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.

Karma Police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exile – ExBerliner Article

My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:

What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.

However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.

As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.

However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.

It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.

Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.

Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.

No encryption? How very rude.

First published on RT Op-Edge.

It struck me today that when I email a new contact I now reflexively check to see if they are using PGP encryption.  A happily surprising number are doing so these days, but most people would probably consider my circle of friends and acquaintance to be eclectic at the very least, if not downright eccentric, but then that’s probably why I like them.

There are still alarming numbers who are not using PGP though, particularly in journalist circles, and I have to admit that when this happens I do feel a tad miffed, as if some basic modern courtesy is being breached.

It’s not that I even expect everybody to use encryption – yet – it’s just that I prefer to have the option to use it and be able to have the privacy of my own communications at least considered. After all I am old enough to remember the era of letter writing, and I always favoured a sealed envelope to a postcard.

And before you all leap on me with cries of “using only PGP is no guarantee of security….” I do know that you need a suite of tools to have a fighting chance of real privacy in this NSA-saturated age: open source software, PGP, TOR, Tails, OTR, old hardware, you name it.  But I do think the wide-spread adoption of PGP sets a good example and gets more people thinking about these wider issues.  Perhaps more of us should insist on it before communicating further.

Why is this in my mind at the moment?  Well, I am currently working with an old friend, Simon Davies, the founder of Privacy International and the Big Brother Awards. He cut his first PGP key in 2000, but then left it to wither on the vine. As we are in the process of setting up a new privacy initiative called Code Red (more of which next week) it seemed imperative for him to set a good example and “start using” again.

Anyway, with the help of one of the godfathers of the Berlin cryptoparties, I am happy to report that the father of the privacy movement can now ensure your privacy if you wish to communicate with him.

I am proud to say that my awareness of PGP goes back even further.  The first time I heard of the concept was in 1998 while I was living in hiding in a remote farmhouse in central France, on the run from MI5, with my then partner, David Shayler.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was a computer and a dial-up connection and David went on a steep learning curve in all things geek to ensure a degree of privacy.  He helped build his own website (subsequently hacked, presumably by GCHQ or the NSA as it was a sophisticated attack by the standards of the day) and also installed the newly-available PGP. People complain now of the difficulties of installing encryption, but way back then it was the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest after a few light strolls in the park to limber up.  But he managed it.

Now, of course, it is relatively easy, especially if you take the time to attend a Cryptoparty – and there will be inevitably be one happening near you some place soon.

Cryptoparties began in late 2012 on the initiative of Asher Wolf in Australia.  The concept spread rapidly, and after Snowden went public in May 2013, accelerated globally. Indeed, there have been various reports about the “Snowden Effect“.  Only last week there was an article in the Guardian newspaper saying that 72% of British adults are now concerned about online privacy. I hope the 72% are taking advantage of these geek gatherings.

The US-based comedian, John Oliver, also recently aired an interview with Edward Snowden.  While this was slightly painful viewing for any whistleblower – Oliver had done a vox pop in New York that he showed to Snowden, where most interviewees seemed unaware of him and uncaring about privacy – there was a perceptible shift of opinion when the issue of, shall we say, pictures of a sensitive nature were being intercepted.

Officially this spy programme is called Optic Nerve, an issue that many of us have been discussing to some effect over the last year.  In the Oliver interview this transmogrified into “the dick pic programme”.  Well, whatever gets the message out there effectively…. and it did.

We all have things we prefer to keep private – be it dick pics, bank accounts, going to the loo, talking to our doctor, our sex lives, or even just talking about family gossip over the phone.  This is not about having anything to hide, but most of us do have an innate sense of privacy around our personal issues and dealings and this is all now lost to us, as Edward Snowden has laid bare.

As I have also said before, there are wider societal implications too – if we feel we are being watched in what we watch, read, say, write, organise, and conduct our relationships, then we start to self-censor.  And this is indeed already another of the quantified Snowden effects. This is deleterious to the free flow of information and the correct functioning of democratic societies.  This is precisely why the right to privacy is one of the core principles in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Lessons had then been learned from the Nazi book burnings and the Gestapo spy state, and privacy was recognised as a pre-requisite of open democracy. Yet now we see senior and supposedly well-informed US politicians calling for the modern equivalent of book burnings and failing to rein in the global abuses of the NSA.

How quickly the lessons of history can be forgotten and how carelessly we can cast aside the hard-won rights of our ancestors.

Edward Snowden, at great personal risk, gave us the necessary information to formulate a push back. At the very least we can have enough respect for the sacrifices he made and for the rights of our fellow human beings to take basic steps to protect both our own and their privacy.

So please start using open source encryption at the very least. It would be rude not to.

Whistleblower panel discussion at Logan Symposium

Here is a panel discussion I did about whistleblowing at the Logan Symposium in London last November. With me on the panel are Eileen Chubb, a UK health care whistleblower who runs Compassion in Care and is campaigning for Edna’s Law, and Bea Edwards of the US Government Accountability Project.  With thanks to @newsPeekers for filming this.

newsPeeksLIVE whistleblower interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

UK spies target women for recruitment

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

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

Jihadi John and MI5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swedish SVT TV Interview, November 2014

Here’s an interview I did while at the excellent Internetdagarna conference in Stockholm last month.  It covers all things whistleblower, going on the run, and spy accountability:

Interview on Swedish SVT TV, November 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Keynote at Internetdagarna, Stockholm, November 2014

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

internetdagarna

Interview on Swedish Aftonbladet TV

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

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

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

Interview with George Galloway

Here is my recent interview with British MP George Galloway on his RT show, “Sputnik”.

george_galloway.cleaned

Keynote at international whistleblower conference, Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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CCC talk – the Four Wars

Here is my recent talk at the CCC in Hamburg, discussing the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war in the internet and the war on whistleblowers:

30C3 – The Four Wars; Terror, whistleblowers, drugs, internet from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Rendition and torture – interview on RT

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

Going Underground Ep 22 1 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.