BBC World interview re UK spy accountability

Here’s a recent inter­view I did for BBC World about the three top Brit­ish spies deign­ing, for the first time ever, to be pub­licly ques­tioned by the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment, which has a notional over­sight role:

BBC World inter­view on UK Par­laiment­ary hear­ings on NSA/Snowden affair from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

It sub­sequently emerged that they only agreed to appear if they were told the ques­tions in advance.  So much for this already incred­ibly lim­ited over­sight cap­ab­il­ity in a notional West­ern democracy.….

The “Insider Threat”

As the old media pro­pa­ganda battle inev­it­ably heats up around the Edward Snowden case, I stumbled across this little Amer­ican news gem recently. The premise being that poten­tial whis­tleblowers are now deemed to be the new “insider threat”.

Well, the US spooks and their friends have already had a pretty good run through the “reds under the bed” of McCarthy­ism, polit­ical sub­vers­ives, illeg­als, Muslims and “domestic extrem­ists”, whatever the hell that really means leg­ally.  Now they’ve hit on another threat­en­ing cat­egory to jus­tify yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance crack­downs. What’s in a name.….

Firstly, this is old news resur­rec­ted in the wake of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures to scare people anew. Way back in 2008 the US gov­ern­ment wrote a report about “insider threats” and the per­ceived danger of the high-tech pub­lisher Wikileaks and, in early 2010 the report was leaked to the very same organisation.

Wikileaks1In 2008 the US gov­ern­ment strategy was to expose a Wikileaks source so that oth­ers would be deterred from using the con­duit in future. Well that didn’t hap­pen — Wikileaks tech­no­lo­gic­ally out­paced the lum­ber­ing, bru­tish might of the US and syco­phantic West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies.  The unfor­tu­nate Brad­ley Man­ning was exposed by an FBI snitch, Adrian Lamo, rather than from any tech­nical fail­ure of the Wikileaks sub­mis­sion system.

What did occur was a mus­cu­lar dis­play of global cor­por­at­ism, with nation after nation capit­u­lat­ing to take down the Wikileaks site, but mir­ror sites sur­vived that poin­ted to Switzer­land (which has a strong tra­di­tion of dir­ect demo­cracy, self defence and free speech and which remains stead­fastly inde­pend­ent from inter­na­tional dip­lo­matic circle jerks the UN, NATO, and such like.

On top of that, all major fin­an­cial chan­nels stopped dona­tions to Wikileaks — an act now been deemed to be mani­festly illegal in some countries.

Now, in the wake of the Man­ning and Snowden dis­clos­ures, the US main­stream media appears, inev­it­ably, to be try­ing to con­flate the cases of known trait­ors with, you’ve guessed it, bona fide whistleblowers.

Cases such as Ald­rich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed their coun­tries by selling secrets to an enemy power — the Soviet Union — in an era of exist­en­tial threat. They were trait­ors to be pro­sec­uted under the US Espi­on­age Act (1917) — that is what it was designed for.

This has noth­ing what­so­ever to do with the cur­rent whis­tleblower cases and is just so much basic neuro-linguistic pro­gram­ming. *Yawn*. Do people really fall for that these days?

This is a tired old tac­tic much used and abused in the offi­cially secret UK, and the USA has learned well from its former colo­nial mas­ter — so much for 1776 and the constitution.

How­ever, in the CBS inter­view men­tioned above it was subtly done — at least for a US broad­cast — with the com­ment­ator sound­ing reas­on­able but with the imagery telling a very dif­fer­ent story.

In my view this con­fla­tion exposes a dark hypo­crisy at the heart of the mod­ern military-security com­plex. In the old days the “good­ies” and “bad­dies” were simplist­ic­ally demarc­ated in the minds of the pub­lic: free West good; total­it­arian East bad. This fol­lowed the main­stream pro­pa­ganda of the day, and those who worked for the oppos­i­tion — and the Soviet Union gave the US/UK intel­li­gence axis a good run for its money — were pro­sec­uted as trait­ors.  Unless, of course, they emerged from the rul­ing class, when they were allowed to slip away and evade justice.

And of course many of us remem­ber the scan­dal of the Rus­sian spy ring that was exposed in 2010 — many indi­vidu­als who had illeg­ally been infilt­rated into the US for dec­ades. Yet, when they were caught and exposed, what happened?  A deal was struck between the US and Rus­sia and they were just sent home.

No such lib­er­al­ity is shown to true modern-day whis­tleblowers. Quite the oppos­ite, with the UK and the US will­ing to breach all estab­lished dip­lo­matic pro­to­cols to hunt down their quarry. This des­pite the fact that the whis­tleblowers are lib­er­at­ing inform­a­tion about the illeg­al­ity of our own gov­ern­ments to empower all of us to act as informed cit­izens, and des­pite the fact that they are expos­ing global-level crimes.

Bradley_Manning_2Brad­ley Man­ning and Edward Snowden have risked their lives to expose the fact that we are liv­ing under a global police state and that our mil­it­ary and intel­li­gence agen­cies are run­ning amok across the planet, with CIA kill lists, rendi­tions, tor­ture, wars, drone strikes and dirty tricks.

Yet the West is not offi­cially at war, nor is it facing an exist­en­tial threat as it did dur­ing the Second World War or the so-called Cold War.  Des­pite this, the US has used the Espi­on­age Act (1917) more times in the last 5 years than over the pre­ced­ing cen­tury. Is it sud­denly infes­ted with spies?

Well, no.  But it is sud­denly full of a new digital gen­er­a­tion, which has grown up with the assump­tion that the inter­net is free, and which wants to guar­an­tee that it will remain free without Big Brother watch­ing over their shoulders.  Tal­en­ted indi­vidu­als who end up work­ing for the spy agen­cies will inev­it­ably be per­turbed by pro­grammes such as PRISM and TEMPORA. Law­yers, act­iv­ists and geeks have been warn­ing about this for the last two decades.

By 1911 the UK had already put in place not only the proto-MI5, but also then added the first Offi­cial Secrets Act (OSA) to pro­sec­ute real trait­ors ahead of the First World War. The UK updated the OSA in 1989 spe­cific­ally to sup­press whis­tleblow­ing. The US has learned these legal sup­pres­sion les­sons well, not least by shred­ding its con­sti­tu­tion with the Pat­riot Act.

How­ever, it has neg­lected to update its law against whis­tleblowers, fall­ing back instead onto the hoary old 1917 Espi­on­age Act — as I said before, more times in the past five years than over the last century.

This is indeed a war on whis­tleblowers and truth-tellers, noth­ing more, noth­ing less.

What are they so afraid of? Ideal­ists who believe in the old demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tions? The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights and other such fuddy-duddy concepts?

Or could the real enemy be the bene­fi­ciar­ies of the whis­tleblowers? When the US gov­ern­ment says that Man­ning or Snowden have aided the enemy, do they, could they, mean we the people?

The answer to that would logic­ally be a resound­ing “yes”. Which leads to another ques­tion: what about the nation states — China, Rus­sia, Iran — that we have been told repeatedly over the last few years are hack­ing and spy­ing on us?

The phrase “pot and kettle” springs to mind. There are no good­ies and bad­dies any more. Indeed, all that remains is out­right and shock­ing hypocrisy.

Snowden has laid bare the fact that the US and its vas­sals are the most flag­rant prot­ag­on­ists in this cyber­war, even as our gov­ern­ments tell us that we must give up basic human rights such as pri­vacy, to pro­tect us from the global threat of ter­ror­ism (while at the same time arm­ing and fund­ing our so-called ter­ror­ist enemies).

Yet whis­tleblowers who bravely step up and tell us our gov­ern­ments are com­mit­ting war crimes, that we are being spied on, that we live under Orwellian sur­veil­lance, are now the people being pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age, not the “real” spies and cer­tainly not the war criminals.

In the CBS inter­view, former US Gen­eral Michael Hay­den, ex-head of the CIA and NSA asked: “what kind of moral judge­ment does it take for someone to think that their view trumps that of two pres­id­ents, the Con­gress and Sen­ate, the court sys­tem and 35,000 co-workers at the NSA?”

Er, per­haps someone who does not want to col­lude in the most stark examples of global war crimes and illegal sur­veil­lance? And per­haps someone who believes that the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was set up for a reason after the hor­rors of the Second World War?

When the rule of law breaks down, who is the real criminal?

What we are wit­ness­ing is a gen­er­a­tional clash, not a clash of ideo­lo­gies. The old­sters still be believe in the Cold War nar­rat­ive (or even “cow­boys and Indi­ans”?) of good­ies, bad­dies and exist­en­tial threats. The digital gen­er­a­tions have grown up in the wake of 9/11 and all the asso­ci­ated gov­ern­mental over-reaction — war crimes go unre­por­ted and untried, real civil liber­ties are an his­toric arte­fact, and the global pop­u­la­tion lives under Big Brother sur­veil­lance. Why on earth is any­one, really, sur­prised when young people of hon­our and ideal­ism try to take a stand and make a difference?

We should be more wor­ried about our future if the whis­tleblowers were to stop com­ing forward.

Woolwich murder — the “why?” should be obvious

The bru­tal murder in Wool­wich last week of Drum­mer Lee Rigby rightly caused shock and out­rage. Inev­it­ably there has been a media feed­ing frenzy about “ter­ror­ist” attacks and home-grown rad­ic­al­isa­tion.  Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter, David Cameron, felt it neces­sary to fly back from a key meet­ing in France to head up the Brit­ish secur­ity response.

One slightly heart­en­ing piece of news to emerge from all the hor­ror is that the PM has stated, at least for now, that there will be no knee-jerk secur­ity crack-down in the wake of this killing.  Sure, secur­ity meas­ures have been ramped up around mil­it­ary bases in the UK, but cyn­ical calls from the securo­crats to rean­im­ate a pro­posed “snoop­ers’ charter”, aka the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill, have for now been dis­coun­ted. And rightly so — MI5 already has all the neces­sary powers to mon­itor suspects.

How­ever, there does still seem to be a polit­ic­ally disin­genu­ous view about the motiv­a­tion behind this murder.  Yet the sus­pects them­selves made no secret of it — indeed they stayed at the scene of the crime for twenty minutes appar­ently encour­aging pho­tos and smart phone record­ings in order to get across their mes­sage.  When the police armed response team finally arrived, the sus­pects reportedly charged at the police bran­dish­ing knives and pos­sibly a gun.  They were shot, but not fatally.  This may have been attemp­ted “sui­cide by cop” — delayed until they had said their piece.

This does not strike me as the actions of “crazed killers” as has been repor­ted in the media; rather it reminds me of the cold and cal­cu­lated actions of Nor­we­gian mass mur­derer, Anders Breivik. The Wool­wich murder was designed to max­im­ize the impact of the mes­sage in this social media age.

And the mes­sage being? Well, it was indeed cap­tured on smart phone and sent out to the world.  The killers clearly stated that this was a polit­ical action designed to high­light the grue­some viol­ence daily meted out across North Africa, the Middle East, and Cent­ral Asia as a res­ult of the west­ern policy of mil­it­ary interventionism.

This mani­fests in a vari­ety of ways: viol­ent res­ist­ance and insur­gency against pup­pet gov­ern­ments as we see in Iraq; interne­cine civil war in coun­tries such as post-NATO inter­ven­tion Libya; cov­ert wars fought by west­ern prox­ies, as we see in Syria; or overt attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Afgh­anistan and Pakistan, where US and UK con­trolled drones tar­get mil­it­ants named for assas­sin­a­tion on presidentially-approved CIA kill lists with the res­ult­ing col­lat­eral murder of com­munity gath­er­ings, chil­dren and wed­ding parties.

All this does not jus­tify the appalling murder in Wool­wich, and the per­pet­rat­ors must face justice for the crime.  How­ever, it does go some way to explain­ing why such an atro­city occurred, and we as a soci­ety need to face up to the facts or this will hap­pen again.

Say­ing this does not make me an apo­lo­gist for ter­ror­ism, any more than it did journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald — a writer who has had the journ­al­istic attack dogs unleashed on him for sim­ilar views. Bey­ond the group-think deni­al­ism within the Wash­ing­ton Belt­way and the West­min­ster Vil­lage, the cause and effect are now widely-recognised. Indeed, in her 2010 testi­mony to the Chil­cot Inquiry about the Iraq War, former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller said pre­cisely the same thing — and I don’t think any­one would dare to label her “an apo­lo­gist for terrorism”.

The seed of Islamic extrem­ism was planted by west­ern colo­ni­al­ism, propag­ated by the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup against Pres­id­ent Mossadegh of Iran, watered by their sup­port for a fledging Al Qaeda in the 1980s Afghan res­ist­ance to the Soviet inva­sion, and is now flour­ish­ing as a means both of viol­ently attempt­ing to eject west­ern occupy­ing forces from Muslim coun­tries and gain­ing retri­bu­tion against the West.

We need to face up to this new real­ity. The bru­tal murder of this sol­dier may be a one-off attack, but I doubt it.  Indeed, sim­ilar attacks against French sol­diers in Toulouse occurred last year, and this week­end there has already been what appears to be a copy-cat attack against a sol­dier in Paris.

In this endemic sur­veil­lance soci­ety ter­ror­ist groups are all too aware of the vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies inher­ent in large-scale, co-ordinated attacks, the plan­ning of which can be picked up by sigint or from inter­net “chat­ter”. Much sim­pler to go for the low-tech atro­city and cyn­ic­ally play the all-pervasive social media angle for max­imum coverage.

The UK media has repor­ted that the Wool­wich sus­pects have been on the Brit­ish intel­li­gence radar for the last 8 years, but MI5 failed to take prompt action. The inev­it­able gov­ern­ment enquiry has been prom­ised, but the fall-back defens­ive pos­i­tion, already being trot­ted out by former spies and ter­ror­ism experts across the media is that the secur­ity ser­vices are never going to be in a pos­i­tion to accur­ately pre­dict when every rad­ic­al­ised per­son might “flip” into viol­ence and that such “lone wolf” attacks are the most dif­fi­cult to stop.

As more news emerges, this is look­ing increas­ingly disin­genu­ous. Reports have emerged that one of the sus­pects, Michael Ade­bolajo, was approached to work as an agent for MI5 half a year ago, appar­ently after he had been arres­ted and assaul­ted by police in Kenya. This may be another example of the secur­ity ser­vices’ failed Pre­vent ini­ti­at­ive that seems to be caus­ing more harm that good within the young Brit­ish Muslim community.

This story has been com­poun­ded by the recent intriguing arrest of one of Adebolajo’s friends, the self-styled Abu Nusay­bah, imme­di­ately after he had fin­ished record­ing an inter­view about this for the BBC’s News­night pro­gramme.  The Met­ro­pol­itan Police Counter-Terrorism Com­mand swooped at the Beeb and arres­ted the man on ter­ror­ism charges: he has now dis­ap­peared into the maw of the legal system.

The only long-term and poten­tially effect­ive solu­tion is to address the fun­da­mental issues that lead to Islamic viol­ence and ter­ror­ism and begin nego­ti­ations. The UK, at least, has been through this pro­cess before dur­ing the 1990s, when it was attempt­ing to resolve the civil war in North­ern Ire­land. Indeed my former boss, Eliza Manningham-Buller, stated as much dur­ing a BBC lec­ture in 2011, say­ing that the US and UK gov­ern­ments need to nego­ti­ate with Al Qaeda to reach a polit­ical set­tle­ment.

Over the last 20 years, Al Qaeda has con­sist­ently deman­ded the removal of the west­ern (pre­dom­in­antly US) mil­it­ary pres­ence from the Middle East. Since the 9/11 attacks our polit­ical elites and media have equally con­sist­ently spun us the line that Al Qaeda car­ries out attacks because it “hates our way of life, hates our freedoms”.

Unless our gov­ern­ments acknow­ledge the prob­lems inher­ent in con­tin­ued and viol­ent west­ern inter­ven­tion­ism, unless they can accept that the war on ter­ror res­ults in rad­ic­al­isa­tion, “blow­back” and yet more inno­cent deaths, and until they admit that nego­ti­ation is the only viable long-term solu­tion, we are all con­demned to remain trapped in this ghastly cycle of violence.

MI6 “ghost money”

Here’s the full art­icle about MI6 “ghost money”, now also pub­lished at the Huff­ing­ton Post UK:

Afghan Pres­id­ent Hamid Kar­zai, has recently been cri­ti­cised for tak­ing “ghost money” from the CIA and MI6. The sums are inev­it­ably unknown, for the usual reas­ons of “national secur­ity”, but are estim­ated to have been tens of mil­lions of dol­lars. While this is nowhere near the eyebleed­ing $12 bil­lion shipped over to Iraq on pal­lets in the wake of the inva­sion a dec­ade ago, it is still a sig­ni­fic­ant amount.

And how has this money been spent?  Cer­tainly not on social pro­jects or rebuild­ing ini­ti­at­ives.  Rather, the report­ing indic­ates, the money has been fun­nelled to Karzai’s cronies as bribes in a cor­rupt attempt to buy influ­ence in the country.

None of this sur­prises me. MI6 has a long and ignoble his­tory of try­ing to buy influ­ence in coun­tries of interest.  In 1995/96 it fun­ded a “ragtag group of Islamic extrem­ists”, headed up by a Libyan mil­it­ary intel­li­gence officer, in an illegal attempt to try to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Gad­dafi.  The attack went wrong and inno­cent people were killed.  When this scan­dal was exposed, it caused an outcry.

Yet a mere 15 years later, MI6 and the CIA were back in Libya, provid­ing sup­port to the same “rebels”, who this time suc­ceeded in cap­tur­ing, tor­tur­ing and killing Gad­dafi, while plunging Libya into appar­ently end­less interne­cine war. This time around there was little inter­na­tional out­cry, as the world’s media por­trayed this aggress­ive inter­fer­ence in a sov­er­eign state as “human­it­arian relief”.

And we also see the same in Syria now, as the CIA and MI6 are already provid­ing train­ing and com­mu­nic­a­tions sup­port to the rebels — many of whom, par­tic­u­larly the Al Nusra fac­tion in con­trol of the oil-rich north-east of Syria are in fact allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq.  So in some coun­tries the UK and USA use drones to tar­get and murder “mil­it­ants” (plus vil­la­gers, wed­ding parties and other assor­ted inno­cents), while in oth­ers they back ideo­lo­gic­ally sim­ilar groups.

Recently we have also seen the West­ern media mak­ing unveri­fied claims that the Syr­ian régime is using chem­ical weapons against its own people, and our politi­cians leap­ing on these asser­tions as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for openly provid­ing weapons to the insur­gents too. Thank­fully, other reports are now emer­ging that indic­ate it was the rebels them­selves who have been using sarin gas against the people. This may halt the rush to arms, but not doubt other sup­port will con­tinue to be offered by the West to these war criminals.

So how is MI6 secretly spend­ing UK tax­pay­ers’ money in Afgh­anistan? Accord­ing to west­ern media report­ing, it is being used to prop up war­lords and cor­rupt offi­cials. This is deeply unpop­u­lar amongst the Afghan people, lead­ing to the danger of increas­ing sup­port for a resur­gent Taliban.

There is also a sig­ni­fic­ant over­lap between the cor­rupt polit­ical estab­lish­ment and the illegal drug trade, up to and includ­ing the president’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Kar­zai.  So, another unin­ten­tional con­sequence may be that some of this unac­count­able ghost money is prop­ping up the drug trade.

Afgh­anistan is the world’s lead­ing pro­du­cer of heroin, and the UN reports that poppy growth has increased dra­mat­ic­ally. Indeed, the UN estim­ates that acre­age under poppy growth in Afgh­anistan has tripled over the last 7 years.  The value of the drug trade to the Afghan war­lords is now estim­ated to be in the region of $700 mil­lion per year.  You can buy a lot of Kalash­nikovs with that.

So on the one hand we have our west­ern gov­ern­ments bank­rupt­ing them­selves to fight the “war on ter­ror”, break­ing inter­na­tional laws and mur­der­ing mil­lions of inno­cent people across North Africa, the Middle East, and cent­ral Asia while at the same time shred­ding what remain of our hard-won civil liber­ties at home.

On the other hand, we appar­ently have MI6 and the CIA secretly bank­rolling the very people in Afgh­anistan who pro­duce 90% of the world’s heroin. And then, of course, more scarce resources can be spent on fight­ing the failed “war on drugs” and yet another pre­text is used to shred our civil liberties.

This is a luc­rat­ive eco­nomic model for the bur­geon­ing military-security complex.

How­ever, it is a lose-lose scen­ario for the rest of us.

Club of Amsterdam

Last week I had the pleas­ure of speak­ing at the Club of Ams­ter­dam.  The topic under dis­cus­sion was “The future of digital iden­tity”.  Many thanks to Felix and the team. A lively even­ing.

Annie Machon at the Club of Ams­ter­dam from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
First pub­lished in my news­let­ter last week, amongst much else. Do sign up!

How to stop war — Make Wars History

A recent Make Wars His­tory event in the UK Par­lia­ment, hos­ted by John McDon­nell MP, with Chris Cover­dale and myself speak­ing.  Some prac­tical steps we can all take to make wars his­tory:

Make Wars His­tory talk in Par­lia­ment, April 2013 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

British politicians Droning on

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 2 Octo­ber 2012

Only in the mad world of mod­ern Brit­ish polit­ics could it be pos­sible to con­nect MPs, drones and royal breasts. Is this sound­ing a little too bizarre? Let me explain.…

Way back in 2008 Con­ser­vat­ive MP Damien Green, who was at the time the Shadow Min­is­ter for Immig­ra­tion, was arres­ted on sus­pi­cion of eli­cit­ing leaks from a Home Office civil ser­vant that appeared to con­firm the then Labour gov­ern­ment was cov­er­ing up UK immig­ra­tion figures.

When I say arres­ted, this was not the stand­ard, civ­il­ised and pre-arranged appoint­ment at the local nick, which the police tra­di­tion­ally allow their polit­ical “mas­ters” or, for that mat­ter, their bud­dies at News International.

Oh no, this was a full-on, Cold War-style arrest, car­ried out by the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Counter-Terrorism com­mand (known in the old days as Spe­cial Branch). Intriguingly, civil ser­vants appeared to have mis­lead­ingly hyped up the need for a heavy-handed police response by stat­ing that they were “in no doubt that there has been con­sid­er­able dam­age to national secur­ity already as a res­ult of some of these leaks”.

And indeed, the res­ult­ing arrests bore all the hall-marks of a national secur­ity case: secret police, dawn raids, and counter-terrorism style searches of the fam­ily home, the con­stitu­ency office, and — shock — an inva­sion of Green’s office in parliament.

Yet Green was not arres­ted under the terms of the Offi­cial Secrets Act. Instead, both he and his hap­less whis­tleblower, Chris­topher Gal­ley, were only seized on sus­pi­cion of breach­ing some arcane Vic­torian law (“aid­ing and abet­ting mis­con­duct in pub­lic office”).  I sup­pose arrest­ing a sit­ting MP for a breach of the OSA would have been just too polit­ic­ally tricky.

Leav­ing aside the under­stand­able upset caused to Green’s wife and chil­dren by the raid on their home, plus the fact that the police viol­ated not only their per­sonal effects such as bed sheets and love let­ters but also con­fid­en­tial legal papers about child abuse cases that Mrs Green was work­ing on, what really caused out­rage in the media and polit­ical classes was the fact that Plod had dared to invade the hal­lowed ground of parliament.

There was an out­cry from politi­cians about the “encroach­ing police state”. The case was duly dropped, the senior officer, Assist­ant Com­mis­sioner Bob Quick, had to resign (but only after com­mit­ting yet another polit­ical gaffe), and other stor­ies, such as the MP expenses scan­dal, grabbed the atten­tion of the main­stream media.

Roll on four years, and Damien Green has now ascen­ded to the giddy heights of Home Office Min­is­ter of State for Police and Crim­inal Justice. Well, meet­ing his new staff must have been an inter­est­ing exper­i­ence for him.

But what is this man now doing in his emin­ent role, to stop the slide into the encroach­ing police state that is the UK? Of all people, one would expect him to be sens­it­ive to such issues.

Sadly, he appears to have already gone nat­ive on the job. It was repor­ted yes­ter­day that he is pro­pos­ing the use of police drones to spy on the UK pop­u­la­tion, but in an “appro­pri­ate and pro­por­tion­ate” man­ner of course.

The concept of small aer­ial drones being used by UK police has been mooted for a few years now — indeed some police forces and secur­ity agen­cies have already bought them. But whereas the ini­tial, stand­ard jus­ti­fic­a­tion was that it would help in the “war on ter­ror” (as it has so ably done in the Middle East, where inno­cent fam­il­ies are routinely slaughtered in the name of assas­sin­at­ing mil­it­ants), mission-creep has already set in.  Damien Green stated at the launch of the new National Police Air Ser­vice (NPAS) that drones could be use­ful mon­it­or­ing protests and traffic viol­a­tions. It has even been repor­ted that the Home Office plans to use non-lethal weapons to do so.

Of course there are prob­lems around the use of drones in UK air­space.  Our skies are already very crowded and they could present a haz­ard to air­craft, although the BBC has repor­ted that drones could be air­borne in the next few years.  This appears to be the only argu­ment hold­ing the use of drones in check — for­get about civil liber­ties and pri­vacy issues.

This is par­tic­u­larly per­tin­ent as we look at the evol­u­tion of drone tech­no­logy.  Cur­rently the UK police are dis­cuss­ing toy-sized drones, but it has already been repor­ted that drones the size of birds or even insects, with autonom­ous intel­li­gence or swarm cap­ab­il­it­ies are being developed. And don’t even get me star­ted on the sub­ject of poten­tial militarisation.…

There is a whole debate to be had about what can be viewed and what can­not — where does the pub­lic sphere end and the private begin? A couple of years ago I sug­ges­ted some­what facetiously that our best hope of defeat­ing the intro­duc­tion of sur­veil­lance drones in the UK might be indig­nant celebs suing the paparazzi for using the tech­no­lo­gies.  But per­haps the ante has already been upped in the recent fall-out from the Duch­ess of Cam­bridge and her roy­ally papped breasts.

If drone tech­no­logy becomes wide­spread, then nobody will have any pri­vacy any­where. But who knows, before we get to that stage per­haps HM Queen will come out swinging on the side of pri­vacy for her granddaughter-in-law, if not for the rest of her “sub­jects”. If that were to hap­pen then no doubt Damien Green will aban­don his new-found enthu­si­asm for these air­borne sur­veil­lance pests; if not to stop the “encroach­ing police state” of which he must have such col­our­ful recol­lec­tions, then at least to safe­guard any poten­tial knight­hood in his rosy min­is­terial future.

The Scorpion Stare

I have writ­ten over the years about the encroach­ing sur­veil­lance state, the spread of CCTV and the increas­ing use of drones in our skies.  When the North East of Eng­land intro­duced talk­ing CCTV cam­eras that could bark orders at passing ped­es­tri­ans in 2008, I thought that we were fast approach­ing the reduc­tio ad absurdum point — and indeed this sub­ject has raised a wry laugh from audi­ences around the world ever since.

Recently I have been read­ing with dis­may a slew of art­icles about the increas­ing cor­por­at­isa­tion of the sur­veil­lance state.  First I stumbled across a piece describ­ing Facebook’s latest innov­a­tion, Facedeal: cam­eras planted in shops and bars that will use the facial recog­ni­tion and tag­ging abil­it­ies of FB to recog­nise you as a val­ued cus­tomer and offer you a dis­count, simply because you have signed up to this Big Brother app on Facebook.

Add this to the fact that Face­book is prob­ably, well, an open book for to the entire US secur­ity appar­atus, and you can see the poten­tial abuse of this sys­tem.  We shall effect­ively be bribed to allow ourselves to be spied on.

Facedeal is being trialed in the US.  Some European coun­tries, most not­ably Ger­many, have already stated that data recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy used even just for photo “tag­ging” is or could be deemed illegal. Ger­many spe­cific­ally has reg­u­la­tions that allow Inter­net users con­trol over their data. They are not going to like Facedeal.

Secondly, it was repor­ted today that Google had pat­en­ted intel­li­gent image recog­ni­tion tech­no­logy.  Com­bine this cap­ab­il­ity with Googles Earth and Street, and we are poten­tially look­ing at a truly pan­op­ticon soci­ety.  The Ger­mans are really not going to like that. (Nor indeed will cer­tain of the French, includ­ing the man who earlier this year tried to sue Google after being pho­to­graphed hav­ing a pee in his own front garden).

Thirdly, Boe­ing has tri­umphantly launched the concept of the drone swarm, oper­at­ing with a hive men­tal­ity and upping the cap­ab­il­it­ies of mil­it­ary sur­veil­lance expo­nen­tially, while tak­ing much of the risk out of any operation.

And finally, the Wikileaks story about Trap­Wire. This first emerged as yet another bonkers Amer­ican scheme, where the foot­age from CCTV street cam­eras was being main­lined into the secur­ity appar­atus. Sub­sequently, it has emerged via Wikileaks that Trap­wire is also being used in other west­ern coun­tries, includ­ing the UK.

Not only can the securo­crats watch you, they too are installing face recog­ni­tion soft­ware that can identify you. While this may not yet be as accur­ate as the spies might wish, Trap­Wire has also installed pre­dict­ive soft­ware that appar­ently can assess whether you are act­ing, loiter­ing or walk­ing in a sus­pi­cious man­ner.  So you could pre-emptively be assessed to be about to com­mit a crime or an act of ter­ror­ism and, no doubt, appro­pri­ately and pre-emptively “dealt with”.

All of which must be so reas­sur­ing to protest groups such as Occupy, which have been sub­ject to massive CCTV sur­veil­lance in NYC and which have been labelled a “terrorist/extremist threat” in the City of London.

At the risk of sound­ing alarm­ist, we now all know what “being dealt with” in this era of anti-activist SWAT teams, drone strikes and kill lists can poten­tially entail.

So where does this leave us as con­cerned cit­izens?  It strikes me that we are being cata­pul­ted into some sci-fi dysto­pia bey­ond even Orwell’s wild­est ima­gin­ings.  Any fan of mod­ern thrillers and sci-fi will be famil­iar with the concept of integ­rated super-computers that can watch our every move via CCTV.

The lat­ter is what Trap­Wire et al are work­ing towards.  These new tech­no­lo­gies remind me of a story line from a won­der­ful series of books called the The Laun­dry Files by Charles Stross.  These nov­els are a per­fect of mer­ging of Len Deighton’s lac­onic spy fic­tion, à la Harry Palmer, with the geek uni­verse and bey­ond. And, at the risk of a spoiler, one of the story lines envis­ages a cent­ral­ised and weapon­ised CCTV sys­tem, main­lin­ing into the secret ser­vices, that can be turned on UK cit­izens if the bal­loon goes up. This sys­tem is code­named the “Scor­pion Stare”.

Sounds far-fetched? Well The Laun­dry Files are a rol­lick­ing good read, but do bear in mind not only that our CCTV sys­tems may be cent­ral­ised cour­tesy of Trap­Wire, but also that vari­ous law enforce­ment agen­cies in the UK are using micro-drones to spy on pro­test­ers, and that they have reportedly enquired if these drones could be weaponised.….

So it all depends on how you define the bal­loon, I suppose.

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 3 Septem­ber 2012

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism article

Here is a recent art­icle I wrote for The Bur­eau of Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism, about our slide into a sur­veil­lance state.  

TBIJ sup­por­ted Wikileaks dur­ing the release of the Spy­Files. The issue is of such cru­cial import­ance for our demo­cracy, I was dis­ap­poin­ted that more of the main­stream media did not fol­low up on the stor­ies provided.

Here’s the text:

Ana­lysis: the slide into a sur­veil­lance state

Fifty years ago, Pres­id­ent Eis­en­hower warned of the ‘dis­astrous rise’ of the military-industrial com­plex. His fears proved all too accurate.

Now in the post-9/11 world, the threat goes even fur­ther: the military-industrial com­plex is evolving into the military-intelligence com­plex. It is a world, I fear, that is pro­pelling us into a dysto­pian sur­veil­lance nightmare.

I have seen this night­mare unfold from close quar­ters. In the mid-90s I was an intel­li­gence officer for MI5, the UK domestic secur­ity ser­vice. That is, until I resigned to help my former part­ner and col­league David Shayler blow the whistle on a cata­logue of incom­pet­ence, cover-ups and crimes com­mit­ted by spies. We naively hoped that this would lead to an inquiry, and a review of intel­li­gence work and account­ab­il­ity within the notori­ously secret­ive Brit­ish system.

The blun­ders and illegal oper­a­tions that we wit­nessed in our six years at MI5 took place at what is prob­ably the most eth­ical and account­able dec­ade in the Brit­ish spy­ing service’s 100-year history.

Even then, they were get­ting away with pretty much whatever they wanted.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched with increas­ing dis­may as more powers, money and resources have been pumped into the inter­na­tional intel­li­gence com­munity to com­bat the neb­u­lous ‘war on ter­ror’. As a res­ult, civil liber­ties have been eroded in our own coun­tries, and count­less inno­cent people have been killed, maimed and dis­placed across the Middle East.

The Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA), which was designed to allow our spy agen­cies to law­fully inter­cept our com­mu­nic­a­tions to counter ter­ror­ism and organ­ised crime, has been routinely used and abused by almost 800 pub­lic bod­ies. MI5 admit­ted to mak­ing 1,061 mis­takes or ‘admin­is­trat­ive errors’ this year alone in its applic­a­tion of RIPA, accord­ing to the Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sioner, Sir Paul Kennedy.

Intel­li­gence creep extends to the police, as we saw with the under­cover police scan­dal earlier this year, where the unac­count­able National Pub­lic Order Intel­li­gence Unit was dis­covered to be infilt­rat­ing harm­less and legit­im­ate protest groups for years on end.

It is a world, I fear, that is pro­pelling us into a dysto­pian sur­veil­lance nightmare.

Even bey­ond the under­cover cops, we have seen an explo­sion in cor­por­ate spy­ing. This involves mer­cen­ary spy com­pan­ies such as Xe (formerly Black­wa­ter), Kroll, Aegis and Dili­gence offer­ing not just secur­ity muscle in hot­spots around the world, but also bespoke oper­a­tions enabling big cor­por­a­tions to check out staff or to infilt­rate and invest­ig­ate protest groups that may embar­rass the companies.

The mer­cen­ary spy oper­ates without any over­sight what­so­ever, and can even be gran­ted immunity from pro­sec­u­tion, as Xe enjoyed when oper­at­ing in Iraq.

The last dec­ade has also been a boom time for com­pan­ies provid­ing high-tech sur­veil­lance cap­ab­il­it­ies. One aspect of this in the UK – the endemic CCTV cov­er­age – is notori­ous. Local coun­cils have inves­ted in mobile CCTV smart spy cars, while cam­eras that bark orders to you on the street have been tri­alled in Middlesbrough.

Drones are increas­ingly used for aer­ial sur­veil­lance – and the poten­tial for mil­it­ar­isa­tion of these tools is clear.

All this des­pite the fact that the head of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police depart­ment that is respons­ible for pro­cessing all this sur­veil­lance inform­a­tion stated pub­licly that CCTV evid­ence is use­less in help­ing to solve all but 3% of street rob­ber­ies in Lon­don. In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nation­ally, viol­ent crime on the streets of Bri­tain has increased.

But, hey, who cares about facts when secur­ity is Big Busi­ness? Someone, some­where, is get­ting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian sur­veil­lance tech­no­logy. And while the tech­no­logy might not be used against the wider UK cit­izenry in a par­tic­u­larly malig­nant man­ner – yet – the same com­pan­ies are cer­tainly allow­ing their tech­no­lo­gies to find their way to the more viol­ent and repress­ive Middle East­ern states.

That would never hap­pen in Bri­tain – would it? We retain an optim­istic faith in the long-term benign inten­tions of our gov­ern­ment, while tut-tutting over Syr­ian police snatch squads pre-emptively arrest­ing sus­pec­ted dis­sid­ents. Yet this has already happened in the UK: before the royal wed­ding in April, pro­test­ers were pre-emptively arres­ted to ensure that they would not cause embar­rass­ment. The intent is the same in Syria and Bri­tain. Only the scale and bru­tal­ity dif­fers – at the moment.

When I worked for MI5 in the 1990s I was appalled how eas­ily tele­phone inter­cep­tion could be used illeg­ally, and how eas­ily the spies could hide their incom­pet­ence and crimes from the gov­ern­ment. In the last dec­ade it has become much worse, with senior spies and police officers repeatedly being caught out lying to the tooth­less Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment. And this is only the offi­cial intel­li­gence sector.

How much worse is the endemic sur­veil­lance car­ried out by the cor­por­ate spy industry?

The bal­ance of power, bolstered by new tech­no­lo­gies, is shift­ing over­whelm­ingly in favour of the Big Brother state – well, almost. The WikiLeaks model is help­ing level the play­ing field, and whatever hap­pens to this trail­blaz­ing organ­isa­tion, the prin­ciples and tech­no­logy are out there and will be rep­lic­ated. This genie can­not be put back in the bottle. This – com­bined with the work of informed MPs, invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists and poten­tially the occa­sional whis­tleblower – gives me hope that we can halt this slide into a Stasi state.

Annie Machon is a former spy with MI5, the Brit­ish intel­li­gence agency work­ing to pro­tect the UK’s national secur­ity against threats such as ter­ror­ism and espi­on­age.
You can read Annie Machon’s blog ‘Using Our Intel­li­gence’ here.

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.…

“Well, if you’ve done noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide.  Why object to increas­ing state sur­veil­lance powers?”

I speak reg­u­larly at inter­na­tional events about basic freedoms, civil liber­ties and encroach­ing police states, and this is one of the most fre­quently asked questions.

This ques­tion is usu­ally posed in the con­text of the ubi­quit­ous CCTV cam­eras that infest the streets of Bri­tain, where it is estim­ated that you can be pho­to­graphed hun­dreds of times a day going about your daily busi­ness in London. 

DroneNot to men­tion the talk­ing CCTV cam­eras in the North of Eng­land, nor the increas­ing use of spy drones (as yet, reportedly, unweapon­ised — at least leth­ally)  over the skies of Bri­tain.  Nor the fact that the police officers in charge of CCTV units admit that the tech­no­logy is only use­ful as evid­ence in 3% of cases, and that viol­ent crime has actu­ally gone up since the spread of CCTV, so we’re cer­tainly no safer on our streets.

Nor do the well-meaning people ask­ing this ques­tion (who, one pre­sumes, have never-ever done any­thing wrong in their lives, even to the extent of not drop­ping lit­ter) seem to grasp the his­tor­ical evid­ence: they retain an optim­istic faith in the long-term benign inten­tions of our governments.

Yet as we’ve seen time and time again in his­tory, more dubi­ous, total­it­arian and malig­nant gov­ern­ments can indeed gain power, and will abuse and extend the sur­veil­lance laws and avail­able tech­no­logy against their own peoples.  And I’m not just talk­ing about Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s or the East Ger­man Stasi, although I’m in agree­ment with UK Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Michael Gove at the moment in say­ing that his­tory les­sons are never a waste.…

Big_Brother_posterBut we also need to learn more recent les­sons: the UK in the 1970s-1990s, where the Irish com­munity as a whole was tar­geted because of fringe Repub­lican ter­ror­ism; or the Muslim com­munity post-9/11, which lives with the real fear of of being arres­ted, extraordin­ar­ily rendered, tor­tured, or even assas­sin­ated on the say-so of unac­count­able intel­li­gence agen­cies; or even peace­ful protest groups in the USA and UK who are infilt­rated and aggress­ively invest­ig­ated by Stasi-like police officers.

The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was put in place for a very good reason in 1948: to pre­vent the hor­rors of state ter­ror­ism, viol­ence and gen­o­cide from ever hap­pen­ing again.  Amongst the essen­tial, internationally-agreed core prin­ciples are the right to life, the right not to be tor­tured, free­dom of expres­sion, and the right to indi­vidual privacy. 

Which brings me neatly back to the start of this art­icle.  This is pre­cisely why increas­ing state sur­veil­lance is a prob­lem.  Because of the post-9/11, over-inflated, hyped-up threat from soi-disant ter­ror­ist groups, we are all being pen­al­ised.  The bal­ance of power is shift­ing over­whelm­ingly in favour of the Big Brother state.

Well, almost.  The Wikileaks model is help­ing to level the play­ing field, and whatever hap­pens to this trail-blazing organ­isa­tion, the prin­ciples and tech­no­logy are out there and will be rep­lic­ated.  The genie can­not be put back in the bottle.

So, why not pose the very ques­tion in the title of this piece back on those who want to turn back the clock and erad­ic­ate Wikileaks — the gov­ern­ments, mega-corporations, and intel­li­gence agen­cies which have been outed, shamed and embar­rassed, and which are now try­ing to sup­press its work?

If you’ve done noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide.….


Bleat: the assassination of dissidents

Black_sheep?OK, so I’m not sure if my concept of Bleats (half blog, half tweet) is being grasped whole­heartedly.  But so what — it makes me laugh and the Black Sheep shall perservere with a short blog post.….

So I’m a bit puzzled here.  UK Prime Min­is­ter Dave Cameron is quoted in today’s Daily Tele­graph as say­ing that:

It is not accept­able to have a situ­ation where Col­onel Gad­dafi can be mur­der­ing his own people using aero­planes and heli­copter gun­ships and the like and we have to plan now to make sure if that hap­pens we can do some­thing to stop it.”

But do his Amer­ican best bud­dies share that, umm, humane view?  First of all they have the CIA assas­sin­a­tion list which includes the names of US cit­izens (ie its own people); then those same “best bud­dies” may well resort to assas­sin­at­ing Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, prob­ably the most high pro­file dis­sid­ent in inter­na­tional and dip­lo­matic circles at the moment; plus they are already waging remote drone war­fare on many hap­less Middle East­ern coun­tries — Yeman, Afgh­anistan, Pakistan.….

Oh, and now the UK gov­ern­ment seems poised to launch cov­ert spy drones into the skies of Bri­tain.  Even the UK’s most right-wing main­stream news­pa­pers, the Daily Tele­graph and the Daily Mail, expressed con­cern about this today.  Appar­ently these drones have yet to be weapon­ised.….

It’s a slip­pery slope down to an Orwellian nightmare.

 

Spy drones coming soon to a place near you.

For a long time now I have been giv­ing speak­ing out at con­fer­ences and in inter­views around the world about the encroach­ing nature of our sur­veil­lance states. 

One aspect of this, the endemic CCTV cov­er­age in the UK, is notori­ous inter­na­tion­ally. Not only the estim­ated 4 mil­lion+ pub­lic CCTV cam­eras on Brit­ish streets, but also all the traffic cam­eras and private secur­ity cam­eras that sneak a peak onto our pub­lic spaces too.  As if that were not enough, earlier this year it was also repor­ted that local coun­cils are invest­ing in mobile CCTV smart spy cars too.

Addi­tion­ally, of course, we had the issue of Google Street View invad­ing our pri­vacy, and the cam­era cars also just happened to coin­cid­ent­ally hoover up the private inter­net traffic of those too trust­ing to lock their wire­less inter­net access.  Unlike the UK, the Ger­mans have thank­fully said a robust “nein” to Google’s plan.

All this, as I’ve pre­vi­ously noted, des­pite the fact that the head of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police depart­ment respons­ible for pro­cessing all this sur­veil­lance inform­a­tion went on the record to say that CCTV evid­ence is use­less in help­ing to solve all but 3% of crimes, and those merely minor.  In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nation­ally, viol­ent crime on the streets of Bri­tain has not notice­ably reduced.

But, hey, who cares about facts when secur­ity is Big Busi­ness?  Someone, some­where, is get­ting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian sur­veil­lance technology. 

Talking_CCTV_CameraOn the streets of Bri­tain, it is get­ting pro­gress­ively worse.  Audi­ences across Europe and North Amer­ica have respon­ded with shocked laughter when I have men­tioned that police tri­als had been con­duc­ted in the UK using talk­ing CCTV cam­eras that barked orders at appar­ent transgressors.

In 2007 Middles­brough, a town in the north east of the UK with a zero-tolerance policy, began a trial using these talk­ing cam­eras.  In line with a gov­ern­ment review of civil liber­ties this year, it was repor­ted over the sum­mer that the use of these cam­eras might be phased out.  Need­less to say, the coun­cil is fight­ing a fierce rear­guard action against the removal of talk­ing CCTV — an obvi­ous example of the inher­ent dif­fi­culty of try­ing to wrest estab­lished power from the authorities.

Then earlier this year it emerged that vari­ous Brit­ish police forces and the Ser­i­ous Organ­ised Crime Agency (SOCA),  have ordered military-style drones to spy on the cit­izenry from the skies.  One drone man­u­fac­turer said that there had been enquir­ies about the poten­tial for mil­it­ar­isa­tion of these drones: thank­fully, his response was repor­ted as fol­lows in The Guardian:

Military_drone“Mark Lawrence, dir­ector of Air Robot UK, said: “UAVs will, to an extent, replace heli­copters. Our air robots cost £30,000 com­pared with £10m for a fully equipped mod­ern heli­copter. We have even been asked to put weapons on them but I’m not inter­ested in get­ting involved in that.”

How­ever, Wired has repor­ted that “non-lethal” weapons could be installed, to facil­it­ate crowd control.

There is also the other side of the secur­ity coin to con­sider, of course.  If these drones are imple­men­ted in the skies of Bri­tain, how soon before some enter­pris­ing young “Al Qaeda” cadre cot­tons on to the idea that this could be an effect­ive way to launch an attack?  So much for all our won­der­fully effect­ive air­port secur­ity measures.

UK_Police_DronePlus, these little air­borne pests will prove to be a real haz­ard for other air­craft, as has already been noted.

Des­pite all this, no wide­spread indig­na­tion has been voiced by the UK pop­u­la­tion.  When will the tip­ping point be reached about this incip­i­ent Orwellian nightmare?

But hope may be at hand.  A some­what frivol­ous art­icle appeared today, stat­ing that small spy drones will become the new paparazzi: Ver­sion 2.0, no doubt.

Per­haps, finally, we shall now see some mean­ing­ful oppos­i­tion to this encroach­ing Big Brother state. 

Once Bono, Sting, Saint Bob and the assembled celeb corps get on their high horses about their enshrined, fun­da­mental right to pri­vacy, it might finally become fash­ion­able to dis­cuss the very basic prin­ciples under­pin­ning our civilisation.….

.…you remem­ber, those fuddy-duddy ideas like the right to life, not to be tor­tured, not to be unlaw­fully imprisoned or kid­napped, free speech, fair tri­als, free con­science etc .…. oh, and pri­vacy of course!

US Intelligence targets Wikileaks

WikileaksThe US gov­ern­ment has appar­ently been get­ting its knick­ers in a twist about the excel­lent Wikileaks web­site.  A report writ­ten in 2008 by US army counter-intelligence ana­lys­ing the threat posed by this haven for whis­tleblowers has been leaked to, you’ve guessed it, the very sub­ject of the report.

Wikileaks was set up three years ago to provide a secure space for prin­cipled whis­tleblowers around the world to expose cor­rup­tion and crimes com­mit­ted by our gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and mega-corporations.  The site takes great care to verify the inform­a­tion it pub­lishes, adheres to the prin­ciple of expos­ing inform­a­tion very much in the pub­lic interest, and vig­or­ously pro­tects the identify of its sources.

By doing so, Wikileaks plays a vital part in inform­ing cit­izens of what is being done (often illeg­ally) in their name.  This free flow of inform­a­tion is vital in a democracy.

Well, no gov­ern­ment likes a clued-up and crit­ical cit­izenry, nor does it like to have trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity imposed on it.  Which led to the report in question.

As I have writ­ten before ad nauseam, whis­tleblowers provide an essen­tial func­tion to the healthy work­ing of a demo­cracy.  The simplistic approach would be to say that if gov­ern­ments, spies and big cor­por­a­tions obeyed the law, there would be no need for whis­tleblowers.  How­ever, back in the real, post-9/11 world, with its end­less, neb­u­lous “war on ter­ror”, illegal wars, tor­ture, extraordin­ary rendi­tion and Big Brother sur­veil­lance, we have never had greater need of them.

Rather than ensur­ing the highest stand­ards of leg­al­ity and prob­ity in pub­lic life, it is far sim­pler for the powers that be to demon­ise the whis­tleblower — a fig­ure who is now (accord­ing to the Exec­ut­ive Sum­mary of the report) appar­ently seen as the “insider threat”.  We are look­ing at a nas­cent McCarthy­ism here.  It echoes the increas­ing use by our gov­ern­ments of the term “domestic extrem­ists” when they are talk­ing about act­iv­ists and protesters.

There are laws to pro­tect whis­tleblowers in most areas of work now.  In the UK we have the Pub­lic Interest Dis­clos­ure Act (1998).  How­ever, gov­ern­ment, mil­it­ary, and espe­cially intel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als are denied this pro­tec­tion, des­pite the fact that they are most often the very people to wit­ness the most hein­ous state abuses, crimes and cor­rup­tion.  If they try to do some­thing about this, they are also the people most likely to be pro­sec­uted and per­se­cuted for fol­low­ing their con­sciences, as I described in a talk at the CCC in Ber­lin a couple of years ago.

Ideally, such whis­tleblowers need a pro­tec­ted legal chan­nel through which to report crimes, with the con­fid­ence that these will be prop­erly invest­ig­ated and the per­pet­rat­ors held to account.  Fail­ing that, sites like Wikileaks offer an invalu­able resource.  As I said last sum­mer at the Hack­ing at Ran­dom fest­ival in NL, when I had the pleas­ure of shar­ing a stage with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, I just wish that the organ­isa­tion had exis­ted a dec­ade earlier to help with my own whis­tleblow­ing exploits.

The Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) in the UK, is draf­ted to stifle whis­tleblowers rather than pro­tect real secrets.  Such laws are routinely used to cover up the mis­takes, embar­rass­ment and crimes of spies and gov­ern­ments, rather than to pro­tect national secur­ity.  After all, even the spooks acknow­ledge that there are only three cat­egor­ies of intel­li­gence that abso­lutely require pro­tec­tion: sens­it­ive oper­a­tional tech­niques, agent iden­tit­ies and ongo­ing operations.

This US counter-intelligence report is already 2 years old, and its strategy for dis­cred­it­ing Wikileaks (by expos­ing one of their sources pour encour­ager les autres) has, to date, mani­festly failed. Credit is due to the Wikileaks team in out-thinking and tech­no­lo­gic­ally out­pa­cing the intel­li­gence com­munity, and is a ringing endorse­ment for the whole open source philosophy.

I’ve said this before, and I shall say it again: as our coun­tries evolve ever more into sur­veil­lance soci­et­ies, with big brother data­bases, CCTV, bio­met­ric data, police drones, vot­ing com­puters et al, geeks may be our best (and last?) defence against emer­ging Big Brother states.

The Real Reason for the Police State?

DroneI haven’t writ­ten here for a while, des­pite the embar­ras de richesses that has been presen­ted to us in the news recently: Dame Stella say­ing that the UK is becom­ing a police state;  drones will patrol the streets of Bri­tain, watch­ing our every move; data­bases are being built, con­tain­ing all our elec­tronic com­mu­nic­a­tions; ditto all our travel move­ments. What can a lone blog­ger use­fully add to this?  Only so much hot air — the facts speak for themselves.

Plus, I’ve been a bit caught up over the last couple of months with Oper­a­tion Escape Pod. Not all of us are sit­ting around wait­ing for the prison gates to clang shut on the UK. I’m outta here!

But I can’t res­ist an inter­est­ing art­icle in The Spec­tator magazine this week. And that’s a sen­tence I never thought I would write in my life.

Tim Ship­man, quot­ing a pleth­ora of anonym­ous intel­li­gence sources and former spooks, asserts that Britain’s for­eign policy is being skewed by the need to pla­cate our intel­li­gence allies, and that the CIA is roam­ing free in the wilds of Yorkshire.

His sources tell him that the UK is a “swamp” of Islamic extrem­ism, and that the domestic spies are ter­ri­fied that there will be a new ter­ror­ist atro­city, prob­ably against US interests but it could be any­where, car­ried out by our very own home-grown ter­ror­ists. Accord­ing to Ship­man, this ter­rible pro­spect had all the spooks busily down­ing trebles in the bars around Vaux­hall Cross in the wake of the Mum­bai bombings.

Apart from the sug­ges­tion that the spies’ drink­ing cul­ture appears to be as robust as ever, I find this inter­est­ing because well-sourced spook spin is more likely to appear in the august pages of The Speccie than in, say, Red Pep­per. But if this is an accur­ate reflec­tion of the think­ing of our politi­cians and intel­li­gence com­munity, then this is an extremely wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment. It goes a long way to explain­ing why the UK has become the most policed state in the West­ern world.

Yes, in the 1990s the UK prac­tised a strategy of appease­ment towards Islamic extrem­ists. MI5’s view was always that it was bet­ter to give rad­ic­als a safe haven in the UK, which they would then be loathe to attack dir­ectly, and where a close eye could be kept on them.

This, of course, was derailed by Blair’s Mes­si­anic mis­sion in the Middle East. By uni­lat­er­ally sup­port­ing Bush’s adven­tur­ism in Afgh­anistan and Iraq, in the teeth of stark warn­ings about the attend­ant risks from the head of MI5, Bri­tain has become “the enemy” in the eyes of rad­ical Islam. The gloves are off, and we are all at greater risk because of our former PM’s hubris.

But now we appar­ently have free-range CIA officers infilt­rat­ing the Muslim com­munit­ies of the UK.  No doubt Mossad is also again secretly  tol­er­ated, des­pite the fact that they had been banned for years from oper­at­ing in the UK because they were too unpre­dict­able (a civil ser­vice euphem­ism for violent).

And I am will­ing to bet that this inter­na­tional per­cep­tion that UK spooks will be caught off-guard by an appar­ently British-originated ter­ror­ist attack is the reason for the slew of new total­it­arian laws that are mak­ing us all sus­pects. The drones, the datamin­ing and the dra­conian stop-and-search laws are designed to reas­sure our invalu­able allies in the CIA, Mossad, ISI and the FSB.  They will not be put in place to “pro­tect” us.