Recently I did this interview for BBC Click to promote the third series of the excellent US spy series “The Blacklist”:
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.
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:
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.
Below is an article I recently wrote for the excellent European drug policy reform organisation, European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies – ENCOD. 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.
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?
UK national TV station, Channel Four, recently aired a programme called “The World’s Greatest Spy Movies”, asking former spooks to comment about the reality (or not) of iconic spy films over the decades. It was a fun interview to do, and here’s the trailer:
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.
His 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.
Despite 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.