Perils of Censorship in the Digital Age

First published on RT OP-Edge.

The ripple effects of the Donald Trump election victory in America continue to wash over many different shorelines of public opinion, like so many mini-tsunamis hitting the Pacific rim over the last few last weeks.  The seismic changes have indeed been global, and not least in Europe.

First up, the Eurocrats have been getting in a bit of a flap about the future of NATO, as I recently wrote.  In the past I have also written about the perceived “insider threat” – in other words, whistleblowers – that has been worrying governments and intelligence agencies across the Western world.

Currently the Twittersphere is lighting up around the issue of “fake news“, with Western mainstream media (news purveyors of the utmost unsullied probity, naturally) blaming Trump’s unexpected victory variously on the US alt-media shock jocks, fake news trolls and bots, and sovereign-state media outlets such as the Russian RT and Sputnik.

In the wake of US Democrat claims that Russia was interfering in the election process (not a practice that the USA has ever engaged in in any other country around the world whatsoever), we now have the US Green Party presidential candidate apparently spontaneously calling for recounts in three key swing-states in the USA.

The German government has already expressed concern that such “fake” news might adversely influence the almost inevitable re-election for a fourth term as Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  Despite having been proclaimed the closest partner of the USA by President Obama on his recent speed-dating visit to Europe, and perhaps wary of the rising nationalist anger (I hesitate to write national socialist anger, but certainly its ugly face is there too in the German crowd) Merkal is getting in an electoral first strike.

At a slightly more worrying level, the European Parliament on 23 November voted for a resolution to counter “propaganda” from Russia – and incredibly equated that country’s media with terrorist groups such as ISIS – the very organisation that Russia is currently trying to help crush in Syria and which the West and NATO are at least officially opposed to.

Equating the content of licensed and networked media outlets – however much they may challenge Western orthodoxies – to the horrors of ISIS snuff videos seems to me to be wilfully blind if not downright and dangerously delusional. Or perhaps we should just call it propaganda too?

Whatever happened to the rights of freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights? Or the concept that a plurality of opinion encourages a healthy democracy?

In America too, we have had reports this week that Google and Facebook are censoring alleged “fake” news.  This is the start of a very slippery slope. Soon anyone who dissents from the orthodoxy will be deemed fake and disappear into the corporate memory black hole.  Google in 2014 suggested a precursor to this, the Knowledge Vault, a search system that would promote approved websites and disappear those deemed inaccurate at least by Google algorithms. But who controls those?

Once again our corporate overlords seem to be marching remarkably in time – almost a lock step – with the mood of the political establishment.

So how did this all kick off? With remarkably prescient timing, in October the arch-neoconservative UK-based think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, published a report entitled “Putin’s Useful Idiots: Britain’s Right, Left and Russia“. Well, at least it got its apostrophes right, but much of the rest is just so much hate-filled bile against those who call out the failed Washington Consensus.

The Henry Jackson Society is an odious organisation that was founded in Cambridge eleven years ago. One of its initial signatories was Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the UK’s foreign intelligence agency MI6, and of some personal notoriety for peddling the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that took the UK into the disastrous and illegal Iraq war in 2003, as well as feeding in the fake intelligence about Iraq trying to acquire uranium from Niger that US Secretary of State Colin Powell used as a justification for the same war at the United Nations.

Despite all this, he remains happily retired, bloated with honours, while at the same time threatening the British establishment with his full memoirs to posthumously preserve his reputation and avoid prosecution for a breach of the Official Secrets Act, as I have written before.

The Henry Jackson Society has also folded into itself an organisation called the Centre for Social Cohesion – apparently established to build better integration for the Muslim community in the UK, but which for the last decade has done nothing but stir up Islamophobia. As others have written, the phrase “modern McCarthyites” might not be stretching this concept too far. And now it seems to be turning its ire against Russia.

Its emphasis has been unrelentingly anti-Islam for many years, so it was interesting that this establishment-embedded Society had a fully-formed report about the renewed Red Menace subverting our Western media just ready and waiting to be published ahead of the US elections.

So where does this all leave us?

It may well be that Facebook will begin to disappear so-called fake news – which could have repercussions for all the activist groups that, against all advice and common sense, continue to offer up their plans/organise events on that medium.

We may see the same censorship on Google, as well as dissident websites disappearing down the proposed memory-hole of the Knowledge Vault. Sure, such pages may be recorded on sites like the WayBack Machine et al, but who really searches through that reflexively? Most us us don’t even get through the first page of Google hits anyway. In our digital age, this will make the 20th century practice of your analogue dictator – the airbrushing of political opponents out of history – look positively quaint.

But, just as the Gutenberg Press was a radical innovation in the 15th century that led to a rapid spread of written ideas and the resulting censorship, repression and a thriving underground media, so the the current crackdown will lead to the same push-back.

Then we have to consider the potential censorship of state-owned news outlets such as RT, the Chinese CCTV, and the Iranian Press TV. Where will that leave other state-owned organisations such as the BBC, RAI and other international Euro-broadcasters? Oh, of course, they are part of the Western media club, so it’s all hunkey-dorey and business as usual.

But this can be a two-sided fight – only two months ago RT’s UK bankers, the state-owned Nat West Bank, announced that they were going to shut down the channel’s UK accounts, with no reason or redress. I gather that a similar threat was then issued against the BBC in Russia, and the case was quietly dropped.

Over the last 20 years I have been interviewed by hundreds of major media outlets across Europe, many of them state-owned.  However, it is only when I appear on RT.com that I am accused of supporting a state-propaganda outlet, of being a useful idiot – and this has become increasingly marked over the last couple of years.

All these measures smack of an ill-informed and out-of-touch panic reaction by a hitherto complacent establishment. Before they attempt to airbrush history, we need to remember that history teaches some useful lessons about such elitist crackdowns: they never end well for anyone.

What price whistleblowers?

First published on Consortium News.

Forgive my “infamously fluent French”, but the phrase “pour encourager les autres” seems to have lost its famously ironic quality. Rather than making an example of people who dissent in order to prevent future dissidence, now it seems that the USA is globally paying bloody big bucks to people in order to encourage them to expose the crimes of their employers – well, at least if they are working for banks and other financial institutions.

I have been aware for a few years that the USA instituted a law in 2010 called the Dodd-Frank Act that is designed to encourage people employed in the international finance community to report malfeasance to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in return for a substantial percentage of any monies recouped.

This law seems to have produced a booming business for such high-minded “whistleblowers” – if that could be the accurate term for such actions? They are celebrated and can receive multi-million dollar pay days, the most recent (unnamed) source receiving $20 million.

Nor is this US initiative just potentially benefiting US citizens – it you look at the small print at the bottom of this page, disclosures are being sent in from all over the world.

Which is all to the public good no doubt, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash and the ensuing fall-out that hit us all.  We need more clarity about arcane casino banking practices that have bankrupted whole countries, and we need justice.

But does rather send out a number of contradictory messages to those in other areas of work who might also have concerns about the legality of their organisations, and which may have equal or even graver impacts on the lives of their fellow human beings.

If you work in finance and you see irregularities it is apparently your legal duty to report them through appropriate channels – and then count the $$$ as they flow in as reward – whether you are a USA citizen or based elsewhere around the world. Such is the power of globalisation, or at least the USA’s self-appointed role as the global hegemon.

However, if you happen to work in the US government, intelligence agencies or military, under the terms of the American Constitution it would also appear to be your solemn duty under oath to report illegalities, go through the officially designated channels, and hope reform is the result.

But, from all recent examples, it would appear that you get damn few thanks for such patriotic actions.

Take the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive, who in 2007 went public about waste and wanton expenditure within the agency, as I wrote way back in 2011. Tom went through all the prescribed routes for such disclosures, up to and including a Congressional Committee hearing.

Despite all this, Tom was abruptly snatched by the FBI in a violent dawn raid and threatened with 35 years in prison.  He (under the terrifying American plea bargain system) accepted a misdimeanour conviction to escape the horrors of federal charges, the resulting loss of all his civic rights and a potential 35 years in prison.  He still, of course, lost his job, his impeccable professional reputation, and his whole way of life.

He was part of a NSA group which also included Bill Binney, the former Technical Director of the NSA, and his fellow whistleblowers Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loumis and Diane Roark.

These brave people developed an electronic mass-surveillance programme called Thin Thread that could winnow out those people who were genuinely of security interest and worth targeting, a programme which would have cost the US $1.4 million, been consistent with the terms of the American constitution and, according to Binney, could potentially have stopped 9/11 and all the attendant horrors..

Instead, it appears that backs were scratched and favours called in with the incoming neo-con government of George W Bush in 2000, and another programme called Trail Blaizer was developed, to the tune of $1.2 billion – and which spied on everyone across America (as well as the rest of the world) and thereby broke, at the very least, the terms of the American constitution.

Yet Bill Binney was still subjected to a FBI SWAT team raid – he was dragged out of the shower early one morning at gun-point. All this is well documented in an excellent film “A Good American” and I recommend watching it.

Rather a contrast to the treatment of financial whistleblowers – no retaliation and big bucks. Under that law, Bill would have received a payout of millions for protecting the rights of his fellow citizens as well as saving the American public purse to the tune of over a billion dollars. But, of course, that is not exactly in the long-term business interests of our now-global surveillance panopticon.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in his valedictory speech in 1961, warned of the subversive interests of the “military-industrial” complex.  That seems so quaint now.  What we are facing is a steroid-pumped, globalised military surveillance industry that will do anything to protect its interests.  And that includes crushing principled whistleblowers “pour encourager les autres“.

Yet that manifestly has not happened, as I need to move on to the even-more-egregious cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

The former, as you may remember, was a former American army private currently serving 35 years in a US military prison for exposing the war crimes of the USA. She is the most obvious victim of outgoing-President Obama’s war on whistleblowers, and surely deserving of his supposed outgoing clemency.

The latter, currently stranded in Russia en route from Hong Kong to political asylum in Ecuador is, in my view and as I have said before, the most significant whistleblower in modern history. But he gets few thanks – indeed incoming US Trump administration appointees have in the past called for the death penalty.

So all this is such a “wonderfully outstanding encouragement” to those in public service in the USA to expose corruption – not. Work for the banks and anonymously snitch – $$$kerching! Work for the government and blow the whistle – 30+ years in prison or worse. Hmmm.

If President-Elect Donald Trump is serious about “draining the swamp” then perhaps he could put some serious and meaningful public service whistleblower protection measures in place, rather than prosecuting such patriots?

After all, such measures would be a win-win situation, as I have said many times before – a proper and truly accountable channel for potential whistleblowers to go to, in the expectation that their concerns will be properly heard, investigated and criminal actions prosecuted if necessary.

That way the intelligence agencies can become truly accountable, sharpen their game, avoid a scandal and better protect the public; and the whistleblower does not need ruin their life, losing their job, potentially their freedom and worse.

After all, where are the most heinous crimes witnessed?  Sure, bank crimes impact the economy and the lives of working people; but out-of-control intelligence agencies that kidnap, torture and assassinate countless people around the world, all in secret, actually end lives.

All that said, other Western liberal democracies are surely less draconian than the USA, no?

Well, unfortunately not.  Take the UK, a country still in thrall to the glamorous myth of James Bond, and where there have been multiple intelligence whistleblowers from the agencies over the last few decades – yet all of them have automatically faced prison.  In fact, the UK suppression of intelligence, government, diplomatic, and military whistleblowers seems to have acted as an exemplar to other countries in how you stifle ethical dissent from within.

Sure, the prison sentences for such whistleblowing are not as draconian under the UK Official Secrets Act (1989) as the anachronistic US Espionage Act (1917). However, the clear bright line against *any* disclosure is just as stifling.

In the UK, a country where the intelligence agencies have for the last 17 years been illegally prostituting themselves to advance the interests of a foreign country (the USA), this is simply unacceptable. Especially as the UK has just made law the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), against all expert advice, which legalises all this previously-illegal activity and indeed expanded the hacking powers of the state.

More worryingly, the ultra-liberal Norway, which blazed a calm and humanist trail in its response to the murderous white-supremacist terrorist attacks of Anders Breivik only 5 years ago, has now proposed a draconian surveillance law.

And Germany – a country horrified by the Snowden revelations in 2013, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi – has also just expanded the surveillance remit of its spooks.

In the face of all this, it appears there has never been a greater need of intelligence whistleblowers across the Western world. Yet it appears that, once again, there is one law for the bankers et al – they are cashed up, lauded and rewarded for reporting legalities.

For the rest of the Poor Bloody Whistleblowers, it’s prosecution and persecution as usual, despite the fact that they may indeed be serving the most profound of public interests – freedom, privacy and the ability to thereby have a functioning democracy.

As always – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. So back to my fluent French, referenced at the start: we are, it seems, all still mired in the merde.

 

 

You say pro-NATO, I say pro-peace

First published on RT Op-Edge, and also Consortium News.

During the seemingly endless US election, a few months ago Donald Trump said at a convention that NATO is not a gift that America can keep giving.  In his stated view – at the time –  the other member states should be expected to make a greater financial contribution (the USA currently contributes 70% of NATO’s budget) and if not they could not expect automatic protection in the face of an attack.

On 13th November in the UK’s Observer newspaper, the Secretary General of NATO, former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, wrote a think piece in response and acknowledged the need for more widespread contributions, while crying up the historic importance and future need for NATO by citing growing Russian “assertiveness” (diplo-speak for aggression) and the threat from international terrorism.

I was invited onto RT to analyse this and am here expanding on some of the points I made in an always-all-too-brief interview.

Stoltenberg was right to acknowledge Trump’s concerns about the contributions to NATO.  But I think that he was also addressing another and already-serving president somewhat closer to home – head of the European Commission and totemic Eurocrat, Jean-Claude Juncker – who for a while now has been plotting an integrated EU army and who ramped up the rhetoric last week after Trump’s victory. The head of NATO is naturally not going to be too happy that the EU is poaching on his territory.

It was also reported in The Observer that France and Germany are planning to announce the acceleration towards a EU army over the coming weeks. So much for European-wide consensus. It would appear that Juncker also sees this as a bargaining position in future Brexit negotiations, if Britain ever does get around to triggering Article 50.  Any EU army would need the UK’s contribution – not just the armed forces, which are the second largest in the EU, but also continued close cooperation with the intelligence agencies.

After all, if both the UK post-Brexit and the USA after the ascension of Trump become increasingly isolationist and isolated, it would be natural for the two countries to pivot towards each other to the increasing exclusion of Europe. The UK/US “special relationship” has always been heavily predicated on the uniquely close working relationship of their spies, and the EU will fear being left further out in the cold.

So, if Juncker carries on regardless with his vanity EU army project and Britain agrees to contribute post-Brexit, there may be other sweet deals on offer to the UK during the Brexit negotiations. At least, that seems to be the position Juncker seems to be oiling his way towards.

But the fundamental question has to be asked: why, now, do we need either a New Model EU army or the cavalier NATO?  Stoltenberg tried to address this in his article:

“In the last few years we have seen a dramatic deterioration of our security, with a more assertive Russia and turmoil across north Africa and the Middle East. Nato allies have responded together. We have implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the cold war. [….] This is deterrence, not aggression. […] Nato also continues to play a crucial role in the fight against terrorism. Every Nato ally is part of the US-led coalition against Islamic State…”

Let us unpick these comments.

Firstly, is Russia indeed becoming more of a military threat, or is this just so much diplomatic grandstanding? After all, is it Russia or NATO that has been more, umm, assertive over the last 27 years?

In answer I refer you back to an article I wrote two years ago after the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Referencing the work of former senior CIA officer and fellow Sam Adams Associate, Ray McGovern, it made clear that a deal was made between the Soviet Union of the time and the US and that, in return for the withdrawal of 260,000 Soviet troops from the GDR and the reunification of Germany, NATO would not move one inch further east than the German border.

Well, today we can see the result of these negotiations – another twelve countries, most in Eastern Europe and right up to the Russian border, have been assimilated into NATO. Recently within most of these border countries large-scale military exercises have been provocatively and publicly staged, plus missile “defence ” systems have been planted in the fertile paranoiac soil of an increasingly aggressive and nationalistic Poland.

Yes, Russia has in retaliation been conducting its own border exercises. The leadership has to be seen to be doing something, otherwise it will appear weak and not protecting its own people. That might be “assertive”, but it’s certainly not “aggressive”.

Nor let us forget the fact that in 2008 NATO was warm towards the idea of Ukraine and Georgia joining, provided they could meet a few conditions. This would be taking Western forces directly into Russia’s back yard. It would be encircling Russia’s border with the rest of Europe with a new “Iron Curtain”.  And I have to say that *is* an aggressively political move at the very least.

How did this play out? Well, first stop for the campaign of Russian demonisation was Georgia, under Western neo-con puppet president Mikhail Saakashvili , invading a small and ethnically Russian segment of Georgia, South Ossetia.   Russia responded by protecting the population, and then was excoriated across the Western world as conducting an unprovoked invasion of Georgia. This myth has long been exposed factually, but it is the hysterical headlines of the time that residually stick in most people’s minds.

Similarly in Ukraine. In 2014 a coup against the elected head of state, Viktor Yanukovych, apparently partly orchestrated by the USA as we know from intercepted calls between the Assistant US Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.

Interestingly, it was Yanukovych who blocked Ukraine’s accession to NATO in after his election in 2010, perhaps an additional motivation for the 2014 coup.

All this laid bare the fact that the US had pumped $5 billion in to subvert the Ukrainian state over the preceding few years and that, in the face of European opposition to it, the US thought “fuck the EU”. And yet still the EU acquiesced to US-led sanctions against Russia that have hit the EU economy hard.

And the USA accused Russia of meddling in their democratic processes this year? Pot and kettle springs to mind.

Add to this a probably NATO-approved strike on a Russian jet involved in the Syrian conflict earlier this year by NATO member Turkey (at the time one of the closest trading partners of Russia and which, temporarily, caused bilateral damage that has since been repaired) and the military wing of Western interests is not exactly coming up smelling of roses.

But perhaps NATO was just being “assertive”.

So to Stoltenberg’s second point of justification for NATO: the success that it has had combating the threat of international terrorism.

Where can I start with this? Since NATO invoked Article 5 (when one state is attacked, all must respond) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks against America, western countries have been dragged into war after illegal war across the Middle East, central Asia and North Africa.

Let us examine the roll-call of successes: Afghanistan (now back in the hands of the Taliban warlords and supplying ever more heroin to the illegal drug trade that goes some way to funding terrorist groups, including ISIS); Iraq, now a basket case and the cradle of ISIS; Libya ditto plus the drugs; Yemeni communities being vaporised with “precision” bombs by US proxy Saudi Arabia: and Syria of course.

So the NATO Secretary General’s second justification of the organisation’s continued existence is not exactly what one would call compelling. But I suppose he had to try, when Juncker’s threatened folie de grandeur that is the EU army is even less inspiring.

So, back to President-elect Donald Trump.  What will he do, faced with this mess of competing western military/security interests and Euro-bureaucrat careerists? Perhaps his US isolationist position is not so mad, bad and dangerous to know as the wailings of the western liberal press would have us believe?

American “exceptionalism” and NATO interventionism have not exactly benefited much of the world since the end of the Cold War. Perhaps the time has indeed come for an American Commander-in-Chief who can cut deals, cut through the sabre-rattling rhetoric and, even unintentionally, make a significant contribution to world peace.

Stranger things have happened.  After all, outgoing President Obama won the Nobel Prize for Peace a mere eight months after his inauguration….

Terrorism, crime, or mental illness?

This morning I was invited on to RT to do an interview about the breaking story of a mass shooting that occurred last night at a nightclub in Florida in the USA.  You will, no doubt, have seen the headlines by now – the biggest mass shooting in modern American history.

At the time, as the news was breaking, I was somewhat puzzled about what I could contribute – surely this was just another ghastly massacre by the usual gun-toting crazy that America seems to spawn so regularly? After all, it seems that the Second Amendment is the last right standing from the US constitution, after all the others have been eviscerated as a result of the “war on terror” and the social friction caused by the financial melt-down of the US economy?

However, with a little thought on a mellow European Sunday, I could see a number of threads coming together, which I explored during the interview.  I would like to develop some of them further in this article.

At the time I was interviewed, few hard facts had been confirmed about the shooting – merely a conservative estimate of the number of dead and wounded, and the fact the gunman had been killed. Everything else was pure speculation. That did not stop much of the Western media from jumping to conclusions – that this must be an ISIS-inspired attack and therefore Muslim terrorism, by our current Western definition.

I have a problem with this current usage. When working as an intelligence officer with MI5 in the 1990s – at the height of the religious civil war being waged between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland, our working definition was that “terrorism” was the use of violence to achieve political aims. So “terrorism” has never been a purely Muslim-originated concept, no matter how the USA has chosen to define it since 9/11.

The reason I am making this rather obvious point is that the USA, particularly, has always engendered some rather unsavoury domestic “terrorist” groups, motivated by Christian or cult fanaticism – think the Branch Davidians, or the Christian fundamentalists murdering doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, or white supremacists terrorising black communities or blowing up FBI offices such as the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, which was initially blamed on Middle Eastern terrorism. If that is not the use of violence to achieve political aims, then our intelligence agencies need to change the definition of terrorism.

As the shootings in the Pulse nightclub in Florida specifically targeted a LGBT crowd, it is just as feasible that the gunman could have fundamentalist Christian beliefs that urged him to target this community as some ISIS-inspired jihadi.  After all, we have seen similar attacks in the UK, with the London nail bomber targeting gay nightclubs in 1999.

Yet the former is, to this day, widely seen as a mass killing, a “rampage shooter” or a madman, and treated as a criminal, whereas a Muslim committing the same acts for similarly bigoted reasons is automatically deemed to be a terrorist. And we all know that “terrorism” is a unique form of “eviltude” that immediately exposes the suspect  to greater legal penalties at the very least and assassination at the worst end of the scale, US citizen or not.

Terrorism is a crime – pure and simple – and it should be treated as a crime.  Muslim suspects of such crimes should not be kidnapped, tortured, held in isolation for years, or subject to military tribunals with no real right to defence, any more than Christian, atheist or any other suspects should be.  Nor should specifically “Muslim” terrorism be the excuse used to strip away all our basic and hard-won civic freedoms and human rights in our own countries, yet that is what has been happening in the unending “war on terror”.

The UK went through this debate in the 1980s and 1990s – at the height of the Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitary bombing campaigns across the UK – which was another religious-based terrorist war, as I mentioned before.  It also – at least from the PIRA side, received the bulk of its funding from the American Irish diaspora. In fact, despite the peace process in Northern Ireland signed with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, this funding from America only finally dried up in the aftermath of 9/11.

And what of the third point in the title – the mental health issue? I mention this because there was a recent case in London of a knife-wielding man frenziedly attacking commuters in an underground railway station last year. The reporting at the time declared that he had been shouting “this is for Syria” – as he attacked his fellow travellers. At the time everyone assumed he was another radicalised jihadi carrying out a lone wolf attack.  Indeed, even people at the scene seemed convinced. One witness cried out “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv“, a heartfelt sentiment that went viral over social media.

This story was headline news in the UK at the time. The trial recently reached its conclusion, and it now appears that the perpetrator had serious mental health issues.  These may have latched onto jihadi terminology, but the motivation was not terroristic.

The guy probably needed an earlier intervention by health professionals, but he slipped through the cracks. That does not make him a terrorist though – no matter what he said in his frenzy – and yet this conclusion certainly did not get the front page headlines the initial attack received.

Let us also look at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that have happened across Western countries over the last few years – in Canada, London, Australia, the USA, Denmark – as well as the Paris and Brussels attacks.  Many of the protagonists were already on the radar of the Western intelligence agencies, but because they are drowning in a tsunami of information garnered for the mass surveillance of us all, these crucial nuggets of real intelligence were swamped.

Even worse, it appears that many of the people subsequently fingered as the perpetrators had already been approached by the intelligence agencies, as appears to be the case in Florida too.

So, how does this all come together? There is not doubt that genuine psychopaths or sadists are attracted to terrorist as well as criminal gangs to give free rein to their tendencies – ISIS is an absolutely horrifying example of this.  But the ideology of such groups can also attract from a distance the mentally fragile, who can become useful idiots or delusional followers, or vulnerable individuals who can even be manipulated by law enforcement. Add into the mix fundamentalist religion, cult, or racial supremacy beliefs and it all gets too messy, too fast.

And yet…. all these groups use terror to achieve their goals, but only a few are deemed to be terrorists rather than criminals – and we all know now that anyone labelled a terrorist faces far higher penalties than these other categories of crime.

Intelligence agencies are there to protect our national security – ie our nation’s integrity and its very existence.  As I have said for many years now, such threats include imminent invasion, as Britain faced during the Second World War, or global annihilation as we all faced during the Cold War.

The random attacks of terrorist – or criminal groups or mentally ill people – cause trauma to the country and the communities in which they occur, but they do not threaten our country’s very survival.

We need to clarify our thinking urgently, both around the definitions applied to such crimes and to the proportionality of the response we make. This will allow us to preserve and strengthen the concept of the rule of law and the notion of democracy under which we all hope to live.

Ibsen and Whistleblowers

The Chichester Festival Theatre in the UK has been staging Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, exploring the complexities of whistleblowing.

The CFT asked me to write an article for the festival programme about the value and role, the dangers and opportunities, for twenty-first century whistleblowers. Here it is:

The Regulators of Last Resort

Let us play a little game of word association. I write “Edward Snowden” – and what is the first thought to leap into your mind? Hero? Traitor? Who?

Or might it be whistleblower?

The controversial issue of whistleblowing, which is at the heart of Ibsen’s play, has been firmly thrust into the public consciousness over the last few years with the ongoing saga of Wikileaks and with high profile cases such as that of Chelsea Manning and, of course, Snowden himself.

Often whistleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be traitors, grasses or snitches. Or they are set on such an heroic pedestal that their example can actually be discouraging, making you consider whether you would ever take such a risk, often with the depressing conclusion that it would be impossible for a whole range of practical reasons – professional reputation, job security, family safety, even liberty.

However, you have to ask yourself why, when faced with these risks and repercussions, individuals (in the manner of the fictional Dr Stockmann) do indeed speak out; why they do still consider the risks worth taking? Particularly those emerging from the world of intelligence, the military or the diplomatic corps who face the most grievous penalties.

The UK spy community is the most legally protected and least accountable of any Western democracy, but the USA is catching up fast. So, as a result of such entrenched governmental secrecy across these areas, whistleblowing is realistically the only available avenue to alert your fellow citizens to abuses carried out secretly in their name.

I have a nodding acquaintance with the process. In the 1990s I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK domestic Security Service, generally known as MI5, before resigning to help my former partner and colleague David Shayler blow the whistle on a catalogue of incompetence and crime. As a result we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hiding and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, family and journalists arrested around us. I was also arrested, although never charged, and David went to prison twice for exposing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.

However, it could all have been so different if the UK government had agreed to take his evidence of spy crimes, undertake to investigate them thoroughly, and apply the necessary reforms. This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could potentially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinctive response is always to protect the spies and prosecute the whistleblower, while the mistakes and crimes go uninvestigated and unresolved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the malefactors with promotions and gongs.

The draconian Official Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any disclosure whatsoever. As a result, we the citizens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integrity. There is no meaningful oversight and no real accountability.

Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a difference and potentially save lives. However, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any ethical concerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just follow orders”.

In such an environment there is no ventilation, no accountability and no staff federation, and this inevitably leads to a general consensus – a bullying “group think” mentality. This in turn can lead to mistakes being covered up rather than lessons learned, and then potentially down a dangerous moral slide.

As a result, over the last 15 years we have seen scandal heaped upon intelligence scandal, as the spies allowed their fake and politicised information to be used make a false case for an illegal war in Iraq; we have seen them descend into a spiral of extraordinary rendition (ie kidnapping) and torture, for which they are now being sued if not prosecuted; and we have seen that they facilitate dodgy deals in the deserts with dictators.

Since the Shayler case in the late 1990s, other UK whistleblowers have hit the headlines: GCHQ’s Katherine Gun, who exposed illegal spying on our so-called allies in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. She managed to avoid prosecution because of a possible legal defence of necessity that resulted from Shayler’s case. Or Ambassador Craig Murray, who exposed the torture of political dissidents in Uzbekistan – and when I say torture, I mean the boiling alive of political opponents of the regime, with the photographs to prove it. Murray was not prosecuted, but he lost his career and was traduced with tawdry slurs about his personal life across the British media.

The USA is little better. Since 2001 many intelligence whistleblowers there have faced a grim fate. Ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, languished for three years in prison while the torturers remain free; Bill Binney, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe of the NSA were hounded and narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance; a colleague, Tom Drake faced a 35-year prison sentence, despite having gone through all the approved, official channels; and in 2013 a kangaroo court was held to try Chelsea Manning for her exposure of US war crimes. Inevitably, it is the whistleblower Manning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in prison, not the war criminals.

President Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espionage Act against whistleblowers during his years in the White House more times than all his predecessors put together, while at the same time allowing a bone fide spy ring – the Russian illegals including Anna Chapman – to return home in 2010. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” – the whistleblower – has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked, ironically, to Wikileaks in 2010.

Against this background, fully aware of the hideous risks he was taking and the prospect of the rest of his life behind bars, in 2013 a young man stepped forward – Edward Snowden.

He was clear then about his motivation and he remains clear now in the few interviews he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge concern. The American intelligence infrastructure, along with its partner agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatens the constitution of the United States, but also erodes the privacy of all the world’s citizens.

Even against such a background of other brave whistleblowers, Snowden stands out for me for three key reasons: his personal and conscious courage at such a time, the sheer scale of his disclosures, and the continuing, global impact of what he exposed.

Unfortunately, while whistleblowers understand the legal risks they are taking when they emerge from the intelligence world or the diplomatic corps, they are often media virgins and are eternally surprised by the way the treatment meted out to them.

Until the turn of the millennium, intelligence whistleblowers had no choice but to entrust themselves to the established media. Some like “Deep Throat”, the source of the Watergate scandal in 1970s America, were distrustful and remained in the shadows. Others, such as Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, or Clive Ponting who in 1982 released information about the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War, were fortunate to work with campaigning journalists who fought both for their sources and the principle of press freedom. Even when Shayler went public in the late 1990s, he had no option but to work with the established media.

From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that this is not always a painless experience. With a few honorable exceptions, most of the journalists will just asset-strip their whistleblowers for information. They make their careers, while the whistleblower breaks theirs.

Plus, There are many ways our soi-disant free press can be manipulated and controlled by the spies. The soft power involves inducting journalists to be agents of influence within their organisation, or cosy chats between editors and spies, or proprietors and top spies – that is how stories can be spun or disappeared.

The hard power is extensive too – the application of laws such as libel, counter-terrorism laws, injunctions, and also the use of the OSA against journalists themselves. Or even blatant intimidation, as happened after The Guardian newspaper published the early Snowden disclosures – the police went in and physically smashed up the hard drives containing his information.

All this casts that well known chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the free-flow of information from the government to the governed, which is so vital for an informed and participatory citizenry.

Which brings me back to Wikileaks. Established in 2007, this provides a secure and high-tech conduit for whistleblowers that gives them more control and securely stores the documents to prove their allegations. This is also why the US government saw it as such a threat and has pursued it in such a draconian and punitive way over the years since the first big revelations in 2010. Ironically, this is also partly why much of the traditional media turned on Wikileaks – it threatened the old media business model.

But from a whistleblower’s perspective, Wikileaks and its successors offer a brave new world. The technological genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

There is, of course, another possible path. The intelligence agencies could establish meaningful channels for ventilation of staff concerns, where the evidence is properly investigated and reforms made as necessary. Having such a sound procedure in place to address concerns strikes me as a win-win scenario for staff efficiency and morale, the organisation’s operational capability and reputation, and potentially the wider public safety too.

However, unless and until secretive governmental organisations institute such legitimate and effective avenues for potential whistleblowers to go down, embarrassing disclosures will continue. Nobody sets out to be a whistleblower but, absent effective reforms, they will remain our regulators of last resort.

War on Drugs has failed – ENCOD Article

Below is an article I recently wrote for the excellent European drug policy reform organisation, European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug PoliciesENCOD.  And here is the link to the original on the ENCOD website.

I have had the honour of serving as the European Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) for the last four years, and have been thrilled to oversee the establishment of thriving national groups in the UK and Germany, with the possibility of more on the horizon. In my view, law enforcement offers a unique and critical voice to the international drug policy reform debate.

LEAP, founded in 2002, today has over 150,000 supporters and speakers in 20 countries. We consist of police officers, lawyers, judges, prison governors, probation officers, intelligence and military personnel, and even international drug czars. What unites us is a shared professional knowledge, experienced across the full spectrum of law enforcement, that drug prohibition has egregiously failed.

Over the last 50 years global drug use has exponentially increased, the potency of illegal drugs has increased, they are ubiquitously available, and the price of street drugs has gone through the floor. Faced with this information, how can our governments claim they are winning the “war on drugs” to create a “drug free world”?

Quite the opposite – prohibition has enabled a global and exponentially growing black market.

I became aware of drug prohibition failure while I was working for MI5 back in the 1990s. One of my postings involved investigating terrorist logistics, which meant that I had to work closely with UK Customs across the UK. This experience made me aware that the “war” had been lost. It also made me very aware, early on, that there was a massive overlap between the illegal drug market and terrorist funding.

The US DEA estimates that over half the designated terrorist groups around the world gain the bulk of their funding from drugs money. So on the one hand prohibiting drugs and fighting the “war on drugs” sends the market underground and the resulting massive profits provide a key revenue stream to terrorists, not least ISIS which controls part of the flow of heroin from central Asia into Europe. On the other hand the West is also waging the “war on terror” to fight these same groups.

So what our governments give the military-security complex with one hand, they also give with the other.

But is not all bad news. Countries in Latin America and states in North America are legalising cannabis, safe injection rooms have rolled out across Europe, Canada is looking to legalise cannabis, and the decriminalisation of drugs has been hugely successful in countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Even at the UN level, which recently held a once-in-a-generation General Assembly Special Session in New York, the concept of harm reduction is at least now being tabled by some countries, although the progress is glacial.

The times may not be changing fast enough for many of us in the drug policy reform world, despite baby steps being made in the right direction by some countries. Yet even the more progressive countries within the international community are still constrained by the legal straight jacket that is the UN drug treaty framework.

And while harm reduction is good progress in that it no longer criminalises those who choose to use, it utterly fails to address the bigger problem that I mentioned before: that the criminalisation of certain drugs drives the market underground, providing huge profits to organised crime cartels and terrorist groups around the world every year. Prohibition has unleashed the biggest crime wave the world has ever seen. As with alcohol prohibiton in 20th century America, only legalisation and regulation will remove this market from the greedy grasp of criminals.

I have just watched a old BBC Newsnight debate between comedian and actor, Russell Brand, and right-wing writer and commentator, Peter Hitchens. The debate encapsulated the entrenched positions of both the reformist and prohibitionist camps. The former was represented by Brand, a former drug user in recovery, advocating abstinence-based therapy. The latter by Hitchens, an anti-drug warrior largely approaching the issue from a morality position, who argued that taking drugs is a crime and that all such crimes should be prosecuted as a deterrence.

While naturally I lean more towards the position of Brand, who two years ago electrified a rather turgid annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna by calling for full drug legalisation, and also while respecting his personal experiences, I do think he’s missing a trick.

Yes, those with drug dependencies need help and compassion not prison, but the vast majority of those who choose to use do so recreationally, just for fun, and never develop an addiction, just as only a minority of those who choose to drink go on to develop alcoholism. And yet the parameters of the drug debate rarely stray beyond the well-worn issue of “problem” users, both amongst reformist as well as prohibitionist circles. We do not call all drinkers alcoholics so why, in the public discourse, are all users of other drugs clumped together as “addicts” in high-profile debates?

As for Hitchens, I remain baffled. He seems to think that all laws are immutable, graven in stone with words from on high, and as such must therefore be strictly enforced. This is tosh. All laws change and evolve to reflect the changing mores of the societies which write them. If this were not to happen, we in the West would still burn witches, own slaves, not allow women to vote, outlaw homosexuality and, in America of course, alcohol would remain prohibited. Yet now, all these outdated, unjust, and cruel laws have been swept away,

In 2014 LEAP published a Proposed Amendment of the UN Treaties, in which we argue that all drugs should be brought within the orbit of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2003). We argue that only full regulation and control of the drug market will end the scourge of the illegal global drug trade. Until this happens at least $320 billion per year profits will continue to benefit only crime cartels and terrorist organisations.

The “war on drugs” has failed.

Albert Einstein, who was not exactly a dullard, said that the very definition of insanity was to continue to do the same thing, even if it repeatedly fails, in the hope that you will eventually get a different outcome. That is what we are seeing with prohibition.

It is time for this insanity to cease.

Exile – ExBerliner Article

My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:

What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.

However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.

As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.

However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.

It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.

Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.

Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.

No encryption? How very rude.

First published on RT Op-Edge.

It struck me today that when I email a new contact I now reflexively check to see if they are using PGP encryption.  A happily surprising number are doing so these days, but most people would probably consider my circle of friends and acquaintance to be eclectic at the very least, if not downright eccentric, but then that’s probably why I like them.

There are still alarming numbers who are not using PGP though, particularly in journalist circles, and I have to admit that when this happens I do feel a tad miffed, as if some basic modern courtesy is being breached.

It’s not that I even expect everybody to use encryption – yet – it’s just that I prefer to have the option to use it and be able to have the privacy of my own communications at least considered. After all I am old enough to remember the era of letter writing, and I always favoured a sealed envelope to a postcard.

And before you all leap on me with cries of “using only PGP is no guarantee of security….” I do know that you need a suite of tools to have a fighting chance of real privacy in this NSA-saturated age: open source software, PGP, TOR, Tails, OTR, old hardware, you name it.  But I do think the wide-spread adoption of PGP sets a good example and gets more people thinking about these wider issues.  Perhaps more of us should insist on it before communicating further.

Why is this in my mind at the moment?  Well, I am currently working with an old friend, Simon Davies, the founder of Privacy International and the Big Brother Awards. He cut his first PGP key in 2000, but then left it to wither on the vine. As we are in the process of setting up a new privacy initiative called Code Red (more of which next week) it seemed imperative for him to set a good example and “start using” again.

Anyway, with the help of one of the godfathers of the Berlin cryptoparties, I am happy to report that the father of the privacy movement can now ensure your privacy if you wish to communicate with him.

I am proud to say that my awareness of PGP goes back even further.  The first time I heard of the concept was in 1998 while I was living in hiding in a remote farmhouse in central France, on the run from MI5, with my then partner, David Shayler.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was a computer and a dial-up connection and David went on a steep learning curve in all things geek to ensure a degree of privacy.  He helped build his own website (subsequently hacked, presumably by GCHQ or the NSA as it was a sophisticated attack by the standards of the day) and also installed the newly-available PGP. People complain now of the difficulties of installing encryption, but way back then it was the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest after a few light strolls in the park to limber up.  But he managed it.

Now, of course, it is relatively easy, especially if you take the time to attend a Cryptoparty – and there will be inevitably be one happening near you some place soon.

Cryptoparties began in late 2012 on the initiative of Asher Wolf in Australia.  The concept spread rapidly, and after Snowden went public in May 2013, accelerated globally. Indeed, there have been various reports about the “Snowden Effect“.  Only last week there was an article in the Guardian newspaper saying that 72% of British adults are now concerned about online privacy. I hope the 72% are taking advantage of these geek gatherings.

The US-based comedian, John Oliver, also recently aired an interview with Edward Snowden.  While this was slightly painful viewing for any whistleblower – Oliver had done a vox pop in New York that he showed to Snowden, where most interviewees seemed unaware of him and uncaring about privacy – there was a perceptible shift of opinion when the issue of, shall we say, pictures of a sensitive nature were being intercepted.

Officially this spy programme is called Optic Nerve, an issue that many of us have been discussing to some effect over the last year.  In the Oliver interview this transmogrified into “the dick pic programme”.  Well, whatever gets the message out there effectively…. and it did.

We all have things we prefer to keep private – be it dick pics, bank accounts, going to the loo, talking to our doctor, our sex lives, or even just talking about family gossip over the phone.  This is not about having anything to hide, but most of us do have an innate sense of privacy around our personal issues and dealings and this is all now lost to us, as Edward Snowden has laid bare.

As I have also said before, there are wider societal implications too – if we feel we are being watched in what we watch, read, say, write, organise, and conduct our relationships, then we start to self-censor.  And this is indeed already another of the quantified Snowden effects. This is deleterious to the free flow of information and the correct functioning of democratic societies.  This is precisely why the right to privacy is one of the core principles in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lessons had then been learned from the Nazi book burnings and the Gestapo spy state, and privacy was recognised as a pre-requisite of open democracy. Yet now we see senior and supposedly well-informed US politicians calling for the modern equivalent of book burnings and failing to rein in the global abuses of the NSA.

How quickly the lessons of history can be forgotten and how carelessly we can cast aside the hard-won rights of our ancestors.

Edward Snowden, at great personal risk, gave us the necessary information to formulate a push back. At the very least we can have enough respect for the sacrifices he made and for the rights of our fellow human beings to take basic steps to protect both our own and their privacy.

So please start using open source encryption at the very least. It would be rude not to.

Russia – once again Public Enemy No 1

The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, said at the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall last weekend that we are facing a new Cold War. What are the geopolitical realities behind this statement?

First published on RT Op-Edge.

Last weekend I was invited onto RT to do an interview about the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, particularly focusing on the speech delivered by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, during his visit to Berlin.

I would like to expand on some of the topics I mentioned – how to encapsulate an alternative geopolitical perspective different from the Western orthodoxy in under four minutes? A task even Monty Python would find challenging!

The first issue was Gorbachev’s comments about a new Cold War. I would agree, and this is being fabricated by the USA, as that country always needs an Emmanuel Goldstein figure to justify its military-industrial complex that is bankrupting the country and brutalising the world, while enriching the US oligarchs to the detriment of civil society everywhere.

The first front line in this new Cold War is the internet. In the 1990s the USA had a golden opportunity – in fact a perfect storm of opportunities. It was the last superpower left standing in a newly unipolar world, history had officially ended and capitalism had triumphed. The Soviet Union had disintegrated and the newly shorn Russia was tottering, its vast national wealth being assiduously asset-stripped by the globalised neocon elite.

Plus, the new world wide web was exponentially growing and the key pioneers were predominantly American companies. After an initially panicked phase of playing catch-up in the 1990s, western spy agencies saw the potential for total mastery of the internet, creating a surveillance panopticon that the KGB or the Stasi could only have fantasised about. With thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now beginning to get glimpses of the full horror of the surveillance under which we all now live.

But it is not all down to the NSA.  Building on the old Echelon model, which was so nearly overthrown in Europe back in July 2001, the NSA has suborned, bought and prostituted other western intelligence agencies across Europe to do its bidding.  Germany, at the nexus of east and west Europe, remains a front line in this battle, with the BND possibly working unconstitutionally to do the NSA’s bidding, even apparently to the detriment of its own national interest. The politicians (some) and hacktivists (many) are fighting back.

But it is the geographical boundaries that have shifted most significantly since the fall of the Wall.  Here I need to credit former senior CIA officer, presidential advisor and current peace activist Ray McGovern, for all the useful information he provided during his various talks and interviews across Europe a couple of months ago.

Ray, a fluent Russian speaker, worked as a Soviet expert for much of his career in the CIA. As such he was privy to the behind-the-scenes negotiating that occurred after the fall of the Wall.  When this happened the USA pushed for German reunification but was worried about the 260,000 Soviet troops stationed in the former GDR. They cut a deal with Gorbachev, stating that NATO would not move “one inch” further than Germany after reunification. This the Soviets accepted, and withdrew their troops.

NATO_Expansion_2Well, we all know what has happened since. NATO has expanded east at an amazing rate, now encompassing a further 12 eastern European countries including the Baltic States and Poland, which the US has used as a base for an increasing number of “defensive” missile systems. In 2008 NATO also issued a declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would be welcome to join, taking the front line up to the borders of Russia. Coincidentally, both these countries in recent years have been portrayed as the victims of “Russian expansionism”

In 2008 Georgia invaded the disputed ethnic Russian region of South Ossetia. Russia moved to protect the people and gave the Georgian military a bloody nose. Anyone remember that? At the time it was portrayed across the Western media as Russian aggression, but the facts have emerged since to disprove this version of events.

Similarly, this year we have seen a violent coup overthrow democratically-elected President Yanukovych of Ukraine when he was inclined to stay within the Russian sphere of influence rather than ally the country more closely to the EU under the asset-stripping austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State responsible for Europe, was heard to discuss the US had over previous years pumped $5 billion into Ukraine to subvert it, that the newly installed Prime Minister would be “their man”, and “fuck the EU”.

And yet still Russia is blamed for aggression. I am not an apologist for Russia, but the facts speak for themselves even if they are not widely reported in the Western mainstream media.

But why on earth would the US be meddling in Ukraine? Would an expansion of NATO be sufficient excuse in America’s self-interested eyes?  Probably not.

Which leads me on to a very interesting article by Eric Zuesse. The argument of his well-researched and referenced report is that it all comes down to energy supplies once again.  When does it not?

The USA has some unsavoury allies in the Middle East, including theocratic dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Their vast energy reserves are not only essential to the USA, but also the trading of these reserves in the petrodollar monopoly is vital to propping up the bankrupt US economy.

Russia, at the moment, is the primary energy supplier to the EU – the world’s largest market. Iran, a Russian client, wanted to build a pipeline via Syria with President Assad’s approval, to exploit this vast market.  However, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the USA apparently have other plans involving a pipeline from Qatar via Syria to Europe.

Hence the urgent need to overthrow Assad and put a Sunni puppet government in place, more palatable to those pulling the strings. Qatar’s preferred candidate of choice would be more moderate, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi, on the other hand, would have no compunction about installing a hard-line fundamentalist regime in place – up to and including ISIS. And thus the murder, mayhem and human suffering erupting across the region now. This is an appalling real life example of the horrors inherent in Brzezinski’s psychopathic “grand chessboard“.

It is widely accepted truism today, over a decade after the “war on terror” began, that all the wars in the Middle East were launched to protect America’s oil and energy interests. Less well known is the country’s desperate scramble to protect the petrodollar monopoly. If that fails, the dollar will no longer remain the world’s reserve currency and the USA is financially screwed.

If you look at all the recent wars, invasions, and “humanitarian interventions” that have resulted in collapsed countries and anarchy across whole regions, it is clear that beyond oil and gas the key issue is money: pre-2003 Iraq tried to trade what oil it could in euros not dollars and Saddam Hussein was deposed; despite being welcomed briefly back into the international fold, once Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi began to talk about establishing an African gold dinar currency, backed by Libya’s oil wealth to challenge the petrodollar, he too was toppled; Assad wanted to facilitate energy pipelines to Europe for Russia and Iran, and he was attacked; even Iran tried to trade its energy reserves in euros, and lo and behold it was almost invaded in 2008; and finally Russia itself trades some of its energy in rubles.

As people say, always follow the money.

So, in my view, this is the current geopolitical situation. Russia is now strong enough, with its domination of Europe’s energy supply, its backing of Middle Eastern countries that want to break away from the US sphere of influence, and its trade deals and establishment of an independent global investment development bank with other BRICS countries, that it can challenge the US hegemony.

However, threaten the petrodollar monopoly and thereby the very financial solvency of the United States of America and you are suddenly Public Enemy No 1.

As I said, I am by no means an apologist for Russia – I tell it like I see it. To western sensibilities, Russia has some serious domestic issues to address: human rights abuses during the brutal Chechen war; its suspected involvement in the death by polonium-210 poisoning of KGB defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; its overly-punitive drug laws; and human rights abuses against dissidents, the LGBT community, and journalists. Yet the West has merely mouthed platitudinous objections to all these issues.

So why now is Russia being internationally excoriated and penalised for actions for which it is not responsible?  Over the last few years it has looked statesmanlike compared to the US and its vassal states: it was not involved with the Libya fiasco, it has given safe haven to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and it halted the rush to yet another disastrous western war in Syria.

Nor, to my western European sensibilities, are America and its acolytes too pristine either, with their mass surveillance, presidentially-approved kill lists, illegal wars, kidnapping, torture and drone bombings. Not to mention their domestic addiction to gun ownership and the death penalty, but that’s another story….

Yet the US media-enabled propaganda machines justify all of the above and demonise another country, creating yet another fresh bogeyman to justify yet more “defence” spending.

The Russian bear is being baited, increasingly surrounded by yapping curs. I thought this sport had been made illegal hundreds of years ago, at least in Europe – but obviously not in the dirty realm of international politics.  It is a marvel the bear has not lashed out more in the face of such provocation.

There was a chance for peace when the Wall came down 25 years ago. If the US had upheld its side of the gentlemen’s agreement about not expanding NATO, if the neocon predators had not pounced on Russia, and if closer integration could have been achieved with Europe, the future could have been rosy.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with Gorbachev – we are indeed facing a new Cold War, and this time it is of America’s making. But Europe will bear the brunt, through trade sanctions, energy shortages and even, potentially, war. It is time we Europeans broke away from our American vassalage and looked to our own future.

The New Terrorism

First published on RT Op-Edge

Two horrors have dwelt in my mind for the last twenty years, ever since I read reports about terrorist groups while an impressionable young intelligence officer. The first involves the use of power tools as instruments of torture; drills, industrial sanders, angle grinders. This is no secret now and the meme has been much used and abused by Hollywood and series such as “24”, but I still feel uncomfortable every time I am dragged into the “boy toy” section of a home improvement mega-store.

The second has recently hit the news as a grim result of ISIS, the ultra-violent Sunni sect that has swept across much of Syria and Iraq, imposing the most draconian form of Sharia law in its wake upon the hapless citizens of formerly secular states.  I pity the poor women, and I pity still more the men of these communities faced with the option of submission or gruesome murder.

For this is the other image that haunts me: in 1995 six western tourists were abducted by a Kashmiri separatist group, Al Faran. One of the abductees, a Norwegian called Hans Christian Ostro, was found decapitated, his head had been hacked off with a knife. The sheer horror,  the terror the poor man must have experienced, has haunted me ever since.

You can probably see where I am going with this. I have not watched, nor do I have any intention of ever watching, the ISIS video of the gruesome murder of US journalist James Foley, whether the Metropolitan Police deems it a crime to do so or not. I just feel horror, again, and a deep well of sorrow for what his family and friends must be going through now.

Yet this is nothing new – we have known for months that ISIS has been beheading and crucifying people as they rampage across Syria and Iraq. There has been a steady stream of delicately pixilated heads on spikes in the western media, and the outrage has been muted.

And indeed, such beheadings have long been carried out and filmed during the earlier insurgencies in Iraq – I remember a young film maker friend who had stumbled across just such a sick propaganda video way back in 2007 – he could not sleep, could not rid his mind of the images either.

It is barbarity pure and simple, but it is also effective within the boundaries of its aims.

So, what are these aims? I just want to make two points before the West gets swept up in a new wave of outrage to “bomb the bastards” for beheading an American – after all, many hundreds if not thousands of people across the Middle East have already suffered this fate, to lack of any meaningful Western outcry.

Firstly, ISIS has clear aims (indeed it published its five-year plan to great media derision a couple of months ago). It is effectively using hideous brutality and propaganda to spread terror ahead of its war front – this is a 21st century blitzkrieg, and it’s working. The sheer horror of what they do to any who attempt to resist is so great that apparently whole armies abandon their weapons, banks have been left to be raided to the tune of half a billion dollars, and entire villages flee.

This is the pure definition of terrorism, and we can see that it is working. ISIS is doing all this to build a new state. or caliphate, in the way that their warped fundamentalist interpretation of religion sets out for them.

Secondly, and here’s the contentious bit, how precisely is this different from the terror that the Israelis have been visiting upon the many innocents killed in Gaza?  The Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate violence to stun and quash resistance was exposed by Wikileaks – the Israeli “shock and awe”.  And also, how is this different from what the US has been meting out to the peoples of Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last few years with their drone attacks?

All the above examples show strong military forces, ideologically motivated, unleashing violence and terror on a huge, disproportionate scale on innocent populations that have nowhere really to run.

The difference being? ISIS wields its own knives, does its own dirty work, and proudly films its grotesque brutality to cow its opponents. This is primitive terrorism intersecting with social media, a bastard spawn of the 21st century.  And it still seems to be effective, just as terror of the guillotine resonated throughout revolutionary France in the 18th century.

On the other hand, the US and Israel prefer to be a bit more coy about their terroristic strategies, hiding behind such phrases as “proportionate”, “self-defence”, “precision bombing” and “spreading democracy”. But who, seriously, falls for that these days?

Their armed forces are not directly getting their hands dirty with the blood of their victims: instead, spotty young conscripts safely hidden in bunkers on the far side of the world, mete out death from the skies via sick snuff video games  – officially called “precision” bombs and drone attacks that take out whole families. Heads can be blown off, bodies eviscerated, limbs mangled and maimed, and all from a safe distance.

We had the first proof of this strategy with the decrypted military film “Collateral Murder“, where helicopter pilots shot up some Reuters journalists and civilians in Iraq in 2007. That was bad enough – but the cover-up stank. For years the Pentagon denied all knowledge of this atrocious war crime, and it was only after Wikileaks released the information, provided by the brave whistleblower Chelsea Manning, that the families and the international community learned the truth. Yet it is Manning, not the war criminals, who is serving a 35 year sentence in a US prison.

Worse, by sheer scale at least, are the ongoing, wide-ranging unmanned drone attacks across the Middle East and Central Asia, as catalogued by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK. Many thousands of innocents have been murdered in these attacks, with the US justifying the strikes as killing “militants” – ie any male over the age of 14.  The US is murdering children, families, wedding parties and village councils with impunity.

And then the infamous provisions of the US NDAA 2012. This means that the US military can extra-judicially murder anyone, including US citizens, by drone strike anywhere in the world with no trial, no judicial process. And so it has come to pass.  American Anwar Al Awlaki was murdered in 2011 by a drone strike.

Not content with that, only weeks later the US military then blew his 16 year old son to pieces in another drone strike. Abdulrahman – a child – was also an American citizen. How, precisely, is this atrocity not morally equivalent to the murder of James Foley?

So what is the real, qualitative difference between the terror engendered by ISIS, or by the Dahiya Doctrine, or by the US drone strike programme? Is it just that ISIS does the dirty, hands on, and spreads its message shamelessly via social media, while the US does the dirty in secret and prosecutes and persecutes anyone who wants to expose its egregious war crimes?

I would suggest so, and the West needs to face up to its hypocrisy. A crime is a crime. Terrorism is terrorism.

Otherwise we are no better than the political drones in George Orwell’s “1984”, rewriting history in favour of the victors rather than the victims, acquiescing to eternal war, and happily mouthing Newspeak.

New Terrorism, anyone?

The Year of Edward Snowden

First published on RT OP-Edge. Also on Consortium News, Huffington Post, and the Sam Adams Award website.

A year ago I stumbled  across a story about a worrying new surveillance programme developed by the NSA: Prism. While nobody was identified as the source of the disclosure, I was awestruck by the bravery of this unknown person.

At that time the Obama administration had been waging an aggressive war on whistleblowers: ex-CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, was languishing in prison while the torturers went free; Kirk Wiebe, William Binney and Thomas Drake of the NSA had narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance – indeed, despite having gone through all the approved channels, Drake had faced a 35-year prison sentence; and of course the kangaroo court had just started to try Chelsea Manning for her exposure of US war crimes. Inevitably, it is the whistleblower Manning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in prison, not the war criminals.

President Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espionage Act against whistleblowers during his years in the White House more times than all his predecessors put together, while at the same time allowing a bone fide spy ring – the Russian illegals exposed in 2010 – to return home. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked to Wikileaks in 2010.

Against this background, fully aware of the hideous risks he was taking and the prospect of the rest of his life behind bars, a young man stepped forward. Four days after the initial Prism disclosure, Edward Snowden announced to the world that he was the source of the story and many more to come. He was clear then about his motivation and he remains clear now in the few interviews he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge concern. The American intelligence infrastructure, along with its equivalent agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatened  the constitution of the United States, but also eroded the privacy of all the world’s citizens.

The global surveillance state wanted to “master the internet“, as another disclosure proved, and the UK’s GCHQ stepped up to the plate. As increasing numbers of us conduct aspects of our lives over the internet (be it banking, health, social lives, organisations, activism, relationships) this growing lack of privacy strikes at the very root of democracy. Privacy was enshrined as a basic human right in the UN Declaration in 1948 precisely because without it we are vulnerable to the encroachments and abuses of the state. What Snowden has disclosed would the the Stasi’s wet dream and goes far beyond the dystopic horrors of George Orwell’s novel “1984”.

So what did Snowden disclose?  Prism was only the start, and that was bad enough – a programme to scoop up all our metadata: whom we’re in contact with, for how long, what we’re reading, what we’re viewing. NSA apologists say that this is not invasive, it is not looking at the contents of communications. I can assure your that metadata is intelligence gold dust. It can provide a far more detailed overview of a person’s life than any individual communication often can.

But it gets worse. Then came Tempora and associated documents that disclosed that the UK’s GCHQ was mainlining information from the transatlantic fibre optic cables, which affected all European citizens, as well as displaying how GCHQ was prostituting itself to the NSA for money and putting NSA objectives above the priorities of the UK government.

And then XKeyscore, enthusiastically used by Germany’s BND, presumably without the knowledge of its political masters.  There have been many more: Brazil’s Petrobras oil company, the French telephone network, charities, the Muscular access point and the massive Fascia database, which contains trillions of device-location records….. Where to stop?

This year Britain’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group was using Squeaky Dolphin‘s real-time monitoring of social media networks, and the bulk collection of private webcam images via the Optic Nerve programme.

This last most grimly does away with the “done nothing wrong, nothing to hide” argument. In this era of families living in different countries and long distance relationships, video skype is increasingly used to stay in contact with loved ones.  And this contact can be somewhat intimate at times between couples. On video. Anyone who has ever used skype for such purposes must surely be feeling violated?

Out of this morass of spying came moments of personal annoyance for western politicians, not least the information that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was also being tapped, as were those of numerous other politicians. Which rather blows out of the water the much-abused argument that all this surveillance is to stop terrorists. On what planet would the NSA spooks need to live to seriously think that Merkel could be deemed a terrorist?

All these disclosures are of the gravest public interest. Yet how have western politicians reacted?  In the usual way – shoot the messenger. All the standard li(n)es have been trotted out by the spies: Snowden was too junior to know what he is talking about, and was  “just” a contracted systems administrator (this line says more the ignorance of the politicians about all things tech than anything about Snowden’s job); that Snowden is a traitor for fleeing to Russia, when in fact he was trapped there by the USA withdrawing his passport while in transit to Latin America; or that he should “man up” and return to the US to stand trial. There were even apparently calls from the spies for him to be extrajudicially murdered.

Despite this, his disclosures have resulted in congressional hearings in the US, where senior spooks have been caught out lying about the efficacy of these spy programmes.  A US federal judge has declared the NSA’s activities unconstitutional, and minor reforms are underway to protect the rights of US citizens within their own country.

Which is a start.  However, that still leaves the rest of us living under the baleful gaze of the NSA and its vassals.

The British response has been largely muted, with politicians immediately assuring the grateful citizens of the UK that everything done by the spies is legal and proportionate, when in fact it was manifestly not. Nor is this any consolation for the rest of Europe’s citizens – after all, why should the British Foreign Secretary be able to take it upon himself to authorise intercept programmes such as Tempora that sweep up the communications of an entire continent?

Press discussion of Snowden’s disclosures in the UK has been largely muted because of a censorship notice slapped on the media, while the Guardian newspaper that helped to break the story had its hard disks smashed up by GCHQ.

Other countries have displayed a more robust response, with Brazil planning to build its own transatlantic cables to Europe to avoid the Tempora programme, and in Germany people have been demanding that the constitution be upheld and privacy ensured against the American surveillance behemoth.

The European parliamentary Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee has held months-long hearings with evidence from tech experts, whistleblowers and campaigners about what it should do to protect EU citizens from the predations of the US.  Edward Snowden himself gave a statement. This is all well and good, but it would be more helpful if they could give Snowden asylum in Europe and also put in place some meaningful measures to protect our rights one year on – in fact, all they would need to do is enact the provisions of the European parliament’s own July 2001 report into the Echelon fiasco.

Echelon, some of you may remember, was a global proto-surveillance network, where the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada (now called Five Eyes) could all share product and subvert oversight measures in each others’ countries. In 2001 the EU recommended that Europe develop its own internet infrastructure and move away from its dependency on US corporate proprietary software.  All good suggestions, but all too soon forgotten after 9/11 and the rush to the “war on terror”.

One year on from Snowden I would suggest that these measures should indeed be implemented. The European Parliament needs to take action now and show its 500 million citizens that it is serious about protecting their rights rather than pandering to the demands of the US government and its corporate sponsors.

So, on this anniversary, I want to salute the bravery of Edward Snowden. His conscious courage has given us all a fighting chance against a corporate-industrial-intelligence complex that is running amok across the world.   I hope that we can all find within us an answering courage to do what is right and indeed take back our rights. His bravery and sacrifice must not be in vain.

In Celebration of Whistleblowers

First published on RT Op-Edge.

In the UK last week there was a series of events to celebrate the wonderful work of whistleblowers.

In previous decades these brave and rare individuals have often been all too easily dismissed with the usual, carefully orchestrated media slanders of “disgruntled”, “too junior”, “sacked”, whatever ad nauseam. But no longer.

Now, in this era where we have been lied into illegal wars, where the banks privatise their profits yet make their risks public and get repeatedly bailed out, and when people are needlessly dying in our hospitals, more and more people realise the value that whistleblowers can bring to the public debate.

Indeed, the system is now so broken that the whistleblower is often the regulator of last resort.

Plus, of course, this is the era of Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. The concept of whistleblowing has gone global in response to the scale of the threats we are all now facing from the military-security complex world-wide.

So last week was rather invigorating and involved a number of events that gave due credit to the bravery and sacrifice of whistleblowers.

First up we had the international launch of the UK whistleblower support group, The Whistler. This is a British organisation designed to provide a legal, psychological and social support network to those in the UK brave enough to come out and blow the whistle on incompetence and crime from any sector, public or private, and many hundreds have over the last few years, particularly from the financial and health sectors.

Sadly all experience the same treatment; vilification, suppression, and even the loss of their careers for daring to expose the incompetence and even crime of others.  Sadly, while there is a law in place that is supposed to provide some protection, all to often this has failed over the last 16 years.  The Whistler provides a much needed service.

A number of international whistleblowers were in the UK for the week for other events, and The Whistler was able to host them and hear their stories. Gavin MacFadyen of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, and the indefatigable campaigner Eileen Chubb hosted the event, and former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, NSA whistleblower Tom Drake, Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability project (The Whistler’s US counterpart), and myself spoke. The Whistler will officially be launched in the UK on 20th March, so watch this space.

The next night we found ourselves at the prestigious Oxford Union Society, which was kind enough to host the award ceremony for the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence for the second year running. You may remember that last year the award went to Dr Tom Fingar, whose US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 single-handedly halted to rush to war against Iran.

The Sam Adams Associates is a group of intelligence, government and military whistleblowers and campaigners.  Each year we vote to confer an award on a member of the intelligence community or related professions who exemplifies CIA analyst, Sam Adams’ courage, persistence and telling truth to power, no matter what the consequences.

Since its inception in 2002, the award has been given to truth tellers Coleen Rowley of the FBI, Katherine Gun of GCHQ, Sibel Edmonds of the FBI, Craig Murray former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Sam Provance former US army Sgt, Major Frank Grevil of Danish intelligence, Larry Wilkerson former US army Colonel, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Thomas Drake of NSA and Jesselyn Radack of the Department of Justice, Dr Thomas Fingar former Deputy Director of National Intelligence, and Edward Snowden former NSA contractor.

This year the award went, unanimously and inevitably, to Chelsea Manning, and many Sam Adams associates travelled to the UK to attend and to honour her achievements and 2013 SAA laureate Edward Snowden sent through a congratulatory message. Sadly and for obvious reasons Chelsea could not receive the award in person, but her old school friend, Aaron Kirkhouse read out a powerful and moving statement written by her for the occasion.

The following night the Union hosted a debate on “This house would call Edward Snowden a hero”. I had the pleasure of arguing for the proposition, along with US journalist Chris Hedges, NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, and former UK government minister Chris Huhne, and we won – 212 to 171 was the final tally, I believe.

I very much enjoyed the events, so a massive thanks to Polina Ivanova, the current Union president, and her team who organised the events.

The best part of the week though, apart from the set events, was having the time to be with other intelligence whistleblowers and fellow campaigners. While in London we also all had the opportunity to do a range of media interviews with programmes such as Brian Rose’s London Real TV and Afshin Rattansi’s “Going Underground” on RT.

Sadly but rather predictably, the old media chose not to take advantage of such a rich source of expertise in town.  Despite repeated invitations, the MSM failed to attend any of the events or interview any of the whistleblowers. But perhaps that’s better than the appallingly off-beam coverage the Guardian gave to Dr Fingar’s award ceremony last year.

But the old media are behind the times, which are definitely a’changing. In this post-Wikileaks, post-Manning and post-Snowden world, the tone of the debate has changed for good. Whistleblowers are increasingly valued as brave individuals of conscience and there is much more awareness and interest in the issues of privacy, human rights and the meaning of democracy. Indeed, in the fundamental meaning of freedom.

Edward Snowden, Man of the Year

First published at RT Op-Edge.

When asked if Edward Snowden deserves to be the Man of the Year 2013, and I have been many times, my answer has to be a categorical, resounding YES.

Sure, it has been an eventful year and there are a lot of contenders. But Edward Snowden stands out for me for three key reasons:  his personal and conscious courage, the sheer scale of his disclosures and the continuing, global impact of what he did. Purely because of his actions we, the world’s citizens, are now able to have a discussion about the nature of our civilisation and potentially call a halt to the frightening slide into a global surveillance dystopia.

For the actions of Snowden have indeed laid bare the fact that we are living global crisis of civilisation .  To date it is estimated the we have only seen about 1% of the documents he disclosed –  the merest hint of the tip of a monstrous iceberg.  What further horrors await us in 2014 and beyond?

The Personal Risk

First of all, there is the personal aspect.  Snowden has said that he does not want to be the story, he wants the focus to remain on the information.  I respect that, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the scale of sacrifice this young man has made.  He had a well-paid job in Hawaii, an apparently happy relationship, and good career prospects. All this he threw away to alert the world to the secret, illegal and dystopian surveillance system that has stealthily been smothering the world.

But Snowden faced far more than merely throwing away a comfortable professional life. Over the last few years the US government, apparently learning well from its former colonial master the UK about the art of crushing of whistleblowers, has been waging a war against what it now deems the “insider threat” – ie persons of conscience who speak out. President Obama has used the Espionage Act (1917) to persecute and prosecute more whistleblowers than all previous presidents in total before him.

This is indeed a “war on whistleblowers”. John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer who refused to participate in the torture programme and then exposed, it is currently languishing in prison; Thomas Drake, an earlier NSA whistleblower, was threatened with 35 years in prison; young Chelsea Manning was maltreated in prison, faced a kangaroo court, and is currently serving a similar sentence for the exposure of hideous war crimes against civilians in the Middle East. And the list goes on.

So not only did Edward Snowden turn his back on his career, he knew exactly the sheer scale of the legal risk he was taking when he went public, displaying bravery very much above and beyond the call of duty.

The intelligence apologists in the media have inevitably  shouted “narcissism” about his brave step to out himself, rather than just leak the information anonymously.  However, these establishment windbags are the real narcissists. Snowden correctly assessed that, had he not put his name to the disclosures, there would have been a witch-hunt targeting his former colleagues and he wanted to protect them. Plus, as he said in his very first public interview, he wanted to explain why he had done what he had done and what the implications were for the world.

The Disclosures

The sheer scale and nature of the disclosures so far has been breathtaking, and they just keep coming. They show that a vast, subterranean surveillance state that has crept across the whole world, unknown and unchecked by the very politicians who are supposed to hold it to account. Indeed, not only have we learned that we are all under constant electronic surveillance, but these politicians are targeted too. This is a global secret state running amok and we are all now targets.

Only yesterday, Der Spiegel reported more egregious examples of how the spies bug us: hardware hacks, computer viruses and even microwave wavelengths attacking both our computers and us – tin foil hats might not be such a bad idea after all….

The Implications

Snowden’s disclosures have laid bare the fact that the internet has been thoroughly hacked, subverted and indeed militarised against we the people.  The basic freedom of privacy,  enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, has been destroyed.

Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and discuss ideas freely and in privacy, we are all living in an Orwellian dystopia, and we are all potentially at risk. These media must be based on technologies that empower individual citizens, not corporations or foreign governments, and certainly not a shadowy and unaccountable secret state.

The central societal function of privacy is to create the space for citizens to resist the violation of their rights by governments and corporations. Privacy is the last line of defense historically against the most potentially dangerous organisation that exists: the state.

By risking his life, Edward Snowden has allowed us all to see exactly the scale of the threat now facing us and to allow us the opportunity to resist.  We all owe him a debt of gratitude, and it is our duty to ensure that his courage and sacrifice has not been in vain.

TPP – copyright versus free speech

First published by RT Op-Edge.

We, the citizens of the world, already owe NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a huge debt of gratitude.  Even the limited publication of a few of the documents he disclosed to journalists has to date provoked a political and public debate in countries across the planet – and who knows what other nasties lurk in the cache of documents, yet to be exposed?

Thanks to Snowden, millions of people as well as many governments have woken up to the fact that privacy is the vital component of free societies.  Without that basic right we are unable to freely read, write, speak, plan and associate without fear of being watched, our every thought and utterance stored up to be potentially used against us at some nebulous future date.  Such panoptic global surveillance leads inevitably to self-censorship and is corrosive to our basic freedoms, and individual citizens as well as countries are exploring ways to protect themselves and their privacy.

As I and others more eminent have said before, we need free media to have a free society.

But even if we can defend these free channels of communication, what if the very information we wish to ingest and communicate is no longer deemed to be free?  What if we become criminalised purely for sharing such un-free information?

The global military security complex may be brutal, but it is not stupid. These corporatist elites, as I prefer to think of them, have seen the new medium of the internet as a threat to their profits and power since its inception. Which is why they have been fighting a desperate rearguard action to apply US patent and copyright laws globally.

Pirate_Bay_LogoThey began by going after music sharing sites such as Napster and imposing grotesque legal penalties on those trying to download a few songs they liked for free, then trying to build national firewalls to deny whole countries access to file sharing sites such as The Pirate Bay and persecuting its co-founder Anakata, mercifully failing to extradite Richard O’Dwyer from the UK to the US on trumped up charges for his signposting site to free media, and culminating in the take down of Megaupload and the illegal FBI attack against Kim Dotcom’s home in New Zealand last year.

But for all these high-profile cases of attempted deterrence, more and more people are sharing information, culture, and research for free on the internet. Using peer to peer technologies like Bittorrent and anonymising tools like Tor they are hard to detect, which is why the corporatist lobbyists demand the surveillance state develop ever more intrusive ways of detecting them, including the possibility of deep packet inspection. And of course once such invasive technologies are available, we all know that they will not only be used to stop “piracy” but will also be used against the people of the world by the military surveillance complex too.

But that is still not enough for the corporatists.  Largely US-based, they are now trying to flex their political muscle globally.  First the US claims that any site ending with a tier one US domain name (.com, .org, .net and .info) comes under US law – anywhere in the world – and can be taken down without warning or redress by a diktat from the US government.

More egregiously still, the US corporatists have been trying to impose their legal dominion globally via a series of secret regional trade agreements: ACTA, TTIP/TAFTA, SOPA, and now in the recently Wikileaked details of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) targeting the countries around the Pacific rim.

These agreements, written by corporate lobbyists, are so secret that the democratic representatives of sovereign countries are not even allowed to read the contents or debate the terms – they are just told to sign on the dotted line, effectively rubber-stamping legislation that is antithetical to the vast majority their citizens’ interests, which gives greater sovereign powers to the interests of the corporations than it does to nation states, and which will criminalise and directly harm the people of the world in the interests of the few.

One of the proposals is that multinational corporations can sue national governments for future lost profits based on patents not granted or environmental restrictions. This is nothing short of full-on corporatism where international law and global treaties serve a handful of large corporations to the detriment of national sovereignty, environmental health and even human life.

For by protecting “intellectual property” (IP), we are not just talking about the creative endeavours of artists. One does not need to be a lawyer to see the fundamental problematic assumptions in the goals as defined in the leaked document:

Enhance the role of intellectual property in promoting economic and social development, particularly in relation to the new digital economy, technological innovation, the transfer and dissemination of technology and trade;

This statement assumes that IP, a made-up term that confuses three very different areas of law, is by definition beneficial to society as a whole. No evidence for these claimed benefits is provided anywhere. As with “what-is-good-for-General-Motors-is-good-for-America” and the theory of ”trickle down” economics, the benefits are simply assumed and alternative models actively and wilfully ignored. The idea that most societies on the planet might vastly benefit from a relaxation of patent laws or the length of copyright is not even up for debate. This despite the fact that there is plenty of research pointing in that direction.

These secret proposed treaties will enforce patents that put the cost of basic pharmaceuticals beyond the reach of billions; that privatise and patent basic plants and food; and that prevent the sharing of cutting edge academic research, despite the fact that this is usually produced by publicly funded academics at our publicly funded universities.

The price, even today, of trying to liberate research for the public good can be high, as Aaron Swartz found out earlier this year.  After trying to share research information from MIT, he faced a witch hunt and decades in prison. Instead he chose to take his own life at the age of 26. How much worse will it be if TPP et al are ratified?

It is thanks to the high-tech publisher, Wikileaks, that we know the sheer scale of the recent TPP débacle.  It is also heartening to see so many Pacific rim countries opposing the overweening demands of the USA. Australia alone seems supportive – but then regionally it benefits most from its membership of the “Five Eyes” spy programme with America.

The intellectual property wars are the flip side of the global surveillance network that Snowden disclosed – it is a classic pincer movement.

hAs well as watching everything we communicate, the corporatists are also trying to control exactly what information we are legally able to communicate, and using this control as justification for yet more intrusive spying. It’s the perfect self-perpetuating cycle.

By curtailing the powers of the spy agencies, we could restore the internet to its original functionality and openness while maintaining the right to privacy and free speech – but maintaining a 20th century copyright/IP model at the same time is impossible. Or we could give up our privacy and other civil rights to allow specific protected industries to carry on coining it in. A last option would be to switch off the internet. But that is not realistic: modern countries could not survive a day without the internet, any more than they could function without electricity.

As a society we’re going through the painful realisation that we can only have two out of the three options. Different corporatist interest groups would no doubt make different choices but, along with the vast majority of the people, I opt for the internet and privacy as both a free channel for communication and the free transfer of useful information.

Like any social change (the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage), this is also accompanied by heated arguments, legal threats and repression, and lobbyist propaganda. But historically all this sound and fury will signify…. precisely nothing. Surely at some point basic civil rights will make a comeback, upheld by the legislature and protected by law enforcement.

The choice is simple: internet, privacy, copyright. We can only choose two, and I know which I choose.