My recent interview on RT show “In the Now” about gender equality in the British spy agencies:
My recent interview on RT show “In the Now” about gender equality in the British spy agencies:
My recent interview on RT show “In the Now” about gender equality in the British spy agencies:
So this week the murderous beheader of the Islamic State, “Jihadi John”, has been unmasked. His real identity is apparently Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and now a British citizen who was raised and educated in west London
Much sound, fury and heated debate has been expended over the last couple of days about how he became radicalised, who was to blame, with MI5 once more cast in the role of villain. In such media sound-bite discussions it is all too easy to fall into facile and polarised arguments. Let us try to break this down and reach a more nuanced understanding.
First up is the now-notorious press conference hosted by the campaigning group, Cage, in which the Research Director, Asim Qureshi , claimed that MI5 harassment of Emwazi was the reason for his radicalisation. Emwazi had complained to Cage and apparently the Metropolitan Police that over the last six years MI5 had approached him and was pressurising him to work as an agent for them. According to Cage, this harassment lead to Emwazi’s radicalisation.
Yet recruitment of such agents is a core MI5 function, something it used to do with subtlety and some success, by identifying people within groups who potentially could be vulnerable to inducements or pressure to report back on target organisations. In fact, British intelligence used to be much more focused on gathering “HUMINT”. The very best intelligence comes from an (ideally) willing but at least co-operative human agent: they are mobile, they can gain the trust of and converse with targets who may be wary of using electronic communications, and they can be tasked to gather specific intelligence rather than waiting for the lucky hit on intercept.
MI5 used to be good at this — spending time to really investigate and identify the right recruitment targets, with a considered approach towards making the pitch.
However, it appears since 9/11 and the start of the brutal “war on terror” that two problems have evolved, both of which originated in America. Firstly, British intelligence seems to have followed their US counterparts down a moral helter-skelter, becoming re-involved in counter-productive and brutal activities such as kidnapping, internment and torture. As MI5 had learned at least by the 1990s, such activities inevitably result in blow-back, and can act as a recruiting drum to the terrorist cause of the day.
(Tangentially, the Home Office also instigated the Prevent programme — in concept to counter radical Islam in vulnerable social communities, but in practice used and abused by the authorities to intimidate and coerce young Muslims in the UK.)
Secondly, British intelligence seems over the last decade to have blindly followed the US spies down the path of panoptican, drag-net electronic surveillance. All this has been long suspected by a few, but confirmed to the many by the disclosures of Edward Snowden over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems that GCHQ is not merely complicit but an active facilitator and enabler of the NSA’s wilder ideas. And what we now know is horrific enough, yet it currently remains just the tip of the iceberg.
This deluge of information creates gargantuan haystacks within which some genuine intelligence needles might reside — to use the terminology of the spy agency cheerleaders. However, it concurrently swamps the intelligence agencies in useless information, while also certainly throwing up a percentage of false-positives. Bearing in mind the sheer scale of the legally dubious snooping, even a 0.001% of false positives could potentially produce thousands of erroneous leads.
Curious people now have a world of information at their fingertips. They may click on an intriguing link and find themselves on a radical website; even if they click out quickly, the panopticon will have logged their “interest”. Or they could donate money to an apparently legitimate charity; “like” the wrong thing on Facebook; follow the wrong person on Twitter; have their email hacked, or whatever.…
The Big Brother Borg algorithms will crunch through all of this information predictably and predictively, with subtleties lost and mistakes made. Mind you, that happened in a more limited fashion too at the height of the Cold War subversion paranoia in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, when schoolboys writing to the Communist Party HQ for information for school projects could end up with a MI5 file, and divorcing couples could denounce each other. But at least, then, whole populations were not under surveillance.
I think this may go some way towards explaining so many recent cases where “lone wolf” attackers around the world have been known to their national intelligence agencies and yet been left to roam free, either discounted as too low level a threat in the flood of information or otherwise subjected to bungled recruitment approaches.
In the analogue era much time, research and thought would go into identifying persons of interest, and more crucially how to approach a target either for disruption or recruitment. I should think that the spy super-computers are now throwing up so many possible leads that approaches are made in a more hurried, ill-informed and less considered way.
And this can result in cases such as Michael Adebolayo whom MI5 approached and allegedly harassed years before he went on to murder Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. The same may well have happened with Mohammed Emwazi. Once someone has been targeted, they are going to feel paranoid and under surveillance, whether rightly or wrongly, and this might result in growing resentment and push them into ever more extreme views.
However, I would suggest that MI5 remains merely the tool, following the directives of the UK government in response to the ever-expanding, ever-nebulous war on terror, just as MI6 followed the directives of the Blair government in 2003 when it allowed its intelligence to be politicised as a pretext for an illegal war in Iraq. MI5 might be an occasional catalyst, but not the underlying cause of radicalisation.
Unfortunately, by immersing itself in the now-overwhelming intelligence detail, it appears to be missing the bigger picture — just why are young British people taking an interest in the events of the Middle East, why are so many angry, why are so many drawn to radical views and some drawn to extreme actions.
Surely the simplest way to understand their grievances is to listen to what the extremist groups actually say? Osama Bin Laden was clear in his views — he wanted US military bases out of Saudi Arabia and US meddling across the Middle East generally to stop; he also wanted a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.
Jihadi John states in his ghastly snuff videos that he is meting out horror to highlight the horrors daily inflicted across the Middle East by the US military — the bombings, drone strikes, violent death and mutilation.
To hear this and understand is not to be a sympathiser, but is vital if western governments want to develop a more intelligent, considered and potentially more successful policies in response. Once you understand, you can negotiate, and that is the only sane way forward. Violence used to counter violence always escalates the situation and everyone suffers.
The USA still needs to learn this lesson. The UK had learned it, resulting in the end of the war in Northern Ireland, but it now seems to have been forgotten. It is not rocket science — even the former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, has said negotiation is the only successful long-term policy when dealing with terrorism.
Along with the UK, many other European countries have successfully negotiated their way out of long-running domestic terrorist campaigns. The tragedy for European countries that have recently or will soon suffer the new model of “lone wolf” atrocities, is that our governments are still in thrall to the failed US foreign policy of “the war on terror”, repeated daily in gory technicolour across North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and now Ukraine.
Global jihad is the inevitable response to USA global expansionism, hegemony and aggression. As long as our governments and intelligence agencies in Europe kowtow to American strategic interests rather than protect those of their own citizens, all our countries will remain at risk.
Here is my keynote speech at the recent Internetdagarna (Internet Days) conference in Stockholm, Sweden, discussing all things whistleblower, spy, surveillance, privacy and TTIP:
This morning, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Aftonbladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whistleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, and threats to the internet. Here is the interview:
Here is my recent talk at the CCC in Hamburg, discussing the war on terror, the war on drugs, the war in the internet and the war on whistleblowers:
Here’s a recent interview I did for BBC World about the three top British spies deigning, for the first time ever, to be publicly questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament, which has a notional oversight role:
It subsequently emerged that they only agreed to appear if they were told the questions in advance. So much for this already incredibly limited oversight capability in a notional Western democracy.….
On the day the UK spy chiefs were called to account for the first time by the Intelligence and Security Committee in the British parliament:
First published by RT Op-Edge.
Andrew Parker, the Director General of the UK’s domestic security Service (MI5) yesterday made both his first public speech and a superficially robust defence of the work of the intelligence agencies. Reading from the outside, it sounds all patriotic and noble.
And who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 groupthink mentality being what it is? Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. However, I have two problems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale.
Let’s start with the micro — ie the devil in the detail — what is said and, crucially, what is left unsaid. First up: oversight, which the spook apologists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.
I wrote about this last week, but here’s some of that devilish detail. Parker correctly explains what the mechanisms are for oversight within MI5: the Home Office warrants for otherwise illegal activities such as bugging; the oversight commissioners; the Complaints Tribunal; the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament. This all sounds pretty reasonable for a democracy, right?
Of course, what he neglects to mention is how these systems can be gamed by the spies.
The application for warrants is a tick-box exercise where basic legal requirements can be by-passed, the authorising minister only ever sees a summary of a summary.… ad infinitum.… for signature, and never declines a request in case something literally blows up further down the line.
Sure, there are independent commissioners who oversee MI5 and its surveillance work every year and write a report. But as I have written before, they are given the royal treatment during their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with concerns about the abuse of the warrantry system are barred from meeting them. Plus, even these anodyne reports can highlight an alarming number of “administrative errors” made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.
The complaints tribunal — the body to which we can make a complaint if we feel we have been unnecessarily spied on, has always found in favour of the spies.
And finally, the pièce de résistance, so to speak: the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament. How many times do I have to write this? Top cops and Parker’s spy predecessors have admitted to lying successfully to the ISC for many years. This is not meaningful oversight, nor is the fact that the evidence of earlier major intelligence whistleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under investigation by MI5 themselves.…
Of course, the current Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcom Rifkind, has entered the lists this summer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies’ lairs, demand to see papers, and oversee operational activities. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ’s endemic data-mining as lawful, one has to wonder how thorough he will be.
While the committee remains chosen by the PM, answerable only to the PM, who can also vet the findings, this committee is irredeemably undemocratic. It will remain full of credulous yes-men only too happy to support the status quo.
Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will therefore remember not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and pervasive threat of IRA bombs regularly exploding on UK streets. At the same time hundreds of thousands of politically active UK citizens were aggressively investigated. A (cold) war and the threat of terrorism allowed the spies a drag-net of surveillance even then.
How much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era? One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker’s speech was the need to investigate “terrorists and others threatening national security”. National security has never been legally defined for the purposes of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the “reds under the bed”, the so-called subversives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of London or environmental activists waving placards.
So now for my macro concerns, which are about wider concepts. Parker used his first public speech to defend not only the work of his own organisation, but also to attack the whistleblowing efforts of Edward Snowden and the coverage in The Guardian newspaper. He attempts to seamlessly elide the work and the oversight models of MI5 and GCHQ. And who is falling for this? Well, much of the UK media apparently.
This muddies the waters. The concerns about Snowden’s disclosures are global — the TEMPORA project affects not only the citizens of the UK but people across Europe and beyond. For Rifkind or the Foreign Secretary to complacently say that GCHQ is overseen by them and everything is hunkey-dorey is just not good enough, even for the hapless citizens of the UK. How much more so for those unrepresented people across the world?
The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were written before the UK government could have conceived of the sheer scale of the internet. They are way out of date — 20th century rolling omnibus warrants hoovering up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might commit a (thought?) crime in the future. This is nothing like meaningful oversight.
Unlike the UK, even the USA is currently having congressional hearings and media debates about the limits of the electronic surveillance programme. Considering America’s muscular response after 9/11, with illegal invasions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordinary kidnappings (to this day), that casts the UK spy complacency in a particularly unflattering light.
Plus if 58,000 GCHQ documents have really been copied by a young NSA contractor, why are Parker and Rifkind not asking difficult questions of the American administration, rather than continuing to justify the antiquated British oversight system?
Finally, Parker is showing his age as well as his profession when he talks about the interwebs and all the implications. As I said during my statement to the LIBE committee in the European Parliament:
The disparity in response to Edward Snowden’s disclosures within the USA and the UK is astonishing. In the face of righteous public wrath, the US administration is contorting itself to ensure that it does not lose its treasured data-mining capabilities: congressional hearings are held, the media is on the warpath, and senior securocrats are being forced to admit that they have lied about the efficacy of endemic surveillance in preventing terrorism.
Just this week General Alexander, the head of the NSA with a long track record of
misleading lying to government, was forced to admit that the endemic surveillance programmes have only helped to foil a couple of terrorist plots. This is a big difference from the previous number of 54 that he was touting around.
Cue calls for the surveillance to be reined in, at least against Americans. In future such surveillance should be restricted to targeted individuals who are being actively investigated. Which is all well and good, but would still leave the rest of the global population living their lives under the baleful stare of the US panopticon. And if the capability continues to exist to watch the rest of the world, how can Americans be sure that the NSA et al won’t stealthily go back to watching them once the scandal has died down — or just ask their best buddies in GCHQ to do their dirty work for them?
I’m sure that the UK’s GCHQ will be happy to step into the breach. It is already partially funded by the NSA, to the tune of $100 million over the last few years; it has a long history of circumventing US constitutional rights to spy on US citizens (as foreigners), and then simply passing on this information to the grateful NSA, as we know from the old Echelon scandal; and it has far more legal leeway under British oversight laws. In fact, this is positively seen to be a selling point to the Americans from what we have seen in the Snowden disclosures.
GCHQ is absolutely correct in this assessment — the three primary UK intelligence agencies are the least accountable and most legally protected in any western democracy. Not only are they exempt from any real and meaningful oversight, they are also protected against disclosure by the draconian 1989 Official Secrets Act, designed specifically to criminalise whistleblowers, as well as having a raft of legislation to suppress media reporting should such disclosures emerge.
This might, indeed, be the reason that the UK media is not covering the Snowden disclosures more extensively — a self-censoring “D” Notice has been issued against the media, and The Guardian had its UK servers smashed up by the secret police. 1930s Germany, anyone?
Defenders of the status quo have already been out in force. Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is notionally responsible for GCHQ, said cosily that everything was legal and proportionate, and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the current chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament last week staunchly declared that the ISC had investigated GCHQ and found that its data mining was all legal as it had ministerial approval.
Well that’s all OK then. Go back to sleep, citizens of the UK.
What Hague and Rifkind neglected to say was that the ministerial warrantry system was designed to target individual suspects, not whole populations. Plus, as the Foreign secretary in charge of MI6 at the time of the illegal assassination plot against Gaddafi in 1996, Rifkind of all people should know that the spies are “economical with the truth”.
In addition, as I’ve written before, many former top spies and police have admitted that they
misled lied to the ISC. Sure, Rifkind has managed to acquire some new powers of oversight for the ISC, but they are still too little and 20 years too late.
This mirrors what has been going on in the US over the last few years, with senior intelligence official after senior official being caught out lying to congressional committees. While in the UK statements to the ISC have to date not been made under oath, statements made to the US Congress are — so why on earth are apparent perjurers like Clapper and Alexander even still in a job, let alone not being prosecuted?
It appears that the US is learning well from its former colonial master about all things official secrecy, up to and including illegal operations that can be hushed up with the nebulous and legally undefined concept of “national security”, the use of fake intelligence to take us to war, and the persecution of whistleblowers.
Except the US has inevitably super-sized the war on whistleblowers. While in the UK we started out with the 1911 Official Secrets Act, under which traitors could be imprisoned for 14 years, in 1989 the law was amended to include whistleblowers — for which the penalty is 2 years on each charge.
The US, however, only has its hoary old Espionage Act dating back to 1917 and designed to prosecute traitors. With no updates and amendments, this is the act that is now rolled out to threaten modern whistleblowers working in the digital age. And the provisions can go as far as the death penalty.
President Obama and the US intelligence establishment are using this law to wage a war on whistleblowers. During his presidency he has tried to prosecute seven whistleblowers under this Espionage Act — more than all the previous presidents combined — and yet when real spies are caught, as in the case of the Russian Spy Ring in 2010, Obama was happy to cut a deal and send them home.
An even more stark example of double standards has emerged this August, when a leak apparently jeopardised an ongoing operation investigating a planned Al Qaeda attack against a US embassy in the Middle East. This leak has apparently caused immediate and quantifiable damage to the capabilities of the NSA in monitoring terrorism, and yet nobody has been held to account.
But, hey, why bother with a difficult investigation into leaking when you can go after the low-hanging fruit — otherwise known as principled whistleblowers who “out” themselves for the public good?
This to me indicates what the US intelligence infrastructure deems to be the real current issue — “the insider threat” who might reveal crucial information about state crimes to the world’s population.
And yet the US representatives still trot out the tired old lines about terrorism. Senator Lindsey Graham stated this week that the current level of endemic surveillance would have prevented 9/11. Well, no, as previous intelligence personnel have pointed out. Coleen Rowley — Time Person of the Year 2002 — is famous for highlighting that the US intelligence agencies had prior warning, they just didn’t join the dots. How much worse now would this process be with such a tsunami of data-mined intelligence?
In summary, it’s good to see at least a semblance of democratic oversight being played out in the USA, post-Snowden. It is a shame that such a democratic debate is not being held in the UK, which is now the key enabler of the USA’s chronic addiction to electronic surveillance.
However, I fear it is inevitably too little too late. As we have seen through history, the only protection against a slide towards totalitarianism is a free media that allows a free transfer of ideas between people without the need to self-censor. The global US military-security complex is embedded into the DNA of the internet. We cannot rely on the USA to voluntarily hand back the powers it has grabbed, we can only work around them as Brazil has suggested it will do, and as the EU is contemplating.
Other than that, responsibility for our privacy rests in our own hands.
Below is some background material from my submission to the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee on the implications of the NSA scandal.
Here is a video link to the hearing.
LIBE Committee Inquiry on Electronic Mass Surveillance of EU Citizens, European Parliament, 30th September 2013
Annie Machon was an intelligence officer for the UK’s MI5 in the 1990s, before leaving to help blow the whistle on the crimes and incompetence of the British spy agencies. As a result she and her former partner had to go on the run around Europe, live in exile in France, face arrest and imprisonment, and watch as friends, family and journalists were arrested.
She is now a writer, media commentator, political campaigner, and international public speaker on a variety of related issues: the war on terrorism, the war on drugs, the war on whistleblowers, and the war on the internet. In 2012 she started as a Director of LEAP in Europe (www.leap.cc).
Annie has an MA (Hons) Classics from Cambridge University.
Home 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.
In 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.
This 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.
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.…
In the wake of the global impact of the ongoing Edward Snowden saga, a smaller but still important whistleblower story flared and faded last week in the UK media.
Peter Francis revealed that 20 years ago he had worked as an undercover cop in the Metropolitan Police Force’s secret Special Demonstrations Squad (SDS) section. In this role, Francis stated that he was tasked to dig up dirt with which the Met could discredit the family of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence and thereby derail their campaign for a full and effective police investigation into his death. The Lawrence family correctly believed that the original investigation had been fumbled because of institutional police racism at that time.
The fact that secret police were posing as activists to infiltrate protest groups will come as no shock after the cascade of revelations about secret policemen in 2011, starting with DC Mark Kennedy/environmental activist “Mark Stone”. Kennedy was uncovered by his “fellow” activists, and nine more quickly emerged in the wake of that scandal. This has resulted in an enquiry into the shadowy activities of these most secret officers, accusations that the Crown Prosecution Service suppressed key evidence in criminal trials, and a slew of court cases brought by women whom these (predominantly male) police officers seduced.
But the disclosures of Peter Francis plumb new depths. In the wake of the Stephen Lawrence murder, many left-wing and anti-Nazi groups jumped on the bandwagon, organising demonstrations and provoking confrontations with the far-right British National Party. There was a clash near the BNP’s bookshop in south London in 1993. So, sure, the Met Police could potentially just about argue that the undercover officers were trying to gather advance intelligence to prevent public disorder and rioting, although the sheer scale of the operation was utterly disproportionate.
However, what is completely beyond the Pale is this apparent attempt to smear the traumatised family of a murder victim in order to derail their campaign for justice.
The role of undercover cops spying on their fellow citizens who are politically active is distasteful in a democracy. And the fact that, until the original scandal broke in 2011, the reconstituted SDS continued to target peace and environmental protest groups who offered no threat whatsoever to national security is disgraceful — it smacks of the Stasi in East Germany.
To make matters even worse, when details emerged two years ago, it became apparent that the SDS Version 2.0 was operating outside the formal hierarchy of the police, with what little democratic oversight that would provide. In fact, it emerged that the SDS been renamed the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) and had for years been the private fiefdom of a private limited company — the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). Within a notional democracy, this is just gobsmacking.
So how did this mess evolve?
From the late 19th century the Metropolitan Police Special Branch investigated terrorism while MI5, established in 1909, was a counter-intelligence unit focusing on espionage and political “subversion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rimington, then head of MI5, effected a Whitehall coup and stole primacy for investigating Irish terrorism from the Met. As a result MI5 magically discovered that subversion was not such a threat after all – this revelation only three years after the Berlin Wall came down – and transferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-terrorism sections. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly building its counter-terrorism empire, despite this being more obviously evidential police work.
Special Branch was relegated to a supporting role, dabbling in organised crime and animal rights activists, but not terribly excited about either. Its prestige had been seriously dented. It also had a group of experienced undercover cops – known then to MI5 as the Special Duties Section – with time on their hands.
It should therefore come as little surprise that ACPO came up with the brilliant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domestic extremists”. It renamed the SDS as the NPOIU, which first focused primarily on potentially violent animal rights activists, but mission creep rapidly set in and the unit’s role expanded into peaceful protest groups. When this unaccountable unit was revealed it rightly caused an outcry, especially as the term “domestic extremist” is not recognised under UK law, and cannot legally be used as justification to aggressively invade an individual’s privacy because of their legitimate political beliefs and activism.
So, as the police become ever more spooky, what of MI5?
As I mentioned, they have been aggressively hoovering up the prestigious counter-terrorism work. But, despite what the Americans have hysterically asserted since 9/11, terrorism is not some unique form of “eviltude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shocking one, but still a crime that should be investigated, with evidence gathered, due process applied and the suspects on trial in front of a jury.
A mature democracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern suspects or render them to secret prisons and torture them for years. And yet this is precisely what our spooks have been doing – particularly when colluding with their US counterparts.
Also, MI5 and MI6 have for years operated outside any realistic democratic oversight and control. Until this year, the remit of the Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament has only covered the policy, administration and finance of the spies. Since the committee’s inception in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to meaningfully address more serious questions about the spies’ role, and has been repeatedly lied to by senior spies and police officers.
The spooks are effectively above the law, while at the same time protected by the draconian Official Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed discussion about the realistic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the protective phrase “national security”. But what does this mean?
The core idea should be safeguarding the nation’s integrity. A group of well-meaning environmental protesters should not even be on the radar. And, no matter how awful, the occasional terrorist attack is not an existential threat to the fabric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi invasion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sustained bombing of government, infrastructure and military targets by the Provisional IRA in the 1970s-90s.
Only once we understand the real threats can we as a nation discuss the necessary steps to take to protect ourselves effectively; what measures should be taken, what liberties occasionally and legally compromised, and what democratic accountability exists to ensure that the security forces do not exceed their remit and work within the law.
It is only by going through this process that can we ensure such scandals as the secret police will remain firmly in the past. And in the wake not only of Peter Francis’s confessions but the sheer scale of the endemic electronic surveillance revealed by Edward Snowden, this long-overdue national debate becomes ever more necessary.