Recently I did this interview for BBC Click to promote the third series of the excellent US spy series “The Blacklist”:
Well, this was an interesting one. As I was stepping out of the shower this morning, my phone rang – RT asking if I could do an interview asap.
The subject under discussion? A former acting head of the CIA apparently recommending that the USA covertly start to murder any Iranian and Russian citizens operating against ISIS in Syria, and bomb President Assad “to scare him, not to kill him”.
And here is my take on this:
Here is an interview I did in the middle of the night for RT about the Nice terrorist lorry attack:
And here is the article I mentioned about the French spy chief warning that the next problematic episode could lead to civil unrest/war.
Here is a recent interview I did for the RT UK’s flagship news channel, “Going Underground” about the horrors of the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill – the so-called “snoopers charter” – that will legalise previously illegal mass surveillance, mass data retention, and mass hacking carried out by GCHQ in league with the NSA:
My interview starts at 19 minutes in – there is Brexit stuff first, about which I shall write more about soon….
This is an (abbreviated) version of my contribution to a panel discussion about human rights in a digital age, hosted last December by Professor Marianne Franklin and Goldsmiths University in London:
This morning I was invited on to RT to do an interview about the breaking story of a mass shooting that occurred last night at a nightclub in Florida in the USA. You will, no doubt, have seen the headlines by now – the biggest mass shooting in modern American history.
At the time, as the news was breaking, I was somewhat puzzled about what I could contribute – surely this was just another ghastly massacre by the usual gun-toting crazy that America seems to spawn so regularly? After all, it seems that the Second Amendment is the last right standing from the US constitution, after all the others have been eviscerated as a result of the “war on terror” and the social friction caused by the financial melt-down of the US economy?
However, with a little thought on a mellow European Sunday, I could see a number of threads coming together, which I explored during the interview. I would like to develop some of them further in this article.
At the time I was interviewed, few hard facts had been confirmed about the shooting – merely a conservative estimate of the number of dead and wounded, and the fact the gunman had been killed. Everything else was pure speculation. That did not stop much of the Western media from jumping to conclusions – that this must be an ISIS-inspired attack and therefore Muslim terrorism, by our current Western definition.
I have a problem with this current usage. When working as an intelligence officer with MI5 in the 1990s – at the height of the religious civil war being waged between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland, our working definition was that “terrorism” was the use of violence to achieve political aims. So “terrorism” has never been a purely Muslim-originated concept, no matter how the USA has chosen to define it since 9/11.
The reason I am making this rather obvious point is that the USA, particularly, has always engendered some rather unsavoury domestic “terrorist” groups, motivated by Christian or cult fanaticism – think the Branch Davidians, or the Christian fundamentalists murdering doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, or white supremacists terrorising black communities or blowing up FBI offices such as the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, which was initially blamed on Middle Eastern terrorism. If that is not the use of violence to achieve political aims, then our intelligence agencies need to change the definition of terrorism.
As the shootings in the Pulse nightclub in Florida specifically targeted a LGBT crowd, it is just as feasible that the gunman could have fundamentalist Christian beliefs that urged him to target this community as some ISIS-inspired jihadi. After all, we have seen similar attacks in the UK, with the London nail bomber targeting gay nightclubs in 1999.
Yet the former is, to this day, widely seen as a mass killing, a “rampage shooter” or a madman, and treated as a criminal, whereas a Muslim committing the same acts for similarly bigoted reasons is automatically deemed to be a terrorist. And we all know that “terrorism” is a unique form of “eviltude” that immediately exposes the suspect to greater legal penalties at the very least and assassination at the worst end of the scale, US citizen or not.
Terrorism is a crime – pure and simple – and it should be treated as a crime. Muslim suspects of such crimes should not be kidnapped, tortured, held in isolation for years, or subject to military tribunals with no real right to defence, any more than Christian, atheist or any other suspects should be. Nor should specifically “Muslim” terrorism be the excuse used to strip away all our basic and hard-won civic freedoms and human rights in our own countries, yet that is what has been happening in the unending “war on terror”.
The UK went through this debate in the 1980s and 1990s – at the height of the Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitary bombing campaigns across the UK – which was another religious-based terrorist war, as I mentioned before. It also – at least from the PIRA side, received the bulk of its funding from the American Irish diaspora. In fact, despite the peace process in Northern Ireland signed with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, this funding from America only finally dried up in the aftermath of 9/11.
And what of the third point in the title – the mental health issue? I mention this because there was a recent case in London of a knife-wielding man frenziedly attacking commuters in an underground railway station last year. The reporting at the time declared that he had been shouting “this is for Syria” – as he attacked his fellow travellers. At the time everyone assumed he was another radicalised jihadi carrying out a lone wolf attack. Indeed, even people at the scene seemed convinced. One witness cried out “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv“, a heartfelt sentiment that went viral over social media.
This story was headline news in the UK at the time. The trial recently reached its conclusion, and it now appears that the perpetrator had serious mental health issues. These may have latched onto jihadi terminology, but the motivation was not terroristic.
The guy probably needed an earlier intervention by health professionals, but he slipped through the cracks. That does not make him a terrorist though – no matter what he said in his frenzy – and yet this conclusion certainly did not get the front page headlines the initial attack received.
Let us also look at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that have happened across Western countries over the last few years – in Canada, London, Australia, the USA, Denmark – as well as the Paris and Brussels attacks. Many of the protagonists were already on the radar of the Western intelligence agencies, but because they are drowning in a tsunami of information garnered for the mass surveillance of us all, these crucial nuggets of real intelligence were swamped.
Even worse, it appears that many of the people subsequently fingered as the perpetrators had already been approached by the intelligence agencies, as appears to be the case in Florida too.
So, how does this all come together? There is not doubt that genuine psychopaths or sadists are attracted to terrorist as well as criminal gangs to give free rein to their tendencies – ISIS is an absolutely horrifying example of this. But the ideology of such groups can also attract from a distance the mentally fragile, who can become useful idiots or delusional followers, or vulnerable individuals who can even be manipulated by law enforcement. Add into the mix fundamentalist religion, cult, or racial supremacy beliefs and it all gets too messy, too fast.
And yet…. all these groups use terror to achieve their goals, but only a few are deemed to be terrorists rather than criminals – and we all know now that anyone labelled a terrorist faces far higher penalties than these other categories of crime.
Intelligence agencies are there to protect our national security – ie our nation’s integrity and its very existence. As I have said for many years now, such threats include imminent invasion, as Britain faced during the Second World War, or global annihilation as we all faced during the Cold War.
The random attacks of terrorist – or criminal groups or mentally ill people – cause trauma to the country and the communities in which they occur, but they do not threaten our country’s very survival.
We need to clarify our thinking urgently, both around the definitions applied to such crimes and to the proportionality of the response we make. This will allow us to preserve and strengthen the concept of the rule of law and the notion of democracy under which we all hope to live.
Former US Attorney General, Eric Holder, has softened his stance on the Edward Snowden case and has tacitly admitted there should at least be a public interest legal defence for intelligence whistleblowers.
Well, that’s my take – have a watch of my RT interview yesterday or read here:
The CFT asked me to write an article for the festival programme about the value and role, the dangers and opportunities, for twenty-first century whistleblowers. Here it is:
The Regulators of Last Resort
Let us play a little game of word association. I write “Edward Snowden” – and what is the first thought to leap into your mind? Hero? Traitor? Who?
Or might it be whistleblower?
The controversial issue of whistleblowing, which is at the heart of Ibsen’s play, has been firmly thrust into the public consciousness over the last few years with the ongoing saga of Wikileaks and with high profile cases such as that of Chelsea Manning and, of course, Snowden himself.
Often whistleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be traitors, grasses or snitches. Or they are set on such an heroic pedestal that their example can actually be discouraging, making you consider whether you would ever take such a risk, often with the depressing conclusion that it would be impossible for a whole range of practical reasons – professional reputation, job security, family safety, even liberty.
However, you have to ask yourself why, when faced with these risks and repercussions, individuals (in the manner of the fictional Dr Stockmann) do indeed speak out; why they do still consider the risks worth taking? Particularly those emerging from the world of intelligence, the military or the diplomatic corps who face the most grievous penalties.
The UK spy community is the most legally protected and least accountable of any Western democracy, but the USA is catching up fast. So, as a result of such entrenched governmental secrecy across these areas, whistleblowing is realistically the only available avenue to alert your fellow citizens to abuses carried out secretly in their name.
I have a nodding acquaintance with the process. In the 1990s I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK domestic Security Service, generally known as MI5, before resigning to help my former partner and colleague David Shayler blow the whistle on a catalogue of incompetence and crime. As a result we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hiding and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, family and journalists arrested around us. I was also arrested, although never charged, and David went to prison twice for exposing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.
However, it could all have been so different if the UK government had agreed to take his evidence of spy crimes, undertake to investigate them thoroughly, and apply the necessary reforms. This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could potentially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinctive response is always to protect the spies and prosecute the whistleblower, while the mistakes and crimes go uninvestigated and unresolved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the malefactors with promotions and gongs.
The draconian Official Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any disclosure whatsoever. As a result, we the citizens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integrity. There is no meaningful oversight and no real accountability.
Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a difference and potentially save lives. However, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any ethical concerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just follow orders”.
In such an environment there is no ventilation, no accountability and no staff federation, and this inevitably leads to a general consensus – a bullying “group think” mentality. This in turn can lead to mistakes being covered up rather than lessons learned, and then potentially down a dangerous moral slide.
As a result, over the last 15 years we have seen scandal heaped upon intelligence scandal, as the spies allowed their fake and politicised information to be used make a false case for an illegal war in Iraq; we have seen them descend into a spiral of extraordinary rendition (ie kidnapping) and torture, for which they are now being sued if not prosecuted; and we have seen that they facilitate dodgy deals in the deserts with dictators.
Since the Shayler case in the late 1990s, other UK whistleblowers have hit the headlines: GCHQ’s Katherine Gun, who exposed illegal spying on our so-called allies in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. She managed to avoid prosecution because of a possible legal defence of necessity that resulted from Shayler’s case. Or Ambassador Craig Murray, who exposed the torture of political dissidents in Uzbekistan – and when I say torture, I mean the boiling alive of political opponents of the regime, with the photographs to prove it. Murray was not prosecuted, but he lost his career and was traduced with tawdry slurs about his personal life across the British media.
The USA is little better. Since 2001 many intelligence whistleblowers there have faced a grim fate. Ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, languished for three years in prison while the torturers remain free; Bill Binney, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe of the NSA were hounded and narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance; a colleague, Tom Drake faced a 35-year prison sentence, despite having gone through all the approved, official channels; and in 2013 a kangaroo court was held to try Chelsea Manning for her exposure of US war crimes. Inevitably, it is the whistleblower Manning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in prison, not the war criminals.
President Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espionage Act against whistleblowers during his years in the White House more times than all his predecessors put together, while at the same time allowing a bone fide spy ring – the Russian illegals including Anna Chapman – to return home in 2010. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” – the whistleblower – has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked, ironically, to Wikileaks in 2010.
Against this background, fully aware of the hideous risks he was taking and the prospect of the rest of his life behind bars, in 2013 a young man stepped forward – Edward Snowden.
He was clear then about his motivation and he remains clear now in the few interviews he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge concern. The American intelligence infrastructure, along with its partner agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatens the constitution of the United States, but also erodes the privacy of all the world’s citizens.
Even against such a background of other brave whistleblowers, Snowden stands out for me for three key reasons: his personal and conscious courage at such a time, the sheer scale of his disclosures, and the continuing, global impact of what he exposed.
Unfortunately, while whistleblowers understand the legal risks they are taking when they emerge from the intelligence world or the diplomatic corps, they are often media virgins and are eternally surprised by the way the treatment meted out to them.
Until the turn of the millennium, intelligence whistleblowers had no choice but to entrust themselves to the established media. Some like “Deep Throat”, the source of the Watergate scandal in 1970s America, were distrustful and remained in the shadows. Others, such as Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, or Clive Ponting who in 1982 released information about the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War, were fortunate to work with campaigning journalists who fought both for their sources and the principle of press freedom. Even when Shayler went public in the late 1990s, he had no option but to work with the established media.
From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that this is not always a painless experience. With a few honorable exceptions, most of the journalists will just asset-strip their whistleblowers for information. They make their careers, while the whistleblower breaks theirs.
Plus, There are many ways our soi-disant free press can be manipulated and controlled by the spies. The soft power involves inducting journalists to be agents of influence within their organisation, or cosy chats between editors and spies, or proprietors and top spies – that is how stories can be spun or disappeared.
The hard power is extensive too – the application of laws such as libel, counter-terrorism laws, injunctions, and also the use of the OSA against journalists themselves. Or even blatant intimidation, as happened after The Guardian newspaper published the early Snowden disclosures – the police went in and physically smashed up the hard drives containing his information.
All this casts that well known chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the free-flow of information from the government to the governed, which is so vital for an informed and participatory citizenry.
Which brings me back to Wikileaks. Established in 2007, this provides a secure and high-tech conduit for whistleblowers that gives them more control and securely stores the documents to prove their allegations. This is also why the US government saw it as such a threat and has pursued it in such a draconian and punitive way over the years since the first big revelations in 2010. Ironically, this is also partly why much of the traditional media turned on Wikileaks – it threatened the old media business model.
But from a whistleblower’s perspective, Wikileaks and its successors offer a brave new world. The technological genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
There is, of course, another possible path. The intelligence agencies could establish meaningful channels for ventilation of staff concerns, where the evidence is properly investigated and reforms made as necessary. Having such a sound procedure in place to address concerns strikes me as a win-win scenario for staff efficiency and morale, the organisation’s operational capability and reputation, and potentially the wider public safety too.
However, unless and until secretive governmental organisations institute such legitimate and effective avenues for potential whistleblowers to go down, embarrassing disclosures will continue. Nobody sets out to be a whistleblower but, absent effective reforms, they will remain our regulators of last resort.
Yesterday The Intercept released more documents from the Edward Snowden trove. These highlighted the hitherto suspected by unproven involvement of the NSA in Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, torture and interrogation.
Here is my interview on RT about the subject:
It was reported in The Guardian newspaper today that the UK parliamentary joint committee on human rights was questioning the legal framework underpinning the use of British drone strikes against terrorist suspects.
Here is an interview I did for RT today about the questionable legality of the UK drone strike programme: