The (Il)legality of UK Drone Strikes

It was reported in The Guardian newspaper today that the UK parliamentary joint committee on human rights was questioning the legal framework underpinning the use of British drone strikes against terrorist suspects.

Here is an interview I did for RT today about the questionable legality of the UK drone strike programme:

The (Il)legalitiy of UK drone strikes? from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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?

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 regime 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, a 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!