Terrorism, crime, or mental illness?

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.

OHM 2013 – The Joy of Geeks

ohm2013_logoHome and recovered from the rigours of the amazing geekfest, OHM 2013.

This was a 5-day festival in the Netherlands where 3000 geeks, activists and whistleblowers gathered to have fun and also try to put the world to rights.  And this crowd, out of all activist groups, has a fighting chance. The geeks are tooled-up, tech-savvy, and increasingly politicised after all the recent assaults on the internet and wider freedoms.

These include all the anti-piracy measures (interestingly, Russia has just joined the lost war that is the anti-piracy legislation, and the Russian pirates are going to form a Pirate Church, as this will give them special protections and rights under the law). It also includes all the invidious international agreements that the US and its Euro-vassals are trying to force down the throats of reluctant populations: ACTA, PIPA, SOPA, TAFTA…. you name it, there’s a whole new anti-freedom alphabet soup out there in addition to the spook acronyms.

Not to mention all the illegal US take-downs of legitimate business websites, such as Megaupload, and the panoptic surveillance powers of the NSA and its global intelligence buddies, long suspected by many and now proven by the disclosures of the courageous Edward Snowden.

So it was lovely to see at OHM an increasing politicisation. This was partly because of all the above recent horrors, but also because the OHM organisers had pulled together a strong political and whistleblowing speaker track. The attack against digital civil liberties is inextricably linked to and reflective of the full-frontal attack on our historic real-world freedoms:  endemic surveillance, kidnapping, torture, CIA kill lists, illegal wars, drone strikes, secret courts, and many other encroaching horrors that I have written about ad nauseam. And this is just what we know about.

sinking_shipIn my view our Western democracies have been at least fatally holed, if they have not yet foundered. Which, of course, means that our violent, interventionist attempts to bring “democracy” to the developing world are derided as hypocritical at best, and violently resisted at worst.

The new front-line of this struggle is “cyber” warfare – be it the illegal aggressive attacks of such US/Israeli viruses against Iran such as Stuxnet (that is now roaming free in the wild and mutating), or the slower wars of attrition against “pirates”, hackers, Wikileaks, and the growing war on whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

Well, geeks are the new resistance and they have a fighting chance in my view. And this is why I think that they are our best hope.

SAMSUNGThis was my experience of OHM. Three thousand of the best and the brightest from around the world gathered together not just to have fun playing with bleeding-edge tech, hacking and building toys, and creating slightly surreal, if beloved, hover-pets (see right), but also who turned out in their thousands to listen to and absorb the experiences of a number of international intelligence whistleblowers. In the wake of the Edward Snowden case, this is a hot topic in these circles and there was a huge impetus to help.

We whistleblowers had a fabulous time too. One is a “natural-born geek” – Tom Drake, formerly of the NSA, who was threatened with 35 years in prison because he dared to disclose problems with his organisation. His lawyer, government lawyer-turned-whistleblower Jesselyn Radack, also spoke of her experiences. Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower who exposed the intelligence failure in the US in the run-up to 9/11 and was voted Time Person of the Year in 2002 also gave a fantastic talk called “Secrecy Kills”, and former CIA analyst and presidential “briefer”, Ray McGovern, gave the opening keynote speech, focusing on the need to speak out and preserve our rights. I finished the quintet of whistleblowers and provided the Euro-perspective.

And of course the patron saint of whistleblowers also did one of the key talks – but he had to be beamed in. Julian Assange, who was free to attend HAR, the last such event in the Netherlands four years ago, was unavoidably detained in his embassy refuge in the UK.

OHM_Great_Spook_Panel_2013

Photo by Reinoud van Leeuwen (http://reinoud.van.leeuwen.net/)

The whistleblowers all came together for one of the big sessions of OHM – the “Great Spook Panel“, moderated by the indomitable Nick Farr. The panel was basically a call to arms for the next generation. This addressed the need to stand up to protect our rights against all the egregious erosions that have occurred since 9/11.  The response was hugely enthusiastic. I hope this goes global, and the wider community follows up.

It certainly did in one way. Ray McGovern announced the establishment of the Edward Snowden Defence Fund at the end of the panel discussion, and the donations poured in for the rest of the event.

So a very successful festival. How do I make that assessment? Well, on top of all the fun, variety of talks and networking, the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD (an unfortunate-sounding name to most English speakers), requested a platform at the event after the Great Spook Panel was announced in the programme.

Such an active and open response shows a degree of push-back against a perceived “threat”. No doubt the organisation wanted to inject the establishment anti-venom before the truth-tellers had their say. Anyway, on the grounds that most whistleblowers are generally denied a mainstream media platform and/or are smeared, the AIVD was prohibited the stage.

Of course, the AIVD would have been very welcome to buy a ticket like normal humans or pay the corporate rate to attend to show support for the community – its officers might have learned something….

FBI Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds

Sibel_EdmondsI strongly recommend you take the time to watch this film about FBI whistleblower, Sibel Edmonds.

“Kill the Messenger”  joins some interesting dots, not just about what might have been going on round Sibel’s case, but also adds a different perspective to the notorious outing of CIA officer, Valerie Plame.

Of course, a film that investigates how the might of the state can be used to stifle the legitimate dissent of a whistleblower will always resonate with me.

Same message, different country.

Amuse Bouche

A debate is currently under way in the (ex) Land of the Free about how much protection intelligence whistleblowers should be accorded under the law.

Yes, the country that has brought the world the "war on terror", Guantanamo Bay, and the Patriot Act, is having a moral spasm about how to best protect those who witness high crimes and misdemeanors inside the charmed circle of secrecy and intelligence. 

And about time too, following the mess of revelations about spy complicity in torture currently emerging on both sides of the pond.

Interestingly, intelligence officials in the US already have a smidgeon more leeway than their UK counterparts.  In the US, if you witness a crime committed by spies, you have to take your concerns to the head of the agency, and then you can go to Congress.  In the UK, the only person you can legally report crime to is the head of the agency involved, so guess how many successful complaints are made?  Even taking your proven and legitimate concerns to your elected UK representatives is a crime under the OSA.

Spooks in the UK now have access to an "ethical counsellor", who has reportedly been visited a grand total of 12 times by intelligence officers since 2006.  But this person has no power to investigate allegations of crime, and a visit guarantees a career-blocking black mark on your record of service: ie if you are the sort of person to worry your head with quaint ideas like ethics and morality you are, at best, not a team player and, worse, a possible security risk. 

WhistleThis is surely culturally unsustainable in a community of people who generally sign up to protect the citizens of the country and want to make a positive difference by working within the law?  Those who have concerns will resign, at the very least, and those who like to "just follow orders" will float to the top.  As one of the leading proponents for greater whistleblower protection in the USA states in the linked article:

"The code of loyalty to the chain of command is the primary value at those institutions, and they set the standard for intensity of retaliation."

Some enlightened US politicians appear to be aware that intelligence whistleblowers require protection just as all other employees receive under the law:  perhaps more so, as the nature of their work may well expose them to the most heinous crimes imaginable.  There is also an argument for putting proper channels in place to ensure that whistleblowers don't feel their only option is to risk going to the press.  Effective channels for blowing the whistle and investigating crime can actually protect national security rather than compromise it.

The nay-sayers, of course, want to keep everything secret – after all, the status quo is currently working so well in upholding democratic values across the globe.  Critics of the new legislation talk of "disgruntled employees …. gleefully" spilling the beans.  Why is this hoary old line always dragged out in this type of discussion?  Why are whistleblowers always described in this way, rather than called principled, brave or ethical?

Blanket secrecy works against the real interests of our countries.  Mistakes can be covered up, group-think ensures that crimes continue, and anyone offering constructive criticism is labelled as a risky troublemaker – no doubt a "disgruntled" one at that.

Of course, certain areas of intelligence work need to be protected: current operational details (as ex-Met Assistant Commissioner, Bob Quick has discovered), agent identities, and sensitive techniques.  But the life blood of a healthy democracy depends on open debate, ventilation of problems, and agreed solutions.  Informed and participatory citizens need to know what is being done in their name.