What price whistleblowers?

First published on Consortium News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Webstock, New Zealand, 2016

Now, I speak all over the world at conferences and universities about a whole variety of interconnected issues, but I do want to highlight this conference from earlier this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.

Webstock celebrated its tenth anniversary in New Zealand last February, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak there.  The hosts promised a unique experience, and the event lived up to its reputation.

Webstock_2016They wanted a fairly classic talk from me – the whistleblowing years, the lessons learnt and current political implications, but also what we can to do fight back, so I called my talk “The Panopticon: Resistance is Not Futile”, with a nod to my sci-fi fandom.

So why does this particular event glow like a jewel in my memory? After expunging from my mind, with a shudder of horror, the 39 hour travel time each way, it was the whole experience. New Zealand combines the friendliness of the Americans – without the political madness and the guns, and the egalitarianism of the Norwegians – with almost equivalent scenery. Add to that the warmth of the audience, the eclecticism of the speakers, and the precision planning and aesthetics of the conference organisers and you have a winning combination.

Our hosts organised vertigo-inducing events for the speakers on the top of mile-high cliffs, as well as a surprisingly fun visit to a traditional British bowling green. Plus I had the excitement of experiencing my very first earthquake – 5.9 on the Richter scale apparently. I shall make no cheap jokes about the earth moving, especially in light of the latest quakes to hit NZ this week, but the hotel did indeed sway around me and it wasn’t the local wine, excellent as it is.

I mentioned eclecticism – the quality of the speakers was ferociously high, and I would like to give a shout out to Debbie Millman and her “joy of failure” talk, Harry Roberts, a serious geek who crowd-sourced his talk and ended up talking seriously about cocktails, moths, Chumbawamba and more, advertising guru Cindy Gallop who is inspiring women around the world and promoting Make Love Not Porn, and Casey Gerald, with his evangelically-inspired but wonderfully humanistic talk to end the event.

All the talks can be found here.

It was a fabulous week.  All I can say is thank you to Tash, Mike, and the other organisers.

If you ever have the chance to attend or speak at the event in the future, I seriously recommend it.

And here’s the video of my talk:

Head of MI5 goes public

Andrew_ParkerFor the first time a serving head of a major intelligence service in the UK, Andrew Parker the Director General of the UK domestic Security Service, has given an interview to a national newspaper.

Interestingly, he gave this interview to The Guardian, the paper that has won awards for publishing a number of the Edward Snowden disclosures about endemic illegal spying and, for its pains, had its computers ritually smashed up by the powers that be.

The timing was also interesting – only two weeks ago the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (the only legal body that can actually investigate allegations of spy crime in the UK and which has so far been an unexceptional champion of their probity) broke ranks to assert that the UK spies have been illegally conducting mass surveillance for 17 years – from 1998 to 2015.

This we could all deduce from the disclosures of a certain Edward Snowden in 2013, but it’s good to have it officially confirmed.

Yet at the same time the much-derided Investigatory Powers Bill has been oiling its way through the Parliamentary system, with the culmination this week.

This “Snoopers’ Charter“, as it is known, has been repeatedly and fervently rejected for years.

It has been questioned in Parliament, challenged in courts, and soundly condemned by former intelligence insiders, technical experts, and civil liberties groups, yet it is the walking dead of UK legislation – nothing will kill it. The Zombie keeps walking.

It will kill all notion of privacy – and without privacy we cannot freely write, speak, watch, read, activate, or resist anything future governments choose to throw at us. Only recently I read an article about the possibility of Facebook assessing someone’s physical or mental health – potentially leading to all sorts of outcomes including getting a job or renting a flat.

And this dovetails into the early Snowden disclosure of the programme PRISM – the complicity of the internet megacorps – as well as the secret back doors what were built into them.

It will be the end of democracy as we (sort of ) know it today. And, as we know from the Snowden disclosures, what happens in the UK will impact not just Europe but the rest of the world.

So how does this all link into the MI5 head honcho’s first live interview?  Well, the timing was interesting – ahead of the Investigatory Powers Bill passing oleaginously into law and with the ongoing demonisation of Russia.

Here is an interview I gave to RT about some of these issues:

Commentary on MI5’s first nwspaper interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

CIA threatens cyber attacks against Russia

The CIA was recently reported to have issued the threat of cyber attacks against the Russian leadership, in retaliation for alleged and unsubstantiated claims that Russia is trying to influence the American elections.

Here is an interview I did yesterday about this, and wider, issues:

‘Americans should fear election hacking by US establishment, not Russia’ from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

A Good American – Bill Binney

I have for a number of years now been involved with a global group of whistleblowers from the intelligence, diplomatic and military world, who gather together every year as the Sam Adams Associates to give an award to an individual displaying integrity in intelligence.

This year’s award goes to former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s illegal torture programme, but was the only officer to go to prison – for exposing CIA crimes.

The award ceremony will be taking place in Washington on 25 September at the “World Beyond War” conference.

Last year’s laureate, former Technical Director of the NSA Bill Binney, is currently on tour across Europe to promote an excellent film about both his and the other stories of the earlier NSA whistleblowers before Edward Snowden – “A Good American“.

The film is simply excellent, very human and very humane, and screenings will happen across Europe over the next few months. Do watch if you can!

This is a film of the panel discussion after a screening in London on 18th September:

“A Good American” – panel discussion with ex-NSA Bill Binney from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

NATO planes bomb Syrian government forces

The diplomatic row rumbles on after US-led air strikes hit Syrian government forces in Deir ez-Zour, killing 62 soldiers and injuring over 100.  This happened only a few days into a week-long trial ceasefire designed to be a precursor to US-Russian joint operations against ISIS.

It has now been reported that British forces were involved and, needless to say, that the ceasefire is over, with the Russians and the Syrians naturally being blamed.

Here is my initial analysis last Saturday immediately after the bombings, predicting that the US would have greater problems reining in the various militias than Russia would in ensuring that Syria held to the ceasefire:

US air strike on Syrian military – RT interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Blacklist – how to go on the run

Recently I did this interview for BBC Click to promote the third series of the excellent US spy series “The Blacklist”:

How to go on the run from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
The series is apparently huge in the USA – and I can see why, as it is good – but little known to date in the UK.

Thought police

Here is the full interview I did recently for RT about the announcement of a new section of the UK Metropolitan Police dedicated to hunting down “internet trolls”.

And here is the clip used in the interview:

Thought Police from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Ex-CIA Chief advocates murder

Well, this was an interesting one.  As I was stepping out of the shower this morning, my phone rang – RT asking if I could do an interview asap.

The subject under discussion?  A former acting head of the CIA apparently recommending that the USA covertly start to murder any Iranian and Russian citizens operating against ISIS in Syria, and bomb President Assad “to scare him, not to kill him”.

I know – an Alice Though the Looking Glass moment.  Here is the link to interview that Michael Morell gave.

And here is my take on this:

CIA_Chief_wants_to_Assassinate_Iranians_and Russians from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Nice terror attack

Here is an interview I did in the middle of the night for RT about the Nice terrorist lorry attack:

And here is the article I mentioned about the French spy chief warning that the next problematic episode could lead to civil unrest/war.

Fight for your Right to Privacy

A recent talk I gave to the excellent Spark.me conference in beautiful Montenegro:

Annie Machon at SparkMe conference 2016 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

RT Going Underground – the Snoopers’ Charter

Here is a recent interview I did for the RT UK’s flagship news channel, “Going Underground” about the horrors of the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill – the so-called “snoopers charter” – that will legalise previously illegal mass surveillance, mass data retention, and mass hacking carried out by GCHQ in league with the NSA:

My interview starts at 19 minutes in – there is Brexit stuff first, about which I shall write more about soon….

Defending Human Rights in a Digital Age

This is an (abbreviated) version of my contribution to a panel discussion about human rights in a digital age, hosted last December by Professor Marianne Franklin and Goldsmiths University in London:

Goldsmiths University Privacy Discussion, December 2015 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.