This morning, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Aftonbladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whistleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, and threats to the internet.
I will be speaking at BM Foreign Affairs in Berlin on 24 September at 19:00, about my assessment of the intelligence activities and inside chances. Some of the topics during this talk include:
- The role of modern intelligence agencies?
- What it’s like to blow the whistle and go on the run?
- Oversight and proportionality of intelligence agencies within a democracy.
- The role and control of the media.
- The way forward?
It’s at BM — Berlin Moscow, Unter den Linden 52, 10117 Berlin. Looking forward to seeing you there!
First published on RT Op-Edge
Two horrors have dwelt in my mind for the last twenty years, ever since I read reports about terrorist groups while an impressionable young intelligence officer. The first involves the use of power tools as instruments of torture; drills, industrial sanders, angle grinders. This is no secret now and the meme has been much used and abused by Hollywood and series such as “24”, but I still feel uncomfortable every time I am dragged into the “boy toy” section of a home improvement mega-store.
The second has recently hit the news as a grim result of ISIS, the ultra-violent Sunni sect that has swept across much of Syria and Iraq, imposing the most draconian form of Sharia law in its wake upon the hapless citizens of formerly secular states. I pity the poor women, and I pity still more the men of these communities faced with the option of submission or gruesome murder.
For this is the other image that haunts me: in 1995 six western tourists were abducted by a Kashmiri separatist group, Al Faran. One of the abductees, a Norwegian called Hans Christian Ostro, was found decapitated, his head had been hacked off with a knife. The sheer horror, the terror the poor man must have experienced, has haunted me ever since.
You can probably see where I am going with this. I have not watched, nor do I have any intention of ever watching, the ISIS video of the gruesome murder of US journalist James Foley, whether the Metropolitan Police deems it a crime to do so or not. I just feel horror, again, and a deep well of sorrow for what his family and friends must be going through now.
Yet this is nothing new — we have known for months that ISIS has been beheading and crucifying people as they rampage across Syria and Iraq. There has been a steady stream of delicately pixilated heads on spikes in the western media, and the outrage has been muted.
And indeed, such beheadings have long been carried out and filmed during the earlier insurgencies in Iraq — I remember a young film maker friend who had stumbled across just such a sick propaganda video way back in 2007 — he could not sleep, could not rid his mind of the images either.
It is barbarity pure and simple, but it is also effective within the boundaries of its aims.
So, what are these aims? I just want to make two points before the West gets swept up in a new wave of outrage to “bomb the bastards” for beheading an American — after all, many hundreds if not thousands of people across the Middle East have already suffered this fate, to lack of any meaningful Western outcry.
Firstly, ISIS has clear aims (indeed it published its five-year plan to great media derision a couple of months ago). It is effectively using hideous brutality and propaganda to spread terror ahead of its war front — this is a 21st century blitzkrieg, and it’s working. The sheer horror of what they do to any who attempt to resist is so great that apparently whole armies abandon their weapons, banks have been left to be raided to the tune of half a billion dollars, and entire villages flee.
This is the pure definition of terrorism, and we can see that it is working. ISIS is doing all this to build a new state. or caliphate, in the way that their warped fundamentalist interpretation of religion sets out for them.
Secondly, and here’s the contentious bit, how precisely is this different from the terror that the Israelis have been visiting upon the many innocents killed in Gaza? The Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate violence to stun and quash resistance was exposed by Wikileaks — the Israeli “shock and awe”. And also, how is this different from what the US has been meting out to the peoples of Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last few years with their drone attacks?
All the above examples show strong military forces, ideologically motivated, unleashing violence and terror on a huge, disproportionate scale on innocent populations that have nowhere really to run.
The difference being? ISIS wields its own knives, does its own dirty work, and proudly films its grotesque brutality to cow its opponents. This is primitive terrorism intersecting with social media, a bastard spawn of the 21st century. And it still seems to be effective, just as terror of the guillotine resonated throughout revolutionary France in the 18th century.
On the other hand, the US and Israel prefer to be a bit more coy about their terroristic strategies, hiding behind such phrases as “proportionate”, “self-defence”, “precision bombing” and “spreading democracy”. But who, seriously, falls for that these days?
Their armed forces are not directly getting their hands dirty with the blood of their victims: instead, spotty young conscripts safely hidden in bunkers on the far side of the world, mete out death from the skies via sick snuff video games — officially called “precision” bombs and drone attacks that take out whole families. Heads can be blown off, bodies eviscerated, limbs mangled and maimed, and all from a safe distance.
We had the first proof of this strategy with the decrypted military film “Collateral Murder”, where helicopter pilots shot up some Reuters journalists and civilians in Iraq in 2007. That was bad enough — but the cover-up stank. For years the Pentagon denied all knowledge of this atrocious war crime, and it was only after Wikileaks released the information, provided by the brave whistleblower Chelsea Manning, that the families and the international community learned the truth. Yet it is Manning, not the war criminals, who is serving a 35 year sentence in a US prison.
Worse, by sheer scale at least, are the ongoing, wide-ranging unmanned drone attacks across the Middle East and Central Asia, as catalogued by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK. Many thousands of innocents have been murdered in these attacks, with the US justifying the strikes as killing “militants” — ie any male over the age of 14. The US is murdering children, families, wedding parties and village councils with impunity.
And then the infamous provisions of the US NDAA 2012. This means that the US military can extra-judicially murder anyone, including US citizens, by drone strike anywhere in the world with no trial, no judicial process. And so it has come to pass. American Anwar Al Awlaki was murdered in 2011 by a drone strike.
Not content with that, only weeks later the US military then blew his 16 year old son to pieces in another drone strike. Abdulrahman — a child — was also an American citizen. How, precisely, is this atrocity not morally equivalent to the murder of James Foley?
So what is the real, qualitative difference between the terror engendered by ISIS, or by the Dahiya Doctrine, or by the US drone strike programme? Is it just that ISIS does the dirty, hands on, and spreads its message shamelessly via social media, while the US does the dirty in secret and prosecutes and persecutes anyone who wants to expose its egregious war crimes?
I would suggest so, and the West needs to face up to its hypocrisy. A crime is a crime. Terrorism is terrorism.
Otherwise we are no better than the political drones in George Orwell’s “1984”, rewriting history in favour of the victors rather than the victims, acquiescing to eternal war, and happily mouthing Newspeak.
New Terrorism, anyone?
Here’s my interview from yesterday on RT’s excellent Breaking the Set show with host, Abby Martin. We discussed all things spy, surveillance, Snowden, oversight, and privacy. A fun and lively interview! Thanks, Abby.
I recently took part in a debate about the old versus the new “alternative” media and their relative merits on RT’s Crosstalk with Peter Lavelle:
All these organisations came together to hold an international conference in support of whistleblowers on 18th June in Amsterdam.
It was a creative event, mixing up lawyers, journalists, technologists and whistleblower support networks from around the world at an event with speeches and workshops, in order for everyone to learn, share experiences, and develop new methodologies and best practice to help current and future whistleblowers.
A stimulating and productive day, at which I did the opening keynote:
This week Transmediale.de organised a Magical Secrecy Tour around Berlin to mark the anniversary of Edward Snowden’s world-changing disclosures.
And what better place to hold such a tour? Berlin has long been the playground for international spies, fighting the old Cold War in the dirty dark. It also still bears the scars of two totalitarian regimes run out of control — the brute force of the Nazis and the insidious surveillance of the Stasi during the years of the DDR in East Germany.
It is a city that is a living museum, and the tour took us around some key points, including the old Stasi HQ — now a museum — the new billion euro BND mega-complex, the Spy Bridge, and the Spy Hill. It was a stark lesson from history about what spies could do, should do, and are now doing in the modern day.
Here’s an interview:
A year ago I stumbled across a story about a worrying new surveillance programme developed by the NSA: Prism. While nobody was identified as the source of the disclosure, I was awestruck by the bravery of this unknown person.
At that time the Obama administration had been waging an aggressive war on whistleblowers: ex-CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, was languishing in prison while the torturers went free; Kirk Wiebe, William Binney and Thomas Drake of the NSA had narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance — indeed, despite having gone through all the approved channels, Drake had faced a 35-year prison sentence; and of course the kangaroo court had just started 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 exposed in 2010 — to return home. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked 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, a young man stepped forward. Four days after the initial Prism disclosure, Edward Snowden announced to the world that he was the source of the story and many more to come. 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 equivalent agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatened the constitution of the United States, but also eroded the privacy of all the world’s citizens.
The global surveillance state wanted to “master the internet”, as another disclosure proved, and the UK’s GCHQ stepped up to the plate. As increasing numbers of us conduct aspects of our lives over the internet (be it banking, health, social lives, organisations, activism, relationships) this growing lack of privacy strikes at the very root of democracy. Privacy was enshrined as a basic human right in the UN Declaration in 1948 precisely because without it we are vulnerable to the encroachments and abuses of the state. What Snowden has disclosed would the the Stasi’s wet dream and goes far beyond the dystopic horrors of George Orwell’s novel “1984”.
So what did Snowden disclose? Prism was only the start, and that was bad enough — a programme to scoop up all our metadata: whom we’re in contact with, for how long, what we’re reading, what we’re viewing. NSA apologists say that this is not invasive, it is not looking at the contents of communications. I can assure your that metadata is intelligence gold dust. It can provide a far more detailed overview of a person’s life than any individual communication often can.
But it gets worse. Then came Tempora and associated documents that disclosed that the UK’s GCHQ was mainlining information from the transatlantic fibre optic cables, which affected all European citizens, as well as displaying how GCHQ was prostituting itself to the NSA for money and putting NSA objectives above the priorities of the UK government.
And then XKeyscore, enthusiastically used by Germany’s BND, presumably without the knowledge of its political masters. There have been many more: Brazil’s Petrobras oil company, the French telephone network, charities, the Muscular access point and the massive Fascia database, which contains trillions of device-location records.…. Where to stop?
This year Britain’s Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group was using Squeaky Dolphin’s real-time monitoring of social media networks, and the bulk collection of private webcam images via the Optic Nerve programme.
This last most grimly does away with the “done nothing wrong, nothing to hide” argument. In this era of families living in different countries and long distance relationships, video skype is increasingly used to stay in contact with loved ones. And this contact can be somewhat intimate at times between couples. On video. Anyone who has ever used skype for such purposes must surely be feeling violated?
Out of this morass of spying came moments of personal annoyance for western politicians, not least the information that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone was also being tapped, as were those of numerous other politicians. Which rather blows out of the water the much-abused argument that all this surveillance is to stop terrorists. On what planet would the NSA spooks need to live to seriously think that Merkel could be deemed a terrorist?
All these disclosures are of the gravest public interest. Yet how have western politicians reacted? In the usual way — shoot the messenger. All the standard li(n)es have been trotted out by the spies: Snowden was too junior to know what he is talking about, and was “just” a contracted systems administrator (this line says more the ignorance of the politicians about all things tech than anything about Snowden’s job); that Snowden is a traitor for fleeing to Russia, when in fact he was trapped there by the USA withdrawing his passport while in transit to Latin America; or that he should “man up” and return to the US to stand trial. There were even apparently calls from the spies for him to be extrajudicially murdered.
Despite this, his disclosures have resulted in congressional hearings in the US, where senior spooks have been caught out lying about the efficacy of these spy programmes. A US federal judge has declared the NSA’s activities unconstitutional, and minor reforms are underway to protect the rights of US citizens within their own country.
Which is a start. However, that still leaves the rest of us living under the baleful gaze of the NSA and its vassals.
The British response has been largely muted, with politicians immediately assuring the grateful citizens of the UK that everything done by the spies is legal and proportionate, when in fact it was manifestly not. Nor is this any consolation for the rest of Europe’s citizens — after all, why should the British Foreign Secretary be able to take it upon himself to authorise intercept programmes such as Tempora that sweep up the communications of an entire continent?
Press discussion of Snowden’s disclosures in the UK has been largely muted because of a censorship notice slapped on the media, while the Guardian newspaper that helped to break the story had its hard disks smashed up by GCHQ.
Other countries have displayed a more robust response, with Brazil planning to build its own transatlantic cables to Europe to avoid the Tempora programme, and in Germany people have been demanding that the constitution be upheld and privacy ensured against the American surveillance behemoth.
The European parliamentary Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee has held months-long hearings with evidence from tech experts, whistleblowers and campaigners about what it should do to protect EU citizens from the predations of the US. Edward Snowden himself gave a statement. This is all well and good, but it would be more helpful if they could give Snowden asylum in Europe and also put in place some meaningful measures to protect our rights one year on — in fact, all they would need to do is enact the provisions of the European parliament’s own July 2001 report into the Echelon fiasco.
Echelon, some of you may remember, was a global proto-surveillance network, where the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada (now called Five Eyes) could all share product and subvert oversight measures in each others’ countries. In 2001 the EU recommended that Europe develop its own internet infrastructure and move away from its dependency on US corporate proprietary software. All good suggestions, but all too soon forgotten after 9/11 and the rush to the “war on terror”.
One year on from Snowden I would suggest that these measures should indeed be implemented. The European Parliament needs to take action now and show its 500 million citizens that it is serious about protecting their rights rather than pandering to the demands of the US government and its corporate sponsors.
So, on this anniversary, I want to salute the bravery of Edward Snowden. His conscious courage has given us all a fighting chance against a corporate-industrial-intelligence complex that is running amok across the world. I hope that we can all find within us an answering courage to do what is right and indeed take back our rights. His bravery and sacrifice must not be in vain.
Half a year ago I was asked be the director of a new foundation that would raise funds to cover the legal costs of high-profile whistleblowers, journalist sources and associated cases. Five months ago I announced the launch of the Courage Foundation to an audience of 6,000 at the CCC hackerfest in Hamburg:
This week I have resigned my position from the Courage Foundation.
Firstly, I find the current evolution of Courage incompatible with the way I work.
Secondly, I have so many other calls on my time, travelling constantly across Europe to speak at conferences around issues such as whistleblowers, the media, technology, surveillance, privacy, drug policy, human rights.… where to stop.
I wish the organisation all the best for the future. It is doing important work.
I shall also continue to speak out in support of whistleblowers and associated issues — how could I not?
Here is my recent RT interview about the recent dispute between Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald on what exactly the parameters should be in media reporting of whistleblower disclosures:
Why on earth should the Afghanis not be allowed to know the sheer scale of surveillance they live under? In fact, would many be surprised? This is an excellent related article, do read.
Here is a panel discussion I did at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, in May 2014:
The 27th European Media Art Festival began this evening in Osnabrueck, Germany. In the wake of all the global intelligence whistleblowing that has gone on over the last few years, the theme for the artists of 2014 is “We, the Enemy”.
Do visit if you can — a lot of interesting and political art installations are on display, as well as films, music, and talks. I shall be doing a talk on speaking on Friday afternoon.
I had the pleasure of making a short speech at the opening ceremony this evening, and did an interview for national German TV channel ARD last night to publicise the festival.
I recently had the pleasure of taking part in a debate at the Oxford Union Society. I spoke to the proposition that “this house believes Edward Snowden is a hero”, along with US journalist Chris Hedges, NSA whistleblower Bill Binney, and former UK government minister Chris Huhne.
The chamber was full and I am happy to report that we won the debate by 212 votes to 171, and that Oxford students do indeed see Edward Snowden as a hero. Here is my speech: