A recent talk I gave to the excellent Spark.me conference in beautiful Montenegro:
Here is a recent interview I did for the RT UK’s flagship news channel, “Going Underground” about the horrors of the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill – the so-called “snoopers charter” – that will legalise previously illegal mass surveillance, mass data retention, and mass hacking carried out by GCHQ in league with the NSA:
My interview starts at 19 minutes in – there is Brexit stuff first, about which I shall write more about soon….
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.
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?
I just want to say a huge thank you to the organisers of the 10th Webstock Festival in New Zealand earlier this month – definitely worth the interminable flights.
This is a tech-focused conference that very much looks at the bigger picture and joins a whole number of different societal dots.
Plus they look after their “inspirational speakers” exceedingly well, with scary coach trips out of Wellington and up the cliffs, a chance to appreciate the finer aspects of bowling at a NZ working men’s club, and a rip-roaring party at the end of the festival. It was great to have the time to chat with so many amazing people.
Oh, and I experienced my first earthquake – 5.7 on the Richter Scale. Slightly distant, but still impressive when you’re in a swaying 5th floor hotel room. I initially thought a bomb might have gone off in the basement…. Thankfully, NZ hotels are made of pliable, if stern, stuff.
I was also shunted on to Radio New Zealand for a half hour interview, discussing whistleblowers, spies, drugs and surveillance. Here it is – it was fun to do – so thank you NZ.
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.
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.
Press freedom is under threat in Germany – two journalists and their alleged source are under investigation for potential treason for disclosing and reporting what appears to be an illegal and secret plan to spy on German citizens. Here’s the interview I did for RT.com about this yesterday: