Here is an interview I did for Voice of Russia radio in London last week about spies and their relationship with our democratic processes, oversight, Edward Snowden and much more:
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:
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.
In a sensational article in a UK newspaper last weekend, the former head of the UK’s foreign intelligence gathering agency, MI6, appears to have broken the code of omertà around the fraudulent intelligence case used as the pretext for the Iraq war in 2003.
Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6 and current Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge, contacted the UK’s Mail on Sunday newspaper to state that he had written his version of the (ab)use of intelligence in the run-up to the US/UK invasion of Iraq. With the long-awaited and much-delayed official Chilcot Enquiry into the case for war about to be published, Dearlove is obviously aware that he might be blamed for the “sexing up” of the intelligence, and that Teflon Tony Blair might once again shuffle off all responsibility.
You’ll no doubt have some vague recollection that, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the British government produced a couple of reports “making a case for war”, as Major General Michael Laurie said in his evidence to the enquiry in 2011: “We knew at the time that the purpose of the [September] dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence, and that to make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence the wording was developed with care.”
The first such report, the September Dossier (2002), is the one most remembered, as this did indeed “sex up” the case for war as the deceased Iraqi weapons inspector Dr David Kelly exposed. It also included the fraudulent intelligence about Saddam Hussein trying to acquire uranium from Niger. It was this latter claim that Colin Powell used to such great effect at the UN Security Council.
Also, just six weeks before the attack on Iraq, the “Dodgy” Dossier, based largely on a 12-year old PhD thesis culled from the Internet, but containing nuggets of raw MI6 intelligence — was presented by spy and politician alike as ominous premonitory intelligence.
Most memorably in the UK, it led to the bogus “Brits 45 minutes from Doom” front-page headline in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, no less, on the eve of the crucial war vote in Parliament.
Interestingly from a British legal position, it appears that Tony Blair and his spin doctor Alastair Campbell released this report without the prior written permission of the head of MI6, which means that they would appear to be in breach of the UK’s draconian secrecy law, the Official Secrets Act (1989).
Thus was made the dodgy case for war. All lies — millions of deaths and many more maimed, wounded, and displaced, yet no one held to account.
Subsequently, there was also the notorious leaked Downing Street Memo, where Sir Richard Dearlove was minuted as saying that the intelligence and facts were being fitted around the [predetermined war] policy.
On July 23, 2002 at a meeting at 10 Downing Street, Dearlove briefed Tony Blair and other senior officials on his talks with his American counterpart, CIA Director George Tenet, in Washington three days before.
In the draft minutes of that briefing, which were leaked to the London Times and published on May 1, 2005, Dearlove explains that George Bush had decided to attack Iraq and the war was to be “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.” While then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw points out that the case was “thin,” Dearlove explains matter-of-factly, “the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.”
There is no sign in the minutes that anyone hiccuped — much less demurred — at ”making a case for war” and furthering Blair’s determination to join Bush in launching the kind of “war of aggression” outlawed by the post-world war Nuremberg Tribunal and the UN treaty.
The acquiescence of the chief spies helped their political masters mainline into the body politic unassessed, raw intelligence and forged documents, with disastrous consequences for the people of Iraq and the world.
Yet Dearlove long remained unrepentant. Even as recently as 2011, post-retirement and bloated with honours, he continued to deny culpability. When questioned about the Downing Street Memo during an address to the prestigious Cambridge University Union Society by the fearless and fearsomely bright student, Silkie Carlo, Dearlove tried grandiloquently to brush her aside.
But were the remarks in the Memo really “taken out of context” as Dearlove tried to assert? No – the text of the Memo was clear and explicit.
So Dearlove could potentially have saved millions of lives across the Middle East if he had gone public then, rather than now as he is threatening, with his considered professional opinion about the intelligence facts being fitted around a preconceived war policy.
Would it not be lovely if these retired servants of the crown, replete with respect, status and honours, could actually take a stand while they are in a position to influence world events?
Doing so now, purely to preserve his reputation rather than to preserve lives, is even more “ethically flexible” than you would normally expect of an average MI6 intelligence officer. Perhaps that is why he floated to the top of the organisation.
Dearlove is right to be worried about how both Chilcot and history will judge him. These intelligence failures and lies have been picked over and speculated about for years. They are an open secret.
But holding the gun of disclosure to the UK government’s head smacks of desperation. He is quoted as saying that he has no plans to breach the Official Secrets Act by publishing his memoirs. But by publishing an account of the run-up to the Iraq war, he would be still guilty of a breach of the OSA. It has been established under UK law that any unauthorised disclosure crosses the “clear bright line” of the law. And Dearlove seems well aware of this – his original plan was for his account to be made available after his death.
I can see why he would plan that – firstly he would not risk prosecution under the draconian terms of the OSA, but his account would, in his view, set the record straight and protect his reputation for posterity. A posthumous win-win.
The official motto of the UK spies is “Regnum Defende” — defence of the realm. Serving intelligence officers mordantly alter this to “Rectum Defende” — politely translated as watch your back.
Dearlove seems to be living up to the motto. He must be one very frightened old man to be contemplating such premature publication.
With credit and thanks to former CIA analyst, current truth-teller and general pain in the “regnum” to the intelligence establishment, Ray McGovern, and also Sander Venema for his elegantly classical reworking of the final image.
The brutal murder in Woolwich last week of Drummer Lee Rigby rightly caused shock and outrage. Inevitably there has been a media feeding frenzy about “terrorist” attacks and home-grown radicalisation. British Prime Minister, David Cameron, felt it necessary to fly back from a key meeting in France to head up the British security response.
One slightly heartening piece of news to emerge from all the horror is that the PM has stated, at least for now, that there will be no knee-jerk security crack-down in the wake of this killing. Sure, security measures have been ramped up around military bases in the UK, but cynical calls from the securocrats to reanimate a proposed “snoopers’ charter”, aka the draft Communications Data Bill, have for now been discounted. And rightly so — MI5 already has all the necessary powers to monitor suspects.
However, there does still seem to be a politically disingenuous view about the motivation behind this murder. Yet the suspects themselves made no secret of it — indeed they stayed at the scene of the crime for twenty minutes apparently encouraging photos and smart phone recordings in order to get across their message. When the police armed response team finally arrived, the suspects reportedly charged at the police brandishing knives and possibly a gun. They were shot, but not fatally. This may have been attempted “suicide by cop” — delayed until they had said their piece.
This does not strike me as the actions of “crazed killers” as has been reported in the media; rather it reminds me of the cold and calculated actions of Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik. The Woolwich murder was designed to maximize the impact of the message in this social media age.
And the message being? Well, it was indeed captured on smart phone and sent out to the world. The killers clearly stated that this was a political action designed to highlight the gruesome violence daily meted out across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia as a result of the western policy of military interventionism.
This manifests in a variety of ways: violent resistance and insurgency against puppet governments as we see in Iraq; internecine civil war in countries such as post-NATO intervention Libya; covert wars fought by western proxies, as we see in Syria; or overt attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where US and UK controlled drones target militants named for assassination on presidentially-approved CIA kill lists with the resulting collateral murder of community gatherings, children and wedding parties.
All this does not justify the appalling murder in Woolwich, and the perpetrators must face justice for the crime. However, it does go some way to explaining why such an atrocity occurred, and we as a society need to face up to the facts or this will happen again.
Saying this does not make me an apologist for terrorism, any more than it did journalist Glenn Greenwald — a writer who has had the journalistic attack dogs unleashed on him for similar views. Beyond the group-think denialism within the Washington Beltway and the Westminster Village, the cause and effect are now widely-recognised. Indeed, in her 2010 testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry about the Iraq War, former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller said precisely the same thing — and I don’t think anyone would dare to label her “an apologist for terrorism”.
The seed of Islamic extremism was planted by western colonialism, propagated by the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup against President Mossadegh of Iran, watered by their support for a fledging Al Qaeda in the 1980s Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion, and is now flourishing as a means both of violently attempting to eject western occupying forces from Muslim countries and gaining retribution against the West.
We need to face up to this new reality. The brutal murder of this soldier may be a one-off attack, but I doubt it. Indeed, similar attacks against French soldiers in Toulouse occurred last year, and this weekend there has already been what appears to be a copy-cat attack against a soldier in Paris.
In this endemic surveillance society terrorist groups are all too aware of the vulnerabilities inherent in large-scale, co-ordinated attacks, the planning of which can be picked up by sigint or from internet “chatter”. Much simpler to go for the low-tech atrocity and cynically play the all-pervasive social media angle for maximum coverage.
The UK media has reported that the Woolwich suspects have been on the British intelligence radar for the last 8 years, but MI5 failed to take prompt action. The inevitable government enquiry has been promised, but the fall-back defensive position, already being trotted out by former spies and terrorism experts across the media is that the security services are never going to be in a position to accurately predict when every radicalised person might “flip” into violence and that such “lone wolf” attacks are the most difficult to stop.
As more news emerges, this is looking increasingly disingenuous. Reports have emerged that one of the suspects, Michael Adebolajo, was approached to work as an agent for MI5 half a year ago, apparently after he had been arrested and assaulted by police in Kenya. This may be another example of the security services’ failed Prevent initiative that seems to be causing more harm that good within the young British Muslim community.
This story has been compounded by the recent intriguing arrest of one of Adebolajo’s friends, the self-styled Abu Nusaybah, immediately after he had finished recording an interview about this for the BBC’s Newsnight programme. The Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Command swooped at the Beeb and arrested the man on terrorism charges: he has now disappeared into the maw of the legal system.
The only long-term and potentially effective solution is to address the fundamental issues that lead to Islamic violence and terrorism and begin negotiations. The UK, at least, has been through this process before during the 1990s, when it was attempting to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland. Indeed my former boss, Eliza Manningham-Buller, stated as much during a BBC lecture in 2011, saying that the US and UK governments need to negotiate with Al Qaeda to reach a political settlement.
Over the last 20 years, Al Qaeda has consistently demanded the removal of the western (predominantly US) military presence from the Middle East. Since the 9/11 attacks our political elites and media have equally consistently spun us the line that Al Qaeda carries out attacks because it “hates our way of life, hates our freedoms”.
Unless our governments acknowledge the problems inherent in continued and violent western interventionism, unless they can accept that the war on terror results in radicalisation, “blowback” and yet more innocent deaths, and until they admit that negotiation is the only viable long-term solution, we are all condemned to remain trapped in this ghastly cycle of violence.
Here’s the full article about MI6 “ghost money”, now also published at the Huffington Post UK:
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has recently been criticised for taking “ghost money” from the CIA and MI6. The sums are inevitably unknown, for the usual reasons of “national security”, but are estimated to have been tens of millions of dollars. While this is nowhere near the eyebleeding $12 billion shipped over to Iraq on pallets in the wake of the invasion a decade ago, it is still a significant amount.
And how has this money been spent? Certainly not on social projects or rebuilding initiatives. Rather, the reporting indicates, the money has been funnelled to Karzai’s cronies as bribes in a corrupt attempt to buy influence in the country.
None of this surprises me. MI6 has a long and ignoble history of trying to buy influence in countries of interest. In 1995/96 it funded a “ragtag group of Islamic extremists”, headed up by a Libyan military intelligence officer, in an illegal attempt to try to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi. The attack went wrong and innocent people were killed. When this scandal was exposed, it caused an outcry.
Yet a mere 15 years later, MI6 and the CIA were back in Libya, providing support to the same “rebels”, who this time succeeded in capturing, torturing and killing Gaddafi, while plunging Libya into apparently endless internecine war. This time around there was little international outcry, as the world’s media portrayed this aggressive interference in a sovereign state as “humanitarian relief”.
And we also see the same in Syria now, as the CIA and MI6 are already providing training and communications support to the rebels — many of whom, particularly the Al Nusra faction in control of the oil-rich north-east of Syria are in fact allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq. So in some countries the UK and USA use drones to target and murder “militants” (plus villagers, wedding parties and other assorted innocents), while in others they back ideologically similar groups.
Recently we have also seen the Western media making unverified claims that the Syrian régime is using chemical weapons against its own people, and our politicians leaping on these assertions as justification for openly providing weapons to the insurgents too. Thankfully, other reports are now emerging that indicate it was the rebels themselves who have been using sarin gas against the people. This may halt the rush to arms, but not doubt other support will continue to be offered by the West to these war criminals.
So how is MI6 secretly spending UK taxpayers’ money in Afghanistan? According to western media reporting, it is being used to prop up warlords and corrupt officials. This is deeply unpopular amongst the Afghan people, leading to the danger of increasing support for a resurgent Taliban.
There is also a significant overlap between the corrupt political establishment and the illegal drug trade, up to and including the president’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. So, another unintentional consequence may be that some of this unaccountable ghost money is propping up the drug trade.
Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of heroin, and the UN reports that poppy growth has increased dramatically. Indeed, the UN estimates that acreage under poppy growth in Afghanistan has tripled over the last 7 years. The value of the drug trade to the Afghan warlords is now estimated to be in the region of $700 million per year. You can buy a lot of Kalashnikovs with that.
So on the one hand we have our western governments bankrupting themselves to fight the “war on terror”, breaking international laws and murdering millions of innocent people across North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia while at the same time shredding what remain of our hard-won civil liberties at home.
On the other hand, we apparently have MI6 and the CIA secretly bankrolling the very people in Afghanistan who produce 90% of the world’s heroin. And then, of course, more scarce resources can be spent on fighting the failed “war on drugs” and yet another pretext is used to shred our civil liberties.
This is a lucrative economic model for the burgeoning military-security complex.
However, it is a lose-lose scenario for the rest of us.
I discuss the recent news that MI6, in addition to the CIA, has been paying “ghost money” to the political establishment in Afghanistan, other examples of such meddling, and the probable unintended consequences.
Also published on the Huffington Post UK.
A couple of days ago I was invited onto RT Arabic TV to do an interview about the ongoing clusterfuck that is Syria, with a particular focus on the issue of Western jihadis allegedly flooding into the country.
The premise, pushed across much of the Western media, is that these newly trained jihadis will then return home chock-full of insurgency know-how, ready to unleash terror on their unwitting host countries.
And, yes, there is an element of truth in this: the lessons of the US-backed mujahideen in 1980s Afghanistan and onwards across the Middle East since then is testament to that. Not that this lesson seems to have been absorbed by Western governments, who continue recklessly to back “rebel” forces across North Africa and the Middle East.
Or has it, at least on a certain level? If you do a little digging into where these stories are emanating from, another picture emerges.
The basis for these scare stories is a heavily-spun recent report, produced by the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT). What is this, you might ask? Well, it appears to be a sinecure within the UK’s Home Office. The head of the organisation is a hawkish securocrat called Charles Farr, a former senior MI6 officer from the cold war era.
In 2007 Mr Farr (OBE) moved to his new home at the Home Office, where he is conveniently in a relationship with Fiona Cunningham, special advisor to his new boss the Home Secretary Theresa May. Oh, and then he applied to be the civil servant in charge of the Home Office, but was recently turned down for that job a couple of months ago.
So how is Farr now spending his time? Well, he has just released a report, and it appears that he is behind some of the most egregious recent assaults on basic British freedoms.
Where to begin? His department was behind the Prevent campaign — supposedly a social initiative to reach out to disaffected youth in Britain and help “prevent” their radicalisation. Unfortunately, Prevent has been publicly lambasted for intimidating young Muslim men and trying to browbeat them into reporting on their communities.
On top of that, Charles Farr has, it has been reported, been one of the key lobbyists pushing for the totalitarian “Snoopers’ Charter” — a proposed law that would allow the intelligence and law enforcement agencies to hoover up all our data communications.
And finally, Mr Farr is one of the key supporters of the utterly undemocratic new Justice and Security Bill that enshrines the concept of “secret courts”, all done in the name of protecting “national security”, natch. Or in other words, covering up the embarrassment of the intelligence agencies when they are caught red-handed in illegal activities such as kidnapping and torture.
So, is it purely coincidental that this is the same upstanding British public servant reporting that Syria will be a new breeding-ground for radicalised Muslim youth attacking the UK? Or might there be a sneaking suspicion that the threat could be yet another excuse to be used to ramp up the case for all these undemocratic and deeply unpopular new laws?
Let’s not to forget that the UK has a history of backing such insurgency groups when it suits them, and then turning on them for political expediency — shades of Abdel Hakim Belhaj in Libya, anyone? It strikes me that the situation in Syria is evolving along similar lines.
So let’s retain a healthy scepticism about the wheels and cogs of vested interests and media manipulation whirring behind securocrats such as Charles Farr. The predictions of his Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism could have damaging consequences for our liberties in the UK; they could also have potentially fatal consequences for many thousands of people in Syria and the wider Middle East.
My recent interview on Iceland’s premier news discussion show, Silfur Egils, hosted by the excellent Egill Helgason.
The name refers to an old Norse saga about a hero, an earlier Egill, throwing handfuls of silver to the ground so he could make the Viking politicos of the day scrabble around in the dirt trying to pick up the coins.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Wikileaks spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson, invited me to speak at the Icelandic Centre for Investigative Journalism while I was in Iceland in February.
While focusing on the intersection and control between intelligence and the media, my talk also explores many of my other current areas of interest.
Part Two of my recent interview on the excellent, independent and fearless Real News Network:
A recent interview on RTTV about the ongoing civil war in Libya following the NATO invasion last year: