Here is my recent interview on RT London’s flagship news show, “Going Underground“, discussing ISIS, Syria and wider western intelligence interventions in the Middle East:
Here is my recent interview on RT London’s flagship news show, “Going Underground“, discussing ISIS, Syria and wider western intelligence interventions in the Middle East:
A recent interview on RTTV about the ongoing civil war in Libya following the NATO invasion last year:
Part One of my recent interview on the excellent, independent and fearless Real News Network:
Published in The Huffington Post UK, 30 September 2012
Published in The Real News Network, 30 September 2012
A lot of sound and fury has been expended in the British media over the last few months about the Coalition government’s proposal to enact secret courts via the proposed Justice and Security Bill – purely for terrorist cases, you understand. Which, of course, is OK as we all know terrorists are by definition the Baddies.
Except we need to drill down into the detail of the proposals, have a look at some history, and think through the future implications.
The concept of secret courts emerged from the official UK spook sector – MI5 and MI6 have been lobbying hard for such protection over recent years. Their argument revolves around a number of civil cases, where British victims of extraordinary rendition and subsequent torture have sued the pants off the spies through civil courts and received some recompense for their years of suffering.
The most notorious case was that of Binyam Mohamed, who was repeatedly tortured in a black prison in Morocco, with British spies allegedly contributing to his questioning. And we’re not talking about a few stress positions, awful as they are. Mohamed was strung up and had his penis repeatedly slashed with a razor.
MI5 and MI6 are aggrieved because they could not defend themselves in the resultant civil actions brought against them, and they (and their former political master Jack Straw) are particularly worried about future cases around the MI6-organised Libyan renditions exposed last year. The spies’ argument is that having to produce evidence in their own defence would damage that ever-flexible but curiously vague concept of “national security”.
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
The spooks have traditionally used the “national security” argument as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. It has never been legally defined, but it is unfailingly effective with judges and politicians.
We saw similar arguments during the post-9/11 security flap, when many terrorist suspects were scooped up and interned in high security British prisons such as Belmarsh on the say-so of faceless intelligence officers. No evidence needed to be adduced, nor could it be challenged. The subsequent control order system was equally Kafkaesque.
That’s not to say that certain interned individuals might not have been an active threat to the UK. However, in the “good” old days (god, I sound ancient), suspects would have had evidence gathered against them, been tried by a jury, convicted and imprisoned. The system was never perfect and evidence could be egregiously withheld, but at least appeals were possible, most notably in the case of the Birmingham Six.
Since 9/11 even breathing the word “terrorist” has meant that all these historic common law principles seem to have been jettisoned. Even before the proposed enshrinement of “secret courts” in the new Bill, they are already being used in the UK – the Special Immigration Appeal Commission (SIAC) tribunals hear secret evidence and the defendant’s chosen lawyer is not allowed to attend. Instead a special, government-approved advocate is appointed to “represent the interests” of the defendant who is not allowed to know what his accusers have to say. And there was no appeal.
But all this is so unnecessary. The powers are already in place to be used (and abused) to shroud our notionally open court process in secrecy. Judges can exclude the press and the public from court rooms by declaring the session in camera for all or part of the proceedings. Plus, in national security cases, government ministers can also issue Public Interest Immunity Certificates (PIIs) that not only bar the press from reporting the proceedings, but can also ban them from reporting they are gagged – the governmental super-injunction.
So the powers already exist to protect “national security”. No, the real point of the new secret courts is to ensure that the defendant and, particularly in my view, their chosen lawyers cannot hear the allegations if based on intelligence of any kind. Yet even the spies themselves agree that the only type of intelligence that really needs to be kept secret involves ongoing operations, agent names, and sensitive operational techniques.
And as for the right to be tried by a jury of your peers – forget it. Of course juries will have no place in such secret courts. The only time we have seen such draconian judicial measures in the UK outside a time of official war was during the Troubles in Northern Ireland – the infamous Diplock Courts – beginning in the 1970s and which incredibly were still in use this year.
I am not an apologist of terrorism although I can understand the social injustice that can lead to it. However, I’m also very aware that the threat can be artificially ramped up and manipulated to achieve preconceived political goals.
I would suggest that the concept of secret courts will prove fatally dangerous to our democracy. It may start with the concept of getting the Big Bad Terrorist, but in more politically unstable or stringent economic times this concept is wide open to mission creep.
We are already seeing a slide towards expanding the definition of “terrorist” to include “domestic extremists”, activists, single issue campaigners et al, as I have written before. And just recently information was leaked about a new public-private EU initiative, Clean IT, that proposes ever more invasive and draconian policing powers to hunt down “terrorists” on the internet. This proposal fails to define terrorism, but does provide for endemic electronic surveillance of the EU. Pure corporatism.
Allowing secret courts to try people on the say-so of a shadowy, unaccountable and burgeoning spy community lands us straight back in the pages of history: La Terreur of revolutionary France, the creepy surveillance of the Stasi, or the disappearances and torture of the Gestapo.
Have we learned nothing?
I have always been ideologically opposed to war and all the horrors that flow in its wake: agonising fear and death, famine, displacement, maiming, torture, rape, internment and the breakdown of all the hard-won values of civilised human law and behaviour.
Looking back, I think that was partly why I was attracted to work in diplomacy and how I ended up being enticed into intelligence. These worlds, although by no means perfect, could conceivably be seen as the last-ditch defences before a country goes bellowing into all-out war.
I marched against the Iraq war, toured the UK to speak at Stop the War meetings, worked with Make Wars History, and have ceaselessly spoken out and written about these and related issues.
Today in the UK we have reached a consensus that Blair’s government lied to the country into the Iraq war on the false premise of weapons of mass destruction, and subsequently enabled the Bush administration to do the same in the USA, hyping up the threat of a nuclear Iraq using false intelligence provided by MI6.
Millions of people marched then, and millions of people continue to protest against the ongoing engorgement of the military/intelligence complex, but nothing ever seems to change. It’s democratically disempowering and an enervating experience. What can we do about it?
I have a couple of suggestions (The New Stuff), but first let’s look at some of the most egregious current fake realities.
Last year we had the spectacle of the current No 10 incumbent, Dave Cameron, stating that the Libyan intervention would be nothing like Iraq – it would be “necessary, legal and right”. But there was no subsequent joined-up thinking, and Blair and his cronies have still not been held to account for the Iraq genocide, despite prima facie breaches of international war law and of the Official Secrets Act….
But help might be at hand for those interested in justice, courtesy of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group leader, MI6 kidnapping and torture victim, and current military commander in Tripoli.
After NATO’s humanitarian bombing of Libya last year and the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, some seriously embarrassing paperwork was found in the abandoned office of Libyan Foreign Minister and former spy head honcho, Musa Kusa (who fled to the UK and subsequently on to Qatar).
These letters, sent in 2004 by former MI6 Head of Terrorism and current BP consultant, Sir Mark Allen, gloatingly offer up the hapless Belhaj to the Libyans for torture. It almost seems like MI6 wanted a gold star from their new bestest friends.
Belhaj, understandably, is still slightly peeved about this and is now suing MI6. As a result, a frantic damage-limitation exercise is going on, with MI6 trying to buy his silence with a million quid, and scattering unattributed quotes across the British media: “it wasn’t us, gov, it was the, er, government….”.
Which drops either (or both) Tony Blair and Jack Straw eyebrow-deep in the stinking cesspit. One or other of them should have signed off on Belhaj’s kidnapping, knowing he would be tortured in Tripoli. Or perhaps they actually are innocent of this….. but if they didn’t sign off on the Belhaj extraordinary kidnapping, then MI6 was running rampant, working outside the law on their watch.
Either way, there are serious questions to be answered.
Both these upstanding politicians are, of course, suffering from political amnesia about this case. In fact, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary at the time of the kidnapping, has said that he cannot have been expected to know everything the spies got up to – even though that was precisely his job, as he was responsible for them under the terms of the Intelligence Security Act 1994, and should certainly have had to clear an operation so politically sensitive.
In the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, what worries me now is that exactly the same reasons, with politicians mouthing exactly the same platitudinous “truths”, are being pushed to justify an increasingly inevitable strike against Iran.
Depressing as this all is, I would suggest that protesting each new, individual war is not the necessarily the most effective response. Just as the world’s markets have been globalised, so manifestly to the benefit of all we 99%-ers, have many other issues.
Unlike Dave Cameron, we need to apply some joined-up thinking. Global protest groups need to counter more than individual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Sudan (North and South), Syria, Iran…… sorry, I’m getting writer’s cramp just enumerating all the current wars.
Give me a while to overcome my moral spasm, and I shall return with a few suggestions about possible ways forward – 21st Century Pacifism; the New Stuff.
Sometimes I sit here reading the news - on subjects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police investigation into UK spy complicity in torture, where the police decided not to prosecute – and feel that I should comment. But really, what would be the point? Of course the police would not find enough concrete evidence, of course no individual spies would be held to account, despite the fact that the British government has already paid massive settlements to the victims.
Now there are reports that the police will be investigating MI6 involvement in the extraordinary rendition and torture of two Libyans. The case appears bang to rights, with documentary evidence that high-ranking MI6 officers and government ministers were involved in and approved the operation. Yet I'm willing to bet that the plods at Scotland Yard will still not be able to find the requisite evidence to prosecute anybody.
The inevitable (and probably wished-for outcome on the part of the authorities) is that people become so weary and cynical about the lack of justice that they stop fighting for it. And they can temporarily succeed, when we succumb to cynical burnout.
But the case reported in today's Daily Mail, that of a young British student facing extradition to the US despite having broken no laws in the UK, succeeded in rousing my wrath.
The hapless 23-year old Richard O'Dwyer faces 10 years in a maximum security American prison. His crime, according to the US, is that he set up a UK-based website that provided links to other international websites that allegedly hosted copyright material.
This case is so troubling on so many levels it is difficult to know where to begin. There are issues around the crackdown of US corporate copyright law, issues around the inequality of the unilateral Extradition Act 2003, and historic questions of US hypocrisy about extradition.
So let's start with the unsupported allegations against poor Richard O'Dwyer. He is a student who built a website that collated a list of sites in other countries that host films, books and music for free download. O'Dwyer did not himself download any copyrighted material, and the websites he linked to were apparently within jurisdictions where such downloads are not illegal. Providing a signpost to other legal international sites is manifestly not a crime in the UK and he has never been charged.
However, over the last couple of decades the US entertainment lobby has been fighting a vicious rearguard action against copyright infringement, starting with the music, then the film, and now the publishing industry. The lobbyists have proved victorious and the invidious SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Congress. All well and good you might think – it's one of those mad US issues. But oh no, these laws have global reach. What might be legal within the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legislation.
Which is where the Extradition Act 2003 becomes particularly threatening. This law means that any UK citizen can be demanded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evidence. As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hacker Gary McKinnon, it matters not if the "crime" were committed on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon's case was not prosecuted by the UK authorities in 2002. If it had been, he would have received a maximum sentence of 6 months' community service: if extradited he is facing up to 70 years in a US maximum security prison).
The UK government has tried to spin the egregious Libyan cases as "judicial rendition" rather than "extraordinary kidnapping" or whatever it's supposed to be. So I think it would be accurate to call Gary McKinnon's case "judicial rendition" too, rather than boring old extradition.
Richard O'Dwyer apparently didn't commit anything that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extradition to the US and a 10 year stretch. The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judicial rendition.
As I have mentioned before, digital rights activist Cory Doctorow summed it up best: "you can't make a system that prevents spying by secret police and allows spying by media giants". These corporate internet laws are a Trojan horse that will threaten our basic civil liberties across the board.
So now to my third point. The hypocrisy around the American stance on extradition with the UK is breathtaking. The UK has been dispatching its own citizens off at an alarming rate to the "tender" mercies of the US judicial system since 2004, with no prima facie evidence required. In fact, the legal proof required to get a UK citizen extradited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extradited from one US state to another.
The US, on the other hand, delayed ratifying the law until 2006, and the burden of proof required to extradite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbalanced not only in concept but also in practice. And this despite the fact that the law was seen as crucial to facilitate the transfer of highly dangerous terrorist suspects in the endless "war on terror".
Why has this happened? One can but speculate about the power of the Irish lobby in the US government, as Sir Menzies Campbell did during a parliamentary debate about the Act in 2006. However, it is well known that the US was remarkably coy about extraditing IRA suspects back to the UK to stand trial during the 30-year "Troubles" in Northern Ireland. We even have well-known apologists such as Congressman Peter King, the Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee attempting to demonise organisations like Wikileaks as terrorist organisations, while at the same being a life-long supporter of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA.
The double standards are breath-taking. The US dictates an extradition treaty with the UK to stop terrorism, but then uses this law to target those who might potentially, tangentially, minutely threaten the profits of the US entertainment mega-corps; and then it delays ratifying and implementing its own law for potentially dubious political reasons.
And the UK government yet again rolls over and takes it, while innocent students such as Richard O'Dwyer must pay the price. As his mother is quoted as saying: "if they can come for Richard, they can come for anyone".
Libya, MI6, torture, and more happy subjects discussed recently on “Africa Today” on Press TV.
The programme was interesting, informed and balanced. Do have a watch:
This article in today's New York Times, particularly these following two paragraphs, sent a shiver down my spine for the fate of the Libyan people:
"The most powerful military leader is now Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former leader of a hard-line group once believed to be aligned with Al Qaeda.The growing influence of Islamists in Libya raises hard questions about the ultimate character of the government and society that will rise in place of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s autocracy…..
….Mr. Belhaj has become so much an insider lately that he is seeking to unseat Mahmoud Jibril, the American-trained economist who is the nominal prime minister of the interim government, after Mr. Jibril obliquely criticized the Islamists."
The Libyans, finally free of Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship, now seem faced with a choice between an Islamist faction that has stated publicly that it wants to base the new constitution on Sharia – a statement that must have caused a few ripples amongst Libya's educated and relatively emancipated women – or a new government headed up by an American-trained economist.
And we all know what happens to countries when such economists move in: asset stripping, the syphoning off of the national wealth to transnational mega-corps, and a plunge in the people's living standards. If you think this sounds extreme, then do get your hands on a copy of Naomi Klein's excellent "Shock Doctrine" – required reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the growing global financial crisis.
Of course, this would be an ideal outcome for the US, UK and other western forces who intervened in Libya.
Mr Belhaj is, of course, another matter. Not only would an Islamist Libya be a potentially dangerous result for the West, but should Belhaj come to power he is likely to be somewhat hostile to US and particularly British interests.
Why? Well, Abdul Hakim Belhaj has form. He was a leading light in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist organisation which bought into the ideology of "Al Qaeda" and which had made many attempts to depose or assassinate Gaddafi, sometimes with the financial backing of the British spies, most notably in the failed assassination plot of 1996.
Of course, after 9/11 and Gaddafi's rapprochement with the West, this collaboration was all air-brushed out of history – to such an extent that in 2004 MI6 was instrumental in kidnapping Belhaj, with the say-so of the CIA, and "extraordinarily rendering" him to Tripoli in 2004, where he suffered 6 years' torture at the hands of Libya's brutal intelligences services. After this, I doubt if he would be minded to work too closely with UK companies.
So I'm willing to bet that there is more behind-the-scenes meddling from our spooks, to ensure the ascendency of Jibril in the new government. Which will be great for Western business, but not so great for the poor Libyans…..
A cache of highly classified intelligence documents was recently discovered in the abandoned offices of former Libyan spy master, Foreign Minister and high-profile defector, Musa Kusa.
These documents have over the last couple of weeks provided a fascinating insight into the growing links in the last decade between the former UK Labour government, particularly Tony Blair, and the Gaddafi regime. They have displayed in oily detail the degree of toadying that the Blair government was prepared to countenance, not only to secure lucrative business contracts but also to gloss over embarrassing episodes such as Lockerbie and the false flag MI6-backed 1996 assassination plot against Gaddafi.
These documents have also apparently revealed direct involvement by MI6 in the “extraordinary rendition” to Tripoli and torture of two Libyans. Ironically it has been reported that they were wanted for being members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the very organisation that MI6 had backed in its failed 1996 coup.
The secular dictatorship of Col Gaddafi always had much to fear from Islamist extremism, so it is perhaps unsurprising that, after Blair’s notorious “deal in the desert” in 2004, the Gaddafi regime used its connections with MI6 and the CIA to hunt down its enemies. And, as we have all been endlessly told, the rules changed after 9/11…
The torture victims, one of whom is now a military commander of the rebel Libyan forces, are now considering suing the British government. Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary at the time, has tried to shuffle off any blame, stating that he could not be expected to know everything that MI6 does.
Well, er, no – part of the job description of Foreign Secretary is indeed to oversee the work of MI6 and hold it to democratic accountability, especially about such serious policy issues as “extraordinary rendition” and torture. Such operations would indeed need the ministerial sign-off to be legal under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.
There has been just so much hot air from the current government about how the Gibson Torture Inquiry will get to the bottom of these cases, but we all know how toothless such inquiries will be, circumscribed as they are by the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005. We also know that Sir Peter Gibson himself has for years been “embedded” within the British intelligence community and is hardly likely to hold the spies meaningfully to account.
So I was particularly intrigued to hear that the the cache of documents showed the case of David Shayler, the intelligence whistleblower who revealed the 1996 Gaddafi assassination plot and went to prison twice for doing so, first in France in 1998 and then in the UK in 2002, was still a subject of discussion between the Libyan and UK governments in 2007. And, as I have written before, as late as 2009 it was obvious that this case was still used by the Libyans for leverage, certainly when it came to the tit-for-tat negotiations around case of the murder in London outside the Libyan Embassy of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.
Of course, way back in 1998, the British government was all too ready to crush the whistleblower rather than investigate the disclosures and hold the spies to account for their illegal and reckless acts. I have always felt that this was a failure of democracy, that it seriously undermined the future work and reputation of the spies themselves, and particularly that it was such a shame for the fate of the PBW (poor bloody whistleblower).
But it now appears that the British intelligence community’s sense of omnipotence and of being above the law has come back to bite them. How else explain their slide into a group-think mentality that participates in “extraordinary rendition” and torture?
One has to wonder if wily old Musa Kusa left this cache of documents behind in his abandoned offices as an “insurance policy”, just in case his defection to the UK were not to be as comfortable as he had hoped – and we now know that he soon fled to Qatar after he had been questioned about the Lockerbie case.
But whether an honest mistake or cunning power play, his actions have helped to shine a light into more dark corners of British government lies and double dealing vis a vis Libya….
My RTTV interview today about Libya, torture, and UK double-dealing:
The Guardian's spook commentator extraordinaire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has reported that the current chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in the UK Parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants the committee to finally grow a pair. Well, those weren't quite the words used in the Grauny, but they certainly capture the gist.
If Rifkind's stated intentions are realised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, meaningful and democratic oversight for the first time in the 100-year history of the three key UK spy agencies – MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to mention the defence intelligence staff, the joint intelligence committee and the new National Security Council .
For many long years I have been discussing the woeful lack of real democratic oversight for the UK spies. The privately-convened ISC, the democratic fig-leaf established under the aegis of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act (ISA), is appointed by and answerable only to the Prime Minister, with a remit only to look at finance, policy and administration, and without the power to demand documents or to cross-examine witnesses under oath. Its annual reports are always heavily redacted and have become a joke amongst journalists.
When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apoplectic that Parliament should have any form of oversight whatsoever. From their perspective, it was bad enough at that point that the agencies were put on a legal footing for the first time. Spy thinking then ran pretty much along the lines of "why on earth should they be answerable to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians, who were leaky as hell and gossiped to journalists all the time"?
So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994. They really had nothing to worry about. I remember, I was there at the time.
This has been borne out over the last 17 years. Time and again the spies have got away with telling barefaced lies to the ISC. Or at the very least being "economical with the truth", to use one of their favourite phrases. Former DG of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, has publicly said that "I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the committee [ISC] early on…". Not to mention the outright lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whistleblower testimony, torture, and counter-terrorism measures.
But these new developments became yet more fascinating to me when I read that the current Chair of the ISC proposing these reforms is no less than Sir Malcolm Rifkind, crusty Tory grandee and former Conservative Foreign Minister in the mid-1990s.
For Sir Malcolm was the Foreign Secretary notionally in charge of MI6 when the intelligence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gaddafi Plot when MI6 funded a rag-tag group of Islamic extremist terrorists in Libya to assassinate the Colonel, the key disclosure made by David Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.
Obviously this assassination attempt was highly reckless in a very volatile part of the world; obviously it was unethical, and many innocent people were murdered in the attack; and obviously it failed, leading to the shaky rapprochement with Gaddafi over the last decade. Yet now we are seeing the use of similar tactics in the current Libyan war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our government openly and shamelessly calling for regime change.
But most importantly from a legal perspective, in 1996 the "Gaddafi Plot" MI6 apparently did not apply for prior written permission from Rifkind – which they were legally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act (the very act that also established the ISC). This is the fabled, but real, "licence to kill" – Section 7 of the ISA – which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illegal acts committed abroad, if they have the requisite ministerial permission.
At the time, Rifkind publicly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanction the plot when the BBC Panorama programme conducted a special investigation, screened on 7 August 1997. Rifkind's statement was also reported widely in the press over the years, including this New Statesman article by Mark Thomas in 2002.
That said, Rifkind himself wrote earlier this year in The Telegraph that help should now be given to the Benghazi "rebels" – many of whom appear to be members of the very same group that tried to assassinate Gaddafi with MI6's help in 1996 – up to and including the provision of arms. Rifkind's view of the legalities now appear to be somewhat more flexible, whatever his stated position was back in the 90s.
Of course, then he was notionally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any political fall-out. Now he can relax into the role of "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?". Such a relief.
I shall be watching developments around Rifkind's proposed reforms with interest.