The (Il)legality of UK Drone Strikes

It was reported in The Guardian newspaper today that the UK parliamentary joint committee on human rights was questioning the legal framework underpinning the use of British drone strikes against terrorist suspects.

Here is an interview I did for RT today about the questionable legality of the UK drone strike programme:

The (Il)legalitiy of UK drone strikes? from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Freedom Equals Surveillance

Here’s an interview I did for RT a while ago about the USA’s Orwellian NewSpeak about surveillance:

US_Freedom_Act_surveillance_act_in_disguise from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The New Terrorism

First published on RT Op-Edge

Two horrors have dwelt in my mind for the last twenty years, ever since I read reports about terrorist groups while an impressionable young intelligence officer. The first involves the use of power tools as instruments of torture; drills, industrial sanders, angle grinders. This is no secret now and the meme has been much used and abused by Hollywood and series such as “24”, but I still feel uncomfortable every time I am dragged into the “boy toy” section of a home improvement mega-store.

The second has recently hit the news as a grim result of ISIS, the ultra-violent Sunni sect that has swept across much of Syria and Iraq, imposing the most draconian form of Sharia law in its wake upon the hapless citizens of formerly secular states.  I pity the poor women, and I pity still more the men of these communities faced with the option of submission or gruesome murder.

For this is the other image that haunts me: in 1995 six western tourists were abducted by a Kashmiri separatist group, Al Faran. One of the abductees, a Norwegian called Hans Christian Ostro, was found decapitated, his head had been hacked off with a knife. The sheer horror,  the terror the poor man must have experienced, has haunted me ever since.

You can probably see where I am going with this. I have not watched, nor do I have any intention of ever watching, the ISIS video of the gruesome murder of US journalist James Foley, whether the Metropolitan Police deems it a crime to do so or not. I just feel horror, again, and a deep well of sorrow for what his family and friends must be going through now.

Yet this is nothing new – we have known for months that ISIS has been beheading and crucifying people as they rampage across Syria and Iraq. There has been a steady stream of delicately pixilated heads on spikes in the western media, and the outrage has been muted.

And indeed, such beheadings have long been carried out and filmed during the earlier insurgencies in Iraq – I remember a young film maker friend who had stumbled across just such a sick propaganda video way back in 2007 – he could not sleep, could not rid his mind of the images either.

It is barbarity pure and simple, but it is also effective within the boundaries of its aims.

So, what are these aims? I just want to make two points before the West gets swept up in a new wave of outrage to “bomb the bastards” for beheading an American – after all, many hundreds if not thousands of people across the Middle East have already suffered this fate, to lack of any meaningful Western outcry.

Firstly, ISIS has clear aims (indeed it published its five-year plan to great media derision a couple of months ago). It is effectively using hideous brutality and propaganda to spread terror ahead of its war front – this is a 21st century blitzkrieg, and it’s working. The sheer horror of what they do to any who attempt to resist is so great that apparently whole armies abandon their weapons, banks have been left to be raided to the tune of half a billion dollars, and entire villages flee.

This is the pure definition of terrorism, and we can see that it is working. ISIS is doing all this to build a new state. or caliphate, in the way that their warped fundamentalist interpretation of religion sets out for them.

Secondly, and here’s the contentious bit, how precisely is this different from the terror that the Israelis have been visiting upon the many innocents killed in Gaza?  The Dahiya Doctrine of disproportionate violence to stun and quash resistance was exposed by Wikileaks – the Israeli “shock and awe”.  And also, how is this different from what the US has been meting out to the peoples of Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last few years with their drone attacks?

All the above examples show strong military forces, ideologically motivated, unleashing violence and terror on a huge, disproportionate scale on innocent populations that have nowhere really to run.

The difference being? ISIS wields its own knives, does its own dirty work, and proudly films its grotesque brutality to cow its opponents. This is primitive terrorism intersecting with social media, a bastard spawn of the 21st century.  And it still seems to be effective, just as terror of the guillotine resonated throughout revolutionary France in the 18th century.

On the other hand, the US and Israel prefer to be a bit more coy about their terroristic strategies, hiding behind such phrases as “proportionate”, “self-defence”, “precision bombing” and “spreading democracy”. But who, seriously, falls for that these days?

Their armed forces are not directly getting their hands dirty with the blood of their victims: instead, spotty young conscripts safely hidden in bunkers on the far side of the world, mete out death from the skies via sick snuff video games  – officially called “precision” bombs and drone attacks that take out whole families. Heads can be blown off, bodies eviscerated, limbs mangled and maimed, and all from a safe distance.

We had the first proof of this strategy with the decrypted military film “Collateral Murder“, where helicopter pilots shot up some Reuters journalists and civilians in Iraq in 2007. That was bad enough – but the cover-up stank. For years the Pentagon denied all knowledge of this atrocious war crime, and it was only after Wikileaks released the information, provided by the brave whistleblower Chelsea Manning, that the families and the international community learned the truth. Yet it is Manning, not the war criminals, who is serving a 35 year sentence in a US prison.

Worse, by sheer scale at least, are the ongoing, wide-ranging unmanned drone attacks across the Middle East and Central Asia, as catalogued by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK. Many thousands of innocents have been murdered in these attacks, with the US justifying the strikes as killing “militants” – ie any male over the age of 14.  The US is murdering children, families, wedding parties and village councils with impunity.

And then the infamous provisions of the US NDAA 2012. This means that the US military can extra-judicially murder anyone, including US citizens, by drone strike anywhere in the world with no trial, no judicial process. And so it has come to pass.  American Anwar Al Awlaki was murdered in 2011 by a drone strike.

Not content with that, only weeks later the US military then blew his 16 year old son to pieces in another drone strike. Abdulrahman – a child – was also an American citizen. How, precisely, is this atrocity not morally equivalent to the murder of James Foley?

So what is the real, qualitative difference between the terror engendered by ISIS, or by the Dahiya Doctrine, or by the US drone strike programme? Is it just that ISIS does the dirty, hands on, and spreads its message shamelessly via social media, while the US does the dirty in secret and prosecutes and persecutes anyone who wants to expose its egregious war crimes?

I would suggest so, and the West needs to face up to its hypocrisy. A crime is a crime. Terrorism is terrorism.

Otherwise we are no better than the political drones in George Orwell’s “1984”, rewriting history in favour of the victors rather than the victims, acquiescing to eternal war, and happily mouthing Newspeak.

New Terrorism, anyone?

RT interview re Snowden flying to Russia

As the news broke that NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, had fled Hong Kong for Russia today, I was invited on RT to do an interview. At that point few people had any idea of his plans.  However, it appears that the USA had charged Snowden under the Espionage Act 1917 (no surprises) and then asked Hong Kong to arrest and hold him, pending extradition. Equally unsurprisingly, Hong Kong found mistakes in the paperwork and used the opportunity to complain about US spying activity in its territory.

Anyway, this gave Snowden, with apparently the help of the whistleblowing publishing site Wikileaks, the chance to leave the country and fly to Russia, with the reported final destination being Ecuador.

So here’s my initial take on the situation:

Snowden case shows US is bully boy of world – RTTV interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Echelon Redux

Just a quickie, as this is some sort of holiday season apparently.  However, this did annoy me.   In the same way that President Obama signed the invidious NDAA on 31st December last year, despite his protestations about vetoing etc, it appears the US government has sneaked/snuck through (please delete as appropriate, depending on how you pronounce “tomato”) yet another draconian law during the festive season, which apparently further erodes the US constitution and the civil rights of all Americans.

Yet another problem for our benighted cousins across the pond, you might think.  But as so often happens these days, bonkers American laws can affect us all.

Yesterday the Senate approved an expansion of the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).  This allows the US intelligence services to hoover up, if you’ll pardon the mild intelligence joke, the emails of god-fearing, law-abiding Americans if they are exchanging emails with pesky foreigners.

Well of course the whole world now knows, post 9/11, that all foreigners are potential terrorists and are now being watched/snatched/extraordinarily rendered/tortured/assassinated with impunity.  In Europe we have had many people suffer this way and some have managed to achieve recognition and restitution.  That appears to do little to stop the drone wars and blood-letting that the USA has unleashed across the Middle East.

But the NDAA and the extended FISA should at least rouse the ire of Americans themselves: US citizens on US soil can now potentially be targeted.  This is new, this is dangerous, right?

Well, no, not quite, as least as far as the interception of communications goes.

The Echelon system, exposed in 1988 by British journalist Duncan Campbell and reinvestigated in 1999, put in place just such a (legally dubious) mechanism for watching domestic citizens.  The surveillance state was already in place, even if through a back door, as you can see from this article I wrote 4 years ago, which included the following paragraph:

ECHELON was an agreement between the NSA and its British equivalent GCHQ (as well as the agencies of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) whereby they shared information they gathered on each others’ citizens. GCHQ could legally eavesdrop on people outside the UK without a warrant, so they could target US citizens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agencies could evade any democratic oversight and accountability, and still get the intelligence they wanted.

The only difference now is that FISA has come blasting through the front door, and yet people remain quiescent.

Bleat: the assassination of dissidents

Black_sheep?OK, so I'm not sure if my concept of Bleats (half blog, half tweet) is being grasped wholeheartedly.  But so what – it makes me laugh and the Black Sheep shall perservere with a short blog post…..

So I'm a bit puzzled here.  UK Prime Minister Dave Cameron is quoted in today's Daily Telegraph as saying that:

"It is not acceptable to have a situation where Colonel Gaddafi can be murdering his own people using aeroplanes and helicopter gunships and the like and we have to plan now to make sure if that happens we can do something to stop it."

But do his American best buddies share that, umm, humane view?  First of all they have the CIA assassination list which includes the names of US citizens (ie its own people); then those same "best buddies" may well resort to assassinating Wikileaks's Julian Assange, probably the most high profile dissident in international and diplomatic circles at the moment; plus they are already waging remote drone warfare on many hapless Middle Eastern countries – Yeman, Afghanistan, Pakistan…..

Oh, and now the UK government seems poised to launch covert spy drones into the skies of Britain.  Even the UK's most right-wing mainstream newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, expressed concern about this today.  Apparently these drones have yet to be weaponised…..

It's a slippery slope down to an Orwellian nightmare.

 

Amuse Bouche

A debate is currently under way in the (ex) Land of the Free about how much protection intelligence whistleblowers should be accorded under the law.

Yes, the country that has brought the world the "war on terror", Guantanamo Bay, and the Patriot Act, is having a moral spasm about how to best protect those who witness high crimes and misdemeanors inside the charmed circle of secrecy and intelligence. 

And about time too, following the mess of revelations about spy complicity in torture currently emerging on both sides of the pond.

Interestingly, intelligence officials in the US already have a smidgeon more leeway than their UK counterparts.  In the US, if you witness a crime committed by spies, you have to take your concerns to the head of the agency, and then you can go to Congress.  In the UK, the only person you can legally report crime to is the head of the agency involved, so guess how many successful complaints are made?  Even taking your proven and legitimate concerns to your elected UK representatives is a crime under the OSA.

Spooks in the UK now have access to an "ethical counsellor", who has reportedly been visited a grand total of 12 times by intelligence officers since 2006.  But this person has no power to investigate allegations of crime, and a visit guarantees a career-blocking black mark on your record of service: ie if you are the sort of person to worry your head with quaint ideas like ethics and morality you are, at best, not a team player and, worse, a possible security risk. 

WhistleThis is surely culturally unsustainable in a community of people who generally sign up to protect the citizens of the country and want to make a positive difference by working within the law?  Those who have concerns will resign, at the very least, and those who like to "just follow orders" will float to the top.  As one of the leading proponents for greater whistleblower protection in the USA states in the linked article:

"The code of loyalty to the chain of command is the primary value at those institutions, and they set the standard for intensity of retaliation."

Some enlightened US politicians appear to be aware that intelligence whistleblowers require protection just as all other employees receive under the law:  perhaps more so, as the nature of their work may well expose them to the most heinous crimes imaginable.  There is also an argument for putting proper channels in place to ensure that whistleblowers don't feel their only option is to risk going to the press.  Effective channels for blowing the whistle and investigating crime can actually protect national security rather than compromise it.

The nay-sayers, of course, want to keep everything secret – after all, the status quo is currently working so well in upholding democratic values across the globe.  Critics of the new legislation talk of "disgruntled employees …. gleefully" spilling the beans.  Why is this hoary old line always dragged out in this type of discussion?  Why are whistleblowers always described in this way, rather than called principled, brave or ethical?

Blanket secrecy works against the real interests of our countries.  Mistakes can be covered up, group-think ensures that crimes continue, and anyone offering constructive criticism is labelled as a risky troublemaker – no doubt a "disgruntled" one at that.

Of course, certain areas of intelligence work need to be protected: current operational details (as ex-Met Assistant Commissioner, Bob Quick has discovered), agent identities, and sensitive techniques.  But the life blood of a healthy democracy depends on open debate, ventilation of problems, and agreed solutions.  Informed and participatory citizens need to know what is being done in their name.