Karma Police

As I type this I am listen­ing to one of my all-time favour­ite albums, Radiohead’s sem­inal “OK, Com­puter”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spell­bound by its edgi­ness, com­plex­ity, exper­i­ment­al­ism and polit­ical over­tones. My part­ner at the time, David Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admittedly tone deaf, he never under­stood what he laugh­ingly called the “music con­spir­acy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.

ST_Spies_on_the_RunHis opin­ion changed drastic­ally over the sum­mer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes com­mit­ted by the UK’s spy agen­cies. As a res­ult of our actions — the first reports appeared in the Brit­ish media on 24 July 1997 — we had fled the coun­try and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this sur­real back­pack­ing hol­i­day I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ran­sacked home, and try to com­fort our trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies who had known noth­ing of our whis­tleblow­ing plans.

OK, Com­puter” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Neth­er­lands, Bel­gium, France and Spain. Tak­ing ran­dom trains, mov­ing from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dis­lo­cated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recre­ate a sense of home­li­ness — some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essen­tials for our unknown future life, I had man­aged to squeeze in my port­able CD player (remem­ber those?), tiny speak­ers and a few cher­ished CDs. Such are the pri­or­it­ies of youth.

The joy of Radi­o­head broke upon David dur­ing that month — par­tic­u­larly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encap­su­lated our feel­ings as we fled the UK together. Once we were holed up in a prim­it­ive French farm­house for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, hold­ing onto each other tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Rev­el­ling in the music, we also drew strength from the dis­sid­ent tone of the lyrics.

So it was with some mirth­ful incredu­lity that I yes­ter­day read on The Inter­cept that GCHQ named one of its most ini­quit­ous pro­grammes after one of the clas­sic songs from the album — “Karma Police”.

In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to develop a sys­tem that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a pro­file of each of our lives online — our interests, our pec­ca­dilloes, our polit­ics, our beliefs. The pro­gramme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed func­tional in 2009. Who knows what inform­a­tion GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, every­one, since then?

As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many oth­ers began to expose the out-of-control spy agen­cies, this is dis­pro­por­tion­ate in soi-dissent demo­cra­cies. It is cer­tainly not law­ful by any stretch of the ima­gin­a­tion. UK gov­ern­mental war­rants — which are sup­posed to reg­u­late and if neces­sary cir­cum­scribe the activ­it­ies of the spy snoop­ers — have repeatedly been egre­giously abused.

They are sup­posed to make a case for tar­geted sur­veil­lance of people sus­pec­ted of being a threat to the UK’s national secur­ity or eco­nomic well-being. The war­rants, blindly signed by the Home or For­eign Sec­ret­ary, are not designed to author­ise the indus­trial inter­cep­tion of everyone’s com­mu­nic­a­tions. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.

Talk­ing of crimes, after a month on the run with David, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arres­ted, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was David Shayler’s girl­friend and had sup­por­ted his whis­tleblow­ing activ­it­ies. In fact my law­yer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liber­ties union, Liberty, had nego­ti­ated with the police for me return to the UK and hand myself into the police for ques­tion­ing. He flew out to Bar­celona to accom­pany me back to the UK almost exactly eight­een years ago today.

Annie_arrestDes­pite the pre-agreements, I was arres­ted at the immig­ra­tion desk at Gatwick air­port by six burly Spe­cial Branch police officers and then driven by them up to the counter-terrorism inter­view room in Char­ing Cross police sta­tion in cent­ral Lon­don, where I was inter­rog­ated for the max­imum six hours before being released with no charge.

The music play­ing on the radio dur­ing this drive from the air­port to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.

One can but hope that karma will come into play. But per­haps the end­ing of “Exit Music…”  is cur­rently more per­tin­ent — we hope that you choke, that you choke.….

After all, the spies do seem to be chok­ing on an over­load of hoovered-up intel­li­gence — pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been car­ried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies.  Too much inform­a­tion can indeed be bad for our secur­ity, our pri­vacy and our safety.

US/UK intelligence agencies threaten Germany

Accord­ing to journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald, Ger­man Vice Chan­cel­lor Sig­mar Gab­riel has stated that the US and UK spy agen­cies threatened to cut Ger­many out of the intelligence-sharing loop if it gave safe haven to NSA whis­tle­bower, Edward Snowden.

Here is my view of the situ­ation on RT today:

RT Inter­view about US/UK intel­li­gence threats to Ger­many from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

UK spies target women for recruitment

My recent inter­view on RT show “In the Now” about gender equal­ity in the Brit­ish spy agen­cies:

Gender Equal­ity in UK Spy Agen­cies — RT In the Now from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Jihadi John and MI5

So this week the mur­der­ous beheader of the Islamic State, “Jihadi John”, has been unmasked.  His real iden­tity is appar­ently Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and now a Brit­ish cit­izen who was raised and edu­cated in west London

Much sound, fury and heated debate has been expen­ded over the last couple of days about how he became rad­ic­al­ised, who was to blame, with MI5 once more cast in the role of vil­lain. In such media sound-bite dis­cus­sions it is all too easy to fall into facile and polar­ised argu­ments. Let us try to break this down and reach a more nuanced  understanding.

First up is the now-notorious press con­fer­ence hos­ted by the cam­paign­ing group, Cage, in which the Research Dir­ector, Asim Qure­shi , claimed that MI5 har­ass­ment of Emwazi was the reason for his rad­ic­al­isa­tion. Emwazi had com­plained to Cage and appar­ently the Met­ro­pol­itan Police that over the last six years MI5 had approached him and was pres­sur­ising him to work as an agent for them. Accord­ing to Cage, this har­ass­ment lead to Emwazi’s radicalisation.

Yet recruit­ment of such agents is a core MI5 func­tion, some­thing it used to do with sub­tlety and some suc­cess, by identi­fy­ing people within groups who poten­tially could be vul­ner­able to induce­ments or pres­sure to report back on tar­get organ­isa­tions.  In fact, Brit­ish intel­li­gence used to be much more focused on gath­er­ing “HUMINT”.  The very best intel­li­gence comes from an (ideally) will­ing but at least co-operative human agent: they are mobile, they can gain the trust of and con­verse with tar­gets who may be wary of using elec­tronic com­mu­nic­a­tions, and they can be tasked to gather spe­cific intel­li­gence rather than wait­ing for the lucky hit on intercept.

MI5 used to be good at this — spend­ing time to really invest­ig­ate and identify the right recruit­ment tar­gets, with a con­sidered approach towards mak­ing the pitch.

How­ever, it appears since 9/11 and the start of the bru­tal “war on ter­ror” that two prob­lems have evolved, both of which ori­gin­ated in Amer­ica. Firstly, Brit­ish intel­li­gence seems to have fol­lowed their US coun­ter­parts down a moral helter-skelter, becom­ing re-involved in counter-productive and bru­tal activ­it­ies such as kid­nap­ping, intern­ment and tor­ture. As MI5 had learned at least by the 1990s, such activ­it­ies inev­it­ably res­ult in blow-back, and can act as a recruit­ing drum to the ter­ror­ist cause of the day.

(Tan­gen­tially, the Home Office also instig­ated the Pre­vent pro­gramme — in concept to counter rad­ical Islam in vul­ner­able social com­munit­ies, but in prac­tice used and abused by the author­it­ies to intim­id­ate and coerce young Muslims in the UK.)

Secondly, Brit­ish intel­li­gence seems over the last dec­ade to have blindly fol­lowed the US spies down the path of pan­op­tican, drag-net elec­tronic sur­veil­lance.  All this has been long sus­pec­ted by a few, but con­firmed to the many by the dis­clos­ures of Edward Snowden over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems that GCHQ is not merely com­pli­cit but an act­ive facil­it­ator and ena­bler of the NSA’s wilder ideas.  And what we now know is hor­rific enough, yet it cur­rently remains just the tip of the iceberg.

This deluge of inform­a­tion cre­ates gar­gan­tuan hay­stacks within which some genu­ine intel­li­gence needles might reside — to use the ter­min­o­logy of the spy agency cheer­lead­ers. How­ever, it con­cur­rently swamps the intel­li­gence agen­cies in use­less inform­a­tion, while also cer­tainly throw­ing up a per­cent­age of false-positives.  Bear­ing in mind the sheer scale of the leg­ally dubi­ous snoop­ing, even a 0.001% of false pos­it­ives could poten­tially pro­duce thou­sands of erro­neous leads.

Curi­ous people now have a world of inform­a­tion at their fin­ger­tips. They may click on an intriguing link and find them­selves on a rad­ical web­site; even if they click out quickly, the pan­op­ticon will have logged their “interest”. Or they could donate money to an appar­ently legit­im­ate char­ity; “like” the wrong thing on Face­book; fol­low the wrong per­son on Twit­ter; have their email hacked, or whatever.…

The Big Brother Borg algorithms will crunch through all of this inform­a­tion pre­dict­ably and pre­dict­ively, with sub­tleties lost and mis­takes made. Mind you, that happened in a more lim­ited fash­ion too at the height of the Cold War sub­ver­sion para­noia in Bri­tain in the 1970s and 1980s, when school­boys writ­ing to the Com­mun­ist Party HQ for inform­a­tion for school pro­jects could end up with a MI5 file, and divor­cing couples could denounce each other.  But at least, then, whole pop­u­la­tions were not under surveillance.

I think this may go some way towards explain­ing so many recent cases where “lone wolf” attack­ers around the world have been known to their national intel­li­gence agen­cies and yet been left to roam free, either dis­coun­ted as too low level a threat in the flood of inform­a­tion or oth­er­wise sub­jec­ted to bungled recruit­ment approaches.

In the ana­logue era much time, research and thought would go into identi­fy­ing per­sons of interest, and more cru­cially how to approach a tar­get either for dis­rup­tion or recruit­ment.  I should think that the spy super-computers are now throw­ing up so many pos­sible leads that approaches are made in a more hur­ried, ill-informed and less con­sidered way.

And this can res­ult in cases such as Michael Ade­bolayo whom MI5 approached and allegedly har­assed years before he went on to murder Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich in 2013. The same may well have happened with Mohammed Emwazi. Once someone has been tar­geted, they are going to feel para­noid and under sur­veil­lance, whether rightly or wrongly, and this might res­ult in grow­ing resent­ment and push them into ever more extreme views.

How­ever, I would sug­gest that MI5 remains merely the tool, fol­low­ing the dir­ect­ives of the UK gov­ern­ment in response to the ever-expanding, ever-nebulous war on ter­ror, just as MI6 fol­lowed the dir­ect­ives of the Blair gov­ern­ment in 2003 when it allowed its intel­li­gence to be politi­cised as a pre­text for an illegal war in Iraq. MI5 might be an occa­sional cata­lyst, but not the under­ly­ing cause of radicalisation.

Unfor­tu­nately, by immers­ing itself in the now-overwhelming intel­li­gence detail, it appears to be miss­ing the big­ger pic­ture — just why are young Brit­ish people tak­ing an interest in the events of the Middle East, why are so many angry, why are so many drawn to rad­ical views and some drawn to extreme actions.

Surely the simplest way to under­stand their griev­ances is to listen to what the extrem­ist groups actu­ally say? Osama Bin Laden was clear in his views — he wanted US mil­it­ary bases out of Saudi Ara­bia and US med­dling across the Middle East gen­er­ally to stop; he also wanted a res­ol­u­tion to the Palestinian conflict.

Jihadi John states in his ghastly snuff videos that he is met­ing out hor­ror to high­light the hor­rors daily inflic­ted across the Middle East by the US mil­it­ary — the bomb­ings, drone strikes, viol­ent death and mutilation.

To hear this and under­stand is not to be a sym­path­iser, but is vital if west­ern gov­ern­ments want to develop a more intel­li­gent, con­sidered and poten­tially more suc­cess­ful policies in response. Once you under­stand, you can nego­ti­ate, and that is the only sane way for­ward. Viol­ence used to counter viol­ence always escal­ates the situ­ation and every­one suffers.

The USA still needs to learn this les­son. The UK had learned it, res­ult­ing in the end of the war in North­ern Ire­land, but it now seems to have been for­got­ten. It is not rocket sci­ence — even the former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, has said nego­ti­ation is the only suc­cess­ful long-term policy when deal­ing with terrorism.

Along with the UK, many other European coun­tries have suc­cess­fully nego­ti­ated their way out of long-running domestic ter­ror­ist cam­paigns. The tragedy for European coun­tries that have recently or will soon suf­fer the new model of “lone wolf” atro­cit­ies, is that our gov­ern­ments are still in thrall to the failed US for­eign policy of “the war on ter­ror”, repeated daily in gory tech­ni­col­our across North Africa, the Middle East, cent­ral Asia, and now Ukraine.

Global jihad is the inev­it­able response to USA global expan­sion­ism, hege­mony and aggres­sion. As long as our gov­ern­ments and intel­li­gence agen­cies in Europe kow­tow to Amer­ican stra­tegic interests rather than pro­tect those of their own cit­izens, all our coun­tries will remain at risk.

Privacy as Innovation Interview

A recent inter­view I gave while in Stock­holm to the Pri­vacy as Innov­a­tion project:


Keynote at Internetdagarna, Stockholm, November 2014

Here is my key­note speech at the recent Inter­net­dagarna (Inter­net Days) con­fer­ence in Stock­holm, Sweden, dis­cuss­ing all things whis­tleblower, spy, sur­veil­lance, pri­vacy and TTIP:


Interview on Swedish Aftonbladet TV

I’m cur­rently in Stock­holm to do a key­note tomor­row at the fant­astic Inter­net Days con­fer­ence, an annual gath­er­ing organ­ised by Inter­net Infra­struc­ture Found­a­tion.

This morn­ing, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Afton­bladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whis­tleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence, and threats to the inter­net. Here is the inter­view:

Sweden — Afton­bladet TV Inter­view about whis­tleblowers from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

RT interview about GCHQ

Here is my recent inter­view on RT dis­cuss­ing the UK listen­ing post, GCHQ, its pros­ti­tu­tion to America’s NSA, and the fail­ure of oversight:


RT Breaking the Set — interview about spies with Abby Martin

Here’s my inter­view from yes­ter­day on RT’s excel­lent Break­ing the Set show with host, Abby Mar­tin.  We dis­cussed all things spy, sur­veil­lance, Snowden, over­sight, and pri­vacy.  A fun and lively inter­view!  Thanks, Abby.


Keynote at international whistleblower conference, Amsterdam

With thanks to Free Press Unlim­ited, the Dutch Advice Centre for Whisteblowers, Net­work Demo­cracy,  and the Whis­tleblow­ing Inter­na­tional Net­work.

All these organ­isa­tions came together to hold an inter­na­tional con­fer­ence in sup­port of whis­tleblowers on 18th June in Amsterdam.

It was a cre­at­ive event, mix­ing up law­yers, journ­al­ists, tech­no­lo­gists and whis­tleblower sup­port net­works from around the world at an event with speeches and work­shops, in order for every­one to learn, share exper­i­ences, and develop new meth­od­o­lo­gies and best prac­tice to help cur­rent and future whistleblowers.

A stim­u­lat­ing and pro­duct­ive day, at which I did the open­ing keynote:


NSA industrial espionage

In the wake of the recent ARD inter­view with Edward Snowden, here are my com­ments on RT yes­ter­day about the NSA’s involve­ment in indus­trial espi­on­age:

NSA’s big nose in big busi­ness from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

I recom­mend look­ing at the Edward Snowden’s sup­port web­site, and also keep an eye open for a new found­a­tion that will be launched next month: Cour­age — the fund to pro­tect journ­al­istic sources.

Rendition and torture — interview on RT

Here’s my recent inter­view on RT’s excel­lent and incis­ive new UK polit­ics pro­gramme, “Going Under­ground”.  In it I dis­cuss rendi­tion, tor­ture, spy over­sight and much more:

Going Under­ground Ep 22 1 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Voice of Russia radio interview about spies, oversight, whistleblowers, and Snowden.

Here is an inter­view I did for Voice of Rus­sia radio in Lon­don last week about spies and their rela­tion­ship with our demo­cratic pro­cesses, over­sight, Edward Snowden and much more:

Voice of Rus­sia radio inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.….