My recent interview on “Breaking the Set”, Abby Martin’s show on RT America, discussing all things whistleblowing:
Part Two of my recent interview on the excellent, independent and fearless Real News Network:
Part One of my recent interview on the excellent, independent and fearless Real News Network:
I had an immensely stimulating time during my recent mini-tour of Scandinavian investigative journalism conferences, meeting informed, interesting, and interested people.
The focus of my talks was the nexus between the intelligence world and the media — lessons I had learned, researched and deduced during the whistleblowing years and beyond. I have heard so many hair-raising media stories over the years.…
And, having listened to the experiences of journalists from a wide variety of other countries, it seems I am on the right track.
First stop was the Grav conference in Sweden, where I gave a talk and had the pleasure of meeting investigative journalists who confirmed what I was saying, even if some of them didn’t think I had quite gone far enough! We also had fun at the “mingel” evening.
Next stop, next day, was the SKUP conference in Norway where I did a talk, and also a debate about the media and whistleblowers. Note to self: never, ever agree to do a morning debate after the legendary SKUP party the night before.
Finally, last weekend, I visited the Tutki 2012 journalism conference in Finland (Download Helsinki_Talk). The response was overwhelmingly positive, and once again I had confirmation of what I was saying from the journalists themselves.
So what can we do about this situation? I shall keep spreading the word, and the journalists themselves just need to keep saying a resounding “no” to the inducements, at least if they want to work on meaningful investigations. And what real journalist doesn’t, au fond?
Next stop Geneva, which is why I’m limbering up with the French.
How strange to stumble across this article in the Guardian newspaper yesterday, which describes a journalist’s justifiably paranoid experiences interviewing David Shayler and me back in 2000 while writing an article for Esquire magazine.
The author, Dr Eamonn O’Neill, now a lecturer in journalism at Strathclyde University, spent a few days with us in London and Paris way back when.
The Esquire article highlights the paranoia and surveillance that we had to live with at the time, and the contradictory briefings and slanders that were coming out of the British establishment and the media. O’Neill also intelligently tries to address the motivations of a whistleblower.
When it was published I was mildly uncomfortable about this article — I felt it didn’t do David full justice, nor did it appear to get quite to the heart of the issues he was discussing. I suppose, at the time, I was just too enmeshed in the whole situation.
Now, with hindsight, it is more perspicacious than I had thought. And rather sad.
This article is a timely reminder of how vicious the establishment can be when you cause it embarrassment and pain; the treatment meted out to David Shayler was brutal. And yet nothing has changed to this day, as we can see with the ongoing pursuit and vilification of Wikileaks.
Outrage continues to swell about the peremptory extradition of British citizens to face trial on tenuous charges abroad.
Thanks to the tireless campaigning of distraught family members, a growing anger in the UK press, and indignant questions and debates in Parliament — even our somnambulant MPs have roused themselves to state that Something Must be Done - the Extradition Act 2003 is now centre stage, and reform of the law will no doubt occur at some point.
As there is a growing consensus, why the delay? I have a theory, but first let’s review some of the most troubling recent cases.
The case that really brought the issue to widespread public attention is the decade-long extradition battle of Gary McKinnon. With this sword of Damocles hanging over his head for so long, poor Gary has already effectively served a 10-year sentence, uncertain of his future and unable to work in his chosen profession. Thanks to the indefatigable campaigning of his mother, Janis Sharp, his case has received widespread support from the media and politicians alike.
Despite this the Home Secretary, Theresa May (who has recently been working so hard in Jordan to protect the rights of Abu Qatada), has dragged her feet abominably over making a decision about whether Gary should be extradited to the US to face a possible 70-year prison sentence — even though the UK investigation into his alleged crime was abandoned way back in 2002.
Then there is the more recent case of student Richard O’Dwyer, wanted in the US even though he lives in the UK and has broken no British laws. He is facing a 10 year maximum security sentence if extradited. Once again, his mother, Julia, is tirelessly fighting and campaigning for her son.
Most recently, Chris Tappin, a retired businessman and golf club president, has been shipped off to a Texas high security penitentiary following what sounds like a US entrapment operation (a technique not legally admissable in UK courts), and faces a 35 year sentence if convicted.
Despite having turned himself in, this elderly gent, who walks with the aid of a cane, is considered such a flight risk that he was last week denied bail. Once again, his wife Elaine has come out fighting.
My heart goes out to all these women, and I salute their tenacity and bravery. I remember living through a similar, if mercifully briefer, four months back in 1998 when the UK government tried and failed to extradite David Shayler from France to the UK to stand trial for a breach of the OSA. I remember with crystal clarity the shock of the arrest, the fear when he disappeared into a foreign legal system without trace, the anguish about his life in an alien prison.
And I remember the frightening moment when I realised I had to step up and fight for him — the legal case, dealing with MPs and the endless media work, including the terror of live TV interviews. And all this when you are worried sick about the fate of a loved one. Shall I just say it was a steep learning curve?
In the wake of the recent extradition cases, there have been questions in Parliament, motions, debates, reviews (Download Review), and there is an ongoing push for an urgent need for reform. And no doubt this will come, in time.
So why the delay? Why not change the law now, and prevent McKinnon, O’Dywer and many others being sacrificed on the American legal altar — the concept of “judicial rendition”, as I have mentioned before.
Well, I have a theory, one derived from personal experience. The British media — most notably the Daily Mail - inveigh against the unilateral extradition of UK citizens to the USA’s brutal prison régime. There is also some concern about extradition to other European jurisdictions — usually on the fringes to the south and east of the continent, regions where the British seem to have a visceral fear of corrupt officials and kangaroo courts.
But what many commentators seem to miss is the crucial legal connection — the extradition arrangements that ensure Brits can be shipped off to the US and many other legal banana republics comparable legal systems to face outrageous sentences are, in fact, embedded within the Extradition Act 2003. This is the act that enshrined the power of the European Arrest Warrant, the the act that was rushed through Parliament in the midst of the post-9/11 terrorism flap.
And, of course, this is the very act that is currently being used and abused to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden merely for police questioning (he has not even been charged with any crime), whence he can be “temporarily surrendered” to the delights of the US judicial process. Hmm, could this possibly be the reason for the delay in reforming the Act?
Let me guess, you think this is beginning to sound a bit tin-foil hat? Surely it is inconceivable that the British politicians and judges would delay righting a flagrant legal wrong that manifestly results in innocent people being unjustly extradited and prosecuted? Surely our government would move swiftly to protect its citizens?
As I mentioned, my theory stems from personal experience. Once again delving into the mists of time, in 1997 David Shayler blew the whistle on the wrongful conviction on terrorist charges of two innocent Palestinian students, Samar Alami and Jawad Botmeh. Their lawyer, the excellent Gareth Peirce, was immediately on the case, but the UK government dragged its heels for a year. Why?
During that time, the UK government tried to have Shayler extradited from France to the UK to stand trial. Government lawyers were confident of victory and delayed a decision on the students’ appeal against their convictions until the whistleblower was safely incarcerated in HMP Belmarsh, awaiting trial.
Except it all went wrong, and the French freed Shayler for being manifestly a political whistleblower, which in their legal opinion was not an extradictable offence. Only at that point did the UK government lawyers begin to work with Peirce on the Palestinian case, details of which can be found here.
So my theory is that the UK is dragging its feet about reforming the preposterous Extradition Act until it has Assange safely over in Sweden. However, they may be counting their chickens prematurely — and they should never, ever overlook the determination of the campaigning mother, in this case Christine Assange.
But in the meantime, while the UK continues to prostitute itself to the USA, how many more innocent people will have to suffer unjust and unjustifiable extradition?
A cache of highly classified intelligence documents was recently discovered in the abandoned offices of former Libyan spy master, Foreign Minister and high-profile defector, Musa Kusa.
These documents have over the last couple of weeks provided a fascinating insight into the growing links in the last decade between the former UK Labour government, particularly Tony Blair, and the Gaddafi régime. They have displayed in oily detail the degree of toadying that the Blair government was prepared to countenance, not only to secure lucrative business contracts but also to gloss over embarrassing episodes such as Lockerbie and the false flag MI6-backed 1996 assassination plot against Gaddafi.
These documents have also apparently revealed direct involvement by MI6 in the “extraordinary rendition” to Tripoli and torture of two Libyans. Ironically it has been reported that they were wanted for being members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the very organisation that MI6 had backed in its failed 1996 coup.
The secular dictatorship of Col Gaddafi always had much to fear from Islamist extremism, so it is perhaps unsurprising that, after Blair’s notorious “deal in the desert” in 2004, the Gaddafi régime used its connections with MI6 and the CIA to hunt down its enemies. And, as we have all been endlessly told, the rules changed after 9/11…
The torture victims, one of whom is now a military commander of the rebel Libyan forces, are now considering suing the British government. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary at the time, has tried to shuffle off any blame, stating that he could not be expected to know everything that MI6 does.
Well, er, no — part of the job description of Foreign Secretary is indeed to oversee the work of MI6 and hold it to democratic accountability, especially about such serious policy issues as “extraordinary rendition” and torture. Such operations would indeed need the ministerial sign-off to be legal under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.
There has been just so much hot air from the current government about how the Gibson Torture Inquiry will get to the bottom of these cases, but we all know how toothless such inquiries will be, circumscribed as they are by the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005. We also know that Sir Peter Gibson himself has for years been “embedded” within the British intelligence community and is hardly likely to hold the spies meaningfully to account.
So I was particularly intrigued to hear that the the cache of documents showed the case of David Shayler, the intelligence whistleblower who revealed the 1996 Gaddafi assassination plot and went to prison twice for doing so, first in France in 1998 and then in the UK in 2002, was still a subject of discussion between the Libyan and UK governments in 2007. And, as I have written before, as late as 2009 it was obvious that this case was still used by the Libyans for leverage, certainly when it came to the tit-for-tat negotiations around case of the murder in London outside the Libyan Embassy of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.
Of course, way back in 1998, the British government was all too ready to crush the whistleblower rather than investigate the disclosures and hold the spies to account for their illegal and reckless acts. I have always felt that this was a failure of democracy, that it seriously undermined the future work and reputation of the spies themselves, and particularly that it was such a shame for the fate of the PBW (poor bloody whistleblower).
But it now appears that the British intelligence community’s sense of omnipotence and of being above the law has come back to bite them. How else explain their slide into a group-think mentality that participates in “extraordinary rendition” and torture?
One has to wonder if wily old Musa Kusa left this cache of documents behind in his abandoned offices as an “insurance policy”, just in case his defection to the UK were not to be as comfortable as he had hoped — and we now know that he soon fled to Qatar after he had been questioned about the Lockerbie case.
But whether an honest mistake or cunning power play, his actions have helped to shine a light into more dark corners of British government lies and double dealing vis a vis Libya.…
It appears that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has suppressed key evidence about the all-too-apparent innocence of environmental protesters in the run-up to their trials. In this case Mark Kennedy aka Stone, the policeman who for years infiltrated protest groups across Europe, had covertly recorded conversations during the planning sessions to break into Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station.
Kennedy offered to give evidence to prove that the unit he worked for at the time, the private and unaccountable ACPO-run National Public Order Investigations Unit (NPOIU), had witheld this key evidence. It now appears that the police are claiming that they passed all the information on to the CPS, which then seems to have neglected to hand it over to the protesters’ defence lawyers.
Which makes it even more fascinating that in April this year the Director of Public Prosecutions, famous civil liberties QC Keir Starmer no less, took the unprecedented step of encouraging those same protesters to appeal against their convictions because of potential “police” cover-ups.
It’s just amazing, isn’t it, that when vital information can be kept safely under wraps these doughty crime-fighting agencies present a united front to the world? But once someone shines a light into the slithery dark corners, they all scramble to avoid blame and leak against each other?
And yet this case is just the tip of a titanic legal iceberg, where for years the police and the CPS have been in cahoots to cover up many cases of, at best, miscommunication, and at worst outright lies about incompetence and potentially criminal activity.
A couple of months ago George Monbiot provided an excellent summary of recent “misstatements” (a wonderfully euphemistic neologism) by the police over the last few years, including such blatant cases as the death of Ian Tomlinson during the London G20 protests two years ago, the ongoing News of the World phone hacking case, and the counter-terrorism style execution, sorry, shooting of the entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes, to name but a few.
Monbiot also dwelt at length on the appalling case of Michael Doherty, a concerned father who discovered that his 13 year-old daughter was apparently being groomed by a paedophile over the internet. He took his concerns to the police, who brushed the issue aside. When Doherty tried to push for a more informed and proactive response, he was the one who was snatched from his house in an early morning raid and ended up in court, accused of abusive and angry phone calls to the station in a sworn statement by a member of the relevant police force, sorry, service.
And that would have been that — he would have apparently been bang to rights on the word of a police secretary — apart from the fact he had recorded all his phone calls to the police and kept meticulous notes on the progress of the case. Only this evidence led to his rightful acquittal.
It appears that the notion of “citizen journalists” is just sooo 2006. Now we all need to be not only journalists but also “citizen lawyers”, just in case we have to defend ourselves against potential police lies. Yet these are the very organisations that are paid from the public purse to protect civil society. Is it any wonder that so many people have a growing distrust of them and concerns about an encroaching, Stasi-like, police state?
This is all part of engrained, top-down British culture of secrecy that allows the amorphous “security services” to think they can get away with anything and everything if they make a forceful enough public statement: black is white, torture is “enhanced interrogation”, and war is peace (or at least a “peacekeeping” mission in Libya.…). Especially if there is no meaningful oversight. We have entered the Orwellian world of NewSpeak.
But plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. This all happened in the 1970s and 80s with the Irish community, and also in the 1990s with the terrible miscarriage of justice around the Israeli embassy bombing in 1994. If you have the time, please do read the detailed case here: Download Israeli_Embassy_Case
We need to remember our history.
UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, reportedly made the startling statement recently that the military intervention in Libya “unlike Iraq, is necessary, legal and right”.
Would it not be wonderful if he could take the next logical step towards joined-up thinking and consider sending our esteemed Middle East Peace Envoy, a certain Mr T Blair, over for a spot of porridge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague? After all, Cameron has now clearly implied that the Iraq war was “unnecessary, illegal and wrong”.….
But back to Libya. With the ongoing crisis — now war — much is being written about how the previous UK government collaborated with the Gaddafi régime in the last decade — while tacitly glossing over the last year of Coalition government where, no doubt, similar levels of coöperation and back-slapping and money-grubbing were going on at the highest levels to ensure the continuing flow of oil contracts to the UK.
But, yes, we should be dissecting the Labour/Gaddafi power balance. Gaddafi had New Labour over the proverbial (oil) barrel from the late 1990s, when MI5 whistleblower David Shayler exposed the failed and illegal MI6 assassination plot against Colonel Gaddafi, using as fall-guys a rag-tag group of Islamic extremists. The newly-elected Labour government’s knee-jerk response at the time was to believe the spook’s denials and cover-up for them. Perhaps not so surprising, as the government ministers of the day were uncomfortably aware that the spies held files on them. But this craven response did leave the government position exposed, as Gaddafi well knew.
The CIA was fully cognisant of this failed plot at the time, as were the French intelligence services. The Gaddafi Plot is once again being referenced in the media, including the Telegraph, and a recent edition of the Huffington Post. The details are still relevant, as it appears that our enterprising spooks are yet again reaching out to a rag-tag group of rebels — primarily Islamists and the Senussi royalists based around Benghazi.
The lessons of the reckless and ill-thought out Gaddafi Plot were brushed under the carpet, so history may yet again be doomed to repeat itself. Yes, Gaddafi has been one of the biggest backers of terrorism ever, and yes he has brutalised parts of his own population, but if he were deposed how can the West be sure that those stepping into the power vacuum would not be even more dangerous?
The Libyan government continued to use the 1996 MI6 assassination plot as leverage in its negotiations with the New Labour government right up until (publicly at least) 2009. Musa Kousa, the current Foreign Minister, played a key role throughout. For many years Kousa was the head of the Libyan External Security Organsiation and was widely seen as the chief architect of international Libyan-backed terrorism against the USA, the UK and France.
Another apparent example of this moral blackmail caught my eye recently — this report in the Daily Mail. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was afforded MI6-backed protection when he was finally allowed into the UK in September 2002 to study at the LSE.
The timing was particularly interesting, as only months earlier Saif had won a libel case against the UK’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper. A grovelling apology was made by the newspaper, but Saif refrained from asking for “exemplary damages” — which he would almost certainly have won. The resulting pay-off for this restraint appears to be that a mere five months later he was welcomed into the UK with MI6-facilitated protection.
Saif’s relations with the UK had not always been so rosy. As background to this case, in 1995 the Sunday Telegraph had fallen hook, line and sinker for a MI6 classic propaganda operation. As The Guardian reported, the secretive MI6 media manipulation section, Information Operations, (I/Ops), had successfully spun a fake story to hapless spook hack, Con Coughlin, that Gaddafi Junior was involved in currency fraud. This story was fake, but the paper trail it produced was used by the spies as a pretext to prevent Saif from entering the UK at the time.
By 2002 this was all old history, of course. Saif was welcomed to the UK, officially to study for his MA and PhD at the London School of Economics (and showing his gratitude to that august institution with a hefty donation of £1.5 million — it makes the new tuition fees for UK students seem better value for money), and unofficially to chum up to various Establishment enablers to end Libya’s pariah status, open up lucrative trade channels, and get the SAS to train up Libya’s special forces.
The UK military must be just loving that now.….
So I get the feeling that the UK government has over the last decade indeed “danced with the devil”. After decades of viewing Libya and Colonel Gaddafi as a Priority One JIC intelligence target, the UK government fell over itself to appease the Gaddafi régime in the wake of the bungled assassination attempt in 1996 and the libelling of his son. These were the sticks Gaddafi used; the carrots were undoubtedly the Saif/MI6-facilitated oil contracts.
Of course, all this is now pretty much a moot point, following Dave Cameron’s “necessary, legal and right” military intervention. If the wily old Colonel manages to hang on grimly to some semblence of power (and he has an impressive track-record of surviving against the odds), then I doubt if he’ll be happy to coöperate with British oil companies in the future. At the very least.
If Gaddafi is deposed, who can realistically predict the intentions and capabilities of those who will fill the power vacuum? We should have learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq: my enemy’s enemy is my friend — until he becomes my enemy again.….
So Colonel Gaddafi of Libya has been dishing out the diplomatic gifts generously to the former US administration. Listed in the public declaration are even such items as a diamond ring presented to former Secretary of State, Condaleeza Rice, and other gifts to the value of $212,000.
This seems a slightly uneven distribution of largesse from the Middle East to the West. Before 9/11 and the ensuing war on terror, Gaddafi was still seen by the west as the head of a “rogue state”. Bombs, rather than gifts, were more likely to rain down on him.
However, since 2001 he has come back into the fold and is as keen as the coalition of the “willing” to counter the threat from Islamic extremist terrorists. So now he’s the new bestest friend of the US and UK governments in this unending fight.
But that was kind of inevitable, wasn’t it? As a secular Middle Eastern dictator, Gaddafi has traditionally had more to fear from Islamists than has the West. Particularly when these same Islamist groups have received ongoing support from those very governments that are now cosying up to Gaddafi.
Just to remind you, the reason I helped David Shayler in his whistleblowing on the crimes of MI5 and MI6 was because of just such a plot– the attempted assassination of Gaddafi in 1996 that was funded by the UK external intelligence gathering agency, MI6. In 1995 Shayler, then the head of the Libyan section in MI5, was officially briefed by his counterpart in MI6, David Watson (otherwise known as PT16/B), about an unfolding plot to kill Gaddafi. A Libyan military intelligence officer, subsequently code-named Tunworth, walked in to the British embassy in Tunis and asked to speak to the resident spook.
Tunworth said he was the head of a “ragtag group of Islamic extremists” (who subsequently turned out to have links to Al Qaeda — at a time when MI5 had begun to investigate the group), who wanted to effect a coup against Colonel Gaddafi. They needed funding to do this, and that was where MI6 came in. As a quid pro quo, Tunworth promised to hand over the two Lockerbie supsects for trial in Europe , which had for years been one of MI6’s priority targets — not to mention all those juicy oil contracts for BP et al.
Over the course of about 5 months, MI6 paid Tunworth’s group over $100,000, thereby becoming conspirators in a murder plot. Crucially, MI6 did not get the prior written permission of their political master, the Foreign Secretary, making this action illegal under the terms of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.
Manifestly, this coup attempt did not work — Gaddafi is now a strong ally of our western governments. In fact, an explosion occurred beneath the wrong car in a cavalcade containing Gaddafi as he returned from the Libyan People’s Congress in Sirte. But innocent people died in the explosion and the ensuing security shoot-out.
So, MI6 funded an illegal, highly reckless plot in a volatile part of world that resulted in the deaths of innocent people. How more heinous a crime could there be? But to this day, despite a leaked MI6 document that proved they knew the existence of the proposed plot, and despite other intelligence sources backing up Shayler’s disclosures, the UK government has still refused to hold an enquiry. Quite the opposite — they threw the whistleblower in prison twice and tried to prosecute the investigating journalists.
Some people may call me naïve for thinking that the intelligence agencies should not get involved in operations like this. Putting aside the retort that the spies often conflate the idea of the national interest with their own, short-sighted careerism, I would like to remind such cynics that we are supposed to be living in modern democracies, where even the secret state is supposed to operate within the rule of law and democratic oversight. Illegal assassination plots, the use of torture, and false flag, state-sponsored terrorism should remain firmly within the retro, pulp-fiction world of James Bond.
In London in 2001 the Royal Shakespeare Company performed a play called “Epitaph for the Official Secrets Act” by Paul Greengrass (who co-wrote the notorious book “Spycatcher”). The play focused on the political issues around whistleblowing and the Shayler case.
It was an excellent play, with an intelligent analysis of the current mess that is secrecy legislation in the UK, but it was rather strange to see actors using words your own words on stage.
The following report appeared in “The Observer”:
Shayler is a model spy for MI5 play
by Vanessa Thorpe, Arts Correspondent, 2001
Henry V, Macbeth and Hamlet, the great
Shakespearean protagonists who strut before audiences at
Stratford-upon-Avon, are to be joined tomorrow by a new name, the
former MI5 renegade, David Shayler.
A new play by Paul Greengrass, the screenwriter responsible for ITV’s
upcoming film about Bloody Sunday and for the award-winning television
dramatisation of The Murder of Stephen Lawrence , is to be premiered
tomorrow night by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
for the Official Secrets Act will also feature Shayler’s girlfriend,
Annie Machon, and the MI5’s first woman director, Stella Rimington. ‘It
is a play about the year that MI5 first decided to recruit a new sort
of agent,’ explained Simon Reade, the RSC’s dramaturge, referring to
1991, when the secret service briefly turned away from their
established Oxbridge source of graduates and advertised for applicants
from the wider population.
‘The play starts with a
reading of the advertisement that newspapers ran at the time,’ said
Reade, who developed the piece with Greengrass for its six-night run.
’The ad showed an empty chair under the words “Godot isn’t coming”.‘
The play then deals with some of the changes that followed as Rimington
took control of an organisation that was fighting to redefine itself.
Machon and Shayler, both from the graduate intake that was then new, are identified only by their first names.
News of their theatrical debut came as a shock to Shayler and Machon,
who are in London awaiting Shayler’s trial on charges of breaching the
Official Secrets Act. Machon said: ‘It is rather alarming to find that
we are both going to played by actors.’
David Shayler’s former partner reveals: How the bullying State crushed him
By ANNIE MACHON
Ten years ago this month former MI5 officer David Shayler made shocking revelations in this newspaper about how Britain’s spies were unable to deal with the growing threat of global terrorism.
He disclosed how MI5’s peculiar obsession with bureaucracy and secrecy prevented crucial information being used to stop bombings. And he told how insufficient agents and inept decision-making meant that terrorist groups were not properly monitored.
The Government response to David’s disclosures was to place a gagging order on The Mail on Sunday and launch a six-year campaign to discredit and persecute Shayler. Alastair Campbell threatened to ‘send in the heavies’ and the whistleblower was forced into exile abroad, jailed twice and sued for damages; his friends and family were harassed and some arrested.
He faced a bleak, uncertain future and for many years he was under intense stress and pressure, often isolated and always under surveillance. I had a ringside seat for the ‘Get Shayler’ operation because I was an MI5 officer at the same time (1991−96) and also his girlfriend and co-campaigner until last year when I ended my relationship with a broken man.
I witnessed first-hand the extraordinary psychological, physical and emotional burden of being a whistleblower when the full power of the secret State is launched against you. A decade on the results of that pernicious campaign became clear when I heard that David had proclaimed himself as “The Messiah” and “God” and could predict the weather. I was saddened but not shocked. The story of David Shayler is not just one of a whistleblower but also an indictment of the lack of democracy and accountability in Britain.
I first met David when we were both working in F2, the counter-subversion section of MI5, where we were repeatedly reassured that MI5 had to work within the law. We were young and keen to help protect our country. I noticed David immediately, as he was very bright, and always asked the difficult questions. Over a period of a year we became friends, and then we fell in love.
In the run-up to the 1992 General Election we were involved in assessing any parliamentary candidate and potential MP. This meant that they all had their names cross-referenced with MI5’s database. If any candidates had a file, this was reviewed. We saw files on most of the top politicians of the past decade, from Tony Blair down, something that gave us concerns.
We then both moved to G Branch, the international counter-terrorist division, with David heading the Libyan section. It was here that he witnessed a catalogue of errors and crimes: the illegal phone-tapping of a prominent Guardian journalist, the failure of MI5 to prevent the bombing of the Israeli embassy in London in July 1994, which resulted in the wrongful conviction of two innocent Palestinians, and the attempted assassination of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.
David raised this with his bosses at the time but they showed no interest. So we resigned from MI5 after deciding to go public to force an inquiry into the Gaddafi plot.
After The Mail on Sunday revelations we decamped to France while David tried to get the Government to take his evidence and investigate MI5’s crimes, something, to this day, it has refused to do. Rather than addressing the problem, the Intelligence Services tried to shoot the messenger. They planted stories claiming David was a fantasist, overlooked for promotion, and was too junior to know what he was talking about. These are classic tactics used against whistleblowers and were wheeled out again when Dr David Kelly took his life.
We eventually returned home in 2000, by which time David felt isolated and angry. He began to distrust friends and thought that many of them might be reporting on him. He was convinced he was constantly followed and began to take photographs of people in the street. When the trial started, and with David effectively gagged, the jury had no choice but to convict.
He received a six-month sentence but the judgment exonerated him of placing agents’ lives at risk, conceding that he had spoken out in what he thought to be the public interest. David had blown the whistle with the best of motives. He had exposed heinous State crimes up to and including murder, yet he was the one in prison with his reputation in tatters. His release from jail saw a changed man. David was full of anger, frustration and bitterness and became depressed and withdrawn. He was drawn to the spiritual teachings of kabbalah, and became obsessed with the subject instead of focusing on what we should do to survive. Last summer, I went away for a weekend. When I returned, David had shaved off all his hair and his eyebrows as part of his spiritual evolution. He knew that I had always loved his long, thick hair, so it felt like a personal slap in the face. He was in trouble. He was quick to anger if anyone questioned him. He became obsessive about little details, espoused wacky theories and shunned his family and old friends. His paranoia also escalated. His experience of being hounded and vilified for a decade had left a deep persecution complex. Eventually the strain was too much and I ended the relationship.
It was difficult as we had shared so much over the 14 years we had been together, but it felt that we were no longer a team – David was focusing only on esoteric issues. Looking back, I am still proud of what we did. I believe that if you witness the crimes that we did, you have to take action. But the price for taking that stand against a bully State can be high. It is tragic to see an honourable and brave man crushed in this way. The British Establishment is ruthless in protecting its own interests rather than those of our country. Today David Shayler is living testimony to that.
The lack of any meaningful oversight of the UK’s intelligence community was highlighted again last week, when The Daily Mail reported that a crucial fax was lost in the run-up to the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005.
There has yet to be an official enquiry into the worst terrorist atrocity on the UK mainland, despite the call for one from traumatised families and survivors and the legitimate concerns of the British public. To date, we have had to make do with an “official narrative” written by a faceless bureaucrat and published in May 2006. As soon as it was published, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, had to correct egregious factual errors when presenting it to Parliament.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) also did a shoddy first job, when it cleared the security forces of all wrong-doing in its initial report published at the same time. It claimed a lack of resources had hampered MI5’s counter-terrorism efforts.
However, following a useful leak, it emerged that MI5 had not only been aware of at least two of the alleged bombers before the attack, it had been concerned enough to send a fax up to West Yorkshire Police Special Branch asking them to investigate Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer. This fax was never acted upon.
So the ISC has been forced to produce another report, this time apparently admitting that, yes, there had been intelligence failures, most notably the lost fax. West Yorkshire SB should have acted on it. But the intelligence officer in MI5 responsible for this investigation should have chased it up when no response was forthcoming.
This second ISC report, which has been sitting on the Prime Minister’s desk for weeks already, is said to be “devastating”. However, I’m willing to bet that if/when it sees the light of day, it will be anything but.
The ISC is at best an oversight fig leaf. It was formed in 1994, when MI6 and GCHQ were put on a statutory footing for the first time with the Intelligence Services Act. At the time the press welcomed this as a great step forward towards democratic accountability for the intelligence community. Well, it could not have been worse than the previous set-up, when MI5, MI6 and GCHQ did not officially exist. They were not required to obey the laws of the land, and no MP was allowed to ask a question in Parliament about their activities. As 1980s whistleblower Peter Wright so succinctly put it, the spies could bug and burgle their way around with impunity.
So the establishment of the ISC was a (very) limited step in the right direction. However, it is not a Parliamentary Committee. Its members are selected by the Prime Minister, and it is answerable only to the PM, who can vet its findings. The remit of the ISC only covers matters of spy policy, administration and finance. It is not empowered to investigate allegations of operational incompetence nor crimes committed by the spies. And its annual report has become a joke within the media, as there are usually more redactions than coherent sentences.
The ISC’s first big test came in the 1990s following the Shayler and Tomlinson disclosures. These involved detailed allegations of illegal investigations, bungled operations and assassination attempts against foreign heads of state. It is difficult to conceive of more heinous crimes committed by our shadowy spies.
But how did the ISC react? If one reads the reports from the relevant years, the only aspect that exercised the ISC was Shayler’s information that MI5 had on many MPs and government ministers. The ISC was reassured by MI5 that would no longer be able to use these files. That’s it.
Forget about files being illegally held on hundreds of thousands of innocent UK citizens; forget about the illegal phone taps, the preventable deaths on UK streets from IRA bombs, innocent people being thrown in prison, and the assassination attempt against Colonel Gaddafi of Libya. The fearless and eternally vigilant ISC MPs were primarily concerned about receiving reassurance that their files would no longer be vetted by MI5 officers on the basis of membership to “subversive” organisations. What were they afraid of – that shameful evidence of early left-wing activity from their fiery youth might emerge? Heaven forbid under New Labour.
Barely a day goes by when newspaper headlines do not remind us of terrible threats to our national security. Only in the last week, the UK media has reported that the threat of espionage from Russia and China is at its highest since the days of the Cold War; that resurgent Republican terror groups in Northern Ireland pose a graver danger to us even than Al Qaeda; that radicalised British Muslim youth are returning from fighting with the Taliban to wage war on the streets of the UK. We have to take all this on trust, despite the intelligence community’s appalling track record of bending the truth to gain more powers and resources. This is why meaningful oversight is so vitally important for the health of our democracy. The ISC is a long way from providing that.
The government is pushing through yet another piece of legislation designed to provide “public service honesty, integrity and independence” to the British people. As part of this strategy, the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill even contains a section to provide protection for government whistleblowers. Needless to say, spies are automatically excluded (see section 25 (2) of the draft Bill).
The draft Bill states that any whistleblowers from within the ranks of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will be dealt with internally. This has always been the case for MI5 and 6 (despite the government’s breathtaking lies during the Shayler case that he could have gone to any crown servant with his concerns). However, in the case of GCHQ, this Bill will take away employees’ rights to go to an independent Commissioner, to bring it into draconian line with its sister agencies.
So, to put this bluntly, those in our intelligence agencies who experience ethical qualms about their work or, even worse, witness crimes, will have to take their concerns to the head of the very agency committing these crimes. Let’s guess how far these complaints will go.
Now, some might say that it’s naïve to think that the intelligence agencies don’t commit illegal or unethical acts. All I can say to that is — grow up. James Bond is a myth. Even the bad old days of the Cold War when, as former MI5 officer Peter Wright put it, MI5 could “bug and burgle its way around London” with impunity are long gone. The 1985 Interception of Communications Act (and subsequent legislation), the 1989 Security Service Act, and the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, have put paid to that. In line with basic human rights, the spies now have to apply for ministerial permission based on, ahem, a solid intelligence case, to aggressively investigate a target.
During the 10 month period of my recruitment to MI5 in 1990, I was repeatedly told that the organisation had to obey the law; that it was evolving into a modern counter-terrorism agency. If that is indeed the case, then why is MI5 still to this day not accountable in the same way as the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, which does the same work?
And who is the brave politician ensuring that our intelligence community can remain shrouded in secrecy and protected from criticism by the full force of the law? Stand up Justice Minister Jack Straw.
It just remains for me to say that Straw has a certain history in this area. In 1997, when Shayler blew the whistle, Straw was the Home Secretary, the government minister charged with overseeing MI5. One of Shayler’s early disclosures was that MI5 held files on a number of politicians, including Straw himself. Did Straw demand to see his file in angry disbelief? No, he meekly did the spies’ bidding and issued a blanket injunction against Shayler and the UK’s national media.
But think about it — this is a classic Catch 22 situation. Either MI5 was right to open a file on Straw because he was a political subversive and a danger to national security – in which case, should he not have immediately resigned as Home Secretary? Or MI5 got it wrong about Straw. In which case he should have been investigating this mistake and demanding to know how many other innocent UK citizens had files wrongly and illegally opened on them.
But Straw did neither. Perhaps he was worried about what the spies could reveal about him? It’s interesting that he is yet again rushing to protect their interests….