Oxford Union Society Debate

I recently had the pleas­ure of tak­ing part in a debate at the Oxford Union Soci­ety.  I spoke to the pro­pos­i­tion that “this house believes Edward Snowden is a hero”, along with US journ­al­ist Chris Hedges, NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, and former UK gov­ern­ment min­is­ter Chris Huhne.

The cham­ber was full and I am happy to report that we won the debate by 212 votes to 171, and that Oxford stu­dents do indeed see Edward Snowden as a hero.  Here is my speech:

Oxford Union Soci­ety Debate from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Circumventing the Panopticon, Transmediale Berlin

Last month I was on a panel dis­cus­sion at the Ber­lin Trans­me­diale con­fer­ence with NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, Chelsea Man­ning rap­por­teur Alexa O’Brian, and act­iv­ist Diani Bar­reto. Here is the link to the full two hour event, and here is my speech:

Trans­me­diale, Ber­lin 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Niemoeller Redux

Pub­lished on RT Op Edge and Con­sor­tium News.

I reg­u­larly revisit the fam­ous Pas­tor Mar­tin Niemoeller poem from the Nazi era as his words remain res­on­ant in our post-9/11, “war on ter­ror” world. Over the last week threads of vari­ous alarm­ing stor­ies have con­verged, so here is my latest update:

First they came for the Muslims, but I was not a Muslim so did not speak up.

Then they came for the whis­tleblowers, but I was not a whis­tleblower so did not speak up.

Then they came for the “domestic extrem­ists”, but I was not an act­iv­ist so did not speak up.

And when they came for me, there was nobody left to speak up for me.

Allow me to explain this cur­rent ver­sion. Reg­u­lar read­ers of this web­site will be well aware of my hor­ror at the global rape of basic human rights in the West’s fight against the “war on ter­ror” since 9/11: the kid­nap­pings, the tor­ture, the CIA presidentially-approved weekly assas­sin­a­tion lists, the drone bomb­ings, the illegal wars.…

All these meas­ures have indeed tar­geted and ter­ror­ised the Muslim com­munity around the world. In the UK I have heard many stor­ies of Brit­ish Muslims wary of attend­ing a fam­ily event such as a wed­ding of their cous­ins in Pakistan or wherever, in case they get snatched, tor­tured or drone bombed.

Now it appears that even Brit­ish cit­izens who choose to donate to UK char­it­ies offer­ing human­it­arian relief in war zones such as Syria can be arres­ted under counter-terrorism laws.

moazzam_beggMoazzam Begg, the dir­ector of Cage (the UK NGO cam­paign­ing about the com­munity impact of the war on ter­ror) was again seized last week. As I have writ­ten before, this is a man who has already exper­i­enced the hor­rors of Bagram air­base and Guantanamo. When he was released he became a cam­paigner for oth­ers in the same plight and set up the Cage cam­paign which has gained quite some trac­tion over the last few years.

Over a year ago he vis­ited Syria on a fact-finding mis­sion, invest­ig­at­ing those who had been sum­mar­ily detained and tor­tured in the con­flict. Last Decem­ber he had his pass­port seized on spuri­ous grounds He wrote about this trip quite openly, and yet now, a year on, has been arres­ted and charged with “train­ing ter­ror­ists and fund rais­ing” in Syria. This is a high-profile cam­paigner who oper­ates in the full glare of the media. How cred­u­lous does one have to be to believe that Begg, after all his exper­i­ences and run­ning this cam­paign, is now involved in “ter­ror­ism”?  Really, anyone?

Since then other people involved in Brit­ish char­it­ies offer­ing aid to the dis­placed peoples of Syria have also been scooped up. But this is just affect­ing the Brit­ish Muslim com­munity, right? There’s “no smoke without fire”, and it does not impinge the lives of most people in the UK, so there has been no wide­spread outcry.…

.…so nobody speaks up.

Then we have the ongo­ing “war on whis­tleblowers” that I have dis­cussed extens­ively. This affects every sec­tor of soci­ety in every coun­try, but most ser­i­ously affects whis­tleblowers emer­ging from cent­ral gov­ern­ment, the mil­it­ary and the intel­li­gence agen­cies. They are the ones most likely to wit­ness the most hein­ous crimes, and they are the ones auto­mat­ic­ally crim­in­al­ised by secrecy laws.

This is most appar­ent in the UK, where the Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) spe­cific­ally crim­in­al­ises whis­tleblow­ing, and in the USA, where Pres­id­ent Obama has invoked the 1917 Espi­on­age Act against whis­tleblowers more times than all other pres­id­ents com­bined over the last cen­tury. If that is not a “war on whis­tleblowers”, I don’t know what is.

This, of course, is a para­noid over-reaction to the work of Wikileaks, and the brave actions of Chelsea Man­ning and Edward Snowden. This is what Obama’s gov­ern­ment deems to be the “insider threat”.  Yet it is only through greater trans­par­ency that we can oper­ate as informed cit­izens; it is only through greater account­ab­il­ity that we can hope to obtain justice. And in this era, when we are routinely lied into illegal wars, what could be more import­ant?

But intel­li­gence and mil­it­ary whis­tleblowers are rare, spe­cial­ised and easy to stig­mat­ise as the “other” and now, the insider threat — not quite of the nor­mal world. The issues they dis­close can seem a bit remote, not linked to most people’s daily experiences.…

.…so nobody speaks up.

But now to my third revamped line of the Pas­tor Niemoeller poem: the act­iv­ists or, to use cur­rent police ter­min­o­logy, the “domestic extrem­ists”. This, surely, does impinge on more people’s exper­i­ence of life. If you want to go out and demon­strate against a war, in sup­port of Occupy, for the envir­on­ment, whatever, you are surely exer­cising your demo­cratic rights as cit­izens, right?

Er, well no, not these days. I have writ­ten before about how act­iv­ists can be crim­in­al­ised and even deemed to be ter­ror­ists by the police (think Lon­don Occupy in 2011 here). I’m think­ing of the ongo­ing Brit­ish under­cover cop scan­dal which con­tin­ues to rumble on.

For those of you out­side the UK, this is a scan­dal that erup­ted in 2010. There is was a sec­tion of secret police who were infilt­rated into act­iv­ist groups under secret iden­tit­ies to live the life, report back, and even poten­tially work as ena­blers or agents pro­vocateurs. As the scan­dal has grown it appears that some of these cops fathered chil­dren with their tar­gets and spied on the griev­ing fam­il­ies of murder victims.

This sounds like the East Ger­man Stasi, but was hap­pen­ing in the UK in the last couple of dec­ades. A gov­ern­ment enquiry has just been announced and many old cases against act­iv­ists will be reviewed to see if tar­nished “evid­ence” was involved in the tri­als and sub­sequent convictions.

But again this does not affect most people bey­ond the act­iv­ist community.…

.…so nobody speaks up.

jesselyn_radackNow, people who have always assumed they have cer­tain pro­tec­tions because of their pro­fes­sions, such as law­yers and journ­al­ists, are also being caught in this drag­net. Julian Assange’s law­yer, Jen­nifer Robin­son, dis­covered she was on a flight watch list a few years ago. More recently Jes­selyn Radack, human rights dir­ector of the US Gov­ern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Pro­ject and legal advisor to Edward Snowden, was stopped and inter­rog­ated at the UK border.

And just this week a Dutch invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ist, Brenno de Winter, was unable to do his job since his name was placed on alert in all national gov­ern­ment build­ings. The police accused him of hacking-related crimes and burg­lary. They had to retract this when the smear cam­paign came to light.

Brenno has made his name by free­dom of inform­a­tion requests from the Dutch pub­lic sec­tor and his sub­sequent invest­ig­a­tions, for which he was named Dutch Journ­al­ist of the Year in 2011. Hardly sub­ver­sion, red in tooth and claw, but obvi­ously now deemed to be an exist­en­tial, national secur­ity threat to the Netherlands.

Nor is this a Dutch prob­lem — we have seen this in the US, where journ­al­ists such as James Risen and Bar­rett Brown have been houn­ded merely for doing their jobs, and the Glenn Greenwald’s part­ner, David Mir­anda, was detained at Lon­don Heath­row air­port under counter-terrorism laws.

Journ­al­ists, who always some­what com­pla­cently thought they had spe­cial pro­tec­tions in West­ern coun­tries, are being increas­ingly tar­geted when try­ing to report on issues such as pri­vacy, sur­veil­lance, whis­tleblower dis­clos­ures and wars.

Only a few are being tar­geted now, but I hope these cases will be enough to wake the rest up, while there is still the chance for them to take action.…

.…before there is nobody left to speak up for us.

The Whistler — the international launch

The Whist­ler, the new whis­tleblower sup­port net­work in the UK, recently held an inter­na­tional pre-launch in London.

The Whist­ler has been set up by Gavin Mac­Fa­dyen, Dir­ector of the Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism and Eileen Chubb of Com­pas­sion in Care.

Both, through their work, real­ise the heavy price that all whis­tleblowers from every sec­tor have to pay, not just pro­fes­sion­ally, but also socially, psy­cho­lo­gic­ally and also poten­tially leg­ally. And they want to help.

The organ­isa­tion took the oppor­tun­ity to host an event with a num­ber of US intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers from the Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence who were in the coun­try to present (sadly and inev­it­ably in absen­tia) the 2014 Sam Adams Award to Chelsea Man­ning at a cere­mony at the Oxford Union Soci­ety last week.

Here is the full video of The Whist­ler event:

The Whist­ler Launch from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

In Celebration of Whistleblowers

First pub­lished on RT Op-Edge.

In the UK last week there was a series of events to cel­eb­rate the won­der­ful work of whistleblowers.

In pre­vi­ous dec­ades these brave and rare indi­vidu­als have often been all too eas­ily dis­missed with the usual, care­fully orches­trated media slanders of “dis­gruntled”, “too junior”, “sacked”, whatever ad nauseam. But no longer.

Now, in this era where we have been lied into illegal wars, where the banks privat­ise their profits yet make their risks pub­lic and get repeatedly bailed out, and when people are need­lessly dying in our hos­pit­als, more and more people real­ise the value that whis­tleblowers can bring to the pub­lic debate.

Indeed, the sys­tem is now so broken that the whis­tleblower is often the reg­u­lator of last resort.

Plus, of course, this is the era of Wikileaks, Chelsea Man­ning and Edward Snowden. The concept of whis­tleblow­ing has gone global in response to the scale of the threats we are all now facing from the military-security com­plex world-wide.

So last week was rather invig­or­at­ing and involved a num­ber of events that gave due credit to the bravery and sac­ri­fice of whistleblowers.

First up we had the inter­na­tional launch of the UK whis­tleblower sup­port group, The Whist­ler. This is a Brit­ish organ­isa­tion designed to provide a legal, psy­cho­lo­gical and social sup­port net­work to those in the UK brave enough to come out and blow the whistle on incom­pet­ence and crime from any sec­tor, pub­lic or private, and many hun­dreds have over the last few years, par­tic­u­larly from the fin­an­cial and health sectors.

Sadly all exper­i­ence the same treat­ment; vili­fic­a­tion, sup­pres­sion, and even the loss of their careers for dar­ing to expose the incom­pet­ence and even crime of oth­ers.  Sadly, while there is a law in place that is sup­posed to provide some pro­tec­tion, all to often this has failed over the last 16 years.  The Whist­ler provides a much needed service.

A num­ber of inter­na­tional whis­tleblowers were in the UK for the week for other events, and The Whist­ler was able to host them and hear their stor­ies. Gavin Mac­Fa­dyen of the Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism, and the indefatig­able cam­paigner Eileen Chubb hos­ted the event, and former CIA ana­lyst Ray McGov­ern, NSA whis­tleblower Tom Drake, Jes­selyn Radack of the Gov­ern­ment Account­ab­il­ity pro­ject (The Whistler’s US coun­ter­part), and myself spoke. The Whist­ler will offi­cially be launched in the UK on 20th March, so watch this space.

The next night we found ourselves at the pres­ti­gi­ous Oxford Union Soci­ety, which was kind enough to host the award cere­mony for the Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence for the second year run­ning. You may remem­ber that last year the award went to Dr Tom Fin­gar, whose US National Intel­li­gence Estim­ate of 2007 single-handedly hal­ted to rush to war against Iran.

The Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates is a group of intel­li­gence, gov­ern­ment and mil­it­ary whis­tleblowers and cam­paign­ers.  Each year we vote to con­fer an award on a mem­ber of the intel­li­gence com­munity or related pro­fes­sions who exem­pli­fies CIA ana­lyst, Sam Adams’ cour­age, per­sist­ence and telling truth to power, no mat­ter what the consequences.

Since its incep­tion in 2002, the award has been given to truth tell­ers Coleen Row­ley of the FBI, Kath­er­ine Gun of GCHQ, Sibel Edmonds of the FBI, Craig Mur­ray former UK ambas­sador to Uzbek­istan, Sam Provance former US army Sgt, Major Frank Gre­vil of Dan­ish intel­li­gence, Larry Wilk­er­son former US army Col­onel, Julian Assange of Wikileaks, Thomas Drake of NSA and Jes­selyn Radack of the Depart­ment of Justice, Dr Thomas Fin­gar former Deputy Dir­ector of National Intel­li­gence, and Edward Snowden former NSA con­tractor.

This year the award went, unan­im­ously and inev­it­ably, to Chelsea Man­ning, and many Sam Adams asso­ci­ates trav­elled to the UK to attend and to hon­our her achieve­ments and 2013 SAA laur­eate Edward Snowden sent through a con­grat­u­lat­ory mes­sage. Sadly and for obvi­ous reas­ons Chelsea could not receive the award in per­son, but her old school friend, Aaron Kirk­house read out a power­ful and mov­ing state­ment writ­ten by her for the occasion.

The fol­low­ing night the Union hos­ted a debate on “This house would call Edward Snowden a hero”. I had the pleas­ure of arguing for the pro­pos­i­tion, along with US journ­al­ist Chris Hedges, NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, and former UK gov­ern­ment min­is­ter Chris Huhne, and we won — 212 to 171 was the final tally, I believe.

I very much enjoyed the events, so a massive thanks to Polina Ivan­ova, the cur­rent Union pres­id­ent, and her team who organ­ised the events.

The best part of the week though, apart from the set events, was hav­ing the time to be with other intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers and fel­low cam­paign­ers. While in Lon­don we also all had the oppor­tun­ity to do a range of media inter­views with pro­grammes such as Brian Rose’s Lon­don Real TV and Afshin Rattansi’s “Going Under­ground” on RT.

Sadly but rather pre­dict­ably, the old media chose not to take advant­age of such a rich source of expert­ise in town.  Des­pite repeated invit­a­tions, the MSM failed to attend any of the events or inter­view any of the whis­tleblowers. But per­haps that’s bet­ter than the appallingly off-beam cov­er­age the Guard­ian gave to Dr Fingar’s award cere­mony last year.

But the old media are behind the times, which are def­in­itely a’changing. In this post-Wikileaks, post-Manning and post-Snowden world, the tone of the debate has changed for good. Whis­tleblowers are increas­ingly val­ued as brave indi­vidu­als of con­science and there is much more aware­ness and interest in the issues of pri­vacy, human rights and the mean­ing of demo­cracy. Indeed, in the fun­da­mental mean­ing of freedom.

More NSA spying in Germany — RT interview

In the wake of what appears to be another NSA leaker, it has been repor­ted that, while Angela Merkel’s phone is appar­ently off-limits, her close polit­ical circle is now being targeted.

Last week­end the Bild am Son­ntag news­pa­per in Ger­many repor­ted that a senior NSA oper­at­ive had made these claims. This report has been repeated in media around the world.

While we have yet to see any cor­rob­or­a­tion, this may indeed indic­ate that more staff in the global intel­li­gence com­munity are find­ing the cour­age to speak out about eth­ical con­cerns in the wake of the Snowden dis­clos­ures last year.

No guar­an­tee NSA will stop spy­ing on Ger­many or Merkel from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Chelsea Manning wins Sam Adams Award

Chelsea Man­ning was presen­ted with the Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence at an award cere­mony hos­ted by the Oxford Union Soci­ety on 19th April. Many former intel­li­gence per­son­nel from the US and Europe gathered to hon­our her.

Imme­di­ately after the cere­mony I was asked on RT for an inter­view about the cere­mony, the achieve­ments of Chelsea Man­ning and the value of whis­tleblowers:

Chelsea Man­ning wins Sam Adams Award from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Chelsea Manning wins 2014 SAAII Award

Janu­ary 16, 2014

PRESS RELEASE

Con­tact: Coleen Row­ley (email: rowleyclan@earthlink.net) or Annie Machon (email: annie@anniemachon.ch)

Chelsea Man­ning Awar­ded Sam Adams Integ­rity Prize for 2014

Announce­ment by Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence (SAAII)

The Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence (SAAII) have voted over­whelm­ingly to present the 2014 Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence to Chelsea (formerly Brad­ley) Manning.

A Nobel Peace Prize nom­inee, U.S. Army Pvt. Man­ning is the 25 year-old intel­li­gence ana­lyst who in 2010 provided to WikiLeaks the “Col­lat­eral Murder” video – gun bar­rel foot­age from a U.S. Apache heli­copter, expos­ing the reck­less murder of 12 unarmed civil­ians, includ­ing two Reu­ters journ­al­ists, dur­ing the “surge” in Iraq. The Pentagon had repeatedly denied the exist­ence of the “Col­lat­eral Murder” video and declined to release it des­pite a request under the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act by Reu­ters, which had sought clar­ity on the cir­cum­stances of its journ­al­ists’ deaths.

Release of this video and other doc­u­ments sparked a world­wide dia­logue about the import­ance of gov­ern­ment account­ab­il­ity for human rights abuses as well as the dangers of excess­ive secrecy and over-classification of documents.

On Feb­ru­ary 19, 2014 Pvt. Man­ning — cur­rently incar­cer­ated at Leaven­worth Prison — will be recog­nized at a cere­mony in absen­tia at Oxford University’s pres­ti­gi­ous Oxford Union Soci­ety for cast­ing much-needed day­light on the true toll and cause of civil­ian cas­u­al­ties in Iraq; human rights abuses by U.S. and “coali­tion” forces, mer­cen­ar­ies, and con­tract­ors; and the roles that spy­ing and bribery play in inter­na­tional diplomacy.

The Oxford Union cere­mony will include the present­a­tion of the tra­di­tional SAAII Corner-Brightener Can­dle­stick and will fea­ture state­ments of sup­port from former SAAII awardees and prom­in­ent whis­tleblowers. Mem­bers of the press are invited to attend.

On August 21, 2013 Pvt. Man­ning received an unusu­ally harsh sen­tence of 35 years in prison for expos­ing the truth — a chilling mes­sage to those who would call atten­tion to wrong­do­ing by U.S. and “coali­tion” forces.

Under the 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act in the United King­dom, Pvt. Man­ning, whose mother is Brit­ish, would have faced just two years in prison for whis­tleblow­ing or 14 years if con­victed under the old 1911 Offi­cial Secrets Act for espionage.

Former senior NSA exec­ut­ive and SAAII Awardee Emer­itus Thomas Drake has writ­ten that Man­ning “exposed the dark side shad­ows of our national secur­ity régime and for­eign policy fol­lies .. [her] acts of civil dis­obedi­ence … strike at the very core of the crit­ical issues sur­round­ing our national secur­ity, pub­lic and for­eign policy, open­ness and trans­par­ency, as well as the unpre­ced­en­ted and relent­less cam­paign by this Admin­is­tra­tion to snuff out and silence truth tell­ers and whis­tleblowers in a delib­er­ate and pre­med­it­ated assault on the 1st Amendment.”

Pre­vi­ous win­ners of the Sam Adams Award include Coleen Row­ley (FBI); Kath­ar­ine Gun (formerly of GCHQ, the National Secur­ity Agency’s equi­val­ent in the UK); former UK Ambas­sador Craig Mur­ray; Larry Wilk­er­son (Col., US Army, ret.; chief of staff for Sec­ret­ary of State Colin Pow­ell); Julian Assange (WikiLeaks); Thomas Drake (NSA); Jes­selyn Radack (former eth­ics attor­ney for the Depart­ment of Justice, now National Secur­ity & Human Right Dir­ector of the Gov­ern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Pro­ject); Thomas Fin­gar (former Deputy Dir­ector of National Intel­li­gence, who man­aged the key National Intel­li­gence Estim­ate of 2007 that con­cluded Iran had stopped work­ing on a nuc­lear weapon four years earlier); and Edward Snowden (former NSA con­tractor and sys­tems admin­is­trator, cur­rently resid­ing in Rus­sia under tem­por­ary asylum).

The Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence are very proud to add Pvt. Man­ning to this list of dis­tin­guished awardees.

CCC talk — the Four Wars

Here is my recent talk at the CCC in Ham­burg, dis­cuss­ing the war on ter­ror, the war on drugs, the war in the inter­net and the war on whis­tleblowers:

30C3 — The Four Wars; Ter­ror, whis­tleblowers, drugs, inter­net from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Voice of Russia radio interview about spies, oversight, whistleblowers, and Snowden.

Here is an inter­view I did for Voice of Rus­sia radio in Lon­don last week about spies and their rela­tion­ship with our demo­cratic pro­cesses, over­sight, Edward Snowden and much more:

Voice of Rus­sia radio inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

RT interview about new EU data protection measures

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.

Interview on London Real TV

Here’s my recent inter­view on Lon­don Real TV, dis­cuss­ing all things whis­tleblow­ing, tech, intel­li­gence, and the war on drugs.  Thanks Brian and Colin for a fun hour!

London Real TV Interview — coming soon

Here is a taster of my recent inter­view on Lon­don Real TV. It was diverse, lively and fun, and should be broad­cast in full tomor­row:

Annie Machon — Whis­tleblower — Lon­don Real TV from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Empire Strikes Back

First pub­lished by RT Op-Edge.

Sir Andrew Parker, the recently elev­ated Dir­ector Gen­eral of the UK’s domestic secur­ity Ser­vice (MI5) yes­ter­day made both his first pub­lic speech and a super­fi­cially robust defence of the work of the intel­li­gence agen­cies. Read­ing from the out­side, it sounds all pat­ri­otic and noble.

Darth_VaderAnd who is to say that Parker does not believe this after 30 years on the inside and the MI5 group­think men­tal­ity being what it is? Let’s give him the bene­fit of the doubt. How­ever, I have two prob­lems with his speech, on both a micro and a macro scale.

Let’s start with the micro — ie the devil in the detail — what is said and, cru­cially, what is left unsaid. First up: over­sight, which the spook apo­lo­gists have dwelt on at great length over the last few months.

I wrote about this last week, but here’s some of that dev­il­ish detail. Parker cor­rectly explains what the mech­an­isms are for over­sight within MI5: the Home Office war­rants for oth­er­wise illegal activ­it­ies such as bug­ging; the over­sight com­mis­sion­ers; the Com­plaints Tribunal; the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment. This all sounds pretty reas­on­able for a demo­cracy, right?

Of course, what he neg­lects to men­tion is how these sys­tems can be gamed by the spies.

The applic­a­tion for war­rants is a tick-box exer­cise where basic legal require­ments can be by-passed, the author­ising min­is­ter only ever sees a sum­mary of a sum­mary.… ad infin­itum.… for sig­na­ture, and never declines a request in case some­thing lit­er­ally blows up fur­ther down the line.

Sure, there are inde­pend­ent com­mis­sion­ers who over­see MI5 and its sur­veil­lance work every year and write a report. But as I have writ­ten before, they are given the royal treat­ment dur­ing their annual visit to Thames House, and officers with con­cerns about the abuse of the war­rantry sys­tem are barred from meet­ing them. Plus, even these ano­dyne reports can high­light an alarm­ing num­ber of “admin­is­trat­ive errors” made by the spies, no doubt entirely without malice.

The com­plaints tribunal — the body to which we can make a com­plaint if we feel we have been unne­ces­sar­ily spied on, has always found in favour of the spies.

And finally, the pièce de résist­ance, so to speak: the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment. How many times do I have to write this? Top cops and Parker’s spy pre­de­cessors have admit­ted to lying suc­cess­fully to the ISC for many years. This is not mean­ing­ful over­sight, nor is the fact that the evid­ence of earlier major intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers was ignored by the ISC, except for the part where they might be under invest­ig­a­tion by MI5 themselves.…

Of course, the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has entered the lists this sum­mer to say that the ISC has just acquired new powers and can now go into the spies’ lairs, demand to see papers, and over­see oper­a­tional activ­it­ies. This is indeed good, if belated, news, but from a man who has already cleared GCHQ’s endemic data-mining as law­ful, one has to won­der how thor­ough he will be.

While the com­mit­tee remains chosen by the PM, answer­able only to the PM, who can also vet the find­ings, this com­mit­tee is irre­deem­ably undemo­cratic. It will remain full of cred­u­lous yes-men only too happy to sup­port the status quo.

Secondly, what are the threats that Parker talks about? He has worked for MI5 for 30 years and will there­fore remem­ber not only the Cold War era, where Soviet spies were hunted down, but also the very real and per­vas­ive threat of IRA bombs reg­u­larly explod­ing on UK streets. At the same time hun­dreds of thou­sands of polit­ic­ally act­ive UK cit­izens were aggress­ively invest­ig­ated. A (cold) war and the threat of ter­ror­ism allowed the spies a drag-net of sur­veil­lance even then.

V_for_Vendetta_masksHow much worse now, in this hyper-connected, data-mining era? One chilling phrase that leapt out at me from Parker’s speech was the need to invest­ig­ate “ter­ror­ists and oth­ers threat­en­ing national secur­ity”. National secur­ity has never been leg­ally defined for the pur­poses of UK law, and we see the goal posts move again and again. In the 1980s, when Parker joined MI5, it was the “reds under the bed”, the so-called sub­vers­ives. Now it can be the Occupy group encamped in the City of Lon­don or envir­on­mental act­iv­ists wav­ing plac­ards.

So now for my macro con­cerns, which are about wider con­cepts. Parker used his first pub­lic speech to defend not only the work of his own organ­isa­tion, but also to attack the whis­tleblow­ing efforts of Edward Snowden and the cov­er­age in The Guard­ian news­pa­per. He attempts to seam­lessly elide the work and the over­sight mod­els of MI5 and GCHQ.  And who is fall­ing for this?  Well, much of the UK media appar­ently.

This mud­dies the waters. The con­cerns about Snowden’s dis­clos­ures are global — the TEMPORA pro­ject affects not only the cit­izens of the UK but people across Europe and bey­ond. For Rif­kind or the For­eign Sec­ret­ary to com­pla­cently say that GCHQ is over­seen by them and everything is hunkey-dorey is just not good enough, even for the hap­less cit­izens of the UK. How much more so for those unrep­res­en­ted people across the world?

The IOCA (1985) and later and much-abused RIPA (2000) laws were writ­ten before the UK gov­ern­ment could have con­ceived of the sheer scale of the inter­net. They are way out of date — 20th cen­tury rolling omni­bus war­rants hoover­ing up every scrap of data and being stored for unknown times in case you might com­mit a (thought?) crime in the future. This is noth­ing like mean­ing­ful oversight.

Unlike the UK, even the USA is cur­rently hav­ing con­gres­sional hear­ings and media debates about the lim­its of the elec­tronic sur­veil­lance pro­gramme. Con­sid­er­ing America’s mus­cu­lar response after 9/11, with illegal inva­sions, drone strikes, CIA kill lists and extraordin­ary kid­nap­pings (to this day), that casts the UK spy com­pla­cency in a par­tic­u­larly unflat­ter­ing light.

Plus if 58,000 GCHQ doc­u­ments have really been copied by a young NSA con­tractor, why are Parker and Rif­kind not ask­ing dif­fi­cult ques­tions of the Amer­ican admin­is­tra­tion, rather than con­tinu­ing to jus­tify the anti­quated Brit­ish over­sight system?

Finally, Parker is show­ing his age as well as his pro­fes­sion when he talks about the inter­webs and all the implic­a­tions.  As I said dur­ing my state­ment to the LIBE com­mit­tee in the European Parliament:

  • 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.