The Bureau of Investigative Journalism article

Here is a recent article I wrote for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, about our slide into a surveillance state.  

TBIJ supported Wikileaks during the release of the SpyFiles. The issue is of such crucial importance for our democracy, I was disappointed that more of the mainstream media did not follow up on the stories provided.

Here’s the text:

Analysis: the slide into a surveillance state

Fifty years ago, President Eisenhower warned of the ‘disastrous rise’ of the military-industrial complex. His fears proved all too accurate.

Now in the post-9/11 world, the threat goes even further: the military-industrial complex is evolving into the military-intelligence complex. It is a world, I fear, that is propelling us into a dystopian surveillance nightmare.

I have seen this nightmare unfold from close quarters. In the mid-90s I was an intelligence officer for MI5, the UK domestic security service. That is, until I resigned to help my former partner and colleague David Shayler blow the whistle on a catalogue of incompetence, cover-ups and crimes committed by spies. We naively hoped that this would lead to an inquiry, and a review of intelligence work and accountability within the notoriously secretive British system.

The blunders and illegal operations that we witnessed in our six years at MI5 took place at what is probably the most ethical and accountable decade in the British spying service’s 100-year history.

Even then, they were getting away with pretty much whatever they wanted.

Since the attacks of 9/11, I have watched with increasing dismay as more powers, money and resources have been pumped into the international intelligence community to combat the nebulous ‘war on terror’. As a result, civil liberties have been eroded in our own countries, and countless innocent people have been killed, maimed and displaced across the Middle East.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which was designed to allow our spy agencies to lawfully intercept our communications to counter terrorism and organised crime, has been routinely used and abused by almost 800 public bodies. MI5 admitted to making 1,061 mistakes or ‘administrative errors’ this year alone in its application of RIPA, according to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy.

Intelligence creep extends to the police, as we saw with the undercover police scandal earlier this year, where the unaccountable National Public Order Intelligence Unit was discovered to be infiltrating harmless and legitimate protest groups for years on end.

It is a world, I fear, that is propelling us into a dystopian surveillance nightmare.

Even beyond the undercover cops, we have seen an explosion in corporate spying. This involves mercenary spy companies such as Xe (formerly Blackwater), Kroll, Aegis and Diligence offering not just security muscle in hotspots around the world, but also bespoke operations enabling big corporations to check out staff or to infiltrate and investigate protest groups that may embarrass the companies.

The mercenary spy operates without any oversight whatsoever, and can even be granted immunity from prosecution, as Xe enjoyed when operating in Iraq.

The last decade has also been a boom time for companies providing high-tech surveillance capabilities. One aspect of this in the UK – the endemic CCTV coverage – is notorious. Local councils have invested in mobile CCTV smart spy cars, while cameras that bark orders to you on the street have been trialled in Middlesbrough.

Drones are increasingly used for aerial surveillance – and the potential for militarisation of these tools is clear.

All this despite the fact that the head of the Metropolitan Police department that is responsible for processing all this surveillance information stated publicly that CCTV evidence is useless in helping to solve all but 3% of street robberies in London. In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nationally, violent crime on the streets of Britain has increased.

But, hey, who cares about facts when security is Big Business? Someone, somewhere, is getting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian surveillance technology. And while the technology might not be used against the wider UK citizenry in a particularly malignant manner – yet – the same companies are certainly allowing their technologies to find their way to the more violent and repressive Middle Eastern states.

That would never happen in Britain – would it? We retain an optimistic faith in the long-term benign intentions of our government, while tut-tutting over Syrian police snatch squads pre-emptively arresting suspected dissidents. Yet this has already happened in the UK: before the royal wedding in April, protesters were pre-emptively arrested to ensure that they would not cause embarrassment. The intent is the same in Syria and Britain. Only the scale and brutality differs – at the moment.

When I worked for MI5 in the 1990s I was appalled how easily telephone interception could be used illegally, and how easily the spies could hide their incompetence and crimes from the government. In the last decade it has become much worse, with senior spies and police officers repeatedly being caught out lying to the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. And this is only the official intelligence sector.

How much worse is the endemic surveillance carried out by the corporate spy industry?

The balance of power, bolstered by new technologies, is shifting overwhelmingly in favour of the Big Brother state – well, almost. The WikiLeaks model is helping level the playing field, and whatever happens to this trailblazing organisation, the principles and technology are out there and will be replicated. This genie cannot be put back in the bottle. This – combined with the work of informed MPs, investigative journalists and potentially the occasional whistleblower – gives me hope that we can halt this slide into a Stasi state.

Annie Machon is a former spy with MI5, the British intelligence agency working to protect the UK’s national security against threats such as terrorism and espionage.
You can read Annie Machon’s blog ‘Using Our Intelligence’ here.

Fascism 2012 – the ongoing merger of the corporate and the state

I’m gradually coming to after a knock-out blow last October – the unexpected death of my beloved and only brother, Rich.  Words cannot describe.

But looking forward to the delights that 2012 will no doubt offer: Julian Assange remains trapped in a legal spider’s web, but all credit to Wikileaks – it keeps on providing the goods.  

The recent publication of the SpyFiles should have been a massive wake-up call, as it it highlighted the increasing use and abuse of mercenary spy tech – all without any effective oversight, as I recently wrote in my article for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Needless to say, the issue of massive commercial surveillance capabilities usually remains confined to a niche media market, although the Daily Mail did rouse itself to report that shoppers were being tracked via mobile phones as they consumed their way around malls.  Well, I suppose it’s a start.

With the growth of mercenary spy companies in our minds, we should be even more concerned about the accelerated shredding of our civil liberties, particularly in the US and UK.  Despite earlier promises that he would veto any such legislation, President Obama signed into law the invidious NDAA on 31st December.  This means that the US military is now empowered to seize and indefinitely detain, with no recourse to traditional due process, not only potentially all non-Americans across the planet a la the Guantanamo/extraordinary rendition model, but can now also do this to US citizens within their own country.

Guantanamo_BayDespite the passionate internet debate, the issue has unsurprisingly been largely ignored by most of the mainstream corporate media.  But the predominantly US-based internet commentary displays a breathtaking hypocrisy: yes, the NDAA is a terrible law with awful implications for American citizens.  However, people around the world have been living with just this fear for a decade, with whole communities afraid of being snatched and disappeared into black CIA torture facilities.   Where was the US outrage then?  The Pastor Martin Niemoeller poem remains as relevant today as when it was written 70 years ago.

That said a couple of brave voices have spoken out: Naomi Wolf recently described how the US legislators could ironically find themselves on the receiving end of this law, if we go by all historic precedents.  Paul Craig Roberts was on frothing good form too, inveighing against the war crimes of the US military, the persecution of Wikileaks for exposing those very crimes, and the evolving totalitarianism of our countries.

SOPAIn a digital mirror of the NDAA, the entertainment industry and their pet lobbyists are successfully ramming through the invidious SOPA law.   As acclaimed digital rights activist and author, Cory Doctorow, described in his keynote at the recent CCC geekfest in Berlin, these ostensibly commercial laws are in effect a stalking horse for governments to seize control of the internet.  As he wrote in the Guardian “you can’t make a system that prevents spying by secret police and allows spying by media giants”.  

With this in the back of our minds, the Wikileaks SpyFiles revelations about the increasing globalisation and commercialisation of corporate spy technology are even more alarming.  The government spy agencies work with little effective oversight, but the mercenaries have a completely free legal rein.  Intriguingly, it appears that unlike our own governments Afghanistan is alive to this problem and is reportedly booting out foreign contractors. 

Yet the balance of power in certain western countries is sliding overwhelmingly towards police states –  or, indeed, fascism, if you take into consideration Benito Mussolini’s definition: “the merger of state and corporate power”.

Our line of defence is slender – organisations like Wikileaks, one or two politicians of conscience, a few remaining real investigative journalists and perhaps the odd whistleblower.  Beyond that, we must individually get to grips with the threat, get informed, teched up, and protect ourselves, as we can no longer rely on our governments to uphold our basic rights – you know, privacy, freedom of expression, habeas corpus, and all those other delightfully old-fashioned ideas.

If we do not act soon, we may no longer be able to act at all in the near future….  So I wish everyone an informed, productive and active 2012!

 

 

The Rise of the Mercenary

Stephen Armstrong published an interesting article in today’s New Statesman magazine. Based on his new book War plc: the Rise of the New Corporate Mercenary, it examines the rise of the corporate security consultant. Or in basic English – mercenaries.

I met Stephen when I was invited by James Whale to review the book on Press TV. I was impressed with his research and depth of knowledge on this subject. It was an unusually harmonious talk show – rather than arguing, we all took a broadly similar approach to the issue of mercenaries, oversight and accountability.

The increasing privatisation of intelligence is an insidious development in the world of espionage and war. For many decades there have existed on the fringes of the official intelligence world a few private security companies; think Kroll, Blackwater, Aegis. These companies are often the last refuge of …… former intelligence officers of the western spook organisations.

These people, often frustrated at the overly bureaucratic nature of the governmental spy organisations, resign and are gently steered towards these corporations. That, or the relocation officers get them nice juicy jobs at merchant banks, arms companies or international quangos. It’s always useful to have reliable chaps in useful places, after all.

In the last decade, however, we have seen an explosion in the number of these companies. One of my former colleagues is a founder of Diligence, which is going from strength to strength. These kinds of companies specialise in corporate spying, the neutralisation of opposition and protest groups, and security. The latter usually boils down to providing military muscle in hot spots like Iraq. While I can see the attraction for soldiers leaving crack regiments and wondering what on earth they can do with their specialised expertise, and who then decide that earning £10,000 a week risking their lives in Baghdad is a good bet, this has worrying implications for the rule of law.

Leaving aside the small matter that, under international and domestic UK law, all wars of aggression are illegal, our official British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq is at least to a certain degree accountable. The most egregious war crimes have resulted in court martials. But the new mercenaries live in a legal no-man’s land, and in this territory anything goes. Or can at least be covered up.

This is the same principle that has guided these unofficial spook companies over the years – plausible deniability. What little democratic oversight there is in the UK of the intelligence community still does give them limited pause for thought: what if the media hears about it? What if an MP asks an awkward question? By using former colleagues in the corporate intelligence world, MI5, MI6 et al can out source the risk.

The oversight and accountability for the official spooks and the army are bad enough. The privatisation of intelligence and military might makes a further mockery of the feeble oversight provisions in place in this country. This is a worrying development in legal and democratic terms; more importantly, it has a direct, daily impact on the rights of innocent men, women and children around the world. We need to ensure that the official and unofficial spooks and military are accountable under the law.

New Statesman Article, August 2008

The new spies

Stephen Armstrong

When
the Cold War ended, it didn’t spell curtains for the secret agent.
Private espionage is a booming industry and environmental protest
groups are its prime target

                  


 

As you hunker down for the last few days of the Camp for Climate
Action, discussing how to force your way into Kingsnorth power station
in an attempt to prevent the construction of a new coal facility, cast
your eyes around your fellow protesters. Do they look entirely bona
fide to you? And don’t look for the old-school special branch officers
– Kent Police are a tiny force. It’s the corporate spies hired by
private companies you need to watch out for.

According to the private espionage industry itself, roughly one in four of your comrades is on a multinational’s payroll.

Russell Corn, managing director of Diligence, one of a growing
number of "corporate intelligence agencies", with offices high in the
Canary Wharf glass tower, says private spies make up 25 per cent of
every activist camp. "If you stuck an intercept up near one of those
camps, you wouldn’t believe the amount of outgoing calls after every
meeting saying, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to cut the fence’," he smiles.
"Easily one in four of the people there are taking the corporate
shilling."

In April this year, for instance, the anti-aviation campaign network
Plane Stupid, one of the main organisers of the eco-camp built to
protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport, announced that one
of its activists, Ken Tobias, was actually called Toby Kendall, was
working for a corporate espionage firm called C2i, and had been leaking
information about the group to paying clients and the media. He had
been hired by an as yet unknown private company to provide information
and disrupt the group’s campaigning.

When Tobias first turned up at Plane Stupid’s meetings in July 2007,
he seemed a committed former Oxford student dedicated to reducing
aircraft emissions. The group gradually became suspicious because he
showed up early at meetings, constantly pushed for increasingly drama
tic direct action and – the ultimate giveaway – dressed a little too
well for an ecowarrior. When they showed his picture around Oxford they
found an old college pal who identified him as Toby Kendall. A quick
Google search revealed his Bebo page with a link to a corporate
networking site, where his job as an "analyst" at C2i International,
working in "security and investigations", was pasted in full public
view.

Just a month earlier, a woman called Cara Schaffer had contacted the
Student/Farmworker Alliance, an idealistic bunch of American college
students who lobby fast-food companies to help migrant workers in
Florida who harvest tomatoes. Like the cockle-pickers of Morecambe Bay,
many of these workers are smuggled into the US by gangs which then take
their passports and force them to work without pay to clear often
fictitious debts to regain their papers.

Digging up dirt

Again, Schaffer’s excessive eagerness aroused suspicion, and again,
the internet revealed her true identity. She owned Diplomatic Tactical
Services, a private espionage firm which had pre viously hired as a
subcontractor one Guillermo Zara bozo, today facing murder charges in
Miami for his role in allegedly executing four crew members of a
chartered fishing boat, an allegation he denies. Schaffer turned out to
be working for Burger King – the home, perhaps appropriately, of the
Whopper.

The cute thing about these two bozos is that they got caught pretty
early on, but that was because they were young and had no background in
espionage.

The real market is in proper, old-school spies who are suddenly
entering the private sector. For professional spooks, the 1990s were no
fun at all. The Cold War was over, defence spending was down and a
detailed knowledge of cold-drop techniques in central Berlin was
useless to governments looking for Arabic speakers who knew the Quran.

From New York and London to Moscow and Beijing, any decent-sized
corporation can now hire former agents from the CIA, FBI, MI5, MI6 and
the KGB. The ex-spooks are selling their old skills and contacts to
multinationals, hedge funds and oligarchs, digging up dirt on
competitors, uncovering the secrets of boardroom rivals and exposing
investment targets. They are also keeping tabs on journalists,
protesters and even potential employees.

"MI5 and MI6 in particular have always guided ex-employees into
security companies," explains Annie Machon, the former MI5 agent who
helped David Shayler blow the whistle on the security services back in
1997. "It’s always useful to them to have friends they can tap for info
or recruit for a job that requires plausible deniability. The big
change in recent years has been the huge growth in these companies.
Where before it was a handful of private detective agencies, now there
are hundreds of multinational security organisations, which operate
with less regulation than the spooks themselves," she says.

Corn’s company Diligence, for instance, was set up in 2000 by Nick
Day, a former MI5 spy, and an ex-CIA agent, Mike Baker. Before long,
the duo had built up a roster of high-paying clients including Enron,
oil and pharmaceutical companies, as well as law firms and hedge funds.
In 2001, a small investment by the Washington lobbying company Barbour
Griffith & Rogers propelled their growth. However, BGR and Baker
sold their stakes in 2005, shortly before a scandal shook Diligence.
KPMG, the global professional services firm, accused Diligence staff of
impersonating British spies to gain information on a corporate takeover
for a Russian telecoms client called Alfa Group. Diligence settled the
lawsuit without admitting liability.

Since then, it has recruited the former Conservative Party leader
Michael Howard as chairman of its European operations. And it is that
sort of respectability and lobbying power that big players are after.
In 2007, the parent company of the US private military firm Blackwater,
which hit the headlines for gunning down Iraqi civilians in Baghdad
last September, entered this market through Total Intelligence
Solutions (TIS), a new CIA-type private operation, to provide
intelligence services to commercial clients.

Discreet investigations

Blackwater’s vice-chairman, J Cofer Black, who runs TIS, spent three
decades in the CIA and the state department, becoming director of the
Counterterrorist Centre and co-ordinator for counter terrorism, a job
with ambassadorial rank. He describes the new company as bringing "the
intelligence-gathering methodology and analytical skills traditionally
honed by CIA operatives directly to the boardroom. With a service like
this, CEOs and their security personnel will be able to respond to
threats quickly and confidently – whether it’s determining which city
is safest to open a new plant in or working to keep employees out of
harm’s way after a terrorist attack."

Black also says TIS will operate a "24/7 intelligence fusion and
warning centre" that will monitor civil unrest, terrorism, economic
stability, environmental and health concerns, and information
technology security around the world.

The established firms already operating in this area include Kroll,
Aegis, Garda, Control Risks, GPW and Hakluyt & Co. More firms are
opening every day and there is little regulation of the sector.

Hakluyt & Co was founded in 1995 by former British MI6 officers,
with a reputation for discreet and effective investigations. The
company butler, a former gurkha, greets visitors to its London HQ, a
town house off Park Lane. In winter, meetings can be conducted beside
the fire. Computers are rarely in sight. Hakluyt’s advisory board has
become an exit chamber for captains of industry and former government
officials. Members have included Sir Rod Eddington, a former BA CEO,
and Sir Christopher Gent, former chief executive of Vodafone.

"It is hard to work well for an oil company without knowing who all
the key decision-makers in a government are and having the right
contacts to reach them," explains Stéphane Gérardin, who runs the
French private security company Géos. "We have an intelligence section
where we employ some investigative journalists, people from the finance
sector, from equity banks and some from security backgrounds.

"It is an important part of image protection for our clients as
well. We have our own tracking and monitoring centre, with analysts
doing risk mapping and preparing our clients for every potential
problem. It could be about alerting them to local sensitivities. Or, in
this globalised internet age, it can be a group of students in
Cambridge who have launched a protest website, who may be sending out a
petition.

"So we need to be able to understand and prepare our own propaganda
to counter such attacks. This is work we do to protect our clients."

Trusted friend

Like the state security services, which ended up running Class War
in the 1990s after a hugely successful penetration, these spies work to
become reliable members of any protest movement. In April 2007, the
Campaign Against Arms Trade called in the police after court documents
showed that the weapons manufacturer BAE Systems had paid a private
agency to spy on the peace group.

BAE admitted that it had paid £2,500 a month to LigneDeux
Associates, whose agent Paul Mercer – accepted as a trusted member of
the campaign – passed information, including a legally privileged
document, to BAE’s director of security, Mike McGinty.

Unlike the security services, however, these services don’t bother
with penetrating the far left or anti-fascist groups. Their clients are
only interested in the protest movements that threaten corporations.
And as that is the nature of much protest in these times, it is a wide
field, but with a particular impact on environmental groups.

At any of this summer’s green protests the corporate spies will be
there, out-of-work MI5 agents tapping green activists’ mobile phones to
sell the information on to interested companies.

Russell Corn knows of incidents where a spook at a meeting has
suggested a high-street bank as a target, then left the meeting to
phone the officers of said bank, telling them that he has penetrated an
activist camp planning an attack and offering to sell the details. Corn
has no time for such behaviour, however.

"The thing about a really good private spy," he tells me, "is that you’ll never know he’s around and he’ll never get caught.

"The fact you can’t see them . . . it means nothing at all."