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:
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:
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.….
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:
Here’s an interview I did for BBC World Service radio about the NSA’a global electronic surveillance and spy oversight:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And 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.
How 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.
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.
In 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.
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 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.
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.
Plus, 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.
We 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”.
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 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 (is 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.
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:
Today’s RT interview about the Bradley Manning hearing:
And here’s the transcript of the full interview I did.