Here’s a recent interview I did for “The Newsmakers” programme on TRT World, discussing the Dark Web and privacy:
Press freedom is under threat in Germany – two journalists and their alleged source are under investigation for potential treason for disclosing and reporting what appears to be an illegal and secret plan to spy on German citizens. Here’s the interview I did for RT.com about this yesterday:
My interview on RT yesterday about the young whistleblower, Submariner William McNeilly, who exposed serious security concerns about the UK’s nuclear deterrent system, Trident:
Today it was reported that McNeilly turned himself in to the police at Edinburgh airport and is currently in military custody.
Here is a panel discussion I did about whistleblowing at the Logan Symposium in London last November. With me on the panel are Eileen Chubb, a UK health care whistleblower who runs Compassion in Care and is campaigning for Edna’s Law, and Bea Edwards of the US Government Accountability Project. With thanks to @newsPeekers for filming this.
According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has stated that the US and UK spy agencies threatened to cut Germany out of the intelligence-sharing loop if it gave safe haven to NSA whistlebower, Edward Snowden.
Here is my view of the situation on RT today:
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.
A comment piece from last week on RT about German politicians wanting to go back to paper-based communications to evade the US spy panopticon:
And here is the full text of the interview I gave on RT Op Edge:
Both typewriter and strong encryption is going to slow down communication, but upholding a basic democratic right of privacy seems to be more important, former MI5 agent Annie Machon told RT.
Amid the American-German espionage scandal, German politicians are considering going back to old-fashioned manual typewriters for confidential documents in order to protect national secrets from American NSA surveillance.
RT: Why would Germany think of using typewriters as a security measure?
Annie Machon: What I find interesting is that we have a situation where even our democratically elected representatives have to think deeply and seriously about how to protect the privacy of their communications, particularly when the investigation of the very subject of invasion of the privacy of the citizens, which is what the Bundestag at the moment is doing in Germany, trying to hold hearings to work out what exactly the NSA has been doing, which might be contravening the constitution of Germany. It is very difficult now but it is still possible to protect your electronic communications, but I think this announcement, this sort of statement by the Bundestag representative about going back to typewriters is interesting. It just makes a very strong point that we all need to be aware of the fact that we can be spied on at any time.
RT: Do you think everyone would follow Germany’s example?
AM: I think more and more people are concerned about their privacy because of the Edward Snowden disclosures. He has done the world a huge service with great personal cost, exposing the predations of the US Intelligence agencies and the NSA particularly, as well as a number of European agencies. In the past all countries spied on each other because they wanted to gain advantage over other countries, not necessarily their enemies, just an advantage economically or politically. However, what we are seeing at the moment is the result of what was the perfect storm for the USA in the 1990s, it was a perfect opportunity for them, because at that point the Cold War had ended, they were the sole remaining superpower on the planet, and precisely at that moment we had the evolution of the internet, a huge tech explosion of communications. They saw the opportunity and they went for it. Of course they did because that meant that they could embed whatever they wanted into the infrastructure that the whole world now uses for communication. Of course they were not going to turn this opportunity down, and they haven’t. That is what Edward Snowden disclosed.
So we have the situation now when everything can conceivably be hoovered up by the NSA and its vassal states in Europe, everything can conceivably be stored for ever and be used against citizens in the future if the laws change. And everything can conceivably be known amongst the private deliberations of our parliament’s democratically elected representatives. It’s worse than Orwellian.
It would be naïve to think that the US would not take up this opportunity, but of course they did, and these are the results we are living in. It would be lovely to think that we could go back to the era of having privacy in our lives that our governments would have power to ensure we had it, but in this globalized world it is very difficult to ensure that. One of the things that is little known out of all Snowden’s disclosures is the fact that it is not just what we send over the internet, it is also hardware, the computers, the technology we actually use that can already be compromised by the NSA. This is one of the things that came out just after Christmas last year. So we are living in a very complex world but there are very simple steps we can take, both the governments and the citizens, to protect our democratic and our basic right to privacy.
RT:Wouldn’t using typewriters slow things down in terms of communication? Why not use other, more modern ways of protecting communication?
AM: Either going back to using pen paper or typewriter or using very strong encryption is going to slow down one’s communication, there is no doubt about it. The point is though, what is more important, is it access to the latest celebrity gossip on the internet or is it actually upholding a basic democratic right of privacy. Because if we don’t have privacy, then we lose our freedom to communicate easily and in private, we lose our freedom to ingest information via video, audio or from reading, we cannot plan, we cannot conduct private personal relationships over the internet. So what is the price of a little bit of inconvenience when it comes to protecting our basic rights? I think that however light-heartedly the German politician mentioned using typewriters, when it comes to proper security issues within government, he is probably absolutely right. Last year there was a report as well, saying that some of the Russian security operators were now using typewriters too. We will all have to think about that, and it’s just a jolting wake up call to make us all think about that by stating that the German government is now going back to typewriters for certain things.
RT: What kind of solution do you see? Should people rely on their governments for protection of their privacy?
AM: There is a danger that people and the government will become very paranoid about trying to protect against the predations of the NSA and its vassals in Europe. However, I’m not sure as we as citizens can rely on governments to protect our privacy because all governments would want to know what is going on on the internet for legitimate reasons as well, to try to track down the illegitimate criminals and terrorists. But it can be easy for them to hoover up all the personal information and we, as citizens, need that have that guarantee of privacy. So one of the things we can do as citizens is to take responsibility in our own hands. We can indeed source all technologies, source computers pre-2008 that have not built-in hardware backdoors. We can use decent PGP encryption, we can use Tor to hide what we are looking at in the internet, we can use other encryption methodologies to protect our privacy, and we need to. I think it’s a very interesting crossroads in our history, both as civilizations, as democracy and as individuals, but also how we view the technology, how we use it, how we can better use it to protect our life, so that is going it be an ongoing debate. I’m very pleased to see this in Germany particularly. The politicians seem to be waking up around these issues and wanting debate these issues because the USA has got away with it for long enough across the West.
Here is a quick interview I did about the EU’s new data protection measures, laws that will have to be implemented in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures about endemic NSA surveillance:
This is an excellent example of how whistleblowers continue to make a positive contribution to society.
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.
- The insider threat
- Free Speech Debate project
- Whistleblower discussion panel
- What whistleblowers want
- The value of whistleblowers
- The cost of whistleblowing
- The real purpose of UK secrecy laws
- Head of MI6 statement
- Early article on Wikileaks
- Possible whistleblower protections
- Failure of UK parliamentary oversight
- UK spies and the law
- UK spies: unethical and unaccountable
- Meaningful parliamentary oversight of intelligence agencies, with full powers of investigation, at both national and European levels.
- These same democratic bodies to provide a legitimate channel for intelligence whistleblowers to give their evidence of malfeasance, with the clear and realistic expectation that a full inquiry will be conducted, reforms applied and crimes punished.
- Institute a discussion about the legal definition of national security, what the real threats are to the integrity of nation states and the EU, and establish agencies to work within the law to defend just that. This will halt international intelligence mission creep.
- EU-wide implementation of the recommendations in the Echelon Report (2001):
- to develop and build key infrastructure across Europe that is immune from US governmental and corporatist surveillance; and
- “Germany and the United Kingdom are called upon to make the authorisation of further communications interception operations by US intelligence services on their territory conditional on their compliance with the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights).”
- The duty of the European parliament is to the citizens of the EU. As such it should actively pursue technology policies to protect the privacy and basic rights of the citizens from the surveillance of the NSA and its vassals; and if it cannot, it should warn its citizens abut this actively and educate them to take their own steps to protect their privacy (such as no longer using certain Internet services or learning to use privacy enhancing technologies). Concerns such as the trust Europeans have in ‘e-commerce’ or ‘e-government’ as mentioned by the European Commission should be secondary to this concern at all times.
- Without free media, where we can all read, write, listen and discuss ideas freely and in privacy, we are all living in an Orwellian dystopia, and we are all potentially at risk. These media must be based on technologies that empower individual citizens, not corporations or foreign governments. The Free Software Foundation has been making these recommendations for over two decades.
- The central societal function of privacy is to create the space for citizens to resist the violation of their rights by governments and corporations. Privacy is the last line of defense historically against the most potentially dangerous organisation that exists: the nation state. Therefore there is no ‘balance between privacy and security’ and this false dichotomy should not be part of any policy debate.
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 for the excellent Oxford University Free Speech Debate project, run by Professor Timothy Garton Ash. I discuss whistleblowing, the Official Secrets Act, Wikileaks and much more:
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?