Webstock, New Zealand, 2016

Now, I speak all over the world at conferences and universities about a whole variety of interconnected issues, but I do want to highlight this conference from earlier this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.

Webstock celebrated its tenth anniversary in New Zealand last February, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak there.  The hosts promised a unique experience, and the event lived up to its reputation.

Webstock_2016They wanted a fairly classic talk from me – the whistleblowing years, the lessons learnt and current political implications, but also what we can to do fight back, so I called my talk “The Panopticon: Resistance is Not Futile”, with a nod to my sci-fi fandom.

So why does this particular event glow like a jewel in my memory? After expunging from my mind, with a shudder of horror, the 39 hour travel time each way, it was the whole experience. New Zealand combines the friendliness of the Americans – without the political madness and the guns, and the egalitarianism of the Norwegians – with almost equivalent scenery. Add to that the warmth of the audience, the eclecticism of the speakers, and the precision planning and aesthetics of the conference organisers and you have a winning combination.

Our hosts organised vertigo-inducing events for the speakers on the top of mile-high cliffs, as well as a surprisingly fun visit to a traditional British bowling green. Plus I had the excitement of experiencing my very first earthquake – 5.9 on the Richter scale apparently. I shall make no cheap jokes about the earth moving, especially in light of the latest quakes to hit NZ this week, but the hotel did indeed sway around me and it wasn’t the local wine, excellent as it is.

I mentioned eclecticism – the quality of the speakers was ferociously high, and I would like to give a shout out to Debbie Millman and her “joy of failure” talk, Harry Roberts, a serious geek who crowd-sourced his talk and ended up talking seriously about cocktails, moths, Chumbawamba and more, advertising guru Cindy Gallop who is inspiring women around the world and promoting Make Love Not Porn, and Casey Gerald, with his evangelically-inspired but wonderfully humanistic talk to end the event.

All the talks can be found here.

It was a fabulous week.  All I can say is thank you to Tash, Mike, and the other organisers.

If you ever have the chance to attend or speak at the event in the future, I seriously recommend it.

And here’s the video of my talk:

The Empire Strikes Back

First published by RT Op-Edge.

Andrew Parker, the Director General of the UK’s domestic security Service (MI5) yesterday made both his first public speech and a superficially robust defence of the work of the intelligence agencies. Reading from the outside, it sounds all patriotic and noble.

Darth_VaderAnd who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 groupthink mentality being what it is? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. However, I have two problems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale.

Let’s start with the micro – ie the devil in the detail – what is said and, crucially, what is left unsaid. First up: oversight, which the spook apologists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.

I wrote about this last week, but here’s some of that devilish detail. Parker correctly explains what the mechanisms are for oversight within MI5: the Home Office warrants for otherwise illegal activities such as bugging; the oversight commissioners; the Complaints Tribunal; the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. This all sounds pretty reasonable for a democracy, right?

Of course, what he neglects to mention is how these systems can be gamed by the spies.

The application for warrants is a tick-box exercise where basic legal requirements can be by-passed, the authorising minister only ever sees a summary of a summary…. ad infinitum…. for signature, and never declines a request in case something literally blows up further down the line.

Sure, there are independent commissioners who oversee MI5 and its surveillance work every year and write a report. But as I have written before, they are given the royal treatment during their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with concerns about the abuse of the warrantry system are barred from meeting them. Plus, even these anodyne reports can highlight an alarming number of “administrative errors” made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.

The complaints tribunal – the body to which we can make a complaint if we feel we have been unnecessarily spied on, has always found in favour of the spies.

And finally, the piece de resistance, so to speak: the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament. How many times do I have to write this? Top cops and Parker’s spy predecessors have admitted to lying successfully to the ISC for many years. This is not meaningful oversight, nor is the fact that the evidence of earlier major intelligence whistleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under investigation by MI5 themselves….

Of course, the current Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcom Rifkind, has entered the lists this summer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies’ lairs, demand to see papers, and oversee operational activities. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ’s endemic data-mining as lawful, one has to wonder how thorough he will be.

While the committee remains chosen by the PM, answerable only to the PM, who can also vet the findings, this committee is irredeemably undemocratic. It will remain full of credulous yes-men only too happy to support the status quo.

Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will therefore remember not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and pervasive threat of IRA bombs regularly exploding on UK streets. At the same time hundreds of thousands of politically active UK citizens were aggressively investigated. A (cold) war and the threat of terrorism allowed the spies a drag-net of surveillance even then.

V_for_Vendetta_masksHow much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era? One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker’s speech was the need to investigate “terrorists and others threatening national security“. National security has never been legally defined for the purposes of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the “reds under the bed”, the so-called subversives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of London or environmental activists waving placards.

So now for my macro concerns, which are about wider concepts. Parker used his first public speech to defend not only the work of his own organisation, but also to attack the whistleblowing efforts of Edward Snowden and the coverage in The Guardian newspaper. He attempts to seamlessly elide the work and the oversight models of MI5 and GCHQ.  And who is falling for this?  Well, much of the UK media apparently.

This muddies the waters. The concerns about Snowden’s disclosures are global – the TEMPORA project affects not only the citizens of the UK but people across Europe and beyond. For Rifkind or the Foreign Secretary to complacently say that GCHQ is overseen by them and everything is hunkey-dorey is just not good enough, even for the hapless citizens of the UK. How much more so for those unrepresented people across the world?

The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were written before the UK government could have conceived of the sheer scale of the internet. They are way out of date – 20th century rolling omnibus warrants hoovering up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might commit a (thought?) crime in the future. This is nothing like meaningful oversight.

Unlike the UK, even the USA is currently having congressional hearings and media debates about the limits of the electronic surveillance programme. Considering America’s muscular response after 9/11, with illegal invasions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordinary kidnappings (to this day), that casts the UK spy complacency in a particularly unflattering light.

Plus if 58,000 GCHQ documents have really been copied by a young NSA contractor, why are Parker and Rifkind not asking difficult questions of the American administration, rather than continuing to justify the antiquated British oversight system?

Finally, Parker is showing his age as well as his profession when he talks about the interwebs and all the implications.  As I said during my statement to the LIBE committee in the European Parliament:

  • Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and dis­cuss ideas freely and in pri­vacy, we are all liv­ing in an Orwellian dysto­pia, and we are all poten­tially at risk. These media must be based on tech­no­lo­gies that empower indi­vidual cit­izens, not cor­por­a­tions or for­eign gov­ern­ments. The Free Soft­ware Found­a­tion has been mak­ing these recom­mend­a­tions for over two decades.
  • The cent­ral soci­etal func­tion of pri­vacy is to cre­ate the space for cit­izens to res­ist the viol­a­tion of their rights by gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions. Pri­vacy is the last line of defense his­tor­ic­ally against the most poten­tially dan­ger­ous organ­isa­tion that exists: the nation state. There­fore there is no ‘bal­ance between pri­vacy and secur­ity’ and this false dicho­tomy should not be part of any policy debate.

The “Insider Threat”

As the old media propaganda battle inevitably heats up around the Edward Snowden case, I stumbled across this little American news gem recently. The premise being that potential whistleblowers are now deemed to be the new “insider threat”.

Well, the US spooks and their friends have already had a pretty good run through the “reds under the bed” of McCarthyism, political subversives, illegals, Muslims and “domestic extremists”, whatever the hell that really means legally.  Now they’ve hit on another threatening category to justify yet further surveillance crackdowns. What’s in a name…..

Firstly, this is old news resurrected in the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures to scare people anew. Way back in 2008 the US government wrote a report about “insider threats” and the perceived danger of the high-tech publisher Wikileaks and, in early 2010 the report was leaked to the very same organisation.

Wikileaks1In 2008 the US government strategy was to expose a Wikileaks source so that others would be deterred from using the conduit in future. Well that didn’t happen – Wikileaks technologically outpaced the lumbering, brutish might of the US and sycophantic Western intelligence agencies.  The unfortunate Bradley Manning was exposed by an FBI snitch, Adrian Lamo, rather than from any technical failure of the Wikileaks submission system.

What did occur was a muscular display of global corporatism, with nation after nation capitulating to take down the Wikileaks site, but mirror sites survived that pointed to Switzerland (which has a strong tradition of direct democracy, self defence and free speech and which remains steadfastly independent from international diplomatic circle jerks the UN, NATO, and such like.

On top of that, all major financial channels stopped donations to Wikileaks – an act now been deemed to be manifestly illegal in some countries.

Now, in the wake of the Manning and Snowden disclosures, the US mainstream media appears, inevitably, to be trying to conflate the cases of known traitors with, you’ve guessed it, bona fide whistleblowers.

Cases such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed their countries by selling secrets to an enemy power – the Soviet Union – in an era of existential threat. They were traitors to be prosecuted under the US Espionage Act (1917) – that is what it was designed for.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the current whistleblower cases and is just so much basic neuro-linguistic programming. *Yawn*. Do people really fall for that these days?

This is a tired old tactic much used and abused in the officially secret UK, and the USA has learned well from its former colonial master – so much for 1776 and the constitution.

However, in the CBS interview mentioned above it was subtly done – at least for a US broadcast – with the commentator sounding reasonable but with the imagery telling a very different story.

In my view this conflation exposes a dark hypocrisy at the heart of the modern military-security complex. In the old days the “goodies” and “baddies” were simplistically demarcated in the minds of the public: free West good; totalitarian East bad. This followed the mainstream propaganda of the day, and those who worked for the opposition – and the Soviet Union gave the US/UK intelligence axis a good run for its money – were prosecuted as traitors.  Unless, of course, they emerged from the ruling class, when they were allowed to slip away and evade justice.

And of course many of us remember the scandal of the Russian spy ring that was exposed in 2010 – many individuals who had illegally been infiltrated into the US for decades. Yet, when they were caught and exposed, what happened?  A deal was struck between the US and Russia and they were just sent home.

No such liberality is shown to true modern-day whistleblowers. Quite the opposite, with the UK and the US willing to breach all established diplomatic protocols to hunt down their quarry. This despite the fact that the whistleblowers are liberating information about the illegality of our own governments to empower all of us to act as informed citizens, and despite the fact that they are exposing global-level crimes.

Bradley_Manning_2Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have risked their lives to expose the fact that we are living under a global police state and that our military and intelligence agencies are running amok across the planet, with CIA kill lists, renditions, torture, wars, drone strikes and dirty tricks.

Yet the West is not officially at war, nor is it facing an existential threat as it did during the Second World War or the so-called Cold War.  Despite this, the US has used the Espionage Act (1917) more times in the last 5 years than over the preceding century. Is it suddenly infested with spies?

Well, no.  But it is suddenly full of a new digital generation, which has grown up with the assumption that the internet is free, and which wants to guarantee that it will remain free without Big Brother watching over their shoulders.  Talented individuals who end up working for the spy agencies will inevitably be perturbed by programmes such as PRISM and TEMPORA. Lawyers, activists and geeks have been warning about this for the last two decades.

By 1911 the UK had already put in place not only the proto-MI5, but also then added the first Official Secrets Act (OSA) to prosecute real traitors ahead of the First World War. The UK updated the OSA in 1989 specifically to suppress whistleblowing. The US has learned these legal suppression lessons well, not least by shredding its constitution with the Patriot Act.

However, it has neglected to update its law against whistleblowers, falling back instead onto the hoary old 1917 Espionage Act – as I said before, more times in the past five years than over the last century.

This is indeed a war on whistleblowers and truth-tellers, nothing more, nothing less.

What are they so afraid of? Idealists who believe in the old democratic constitutions? The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such fuddy-duddy concepts?

Or could the real enemy be the beneficiaries of the whistleblowers? When the US government says that Manning or Snowden have aided the enemy, do they, could they, mean we the people?

The answer to that would logically be a resounding “yes”. Which leads to another question: what about the nation states – China, Russia, Iran – that we have been told repeatedly over the last few years are hacking and spying on us?

The phrase “pot and kettle” springs to mind. There are no goodies and baddies any more. Indeed, all that remains is outright and shocking hypocrisy.

Snowden has laid bare the fact that the US and its vassals are the most flagrant protagonists in this cyberwar, even as our governments tell us that we must give up basic human rights such as privacy, to protect us from the global threat of terrorism (while at the same time arming and funding our so-called terrorist enemies).

Yet whistleblowers who bravely step up and tell us our governments are committing war crimes, that we are being spied on, that we live under Orwellian surveillance, are now the people being prosecuted for espionage, not the “real” spies and certainly not the war criminals.

In the CBS interview, former US General Michael Hayden, ex-head of the CIA and NSA asked: “what kind of moral judgement does it take for someone to think that their view trumps that of two presidents, the Congress and Senate, the court system and 35,000 co-workers at the NSA?”

Er, perhaps someone who does not want to collude in the most stark examples of global war crimes and illegal surveillance? And perhaps someone who believes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was set up for a reason after the horrors of the Second World War?

When the rule of law breaks down, who is the real criminal?

What we are witnessing is a generational clash, not a clash of ideologies. The oldsters still be believe in the Cold War narrative (or even “cowboys and Indians”?) of goodies, baddies and existential threats. The digital generations have grown up in the wake of 9/11 and all the associated governmental over-reaction – war crimes go unreported and untried, real civil liberties are an historic artefact, and the global population lives under Big Brother surveillance. Why on earth is anyone, really, surprised when young people of honour and idealism try to take a stand and make a difference?

We should be more worried about our future if the whistleblowers were to stop coming forward.

The Secret Policemen’s Balls-Up

First published on RT Op-Edge, with the slightly more circumspect title: “British police secretly operated outside democratic control for years”. Also on HuffPo UK.

In the wake of the global impact of the ongoing Edward Snowden saga, a smaller but still important whistleblower story flared and faded last week in the UK media.

Peter Francis revealed that 20 years ago he had worked as an undercover cop in the Metropolitan Police Force’s secret Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) section. In this role, Francis stated that he was tasked to dig up dirt with which the Met could discredit the family of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence and thereby derail their campaign for a full and effective police investigation into his death.  The Lawrence family correctly believed that the original investigation had been fumbled because of  institutional police racism at that time.

The fact that secret police were posing as activists to infiltrate protest groups will come as no shock after the cascade of revelations about secret policemen in 2011, starting with DC Mark Kennedy/environmental activist “Mark Stone”.  Kennedy was uncovered by his “fellow” activists, and nine more quickly emerged in the wake of that scandal. This has resulted in an enquiry into the shadowy activities of these most secret officers, accusations that the Crown Prosecution Service suppressed key evidence in criminal trials, and a slew of court cases brought by women whom these (predominantly male) police officers seduced.

But the disclosures of Peter Francis plumb new depths.  In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder, many left-wing and anti-Nazi groups jumped on the bandwagon, organising demonstrations and provoking confrontations with the far-right British National Party.  There was a clash near the BNP’s bookshop in south London in 1993.  So, sure, the Met Police could potentially just about argue that the undercover officers were trying to gather advance intelligence to prevent public disorder and rioting, although the sheer scale of the operation was utterly disproportionate.

However, what is completely beyond the Pale is this apparent attempt to smear the traumatised family of a murder victim in order to derail their campaign for justice.

The role of undercover cops spying on their fellow citizens who are politically active is distasteful in a democracy. And the fact that, until the original scandal broke in 2011, the reconstituted SDS continued to target peace and environmental protest groups who offered no threat whatsoever to national security is disgraceful – it smacks of the Stasi in East Germany.

To make matters even worse, when details emerged two years ago, it became apparent that the SDS Version 2.0 was operating outside the formal hierarchy of the police, with what little democratic oversight that would provide. In fact, it emerged that the SDS been renamed the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) and had for years been the private fiefdom of a private limited company – the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).  Within a notional democracy, this is just gobsmacking.

So how did this mess evolve?

From the late 19th century the Metropolitan Police Special Branch investigated terrorism while MI5, established in 1909, was a counter-intelligence unit focusing on espionage and political “subversion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rimington, then head of MI5, effected a Whitehall coup and stole primacy for investigating Irish terrorism from the Met. As a result MI5 magically discovered that subversion was not such a threat after all – this revelation only three years after the Berlin Wall came down – and transferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-terrorism sections. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly building its counter-terrorism empire, despite this being more obviously evidential police work.

Special Branch was relegated to a supporting role, dabbling in organised crime and animal rights activists, but not terribly excited about either. Its prestige had been seriously dented. It also had a group of experienced undercover cops – known then to MI5 as the Special Duties Section – with time on their hands.

It should therefore come as little surprise that ACPO came up with the brilliant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domestic extremists”. It renamed the SDS as the NPOIU, which first focused primarily on potentially violent animal rights activists, but mission creep rapidly set in and the unit’s role expanded into peaceful protest groups. When this unaccountable unit was revealed it rightly caused an outcry, especially as the term “domestic extremist” is not recognised under UK law, and cannot legally be used as justification to aggressively invade an individual’s privacy because of their legitimate political beliefs and activism.

So, as the police become ever more spooky, what of MI5?

As I mentioned, they have been aggressively hoovering up the prestigious counter-terrorism work. But, despite what the Americans have hysterically asserted since 9/11, terrorism is not some unique form of “eviltude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shocking one, but still a crime that should be investigated, with evidence gathered, due process applied and the suspects on trial in front of a jury.

A mature democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern suspects or render them to secret prisons and torture them for years. And yet this is precisely what our spooks have been doing – particularly when colluding with their US counterparts.

Also, MI5 and MI6 have for years operated outside any realistic democratic oversight and control. Until this year, the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament has only covered the policy, administration and finance of the spies. Since the committee’s inception in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to meaningfully address more serious questions about the spies’ role, and has been repeatedly lied to by senior spies and police officers.

The spooks are effectively above the law, while at the same time protected by the draconian Official Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed discussion about the realistic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the protective phrase “national security”. But what does this mean?

The core idea should be safeguarding the nation’s integrity. A group of well-meaning environmental protesters should not even be on the radar. And, no matter how awful, the occasional terrorist attack is not an existential threat to the fabric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi invasion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sustained bombing of government, infrastructure and military targets by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s-90s.

Only once we understand the real threats can we as a nation discuss the necessary steps to take to protect ourselves effectively; what measures should be taken, what liberties occasionally and legally compromised, and what democratic accountability exists to ensure that the security forces do not exceed their remit and work within the law.

It is only by going through this process that can we ensure such scandals as the secret police will remain firmly in the past. And in the wake not only of Peter Francis’s confessions but the sheer scale of the endemic electronic surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, this long-overdue national debate becomes ever more necessary.

UK Anonymous Radio Interview

Here’s the link to my interview tonight on UK Anonymous Radio – I had a great time and found it a fun, wide-ranging, and stimulating hour.  I hope you do too.  So, thank you Anonymous.

And also thank you to Kim Dotcom setting up the new file-sharing site, Mega, which replaces his illegally-taken-down global site, MegaUpload.  I have somewhere safe, I think, to store my interviews!

What a shambolic disgrace that MegaUpload raid was, and what a classic example of the global corporatist agenda that I discuss in the interview.

I do love geeks.

May 2005 – The Times

MI5 kept schoolboy on its files

The partner of David Shayler reveals how a letter to the Communist Party brought its youthful author to the attention of the security services

August 2005

A BOY who wrote a letter to the British Communist Party for a school project ended up with his own MI5 file, a former Security Service officer claimed yesterday.

The boy had asked for information for his school topic, but his letter was secretly opened by MI5 in the 1970s when the Communist Party was still regarded as a hotbed of subversion, according to Annie Machon, who worked for the domestic intelligence service from 1991 to 1996.

Ms Machon is the partner of David Shayler, the former MI5 officer jailed under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing information acquired in the service.

In a book which has been passed for publication by her former employers, Ms Machon says that the schoolboy’s letter was copied, as was all correspondence to the British Communist Party at that time, “and used to create a PF (personal file), where he was
identified as a ‘?communist sympathiser’ ”.

On another occasion, a man who was divorcing his wife wrote to MI5 claiming that she was involved in Communism, and she was the subject of a personal file, Ms Machon claims in her book, Spies, Lies & Whistleblowers.

She saw the two files, among “more than a million” when working at MI5, and claimed that they had been in the Security Service archives for 20 years. “Why was this information still available to desk officers some 20 years after these individuals had first come to attention, in less than suspicious circumstances?” she writes.

Mr Shayler also made allegations about the contents of personal Security Service files
in 1997, after he left the agency. He said that there were files on Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson, Peter Hain, Mo Mowlam, John Lennon and the Sex Pistols, among others. Mr Shayler was charged under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing other secret information acquired when he was a serving intelligence officer, and was sentenced at the Old Bailey
to six months in prison in 2002.

Ms Machon, 36, who worked in three departments of MI5 — counter-subversion, Irish terrorism and international terrorism — joins a relatively short list of former Security Service officers who have managed to write books without ending up in jail.

The last former MI5 officer to get clearance was Dame Stella Rimington, who was
Director-General of the service from 1992 to 1996.

Peter Wright, who made allegations of bugging and burglary by the Security Service in Spycatcher, published in 1987, got away with it by moving to Tasmania.

Ms Machon repeats allegations made by Mr Shayler that MI6 helped to fund an assassination attempt against Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, in 1996. It was dismissed by Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, as “pure fantasy”.