British politicians Droning on

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 2 Octo­ber 2012

Only in the mad world of mod­ern Brit­ish polit­ics could it be pos­sible to con­nect MPs, drones and royal breasts. Is this sound­ing a little too bizarre? Let me explain.…

Way back in 2008 Con­ser­vat­ive MP Damien Green, who was at the time the Shadow Min­is­ter for Immig­ra­tion, was arres­ted on sus­pi­cion of eli­cit­ing leaks from a Home Office civil ser­vant that appeared to con­firm the then Labour gov­ern­ment was cov­er­ing up UK immig­ra­tion figures.

When I say arres­ted, this was not the stand­ard, civ­il­ised and pre-arranged appoint­ment at the local nick, which the police tra­di­tion­ally allow their polit­ical “mas­ters” or, for that mat­ter, their bud­dies at News International.

Oh no, this was a full-on, Cold War-style arrest, car­ried out by the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Counter-Terrorism com­mand (known in the old days as Spe­cial Branch). Intriguingly, civil ser­vants appeared to have mis­lead­ingly hyped up the need for a heavy-handed police response by stat­ing that they were “in no doubt that there has been con­sid­er­able dam­age to national secur­ity already as a res­ult of some of these leaks”.

And indeed, the res­ult­ing arrests bore all the hall-marks of a national secur­ity case: secret police, dawn raids, and counter-terrorism style searches of the fam­ily home, the con­stitu­ency office, and — shock — an inva­sion of Green’s office in parliament.

Yet Green was not arres­ted under the terms of the Offi­cial Secrets Act. Instead, both he and his hap­less whis­tleblower, Chris­topher Gal­ley, were only seized on sus­pi­cion of breach­ing some arcane Vic­torian law (“aid­ing and abet­ting mis­con­duct in pub­lic office”).  I sup­pose arrest­ing a sit­ting MP for a breach of the OSA would have been just too polit­ic­ally tricky.

Leav­ing aside the under­stand­able upset caused to Green’s wife and chil­dren by the raid on their home, plus the fact that the police viol­ated not only their per­sonal effects such as bed sheets and love let­ters but also con­fid­en­tial legal papers about child abuse cases that Mrs Green was work­ing on, what really caused out­rage in the media and polit­ical classes was the fact that Plod had dared to invade the hal­lowed ground of parliament.

There was an out­cry from politi­cians about the “encroach­ing police state”. The case was duly dropped, the senior officer, Assist­ant Com­mis­sioner Bob Quick, had to resign (but only after com­mit­ting yet another polit­ical gaffe), and other stor­ies, such as the MP expenses scan­dal, grabbed the atten­tion of the main­stream media.

Roll on four years, and Damien Green has now ascen­ded to the giddy heights of Home Office Min­is­ter of State for Police and Crim­inal Justice. Well, meet­ing his new staff must have been an inter­est­ing exper­i­ence for him.

But what is this man now doing in his emin­ent role, to stop the slide into the encroach­ing police state that is the UK? Of all people, one would expect him to be sens­it­ive to such issues.

Sadly, he appears to have already gone nat­ive on the job. It was repor­ted yes­ter­day that he is pro­pos­ing the use of police drones to spy on the UK pop­u­la­tion, but in an “appro­pri­ate and pro­por­tion­ate” man­ner of course.

The concept of small aer­ial drones being used by UK police has been mooted for a few years now — indeed some police forces and secur­ity agen­cies have already bought them. But whereas the ini­tial, stand­ard jus­ti­fic­a­tion was that it would help in the “war on ter­ror” (as it has so ably done in the Middle East, where inno­cent fam­il­ies are routinely slaughtered in the name of assas­sin­at­ing mil­it­ants), mission-creep has already set in.  Damien Green stated at the launch of the new National Police Air Ser­vice (NPAS) that drones could be use­ful mon­it­or­ing protests and traffic viol­a­tions. It has even been repor­ted that the Home Office plans to use non-lethal weapons to do so.

Of course there are prob­lems around the use of drones in UK air­space.  Our skies are already very crowded and they could present a haz­ard to air­craft, although the BBC has repor­ted that drones could be air­borne in the next few years.  This appears to be the only argu­ment hold­ing the use of drones in check — for­get about civil liber­ties and pri­vacy issues.

This is par­tic­u­larly per­tin­ent as we look at the evol­u­tion of drone tech­no­logy.  Cur­rently the UK police are dis­cuss­ing toy-sized drones, but it has already been repor­ted that drones the size of birds or even insects, with autonom­ous intel­li­gence or swarm cap­ab­il­it­ies are being developed. And don’t even get me star­ted on the sub­ject of poten­tial militarisation.…

There is a whole debate to be had about what can be viewed and what can­not — where does the pub­lic sphere end and the private begin? A couple of years ago I sug­ges­ted some­what facetiously that our best hope of defeat­ing the intro­duc­tion of sur­veil­lance drones in the UK might be indig­nant celebs suing the paparazzi for using the tech­no­lo­gies.  But per­haps the ante has already been upped in the recent fall-out from the Duch­ess of Cam­bridge and her roy­ally papped breasts.

If drone tech­no­logy becomes wide­spread, then nobody will have any pri­vacy any­where. But who knows, before we get to that stage per­haps HM Queen will come out swinging on the side of pri­vacy for her granddaughter-in-law, if not for the rest of her “sub­jects”. If that were to hap­pen then no doubt Damien Green will aban­don his new-found enthu­si­asm for these air­borne sur­veil­lance pests; if not to stop the “encroach­ing police state” of which he must have such col­our­ful recol­lec­tions, then at least to safe­guard any poten­tial knight­hood in his rosy min­is­terial future.

Boiling Frogs

BoilingfrogsThis Sat­urday, Octo­ber 2, I’ll be speak­ing at the South­wark Play­house in Lon­don, in between the mat­inée and even­ing per­form­ances of an excel­lent new play by Steven Bloomer called “Boil­ing Frogs”.  The play looks at the erosion of civil liber­ties in the UK, in the name of pro­tect­ing us from the “war on ter­ror”, and is being per­formed by The Fact­ory, an innov­at­ive theatre troupe.

My talk will be called “Are We There Yet?”, and will assess how far down the road the UK has moved towards being a de facto police state: what do we mean by this, and what are the indic­at­ors we should watch out for?

Gestapo Past and Present

So last week I was on hol­i­day with my lovely Dutch­man in Cologne on the Rhine in Ger­many, a city steeped in his­tory and now chiefly fam­ous for its Gothic cathed­ral, widely reputed to be pretty much the last build­ing left stand­ing in the city at the end of WW2.  Eas­ily res­ist­ing both this reli­gious hot­spot and, with slightly more dif­fi­culty, the  siren calls of the brauerei, we decided on a bit of cul­ture, some museums and a stroll along the river. 

How­ever, it turns out that not one but two build­ings had sur­vived WW2 in their entirety.  Tucked away on a back­street, we found the second sur­vivor: the Gestapo HQ, which had been pre­served as it was found at the end of the war to serve as a ghastly warn­ing to history.  

Gestapo_HQ2Well, as someone who reg­u­larly speaks at con­fer­ences across the world about human rights, total­it­ari­an­ism and encroach­ing police states, I felt I had to have a look.  The build­ing is a non­des­cript office block that looks per­fectly inno­cent from the out­side.  Three floors are open to the pub­lic.  On the first is the museum, with the his­tory of the rise to power of the Nazis.  It was hideously fas­cin­at­ing to read how freedoms and rights were incre­ment­ally eroded as the state slipped ever more from demo­cracy.  The major­ity of the Ger­man people went sleep-walking into national social­ism.  As soon as Hitler had any sort of polit­ical power his attack-dogs, the SS, used dis­pro­por­tion­ate, sud­den, and shock­ing viol­ence against Germany’s own cit­izens to crush any nas­cent res­ist­ance.  So from 1933 onwards the pop­u­la­tion was ter­ror­ised, as “undesir­ables” were routinely snatched from their homes for ques­tion­ing, tor­ture and imprisonment. 

Gestapo_HQ_Annie_2And the pro­pa­ganda in the media that was on dis­play.….  Shall I just say, even more unsubtle than that which is used against us today.  I sup­pose these dark arts have developed over the inter­ven­ing years.

MischaBut it was the lower floors that packed the strongest punch.  The base­ment, just below street level, held the cells — tiny, dank spaces where as many as 30 people had been her­ded together.  And the walls are covered in graf­fiti in all the lan­guages of Europe — sad, des­per­ate mes­sages to the future from people who were “dis­ap­peared”. They seemed to want to leave a record of the fact simply that they had exis­ted: they had loved, they missed their fam­il­ies, they were try­ing to hold their heads high des­pite the agon­ies inflic­ted daily, they were inno­cent, they were about to die.…..

Hold_your_head_highThere was one more level — the rein­forced rat hole deep under­ground, which served both as the air-raid shel­ter for the Gestapo officers (the pris­on­ers were left upstairs in their cells dur­ing the raids), and as the tor­ture rooms.  Con­sid­er­ately, the Gestapo car­ried out their most bru­tal inter­rog­a­tions under­ground, so that the screams could not be heard at street level.

As we emerged, some­what silent, from this museum, I noticed that we, and many other vis­it­ors, all turned to stare at this build­ing: it looked so bland and innoc­u­ous from the out­side.  But then people would inspect the base­ment win­dows that hid the cells.  The smokers in the group all sparked up as soon as they were out­side, drag­ging hard on their cigar­ettes.  Oth­ers just stood silently. 

So the museum does its job.  It is a power­ful warn­ing from the grave.  Homo hom­ini lupus: man is wolf to man, ever has been and ever will be, absent adequate legal restraint.  This is why the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was put in place in 1948, to pre­vent such atro­cit­ies from hap­pen­ing again.

Yet, at the risk of sound­ing sen­ten­tious, such abuse is going on around the world right now, par­tic­u­larly in the cause of the end­less, neb­u­lous “war on ter­ror”.  We have been lazy, blind and fool­ish, let­ting our basic rights slide away.  People are dis­ap­peared, extraordin­ar­ily rendered, to for­eign pris­ons and tor­tured for years.  Assas­sin­a­tion lists have been drawn up by US intel­li­gence agen­cies; sus­pects face kangaroo, military-style courtrooms, where they face the death pen­alty but are not allowed to know the full case against them; our gov­ern­ments aggress­ively, illeg­ally, invade other coun­tries, and yet the politi­cians who lie to take us into these wars, thereby caus­ing the need­less death, pois­on­ing, maim­ing and dis­place­ment of mil­lions of people, are not called to account for their crimes, as they should be under the Nurem­berg Prin­ciples, the Rome Stat­ute, and the Inter­na­tional Crim­inal Court.

We, the cit­izens of still just-about-functioning demo­cra­cies, should be ashamed.  We need to re-remember our his­tory and take a stand — before it’s too late.

Protest_and Resist

Talking about totalitarianism at ETH-0, January 2010

ETH-0_PosterIn Janu­ary I had the pleas­ure of speak­ing in The Neth­er­lands at the excel­lent geek­fest known as ETH-0.  Rather than just banging on about the spooks, I thought it was time to take a step back and exam­ine what exactly we mean when we talk about total­it­ari­an­ism, police states, and how far down the road our coun­tries have gone.

I also wanted to drive home to an audi­ence, many of whom are too young to remem­ber the Cold War, what exactly it would be like to live under a police state with its endemic surveillance. 

And here’s the talk:

The Real Reason for the Police State?

DroneI haven’t writ­ten here for a while, des­pite the embar­ras de richesses that has been presen­ted to us in the news recently: Dame Stella say­ing that the UK is becom­ing a police state;  drones will patrol the streets of Bri­tain, watch­ing our every move; data­bases are being built, con­tain­ing all our elec­tronic com­mu­nic­a­tions; ditto all our travel move­ments. What can a lone blog­ger use­fully add to this?  Only so much hot air — the facts speak for themselves.

Plus, I’ve been a bit caught up over the last couple of months with Oper­a­tion Escape Pod. Not all of us are sit­ting around wait­ing for the prison gates to clang shut on the UK. I’m outta here!

But I can’t res­ist an inter­est­ing art­icle in The Spec­tator magazine this week. And that’s a sen­tence I never thought I would write in my life.

Tim Ship­man, quot­ing a pleth­ora of anonym­ous intel­li­gence sources and former spooks, asserts that Britain’s for­eign policy is being skewed by the need to pla­cate our intel­li­gence allies, and that the CIA is roam­ing free in the wilds of Yorkshire.

His sources tell him that the UK is a “swamp” of Islamic extrem­ism, and that the domestic spies are ter­ri­fied that there will be a new ter­ror­ist atro­city, prob­ably against US interests but it could be any­where, car­ried out by our very own home-grown ter­ror­ists. Accord­ing to Ship­man, this ter­rible pro­spect had all the spooks busily down­ing trebles in the bars around Vaux­hall Cross in the wake of the Mum­bai bombings.

Apart from the sug­ges­tion that the spies’ drink­ing cul­ture appears to be as robust as ever, I find this inter­est­ing because well-sourced spook spin is more likely to appear in the august pages of The Speccie than in, say, Red Pep­per. But if this is an accur­ate reflec­tion of the think­ing of our politi­cians and intel­li­gence com­munity, then this is an extremely wor­ry­ing devel­op­ment. It goes a long way to explain­ing why the UK has become the most policed state in the West­ern world.

Yes, in the 1990s the UK prac­tised a strategy of appease­ment towards Islamic extrem­ists. MI5’s view was always that it was bet­ter to give rad­ic­als a safe haven in the UK, which they would then be loathe to attack dir­ectly, and where a close eye could be kept on them.

This, of course, was derailed by Blair’s Mes­si­anic mis­sion in the Middle East. By uni­lat­er­ally sup­port­ing Bush’s adven­tur­ism in Afgh­anistan and Iraq, in the teeth of stark warn­ings about the attend­ant risks from the head of MI5, Bri­tain has become “the enemy” in the eyes of rad­ical Islam. The gloves are off, and we are all at greater risk because of our former PM’s hubris.

But now we appar­ently have free-range CIA officers infilt­rat­ing the Muslim com­munit­ies of the UK.  No doubt Mossad is also again secretly  tol­er­ated, des­pite the fact that they had been banned for years from oper­at­ing in the UK because they were too unpre­dict­able (a civil ser­vice euphem­ism for violent).

And I am will­ing to bet that this inter­na­tional per­cep­tion that UK spooks will be caught off-guard by an appar­ently British-originated ter­ror­ist attack is the reason for the slew of new total­it­arian laws that are mak­ing us all sus­pects. The drones, the datamin­ing and the dra­conian stop-and-search laws are designed to reas­sure our invalu­able allies in the CIA, Mossad, ISI and the FSB.  They will not be put in place to “pro­tect” us.