MI5 officer has evidence of torture?

Well, this story is interesting me extremely, and for the obvious as well as the perhaps more arcanely legal reasons.

Apparently a former senior MI5 officer is asking permission to give evidence to the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament about the Security Service’s collusion in the US torture programme that was the pyroclastic flow from the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

I have long speculated about how people with whom I used to work, socialise with, have dinner with in the 1990s might have evolved from idealistic young officers into people who could condone or even participate in the torture of other human beings once the war on terror was unleashed in the last decade.

During the 1990s MI5 absolutely did not condone the use of torture – not only for ethical reasons, but also because an older generation was still knocking around and they had seen in the civil war in Northern Ireland quite how counter-productive such practices were.  Internment, secret courts, stress positions, sleep deprivation – all these policies acted as a recruiting sergeant for the Provisional IRA.

My generation – the first tasked with investigating the IRA in the UK and Al Qaeda globally – understood this.  We were there to run intelligence operations, help gather evidence, and if possible put suspected malefactors on trial. Even then, when ethical boundaries were breached, many raised concerns and many resigned.  A few of us even went public about our concerns.

But that is so much history.  As I said above, I have always wondered how those I knew could have stayed silent once the intelligence gloves came off after 9/11 and MI5 was effectively shanghaied into following the brutish American over-reaction.

Now it appears that there were indeed doubters within, there was indeed a divided opinion. And now it appears that someone with seniority is trying to use what few channels exist for whistleblowers in the UK to rectify this.

In fact, my contemporaries who stayed on the inside would now be the senior officers, so I really wonder who this is – I hope an old friend!

No doubt they will have voiced their concerns over the years and no doubt they will have been told just to follow orders.

I have said publicly over many years that there should be a meaningful channel for those with ethical concerns to present evidence and have them properly investigated. In fact, I have even said that the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament should be that channel if – and it’s a big if – they can have real investigatory powers and can be trusted not just to brush evidence under the carpet and protect the spies’ reputation.

So this takes me to the arcane legalities I alluded to at the start. During the David Shayler whistleblowing trials (1997-2003) all the legal argument was around the fact that he could have taken his concerns to any crown servant – up to the ISC or his MP and down to and including the bobby on the beat – and he would not have breached the Official Secrets Act. That was the argument upon which he was convicted.

Yet at the same time the prosecution also successfully argued during his trial in 2002 in the Old Bailey that there was a “clear bright line” against disclosure to anyone outside MI5 – (Section 1(1) OSA (1989) – without that organisation’s prior written consent.

The new case rather proves the latter position – that someone with ethical concerns has to “ask permission” to give evidence to the “oversight body”.

Only in the UK.

Now, surely in this uncertain and allegedly terrorist-stricken world, we have never had greater need for a meaningful oversight body and meaningful reform to our intelligence agencies if they go off-beam. Only by learning via safe external ventilation, learning from mistakes, reforming and avoiding group-think, can they operate in a way that is proportionate in a democracy and best protects us all.

The Dark Web – interview on TRT World

Here’s a recent interview I did for “The Newsmakers” programme on TRT World, discussing the Dark Web and privacy:

The Newsmakers, TRT World, Turkey from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

War on drugs meets terrorism

Last month I had the pleasure of attending the biennial Drug Policy Alliance shindig in Washington on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (www.leap.cc).  We also held our annual LEAP board meeting ahead of the DPA, and it was great to have the chance to catch up again with my fellow directors.

I’ve been the European Director for LEAP for a while now and am thrilled to say that LEAP Germany launched (LEAP_DE_Launch_Article) last September in the Bundestag in Berlin, with some senior police officers, lawyers and judges as the founding members.  LEAP UK is also up and running and will be holding an official launch event early next year, so watch this space.

While in Washington all the directors were interviewed about our specific areas of interest around the failed war on drugs.  Here is a video of former prosecutor, Inge Fryklund, and myself discussing the links between the war on drugs and terrorism:

LEAP Directors discuss link between the war on drugs and terrorism from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Next year we have UNGASS in April in New York – the UN General Assembly Special Session – the first such since 1998 when the UN decided it would achieve a drug free world by 2008.

Well, that was obviously a raging success, as drugs are cheaper, more easily accessible and more potent than ever before in the key consumer areas such as North America and Europe, while whole regions of the world comprising the producer and transit countries are being decimated by the violence attendant on the drug trade as organised crime cartels and terrorism fight for control of a highly lucrative trade.

UNGASS 2015 should provide the world with a chance to rethink this failed policy of prohibition.  Certainly the tone has shifted since 1998 to at least an understanding of the benefits within some consumer countries of de-penalisation of drug use – those who choose to use their preferred substance are no longer criminalised, and the estimated 15% who go on to develop dependencies are in many Western countries now offered health interventions rather than prison.

However, from our law enforcement perspective, this still leaves the drug trade in the hands of organised crime and terrorist organisations such as ISIS. The UN has itself variously put the annual illegal drug trade profits at anywhere between $320 billion and half a trillion dollars per year. This is the biggest crime wave the world has ever seen, and we need the UN to develop some joined-up thinking and produce a radical and effective policy to deal with it: regulate, control and tax.

Re:publica – The War on Concepts

This week I made my first visit to the re:publica annual geekfest in Berlin to do a talk called “The War on Concepts”. In my view this, to date, includes the four wars – on drugs, terror, the internet, and whistleblowers. No doubt the number will continue to rise.

Here’s the video:

republica_2015_Annie_Machon_The_War_on_Concepts from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Jihadi John and MI5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The war on drugs funds terrorism

Here is a short excerpt from a panel discussion I took part in after the London premiere of the new cult anti-prohibition film, “The Culture High“. This is an amazing film that pulls together so many big issues around the failed global 50 year policy of the war on drugs. I seriously recommend watching it.

Also in the clip: Brett Harvey (the director of the film) Niamh Eastwood (the director of Release) Jason Reed (executive director of the nascent LEAP UK – watch this space) and comedian and compere Rufus Hound.

wod

The Ottawa Shootings – my RT interview

Yesterday I was asked to do an interview on RT in the immediate aftermath of the Ottawa shootings. As I said, there needs to be a full forensic investigation, and I would hope that the government does not use this terrible crime as a pretext for yet further erosion of constitutional rights and civil liberties. Calm heads and the rule of law need to prevail.

ottowa

ISIS and Western intelligence role in the Middle East

Here is my recent interview on RT London’s flagship news show, “Going Underground“, discussing ISIS, Syria and wider western intelligence interventions in the Middle East:

rt_going_underground.cleaned

The New Terrorism

First published on RT Op-Edge

Two horrors have dwelt in my mind for the last twenty years, ever since I read reports about terrorist groups while an impressionable young intelligence officer. The first involves the use of power tools as instruments of torture; drills, industrial sanders, angle grinders. This is no secret now and the meme has been much used and abused by Hollywood and series such as “24”, but I still feel uncomfortable every time I am dragged into the “boy toy” section of a home improvement mega-store.

The second has recently hit the news as a grim result of ISIS, the ultra-violent Sunni sect that has swept across much of Syria and Iraq, imposing the most draconian form of Sharia law in its wake upon the hapless citizens of formerly secular states.  I pity the poor women, and I pity still more the men of these communities faced with the option of submission or gruesome murder.

For this is the other image that haunts me: in 1995 six western tourists were abducted by a Kashmiri separatist group, Al Faran. One of the abductees, a Norwegian called Hans Christian Ostro, was found decapitated, his head had been hacked off with a knife. The sheer horror,  the terror the poor man must have experienced, has haunted me ever since.

You can probably see where I am going with this. I have not watched, nor do I have any intention of ever watching, the ISIS video of the gruesome murder of US journalist James Foley, whether the Metropolitan Police deems it a crime to do so or not. I just feel horror, again, and a deep well of sorrow for what his family and friends must be going through now.

Yet this is nothing new – we have known for months that ISIS has been beheading and crucifying people as they rampage across Syria and Iraq. There has been a steady stream of delicately pixilated heads on spikes in the western media, and the outrage has been muted.

And indeed, such beheadings have long been carried out and filmed during the earlier insurgencies in Iraq – I remember a young film maker friend who had stumbled across just such a sick propaganda video way back in 2007 – he could not sleep, could not rid his mind of the images either.

It is barbarity pure and simple, but it is also effective within the boundaries of its aims.

So, what are these aims? I just want to make two points before the West gets swept up in a new wave of outrage to “bomb the bastards” for beheading an American – after all, many hundreds if not thousands of people across the Middle East have already suffered this fate, to lack of any meaningful Western outcry.

Firstly, ISIS has clear aims (indeed it published its five-year plan to great media derision a couple of months ago). It is effectively using hideous brutality and propaganda to spread terror ahead of its war front – this is a 21st century blitzkrieg, and it’s working. The sheer horror of what they do to any who attempt to resist is so great that apparently whole armies abandon their weapons, banks have been left to be raided to the tune of half a billion dollars, and entire villages flee.

This is the pure definition of terrorism, and we can see that it is working. ISIS is doing all this to build a new state. or caliphate, in the way that their warped fundamentalist interpretation of religion sets out for them.

Secondly, and here’s the contentious bit, how precisely is this different from the terror that the Israelis have been visiting upon the many innocents killed in Gaza?  The Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate violence to stun and quash resistance was exposed by Wikileaks – the Israeli “shock and awe”.  And also, how is this different from what the US has been meting out to the peoples of Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last few years with their drone attacks?

All the above examples show strong military forces, ideologically motivated, unleashing violence and terror on a huge, disproportionate scale on innocent populations that have nowhere really to run.

The difference being? ISIS wields its own knives, does its own dirty work, and proudly films its grotesque brutality to cow its opponents. This is primitive terrorism intersecting with social media, a bastard spawn of the 21st century.  And it still seems to be effective, just as terror of the guillotine resonated throughout revolutionary France in the 18th century.

On the other hand, the US and Israel prefer to be a bit more coy about their terroristic strategies, hiding behind such phrases as “proportionate”, “self-defence”, “precision bombing” and “spreading democracy”. But who, seriously, falls for that these days?

Their armed forces are not directly getting their hands dirty with the blood of their victims: instead, spotty young conscripts safely hidden in bunkers on the far side of the world, mete out death from the skies via sick snuff video games  – officially called “precision” bombs and drone attacks that take out whole families. Heads can be blown off, bodies eviscerated, limbs mangled and maimed, and all from a safe distance.

We had the first proof of this strategy with the decrypted military film “Collateral Murder“, where helicopter pilots shot up some Reuters journalists and civilians in Iraq in 2007. That was bad enough – but the cover-up stank. For years the Pentagon denied all knowledge of this atrocious war crime, and it was only after Wikileaks released the information, provided by the brave whistleblower Chelsea Manning, that the families and the international community learned the truth. Yet it is Manning, not the war criminals, who is serving a 35 year sentence in a US prison.

Worse, by sheer scale at least, are the ongoing, wide-ranging unmanned drone attacks across the Middle East and Central Asia, as catalogued by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK. Many thousands of innocents have been murdered in these attacks, with the US justifying the strikes as killing “militants” – ie any male over the age of 14.  The US is murdering children, families, wedding parties and village councils with impunity.

And then the infamous provisions of the US NDAA 2012. This means that the US military can extra-judicially murder anyone, including US citizens, by drone strike anywhere in the world with no trial, no judicial process. And so it has come to pass.  American Anwar Al Awlaki was murdered in 2011 by a drone strike.

Not content with that, only weeks later the US military then blew his 16 year old son to pieces in another drone strike. Abdulrahman – a child – was also an American citizen. How, precisely, is this atrocity not morally equivalent to the murder of James Foley?

So what is the real, qualitative difference between the terror engendered by ISIS, or by the Dahiya Doctrine, or by the US drone strike programme? Is it just that ISIS does the dirty, hands on, and spreads its message shamelessly via social media, while the US does the dirty in secret and prosecutes and persecutes anyone who wants to expose its egregious war crimes?

I would suggest so, and the West needs to face up to its hypocrisy. A crime is a crime. Terrorism is terrorism.

Otherwise we are no better than the political drones in George Orwell’s “1984”, rewriting history in favour of the victors rather than the victims, acquiescing to eternal war, and happily mouthing Newspeak.

New Terrorism, anyone?

Niemoeller Redux

Published on RT Op Edge and Consortium News.

I regularly revisit the famous Pastor Martin Niemoeller poem from the Nazi era as his words remain resonant in our post-9/11, “war on terror” world. Over the last week threads of various alarming stories have converged, so here is my latest update:

First they came for the Muslims, but I was not a Muslim so did not speak up.

Then they came for the whistleblowers, but I was not a whistleblower so did not speak up.

Then they came for the “domestic extremists”, but I was not an activist so did not speak up.

And when they came for me, there was nobody left to speak up for me.

Allow me to explain this current version. Regular readers of this website will be well aware of my horror at the global rape of basic human rights in the West’s fight against the “war on terror” since 9/11: the kidnappings, the torture, the CIA presidentially-approved weekly assassination lists, the drone bombings, the illegal wars….

All these measures have indeed targeted and terrorised the Muslim community around the world. In the UK I have heard many stories of British Muslims wary of attending a family event such as a wedding of their cousins in Pakistan or wherever, in case they get snatched, tortured or drone bombed.

Now it appears that even British citizens who choose to donate to UK charities offering humanitarian relief in war zones such as Syria can be arrested under counter-terrorism laws.

moazzam_beggMoazzam Begg, the director of Cage (the UK NGO campaigning about the community impact of the war on terror) was again seized last week. As I have written before, this is a man who has already experienced the horrors of Bagram airbase and Guantanamo. When he was released he became a campaigner for others in the same plight and set up the Cage campaign which has gained quite some traction over the last few years.

Over a year ago he visited Syria on a fact-finding mission, investigating those who had been summarily detained and tortured in the conflict. Last December he had his passport seized on spurious grounds He wrote about this trip quite openly, and yet now, a year on, has been arrested and charged with “training terrorists and fund raising” in Syria. This is a high-profile campaigner who operates in the full glare of the media. How credulous does one have to be to believe that Begg, after all his experiences and running this campaign, is now involved in “terrorism”?  Really, anyone?

Since then other people involved in British charities offering aid to the displaced peoples of Syria have also been scooped up. But this is just affecting the British Muslim community, right? There’s “no smoke without fire”, and it does not impinge the lives of most people in the UK, so there has been no widespread outcry….

….so nobody speaks up.

Then we have the ongoing “war on whistleblowers” that I have discussed extensively. This affects every sector of society in every country, but most seriously affects whistleblowers emerging from central government, the military and the intelligence agencies. They are the ones most likely to witness the most heinous crimes, and they are the ones automatically criminalised by secrecy laws.

This is most apparent in the UK, where the Official Secrets Act (1989) specifically criminalises whistleblowing, and in the USA, where President Obama has invoked the 1917 Espionage Act against whistleblowers more times than all other presidents combined over the last century. If that is not a “war on whistleblowers”, I don’t know what is.

This, of course, is a paranoid over-reaction to the work of Wikileaks, and the brave actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. This is what Obama’s government deems to be the “insider threat“.  Yet it is only through greater transparency that we can operate as informed citizens; it is only through greater accountability that we can hope to obtain justice. And in this era, when we are routinely lied into illegal wars, what could be more important?

But intelligence and military whistleblowers are rare, specialised and easy to stigmatise as the “other” and now, the insider threat – not quite of the normal world. The issues they disclose can seem a bit remote, not linked to most people’s daily experiences….

….so nobody speaks up.

But now to my third revamped line of the Pastor Niemoeller poem: the activists or, to use current police terminology, the “domestic extremists”. This, surely, does impinge on more people’s experience of life. If you want to go out and demonstrate against a war, in support of Occupy, for the environment, whatever, you are surely exercising your democratic rights as citizens, right?

Er, well no, not these days. I have written before about how activists can be criminalised and even deemed to be terrorists by the police (think London Occupy in 2011 here). I’m thinking of the ongoing British undercover cop scandal which continues to rumble on.

For those of you outside the UK, this is a scandal that erupted in 2010. There is was a section of secret police who were infiltrated into activist groups under secret identities to live the life, report back, and even potentially work as enablers or agents provocateurs. As the scandal has grown it appears that some of these cops fathered children with their targets and spied on the grieving families of murder victims.

This sounds like the East German Stasi, but was happening in the UK in the last couple of decades. A government enquiry has just been announced and many old cases against activists will be reviewed to see if tarnished “evidence” was involved in the trials and subsequent convictions.

But again this does not affect most people beyond the activist community….

….so nobody speaks up.

jesselyn_radackNow, people who have always assumed they have certain protections because of their professions, such as lawyers and journalists, are also being caught in this dragnet. Julian Assange’s lawyer, Jennifer Robinson, discovered she was on a flight watch list a few years ago. More recently Jesselyn Radack, human rights director of the US Government Accountability Project and legal advisor to Edward Snowden, was stopped and interrogated at the UK border.

And just this week a Dutch investigative journalist, Brenno de Winter, was unable to do his job since his name was placed on alert in all national government buildings. The police accused him of hacking-related crimes and burglary. They had to retract this when the smear campaign came to light.

Brenno has made his name by freedom of information requests from the Dutch public sector and his subsequent investigations, for which he was named Dutch Journalist of the Year in 2011. Hardly subversion, red in tooth and claw, but obviously now deemed to be an existential, national security threat to the Netherlands.

Nor is this a Dutch problem – we have seen this in the US, where journalists such as James Risen and Barrett Brown have been hounded merely for doing their jobs, and the Glenn Greenwald’s partner, David Miranda, was detained at London Heathrow airport under counter-terrorism laws.

Journalists, who always somewhat complacently thought they had special protections in Western countries, are being increasingly targeted when trying to report on issues such as privacy, surveillance, whistleblower disclosures and wars.

Only a few are being targeted now, but I hope these cases will be enough to wake the rest up, while there is still the chance for them to take action….

….before there is nobody left to speak up for us.

NSA industrial espionage

In the wake of the recent ARD interview with Edward Snowden, here are my comments on RT yesterday about the NSA’s involvement in industrial espionage:

NSA’s big nose in big business from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

I recommend looking at the Edward Snowden’s support website, and also keep an eye open for a new foundation that will be launched next month: Courage – the fund to protect journalistic sources.

CCC talk – the Four Wars

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

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

London Real TV Interview – coming soon

Here is a taster of my recent interview on London Real TV. It was diverse, lively and fun, and should be broadcast in full tomorrow:

Annie Machon – Whistleblower – London Real TV from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.