BM Foreign Affairs — Role of Intelligence Agencies in the Modern World

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:BM Foreign Affairs

  • 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!

Invit­a­tion (PDF)

The New Terrorism

First pub­lished on RT Op-Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Ter­ror­ism, anyone?

RT Breaking the Set — interview about spies with Abby Martin

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.

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New v old media — RT Crosstalk debate

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:

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Keynote at international whistleblower conference, Amsterdam

With thanks to Free Press Unlim­ited, the Dutch Advice Centre for Whisteblowers, Net­work Demo­cracy,  and the Whis­tleblow­ing Inter­na­tional Net­work.

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:

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RT Interview — the anniversary of Edward Snowden

Here is an inter­view I did on 5th June, the anniversary of the start of Edward Snowden’s dis­clos­ures about the global sur­veil­lance infra­struc­ture that is being built.

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RT inter­view on Snowden & digital pri­vacy from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Berlin Magical Secrecy Tour

This week Trans​me​diale​.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:

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Ber­lin Magical Secrecy Tour from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
With huge thanks to Kris­tof­fer and the rest of the Trans­me­diale team for an inter­est­ing day.

The Year of Edward Snowden

First pub­lished on RT OP-Edge. Also on Con­sor­tium News, Huff­ing­ton Post, and the Sam Adams Award web­site.

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.

Courage Resignation

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?

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Whistleblowers deserve full coverage

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:

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Whis­tleblowers deserve full cov­er­age — RT inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Of course, thanks to Wikileaks this even­ing, we now know the coun­try that Glenn Gre­en­wald redac­ted from his ori­ginal report was Afghanistan.

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.

International Journalism Festival, Perugia

Here is a panel dis­cus­sion I did at the Inter­na­tional Journ­al­ism Fest­ival in Per­u­gia, Italy, in May 2014:

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European Media Art Festival (EMAF), Osnabrueck

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.

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Uber­wachungs kunst from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Oxford Union Society Debate

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:

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Oxford Union Soci­ety Debate from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Circumventing the Panopticon, Transmediale Berlin

Last month I was on a panel dis­cus­sion at the Ber­lin Trans­me­diale con­fer­ence with NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, Chelsea Man­ning rap­por­teur Alexa O’Brian, and act­iv­ist Diani Bar­reto. Here is the link to the full two hour event, and here is my speech:

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Trans­me­diale, Ber­lin 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.