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.


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.