Ibsen and Whistleblowers

The Chichester Festival Theatre in the UK has been staging Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, exploring the complexities of whistleblowing.

The CFT asked me to write an article for the festival programme about the value and role, the dangers and opportunities, for twenty-first century whistleblowers. Here it is:

The Regulators of Last Resort

Let us play a little game of word association. I write “Edward Snowden” – and what is the first thought to leap into your mind? Hero? Traitor? Who?

Or might it be whistleblower?

The controversial issue of whistleblowing, which is at the heart of Ibsen’s play, has been firmly thrust into the public consciousness over the last few years with the ongoing saga of Wikileaks and with high profile cases such as that of Chelsea Manning and, of course, Snowden himself.

Often whistleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be traitors, grasses or snitches. Or they are set on such an heroic pedestal that their example can actually be discouraging, making you consider whether you would ever take such a risk, often with the depressing conclusion that it would be impossible for a whole range of practical reasons – professional reputation, job security, family safety, even liberty.

However, you have to ask yourself why, when faced with these risks and repercussions, individuals (in the manner of the fictional Dr Stockmann) do indeed speak out; why they do still consider the risks worth taking? Particularly those emerging from the world of intelligence, the military or the diplomatic corps who face the most grievous penalties.

The UK spy community is the most legally protected and least accountable of any Western democracy, but the USA is catching up fast. So, as a result of such entrenched governmental secrecy across these areas, whistleblowing is realistically the only available avenue to alert your fellow citizens to abuses carried out secretly in their name.

I have a nodding acquaintance with the process. In the 1990s I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK domestic Security Service, generally known as MI5, before resigning to help my former partner and colleague David Shayler blow the whistle on a catalogue of incompetence and crime. As a result we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hiding and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, family and journalists arrested around us. I was also arrested, although never charged, and David went to prison twice for exposing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.

However, it could all have been so different if the UK government had agreed to take his evidence of spy crimes, undertake to investigate them thoroughly, and apply the necessary reforms. This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could potentially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinctive response is always to protect the spies and prosecute the whistleblower, while the mistakes and crimes go uninvestigated and unresolved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the malefactors with promotions and gongs.

The draconian Official Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any disclosure whatsoever. As a result, we the citizens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integrity. There is no meaningful oversight and no real accountability.

Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a difference and potentially save lives. However, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any ethical concerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just follow orders”.

In such an environment there is no ventilation, no accountability and no staff federation, and this inevitably leads to a general consensus – a bullying “group think” mentality. This in turn can lead to mistakes being covered up rather than lessons learned, and then potentially down a dangerous moral slide.

As a result, over the last 15 years we have seen scandal heaped upon intelligence scandal, as the spies allowed their fake and politicised information to be used make a false case for an illegal war in Iraq; we have seen them descend into a spiral of extraordinary rendition (ie kidnapping) and torture, for which they are now being sued if not prosecuted; and we have seen that they facilitate dodgy deals in the deserts with dictators.

Since the Shayler case in the late 1990s, other UK whistleblowers have hit the headlines: GCHQ’s Katherine Gun, who exposed illegal spying on our so-called allies in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. She managed to avoid prosecution because of a possible legal defence of necessity that resulted from Shayler’s case. Or Ambassador Craig Murray, who exposed the torture of political dissidents in Uzbekistan – and when I say torture, I mean the boiling alive of political opponents of the regime, with the photographs to prove it. Murray was not prosecuted, but he lost his career and was traduced with tawdry slurs about his personal life across the British media.

The USA is little better. Since 2001 many intelligence whistleblowers there have faced a grim fate. Ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s torture programme, languished for three years in prison while the torturers remain free; Bill Binney, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe of the NSA were hounded and narrowly escaped prosecution for exposing NSA malfeasance; a colleague, Tom Drake faced a 35-year prison sentence, despite having gone through all the approved, official channels; and in 2013 a kangaroo court was held to try Chelsea Manning for her exposure of US war crimes. Inevitably, it is the whistleblower Manning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in prison, not the war criminals.

President Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espionage Act against whistleblowers during his years in the White House more times than all his predecessors put together, while at the same time allowing a bone fide spy ring – the Russian illegals including Anna Chapman – to return home in 2010. This paranoid hunt for the “insider threat” – the whistleblower – has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from documents leaked, ironically, to Wikileaks in 2010.

Against this background, fully aware of the hideous risks he was taking and the prospect of the rest of his life behind bars, in 2013 a young man stepped forward – Edward Snowden.

He was clear then about his motivation and he remains clear now in the few interviews he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge concern. The American intelligence infrastructure, along with its partner agencies across the world, was constructing a global surveillance network that not only threatens the constitution of the United States, but also erodes the privacy of all the world’s citizens.

Even against such a background of other brave whistleblowers, Snowden stands out for me for three key reasons: his personal and conscious courage at such a time, the sheer scale of his disclosures, and the continuing, global impact of what he exposed.

Unfortunately, while whistleblowers understand the legal risks they are taking when they emerge from the intelligence world or the diplomatic corps, they are often media virgins and are eternally surprised by the way the treatment meted out to them.

Until the turn of the millennium, intelligence whistleblowers had no choice but to entrust themselves to the established media. Some like “Deep Throat”, the source of the Watergate scandal in 1970s America, were distrustful and remained in the shadows. Others, such as Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, or Clive Ponting who in 1982 released information about the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War, were fortunate to work with campaigning journalists who fought both for their sources and the principle of press freedom. Even when Shayler went public in the late 1990s, he had no option but to work with the established media.

From personal experience, I can attest to the fact that this is not always a painless experience. With a few honorable exceptions, most of the journalists will just asset-strip their whistleblowers for information. They make their careers, while the whistleblower breaks theirs.

Plus, There are many ways our soi-disant free press can be manipulated and controlled by the spies. The soft power involves inducting journalists to be agents of influence within their organisation, or cosy chats between editors and spies, or proprietors and top spies – that is how stories can be spun or disappeared.

The hard power is extensive too – the application of laws such as libel, counter-terrorism laws, injunctions, and also the use of the OSA against journalists themselves. Or even blatant intimidation, as happened after The Guardian newspaper published the early Snowden disclosures – the police went in and physically smashed up the hard drives containing his information.

All this casts that well known chilling effect on the freedom of the press and the free-flow of information from the government to the governed, which is so vital for an informed and participatory citizenry.

Which brings me back to Wikileaks. Established in 2007, this provides a secure and high-tech conduit for whistleblowers that gives them more control and securely stores the documents to prove their allegations. This is also why the US government saw it as such a threat and has pursued it in such a draconian and punitive way over the years since the first big revelations in 2010. Ironically, this is also partly why much of the traditional media turned on Wikileaks – it threatened the old media business model.

But from a whistleblower’s perspective, Wikileaks and its successors offer a brave new world. The technological genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

There is, of course, another possible path. The intelligence agencies could establish meaningful channels for ventilation of staff concerns, where the evidence is properly investigated and reforms made as necessary. Having such a sound procedure in place to address concerns strikes me as a win-win scenario for staff efficiency and morale, the organisation’s operational capability and reputation, and potentially the wider public safety too.

However, unless and until secretive governmental organisations institute such legitimate and effective avenues for potential whistleblowers to go down, embarrassing disclosures will continue. Nobody sets out to be a whistleblower but, absent effective reforms, they will remain our regulators of last resort.

The NSA and Guantanamo Bay

Yesterday The Intercept released more documents from the Edward Snowden trove.  These highlighted the hitherto suspected by unproven involvement of the NSA in Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition, torture and interrogation.

Here is my interview on RT about the subject:

Snowden disclosures about NSA and Guantanamo from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Karma Police

As I type this I am listening to one of my all-time favourite albums, Radiohead’s seminal “OK, Computer”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spellbound by its edginess, complexity, experimentalism and political overtones. My partner at the time, David Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admittedly tone deaf, he never understood what he laughingly called the “music conspiracy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.

ST_Spies_on_the_RunHis opinion changed drastically over the summer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes committed by the UK’s spy agencies. As a result of our actions – the first reports appeared in the British media on 24 July 1997 – we had fled the country and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this surreal backpacking holiday I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ransacked home, and try to comfort our traumatised families who had known nothing of our whistleblowing plans.

“OK, Computer” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. Taking random trains, moving from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dislocated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recreate a sense of homeliness – some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essentials for our unknown future life, I had managed to squeeze in my portable CD player (remember those?), tiny speakers and a few cherished CDs. Such are the priorities of youth.

The joy of Radiohead broke upon David during that month – particularly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encapsulated our feelings as we fled the UK together. Once we were holed up in a primitive French farmhouse for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, holding onto each other tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Revelling in the music, we also drew strength from the dissident tone of the lyrics.

So it was with some mirthful incredulity that I yesterday read on The Intercept that GCHQ named one of its most iniquitous programmes after one of the classic songs from the album – “Karma Police”.

In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to develop a system that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a profile of each of our lives online – our interests, our peccadilloes, our politics, our beliefs. The programme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed functional in 2009. Who knows what information GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, everyone, since then?

As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many others began to expose the out-of-control spy agencies, this is disproportionate in soi-dissent democracies. It is certainly not lawful by any stretch of the imagination. UK governmental warrants – which are supposed to regulate and if necessary circumscribe the activities of the spy snoopers – have repeatedly been egregiously abused.

They are supposed to make a case for targeted surveillance of people suspected of being a threat to the UK’s national security or economic well-being. The warrants, blindly signed by the Home or Foreign Secretary, are not designed to authorise the industrial interception of everyone’s communications. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.

Talking of crimes, after a month on the run with David, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arrested, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was David Shayler’s girlfriend and had supported his whistleblowing activities. In fact my lawyer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liberties union, Liberty, had negotiated with the police for me return to the UK and hand myself into the police for questioning. He flew out to Barcelona to accompany me back to the UK almost exactly eighteen years ago today.

Annie_arrestDespite the pre-agreements, I was arrested at the immigration desk at Gatwick airport by six burly Special Branch police officers and then driven by them up to the counter-terrorism interview room in Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for the maximum six hours before being released with no charge.

The music playing on the radio during this drive from the airport to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.

One can but hope that karma will come into play. But perhaps the ending of “Exit Music…”  is currently more pertinent – we hope that you choke, that you choke…..

After all, the spies do seem to be choking on an overload of hoovered-up intelligence – pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been carried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies.  Too much information can indeed be bad for our security, our privacy and our safety.

German Netzpolitik journalists investigated for treason

Press freedom is under threat in Germany – two journalists and their alleged source are under investigation for potential treason for disclosing and reporting what appears to be an illegal and secret plan to spy on German citizens. Here’s the interview I did for RT.com about this yesterday:

German Netzpolitik journalists face treason charges from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Sky News Interview about Whistleblowers

This is an interview I did on Sky News in the aftermath of the Trident whistleblower case.

I wonder what has become of William McNeilly, now the media spotlight has moved on?

Sky_News_Whistleblower_Interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Anything to Say? unveiled in Berlin

Last week artist Davide Dormino unveiled his sculpture celebrating whistleblowers in Alexanderplatz, Berlin.

Called “Anything to Say?”, the sculpture depicts Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange standing on three chairs, with an empty fourth chair beside them, upon which we are all encouraged to stand up on and speak our truth.

Davide invited me to do just that for the unveiling ceremony, along with German MP for the Green Party and whistleblower supporter, Hans Christian Stroebele and Wikileaks’ Sarah Harrison. Here’s a report:

Anything_to_Say?_sculpture_unveiled_in_Berlin from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Whistleblower panel discussion at Logan Symposium

Here is a panel discussion I did about whistleblowing at the Logan Symposium in London last November. With me on the panel are Eileen Chubb, a UK health care whistleblower who runs Compassion in Care and is campaigning for Edna’s Law, and Bea Edwards of the US Government Accountability Project.  With thanks to @newsPeekers for filming this.

newsPeeksLIVE whistleblower interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Swedish SVT TV Interview, November 2014

Here’s an interview I did while at the excellent Internetdagarna conference in Stockholm last month.  It covers all things whistleblower, going on the run, and spy accountability:

Interview on Swedish SVT TV, November 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Privacy as Innovation Interview

A recent interview I gave while in Stockholm to the Privacy as Innovation project:

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Keynote at Internetdagarna, Stockholm, November 2014

Here is my keynote speech at the recent Internetdagarna (Internet Days) conference in Stockholm, Sweden, discussing all things whistleblower, spy, surveillance, privacy and TTIP:

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Interview on Swedish Aftonbladet TV

I’m currently in Stockholm to do a keynote tomorrow at the fantastic Internet Days conference, an annual gathering organised by Internet Infrastructure Foundation.

This morning, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Aftonbladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whistleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, and threats to the internet. Here is the interview:

Sweden – Aftonbladet TV Interview about whistleblowers from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Keynote at international whistleblower conference, Amsterdam

With thanks to Free Press Unlimited, the Dutch Advice Centre for Whisteblowers, Network Democracy,  and the Whistleblowing International Network.

All these organisations came together to hold an international conference in support of whistleblowers on 18th June in Amsterdam.

It was a creative event, mixing up lawyers, journalists, technologists and whistleblower support networks from around the world at an event with speeches and workshops, in order for everyone to learn, share experiences, and develop new methodologies and best practice to help current and future whistleblowers.

A stimulating and productive day, at which I did the opening keynote:

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Courage Resignation

Half a year ago I was asked be the director of a new foundation that would raise funds to cover the legal costs of high-profile whistleblowers, journalist sources and associated cases.  Five months ago I announced the launch of the Courage Foundation to an audience of 6,000 at the CCC hackerfest in Hamburg:

This week I have resigned my position from the Courage Foundation.

Firstly, I find the current evolution of Courage incompatible with the way I work.

Secondly, I have so many other calls on my time, travelling constantly across Europe to speak at conferences around issues such as whistleblowers, the media, technology, surveillance, privacy, drug policy, human rights…. where to stop.

I wish the organisation all the best for the future. It is doing important work.

I shall also continue to speak out in support of whistleblowers and associated issues – how could I not?

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Whistleblowers deserve full coverage

Here is my recent RT interview about the recent dispute between Wikileaks and Glenn Greenwald on what exactly the parameters should be in media reporting of whistleblower disclosures:

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Whistleblowers deserve full coverage – RT interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Of course, thanks to Wikileaks this evening, we now know the country that Glenn Greenwald redacted from his original report was Afghanistan.

Why on earth should the Afghanis not be allowed to know the sheer scale of surveillance they live under? In fact, would many be surprised? This is an excellent related article, do read.