The spies are called to account

First published on RT Op-Edge.

As the Snowden-related disclosures continue to flow, each new one refuting the last dissembling statements of the desperate spies, diplomats around the world must be cursing the overweening ambitions of the NSA and it vassals.

American ambassadors are being summoned from their fortified embassies to account for US malfeasance in country after country: Brazil, Spain, France and, of course, Germany.

In this last country there has been scandal after scandal: first the hoovering up of billions of private communications; the revelation that the German intelligence agency, the BND, had been an enthusiastic partner of the NSA in developing the XKeyScore programme and more; then, despite this, humiliatingly to learn that Germany is only considered a 3rd Party intelligence partner by the Yanks – putting them on a par with countries like Iran, China and Russia.

The pièces de résistance, however, are the two most recent disclosures: that Angela Merkal’s private phone had been targeted, and that there was a NSA spy base embedded in the US embassy in Berlin.  This, reportedly, has now ceased operations as the US government tries to appease an incandescent Angela.

Now it is the turn of the Brits, whose ambassador, Simon McDonald, was also this week given a carpeting by the German Foreign Minister – for doing precisely what the Americans did and hiding a GCHQ spy outpost at the British embassy in Berlin, flouting all kinds of treaties and diplomatic protocols in the process.  As the embassy was only built in the early 1990s after German reunification, they cannot even claim that this is merely a hangover from the bad old days of the Cold War.

Of course, the Germans are particularly sensitive to encroaching surveillance states, after experiencing the horrors of the Gestapo and the Stasi. How much more concerned need they be, when faced with the sheer scale of the modern technological capability?

Even before the Snowden story broke, German courts were upholding the constitution in the face of government moves to expand the intelligence capability to fight the “war on terror”.  Indeed, even some mega-corporations took a stand. In 2009, on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the head of T Mobile in German refused to store the communications data of ordinary Germans, on the off-chance that one or two of them might subsequently turn terrorist – the good of the many outweighted the threat from a few.

So the Brits are somewhat out of favour with the rest of Europe, and especially Germany. It was clear, with the revelations about GCHQ’s Tempora programme and the huge funding acquired from the NSA, that GCHQ was no longer primarily concerned with protecting British national security, but had become the European offshoot of the NSA.  Indeed, internal documents have shown a management obsession with pleasing their American paymasters.

This is the very heart of the so-called special relationship – the combined capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ.  Even as the old British Empire crumbled in the mid-20th century, the spooks could still build outposts for eavesdropping in hotspots around the world: Cyprus, the Middle East, Hong Kong and, er, Berlin.  They were happy to offer up the product to their new American overlords, as this gave them a continuing place at the international top table.

This the British would find very difficult to relinquish. And this is why, in stark contrast to all other European countries, the politicians have moved to defend the spies, why the monochrome phrase “we never discuss intelligence matters” is now wearily rolled out on a daily basis, and why intelligence lackeys across the national media have defended the status quo and respect the voluntary DA Notice gagging order.  This is also why the Guardian‘s hard drives had to be symbolically smashed up and why there have been calls to prosecute the newspaper under the draconian Official Secrets Act.

It is not the Guardian that has damaged British national security (a legally nebulous concept) by printing the truth about our spy agencies working for the NSA and trampling over our basic rights and freedoms. It is the spies themselves that have caused the harm, by running amok with legally dubious surveillance schemes, kidnapping suspects around the world, and getting involved in torture.

So tomorrow is potentially an historic date in the annals of British intelligence. For the very first time in their 100 year history, the heads of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ will be called to account by the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament.  Not only that, the event will be live streamed so we plebs can hear what is being done secretly in our names.

Well, almost live streamed – apparently there will be a few seconds delay, in order to ensure no “damage to national security” occurs. My mind is boggling somewhat at the possibility that three spooks who have made it to the top of their respective organisations would be so inept as to blurt out state secrets on live TV, but you never know…

So, can we hope for a full and frank discussion around the Snowden disclosures? Well, probably not. I have written at length before about the cosy establishment ineptitude of the Prime Minister’s hand-picked stooges who populate the ISC. Plus the chairman, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (himself a former Foreign Secretary notionally in charge of MI6 and GHHQ), has not only publicly supported the work of GCHQ, post-Snowden, but has also ruled out any discussion of “technological capabilities” at the hearing.

I hope to be surprised.  After all, even the US – the home of the NSA and cause of all this pain – is holding congressional hearings and having national debates. But I fear the good old British establishment will yet again rally around and protect its own.

Whitewash all round!

London Cryptofestival panel discussion

On October 31 st Goldsmith’s University on London organised a super-cryptoparty called the CryptoFestival. I spoke and discussed privacy and the use of technical means with Prof. Ross Anderson, Nick Pickles and Smari Mccarthy. Over 500 people attented the festival to discuss privacy and share knowlegde on technical means to protect it.

Crypto Festival Panel session 2013 Prof. Ross Anderson, Annie Machon, Nick Pickles, Smari Mccarthy from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) UK Conference

Last month, in my new role as Director of LEAP Europe, I was invited to do a talk at the SSDP conference in London.  It was great to meet the key SSDP organisers, and also share a platform with Jason Reed, the co-ordinator of LEAP UK.

The student activists of SSDP are demanding that our political classes instigate a mature, fact-based discussion about the “war on drugs”.

Sorry to rehash all the well-known articles about why this “war” is such a failure on every conceivable front, but just let me reiterate three key points: prohibition will always fail (as this classic “Yes Minister” scene depicts), and the regulation and taxation of recreational drugs (in the same way as alcohol and tobacco) would be good for society and for the economy; it would decapitate organised crime and, in some cases, the funding of terrorism; and it would make the use and possible abuse of recreational drugs a health issue rather than a criminal matter.

The students get this – why can’t our politicians?

Jason and I had a warm welcome from the SSDP. They can see the value of law enforcement professionals – police, judges, lawyers, and customs and intelligence officers – using their experience to contribute to the debate. I look forward to LEAP working more closely with the SSDP.

And do drop me an email if you would like to help LEAP in Europe.

BBC Radio Bristol Interview

A recent interview on BBC Radio Bristol to publicise the screening of an award-winning new documentary called “The Elephant in the Room”, made by talented director Dean Puckett.

I had the chance to explore the mechanisms by which the UK media is controlled by the spies and the government, including the section in MI6 called I/Ops, which plants false stories in the media to the benefit of MI5 and MI6.