The NSA “Brain Drain”

The former head of the NSA, Keith Alexander, is reported to have said that the agency is facing a “brain drain” of its best staff, predominantly the younger ones. Here is my perspective on this:

The NSA “Brain Drain” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

German spy agency penetrated by ISIS

My recent interview about the German domestic spy agency, the BfV – the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, ironically – being allegedly infiltrated by ISIS.

ISIS Agent in German Spy Agency from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

What price whistleblowers?

First published on Consortium News.

Forgive my “infamously fluent French”, but the phrase “pour encourager les autres” seems to have lost its famously ironic quality. Rather than making an example of people who dissent in order to prevent future dissidence, now it seems that the USA is globally paying bloody big bucks to people in order to encourage them to expose the crimes of their employers – well, at least if they are working for banks and other financial institutions.

I have been aware for a few years that the USA instituted a law in 2010 called the Dodd-Frank Act that is designed to encourage people employed in the international finance community to report malfeasance to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in return for a substantial percentage of any monies recouped.

This law seems to have produced a booming business for such high-minded “whistleblowers” – if that could be the accurate term for such actions? They are celebrated and can receive multi-million dollar pay days, the most recent (unnamed) source receiving $20 million.

Nor is this US initiative just potentially benefiting US citizens – it you look at the small print at the bottom of this page, disclosures are being sent in from all over the world.

Which is all to the public good no doubt, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash and the ensuing fall-out that hit us all.  We need more clarity about arcane casino banking practices that have bankrupted whole countries, and we need justice.

But does rather send out a number of contradictory messages to those in other areas of work who might also have concerns about the legality of their organisations, and which may have equal or even graver impacts on the lives of their fellow human beings.

If you work in finance and you see irregularities it is apparently your legal duty to report them through appropriate channels – and then count the $$$ as they flow in as reward – whether you are a USA citizen or based elsewhere around the world. Such is the power of globalisation, or at least the USA’s self-appointed role as the global hegemon.

However, if you happen to work in the US government, intelligence agencies or military, under the terms of the American Constitution it would also appear to be your solemn duty under oath to report illegalities, go through the officially designated channels, and hope reform is the result.

But, from all recent examples, it would appear that you get damn few thanks for such patriotic actions.

Take the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive, who in 2007 went public about waste and wanton expenditure within the agency, as I wrote way back in 2011. Tom went through all the prescribed routes for such disclosures, up to and including a Congressional Committee hearing.

Despite all this, Tom was abruptly snatched by the FBI in a violent dawn raid and threatened with 35 years in prison.  He (under the terrifying American plea bargain system) accepted a misdimeanour conviction to escape the horrors of federal charges, the resulting loss of all his civic rights and a potential 35 years in prison.  He still, of course, lost his job, his impeccable professional reputation, and his whole way of life.

He was part of a NSA group which also included Bill Binney, the former Technical Director of the NSA, and his fellow whistleblowers Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loumis and Diane Roark.

These brave people developed an electronic mass-surveillance programme called Thin Thread that could winnow out those people who were genuinely of security interest and worth targeting, a programme which would have cost the US $1.4 million, been consistent with the terms of the American constitution and, according to Binney, could potentially have stopped 9/11 and all the attendant horrors..

Instead, it appears that backs were scratched and favours called in with the incoming neo-con government of George W Bush in 2000, and another programme called Trail Blaizer was developed, to the tune of $1.2 billion – and which spied on everyone across America (as well as the rest of the world) and thereby broke, at the very least, the terms of the American constitution.

Yet Bill Binney was still subjected to a FBI SWAT team raid – he was dragged out of the shower early one morning at gun-point. All this is well documented in an excellent film “A Good American” and I recommend watching it.

Rather a contrast to the treatment of financial whistleblowers – no retaliation and big bucks. Under that law, Bill would have received a payout of millions for protecting the rights of his fellow citizens as well as saving the American public purse to the tune of over a billion dollars. But, of course, that is not exactly in the long-term business interests of our now-global surveillance panopticon.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in his valedictory speech in 1961, warned of the subversive interests of the “military-industrial” complex.  That seems so quaint now.  What we are facing is a steroid-pumped, globalised military surveillance industry that will do anything to protect its interests.  And that includes crushing principled whistleblowers “pour encourager les autres“.

Yet that manifestly has not happened, as I need to move on to the even-more-egregious cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

The former, as you may remember, was a former American army private currently serving 35 years in a US military prison for exposing the war crimes of the USA. She is the most obvious victim of outgoing-President Obama’s war on whistleblowers, and surely deserving of his supposed outgoing clemency.

The latter, currently stranded in Russia en route from Hong Kong to political asylum in Ecuador is, in my view and as I have said before, the most significant whistleblower in modern history. But he gets few thanks – indeed incoming US Trump administration appointees have in the past called for the death penalty.

So all this is such a “wonderfully outstanding encouragement” to those in public service in the USA to expose corruption – not. Work for the banks and anonymously snitch – $$$kerching! Work for the government and blow the whistle – 30+ years in prison or worse. Hmmm.

If President-Elect Donald Trump is serious about “draining the swamp” then perhaps he could put some serious and meaningful public service whistleblower protection measures in place, rather than prosecuting such patriots?

After all, such measures would be a win-win situation, as I have said many times before – a proper and truly accountable channel for potential whistleblowers to go to, in the expectation that their concerns will be properly heard, investigated and criminal actions prosecuted if necessary.

That way the intelligence agencies can become truly accountable, sharpen their game, avoid a scandal and better protect the public; and the whistleblower does not need ruin their life, losing their job, potentially their freedom and worse.

After all, where are the most heinous crimes witnessed?  Sure, bank crimes impact the economy and the lives of working people; but out-of-control intelligence agencies that kidnap, torture and assassinate countless people around the world, all in secret, actually end lives.

All that said, other Western liberal democracies are surely less draconian than the USA, no?

Well, unfortunately not.  Take the UK, a country still in thrall to the glamorous myth of James Bond, and where there have been multiple intelligence whistleblowers from the agencies over the last few decades – yet all of them have automatically faced prison.  In fact, the UK suppression of intelligence, government, diplomatic, and military whistleblowers seems to have acted as an exemplar to other countries in how you stifle ethical dissent from within.

Sure, the prison sentences for such whistleblowing are not as draconian under the UK Official Secrets Act (1989) as the anachronistic US Espionage Act (1917). However, the clear bright line against *any* disclosure is just as stifling.

In the UK, a country where the intelligence agencies have for the last 17 years been illegally prostituting themselves to advance the interests of a foreign country (the USA), this is simply unacceptable. Especially as the UK has just made law the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), against all expert advice, which legalises all this previously-illegal activity and indeed expanded the hacking powers of the state.

More worryingly, the ultra-liberal Norway, which blazed a calm and humanist trail in its response to the murderous white-supremacist terrorist attacks of Anders Breivik only 5 years ago, has now proposed a draconian surveillance law.

And Germany – a country horrified by the Snowden revelations in 2013, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi – has also just expanded the surveillance remit of its spooks.

In the face of all this, it appears there has never been a greater need of intelligence whistleblowers across the Western world. Yet it appears that, once again, there is one law for the bankers et al – they are cashed up, lauded and rewarded for reporting legalities.

For the rest of the Poor Bloody Whistleblowers, it’s prosecution and persecution as usual, despite the fact that they may indeed be serving the most profound of public interests – freedom, privacy and the ability to thereby have a functioning democracy.

As always – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. So back to my fluent French, referenced at the start: we are, it seems, all still mired in the merde.

 

 

Webstock, New Zealand, 2016

Now, I speak all over the world at conferences and universities about a whole variety of interconnected issues, but I do want to highlight this conference from earlier this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.

Webstock celebrated its tenth anniversary in New Zealand last February, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak there.  The hosts promised a unique experience, and the event lived up to its reputation.

Webstock_2016They wanted a fairly classic talk from me – the whistleblowing years, the lessons learnt and current political implications, but also what we can to do fight back, so I called my talk “The Panopticon: Resistance is Not Futile”, with a nod to my sci-fi fandom.

So why does this particular event glow like a jewel in my memory? After expunging from my mind, with a shudder of horror, the 39 hour travel time each way, it was the whole experience. New Zealand combines the friendliness of the Americans – without the political madness and the guns, and the egalitarianism of the Norwegians – with almost equivalent scenery. Add to that the warmth of the audience, the eclecticism of the speakers, and the precision planning and aesthetics of the conference organisers and you have a winning combination.

Our hosts organised vertigo-inducing events for the speakers on the top of mile-high cliffs, as well as a surprisingly fun visit to a traditional British bowling green. Plus I had the excitement of experiencing my very first earthquake – 5.9 on the Richter scale apparently. I shall make no cheap jokes about the earth moving, especially in light of the latest quakes to hit NZ this week, but the hotel did indeed sway around me and it wasn’t the local wine, excellent as it is.

I mentioned eclecticism – the quality of the speakers was ferociously high, and I would like to give a shout out to Debbie Millman and her “joy of failure” talk, Harry Roberts, a serious geek who crowd-sourced his talk and ended up talking seriously about cocktails, moths, Chumbawamba and more, advertising guru Cindy Gallop who is inspiring women around the world and promoting Make Love Not Porn, and Casey Gerald, with his evangelically-inspired but wonderfully humanistic talk to end the event.

All the talks can be found here.

It was a fabulous week.  All I can say is thank you to Tash, Mike, and the other organisers.

If you ever have the chance to attend or speak at the event in the future, I seriously recommend it.

And here’s the video of my talk:

The Blacklist – how to go on the run

Recently I did this interview for BBC Click to promote the third series of the excellent US spy series “The Blacklist”:

How to go on the run from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
The series is apparently huge in the USA – and I can see why, as it is good – but little known to date in the UK.

Thought police

Here is the full interview I did recently for RT about the announcement of a new section of the UK Metropolitan Police dedicated to hunting down “internet trolls”.

And here is the clip used in the interview:

Thought Police from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Nice terror attack

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.

Fight for your Right to Privacy

A recent talk I gave to the excellent Spark.me conference in beautiful Montenegro:

Annie Machon at SparkMe conference 2016 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Whistleblower Protections – RT Interview

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:

Discussing whistleblower protections from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The NSA and Guantanamo Bay

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:

Snowden disclosures about NSA and Guantanamo from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Parliamentary Evidence on the UK Investigatory Powers Bill

My written evidence to the Scrutiny Committee in the UK Houses of Parliament that is currently examining the much-disputed Investigatory Powers Bill (IP):

1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK’s domestic Security Service, commonly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my partner at the time, fellow intelligence officer David Shayler, expose a number of instances of crime and incompetence we had witnessed during our time in the service.

2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphasises the importance of democratic and judicial oversight of the various categories of intrusive intelligence gathering by establishing an Investigatory Powers Commissioner as well as supporting Judicial Commissioners. However, I am concerned about the real and meaningful application of this oversight.

3. While in the Service in the 1990s we were governed by the terms of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 (IOCA), the precursor to RIPA, which provided for a similar system of applications for a warrant and ministerial oversight.

4. I would like to submit evidence that the system did not work and could be manipulated from the inside.

5. I am aware of at least two instances of this during my time in the service, which were cleared for publication by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whistleblowers”, so my discussing them now is not in breach of the Official Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide further evidence, either written or in person, about these abuses.

6. My concern about this draft Bill is that while the oversight provisions seem to be strengthened, with approval necessary from both the Secretary of State and a Judicial Commissioner, the interior process of application for warrants will still remain opaque and open to manipulation within the intelligence agencies.

7. The application process for a warrant governing interception or interference involved a case being made in writing by the intelligence officer in charge of an investigation. This then went through four layers of management, with all the usual redactions and finessing, before a final summary was drafted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dispatched to the Secretary of State. So the minister was only ever presented with was a summary of a summary of a summary of a summary of the original intelligence case.

8. Additionally, the original intelligence case could be erroneous and misleading. The process of writing the warrant application was merely a tick box exercise, and officers would routinely note that such intelligence could only be obtained by such intrusive methods, rather than exploring all open source options first. The revalidation process could be even more cavalier.

9. When problems with this system were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just follow orders. During the annual visit by the Intelligence Intercept Commissioner, those with concerns were banned from meeting him.

10. Thus I have concerns about the realistic power of the oversight provisions written into this Bill and would urge an additional provision. This would establish an effective channel whereby officers with concerns can give evidence directly and in confidence to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner in the expectation that a proper investigation will be conducted and with no repercussions to their careers inside the agencies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford University three years ago outlining these proposals:

11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scenario for all concerned. The agencies would have a chance to improve their work practices, learn from mistakes, and better protect national security, as well as avoiding the scandal and embarrassment of any future whistleblowing scandals; the officers with ethical concerns would not be placed in the invidious position of either becoming complicit in potentially illegal acts by “just following orders” or risking the loss of their careers and liberty by going public about their concerns.

12. I would also like to raise the proportionality issue. It strikes me that bulk intercept must surely be disproportionate within a functioning and free democracy, and indeed can actually harm national security. Why? Because the useful, indeed crucial, intelligence on targets and their associates is lost in the tsunami of available information. Indeed this seems to have been the conclusion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the targets were all vaguely known to the authorities but resources were spread too thinly.

13. In fact all that bulk collection seems to provide is confirmation after the fact of a suspect’s involvement in a specific incident, which is surely specifically police evidential work. Yet the justification for the invasive intercept and interference measures laid out in the Bill itself is to gather vital information ahead of an attack in order to prevent it – the very definition of intelligence. How is this possible if the sheer scale of bulk collection drowns out the vital nuggets of intelligence?

14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step necessary before formulating the proposed IP Bill? Until we have such a legal definition, how can we formulate new and intrusive laws in the name of protecting an undefined and nebulous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be proportionate within a democracy?

Webstock in New Zealand

Webstock_2016_2I just want to say a huge thank you to the organisers of the 10th Webstock Festival in New Zealand earlier this month – definitely worth the interminable flights.

This is a tech-focused conference that very much looks at the bigger picture and joins a whole number of different societal dots.

Plus they look after their “inspirational speakers” exceedingly well, with scary coach trips out of Wellington and up the cliffs, a chance to appreciate the finer aspects of bowling at a NZ working men’s club, and a rip-roaring party at the end of the festival. It was great to have the time to chat with so many amazing people.

Oh, and I experienced my first earthquake – 5.7 on the Richter Scale. Slightly distant, but still impressive when you’re in a swaying 5th floor hotel room.  I initially thought a bomb might have gone off in the basement….  Thankfully, NZ hotels are made of pliable, if stern, stuff.

I was also shunted on to Radio New Zealand for a half hour interview, discussing whistleblowers, spies, drugs and surveillance.  Here it is – it was fun to do – so thank you NZ.

World’s Greatest Spy Movies – C4 Trailer

UK national TV station, Channel Four, recently aired a programme called “The World’s Greatest Spy Movies”, asking former spooks to comment about the reality (or not) of iconic spy films over the decades. It was a fun interview to do, and here’s the trailer:

TRAILER The World’s Greatest Spy Movies Channel 4 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Dark Web – interview on TRT World

Here’s a recent interview I did for “The Newsmakers” programme on TRT World, discussing the Dark Web and privacy:

The Newsmakers, TRT World, Turkey from Annie Machon on Vimeo.