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:

Trans­me­diale, Ber­lin 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Rendition and torture — interview on RT

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

Going Under­ground Ep 22 1 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

BBC World interview re UK spy accountability

Here’s a recent inter­view I did for BBC World about the three top Brit­ish spies deign­ing, for the first time ever, to be pub­licly ques­tioned by the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment, which has a notional over­sight role:

BBC World inter­view on UK Par­laiment­ary hear­ings on NSA/Snowden affair from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

It sub­sequently emerged that they only agreed to appear if they were told the ques­tions in advance.  So much for this already incred­ibly lim­ited over­sight cap­ab­il­ity in a notional West­ern democracy.….

Channel 4 interview re UK spy accountability

On the day the UK spy chiefs were called to account for the first time by the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in the Brit­ish par­lia­ment:

Spy account­ab­il­ity and the ISC — Chan­nel 4 News from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

BBC World Service interview about NSA and spy oversight

Here’s an inter­view I did for BBC World Ser­vice radio about the NSA’a global elec­tronic sur­veil­lance and spy over­sight:

Edward Snowden Website

Just a short post to announce the new Edward Snowden web­site.  Away from all the spin and media hys­teria, here are the basic facts about the inform­a­tion dis­closed and the issues at stake.

Snowden_website
And here’s another aide mem­oire of the dis­clos­ures so far. The impact of these dis­clos­ures is global. Edward Snowden is simply the most sig­ni­fic­ant whis­tleblower in mod­ern history.

RT interview on spy oversight

Here’s my inter­view on RT about the fail­ure of polit­ical over­sight of the spies in the UK and US:

RT: Snowden files reveal spy agency’s efforts to escape legal chal­lenge from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Also pos­ted on www​.maxkeiser​.com.

RT interview about new EU data protection measures

Here is a quick inter­view I did about the EU’s new data pro­tec­tion meas­ures, laws that will have to be imple­men­ted in the wake of Edward Snowden’s dis­clos­ures about endemic NSA surveillance:

This is an excel­lent example of how whis­tleblowers con­tinue to make a pos­it­ive con­tri­bu­tion to soci­ety.

The Empire Strikes Back

First pub­lished by RT Op-Edge.

Sir Andrew Parker, the recently elev­ated Dir­ector Gen­eral of the UK’s domestic secur­ity Ser­vice (MI5) yes­ter­day made both his first pub­lic speech and a super­fi­cially robust defence of the work of the intel­li­gence agen­cies. Read­ing from the out­side, it sounds all pat­ri­otic and noble.

Darth_VaderAnd who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 group­think men­tal­ity being what it is? Let’s give him the bene­fit of the doubt. How­ever, I have two prob­lems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale.

Let’s start with the micro — ie the devil in the detail — what is said and, cru­cially, what is left unsaid. First up: over­sight, which the spook apo­lo­gists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.

I wrote about this last week, but here’s some of that dev­il­ish detail. Parker cor­rectly explains what the mech­an­isms are for over­sight within MI5: the Home Office war­rants for oth­er­wise illegal activ­it­ies such as bug­ging; the over­sight com­mis­sion­ers; the Com­plaints Tribunal; the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment. This all sounds pretty reas­on­able for a demo­cracy, right?

Of course, what he neg­lects to men­tion is how these sys­tems can be gamed by the spies.

The applic­a­tion for war­rants is a tick-box exer­cise where basic legal require­ments can be by-passed, the author­ising min­is­ter only ever sees a sum­mary of a sum­mary.… ad infin­itum.… for sig­na­ture, and never declines a request in case some­thing lit­er­ally blows up fur­ther down the line.

Sure, there are inde­pend­ent com­mis­sion­ers who over­see MI5 and its sur­veil­lance work every year and write a report. But as I have writ­ten before, they are given the royal treat­ment dur­ing their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with con­cerns about the abuse of the war­rantry sys­tem are barred from meet­ing them. Plus, even these ano­dyne reports can high­light an alarm­ing num­ber of “admin­is­trat­ive errors” made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.

The com­plaints tribunal — the body to which we can make a com­plaint if we feel we have been unne­ces­sar­ily spied on, has always found in favour of the spies.

And finally, the pièce de résist­ance, so to speak: the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment. How many times do I have to write this? Top cops and Parker’s spy pre­de­cessors have admit­ted to lying suc­cess­fully to the ISC for many years. This is not mean­ing­ful over­sight, nor is the fact that the evid­ence of earlier major intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under invest­ig­a­tion by MI5 themselves.…

Of course, the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has entered the lists this sum­mer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies’ lairs, demand to see papers, and over­see oper­a­tional activ­it­ies. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ’s endemic data-mining as law­ful, one has to won­der how thor­ough he will be.

While the com­mit­tee remains chosen by the PM, answer­able only to the PM, who can also vet the find­ings, this com­mit­tee is irre­deem­ably undemo­cratic. It will remain full of cred­u­lous yes-men only too happy to sup­port the status quo.

Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will there­fore remem­ber not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and per­vas­ive threat of IRA bombs reg­u­larly explod­ing on UK streets. At the same time hun­dreds of thou­sands of polit­ic­ally act­ive UK cit­izens were aggress­ively invest­ig­ated. A (cold) war and the threat of ter­ror­ism allowed the spies a drag-net of sur­veil­lance even then.

V_for_Vendetta_masksHow much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era? One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker’s speech was the need to invest­ig­ate “ter­ror­ists and oth­ers threat­en­ing national secur­ity”. National secur­ity has never been leg­ally defined for the pur­poses of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the “reds under the bed”, the so-called sub­vers­ives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of Lon­don or envir­on­mental act­iv­ists wav­ing plac­ards.

So now for my macro con­cerns, which are about wider con­cepts. Parker used his first pub­lic speech to defend not only the work of his own organ­isa­tion, but also to attack the whis­tleblow­ing efforts of Edward Snowden and the cov­er­age in The Guard­ian news­pa­per. He attempts to seam­lessly elide the work and the over­sight mod­els of MI5 and GCHQ.  And who is fall­ing for this?  Well, much of the UK media appar­ently.

This mud­dies the waters. The con­cerns about Snowden’s dis­clos­ures are global — the TEMPORA pro­ject affects not only the cit­izens of the UK but people across Europe and bey­ond. For Rif­kind or the For­eign Sec­ret­ary to com­pla­cently say that GCHQ is over­seen by them and everything is hunkey-dorey is just not good enough, even for the hap­less cit­izens of the UK. How much more so for those unrep­res­en­ted people across the world?

The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were writ­ten before the UK gov­ern­ment could have con­ceived of the sheer scale of the inter­net. They are way out of date — 20th cen­tury rolling omni­bus war­rants hoover­ing up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might com­mit a (thought?) crime in the future. This is noth­ing like mean­ing­ful oversight.

Unlike the UK, even the USA is cur­rently hav­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings and media debates about the lim­its of the elec­tronic sur­veil­lance pro­gramme. Con­sid­er­ing America’s mus­cu­lar response after 9/11, with illegal inva­sions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordin­ary kid­nap­pings (to this day), that casts the UK spy com­pla­cency in a par­tic­u­larly unflat­ter­ing light.

Plus if 58,000 GCHQ doc­u­ments have really been copied by a young NSA con­tractor, why are Parker and Rif­kind not ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions of the Amer­ican admin­is­tra­tion, rather than con­tinu­ing to jus­tify the anti­quated Brit­ish over­sight system?

Finally, Parker is show­ing his age as well as his pro­fes­sion when he talks about the inter­webs and all the implic­a­tions.  As I said dur­ing my state­ment to the LIBE com­mit­tee in the European Parliament:

  • Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and dis­cuss ideas freely and in pri­vacy, we are all liv­ing in an Orwellian dysto­pia, and we are all poten­tially at risk. These media must be based on tech­no­lo­gies that empower indi­vidual cit­izens, not cor­por­a­tions or for­eign gov­ern­ments. The Free Soft­ware Found­a­tion has been mak­ing these recom­mend­a­tions for over two decades.
  • The cent­ral soci­etal func­tion of pri­vacy is to cre­ate the space for cit­izens to res­ist the viol­a­tion of their rights by gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions. Pri­vacy is the last line of defense his­tor­ic­ally against the most poten­tially dan­ger­ous organ­isa­tion that exists: the nation state. There­fore there is no ‘bal­ance between pri­vacy and secur­ity’ and this false dicho­tomy should not be part of any policy debate.

The “Insider Threat”

As the old media pro­pa­ganda battle inev­it­ably heats up around the Edward Snowden case, I stumbled across this little Amer­ican news gem recently. The premise being that poten­tial whis­tleblowers are now deemed to be the new “insider threat”.

Well, the US spooks and their friends have already had a pretty good run through the “reds under the bed” of McCarthy­ism, polit­ical sub­vers­ives, illeg­als, Muslims and “domestic extrem­ists”, whatever the hell that really means leg­ally.  Now they’ve hit on another threat­en­ing cat­egory to jus­tify yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance crack­downs. What’s in a name.….

Firstly, this is old news resur­rec­ted in the wake of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures to scare people anew. Way back in 2008 the US gov­ern­ment wrote a report about “insider threats” and the per­ceived danger of the high-tech pub­lisher Wikileaks and, in early 2010 the report was leaked to the very same organisation.

Wikileaks1In 2008 the US gov­ern­ment strategy was to expose a Wikileaks source so that oth­ers would be deterred from using the con­duit in future. Well that didn’t hap­pen — Wikileaks tech­no­lo­gic­ally out­paced the lum­ber­ing, bru­tish might of the US and syco­phantic West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies.  The unfor­tu­nate Brad­ley Man­ning was exposed by an FBI snitch, Adrian Lamo, rather than from any tech­nical fail­ure of the Wikileaks sub­mis­sion system.

What did occur was a mus­cu­lar dis­play of global cor­por­at­ism, with nation after nation capit­u­lat­ing to take down the Wikileaks site, but mir­ror sites sur­vived that poin­ted to Switzer­land (which has a strong tra­di­tion of dir­ect demo­cracy, self defence and free speech and which remains stead­fastly inde­pend­ent from inter­na­tional dip­lo­matic circle jerks the UN, NATO, and such like.

On top of that, all major fin­an­cial chan­nels stopped dona­tions to Wikileaks — an act now been deemed to be mani­festly illegal in some countries.

Now, in the wake of the Man­ning and Snowden dis­clos­ures, the US main­stream media appears, inev­it­ably, to be try­ing to con­flate the cases of known trait­ors with, you’ve guessed it, bona fide whistleblowers.

Cases such as Ald­rich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed their coun­tries by selling secrets to an enemy power — the Soviet Union — in an era of exist­en­tial threat. They were trait­ors to be pro­sec­uted under the US Espi­on­age Act (1917) — that is what it was designed for.

This has noth­ing what­so­ever to do with the cur­rent whis­tleblower cases and is just so much basic neuro-linguistic pro­gram­ming. *Yawn*. Do people really fall for that these days?

This is a tired old tac­tic much used and abused in the offi­cially secret UK, and the USA has learned well from its former colo­nial mas­ter — so much for 1776 and the constitution.

How­ever, in the CBS inter­view men­tioned above it was subtly done — at least for a US broad­cast — with the com­ment­ator sound­ing reas­on­able but with the imagery telling a very dif­fer­ent story.

In my view this con­fla­tion exposes a dark hypo­crisy at the heart of the mod­ern military-security com­plex. In the old days the “good­ies” and “bad­dies” were simplist­ic­ally demarc­ated in the minds of the pub­lic: free West good; total­it­arian East bad. This fol­lowed the main­stream pro­pa­ganda of the day, and those who worked for the oppos­i­tion — and the Soviet Union gave the US/UK intel­li­gence axis a good run for its money — were pro­sec­uted as trait­ors.  Unless, of course, they emerged from the rul­ing class, when they were allowed to slip away and evade justice.

And of course many of us remem­ber the scan­dal of the Rus­sian spy ring that was exposed in 2010 — many indi­vidu­als who had illeg­ally been infilt­rated into the US for dec­ades. Yet, when they were caught and exposed, what happened?  A deal was struck between the US and Rus­sia and they were just sent home.

No such lib­er­al­ity is shown to true modern-day whis­tleblowers. Quite the oppos­ite, with the UK and the US will­ing to breach all estab­lished dip­lo­matic pro­to­cols to hunt down their quarry. This des­pite the fact that the whis­tleblowers are lib­er­at­ing inform­a­tion about the illeg­al­ity of our own gov­ern­ments to empower all of us to act as informed cit­izens, and des­pite the fact that they are expos­ing global-level crimes.

Bradley_Manning_2Brad­ley Man­ning and Edward Snowden have risked their lives to expose the fact that we are liv­ing under a global police state and that our mil­it­ary and intel­li­gence agen­cies are run­ning amok across the planet, with CIA kill lists, rendi­tions, tor­ture, wars, drone strikes and dirty tricks.

Yet the West is not offi­cially at war, nor is it facing an exist­en­tial threat as it did dur­ing the Second World War or the so-called Cold War.  Des­pite this, the US has used the Espi­on­age Act (1917) more times in the last 5 years than over the pre­ced­ing cen­tury. Is it sud­denly infes­ted with spies?

Well, no.  But it is sud­denly full of a new digital gen­er­a­tion, which has grown up with the assump­tion that the inter­net is free, and which wants to guar­an­tee that it will remain free without Big Brother watch­ing over their shoulders.  Tal­en­ted indi­vidu­als who end up work­ing for the spy agen­cies will inev­it­ably be per­turbed by pro­grammes such as PRISM and TEMPORA. Law­yers, act­iv­ists and geeks have been warn­ing about this for the last two decades.

By 1911 the UK had already put in place not only the proto-MI5, but also then added the first Offi­cial Secrets Act (OSA) to pro­sec­ute real trait­ors ahead of the First World War. The UK updated the OSA in 1989 spe­cific­ally to sup­press whis­tleblow­ing. The US has learned these legal sup­pres­sion les­sons well, not least by shred­ding its con­sti­tu­tion with the Pat­riot Act.

How­ever, it has neg­lected to update its law against whis­tleblowers, fall­ing back instead onto the hoary old 1917 Espi­on­age Act — as I said before, more times in the past five years than over the last century.

This is indeed a war on whis­tleblowers and truth-tellers, noth­ing more, noth­ing less.

What are they so afraid of? Ideal­ists who believe in the old demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tions? The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights and other such fuddy-duddy concepts?

Or could the real enemy be the bene­fi­ciar­ies of the whis­tleblowers? When the US gov­ern­ment says that Man­ning or Snowden have aided the enemy, do they, could they, mean we the people?

The answer to that would logic­ally be a resound­ing “yes”. Which leads to another ques­tion: what about the nation states — China, Rus­sia, Iran — that we have been told repeatedly over the last few years are hack­ing and spy­ing on us?

The phrase “pot and kettle” springs to mind. There are no good­ies and bad­dies any more. Indeed, all that remains is out­right and shock­ing hypocrisy.

Snowden has laid bare the fact that the US and its vas­sals are the most flag­rant prot­ag­on­ists in this cyber­war, even as our gov­ern­ments tell us that we must give up basic human rights such as pri­vacy, to pro­tect us from the global threat of ter­ror­ism (while at the same time arm­ing and fund­ing our so-called ter­ror­ist enemies).

Yet whis­tleblowers who bravely step up and tell us our gov­ern­ments are com­mit­ting war crimes, that we are being spied on, that we live under Orwellian sur­veil­lance, are now the people being pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age, not the “real” spies and cer­tainly not the war criminals.

In the CBS inter­view, former US Gen­eral Michael Hay­den, ex-head of the CIA and NSA asked: “what kind of moral judge­ment does it take for someone to think that their view trumps that of two pres­id­ents, the Con­gress and Sen­ate, the court sys­tem and 35,000 co-workers at the NSA?”

Er, per­haps someone who does not want to col­lude in the most stark examples of global war crimes and illegal sur­veil­lance? And per­haps someone who believes that the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was set up for a reason after the hor­rors of the Second World War?

When the rule of law breaks down, who is the real criminal?

What we are wit­ness­ing is a gen­er­a­tional clash, not a clash of ideo­lo­gies. The old­sters still be believe in the Cold War nar­rat­ive (or even “cow­boys and Indi­ans”?) of good­ies, bad­dies and exist­en­tial threats. The digital gen­er­a­tions have grown up in the wake of 9/11 and all the asso­ci­ated gov­ern­mental over-reaction — war crimes go unre­por­ted and untried, real civil liber­ties are an his­toric arte­fact, and the global pop­u­la­tion lives under Big Brother sur­veil­lance. Why on earth is any­one, really, sur­prised when young people of hon­our and ideal­ism try to take a stand and make a difference?

We should be more wor­ried about our future if the whis­tleblowers were to stop com­ing forward.

Edward Snowden — the Globalisation of Whistleblowing

I have held back from writ­ing about the Edward Snowden NSA whis­tleblow­ing case for the last week — partly because I was immersed in the res­ult­ing media inter­views and talks, and partly because I wanted to watch how the story developed, both polit­ic­ally and in the old media. The reac­tion of both can tell you a lot.

That does not mean that I did not have a very pos­it­ive response to what Snowden has done. Far from it. The same night the story broke about who was behind the leaks, I dis­cussed the implic­a­tions on an RT inter­view and called what he did Whis­tleblow­ing 2.0.

Why did I say that? Well, it appeared from his ini­tial video inter­view with The Guard­ian that he had learned from pre­vi­ous whis­tleblow­ing cases: he had watched the media and care­fully chosen a journ­al­ist, Glenn Gre­en­wald, with a good track record on the rel­ev­ant issues who would prob­ably fight his corner fear­lessly; his inform­a­tion clearly demon­strated that the intel­li­gence agen­cies were spin­ning out of con­trol and build­ing sur­veil­lance states; he care­fully chose a jur­is­dic­tion to flee to that might have the clout to pro­tect him leg­ally against the wrath of an over-mighty USA; and he has used his inter­net and media savvy to gain as much expos­ure and pro­tec­tion as quickly as possible.

edward_snowdenPlus, he has been incred­ibly brave, con­sid­er­ing the dra­conian war on whis­tleblowers that is cur­rently being waged by the Amer­ican admin­is­tra­tion. There have been three other NSA whis­tleblowers in recent years, all also talk­ing about endemic sur­veil­lance. All have paid a high per­sonal price, all dis­played great bravery in the face of adversity yet, sadly, none has achieved the same level of inter­na­tional impact. Were we just deaf to their warn­ings, or has Snowden played this better?

I think a bit of both.  He’s a geek, a young geek, he will have seen what happened to other whis­tleblowers and appears to have taken steps to avoid the same pit­falls. He has gone pub­lic to pro­tect his fam­ily and pre­vent harm to his former col­leagues in any ensu­ing witch-hunt. And he has fled the coun­try in order to remain at liberty to argue his case, which is key to keep­ing the story alive for more than a week in the gad­fly minds of the old media. I know, I’ve been involved in the same process.

He has blown the whistle to pro­tect an Amer­ican way of life he thinks “worth dying for”. Yet he has broadened out the issues inter­na­tion­ally — what hap­pens in Amer­ica impacts the rest of the world. This, in my view, is cru­cial.  I have been writ­ing for years that the US is increas­ingly claim­ing global legal hege­mony over the entire inter­net, as well as the right to kid­nap, tor­ture and murder for­eign­ers at will.

The Pat­riot Act has not only shred­ded the US con­sti­tu­tion, it also now appar­ently has global reach for as long as our craven gov­ern­ments allow it to. Now we know that this is not some abstract concept, the­ory or spec­u­la­tion — we are all poten­tially being watched

Edward Snowden argued his case very effect­ively in a live chat on The Guard­ian news­pa­per web­site. It became clear that he is indeed a new gen­er­a­tion of whisteblower. This is not someone who wit­nessed one crime and imme­di­ately felt he had to speak out. This is a tech­nical expert who watched, over time and with dis­may, the encroach­ing Big Brother sur­veil­lance state that is tak­ing over the world via the NSA and its clones.

He is young, he had faith that a new gov­ern­ment would mean change, but in the end felt com­pelled to take con­sidered action when he wit­nessed the unac­count­able mis­sion creep, the lim­ited and inef­fec­tual over­sight, and the neutered politi­cians who rush to reas­sure us that everything is legal and pro­por­tion­ate when they really have no idea what the spy agen­cies get up to.

In both the US and the UK the spies repeatedly get away with lying to the notional over­sight bod­ies about mis­takes made, rules bent, and illegal oper­a­tions. Former senior CIA ana­lyst, Ray McGov­ern, has cata­logued the US lies, and here are a few home-brewed Brit­ish examples. The inter­net com­pan­ies have also been wrig­gling on the hook over the last week.

Snowden appears to be very aware not only of poten­tial state level sur­veil­lance but also the global cor­por­at­ist aspect of the sub­ver­sion of the basic com­pan­ies most people use to access the inter­net — Google, Face­book, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Skype et al. A few pion­eers have been dis­cuss­ing the need to pro­tect one­self from such cor­por­at­ist over­sight for years, and such pion­eers have largely been ignored by the main­stream: they’re “just geeks” they are “para­noid”, “tin foil hat” etc.

Edward Snowden has laid bare the truth of this glob­al­ised, cor­por­at­ist Big Brother state. From his pub­lic state­ments so far, he seems very alive to the inter­na­tional aspects of what he is reveal­ing. This is not just about Amer­ic­ans being snooped on, this affects every­body. We are all sub­ject to the bru­tal hege­mony that US securo­crats and cor­por­a­tions are try­ing to impose on us, with no rights, no redress under the law.

Big_Brother_posterWe have already seen this with the illegal US state take-down of Kim Dotcom’s secure cloud ser­vice, Megaup­load, with the global per­se­cu­tion of Wikileaks, with Obama’s war on whis­tleblowers, with the NDAA, with the asym­met­ric extra­di­tion cases, with the drone wars across the Middle East and Cent­ral Asia.….  where to stop?

Snowden, through his incred­ible act of bravery, has con­firmed our worst fears. It is not just cor­por­a­tions that have gone global — sur­veil­lance has too. And now, thank­fully, so too are whistleblowers.

What troubles me some­what is the way that the old media is respond­ing — even The Guard­ian, which broke the story. Glenn Gre­en­wald is an excel­lent, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and I have no doubt what­so­ever that he will fight to the wire for his source.

How­ever, the news­pa­per as an entity seems to be hold­ing back the free flow of inform­a­tion. Char­it­ably, one could assume that this is to max­im­ise the impact of Snowden’s dis­clos­ures. Less char­it­ably, one could also see it as a way to eke out the stor­ies to max­im­ise the newspaper’s profits and glory. Again, it’s prob­ably a bit of both.

How­ever, I do not think this will ulti­mately work in the best interests of the whis­tleblower, who needs to get the inform­a­tion out there now, and get the whole debate going now.

Plus, today it was repor­ted that a D-Notice had been issued against the UK media last week. I have writ­ten before about this invi­di­ous self-censorship with which the Brit­ish media col­lab­or­ates: senior edit­ors and senior mil­it­ary per­son­nel and spooks meet to agree whether or not stor­ies may act against “national secur­ity” (still a leg­ally undefined phrase), and ban pub­lic­a­tions accord­ingly. And this is “vol­un­tary” — what does that say about our press hold­ing power to account, when they will­ingly col­lude in the sup­pres­sion of inform­a­tion?

Plus, some of the key journ­al­ists at The Guard­ian who were involved in the Wikileaks stitch-up are also now peck­ing away at the Snowden story. The old media are still con­tinu­ing to act as a bot­tle­neck of the free flow of inform­a­tion from whis­tleblowers to the pub­lic domain. In the post-Wikileaks era, this is a ret­ro­grade step. It is not for them to assess what the pub­lic needs to know, nor is it down to them to ana­lyse and second-guess why any whis­tleblower is doing what they are doing.

As Edward Snowden stated: “The con­sent of the gov­erned is not con­sent if it is not informed”.

Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Pub­lished on www​.polit​ics​.co​.uk, and Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

Fol­low­ing the awful murder of Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich last week, the polit­ical securo­crats who claim to rep­res­ent the interests of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence ser­vices have swung into action, demand­ing yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to pre­vent future Woolwich-style attacks”.

As I’ve writ­ten before, it was heart­en­ing that the UK Prime Min­is­ter said in the after­math of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk secur­ity reac­tion. How­ever, that has not deterred cer­tain intel­li­gence sock-puppets from polit­ical oppor­tunism — they stridently call for the resur­rec­tion of the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill that was earlier this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are suc­cess­ful, the new law would have implic­a­tions not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and stand­ing abroad.

Recently the civil liber­ties camp acquired a sur­pris­ing ally in this debate, with MI5 unex­pec­tedly enter­ing the fray.  And rightly so. There is abso­lutely no need for this new legis­la­tion, the requis­ite powers are already in place. Senior secur­ity sources have argued that those cit­ing the Wool­wich attack to pro­mote the snoop­ers’ charter are using a “cheap argu­ment”.

As I said in this recent BBC radio inter­view, all the neces­sary laws are already in place for MI5 either to pass­ively mon­itor or aggress­ively invest­ig­ate per­sons of interest under the ori­ginal terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).

There now appears to be little doubt that the two Wool­wich sus­pects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been repor­ted that they had been tar­gets for at least 8 years and that Michael Ade­bolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.

One of his friends, Abu Nusay­bah, recor­ded an inter­view for BBC’s News­night pro­gramme last week, only to be arres­ted by counter-terrorism police imme­di­ately after­wards. He stated that Ade­bolajo had been tor­tured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treat­ment may have flipped him into more viol­ent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever mur­kier, with reports yes­ter­day stat­ing that Ade­bolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.

Other inform­a­tion has since been released by the organ­isa­tion Cage­Pris­on­ers indic­at­ing that Adebolajo’s fam­ily and friends had also been har­rassed to pres­sur­ize him into report­ing to MI5.

All of which obvi­ates the early claims that Ade­bolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-priority tar­get. It cer­tainly indic­ates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been mon­it­or­ing Adebolajo’s com­mu­nic­a­tions data, espe­cially if they were try­ing to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been inter­cept­ing the con­tent of his com­mu­nic­a­tions, to under­stand his think­ing and assess his access. Any­thing less would have been slip­shod — a derel­ic­tion of duty — and all this could and should have been done under the exist­ing terms of RIPA.

So what are the chances of some real over­sight or answers?

If we’re talk­ing about an inde­pend­ent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquir­ies Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the gov­ern­ment and the depart­ment under invest­ig­a­tion can pretty much determ­ine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are subject.

How­ever, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee of Par­lia­ment (ISC) — the com­mit­tee tasked with over­see­ing the work of the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Parker, has already sub­mit­ted a writ­ten report about Wool­wich and will be giv­ing evid­ence to the ISC in per­son next week about whether MI5 missed some vital intel­li­gence or dropped the ball.

Th ISC of Par­lia­ment was estab­lished as part of the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (1994) — the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notional demo­cratic over­sight. MI5 had already come into the legal fold with the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act (1989).

As I have writ­ten before, ini­tially the ISC was a demo­cratic fig-leaf — its mem­bers were appoin­ted by the PM not Par­lia­ment, it repor­ted dir­ectly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the UK’s intel­li­gence agencies.

Until this year the ISC could not invest­ig­ate oper­a­tional mat­ters, nor could it demand to see doc­u­ments or ques­tion top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well repor­ted that senior spies and police have long evaded mean­ing­ful scru­tiny by being “eco­nom­ical with the truth”.

Former MI5 DG Sir Stephen Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee early on”; a more recent DG, Sir Jonathan Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involve­ment in tor­ture; and Lord Blair, former Com­mis­sioner of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police, had to apo­lo­gise in 2008 for mis­lead­ing the ISC about the num­ber of thwarted ter­ror­ist attacks on his watch.

How­ever the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has pur­sued a more mus­cu­lar over­sight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good ele­ment to have come out of the con­ten­tious Justice and Secur­ity Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more dir­ect account­ab­il­ity to Par­lia­ment, rather than just to the PM (the devil is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Par­lia­ment, rather than “in” Parliament…).

Some­what more per­tin­ently, the ISC can now invest­ig­ate oper­a­tional mat­ters, demand papers and wit­nesses, and it appears they now have a spe­cial invest­ig­ator who can go and rum­mage around the MI5 Registry for information.

It remains to be seen how effect­ive the ISC will real­ist­ic­ally be in hold­ing the intel­li­gence agen­cies to account, even with these new powers. How­ever, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind has good reason to know how slip­pery the spies can be — after all, he was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was fund­ing Al Qaeda asso­ci­ates to assas­sin­ate Col­onel Gad­dafi of Libya.  The attack went wrong, inno­cent people were killed and, cru­cially, it was illegal under UK law, as MI6 had not reques­ted the prior writ­ten per­mis­sion for such a plot from the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, as required under Sec­tion 7(1) of the afore­men­tioned ISA (1994). Rif­kind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.

So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rif­kind and the other mem­bers of the ISC fully exer­cise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Parker is some­what more frank about the work of his agency than his pre­de­cessors have been. It is only through greater hon­esty and account­ab­il­ity that our intel­li­gence agen­cies can learn from the mis­takes of the past and bet­ter pro­tect our coun­try in the future.

The Value of Whistleblowers

I was recently invited to write an art­icle for the Nat West Busi­ness Sense online magazine about the poten­tial value and bene­fits of whis­tleblowers.  Here’s the link, and here’s the article:

The con­tro­ver­sial issue of whis­tleblow­ing has been firmly thrust into the pub­lic con­scious­ness over the last few years with the ongo­ing saga of Wikileaks.

Often whis­tleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be trait­ors, grasses or snitches.  How­ever, rather than a phe­nomenon to be feared, if handled cor­rectly whis­tleblowers can often be bene­fi­cial to their organ­isa­tions.  Allow me to explain.

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 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 dec­ade 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 desert with dictators.

But it is not all bleak.  Recently, Dr Tom Fin­gar received The Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence in Oxford for his work on com­pil­ing the US National Intel­li­gence Estim­ate of 2007.  In this he sum­mar­ised the con­clu­sions of all 16 US intel­li­gence agen­cies by say­ing that Iran had ceased try­ing to develop a nuc­lear weapons cap­ab­il­ity in 2003.

There was immense polit­ical pres­sure on him to sup­press this evid­ence, but he went ahead with the report and thereby single-handedly hal­ted the US government’s rush to war with Iran.  By hav­ing the cour­age to do his job with integ­rity, Dr Fin­gar is respons­ible for sav­ing count­less lives across Iran.

In the world of intel­li­gence, where secrecy is para­mount, where crimes can hushed up, and where there is no avenue for voicing con­cern and dis­sent, it is per­haps inev­it­able that whis­tleblowers will con­tinue to emerge.

But in other sec­tors of work mis­takes can be just as life threat­en­ing and the need for expos­ure just as great.  In the UK over the last few years many senior med­ical whis­tleblowers have emerged from the NHS, detail­ing mis­takes and incom­pet­ence that have put the pub­lic at risk.  Alas, rather than learn from mis­takes made, all too often NHS bosses have either vic­tim­ised the whis­tleblowers by sus­pend­ing them or ruin­ing their repu­ta­tion, or they have insisted that they sign gag­ging orders and then covered up the mis­takes.  Neither option is a good out­come either for staff mor­ale or for patient safety.

While the cul­ture of cover-up exists, so too will whis­tleblowers. How could this be resolved, and what would be the poten­tial benefits?

If employ­ers insti­tute a cul­ture of trust and account­ab­il­ity, where employ­ees with con­cerns can be fairly heard, the appro­pri­ate action taken, and justice done, the needs and imper­at­ives behind whis­tleblow­ing would dis­ap­pear. Poten­tial prob­lems could be nipped in the bud, improv­ing pub­lic trust and con­fid­ence in the prob­ity of the organ­isa­tion and avoid­ing all the bad pub­li­city fol­low­ing a whis­tleblow­ing case.

Plus, of course, the poten­tial whis­tleblowers would have a legit­im­ate avenue to go down, rather than hav­ing to turn their lives inside out – they would no longer need to jeop­ard­ise their pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and all that goes with it such as career, income, social stand­ing and even, poten­tially their freedom.

Hav­ing a sound pro­ced­ure in place to address staff 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, too.

How to stop war — Make Wars History

A recent Make Wars His­tory event in the UK Par­lia­ment, hos­ted by John McDon­nell MP, with Chris Cover­dale and myself speak­ing.  Some prac­tical steps we can all take to make wars his­tory:

Make Wars His­tory talk in Par­lia­ment, April 2013 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.