Perils of Censorship in the Digital Age

First published on RT OP-Edge.

The ripple effects of the Donald Trump election victory in America continue to wash over many different shorelines of public opinion, like so many mini-tsunamis hitting the Pacific rim over the last few last weeks.  The seismic changes have indeed been global, and not least in Europe.

First up, the Eurocrats have been getting in a bit of a flap about the future of NATO, as I recently wrote.  In the past I have also written about the perceived “insider threat” – in other words, whistleblowers – that has been worrying governments and intelligence agencies across the Western world.

Currently the Twittersphere is lighting up around the issue of “fake news“, with Western mainstream media (news purveyors of the utmost unsullied probity, naturally) blaming Trump’s unexpected victory variously on the US alt-media shock jocks, fake news trolls and bots, and sovereign-state media outlets such as the Russian RT and Sputnik.

In the wake of US Democrat claims that Russia was interfering in the election process (not a practice that the USA has ever engaged in in any other country around the world whatsoever), we now have the US Green Party presidential candidate apparently spontaneously calling for recounts in three key swing-states in the USA.

The German government has already expressed concern that such “fake” news might adversely influence the almost inevitable re-election for a fourth term as Chancellor, Angela Merkel.  Despite having been proclaimed the closest partner of the USA by President Obama on his recent speed-dating visit to Europe, and perhaps wary of the rising nationalist anger (I hesitate to write national socialist anger, but certainly its ugly face is there too in the German crowd) Merkal is getting in an electoral first strike.

At a slightly more worrying level, the European Parliament on 23 November voted for a resolution to counter “propaganda” from Russia – and incredibly equated that country’s media with terrorist groups such as ISIS – the very organisation that Russia is currently trying to help crush in Syria and which the West and NATO are at least officially opposed to.

Equating the content of licensed and networked media outlets – however much they may challenge Western orthodoxies – to the horrors of ISIS snuff videos seems to me to be wilfully blind if not downright and dangerously delusional. Or perhaps we should just call it propaganda too?

Whatever happened to the rights of freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights? Or the concept that a plurality of opinion encourages a healthy democracy?

In America too, we have had reports this week that Google and Facebook are censoring alleged “fake” news.  This is the start of a very slippery slope. Soon anyone who dissents from the orthodoxy will be deemed fake and disappear into the corporate memory black hole.  Google in 2014 suggested a precursor to this, the Knowledge Vault, a search system that would promote approved websites and disappear those deemed inaccurate at least by Google algorithms. But who controls those?

Once again our corporate overlords seem to be marching remarkably in time – almost a lock step – with the mood of the political establishment.

So how did this all kick off? With remarkably prescient timing, in October the arch-neoconservative UK-based think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, published a report entitled “Putin’s Useful Idiots: Britain’s Right, Left and Russia“. Well, at least it got its apostrophes right, but much of the rest is just so much hate-filled bile against those who call out the failed Washington Consensus.

The Henry Jackson Society is an odious organisation that was founded in Cambridge eleven years ago. One of its initial signatories was Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the UK’s foreign intelligence agency MI6, and of some personal notoriety for peddling the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that took the UK into the disastrous and illegal Iraq war in 2003, as well as feeding in the fake intelligence about Iraq trying to acquire uranium from Niger that US Secretary of State Colin Powell used as a justification for the same war at the United Nations.

Despite all this, he remains happily retired, bloated with honours, while at the same time threatening the British establishment with his full memoirs to posthumously preserve his reputation and avoid prosecution for a breach of the Official Secrets Act, as I have written before.

The Henry Jackson Society has also folded into itself an organisation called the Centre for Social Cohesion – apparently established to build better integration for the Muslim community in the UK, but which for the last decade has done nothing but stir up Islamophobia. As others have written, the phrase “modern McCarthyites” might not be stretching this concept too far. And now it seems to be turning its ire against Russia.

Its emphasis has been unrelentingly anti-Islam for many years, so it was interesting that this establishment-embedded Society had a fully-formed report about the renewed Red Menace subverting our Western media just ready and waiting to be published ahead of the US elections.

So where does this all leave us?

It may well be that Facebook will begin to disappear so-called fake news – which could have repercussions for all the activist groups that, against all advice and common sense, continue to offer up their plans/organise events on that medium.

We may see the same censorship on Google, as well as dissident websites disappearing down the proposed memory-hole of the Knowledge Vault. Sure, such pages may be recorded on sites like the WayBack Machine et al, but who really searches through that reflexively? Most us us don’t even get through the first page of Google hits anyway. In our digital age, this will make the 20th century practice of your analogue dictator – the airbrushing of political opponents out of history – look positively quaint.

But, just as the Gutenberg Press was a radical innovation in the 15th century that led to a rapid spread of written ideas and the resulting censorship, repression and a thriving underground media, so the the current crackdown will lead to the same push-back.

Then we have to consider the potential censorship of state-owned news outlets such as RT, the Chinese CCTV, and the Iranian Press TV. Where will that leave other state-owned organisations such as the BBC, RAI and other international Euro-broadcasters? Oh, of course, they are part of the Western media club, so it’s all hunkey-dorey and business as usual.

But this can be a two-sided fight – only two months ago RT’s UK bankers, the state-owned Nat West Bank, announced that they were going to shut down the channel’s UK accounts, with no reason or redress. I gather that a similar threat was then issued against the BBC in Russia, and the case was quietly dropped.

Over the last 20 years I have been interviewed by hundreds of major media outlets across Europe, many of them state-owned.  However, it is only when I appear on RT.com that I am accused of supporting a state-propaganda outlet, of being a useful idiot – and this has become increasingly marked over the last couple of years.

All these measures smack of an ill-informed and out-of-touch panic reaction by a hitherto complacent establishment. Before they attempt to airbrush history, we need to remember that history teaches some useful lessons about such elitist crackdowns: they never end well for anyone.

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.

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.

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.

Whistleblower Protections – RT Interview

Former US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has softened his stance on the Edward Snowden case and has tacitly admitted there should at least be a public interest legal defence for intelligence whistleblowers.

Well, that’s my take – have a watch of my RT interview yesterday or read here:

Discussing whistleblower protections from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The NSA and Guantanamo Bay

Yesterday The Intercept released more documents from the Edward Snowden trove.  These highlighted the hitherto suspected by unproven involvement of the NSA in Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, torture and interrogation.

Here is my interview on RT about the subject:

Snowden disclosures about NSA and Guantanamo from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.

War on Drugs has failed – ENCOD Article

Below is an article I recently wrote for the excellent European drug policy reform organisation, European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug PoliciesENCOD.  And here is the link to the original on the ENCOD website.

I have had the honour of serving as the European Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) for the last four years, and have been thrilled to oversee the establishment of thriving national groups in the UK and Germany, with the possibility of more on the horizon. In my view, law enforcement offers a unique and critical voice to the international drug policy reform debate.

LEAP, founded in 2002, today has over 150,000 supporters and speakers in 20 countries. We consist of police officers, lawyers, judges, prison governors, probation officers, intelligence and military personnel, and even international drug czars. What unites us is a shared professional knowledge, experienced across the full spectrum of law enforcement, that drug prohibition has egregiously failed.

Over the last 50 years global drug use has exponentially increased, the potency of illegal drugs has increased, they are ubiquitously available, and the price of street drugs has gone through the floor. Faced with this information, how can our governments claim they are winning the “war on drugs” to create a “drug free world”?

Quite the opposite – prohibition has enabled a global and exponentially growing black market.

I became aware of drug prohibition failure while I was working for MI5 back in the 1990s. One of my postings involved investigating terrorist logistics, which meant that I had to work closely with UK Customs across the UK. This experience made me aware that the “war” had been lost. It also made me very aware, early on, that there was a massive overlap between the illegal drug market and terrorist funding.

The US DEA estimates that over half the designated terrorist groups around the world gain the bulk of their funding from drugs money. So on the one hand prohibiting drugs and fighting the “war on drugs” sends the market underground and the resulting massive profits provide a key revenue stream to terrorists, not least ISIS which controls part of the flow of heroin from central Asia into Europe. On the other hand the West is also waging the “war on terror” to fight these same groups.

So what our governments give the military-security complex with one hand, they also give with the other.

But is not all bad news. Countries in Latin America and states in North America are legalising cannabis, safe injection rooms have rolled out across Europe, Canada is looking to legalise cannabis, and the decriminalisation of drugs has been hugely successful in countries such as Portugal and the Czech Republic.

Even at the UN level, which recently held a once-in-a-generation General Assembly Special Session in New York, the concept of harm reduction is at least now being tabled by some countries, although the progress is glacial.

The times may not be changing fast enough for many of us in the drug policy reform world, despite baby steps being made in the right direction by some countries. Yet even the more progressive countries within the international community are still constrained by the legal straight jacket that is the UN drug treaty framework.

And while harm reduction is good progress in that it no longer criminalises those who choose to use, it utterly fails to address the bigger problem that I mentioned before: that the criminalisation of certain drugs drives the market underground, providing huge profits to organised crime cartels and terrorist groups around the world every year. Prohibition has unleashed the biggest crime wave the world has ever seen. As with alcohol prohibiton in 20th century America, only legalisation and regulation will remove this market from the greedy grasp of criminals.

I have just watched a old BBC Newsnight debate between comedian and actor, Russell Brand, and right-wing writer and commentator, Peter Hitchens. The debate encapsulated the entrenched positions of both the reformist and prohibitionist camps. The former was represented by Brand, a former drug user in recovery, advocating abstinence-based therapy. The latter by Hitchens, an anti-drug warrior largely approaching the issue from a morality position, who argued that taking drugs is a crime and that all such crimes should be prosecuted as a deterrence.

While naturally I lean more towards the position of Brand, who two years ago electrified a rather turgid annual UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna by calling for full drug legalisation, and also while respecting his personal experiences, I do think he’s missing a trick.

Yes, those with drug dependencies need help and compassion not prison, but the vast majority of those who choose to use do so recreationally, just for fun, and never develop an addiction, just as only a minority of those who choose to drink go on to develop alcoholism. And yet the parameters of the drug debate rarely stray beyond the well-worn issue of “problem” users, both amongst reformist as well as prohibitionist circles. We do not call all drinkers alcoholics so why, in the public discourse, are all users of other drugs clumped together as “addicts” in high-profile debates?

As for Hitchens, I remain baffled. He seems to think that all laws are immutable, graven in stone with words from on high, and as such must therefore be strictly enforced. This is tosh. All laws change and evolve to reflect the changing mores of the societies which write them. If this were not to happen, we in the West would still burn witches, own slaves, not allow women to vote, outlaw homosexuality and, in America of course, alcohol would remain prohibited. Yet now, all these outdated, unjust, and cruel laws have been swept away,

In 2014 LEAP published a Proposed Amendment of the UN Treaties, in which we argue that all drugs should be brought within the orbit of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (2003). We argue that only full regulation and control of the drug market will end the scourge of the illegal global drug trade. Until this happens at least $320 billion per year profits will continue to benefit only crime cartels and terrorist organisations.

The “war on drugs” has failed.

Albert Einstein, who was not exactly a dullard, said that the very definition of insanity was to continue to do the same thing, even if it repeatedly fails, in the hope that you will eventually get a different outcome. That is what we are seeing with prohibition.

It is time for this insanity to cease.

Parliamentary Evidence on the UK Investigatory Powers Bill

My written evidence to the Scrutiny Committee in the UK Houses of Parliament that is currently examining the much-disputed Investigatory Powers Bill (IP):

1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK’s domestic Security Service, commonly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my partner at the time, fellow intelligence officer David Shayler, expose a number of instances of crime and incompetence we had witnessed during our time in the service.

2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphasises the importance of democratic and judicial oversight of the various categories of intrusive intelligence gathering by establishing an Investigatory Powers Commissioner as well as supporting Judicial Commissioners. However, I am concerned about the real and meaningful application of this oversight.

3. While in the Service in the 1990s we were governed by the terms of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 (IOCA), the precursor to RIPA, which provided for a similar system of applications for a warrant and ministerial oversight.

4. I would like to submit evidence that the system did not work and could be manipulated from the inside.

5. I am aware of at least two instances of this during my time in the service, which were cleared for publication by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whistleblowers”, so my discussing them now is not in breach of the Official Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide further evidence, either written or in person, about these abuses.

6. My concern about this draft Bill is that while the oversight provisions seem to be strengthened, with approval necessary from both the Secretary of State and a Judicial Commissioner, the interior process of application for warrants will still remain opaque and open to manipulation within the intelligence agencies.

7. The application process for a warrant governing interception or interference involved a case being made in writing by the intelligence officer in charge of an investigation. This then went through four layers of management, with all the usual redactions and finessing, before a final summary was drafted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dispatched to the Secretary of State. So the minister was only ever presented with was a summary of a summary of a summary of a summary of the original intelligence case.

8. Additionally, the original intelligence case could be erroneous and misleading. The process of writing the warrant application was merely a tick box exercise, and officers would routinely note that such intelligence could only be obtained by such intrusive methods, rather than exploring all open source options first. The revalidation process could be even more cavalier.

9. When problems with this system were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just follow orders. During the annual visit by the Intelligence Intercept Commissioner, those with concerns were banned from meeting him.

10. Thus I have concerns about the realistic power of the oversight provisions written into this Bill and would urge an additional provision. This would establish an effective channel whereby officers with concerns can give evidence directly and in confidence to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner in the expectation that a proper investigation will be conducted and with no repercussions to their careers inside the agencies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford University three years ago outlining these proposals:

11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scenario for all concerned. The agencies would have a chance to improve their work practices, learn from mistakes, and better protect national security, as well as avoiding the scandal and embarrassment of any future whistleblowing scandals; the officers with ethical concerns would not be placed in the invidious position of either becoming complicit in potentially illegal acts by “just following orders” or risking the loss of their careers and liberty by going public about their concerns.

12. I would also like to raise the proportionality issue. It strikes me that bulk intercept must surely be disproportionate within a functioning and free democracy, and indeed can actually harm national security. Why? Because the useful, indeed crucial, intelligence on targets and their associates is lost in the tsunami of available information. Indeed this seems to have been the conclusion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the targets were all vaguely known to the authorities but resources were spread too thinly.

13. In fact all that bulk collection seems to provide is confirmation after the fact of a suspect’s involvement in a specific incident, which is surely specifically police evidential work. Yet the justification for the invasive intercept and interference measures laid out in the Bill itself is to gather vital information ahead of an attack in order to prevent it – the very definition of intelligence. How is this possible if the sheer scale of bulk collection drowns out the vital nuggets of intelligence?

14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step necessary before formulating the proposed IP Bill? Until we have such a legal definition, how can we formulate new and intrusive laws in the name of protecting an undefined and nebulous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be proportionate within a democracy?

UN Ruling on Assange Case

Here is an interview I did for RT today as the news broke that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention would announce tomorrow the findings of its report into the Julian Assange case.

The BBC apparently reported today that the ruling would be in Assange’s favour.

RT Interview re Assange UN Ruling from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

MI5 officer has evidence of torture?

Well, this story is interesting me extremely, and for the obvious as well as the perhaps more arcanely legal reasons.

Apparently a former senior MI5 officer is asking permission to give evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament about the Security Service’s collusion in the US torture programme that was the pyroclastic flow from the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

I have long speculated about how people with whom I used to work, socialise with, have dinner with in the 1990s might have evolved from idealistic young officers into people who could condone or even participate in the torture of other human beings once the war on terror was unleashed in the last decade.

During the 1990s MI5 absolutely did not condone the use of torture – not only for ethical reasons, but also because an older generation was still knocking around and they had seen in the civil war in Northern Ireland quite how counter-productive such practices were.  Internment, secret courts, stress positions, sleep deprivation – all these policies acted as a recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA.

My generation – the first tasked with investigating the IRA in the UK and Al Qaeda globally – understood this.  We were there to run intelligence operations, help gather evidence, and if possible put suspected malefactors on trial. Even then, when ethical boundaries were breached, many raised concerns and many resigned.  A few of us even went public about our concerns.

But that is so much history.  As I said above, I have always wondered how those I knew could have stayed silent once the intelligence gloves came off after 9/11 and MI5 was effectively shanghaied into following the brutish American over-reaction.

Now it appears that there were indeed doubters within, there was indeed a divided opinion. And now it appears that someone with seniority is trying to use what few channels exist for whistleblowers in the UK to rectify this.

In fact, my contemporaries who stayed on the inside would now be the senior officers, so I really wonder who this is – I hope an old friend!

No doubt they will have voiced their concerns over the years and no doubt they will have been told just to follow orders.

I have said publicly over many years that there should be a meaningful channel for those with ethical concerns to present evidence and have them properly investigated. In fact, I have even said that the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament should be that channel if – and it’s a big if – they can have real investigatory powers and can be trusted not just to brush evidence under the carpet and protect the spies’ reputation.

So this takes me to the arcane legalities I alluded to at the start. During the David Shayler whistleblowing trials (1997-2003) all the legal argument was around the fact that he could have taken his concerns to any crown servant – up to the ISC or his MP and down to and including the bobby on the beat – and he would not have breached the Official Secrets Act. That was the argument upon which he was convicted.

Yet at the same time the prosecution also successfully argued during his trial in 2002 in the Old Bailey that there was a “clear bright line” against disclosure to anyone outside MI5 – (Section 1(1) OSA (1989) – without that organisation’s prior written consent.

The new case rather proves the latter position – that someone with ethical concerns has to “ask permission” to give evidence to the “oversight body”.

Only in the UK.

Now, surely in this uncertain and allegedly terrorist-stricken world, we have never had greater need for a meaningful oversight body and meaningful reform to our intelligence agencies if they go off-beam. Only by learning via safe external ventilation, learning from mistakes, reforming and avoiding group-think, can they operate in a way that is proportionate in a democracy and best protects us all.