The NSA and Guantanamo Bay

Yesterday The Intercept released more documents from the Edward Snowden trove.  These highlighted the hitherto suspected by unproven involvement of the NSA in Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, torture and interrogation.

Here is my interview on RT about the subject:

Snowden disclosures about NSA and Guantanamo from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Interview with George Galloway

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


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.

Rendition and torture – interview on RT

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

Going Underground Ep 22 1 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

International Day of Privacy, Berlin Demo

The International Day of Privacy was celebrated globally on 31 August, with the cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden bringing extra energy and resonance to the subject.

I was invited take part in a demonstration in Berlin, culminating with a talk at the hugely symbolic Brandenburg Gate. Here’s the talk:

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.

Journalists need to tool up

Published in the Huffington Post UK:

Over the last week more sound, fury and indignation has cascaded forth from the US media, spilling into the European news, about the American government and the Associated Press spying scandal.

Last week it emerged that the US Department of Justice monitored the telephones of, gasp, journalists working at AP. Apparently this was done to try to investigate who might have been the source for a story about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen. However, the dragnet seems to have widened to cover almost 100 journalists and potentially threatened governmental leakers and whistleblowers who, in these days of systematic security crackdowns in the US, are fast becoming Public Enemy No 1.

Now it appears that the US DoJ has been reading the emails of a senior Fox News reporter. And this has got the US hacks into a frightful tizz. What about the First Amendment?

Well, what about the fact that the Patriot Act shredded most of the US Constitution a decade ago?

Also, who is actually facing the security crackdown here? The US journalists are bleating that their sources are drying up in the face of a systematic witch hunt by the US administration. That must be hard for the journalists – hard at least to get the stories and by-lines that ensure their continued employment and the ability to pay the mortgage. This adds up to the phrase du jour: a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Er, yes, but how much harder for the potential whistleblowers? They are the people facing not only a loss of professional reputation and career if caught, but also all that goes with it. Plus, now, they are increasingly facing draconian prison sentences under the recently reanimated and currently much-deployed US 1917 Espionage Act for exposing issues in the public interest. Ex-NSA Thomas Drake faced decades in prison for exposing corruption and waste, while ex-CIA John Kiriakou is currently languishing in prison for exposing the use of torture.

The US government has learned well from the example of the UK’s Official Secrets Acts – laws that never actually seem to be wielded against real establishment traitors, who always seem to be allowed to slip away, but which have been used frequently and effectively to stifle dissent, cover up spy crimes, and to spare the blushes of the Establishment.

So, two points:

Firstly, the old media could and should have learned from the new model that is Wikileaks and its ilk. Rather than asset stripping the organisation for information, while abandoning the alleged source, Bradley Manning, and the founder, Julian Assange, to their fates, Wikileaks’s erstwhile allies could and morally should campaign for them. The issues of the free flow of information, democracy and justice are bigger than petty arguments about personality traits.

Plus, the old media appear to have a death wish: to quote the words of the former New York Times editor and Wikileaks collaborator Bill Keller, Wikileaks is not a publisher – it is a source, pure and simple. But surely, if Wikileaks is “only” a source, it must be protected at all costs – that is the media’s prime directive. Journalists have historically gone to prison rather than give away their sources.

However, if Wikileaks is indeed deemed to be a publisher and can be persecuted this way, then all the old media are equally vulnerable. And indeed that is what we are witnessing now with these spying scandals.

Secondly, these so-called investigative journalists are surprised that their phones were tapped?  Really?

If they are doing proper, worthwhile journalism, of course their comms will be tapped in a post-Patriot Act, surveillance-state world. Why on earth are they not taking their own and their sources’ security seriously? Is it amateur night?

In this day and age, any serious journalist (and there are still a few honourable examples) will be taking steps to protect the security of their sources. They will be tooled up, tech-savvy, and they will have attended Crypto-parties to learn security skills. They will also be painfully aware that a whistleblower is a person potentially facing prison, rather than just the source of a career-making story.

If mainstream journalists are serious about exposing corruption, holding power to account, and fighting for justice they need to get serious about source protection too and get teched-up. Help is widely available to those who are interested. Indeed, this summer the Centre for Investigative Journalism is hosting talks in London on this subject, and many other international journalism conferences have done the same over the last few years.

Sadly, the level of interest and awareness remains relatively low – many journalists retain a naive trust in the general legality of their government’s actions: the authorities may bend the rules a little for “terrorists”, but of course they will abide by the rules when it comes to the media…..

….or not. Watergate now looks rather quaint in comparison.

As for me: well, I have had some help and have indeed been teched-up. My laptop runs the free Ubuntu Linux (the 64 bit version for grown-ups) from an encrypted solid state hard drive. I have long and different passwords for every online service I use. My mail and web server are in Switzerland and I encrypt as much of my email as possible. It’s at least a start.

And here’s what I have to say about why journalists should think about these issues and how they can protect both themselves and their sources: Opening keynote “The Big Dig Conference” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Security and liberty – the aftermath of the Boston bombings

An abbreviated version of this article was published by RT Op-Edge yesterday.

News of the two bombs in Boston, in which 3 people have so far died and more than 100 have been injured, has ricocheted around the world.  Beyond the grim statistics, there is little concrete evidence about the who and the why, and nor will there be possibly for days or even weeks.  This confusion is inevitable in the wake of such an attack, as the intelligence agencies and police play frantic catch-up to identify the perpetrators and, we hope, bring them to justice – although of course in post-Patriot Act, post-NDAA America, the perpetrators are more likely to find their names on the CIA’s presidentially-approved kill list.

In the absence of facts, the media fills its airwaves with speculation and repetition, thereby inadvertently whipping up yet more fear and uncertainty.  The fall-out from this is an eruption of prejudice in the social media, with desk bound heroes jumping to conclusions and advocating violent reprisals against whole swathes of the Middle East.  And this fear and hate plays straight into the hands of the “enemy-industrial complex” so aptly described by Tom Engelhardt recently.

With that in mind, let’s take a moment to pay our respects to those who died in terrorist attacks on Monday. Even a quick surf through the internet produces a grim and no doubt incomplete tally: Iraq (55); Afghanistan (7); Somalia (30); Syria (18); Pakistan (4); USA (3). All these numbers represent someone’s child, mother, friend, brother, loved one, and all will be mourned.

Alas, not all of these victims will receive as much air-time as the unfortunates caught up in the Boston attacks. And this is especially the case where attacks are carried out by the American military against suspected “insurgents” across the Middle East.

Indeed, on the same day The Telegraph reported that the UN special rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, famous British barrister Ben Emmerson (Queen’s Counsel), had stated that drone strikes across the Middle East were illegal under international law. Their continued use only served to legitimise Al Qaeda attacks against the US military and its infrastructure in the region.

bradley_manningAs we saw in 2010 when Wikileaks released the video, “Collateral Murder“, such atrocities are covered up for years, denied by the government, nor will the perpetrators be held to account – they are probably still serving in the military. Instead the whistleblower who exposed this crime, Bradley Manning, languishes in prison facing a court martial, and the publisher of the material, Wikileaks, faces global repression and a secret federal grand jury indictment.

With its endless, speculative scaremongering about the Boston attacks, the US media plays a diabolical role in furthering the work of the attackers – ie terrorising the population, inducing them to live in a state of abject fear.  Of course, once suitably terrorised, the US people will be even more willing to give away what remains of their historic freedoms, all in the name of increasing their security.  Well, we know the views of one late, great American on this subject, Benjamin Franklin: “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety“.

Indeed, the abrogation of liberty in the USA has patently not resulted in greater security, as Boston has so brutally demonstrated. No society can protect itself absolutely against terrorism.

In a democracy, just as rights come with responsibilities, so freedoms come with risk. And we need to remember that those freedoms were hard-won by our ancestors and will be equally difficult to win back if we heedlessly throw them away now, while the risks remain statistically negligible.

Guantanamo_BaySuccessive US governments have already decimated the basic rights of the US people in the post-9/11 security panic. At the sharp end, people, both globally and now also in America, can be extraordinarily rendered (kidnapped) to black prison sites and tortured for years on the word of anonymous intelligence officers, they can be denied due legal process, and they can be killed on presidential decree by drone strikes – a real-world version of the snuff video.

Additionally, the US has descended into a panoptican surveillance state, with endemic data-mining of communications, airborne drone spying, and the categorisation of protesters as “domestic extremists” or even “terrorists” who are then beaten up by militarised police forces. This otiose security theatre constantly reminds US citizens to be afraid, be very afraid, of the enemy within.

Terrorist atrocities are criminal acts, they are not a separate form of “eviltude”, to use George Bush-era terminology.  As such, the criminals behind such attacks should be investigated, evidence gathered, and they should be tried in front of a jury of their peers, where justice can be done and be seen to be done. So it is troubling that the Boston FBI bureau chief, Richard DesLauriers, is today quoted in the New York Times as saying he is working on “a criminal investigation that is a potential terrorist investigation“. The precise difference being?

Likewise, terrorist attacks are not an existential threat to the fabric of the nation, even events on the scale of 9/11.  However, I would suggest that the response of the security-industrial complex poses a greater existential threat to the future well-being of the USA. The post-9/11 security crackdown in the USA has eroded core democratic values, while the military response across the Middle East has bankrupted America and created a generation of potential enemies.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Compare and contrast the response of the Norwegian people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and murder of 77 people by Anders Breivik. As a country, there was a need to see justice done, but not to allow such an appalling attack to compromise the values of the society and destroy a cherished way of life for all.  And this the Norwegian people achieved.

BishopsgateSimilarly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s the UK endured Lock­er­bie, Omagh, Bish­opsgate, Canary Wharf, and Manchester, to name but a few major atro­cit­ies.  A good sum­mary of the ter­ror­ist attacks against Lon­don alone over the last 150 years can be found here, with the first Tube bomb­ing occur­ring in 1885.  A pilot, Patrick Smith, also recently wrote a great art­icle about air­craft secur­ity and the sheer scale of the ter­ror­ist threat to the West in the 1980s — and asks a very per­tin­ent ques­tion: just how would we col­lect­ively react to such a stream of atro­cit­ies now?

During the 1990s, at the height of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign on mainland Britain, I lived in central London and worked as an intelligence officer for the UK’s domestic Security Service (MI5). Putting aside my professional life, I have per­sonal memor­ies of what it was like to live under the shadow of ter­ror­ism.  I remem­ber mak­ing my way to work in 1991 and com­mut­ing through Vic­toria train sta­tion in Lon­don 10 minutes before a bomb, planted in a rub­bish bin, exploded on the sta­tion con­course.  One per­son was killed, and many sus­tained severe injur­ies.  One per­son had their foot blown off — the image haunted me for a long time.

I also vividly remem­ber, two years later, sit­ting at my desk in MI5’s May­fair office, and hear­ing a dull thud in the back­ground — this turned out to be a bomb explod­ing out­side Har­rods depart­ment store in Knights­bridge.  And let’s not for­get the almost daily dis­rup­tion to the tube and rail net­works dur­ing the 1990s because of secur­ity alerts.  Every Lon­doner was exhor­ted to watch out for, and report, any sus­pi­cious pack­ages left at sta­tions or on streets.

Lon­don­ers grew used to such incon­veni­ence; they grumbled a bit about the dis­rup­tion and then got on with their lives — echoes of the “keep calm and carry on” men­tal­ity that evolved dur­ing the Blitz years.  In the 1990s the only notice­able change to London’s diurnal rhythm was that there were fewer US tour­ists clog­ging up the streets — an early indic­a­tion of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate, para­noid US reac­tion to a per­ceived ter­ror­ist threat.

In contrast to the post-9/11 years, the UK did not then react by shredding the basic freedoms of its people.  There were certainly controversial cases and heated debates about how long you could hold a terrorist suspect without charge, but the way of life continued much as before. Now, twelve years after 9/11 – an attack on a different continent – the UK has all the laws in place to enact a de facto police state within days.

Life and liberty are both precious. It is always tragic when lives are be lost in the name of some twisted or arcane political cause; it is even more tragic when the liberty of all is also lost as a result.

Statue_of_Liberty_7My heart goes out to those who were injured and to the friends and families who have lost loved ones in the Boston attacks, in the same way it goes out to all those who were killed and maimed across the Middle East yesterday.

However, I do urge caution in the US response; evidence needs to be gathered and justice seen to be done. Another security crackdown on a fearful US population will hurt Americans much more than two bombs in Boston ever could, while yet more remotely-controlled revenge killings across the Middle East will kill, maim and displace many more thousands.

I shall leave you with a quote from another great American, Thomas Jefferson:

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of the day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers too plainly proves a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing us to slavery.

The Free Speech Debate

My recent interview for the excellent Oxford University Free Speech Debate project, run by Professor Timothy Garton Ash.  I discuss whistleblowing, the Official Secrets Act, Wikileaks and much more:

Gestapo Courts

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 30 September 2012

Published in The Real News Network, 30 September 2012

A lot of sound and fury has been expended in the British media over the last few months about the Coalition government’s proposal to enact secret courts via the proposed Justice and Security Bill – purely for terrorist cases, you understand. Which, of course, is OK as we all know terrorists are by definition the Baddies.

Except we need to drill down into the detail of the proposals, have a look at some history, and think through the future implications.

The concept of secret courts emerged from the official UK spook sector – MI5 and MI6 have been lobbying hard for such protection over recent years.  Their argument revolves around a number of civil cases, where British victims of extraordinary rendition and subsequent torture have sued the pants off the spies through civil courts and received some recompense for their years of suffering.

The most notorious case was that of Binyam Mohamed, who was repeatedly tortured in a black prison in Morocco, with British spies allegedly contributing to his questioning. And we’re not talking about a few stress positions, awful as they are. Mohamed was strung up and had his penis repeatedly slashed with a razor.

MI5 and MI6 are aggrieved because they could not defend themselves in the resultant civil actions brought against them, and they (and their former political master Jack Straw) are particularly worried about future cases around the MI6-organised Libyan renditions exposed last year.  The spies’ argument is that having to produce evidence in their own defence would damage that ever-flexible but curiously vague concept of “national security”.

Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

The spooks have traditionally used the “national security” argument as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.  It has never been legally defined, but it is unfailingly effective with judges and politicians.

We saw similar arguments during the post-9/11 security flap, when many terrorist suspects were scooped up and interned in high security British prisons such as Belmarsh on the say-so of faceless intelligence officers. No evidence needed to be adduced, nor could it be challenged. The subsequent control order system was equally Kafkaesque.

That’s not to say that certain interned individuals might not have been an active threat to the UK.  However, in the “good” old days (god, I sound ancient), suspects would have had evidence gathered against them, been tried by a jury, convicted and imprisoned. The system was never perfect and evidence could be egregiously withheld, but at least appeals were possible, most notably in the case of the Birmingham Six.

Since 9/11 even breathing the word “terrorist” has meant that all these historic common law principles seem to have been jettisoned.  Even before the proposed enshrinement of “secret courts” in the new Bill, they are already being used in the UK – the Special Immigration Appeal Commission (SIAC) tribunals hear secret evidence and the defendant’s chosen lawyer is not allowed to attend. Instead a special, government-approved advocate is appointed to “represent the interests” of the defendant who is not allowed to know what his accusers have to say. And there was no appeal.

But all this is so unnecessary.  The powers are already in place to be used (and abused) to shroud our notionally open court process in secrecy.  Judges can exclude the press and the public from court rooms by declaring the session in camera for all or part of the proceedings.  Plus, in national security cases, government ministers can also issue Public Interest Immunity Certificates (PIIs) that not only bar the press from reporting the proceedings, but can also ban them from reporting they are gagged – the governmental super-injunction.

So the powers already exist to protect “national security”.  No, the real point of the new secret courts is to ensure that the defendant and, particularly in my view, their chosen lawyers cannot hear the allegations if based on intelligence of any kind. Yet even the spies themselves agree that the only type of intelligence that really needs to be kept secret involves ongoing operations, agent names, and sensitive operational techniques.

 And as for the right to be tried by a jury of your peers – forget it.  Of course juries will have no place in such secret courts.  The only time we have seen such draconian judicial measures in the UK outside a time of official war was during the Troubles in Northern Ireland – the infamous Diplock Courts – beginning in the 1970s and which incredibly were still in use this year.

I am not an apologist of terrorism although I can understand the social injustice that can lead to it.  However, I’m also very aware that the threat can be artificially ramped up and manipulated to achieve preconceived political goals.

I would suggest that the concept of secret courts will prove fatally dangerous to our democracy.  It may start with the concept of getting the Big Bad Terrorist, but in more politically unstable or stringent economic times this concept is wide open to mission creep.

We are already seeing a slide towards expanding the definition of “terrorist” to include “domestic extremists”, activists, single issue campaigners et al, as I have written before. And just recently information was leaked about a new public-private EU initiative, Clean IT, that proposes ever more invasive and draconian policing powers to hunt down “terrorists” on the internet. This proposal fails to define terrorism, but does provide for endemic electronic surveillance of the EU. Pure corporatism.

Allowing secret courts to try people on the say-so of a shadowy, unaccountable and burgeoning spy community lands us straight back in the pages of history: La Terreur of revolutionary France, the creepy surveillance of the Stasi, or the disappearances and torture of the Gestapo.

Have we learned nothing?

21st Century Pacificism (The Old Stuff)

The_ScreamI have always been ideologically opposed to war and all the horrors that flow in its wake: agonising fear and death, famine, displacement, maiming, torture, rape, internment and the breakdown of all the hard-won values of civilised human law and behaviour.

Looking back, I think that was partly why I was attracted to work in diplomacy and how I ended up being enticed into intelligence. These worlds, although by no means perfect, could conceivably be seen as the last-ditch defences before a country goes bellowing into all-out war.

I marched against the Iraq war, toured the UK to speak at Stop the War meetings, worked with Make Wars History, and have ceaselessly spoken out and written about these and related issues.

Alastair_Campbell_1Today in the UK we have reached a consensus that Blair’s government lied to the country into the Iraq war on the false premise of weapons of mass destruction, and subsequently enabled the Bush administration to do the same in the USA, hyping up the threat of a nuclear Iraq using false intelligence provided by MI6.

Millions of people marched then, and millions of people continue to protest against the ongoing engorgement of the military/intelligence complex, but nothing ever seems to change.  It’s democratically disempowering and an enervating experience.  What can we do about it?

I have a couple of suggestions (The New Stuff), but first let’s look at some of the most egregious current fake realities.

David_CameronLast year we had the spectacle of the current No 10 incumbent, Dave Cameron, stating that the Libyan intervention would be nothing like Iraq – it would be “necessary, legal and right”. But there was no subsequent joined-up thinking, and Blair and his cronies have still not been held to account for the Iraq genocide, despite prima facie breaches of international war law and of the Official Secrets Act….

Abdelhakim-BelhajBut help might be at hand for those interested in justice, courtesy of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader, MI6 kidnapping and torture victim, and current military commander in Tripoli.

After NATO’s humanitarian bombing of Libya last year and the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, some seriously embarrassing paperwork was found in the abandoned office of Libyan Foreign Minister and former spy head honcho, Musa Kusa (who fled to the UK and subsequently on to Qatar).

These letters, sent in 2004 by former MI6 Head of Terrorism and current BP consultant, Sir Mark Allen, gloatingly offer up the hapless Belhaj to the Libyans for torture.  It almost seems like MI6 wanted a gold star from their new bestest friends.

Belhaj, understandably, is still slightly peeved about this and is now suing MI6. As a result, a frantic damage-limitation exercise is going on, with MI6 trying to buy his silence with a million quid, and scattering unattributed quotes across the British media: “it wasn’t us, gov, it was the, er, government….”.

Which drops either (or both) Tony Blair and Jack Straw eyebrow-deep in the stinking cesspit. One or other of them should have signed off on Belhaj’s kidnapping, knowing he would be tortured in Tripoli. Or perhaps they actually are innocent of this….. but if they didn’t sign off on the Belhaj extraordinary kidnapping, then MI6 was running rampant, working outside the law on their watch.

Either way, there are serious questions to be answered.

Jack_StrawBoth these upstanding politicians are, of course, suffering from political amnesia about this case. In fact, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary at the time of the kidnapping, has said that he cannot have been expected to know everything the spies got up to – even though that was precisely his job, as he was responsible for them under the terms of the Intelligence Security Act 1994, and should certainly have had to clear an operation so politically sensitive.

In the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, what worries me now is that exactly the same reasons, with politicians mouthing exactly the same platitudinous “truths”, are being pushed to justify an increasingly inevitable strike against Iran.

Depressing as this all is, I would suggest that protesting each new, individual war is not the necessarily the most effective response.  Just as the world’s markets have been globalised, so manifestly to the benefit of all we 99%-ers, have many other issues.

Unlike Dave Cameron, we need to apply some joined-up thinking.  Global protest groups need to counter more than individual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan (North and South), Syria, Iran…… sorry, I’m getting writer’s cramp just enumerating all the current wars.

Give me a while to overcome my moral spasm, and I shall return with a few suggestions about possible ways forward – 21st Century Pacifism; the New Stuff.


A Tale of Two Cases

Abu_QatadaThe first case, the one hitting the headlines this week, is that of Jordanian-born alleged terrorist supremo Abu Qatada, who arrived in the UK using a forged passport almost 20 years ago and claimed asylum, and has already been found guilty twice in absentia of terrorist attacks in Jordan. He is reportedly also wanted in seven other countries for terrorist-related offences.  He has been labeled Bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, and over the last few years in the UK has been variously interned, placed under control order, and held in maximum security prisons.  

The UK courts ruled that he should be deported to stand trial in his native country, but these rulings were recently overturned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as it had concerns that Jordanian diplomatic assurances that he would not be tortured could not be relied on, and that evidence against him in any retrial there might have been obtained using torture. 

MATT_CartoonAs a result, Mr Justice Mitting of the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (Siac) has ruled that he should be released under a strict T-PIM (the new control order).  This decision has predictably roused the frothing wrath of the Home Office and the readership of the Daily Mail.  Politicians of all flavours have rushed out their sound bites condemning the ECtHR decision.  

But can they not see that it is the complacency and the very disdain for law that the British political and intelligence infrastructure has displayed for the last decade that has created this mess in the first place?  If, instead of kidnapping, torture, assassination, and indeed internment without trial within the UK, the rule of law had been followed, the country would not currently find itself in this legal quagmire.  

There used to be a notion that you used due process to investigate a terrorist suspect as you would any other suspected criminal: gather the evidence, present the case to the Crown Prosecution Service, hold a trial in front of a jury, and work towards a conviction. 

How quaintly old-fashioned that all seems today.  Instead, since 9/11 and the inception of the hysterically brutal "war on terror" led by the USA, we have seen people in the UK thrown into prison for years on the secret word of anonymous intelligence officers, where even the suspects' lawyers are not allowed to see the information against their clients.  The British legal system has become truly Kafkaesque.

Which leads me to the second case.  This was a quote in yesterday's Guardian about the Abu Qatada ruling:

"The Conservative backbencher Dominic Raab echoed Blunkett's anger: "This result is a direct result of the perverse ruling by the Strasbourg court. It makes a mockery of human rights law that a terrorist suspect deemed 'dangerous' by our courts can't be returned home, not for fear that he might be tortured, but because European judges don't trust the Jordanian justice system.""

Julian_assangeIn the case of Julian Assange, can we really trust the Swedish justice system? While the Swedish judicial system may have an ostensibly more fragrant reputation than that of Jordan, it has been flagrantly politicised and manipulated in the Assange case, as has been repeatedly well documented. Indeed, the Swedish justice system has the highest rate per capita of cases taken to the ECtHR for flouting Article 6 – the right to a fair trial.

If Assange were extradited merely for questioning by police – he has yet to be even charged with any crime in Sweden – there is a strong risk that the Swedes will just shove him straight on the next plane to the US under the legal terms of a "temporary surrender".  And, to bastardise the above quote, who now really trusts the American justice system?

A secret Grand Jury has been convened in Virginia to find a law – any law – with which to prosecute Assange.  Hell, if the Yanks can't find an existing law, they will probably write a new one just for him.

Forget about the fact that Wikileaks is a ground-breaking new form of high-tech journalism that has exposed corrupt practices across the world over the years.  The US just wants to make an example of Assange in retaliation for the embarrassment he has caused by exposing US double dealing and war crimes over the last decade, and no doubt as a dreadful example to deter others.  

Bradley_Manning_2The alleged Wikileaks source, US soldier Private Bradley Manning, has been kept in inhumane and degrading conditions for well over a year and will now be court-martialed.  The general assumption is that this process was designed to break him, so that he would implicate Assange and possibly other Wikileaks associates.  

In my view, that means that any US trial of Assange could essentially be relying on evidence obtained under torture.  And if Assange is extradited and and judicially rendered to the US, he too will face torturous conditions.

So, to summarise, on the one hand we have a man who is wanted in eight countries for terrorist offences, has already been convicted twice in his home country, but who cannot be extradited.

And on the other hand we have a man who has not been charged, tried or convicted of anything, but is merely wanted for questioning on minor and apparently trumped up charges in another country, yet who has also been imprisoned in solitary confinement and held under house arrest.  And it looks like the British authorities are happy to collude in his extradition.

Both these men potentially face a mistrial and both may potentially experience what is now euphemistically known as "degrading and inhumane treatment".

But because one faces being sent back to his home country – now seen for the purposes of his case as a banana republic with a corrupt judicial system that relies on evidence extracted under torture – he shall probably not be extradited.  However, the other faces being sent to an alien country well known as a beacon of civil rights and fair judicial system oops, sorry, as a banana republic with a corrupt judicial system that relies on evidence extracted under torture.

A_Tale_of_Two_CitiesThe UK has become a legal laughing stock around the world and our judicial framework has been bent completely out of shape by the requirements of the "war on terror" and the rapidly developing corporate fascism of our government.  

The UK is currently celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens.  Perhaps the time has come to pause and think about some of the issues he discussed in one of his best-known novels, "A Tale of Two Cities".  Do we want our country to slide further down the path of state terrorism – a phrase adopted from the original Grande Terreur of the French Revolution? 

We need to seize back our basic rights, the due process of law, and justice.

One man’s terrorist is another man’s activist

Here we go again.  In this heartwarming article in today’s Guardian newspaper, British MPs on the Home Affairs Committee have decided that the internet is the most significant factor in the radicalisation of violent extremists and conclude that Something Must Be Done.

One paragraph leapt out at me:

The Commons home affairs committee says internet service providers need to be as effective at removing material that promotes violent extremism as they are in removing content that is sexual or breaches copyright.” (My emphasis.)

Anti_SOPA_cartoonMost of us are aware of the recent dogfight in the US about the proposed SOPA and PIPA laws to crack down on copyright infringement and, as a result, there is a somewhat belated but steadily increasing outcry in Europe about the imminent imposition of ACTA across the continent.  

I have written before about how such laws provide the military-intelligence complex with the perfect stalking horse for a panoptic surveillance state, and the campaigning writer, Cory Doctorow, summed it up beautifully when he wrote that “you can’t make a system that prevents spying by secret police and allows spying by media giants“.

And, lo, it is now apparently coming to pass.  The Parliamentary half-wits are now proposing to use commercial legislation such as the utterly undemocratic ACTA as a benchmark for countering potential terrorists and extremists.  Might they have failed to notice the plethora of existing counter-terrorism and eavesdropping legislation, put in place for this very purpose and already much used and abused by a wide range of public bodies in the UK?

This yet again highlights the mission-creepy Big Brother corporatist group-think.  Rather than having to spell it out in boring old linear text, here is some useful linkage – what I like to think of as 3-D writing: 

Protester = activist = domestic extremist = violent extremist = terrorist  


I’m sure you can see where I am heading.  To name but a few notorious abuses, we already live in a world where western governments and spy agencies collude in the kidnapping, torture and assassination of alleged terrorist suspects; the NDAA now endorses these practices within the US; British police spy on innocent protest groups for years; legitimate protesters can be “kettled“, beaten up and maced; activists can be pre-emptively arrested as easily in the UK as in Syria; and where American politicians want to designate the high-tech publishing organisation Wikileaks as a terrorist group.

There is an old aphorism that one man’s terrorist was another man’s freedom fighter.  I think the time has come for an update:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s activist.  

And we are all increasingly at risk. 

Judicial rendition – the UK-US extradition treaty is a farce

Sometimes I sit here reading the news -  on subjects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police investigation into UK spy complicity in torture, where the police decided not to prosecute – and feel that I should comment.  But really, what would be the point?  Of course the police would not find enough concrete evidence, of course no individual spies would be held to account, despite the fact that the British government has already paid massive settlements to the victims.

BelhadjNow there are reports that the police will be investigating MI6 involvement in the extraordinary rendition and torture of two Libyans.  The case appears bang to rights, with documentary evidence that high-ranking MI6 officers and government ministers were involved in and approved the operation.  Yet I'm willing to bet that the plods at Scotland Yard will still not be able to find the requisite evidence to prosecute anybody. 

The inevitable (and probably wished-for outcome on the part of the authorities) is that people become so weary and cynical about the lack of justice that they stop fighting for it.  And they can temporarily succeed, when we succumb to cynical burnout.

But the case reported in today's Daily Mail, that of a young British student facing extradition to the US despite having broken no laws in the UK, succeeded in rousing my wrath. 

Richard_ODwyerThe hapless 23-year old Richard O'Dwyer faces 10 years in a maximum security American prison.  His crime, according to the US, is that he set up a UK-based website that provided links to other international websites that allegedly hosted copyright material.

This case is so troubling on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin.  There are issues around the crackdown of US corporate copyright law, issues around the inequality of the unilateral Extradition Act 2003, and historic questions of US hypocrisy about extradition.

So let's start with the unsupported allegations against poor Richard O'Dwyer.  He is a student who built a website that collated a list of sites in other countries that host films, books and music for free download.  O'Dwyer did not himself download any copyrighted material, and the websites he linked to were apparently within jurisdictions where such downloads are not illegal.  Providing a signpost to other legal international sites is manifestly not a crime in the UK and he has never been charged.

However, over the last couple of decades the US entertainment lobby has been fighting a vicious rearguard action against copyright infringement, starting with the music, then the film, and now the publishing industry.  The lobbyists have proved victorious and the invidious SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Congress.  All well and good you might think – it's one of those mad US issues.  But oh no, these laws have global reach.  What might be legal within the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legislation.

Gary_McKinnon2Which is where the Extradition Act 2003 becomes particularly threatening.  This law means that any UK citizen can be demanded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evidence.  As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hacker Gary McKinnon, it matters not if the "crime" were committed on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon's case was not prosecuted by the UK authorities in 2002.  If it had been, he would have received a maximum sentence of 6 months' community service: if extradited he is facing up to 70 years in a US maximum security prison).

The UK government has tried to spin the egregious Libyan cases as "judicial rendition" rather than "extraordinary kidnapping" or whatever it's supposed to be.  So I think it would be accurate to call Gary McKinnon's case "judicial rendition" too, rather than boring old extradition.

Richard O'Dwyer apparently didn't commit anything that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extradition to the US and a 10 year stretch.  The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judicial rendition. 

As I have mentioned before, digital rights activist Cory Doctorow summed it up best: "you can't make a system that prevents spying by secret police and allows spying by media giants".  These corporate internet laws are a Trojan horse that will threaten our basic civil liberties across the board.

So now to my third point.  The hypocrisy around the American stance on extradition with the UK is breathtaking.   The UK has been dispatching its own citizens off at an alarming rate to the "tender" mercies of the US judicial system since 2004, with no prima facie evidence required.  In fact, the legal proof required to get a UK citizen extradited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extradited from one US state to another. 

The US, on the other hand, delayed ratifying the law until 2006, and the burden of proof required to extradite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbalanced not only in concept but also in practice.  And this despite the fact that the law was seen as crucial to facilitate the transfer of highly dangerous terrorist suspects in the endless "war on terror".

Why has this happened?  One can but speculate about the power of the Irish lobby in the US government, as Sir Menzies Campbell did during a parliamentary debate about the Act in 2006.   However, it is well known that the US was remarkably coy about extraditing IRA suspects back to the UK to stand trial during the 30-year "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.  We even have well-known apologists such as Congressman Peter King, the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee attempting to demonise organisations like Wikileaks as terrorist organisations, while at the same being a life-long supporter of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA.

UK_poodleThe double standards are breath-taking.  The US dictates an extradition treaty with the UK to stop terrorism, but then uses this law to target those who might potentially, tangentially, minutely threaten the profits of the US entertainment mega-corps; and then it delays ratifying and implementing its own law for potentially dubious political reasons.

And the UK government yet again rolls over and takes it, while innocent students such as Richard O'Dwyer must pay the price.  As his mother is quoted as saying: "if they can come for Richard, they can come for anyone".