who har­vest toma­toes. Like the cockle-pickers of More­cambe Bay,
many of these work­ers are smuggled into the US by gangs which then take
their pass­ports and force them to work without pay to clear often
fic­ti­tious debts to regain their papers.

Dig­ging up dirt

Again, Schaffer’s excess­ive eager­ness aroused sus­pi­cion, and again,
the inter­net revealed her true iden­tity. She owned Dip­lo­matic Tac­tical
Ser­vices, a private espi­on­age firm which had pre viously hired as a
sub­con­tractor one Guillermo Zara bozo, today facing murder charges in
Miami for his role in allegedly execut­ing four crew mem­bers of a
chartered fish­ing boat, an alleg­a­tion he denies. Schaf­fer turned out to
be work­ing for Bur­ger King — the home, per­haps appro­pri­ately, of the
Whopper.

The cute thing about these two bozos is that they got caught pretty
early on, but that was because they were young and had no back­ground in
espionage.

The real mar­ket is in proper, old-school spies who are sud­denly
enter­ing the private sec­tor. For pro­fes­sional spooks, the 1990s were no
fun at all. The Cold War was over, defence spend­ing was down and a
detailed know­ledge of cold-drop tech­niques in cent­ral Ber­lin was
use­less to gov­ern­ments look­ing for Arabic speak­ers who knew the Quran.

From New York and Lon­don to Moscow and Beijing, any decent-sized
cor­por­a­tion can now hire former agents from the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6 and
the KGB. The ex-spooks are selling their old skills and con­tacts to
mul­tina­tion­als, hedge funds and olig­archs, dig­ging up dirt on
com­pet­it­ors, uncov­er­ing the secrets of board­room rivals and expos­ing
invest­ment tar­gets. They are also keep­ing tabs on journ­al­ists,
pro­test­ers and even poten­tial employees.

MI5 and MI6 in par­tic­u­lar have always guided ex-employees into
secur­ity com­pan­ies,” explains Annie Machon, the former MI5 agent who
helped David Shayler blow the whistle on the secur­ity ser­vices back in
1997. “It’s always use­ful to them to have friends they can tap for info
or recruit for a job that requires plaus­ible deni­ab­il­ity. The big
change in recent years has been the huge growth in these com­pan­ies.
Where before it was a hand­ful of private detect­ive agen­cies, now there
are hun­dreds of mul­tina­tional secur­ity organ­isa­tions, which oper­ate
with less reg­u­la­tion than the spooks them­selves,” she says.

Corn’s com­pany Dili­gence, for instance, was set up in 2000 by Nick
Day, a former MI5 spy, and an ex-CIA agent, Mike Baker. Before long,
the duo had built up a roster of high-paying cli­ents includ­ing Enron,
oil and phar­ma­ceut­ical com­pan­ies, as well as law firms and hedge funds.
In 2001, a small invest­ment by the Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ing com­pany Bar­bour
Grif­fith & Rogers pro­pelled their growth. How­ever, BGR and Baker
sold their stakes in 2005, shortly before a scan­dal shook Dili­gence.
KPMG, the global pro­fes­sional ser­vices firm, accused Dili­gence staff of
imper­son­at­ing Brit­ish spies to gain inform­a­tion on a cor­por­ate takeover
for a Rus­sian tele­coms cli­ent called Alfa Group. Dili­gence settled the
law­suit without admit­ting liability.

Since then, it has recruited the former Con­ser­vat­ive Party leader
Michael Howard as chair­man of its European oper­a­tions. And it is that
sort of respect­ab­il­ity and lob­by­ing power that big play­ers are after.
In 2007, the par­ent com­pany of the US private mil­it­ary firm Black­wa­ter,
which hit the head­lines for gun­ning down Iraqi civil­ians in Bagh­dad
last Septem­ber, entered this mar­ket through Total Intel­li­gence
Solu­tions (TIS), a new CIA-type private oper­a­tion, to provide
intel­li­gence ser­vices to com­mer­cial clients.

Dis­creet investigations

Blackwater’s vice-chairman, J Cofer Black, who runs TIS, spent three
dec­ades in the CIA and the state depart­ment, becom­ing dir­ector of the
Coun­terter­ror­ist Centre and co-ordinator for counter ter­ror­ism, a job
with ambas­sad­orial rank. He describes the new com­pany as bring­ing “the
intelligence-gathering meth­od­o­logy and ana­lyt­ical skills tra­di­tion­ally
honed by CIA oper­at­ives dir­ectly to the board­room. With a ser­vice like
this, CEOs and their secur­ity per­son­nel will be able to respond to
threats quickly and con­fid­ently — whether it’s determ­in­ing which city
is safest to open a new plant in or work­ing to keep employ­ees out of
harm’s way after a ter­ror­ist attack.”

Black also says TIS will oper­ate a “24/7 intel­li­gence fusion and
warn­ing centre” that will mon­itor civil unrest, ter­ror­ism, eco­nomic
sta­bil­ity, envir­on­mental and health con­cerns, and inform­a­tion
tech­no­logy secur­ity around the world.

The estab­lished firms already oper­at­ing in this area include Kroll,
Aegis, Garda, Con­trol Risks, GPW and Hakluyt & Co. More firms are
open­ing every day and there is little reg­u­la­tion of the sector.

Hakluyt & Co was foun­ded in 1995 by former Brit­ish MI6 officers,
with a repu­ta­tion for dis­creet and effect­ive invest­ig­a­tions. The
com­pany but­ler, a former gurkha, greets vis­it­ors to its Lon­don HQ, a
town house off Park Lane. In winter, meet­ings can be con­duc­ted beside
the fire. Com­puters are rarely in sight. Hakluyt’s advis­ory board has
become an exit cham­ber for cap­tains of industry and former gov­ern­ment
offi­cials. Mem­bers have included Sir Rod Edding­ton, a former BA CEO,
and Sir Chris­topher Gent, former chief exec­ut­ive of Vodafone.

It is hard to work well for an oil com­pany without know­ing who all
the key decision-makers in a gov­ern­ment are and hav­ing the right
con­tacts to reach them,” explains Stéphane Gérardin, who runs the
French private secur­ity com­pany Géos. “We have an intel­li­gence sec­tion
where we employ some invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists, people from the fin­ance
sec­tor, from equity banks and some from secur­ity backgrounds.

It is an import­ant part of image pro­tec­tion for our cli­ents as
well. We have our own track­ing and mon­it­or­ing centre, with ana­lysts
doing risk map­ping and pre­par­ing our cli­ents for every poten­tial
prob­lem. It could be about alert­ing them to local sens­it­iv­it­ies. Or, in
this glob­al­ised inter­net age, it can be a group of stu­dents in
Cam­bridge who have launched a protest web­site, who may be send­ing out a
petition.

So we need to be able to under­stand and pre­pare our own pro­pa­ganda
to counter such attacks. This is work we do to pro­tect our clients.”

Trus­ted friend

Like the state secur­ity ser­vices, which ended up run­ning Class War
in the 1990s after a hugely suc­cess­ful pen­et­ra­tion, these spies work to
become reli­able mem­bers of any protest move­ment. In April 2007, the
Cam­paign Against Arms Trade called in the police after court doc­u­ments
showed that the weapons man­u­fac­turer BAE Sys­tems had paid a private
agency to spy on the peace group.

BAE admit­ted that it had paid £2,500 a month to LigneDeux
Asso­ci­ates, whose agent Paul Mer­cer — accep­ted as a trus­ted mem­ber of
the cam­paign — passed inform­a­tion, includ­ing a leg­ally priv­ileged
doc­u­ment, to BAE’s dir­ector of secur­ity, Mike McGinty.

Unlike the secur­ity ser­vices, how­ever, these ser­vices don’t bother
with pen­et­rat­ing the far left or anti-fascist groups. Their cli­ents are
only inter­ested in the protest move­ments that threaten cor­por­a­tions.
And as that is the nature of much protest in these times, it is a wide
field, but with a par­tic­u­lar impact on envir­on­mental groups.

At any of this summer’s green protests the cor­por­ate spies will be
there, out-of-work MI5 agents tap­ping green act­iv­ists’ mobile phones to
sell the inform­a­tion on to inter­ested companies.

Rus­sell Corn knows of incid­ents where a spook at a meet­ing has
sug­ges­ted a high-street bank as a tar­get, then left the meet­ing to
phone the officers of said bank, telling them that he has pen­et­rated an
act­iv­ist camp plan­ning an attack and offer­ing to sell the details. Corn
has no time for such beha­viour, however.

The thing about a really good private spy,” he tells me, “is that you’ll never know he’s around and he’ll never get caught.

The fact you can’t see them … it means noth­ing at all.”

Fig Leaf to the Spies

The lack of any mean­ing­ful over­sight of the UK’s intel­li­gence com­munity was high­lighted again last week, when The Daily Mail repor­ted that a cru­cial fax was lost in the run-up to the 7/7 bomb­ings in Lon­don in 2005.

There has yet to be an offi­cial enquiry into the worst ter­ror­ist atro­city on the UK main­land, des­pite the call for one from trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies and sur­viv­ors and the legit­im­ate con­cerns of the Brit­ish pub­lic. To date, we have had to make do with an “offi­cial nar­rat­ive” writ­ten by a face­less bur­eau­crat and pub­lished in May 2006. As soon as it was pub­lished, the then Home Sec­ret­ary, John Reid, had to cor­rect egre­gious fac­tual errors when present­ing it to Parliament.

The Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) also did a shoddy first job, when it cleared the secur­ity forces of all wrong-doing in its ini­tial report pub­lished at the same time. It claimed a lack of resources had hampered MI5’s counter-terrorism efforts.

How­ever, fol­low­ing a use­ful leak, it emerged that MI5 had not only been aware of at least two of the alleged bombers before the attack, it had been con­cerned enough to send a fax up to West York­shire Police Spe­cial Branch ask­ing them to invest­ig­ate Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tan­weer. This fax was never acted upon.

So the ISC has been forced to pro­duce another report, this time appar­ently admit­ting that, yes, there had been intel­li­gence fail­ures, most not­ably the lost fax. West York­shire SB should have acted on it. But the intel­li­gence officer in MI5 respons­ible for this invest­ig­a­tion should have chased it up when no response was forthcoming.

This second ISC report, which has been sit­ting on the Prime Minister’s desk for weeks already, is said to be “dev­ast­at­ing”. How­ever, I’m will­ing to bet that if/when it sees the light of day, it will be any­thing but.

The ISC is at best an over­sight fig leaf. It was formed in 1994, when MI6 and GCHQ were put on a stat­utory foot­ing for the first time with the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act. At the time the press wel­comed this as a great step for­ward towards demo­cratic account­ab­il­ity for the intel­li­gence com­munity. Well, it could not have been worse than the pre­vi­ous set-up, when MI5, MI6 and GCHQ did not offi­cially exist. They were not required to obey the laws of the land, and no MP was allowed to ask a ques­tion in Par­lia­ment about their activ­it­ies. As 1980s whis­tleblower Peter Wright so suc­cinctly put it, the spies could bug and burgle their way around with impunity.

So the estab­lish­ment of the ISC was a (very) lim­ited step in the right dir­ec­tion. How­ever, it is not a Par­lia­ment­ary Com­mit­tee. Its mem­bers are selec­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, and it is answer­able only to the PM, who can vet its find­ings. The remit of the ISC only cov­ers mat­ters of spy policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance. It is not empowered to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of oper­a­tional incom­pet­ence nor crimes com­mit­ted by the spies. And its annual report has become a joke within the media, as there are usu­ally more redac­tions than coher­ent sentences.

The ISC’s first big test came in the 1990s fol­low­ing the Shayler and Tom­lin­son dis­clos­ures. These involved detailed alleg­a­tions of illegal invest­ig­a­tions, bungled oper­a­tions and assas­sin­a­tion attempts against for­eign heads of state. It is dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of more hein­ous crimes com­mit­ted by our shad­owy spies.

But how did the ISC react? If one reads the reports from the rel­ev­ant years, the only aspect that exer­cised the ISC was Shayler’s inform­a­tion that MI5 had on many MPs and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters. The ISC was reas­sured by MI5 that would no longer be able to use these files. That’s it.

For­get about files being illeg­ally held on hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent UK cit­izens; for­get about the illegal phone taps, the pre­vent­able deaths on UK streets from IRA bombs, inno­cent people being thrown in prison, and the assas­sin­a­tion attempt against Col­onel Gad­dafi of Libya. The fear­less and etern­ally vigil­ant ISC MPs were primar­ily con­cerned about receiv­ing reas­sur­ance that their files would no longer be vet­ted by MI5 officers on the basis of mem­ber­ship to “sub­vers­ive” organ­isa­tions. What were they afraid of – that shame­ful evid­ence of early left-wing activ­ity from their fiery youth might emerge? Heaven for­bid under New Labour.

Barely a day goes by when news­pa­per head­lines do not remind us of ter­rible threats to our national secur­ity. Only in the last week, the UK media has repor­ted that the threat of espi­on­age from Rus­sia and China is at its highest since the days of the Cold War; that resur­gent Repub­lican ter­ror groups in North­ern Ire­land pose a graver danger to us even than Al Qaeda; that rad­ic­al­ised Brit­ish Muslim youth are return­ing from fight­ing with the Taliban to wage war on the streets of the UK. We have to take all this on trust, des­pite the intel­li­gence community’s appalling track record of bend­ing the truth to gain more powers and resources. This is why mean­ing­ful over­sight is so vitally import­ant for the health of our demo­cracy. The ISC is a long way from provid­ing that.