The former head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, is reported to have said that the agency is facing a “brain drain” of its best staff, predominantly the younger ones. Here is my perspective on this:
First published on Consortium News.
Forgive my “infamously fluent French”, but the phrase “pour encourager les autres” seems to have lost its famously ironic quality. Rather than making an example of people who dissent in order to prevent future dissidence, now it seems that the USA is globally paying bloody big bucks to people in order to encourage them to expose the crimes of their employers – well, at least if they are working for banks and other financial institutions.
I have been aware for a few years that the USA instituted a law in 2010 called the Dodd-Frank Act that is designed to encourage people employed in the international finance community to report malfeasance to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in return for a substantial percentage of any monies recouped.
This law seems to have produced a booming business for such high-minded “whistleblowers” – if that could be the accurate term for such actions? They are celebrated and can receive multi-million dollar pay days, the most recent (unnamed) source receiving $20 million.
Nor is this US initiative just potentially benefiting US citizens – it you look at the small print at the bottom of this page, disclosures are being sent in from all over the world.
Which is all to the public good no doubt, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash and the ensuing fall-out that hit us all. We need more clarity about arcane casino banking practices that have bankrupted whole countries, and we need justice.
But does rather send out a number of contradictory messages to those in other areas of work who might also have concerns about the legality of their organisations, and which may have equal or even graver impacts on the lives of their fellow human beings.
If you work in finance and you see irregularities it is apparently your legal duty to report them through appropriate channels – and then count the $$$ as they flow in as reward – whether you are a USA citizen or based elsewhere around the world. Such is the power of globalisation, or at least the USA’s self-appointed role as the global hegemon.
However, if you happen to work in the US government, intelligence agencies or military, under the terms of the American Constitution it would also appear to be your solemn duty under oath to report illegalities, go through the officially designated channels, and hope reform is the result.
But, from all recent examples, it would appear that you get damn few thanks for such patriotic actions.
Take the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive, who in 2007 went public about waste and wanton expenditure within the agency, as I wrote way back in 2011. Tom went through all the prescribed routes for such disclosures, up to and including a Congressional Committee hearing.
Despite all this, Tom was abruptly snatched by the FBI in a violent dawn raid and threatened with 35 years in prison. He (under the terrifying American plea bargain system) accepted a misdimeanour conviction to escape the horrors of federal charges, the resulting loss of all his civic rights and a potential 35 years in prison. He still, of course, lost his job, his impeccable professional reputation, and his whole way of life.
He was part of a NSA group which also included Bill Binney, the former Technical Director of the NSA, and his fellow whistleblowers Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loumis and Diane Roark.
These brave people developed an electronic mass-surveillance programme called Thin Thread that could winnow out those people who were genuinely of security interest and worth targeting, a programme which would have cost the US $1.4 million, been consistent with the terms of the American constitution and, according to Binney, could potentially have stopped 9/11 and all the attendant horrors..
Instead, it appears that backs were scratched and favours called in with the incoming neo-con government of George W Bush in 2000, and another programme called Trail Blaizer was developed, to the tune of $1.2 billion – and which spied on everyone across America (as well as the rest of the world) and thereby broke, at the very least, the terms of the American constitution.
Yet Bill Binney was still subjected to a FBI SWAT team raid – he was dragged out of the shower early one morning at gun-point. All this is well documented in an excellent film “A Good American” and I recommend watching it.
Rather a contrast to the treatment of financial whistleblowers – no retaliation and big bucks. Under that law, Bill would have received a payout of millions for protecting the rights of his fellow citizens as well as saving the American public purse to the tune of over a billion dollars. But, of course, that is not exactly in the long-term business interests of our now-global surveillance panopticon.
President Dwight Eisenhower, in his valedictory speech in 1961, warned of the subversive interests of the “military-industrial” complex. That seems so quaint now. What we are facing is a steroid-pumped, globalised military surveillance industry that will do anything to protect its interests. And that includes crushing principled whistleblowers “pour encourager les autres“.
Yet that manifestly has not happened, as I need to move on to the even-more-egregious cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
The former, as you may remember, was a former American army private currently serving 35 years in a US military prison for exposing the war crimes of the USA. She is the most obvious victim of outgoing-President Obama’s war on whistleblowers, and surely deserving of his supposed outgoing clemency.
The latter, currently stranded in Russia en route from Hong Kong to political asylum in Ecuador is, in my view and as I have said before, the most significant whistleblower in modern history. But he gets few thanks – indeed incoming US Trump administration appointees have in the past called for the death penalty.
So all this is such a “wonderfully outstanding encouragement” to those in public service in the USA to expose corruption – not. Work for the banks and anonymously snitch – $$$kerching! Work for the government and blow the whistle – 30+ years in prison or worse. Hmmm.
If President-Elect Donald Trump is serious about “draining the swamp” then perhaps he could put some serious and meaningful public service whistleblower protection measures in place, rather than prosecuting such patriots?
After all, such measures would be a win-win situation, as I have said many times before – a proper and truly accountable channel for potential whistleblowers to go to, in the expectation that their concerns will be properly heard, investigated and criminal actions prosecuted if necessary.
That way the intelligence agencies can become truly accountable, sharpen their game, avoid a scandal and better protect the public; and the whistleblower does not need ruin their life, losing their job, potentially their freedom and worse.
After all, where are the most heinous crimes witnessed? Sure, bank crimes impact the economy and the lives of working people; but out-of-control intelligence agencies that kidnap, torture and assassinate countless people around the world, all in secret, actually end lives.
All that said, other Western liberal democracies are surely less draconian than the USA, no?
Well, unfortunately not. Take the UK, a country still in thrall to the glamorous myth of James Bond, and where there have been multiple intelligence whistleblowers from the agencies over the last few decades – yet all of them have automatically faced prison. In fact, the UK suppression of intelligence, government, diplomatic, and military whistleblowers seems to have acted as an exemplar to other countries in how you stifle ethical dissent from within.
Sure, the prison sentences for such whistleblowing are not as draconian under the UK Official Secrets Act (1989) as the anachronistic US Espionage Act (1917). However, the clear bright line against *any* disclosure is just as stifling.
In the UK, a country where the intelligence agencies have for the last 17 years been illegally prostituting themselves to advance the interests of a foreign country (the USA), this is simply unacceptable. Especially as the UK has just made law the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), against all expert advice, which legalises all this previously-illegal activity and indeed expanded the hacking powers of the state.
More worryingly, the ultra-liberal Norway, which blazed a calm and humanist trail in its response to the murderous white-supremacist terrorist attacks of Anders Breivik only 5 years ago, has now proposed a draconian surveillance law.
And Germany – a country horrified by the Snowden revelations in 2013, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi – has also just expanded the surveillance remit of its spooks.
In the face of all this, it appears there has never been a greater need of intelligence whistleblowers across the Western world. Yet it appears that, once again, there is one law for the bankers et al – they are cashed up, lauded and rewarded for reporting legalities.
For the rest of the Poor Bloody Whistleblowers, it’s prosecution and persecution as usual, despite the fact that they may indeed be serving the most profound of public interests – freedom, privacy and the ability to thereby have a functioning democracy.
As always – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. So back to my fluent French, referenced at the start: we are, it seems, all still mired in the merde.
Now, I speak all over the world at conferences and universities about a whole variety of interconnected issues, but I do want to highlight this conference from earlier this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.
Webstock celebrated its tenth anniversary in New Zealand last February, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak there. The hosts promised a unique experience, and the event lived up to its reputation.
They wanted a fairly classic talk from me – the whistleblowing years, the lessons learnt and current political implications, but also what we can to do fight back, so I called my talk “The Panopticon: Resistance is Not Futile”, with a nod to my sci-fi fandom.
So why does this particular event glow like a jewel in my memory? After expunging from my mind, with a shudder of horror, the 39 hour travel time each way, it was the whole experience. New Zealand combines the friendliness of the Americans – without the political madness and the guns, and the egalitarianism of the Norwegians – with almost equivalent scenery. Add to that the warmth of the audience, the eclecticism of the speakers, and the precision planning and aesthetics of the conference organisers and you have a winning combination.
Our hosts organised vertigo-inducing events for the speakers on the top of mile-high cliffs, as well as a surprisingly fun visit to a traditional British bowling green. Plus I had the excitement of experiencing my very first earthquake – 5.9 on the Richter scale apparently. I shall make no cheap jokes about the earth moving, especially in light of the latest quakes to hit NZ this week, but the hotel did indeed sway around me and it wasn’t the local wine, excellent as it is.
I mentioned eclecticism – the quality of the speakers was ferociously high, and I would like to give a shout out to Debbie Millman and her “joy of failure” talk, Harry Roberts, a serious geek who crowd-sourced his talk and ended up talking seriously about cocktails, moths, Chumbawamba and more, advertising guru Cindy Gallop who is inspiring women around the world and promoting Make Love Not Porn, and Casey Gerald, with his evangelically-inspired but wonderfully humanistic talk to end the event.
All the talks can be found here.
It was a fabulous week. All I can say is thank you to Tash, Mike, and the other organisers.
If you ever have the chance to attend or speak at the event in the future, I seriously recommend it.
And here’s the video of my talk:
The CIA was recently reported to have issued the threat of cyber attacks against the Russian leadership, in retaliation for alleged and unsubstantiated claims that Russia is trying to influence the American elections.
Here is an interview I did yesterday about this, and wider, issues:
I have for a number of years now been involved with a global group of whistleblowers from the intelligence, diplomatic and military world, who gather together every year as the Sam Adams Associates to give an award to an individual displaying integrity in intelligence.
This year’s award goes to former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s illegal torture programme, but was the only officer to go to prison – for exposing CIA crimes.
Last year’s laureate, former Technical Director of the NSA Bill Binney, is currently on tour across Europe to promote an excellent film about both his and the other stories of the earlier NSA whistleblowers before Edward Snowden – “A Good American“.
The film is simply excellent, very human and very humane, and screenings will happen across Europe over the next few months. Do watch if you can!
This is a film of the panel discussion after a screening in London on 18th September:
Former US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has softened his stance on the Edward Snowden case and has tacitly admitted there should at least be a public interest legal defence for intelligence whistleblowers.
Well, that’s my take – have a watch of my RT interview yesterday or read here:
The CFT asked me to write an article for the festival programme about the value and role, the dangers and opportunities, for twenty-first century whistleblowers. Here it is:
The Regulators of Last Resort
Let us play a little game of word association. I write “Edward Snowden” – and what is the first thought to leap into your mind? Hero? Traitor? Who?
Or might it be whistleblower?
The controversial issue of whistleblowing, which is at the heart of Ibsen’s play, has been firmly thrust into the public consciousness over the last few years with the ongoing saga of Wikileaks and with high profile cases such as that of Chelsea Manning and, of course, Snowden himself.
Often whistleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be traitors, grasses or snitches. Or they are set on such an heroic pedestal that their example can actually be discouraging, making you consider whether you would ever take such a risk, often with the depressing conclusion that it would be impossible for a whole range of practical reasons – professional reputation, job security, family safety, even liberty.
However, you have to ask yourself why, when faced with these risks and repercussions, individuals (in the manner of the fictional Dr Stockmann) do indeed speak out; why they do still consider the risks worth taking? Particularly those emerging from the world of intelligence, the military or the diplomatic corps who face the most grievous penalties.
The UK spy community is the most legally protected and least accountable of any Western democracy, but the USA is catching up fast. So, as a result of such entrenched governmental secrecy across these areas, whistleblowing is realistically the only available avenue to alert your fellow citizens to abuses carried out secretly in their name.
I have a nodding acquaintance with the process. In the 1990s I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK domestic Security Service, generally known as MI5, before resigning to help my former partner and colleague David Shayler blow the whistle on a catalogue of incompetence and crime. As a result we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hiding and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, family and journalists arrested around us. I was also arrested, although never charged, and David went to prison twice for exposing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.
However, it could all have been so different if the UK government had agreed to take his evidence of spy crimes, undertake to investigate them thoroughly, and apply the necessary reforms. This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could potentially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinctive response is always to protect the spies and prosecute the whistleblower, while the mistakes and crimes go uninvestigated and unresolved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the malefactors with promotions and gongs.
The draconian Official Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any disclosure whatsoever. As a result, we the citizens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integrity. There is no meaningful oversight and no real accountability.
Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a difference and potentially save lives. However, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any ethical concerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just follow orders”.
In such an environment there is no ventilation, no accountability and no staff federation, and this inevitably leads to a general consensus – a bullying “group think” mentality. This in turn can lead to mistakes being covered up rather than lessons learned, and then potentially down a dangerous moral slide.
As a result, over the last 15 years we have seen scandal heaped upon intelligence scandal, as the spies allowed their fake and politicised information to be used make a false case for an illegal war in Iraq; we have seen them descend into a spiral of extraordinary rendition (ie kidnapping) and torture, for which they are now being sued if not prosecuted; and we have seen that they facilitate dodgy deals in the deserts with dictators.
Since the Shayler case in the late 1990s, other UK whistleblowers have hit the headlines: GCHQ’s Katherine Gun, who exposed illegal spying on our so-called allies in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. She managed to avoid prosecution because of a possible legal defence of necessity that resulted from Shayler’s case. Or Ambassador Craig Murray, who exposed the torture of political dissidents in Uzbekistan – and when I say torture, I mean the boiling alive of political opponents of the regime, with the photographs to prove it. Murray was not prosecuted, but he lost his career and was traduced with tawdry slurs about his personal life across the British media.
The USA is little better. Since 2001 many intelligence whistleblowers there have faced a grim fate. Ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, languished for three years in prison while the torturers remain free; Bill Binney, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe of the NSA were hounded and narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance; a colleague, Tom Drake faced a 35-year prison sentence, despite having gone through all the approved, official channels; and in 2013 a kangaroo court was held to try Chelsea Manning for her exposure of US war crimes. Inevitably, it is the whistleblower Manning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in prison, not the war criminals.
President Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espionage Act against whistleblowers during his years in the White House more times than all his predecessors put together, while at the same time allowing a bone fide spy ring – the Russian illegals including Anna Chapman – to return home in 2010. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” – the whistleblower – has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked, ironically, to Wikileaks in 2010.
Against this background, fully aware of the hideous risks he was taking and the prospect of the rest of his life behind bars, in 2013 a young man stepped forward – Edward Snowden.
He was clear then about his motivation and he remains clear now in the few interviews he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge concern. The American intelligence infrastructure, along with its partner agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatens the constitution of the United States, but also erodes the privacy of all the world’s citizens.
Even against such a background of other brave whistleblowers, Snowden stands out for me for three key reasons: his personal and conscious courage at such a time, the sheer scale of his disclosures, and the continuing, global impact of what he exposed.
Unfortunately, while whistleblowers understand the legal risks they are taking when they emerge from the intelligence world or the diplomatic corps, they are often media virgins and are eternally surprised by the way the treatment meted out to them.
Until the turn of the millennium, intelligence whistleblowers had no choice but to entrust themselves to the established media. Some like “Deep Throat”, the source of the Watergate scandal in 1970s America, were distrustful and remained in the shadows. Others, such as Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, or Clive Ponting who in 1982 released information about the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War, were fortunate to work with campaigning journalists who fought both for their sources and the principle of press freedom. Even when Shayler went public in the late 1990s, he had no option but to work with the established media.
From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that this is not always a painless experience. With a few honorable exceptions, most of the journalists will just asset-strip their whistleblowers for information. They make their careers, while the whistleblower breaks theirs.
Plus, There are many ways our soi-disant free press can be manipulated and controlled by the spies. The soft power involves inducting journalists to be agents of influence within their organisation, or cosy chats between editors and spies, or proprietors and top spies – that is how stories can be spun or disappeared.
The hard power is extensive too – the application of laws such as libel, counter-terrorism laws, injunctions, and also the use of the OSA against journalists themselves. Or even blatant intimidation, as happened after The Guardian newspaper published the early Snowden disclosures – the police went in and physically smashed up the hard drives containing his information.
All this casts that well known chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the free-flow of information from the government to the governed, which is so vital for an informed and participatory citizenry.
Which brings me back to Wikileaks. Established in 2007, this provides a secure and high-tech conduit for whistleblowers that gives them more control and securely stores the documents to prove their allegations. This is also why the US government saw it as such a threat and has pursued it in such a draconian and punitive way over the years since the first big revelations in 2010. Ironically, this is also partly why much of the traditional media turned on Wikileaks – it threatened the old media business model.
But from a whistleblower’s perspective, Wikileaks and its successors offer a brave new world. The technological genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
There is, of course, another possible path. The intelligence agencies could establish meaningful channels for ventilation of staff concerns, where the evidence is properly investigated and reforms made as necessary. Having such a sound procedure in place to address concerns strikes me as a win-win scenario for staff efficiency and morale, the organisation’s operational capability and reputation, and potentially the wider public safety too.
However, unless and until secretive governmental organisations institute such legitimate and effective avenues for potential whistleblowers to go down, embarrassing disclosures will continue. Nobody sets out to be a whistleblower but, absent effective reforms, they will remain our regulators of last resort.
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:
My written evidence to the Scrutiny Committee in the UK Houses of Parliament that is currently examining the much-disputed Investigatory Powers Bill (IP):
1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK’s domestic Security Service, commonly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my partner at the time, fellow intelligence officer David Shayler, expose a number of instances of crime and incompetence we had witnessed during our time in the service.
2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphasises the importance of democratic and judicial oversight of the various categories of intrusive intelligence gathering by establishing an Investigatory Powers Commissioner as well as supporting Judicial Commissioners. However, I am concerned about the real and meaningful application of this oversight.
3. While in the Service in the 1990s we were governed by the terms of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 (IOCA), the precursor to RIPA, which provided for a similar system of applications for a warrant and ministerial oversight.
4. I would like to submit evidence that the system did not work and could be manipulated from the inside.
5. I am aware of at least two instances of this during my time in the service, which were cleared for publication by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whistleblowers”, so my discussing them now is not in breach of the Official Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide further evidence, either written or in person, about these abuses.
6. My concern about this draft Bill is that while the oversight provisions seem to be strengthened, with approval necessary from both the Secretary of State and a Judicial Commissioner, the interior process of application for warrants will still remain opaque and open to manipulation within the intelligence agencies.
7. The application process for a warrant governing interception or interference involved a case being made in writing by the intelligence officer in charge of an investigation. This then went through four layers of management, with all the usual redactions and finessing, before a final summary was drafted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dispatched to the Secretary of State. So the minister was only ever presented with was a summary of a summary of a summary of a summary of the original intelligence case.
8. Additionally, the original intelligence case could be erroneous and misleading. The process of writing the warrant application was merely a tick box exercise, and officers would routinely note that such intelligence could only be obtained by such intrusive methods, rather than exploring all open source options first. The revalidation process could be even more cavalier.
9. When problems with this system were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just follow orders. During the annual visit by the Intelligence Intercept Commissioner, those with concerns were banned from meeting him.
10. Thus I have concerns about the realistic power of the oversight provisions written into this Bill and would urge an additional provision. This would establish an effective channel whereby officers with concerns can give evidence directly and in confidence to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner in the expectation that a proper investigation will be conducted and with no repercussions to their careers inside the agencies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford University three years ago outlining these proposals:
11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scenario for all concerned. The agencies would have a chance to improve their work practices, learn from mistakes, and better protect national security, as well as avoiding the scandal and embarrassment of any future whistleblowing scandals; the officers with ethical concerns would not be placed in the invidious position of either becoming complicit in potentially illegal acts by “just following orders” or risking the loss of their careers and liberty by going public about their concerns.
12. I would also like to raise the proportionality issue. It strikes me that bulk intercept must surely be disproportionate within a functioning and free democracy, and indeed can actually harm national security. Why? Because the useful, indeed crucial, intelligence on targets and their associates is lost in the tsunami of available information. Indeed this seems to have been the conclusion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the targets were all vaguely known to the authorities but resources were spread too thinly.
13. In fact all that bulk collection seems to provide is confirmation after the fact of a suspect’s involvement in a specific incident, which is surely specifically police evidential work. Yet the justification for the invasive intercept and interference measures laid out in the Bill itself is to gather vital information ahead of an attack in order to prevent it – the very definition of intelligence. How is this possible if the sheer scale of bulk collection drowns out the vital nuggets of intelligence?
14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step necessary before formulating the proposed IP Bill? Until we have such a legal definition, how can we formulate new and intrusive laws in the name of protecting an undefined and nebulous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be proportionate within a democracy?
I just want to say a huge thank you to the organisers of the 10th Webstock Festival in New Zealand earlier this month – definitely worth the interminable flights.
This is a tech-focused conference that very much looks at the bigger picture and joins a whole number of different societal dots.
Plus they look after their “inspirational speakers” exceedingly well, with scary coach trips out of Wellington and up the cliffs, a chance to appreciate the finer aspects of bowling at a NZ working men’s club, and a rip-roaring party at the end of the festival. It was great to have the time to chat with so many amazing people.
Oh, and I experienced my first earthquake – 5.7 on the Richter Scale. Slightly distant, but still impressive when you’re in a swaying 5th floor hotel room. I initially thought a bomb might have gone off in the basement…. Thankfully, NZ hotels are made of pliable, if stern, stuff.
I was also shunted on to Radio New Zealand for a half hour interview, discussing whistleblowers, spies, drugs and surveillance. Here it is – it was fun to do – so thank you NZ.
Here is an interview I did for RT today as the news broke that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention would announce tomorrow the findings of its report into the Julian Assange case.
The BBC apparently reported today that the ruling would be in Assange’s favour.
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.
As I type this I am listening to one of my all-time favourite albums, Radiohead’s seminal “OK, Computer”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spellbound by its edginess, complexity, experimentalism and political overtones. My partner at the time, David Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admittedly tone deaf, he never understood what he laughingly called the “music conspiracy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.
His opinion changed drastically over the summer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes committed by the UK’s spy agencies. As a result of our actions – the first reports appeared in the British media on 24 July 1997 – we had fled the country and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this surreal backpacking holiday I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ransacked home, and try to comfort our traumatised families who had known nothing of our whistleblowing plans.
“OK, Computer” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. Taking random trains, moving from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dislocated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recreate a sense of homeliness – some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essentials for our unknown future life, I had managed to squeeze in my portable CD player (remember those?), tiny speakers and a few cherished CDs. Such are the priorities of youth.
The joy of Radiohead broke upon David during that month – particularly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encapsulated our feelings as we fled the UK together. Once we were holed up in a primitive French farmhouse for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, holding onto each other tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Revelling in the music, we also drew strength from the dissident tone of the lyrics.
So it was with some mirthful incredulity that I yesterday read on The Intercept that GCHQ named one of its most iniquitous programmes after one of the classic songs from the album – “Karma Police”.
In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to develop a system that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a profile of each of our lives online – our interests, our peccadilloes, our politics, our beliefs. The programme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed functional in 2009. Who knows what information GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, everyone, since then?
As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many others began to expose the out-of-control spy agencies, this is disproportionate in soi-dissent democracies. It is certainly not lawful by any stretch of the imagination. UK governmental warrants – which are supposed to regulate and if necessary circumscribe the activities of the spy snoopers – have repeatedly been egregiously abused.
They are supposed to make a case for targeted surveillance of people suspected of being a threat to the UK’s national security or economic well-being. The warrants, blindly signed by the Home or Foreign Secretary, are not designed to authorise the industrial interception of everyone’s communications. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.
Talking of crimes, after a month on the run with David, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arrested, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was David Shayler’s girlfriend and had supported his whistleblowing activities. In fact my lawyer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liberties union, Liberty, had negotiated with the police for me return to the UK and hand myself into the police for questioning. He flew out to Barcelona to accompany me back to the UK almost exactly eighteen years ago today.
Despite the pre-agreements, I was arrested at the immigration desk at Gatwick airport by six burly Special Branch police officers and then driven by them up to the counter-terrorism interview room in Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for the maximum six hours before being released with no charge.
The music playing on the radio during this drive from the airport to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.
One can but hope that karma will come into play. But perhaps the ending of “Exit Music…” is currently more pertinent – we hope that you choke, that you choke…..
After all, the spies do seem to be choking on an overload of hoovered-up intelligence – pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been carried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies. Too much information can indeed be bad for our security, our privacy and our safety.