Terrorism, crime, or mental illness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OHM 2013 – The Great Spook Panel

Finally the videos from the whistleblower track at the August international geekfest OHM 2013 in the Netherlands are beginning to emerge. Here’s one of the key sessions, the Great Spook Panel, with ex-CIA Ray McGovern, ex-FBI Coleen Rowley, ex-NSA Tom Drake, ex-Department of Justice Jesselyn Radack, and myself.

We came together to show, en masse, that whistleblowing is done for the democratic good, to discuss the (frighteningly similar) experiences we all went through, and to show that whistleblowers can survive the process, build new lives, and even potentially thrive.

Here is a great article about the whistleblowers at OHM by Silkie Carlo (@silkiecarlo) for Vice Magazine.

With the recent cases of Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks and Edward Snowden, respect to the OHM organisers who saw the relevance of this event so far ahead.

OHM 2013 – The Joy of Geeks

ohm2013_logoHome and recovered from the rigours of the amazing geekfest, OHM 2013.

This was a 5-day festival in the Netherlands where 3000 geeks, activists and whistleblowers gathered to have fun and also try to put the world to rights.  And this crowd, out of all activist groups, has a fighting chance. The geeks are tooled-up, tech-savvy, and increasingly politicised after all the recent assaults on the internet and wider freedoms.

These include all the anti-piracy measures (interestingly, Russia has just joined the lost war that is the anti-piracy legislation, and the Russian pirates are going to form a Pirate Church, as this will give them special protections and rights under the law). It also includes all the invidious international agreements that the US and its Euro-vassals are trying to force down the throats of reluctant populations: ACTA, PIPA, SOPA, TAFTA…. you name it, there’s a whole new anti-freedom alphabet soup out there in addition to the spook acronyms.

Not to mention all the illegal US take-downs of legitimate business websites, such as Megaupload, and the panoptic surveillance powers of the NSA and its global intelligence buddies, long suspected by many and now proven by the disclosures of the courageous Edward Snowden.

So it was lovely to see at OHM an increasing politicisation. This was partly because of all the above recent horrors, but also because the OHM organisers had pulled together a strong political and whistleblowing speaker track. The attack against digital civil liberties is inextricably linked to and reflective of the full-frontal attack on our historic real-world freedoms:  endemic surveillance, kidnapping, torture, CIA kill lists, illegal wars, drone strikes, secret courts, and many other encroaching horrors that I have written about ad nauseam. And this is just what we know about.

sinking_shipIn my view our Western democracies have been at least fatally holed, if they have not yet foundered. Which, of course, means that our violent, interventionist attempts to bring “democracy” to the developing world are derided as hypocritical at best, and violently resisted at worst.

The new front-line of this struggle is “cyber” warfare – be it the illegal aggressive attacks of such US/Israeli viruses against Iran such as Stuxnet (that is now roaming free in the wild and mutating), or the slower wars of attrition against “pirates”, hackers, Wikileaks, and the growing war on whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

Well, geeks are the new resistance and they have a fighting chance in my view. And this is why I think that they are our best hope.

SAMSUNGThis was my experience of OHM. Three thousand of the best and the brightest from around the world gathered together not just to have fun playing with bleeding-edge tech, hacking and building toys, and creating slightly surreal, if beloved, hover-pets (see right), but also who turned out in their thousands to listen to and absorb the experiences of a number of international intelligence whistleblowers. In the wake of the Edward Snowden case, this is a hot topic in these circles and there was a huge impetus to help.

We whistleblowers had a fabulous time too. One is a “natural-born geek” – Tom Drake, formerly of the NSA, who was threatened with 35 years in prison because he dared to disclose problems with his organisation. His lawyer, government lawyer-turned-whistleblower Jesselyn Radack, also spoke of her experiences. Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower who exposed the intelligence failure in the US in the run-up to 9/11 and was voted Time Person of the Year in 2002 also gave a fantastic talk called “Secrecy Kills”, and former CIA analyst and presidential “briefer”, Ray McGovern, gave the opening keynote speech, focusing on the need to speak out and preserve our rights. I finished the quintet of whistleblowers and provided the Euro-perspective.

And of course the patron saint of whistleblowers also did one of the key talks – but he had to be beamed in. Julian Assange, who was free to attend HAR, the last such event in the Netherlands four years ago, was unavoidably detained in his embassy refuge in the UK.


Photo by Reinoud van Leeuwen (http://reinoud.van.leeuwen.net/)

The whistleblowers all came together for one of the big sessions of OHM – the “Great Spook Panel“, moderated by the indomitable Nick Farr. The panel was basically a call to arms for the next generation. This addressed the need to stand up to protect our rights against all the egregious erosions that have occurred since 9/11.  The response was hugely enthusiastic. I hope this goes global, and the wider community follows up.

It certainly did in one way. Ray McGovern announced the establishment of the Edward Snowden Defence Fund at the end of the panel discussion, and the donations poured in for the rest of the event.

So a very successful festival. How do I make that assessment? Well, on top of all the fun, variety of talks and networking, the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD (an unfortunate-sounding name to most English speakers), requested a platform at the event after the Great Spook Panel was announced in the programme.

Such an active and open response shows a degree of push-back against a perceived “threat”. No doubt the organisation wanted to inject the establishment anti-venom before the truth-tellers had their say. Anyway, on the grounds that most whistleblowers are generally denied a mainstream media platform and/or are smeared, the AIVD was prohibited the stage.

Of course, the AIVD would have been very welcome to buy a ticket like normal humans or pay the corporate rate to attend to show support for the community – its officers might have learned something….

Lies, damned lies, and newspaper reporting…

Also on the Huffington Post UK, RT, The Real News Network, nsnbc, and Information Clearing House:

Where to start with this tangled skein of media spin, misrepresentation and outright hypocrisy?

Last week the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence presented this year’s award to Dr Tom Fingar at a ceremony jointly hosted by the prestigious Oxford Union Society.

Thomas_FingarDr Fingar, currently a visiting lecturer at Oxford, had in 2007 co-ordinated the production of the US National Intelligence Estimate – the combined analysis of all 16 of America’s intelligence agencies – which assessed that the Iranian nuclear weaponisation programme had ceased in 2003.  This considered and authoritative Estimate directly thwarted the 2008 US drive towards war against Iran, and has been reaffirmed every year since then.

By the very fact of doing his job of providing dispassionate and objective assessments and resisting any pressure to politicise the intelligence (à la Downing Street Memo), Dr Fingar’s work is outstanding and he is the winner of Sam Adams Award, 2012.  This may say something about the parlous state of our intelligence agencies generally, but don’t get me started on that…

Anyway, as I said, the award ceremony was co-hosted by the Oxford Union Society last week, and many Sam Adams Associates attended, often travelling long distances to do so.  Former winners were asked to speak at the ceremony, such as FBI Coleen Rowley, GCHQ Katherine Gun, NSA Thomas Drake, and former UK Ambassador Craig Murray.  Other associates, including CIA Ray McGovern, diplomats Ann Wright and Brady Kiesling and myself also said a few words.  As former insiders and whistleblowers, we recognised the vitally important work that Dr Fingar had done and all spoke about the importance of integrity in intelligence.

One other previous winner of the Sam Adams Award was also invited to speak – Julian Assange of Wikileaks.  He spoke eloquently about the need for integrity and was gracious in praising the work of Dr Fingar.

All the national and international media were invited to attend what was an historic gathering of international whislteblowers and cover an award given to someone who, by doing their job with integrity, prevented yet further ruinous war and bloodshed in the Middle East.

Few attended, still fewer reported on the event, and the promised live streaming on Youtube was blocked by shadowy powers at the very last minute – an irony considering the Oxford Union is renowned as a free speech society.

But worse was to come.  The next day The Guardian newspaper, which historically fell out with Wikileaks, published a myopic hit-piece about the event. No mention of all the whistleblowers who attended and what they said, no mention of the award to Dr Fingar, no mention of the fact that his work saved the Iranian people from needless war.

Oh no, the entire piece focused on the tawdry allegations emanating from Sweden about Julian Assange’s extradition case.  Discounting the 450 students who applauded all the speeches, discounting all the serious points raised by Julian Assange during his presentation, and discounting the speeches of all the other internationally renowned whistleblowers present that evening, The Guardian’s reporter, Amelia Hill, focused on the small demo outside the event and the only three attendees she could apparently find to criticise the fact that a platform, any platform, had been given to Assange from his political asylum at the Ecuadorian Embassy.

Amelia_HillSo this is where we arrive at the deep, really deep, hypocrisy of the evening.  Amelia Hill is, I’m assuming,  the same Guardian journalist who was threatened in 2011 with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.  She had allegedly been receiving leaks from the Metropolitan Police about the on-going investigation into the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

At the time Fleet Street was up in arms – how dare the police threaten one of their own with prosecution under the OSA for exposing institutional corruption? Shades of the Shayler case were used in her defence. As I wrote at the time, it’s a shame the UK media could not have been more consistently robust in condemning the chilling effects of the OSA on the free-flow of information and protect all the Poor Bloody Whistleblowers, and not just come out fighting when it is one of their own being threatened.  Such is the way of the world….

But really, Ms Hill – if you are indeed the same reporter who was threatened with prosecution in 2011 under the OSA – examine your conscience.

How can you write a hit-piece focusing purely on Assange – a man who has designed a publishing system to protect potential whistleblowers from precisely such draconian secrecy laws as you were hyperbolically threatened with? And how could you, at the same time, airbrush out of history the testimony of so many whistleblowers gathered together, many of whom have indeed been arrested and have faced prosecution under the terms of the OSA or US secrecy legislation?

Have you no shame?  You know how frightening it is to be faced with such a prosecution.

Your hypocrisy is breath-taking.

The offence was compounded when the Sam Adams Associates all wrote a letter to The Guardian to set the record straight. The original letter is reproduced below, and this is what was published.  Of course, The Guardian has a perfect right under its Terms and Conditions to edit the letter, but I would like everyone to see how this can be used and abused.

And the old media wonders why they are in decline?

Letter to The Guardian, 29 January 2013:

Dear Sir

With regard to the 24 January article in The Guardian entitled “Julian Assange Finds No Allies and Tough Queries in Oxford University Talk,” we question whether the newspaper’s reporter was actually present at the event, since the account contains so many false and misleading statements.

If The Guardian could “find no allies” of Mr. Assange, it did not look very hard! They could be found among the appreciative audience of the packed Oxford Union Debate Hall, and – in case you missed us – in the group seated right at the front of the Hall: the Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence.

Many in our group – which, you might be interested to know co-sponsored the event with Oxford Union – had traveled considerable distances at our own expense to confer the 10th annual Sam Adams award to Dr. Thomas Fingar for his work on overseeing the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that revealed the lack of an Iranian nuclear weaponization program.

Many of us spoke in turn about the need for integrity in intelligence, describing the terrible ethical dilemma that confronts government employees who witness illegal activity including serious threats to public safety and fraud, waste and abuse.

But none of this made it into what was supposed to pass for a news article; neither did any aspect of the acceptance speech delivered by Dr. Fingar. Also, why did The Guardian fail to provide even one salient quote from Mr Assange’s substantial twenty-minute address?

By censoring the contributions of the Sam Adams Associates and the speeches by Dr. Fingar and Mr. Assange, and by focusing exclusively on tawdry and unproven allegations against Mr. Assange, rather than on the importance of exposing war crimes and maintaining integrity in intelligence processes, The Guardian has succeeded in diminishing none but itself.


The Sam Adams Associates for Integrity in Intelligence:

Ann Wright (retired Army Colonel and Foreign Service Officer of US State Department), Ray McGovern (retired CIA analyst), Elizabeth Murray (retired CIA analyst), Coleen Rowley (retired FBI agent), Annie Machon (former MI5 intelligence officer), Thomas Drake (former NSA official), Craig Murray (former British Ambassador), David MacMichael (retired CIA analyst), Brady Kiesling (former Foreign Service Officer of US State Department), and Todd Pierce (retired U.S. Army Major, Judge Advocate, Guantanamo Defense Counsel).

FBI Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds

Sibel_EdmondsI strongly recommend you take the time to watch this film about FBI whistleblower, Sibel Edmonds.

“Kill the Messenger”  joins some interesting dots, not just about what might have been going on round Sibel’s case, but also adds a different perspective to the notorious outing of CIA officer, Valerie Plame.

Of course, a film that investigates how the might of the state can be used to stifle the legitimate dissent of a whistleblower will always resonate with me.

Same message, different country.