RT interview on Manning sentencing

Here is my most recent RT inter­view, live as Chelsea Man­ning was sen­tenced to 35 years in a US prison for blow­ing the whistle and expos­ing war crimes:

RT Inter­view about Man­ning sen­ten­cing from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

My RNN interview — Snowden disclosures cause outrage across EU

Here is a recent inter­view I did for the Real News Net­work about the global and European fall-out from the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures:

And here’s a ver­sion with the text.

Journalists need to tool up

Pub­lished in the Huff­ing­ton Post UK:

Over the last week more sound, fury and indig­na­tion has cas­caded forth from the US media, spill­ing into the European news, about the Amer­ican gov­ern­ment and the Asso­ci­ated Press spy­ing scan­dal.

Last week it emerged that the US Depart­ment of Justice mon­itored the tele­phones of, gasp, journ­al­ists work­ing at AP. Appar­ently this was done to try to invest­ig­ate who might have been the source for a story about a foiled ter­ror­ist plot in Yemen. How­ever, the drag­net seems to have widened to cover almost 100 journ­al­ists and poten­tially threatened gov­ern­mental leak­ers and whis­tleblowers who, in these days of sys­tem­atic secur­ity crack­downs in the US, are fast becom­ing Pub­lic Enemy No 1.

Now it appears that the US DoJ has been read­ing the emails of a senior Fox News reporter. And this has got the US hacks into a fright­ful tizz. What about the First Amendment?

Well, what about the fact that the Pat­riot Act shred­ded most of the US Con­sti­tu­tion a dec­ade ago?

Also, who is actu­ally facing the secur­ity crack­down here? The US journ­al­ists are bleat­ing that their sources are dry­ing up in the face of a sys­tem­atic witch hunt by the US admin­is­tra­tion. That must be hard for the journ­al­ists — hard at least to get the stor­ies and by-lines that ensure their con­tin­ued employ­ment and the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage. This adds up to the phrase du jour: a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Er, yes, but how much harder for the poten­tial whis­tleblowers? They are the people facing not only a loss of pro­fes­sional repu­ta­tion and career if caught, but also all that goes with it. Plus, now, they are increas­ingly facing dra­conian prison sen­tences under the recently rean­im­ated and cur­rently much-deployed US 1917 Espi­on­age Act for expos­ing issues in the pub­lic interest. Ex-NSA Thomas Drake faced dec­ades in prison for expos­ing cor­rup­tion and waste, while ex-CIA John Kiriakou is cur­rently lan­guish­ing in prison for expos­ing the use of torture.

The US gov­ern­ment has learned well from the example of the UK’s Offi­cial Secrets Acts — laws that never actu­ally seem to be wiel­ded against real estab­lish­ment trait­ors, who always seem to be allowed to slip away, but which have been used fre­quently and effect­ively to stifle dis­sent, cover up spy crimes, and to spare the blushes of the Establishment.

So, two points:

Firstly, the old media could and should have learned from the new model that is Wikileaks and its ilk. Rather than asset strip­ping the organ­isa­tion for inform­a­tion, while abandon­ing the alleged source, Brad­ley Man­ning, and the founder, Julian Assange, to their fates, Wikileaks’s erstwhile allies could and mor­ally should cam­paign for them. The issues of the free flow of inform­a­tion, demo­cracy and justice are big­ger than petty argu­ments about per­son­al­ity traits.

Plus, the old media appear to have a death wish: to quote the words of the former New York Times editor and Wikileaks col­lab­or­ator Bill Keller, Wikileaks is not a pub­lisher — it is a source, pure and simple. But surely, if Wikileaks is “only” a source, it must be pro­tec­ted at all costs — that is the media’s prime dir­ect­ive. Journ­al­ists have his­tor­ic­ally gone to prison rather than give away their sources.

How­ever, if Wikileaks is indeed deemed to be a pub­lisher and can be per­se­cuted this way, then all the old media are equally vul­ner­able. And indeed that is what we are wit­ness­ing now with these spy­ing scandals.

Secondly, these so-called invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists are sur­prised that their phones were tapped?  Really?

If they are doing proper, worth­while journ­al­ism, of course their comms will be tapped in a post-Patriot Act, surveillance-state world. Why on earth are they not tak­ing their own and their sources’ secur­ity ser­i­ously? Is it ama­teur night?

In this day and age, any ser­i­ous journ­al­ist (and there are still a few hon­our­able examples) will be tak­ing steps to pro­tect the secur­ity of their sources. They will be tooled up, tech-savvy, and they will have atten­ded Crypto-parties to learn secur­ity skills. They will also be pain­fully aware that a whis­tleblower is a per­son poten­tially facing prison, rather than just the source of a career-making story.

If main­stream journ­al­ists are ser­i­ous about expos­ing cor­rup­tion, hold­ing power to account, and fight­ing for justice they need to get ser­i­ous about source pro­tec­tion too and get teched-up. Help is widely avail­able to those who are inter­ested. Indeed, this sum­mer the Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism is host­ing talks in Lon­don on this sub­ject, and many other inter­na­tional journ­al­ism con­fer­ences have done the same over the last few years.

Sadly, the level of interest and aware­ness remains rel­at­ively low — many journ­al­ists retain a naïve trust in the gen­eral leg­al­ity of their government’s actions: the author­it­ies may bend the rules a little for “ter­ror­ists”, but of course they will abide by the rules when it comes to the media.….

.…or not. Water­gate now looks rather quaint in comparison.

As for me: well, I have had some help and have indeed been teched-up. My laptop runs the free Ubuntu Linux (the 64 bit ver­sion for grown-ups) from an encryp­ted solid state hard drive. I have long and dif­fer­ent pass­words for every online ser­vice I use. My mail and web server are in Switzer­land and I encrypt as much of my email as pos­sible. It’s at least a start.

And here’s what I have to say about why journ­al­ists should think about these issues and how they can pro­tect both them­selves and their sources: Open­ing key­note “The Big Dig Con­fer­ence” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.

A Tale of Two Cases

Abu_QatadaThe first case, the one hit­ting the head­lines this week, is that of Jordanian-born alleged ter­ror­ist supremo Abu Qatada, who arrived in the UK using a forged pass­port almost 20 years ago and claimed asylum, and has already been found guilty twice in absen­tia of ter­ror­ist attacks in Jordan. He is reportedly also wanted in seven other coun­tries for terrorist-related offences.  He has been labeled Bin Laden’s right-hand man in Europe, and over the last few years in the UK has been vari­ously interned, placed under con­trol order, and held in max­imum secur­ity prisons.  

The UK courts ruled that he should be depor­ted to stand trial in his nat­ive coun­try, but these rul­ings were recently over­turned by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), as it had con­cerns that Jord­anian dip­lo­matic assur­ances that he would not be tor­tured could not be relied on, and that evid­ence against him in any retrial there might have been obtained using torture. 

MATT_CartoonAs a res­ult, Mr Justice Mit­ting of the Spe­cial Immig­ra­tion Appeals Com­mis­sion (Siac) has ruled that he should be released under a strict T-PIM (the new con­trol order).  This decision has pre­dict­ably roused the froth­ing wrath of the Home Office and the read­er­ship of the Daily Mail.  Politi­cians of all fla­vours have rushed out their sound bites con­demning the ECtHR decision.  

But can they not see that it is the com­pla­cency and the very dis­dain for law that the Brit­ish polit­ical and intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture has dis­played for the last dec­ade that has cre­ated this mess in the first place?  If, instead of kid­nap­ping, tor­ture, assas­sin­a­tion, and indeed intern­ment without trial within the UK, the rule of law had been fol­lowed, the coun­try would not cur­rently find itself in this legal quagmire.  

There used to be a notion that you used due pro­cess to invest­ig­ate a ter­ror­ist sus­pect as you would any other sus­pec­ted crim­inal: gather the evid­ence, present the case to the Crown Pro­sec­u­tion Ser­vice, hold a trial in front of a jury, and work towards a conviction. 

How quaintly old-fashioned that all seems today.  Instead, since 9/11 and the incep­tion of the hys­ter­ic­ally bru­tal “war on ter­ror” led by the USA, we have seen people in the UK thrown into prison for years on the secret word of anonym­ous intel­li­gence officers, where even the sus­pects’ law­yers are not allowed to see the inform­a­tion against their cli­ents.  The Brit­ish legal sys­tem has become truly Kafkaesque.

Which leads me to the second case.  This was a quote in yesterday’s Guard­ian about the Abu Qatada ruling:

The Con­ser­vat­ive back­bencher Dominic Raab echoed Blunkett’s anger: “This res­ult is a dir­ect res­ult of the per­verse rul­ing by the Stras­bourg court. It makes a mock­ery of human rights law that a ter­ror­ist sus­pect deemed ‘dan­ger­ous’ by our courts can’t be returned home, not for fear that he might be tor­tured, but because European judges don’t trust the Jord­anian justice sys­tem.”

Julian_assangeIn the case of Julian Assange, can we really trust the Swedish justice sys­tem? While the Swedish judi­cial sys­tem may have an ostens­ibly more fra­grant repu­ta­tion than that of Jordan, it has been flag­rantly politi­cised and manip­u­lated in the Assange case, as has been repeatedly well doc­u­mented. Indeed, the Swedish justice sys­tem has the highest rate per cap­ita of cases taken to the ECtHR for flout­ing Art­icle 6 — the right to a fair trial.

If Assange were extra­dited merely for ques­tion­ing by police — he has yet to be even charged with any crime in Sweden — there is a strong risk that the Swedes will just shove him straight on the next plane to the US under the legal terms of a “tem­por­ary sur­render”.  And, to bas­tard­ise the above quote, who now really trusts the Amer­ican justice system?

A secret Grand Jury has been con­vened in Vir­ginia to find a law — any law — with which to pro­sec­ute Assange.  Hell, if the Yanks can’t find an exist­ing law, they will prob­ably write a new one just for him.

For­get about the fact that Wikileaks is a ground-breaking new form of high-tech journ­al­ism that has exposed cor­rupt prac­tices across the world over the years.  The US just wants to make an example of Assange in retali­ation for the embar­rass­ment he has caused by expos­ing US double deal­ing and war crimes over the last dec­ade, and no doubt as a dread­ful example to deter others.  

Bradley_Manning_2The alleged Wikileaks source, US sol­dier Private Brad­ley Man­ning, has been kept in inhu­mane and degrad­ing con­di­tions for well over a year and will now be court-martialed.  The gen­eral assump­tion is that this pro­cess was designed to break him, so that he would implic­ate Assange and pos­sibly other Wikileaks asso­ci­ates.  

In my view, that means that any US trial of Assange could essen­tially be rely­ing on evid­ence obtained under tor­ture.  And if Assange is extra­dited and and judi­cially rendered to the US, he too will face tor­tur­ous con­di­tions.

So, to sum­mar­ise, on the one hand we have a man who is wanted in eight coun­tries for ter­ror­ist offences, has already been con­victed twice in his home coun­try, but who can­not be extradited.

And on the other hand we have a man who has not been charged, tried or con­victed of any­thing, but is merely wanted for ques­tion­ing on minor and appar­ently trumped up charges in another coun­try, yet who has also been imprisoned in sol­it­ary con­fine­ment and held under house arrest.  And it looks like the Brit­ish author­it­ies are happy to col­lude in his extradition.

Both these men poten­tially face a mis­trial and both may poten­tially exper­i­ence what is now euphemist­ic­ally known as “degrad­ing and inhu­mane treatment”.

But because one faces being sent back to his home coun­try — now seen for the pur­poses of his case as a banana repub­lic with a cor­rupt judi­cial sys­tem that relies on evid­ence extrac­ted under tor­ture — he shall prob­ably not be extra­dited.  How­ever, the other faces being sent to an alien coun­try well known as a beacon of civil rights and fair judi­cial sys­tem oops, sorry, as a banana repub­lic with a cor­rupt judi­cial sys­tem that relies on evid­ence extrac­ted under torture.

A_Tale_of_Two_CitiesThe UK has become a legal laugh­ing stock around the world and our judi­cial frame­work has been bent com­pletely out of shape by the require­ments of the “war on ter­ror” and the rap­idly devel­op­ing cor­por­ate fas­cism of our government.  

The UK is cur­rently cel­eb­rat­ing the bicen­ten­ary of the birth of Charles Dick­ens.  Per­haps the time has come to pause and think about some of the issues he dis­cussed in one of his best-known nov­els, “A Tale of Two Cit­ies”.  Do we want our coun­try to slide fur­ther down the path of state ter­ror­ism — a phrase adop­ted from the ori­ginal Grande Ter­reur of the French Revolution? 

We need to seize back our basic rights, the due pro­cess of law, and justice.

The Canadian Tour

OK, so I’m a crap blog­ger — but I have to say that my access to the inter­net was severely lim­ited dur­ing my travels across Canada!  And then I had to go back to the UK, then NL.…

Vancouver_posterCanada was great — the first national speak­ing tour organ­ised by the country’s  9/11 groups.  And before you roll your eyes, these are cit­izens’ groups that are call­ing for a new enquiry — in response to a moun­tain of evid­ence from hun­dreds of cred­ible experts around the world, who ques­tion the offi­cial account peddled by the 9/11 Commission. 

Bear­ing in mind how the issue of 9/11 has been used and abused by our dear gov­ern­ments to jus­tify the end­less “war on ter­ror”, the use of tor­ture, the wars in the Middle East and the erosion of our freedoms at home, I think any con­cerned and respons­ible cit­izen should, at the very least, keep an open mind about this issue and do their own research.  Espe­cially as the 9/11 Com­mis­sion was, in the words of its two chairs, Keane and Hamilton, “set up to fail”!

But back to the tour.  Huge thanks go to Patrick, the national organ­iser of the tour, who had the vis­ion and com­mit­ment to pull the whole thing together, as well as sort out all the logist­ics and arrange a con­stant flow of media inter­views for me, of which more below.  And of course to the organ­isers of the events: Eliza­beth, Ruk­shana, Mark, JF, Michael, Adam, Adnan, Graeme, and all the other act­iv­ists — too many to name individually.

I had to fly to Van­couver via Chicago O’Hare, which spooked me to begin with.  I’ve been through that air­port before and it has, in the past, lived up to its well-deserved repu­ta­tion for power-crazed immig­ra­tion officers.  How­ever, I got a real sweetie — we ended up hav­ing an inter­est­ing chat about the nature of demo­cracy, before he cracked a smile and waved me through.  

In com­par­ison, Van­couver air­port is a Zen exper­i­ence — all nat­ive art install­a­tions and water­falls.  As I emerged blink­ing into the late after­noon sun­shine (it was about 3am by my body clock), I was greeted by the Van­couver posse and whisked away in the Truth Bus to food, wine and another radio inter­view

Georgina_photo3I did a series of radio and news­pa­per inter­views the next morn­ing (thanks, Rukshana’s mum for the use of the phone!), before being whisked off on a tour of Van­couver by Ruk­shana and Geor­gina.  The city blew me away with its beauty — moun­tains up close, parks, sea and arty quar­ters.  If it wasn’t so
damned close to the US bor­der, I would be ser­i­ously temp­ted to move
there. 

At the end of the after­noon, I had a fab time being inter­viewed on Van­couver 1410 CFUN driv­e­time radio, before one more tele­phone inter­view and a well-earned glass of cham­pagne at Geor­gina and Darren’s.

After this day of recov­ery, I was then invited onto the Bill Good Show the next morn­ing.  Bill is the grand old man of BC media, and he was a excel­lent inter­viewer.  I had half an hour with him, and the show went out to over a quarter of a mil­lion people.

Vancouver_photo2The meet­ing that night was a great suc­cess — I could feel the energy and interest of the audi­ence as I spoke for 1 1/2 hours, and then had over an hour more of ques­tions.  I think it’s wrong for the media to say people are no longer inter­ested in polit­ics — they’re just not that inter­ested in the estab­lished polit­ical hier­arch­ies and systems.

If I had thought Van­couver lovely, the scenery was even more beau­ti­ful as I took the ferry down the bay to Vic­toria, past small wooded islands.  Of course, that was the moment my cam­era decided to pack up…

I had a lovely couple of days in Vic­toria, pampered by Eliza­beth and Brian, shown the beau­ties of the island and meet­ing a num­ber of act­iv­ists.  I also had the pleas­ure of meet­ing Row­land Mor­gan, (co-author with Ian Hen­shall) of the excel­lent best­seller, “9/11 Revealed”

I’d done a num­ber of inter­views before arriv­ing on the island.  The Vic­toria event was very well atten­ded and I had a stand­ing ova­tion at the end.

Then it was back to Van­couver for another hour-long inter­view on Co-op Radio and a pot luck sup­per with the act­iv­ists, before fly­ing off to Ott­awa for the east­ern leg of the tour.  I arrived at mid­night to be greeted by the lovely Mar­jorie and Cam, who hos­ted me for a couple of nights.  My sleep was all too brief, as I had to get up at 4.30 to make a 6am radio inter­view.

The Ott­awa event was smal­ler (I would say it was an extremely rainy night!), but per­fectly formed.  Des­pite this, the group seemed very enthused about put­ting on future events.

The next day brought a Grey­hound bus ride up to Mon­tréal.  Such moments in life are when you wish you’d put Simon and Gar­funkel on your I-pod.  My 18 hours in Mon­tréal were hec­tic — and we only just made it to the meet­ing on time, what with an excel­lent din­ner and ter­rible traffic.  The meet­ing was really vibrant.  After­wards, when every­one else was head­ing out to party, I had to slink back to my bed for a brief 4 hours sleep, before get­ting a train at 6.30 to Toronto.

Adnan_on_TVI hit the ground run­ning, with a lunch­time inter­view, then a peace demo in the city centre.  Clin­ton and Bush Jr were in town, giv­ing a talk to 5000 of the faith­ful who were flush enough to cough up between $200 and $5000 to hear their bien pensees.  Inde­pend­ent media did a couple of good inter­views with me.  Shame­fully, the Stop the War Toronto group only man­aged to rustle up about 1,000 pro­test­ers out­side the con­fer­ence centre, and then refused to give a plat­form to Split­ting the Sky, a Cana­dian peace act­iv­ist who had attemp­ted to arrest Bush for war crimes when he vis­ited Cal­gary in April, and who had him­self been arres­ted for his pains.  How­ever, some other peace act­iv­ists had some good coverage!

The next day, hav­ing caught up on some sleep at last, I had an excel­lent time at the Toronto uni­ver­sity radio sta­tion, where we had a lively hour-long inter­view, before head­ing off to my event at the university. 

Next stop, Water­loo Uni­ver­sity, where I did a round of inter­views accom­pan­ied by the journ­al­ist and cam­paigner, Bar­rie Zwicker. The format that night changed to an inter­view on stage con­duc­ted by him, which worked really well.  

Spyinggame003The final stop of the tour was Hamilton where, after another all-too-brief night, I had three morn­ing inter­views — 2 on radio, and one recor­ded for the TV even­ing news.  A lovely Lebanese lunch with a group of pro­fess­ors from the uni­ver­sity fol­lowed, and then a much needed chance to sleep it off, before head­ing out to the final gig, organ­ised by Pro­fessor Graeme Mac­Queen and hos­ted by Mohawk Col­lege.  Well, they always say the last one is the best — and I had an amaz­ing even­ing.  Over an hour of talk, fol­low­ing by 1 1/2 hours of ques­tions from an inter­ested and informed audience. 

So a great time in an amaz­ing coun­try.  Thanks once again to all who made this tour such a suc­cess, and good luck with your future plans!

ETH0 Hacker Camp, January 2009

In Janu­ary 2009 I was invited to talk at ETH0, a small but select hacker camp held in the wilds of the Neth­er­lands.  The crowd was young, hip, informed — and very inter­ested in the use and abuse of intel­li­gence and par­tic­u­larly the erosion of our most basic civil liber­ties.   Events like this give me hope.

Some of the organ­isers are also involved in plan­ning a major techno-political hacker fest­ival, Hack­ing at Ran­dom, in NL this sum­mer.   An event not to be missed!

Spies and the Law

For con­text, here’s a little bit of back­ground inform­a­tion about the UK’s spy agen­cies, and the legal con­straints within which they are sup­posed to operate.

There are three primary agen­cies: MI5 (the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice), MI6 (Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice — SIS) and GCHQ (the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions HQ). Bey­ond this inner circle, there is the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), the spe­cial branches of every other police force in the UK, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and Cus­toms, amongst others.

MI5 and MI6 were set up in 1909 dur­ing the build up to the First World War, when their remit was to uncover Ger­man spies. For the next 80 years they didn’t offi­cially exist and oper­ated out­side the law.

In 1989 MI5 was put on a legal foot­ing for the first time when par­lia­ment passed the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act. This stated that it had to work within legal para­met­ers, and if it wanted to do some­thing that would oth­er­wise be illegal, such as break­ing into and bug­ging someone’s house, it had to get the writ­ten per­mis­sion of its polit­ical mas­ter, the Home Sec­ret­ary. Without that, MI5 would be break­ing the law just as you or I would be.

MI6 and GCHQ were not put on a legal foot­ing until the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and are answer­able to the For­eign Sec­ret­ary. The same Act also set up the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment as a sop to demo­cratic over­sight. The ISC is respons­ible for over­see­ing the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the three agen­cies. It has abso­lutely no remit to look at their oper­a­tional run­ning, nor can it invest­ig­ate alleged crimes com­mit­ted by them. Even if it could, the ISC has no power to call for wit­nesses or demand doc­u­ments from the spooks. Moreover, the com­mit­tee is appoin­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, answer­able only to him, and he can vet its find­ings. Much of the ISC’s annual reports are blanked out.

When I was recruited by MI5 in the early 1990s, the organ­isa­tion was at great pains to explain that it worked within the law, was account­able, and its work was mainly invest­ig­at­ing ter­ror­ism. Once I began work­ing there, this quickly proved to be untrue. MI5 is incom­pet­ent, it breaks the law, con­nives at the impris­on­ment of inno­cent people, illeg­ally bugs people, lies to gov­ern­ment (on whom it holds per­sonal files) and turns a blind eye to false flag ter­ror­ism. This is why I resigned and helped to blow the whistle.

With all this hys­teria about the threat from Al Qaeda, and the ava­lanche of new powers and resources being thrown at the spooks, as well the erosion of our liber­ties, we need to keep a cool head. Why don’t our politi­cians take a step back and ask what pre­cisely are the scale and nature of the threats facing this coun­try, and how can we best police them? As Sir Ian Blair recently showed, we can­not take the secur­ity forces’ words about this at face value.

There’s a lot of his­toric bag­gage attached to MI5 and 6, par­tic­u­larly after their dirty tricks against the left in the 1980s. As they are now primar­ily doing a poli­cing job against ter­ror­ism, why not just clear the decks and start again? Set up a ded­ic­ated counter-terrorism agency, which is prop­erly account­able to par­lia­ment, as the police already are and the spies are not.

As it stands the UK has the most secret­ive intel­li­gence agen­cies in the west­ern world. They are exempt from the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act, and pro­tec­ted by the dra­conian Offi­cial Secrets Act. The 1989 OSA makes it a crim­inal offence for any­one to blow the whistle on crimes com­mit­ted by the spies, and it is no longer pos­sible for a whis­tleblower to argue that they acted in the pub­lic interest.

No other west­ern demo­cracy has spies who are quite so unac­count­able, nor so pro­tec­ted from scru­tiny by the law. The closest ana­lo­gies are prob­ably the intel­li­gence agen­cies of coun­tries such as Libya or Iran. Par­tic­u­larly as we now know that MI5 and MI6 officers are con­niv­ing in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and the use of torture.

Are they legal? Yes, now, in the­ory. Do they abide by the law? Only when it suits them. Are they eth­ical? Abso­lutely not.

UK Police Chief Misleads MPs

An inter­est­ing art­icle appeared in The Sunday Times today, stat­ing that Britain’s top police­man, the Com­mis­sioner of the Met­ro­pol­itan Police Sir Ian Blair, had “unwit­tingly” misled the par­lia­ment­ary Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee about the need to increase the period of deten­tion without charge for ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the UK from 28 to 42 days. Blair claimed that 12 major ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions had been foiled in Bri­tain since 2005. In fact, the art­icle reports that only 6 plots have been stopped. Blair has had to issue a grov­el­ling apo­logy via the Press Asso­ci­ation for this, umm, gaffe.

But the art­icle neg­lects to tell us how and why this new inform­a­tion came to light. So allow me to speculate.

The Met, along with its shad­owy cohorts in MI5, is entrus­ted with pro­tect­ing Bri­tain from ter­ror­ist threats. Since 9/11 and the all-pervasive war on ter­ror, Britain’s secur­ity forces have been gran­ted sweep­ing new powers, resources and a huge increase in staff­ing levels to do this job. To ensure this is jus­ti­fied, they are con­tinu­ally telling us of the huge threat we face from ter­ror­ism and how suc­cess­ful they are in pro­tect­ing us. It is in their interests to talk this up.

Mean­while, over on the south bank of the river, MI6 con­tin­ues to suf­fer from the loss of prestige brought about by its mis­takes and lack of good intel­li­gence in the run-up to the Iraq inva­sion. There is no love lost between these three agen­cies, as they com­pete for power and resources. So, to use a good civil ser­vice phrase, I can­not rule out the pos­sib­il­ity that someone in MI6 leaked this inform­a­tion to have a pop at the Met and MI5.

How­ever, there is a more ser­i­ous aspect to this incid­ent. But for this inform­a­tion emer­ging, MPs and pub­lic alike would have had no way of know­ing that the per­ceived threat from ter­ror­ism had been grossly inflated in order for the police to gain yet more powers. We would have had to take Sir Ian’s word.

Well, we’ve been here before many, many times, most notori­ously when the intel­li­gence agen­cies would have us believe that Sad­dam had WMD that could attack Brit­ish interests with 45 minutes. This, of course, led to the Iraq war and the deaths of hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent men, women and children.

So how can we ensure we are told the truth by the spies? Well, greater account­ab­il­ity and effect­ive par­lia­ment­ary over­sight would be a step in the right dir­ec­tion. But we don’t just need the cor­rect mech­an­isms in place in par­lia­ment. We also need MPs with the know­ledge, intel­li­gence and integ­rity to ask the dif­fi­cult ques­tions when faced with bogus assertions.