So wasn’t the royal wedding lovely?

Well, yes, for some per­haps, and no doubt for the happy couple.

How­ever, oth­ers spent the glor­i­ous day in a bare, con­crete police cell, pre-empt­ively arres­ted for what they might do and untrace­able to their loved ones and law­yers.  Effect­ively they were “dis­ap­peared”, taken off the streets in case they uttered some­thing that might mar the great day or, heav­en for­bid, caused some embar­rass­ment.

A few days ago I wrote a piece high­light­ing my con­cerns about the threatened secur­ity response to pos­sible pro­test­ers — draw­ing com­par­is­ons with the mind­set, if not the viol­ent tac­tics, of the thugs in Syr­i­a’s secur­ity appar­at­us.  But still, in some deep recess of my mind and against all the accu­mu­lated evid­ence from my last 15 years, I found I still had an emo­tion­al, resid­ual echo of the notion of Brit­ish fair play that, really, we don’t do those kinds of things in the UK.  Well, then I was a child, and spoke as a child.… 

In the run up to the happy nup­tials, the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police stated that it had no spe­cif­ic intel­li­gence of any ter­ror­ist threat from either dis­sid­ent Irish repub­lic­ans, nor from any pos­sible group­ing emer­ging from the Middle East.  Des­pite this, the secur­ity forces had launched a massive intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing oper­a­tion to hunt down known “anarch­ists” who might want to voice their protest against the concept of the mon­archy.  Act­iv­ist pages on Face­book were sud­denly deleted with no warn­ing, but the com­pany said it was because of regis­tra­tion issues, and not because of the police.

Yes, there may well have been some who wanted to cause viol­ence — after which they could have been arres­ted legit­im­ately under the terms of the law .  How­ever, what the police did in this case was in an alto­geth­er dif­fer­ent league.  Using the meth­od­o­logy if not the bru­tal­ity of the Syr­i­an mukhabar­at, they organ­ised house raids and snatch squads.  They banned cer­tain act­iv­ists from Lon­don, and arres­ted oth­ers both in the days before the wed­ding and on the day itself. 

Those caught in the secur­ity sweep included a Pro­fess­or of Anthro­po­logy, Chris Knight, and his friends who were plan­ning a bit of mildly amus­ing street theatre involving a fake guil­lot­ine and a Prince Andrew dummy (is that tau­to­log­ous?).

Oth­ers swept up by the secur­ity forces included a bunch of envir­on­ment­al­ist squat­ters who were busily tend­ing their mar­ket garden, accord­ing to rightly con­cerned MP John McDon­nell, and some ran­dom “zom­bies” who wanted to go to an altern­at­ive “not the roy­al wed­ding” garden party.  Hardly the stuff of revolu­tion­ary night­mares.

Hug_the_Police2And then there’s the case of Charlie Veitch, now denounced across the UK media as the known anarch­ist. Yes, Charlie is anti-roy­al­ist and wanted to voice his views, but he runs an inter­na­tion­ally-known act­iv­ist organ­isa­tion called the Love Police, for chris­sakes.  The peace­ful inten­tions of the organ­isa­tion might pos­sibly be giv­en away by the name.…

So what happened? On Thursday even­ing two police officers, tooled up with proto-Borg tech, muscled their way into the Cam­bridge home he shares with his girl­friend, Silkie Carlo, declar­ing that they were there to arrest him and search the place. They had the pres­ence of mind to film the whole pro­cess and ask some per­tin­ent ques­tions.

Charlie’s alleged pre-crime?  That he had pos­ted a fright­en­ingly pres­ci­ent video on You­tube say­ing that he thought he was being spied on, but still cri­tiquing the roy­al wed­ding and sug­gest­ing that fel­low act­iv­ists get togeth­er in Soho Square, Lon­don (quite a dis­tance away from the fest­iv­it­ies) on the day.  OK, so he had a bit of a rant — but that’s what people do on You­tube.  Agree with him or strongly dis­agree, it’s called his free­dom of expres­sion — a much-vaunted, tra­di­tion­al Brit­ish liberty. 

But in the eyes of the police, appar­ently he was “con­spir­ing to cause a pos­sible breach of the peace”, and needed to be locked up.   It’s like we’ve time-trav­elled back to pre-revolu­tion­ary 18th cen­tury France, where the king could issue a lettre de cachet to send people to the Bastille.

So at the very time that Prince Wil­li­am and his blush­ing bride were cre­ated Duke and Duch­ess of Cam­bridge, a Brit­ish cit­izen was raided, locked up and hid­den away in a police cell in that very city for exer­cising free speech. 

On Thursday night he was hauled off to the Cam­bridge nick, which then refused to con­firm to his under­stand­ably upset girl­friend where he was being held, before being transfered to the Met Police on Fri­day morn­ing and held incom­mu­nic­ado for the rest of the day.  Fam­ily and law­yers then appar­ently spent fruit­less hours ringing around all the Lon­don police sta­tions try­ing to track him down.  So Charlie had effect­ively been “dis­ap­peared”, like a dis­sid­ent in a total­it­ari­an régime.

So let’s get this straight — we’re talk­ing about the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police spy­ing on known act­iv­ists (as we all now know they do, after the under­cov­er cop scan­dal earli­er this year) to pre­vent them from express­ing their legit­im­ate polit­ic­al views about the wed­ding of Kate and Wills.  The secur­ity forces had already stated that there was no spe­cif­ic ter­ror­ist threat, so this was all about pre­vent­ing an embar­rass­ing incid­ent on the big day.  And I’m sorry, but I don’t think that Pre­ven­tion of Embar­rass­ment is covered by the leg­al code.

Plus, these arrests were pre-empt­ive to stop a pos­sible crime which might be com­mit­ted — and let’s face it, only breach of the peace at that.  Not a biggy.

So we are basic­ally look­ing at the police spy­ing on and then pre-empt­ively arrest­ing cam­paign­ers for being poten­tial dis­sid­ents, for ThoughtCrime.  How much more Orwellian can it get?

I men­tioned the tac­tics of the Syr­i­an secur­ity forces and their bru­tal crack-down.  I’ve also pre­vi­ously writ­ten about how the slide towards fas­cism began in Ger­many in the 1930s with the bru­tal­isa­tion of intern­al oppos­i­tion­ists and dis­sid­ents . 

So let’s really stop and think about this — do we really want to let these early indic­a­tions slide by, uncon­tested? After all, we have the Olympics and the Dia­mond Jubilee next year, and no doubt the same, or exten­ded, powers will come into force.  How far will we let it go before we wake up to the threat?

As I’ve writ­ten before, with thanks to Pas­tor Mar­tin Niemoeller:

First they came for the Irish in the 1980s,

But I was not Irish so I did not speak up.

Then they came for the Muslims after 9/11,

But I was not a Muslim, so I did not speak up.

Then they came for the “domest­ic extrem­ists”,

But I was not an act­iv­ist, so I did not speak up.

Then they came for me;

and there was nobody left to speak up for me.


RTTV interview on the royal wedding and arrest of UK activists

My inter­view on 29 April 2011 for RTTV about the pre-empt­ive arrests of UK polit­ic­al act­iv­ists in the run-up to the roy­al wed­ding. 

Thoughtcrime appears to have arrived in the UK — and I acci­dent­ally became a roy­al wed­ding com­ment­at­or (sort of). 

Well, nev­er say nev­er in life.…


Guantanamo Files: was Bin Hamlili really an MI6 source?

My recent art­icle in The Guard­i­an news­pa­per about the strange, sad case of yet anoth­er Guantanamo vic­tim.

Guantá­namo Bay files: Was Bin Ham­lili really an MI6 source?

With dirty tricks rife in the secret ser­vice we may nev­er know the truth about the Algeri­an car­pet-seller­’s ver­sion of events.

Anoth­er cache of intel­li­gence nas­ties has emerged, blink­ing, into the main­stream media day­light by way of WikiLeaks. This time, the inform­a­tion is drawn from offi­cial Guantá­namo reports on detain­ees, draw­ing on inform­a­tion gleaned over the years of “enhanced” inter­rog­a­tions.

One case that caught my atten­tion was that of Algeri­an car­pet seller Adil Hadi al Jazairi Bin Ham­lili, an alleged “al-Qaida oper­at­ive, facil­it­at­or, cour­i­er, kid­nap­per and assas­sin” who also appar­ently worked as an agent of CSIS (Cana­dian Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice) and our very own MI6. So was this man a double-agent, play­ing his own lonely game and caught between the demands of his al-Qaida con­tacts and his west­ern hand­lers? Or has MI6 been employ­ing its very own al-Qaida assas­sin?

The report states that this is Bin Ham­lili’s story in his own words – no doubt freely uttered as he emerged, splut­ter­ing, from yet anoth­er inter­rog­a­tion. It appears that he entered the mujahideen world when he was a child in the 1980s, fight­ing the Soviet occu­pa­tion of Afgh­anistan. An era when the group was very much an ally of the west, fun­ded, trained and armed by the CIA and MI6 in the fight against the Soviet Uni­on.

This could very well have led to MI6 and/or CSIS approach­ing Bin Ham­lili as a poten­tial source of human intel­li­gence. Humint sources are the crown jew­els of intel­li­gence work – able to reach parts bey­ond the range of elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance. The down­side, of course, is that they are merely human and need strong sup­port and backup to sur­vive their dan­ger­ous job, year after year. This is some­thing that is not always provided to them and they can often end up feel­ing exposed, increas­ingly para­noid and in real danger, play­ing every side just to sur­vive.

While some agents do indeed suf­fer a genu­ine revul­sion towards their earli­er alle­gi­ances – the basic ideo­lo­gic­al shift – and try to atone by help­ing the spooks, most are entrapped by the oth­er three points in the clas­sic spy acronym: money, ideo­logy, com­prom­ise, ego. These are more shaded, com­pelled motiv­a­tions that can lead to resent­ment and poten­tial double-deal­ing, and require close agent hand­ling and care. Unfor­tu­nately, this is often lack­ing.

So wel­come to the clas­sic intel­li­gence “hall of mir­rors”. Was Bin Ham­lili really an MI6 source? Or was this just an attempt to stop the tor­ture in Guantá­namo, how­ever tem­por­ar­ily? Per­haps he was play­ing both sides? Or per­haps he faith­fully repor­ted back to his CSIS/MI6 hand­lers but his reports were not effect­ively acted on – this hap­pens in the intel­li­gence agen­cies – and the culp­able officers brushed these mis­takes under the car­pet by claim­ing “agent unre­li­ab­il­ity” or “lack of co-oper­a­tion”.

Or, more wor­ry­ingly, Bin Ham­lili might indeed have had an effect­ive work­ing rela­tion­ship with his hand­lers and was actu­ally tasked in his work as pro­vocateur or even ter­ror­ist, for some arcane intel­li­gence pur­poses. But once caught, he was deemed to be polit­ic­ally embar­rass­ing and hung out to dry.

This would cer­tainly not be the first time this has happened to intel­li­gence agents. Dirty tricks were intrins­ic in the dirty war in North­ern Ire­land from the early 1970s, and agents such as Mar­tin McGart­land, Denis Don­ald­son (deceased) and Kev­in Fulton have learned all too bru­tally what the phrase “hung out to dry” really means.

This was not restric­ted to North­ern Ire­land. In 1996, MI6 illeg­ally fun­ded an “al-Qaida” coup to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi, using as its agent a Liby­an mil­it­ary intel­li­gence officer. The attempt mani­festly failed, although inno­cent people were killed in the attempt. This was all hushed up at the time, but now seems rather tame as we watch our defence sec­ret­ary, Liam Fox, fly out to dis­cuss with his US coun­ter­part, Robert Gates, the overt assas­sin­a­tion of Gad­dafi using pred­at­or drones. State ter­ror­ism as the new dip­lomacy?

I doubt we shall ever now know the truth behind Bin Ham­lili’s report. The expos­ure of the Guantá­namo régime high­lights once again that tor­ture is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive – it panders to the pre­con­cep­tions of the inter­rog­at­ors and acts as a recruit­ing ground for future poten­tial ter­ror­ists. This used to be the con­sensus even with­in our intel­li­gence agen­cies, pre‑9/11. They need to re-remem­ber the les­sons of his­tory, and their human­ity.

A tale of two countries — pre-emptive policing in Britain and Syria

What a dif­fer­ence a mere month makes in the UK media.  At the end of March The Inde­pend­ent news­pa­per pro­duced this art­icle in the wake of the huge TUC anti-cuts protest in Lon­don, where the Brit­ish Home Sec­ret­ary was cas­tig­ated for con­sid­er­ing great­er police powers to pre­vent such “trouble” again, with par­tic­u­lar ref­er­ence to the forth­com­ing roy­al wed­ding.

At the time former assist­ant com­mis­sion­er at Scot­land Yard, Andy Hay­man, who had served as the head of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Counter-Ter­ror­ism squad and was, umm,  reportedlymuch-esteemed officer before his early resig­na­tion, adop­ted a mus­cu­lar tone by call­ing for “snatch squads” and “dawn raids” to be car­ried out by police against sus­pec­ted trouble­makers.  How ter­ribly un-Brit­ish.

Per­haps I’m start­ing at shad­ows, but with the above in mind two inter­est­ing aricles appeared in that very same news­pa­per today.

The first art­icle that caught my eye con­firmed there was indeed just such a secur­ity crack­down against sus­pec­ted dis­sid­ents in the UK on the eve of the roy­al wed­ding.  Lynne Owens, the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police assist­ant com­mis­sion­er in charge of the roy­al poli­cing oper­a­tion, is quoted as say­ing:

“We have to be abso­lutely clear. If any­one comes to Lon­don intend­ing to com­mit crim­in­al acts, we will act quickly, robustly and decis­ively.” She said the Met was work­ing with forces across the coun­try and would use “spot­ters” to identi­fy those caus­ing trouble.”

The art­icle goes on to say:

As police teams step up their pro­cess of “pre-event invest­ig­a­tion” and “intel­li­gence gath­er­ing”, reports have come in from pro­test­ers that plain-clothed police are turn­ing up at their homes to warn them against attend­ing Fri­day’s event.”

Military&pageantryIt seems that the poor old Met is hav­ing con­nip­tions about poten­tially embar­rass­ing pro­test­ers sul­ly­ing the pageantry of the roy­al wed­ding and is put­ting our money where its mouth is.  Last week The Tele­graph also repor­ted that counter-intel­li­gence oper­a­tions were being con­duc­ted against “anarch­ists” to pre­vent trouble on 29th April.

Inter­est­ing use of lan­guage, but I sup­pose that one news­pa­per­’s “pro­test­er” will always be another­’s “anarch­ist”.…

So what of the second art­icle that con­cerned me?  This described the bru­tal secur­ity crack­down in Syr­ia, where the secret police were pre-empt­ively hunt­ing down and arrest­ing sus­pec­ted dis­sid­ents:

Syr­i­a’s feared secret police raided hun­dreds of homes yes­ter­day as author­it­ies stepped up attempts to crush the pro-reform move­ment.….”

UK For­eign Sec­ret­ary, Wil­li­am Hag­ue is quoted as say­ing that:

Syr­ia is now at a fork in the road… it can choose ever-more viol­ent repres­sion which can only ever bring short-term secur­ity for the author­it­ies there.”

How much more need I say?  Put­ting aside the fact that Hag­ue seems to have acquired his very own fork(ed tongue), the only dis­cern­able dif­fer­ence at this stage is in the sheer scale of the bru­tal­ity and repres­sion, not the mind-set or intent.

It’s a slip­pery slope.….

Bleat: Knowledge is power — the MI6 prime directive

Black_sheep?By way of ran­dom link­age, I stumbled across this little gem of an art­icle by that old spook apo­lo­gist extraordin­aire, Con Cough­lin.  He’s writ­ing about the first pub­lic speech by a serving head of (SIS) MI6, which was addressed to the Soci­ety of Edit­ors last autumn.  Dear old Con­’s inter­pret­a­tion of events is slightly dif­fer­ent from mine at the time.….

The para­graph that leapt out at me was this:

Sir John Saw­ers, the cur­rent “C” in charge of MI6, made much the same point yes­ter­day in his ground-break­ing speech to the Soci­ety of Edit­ors. He explained that acquir­ing secret intel­li­gence, and keep­ing it secret, remains his organisation’s fun­da­ment­al object­ive.”

Well, excuse my naiv­ety but I thought that the role of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence agen­cies was to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity”, whatever that might mean accord­ing to the fla­vour of the day, not merely to acquire and keep secrets.

Well, I obvi­ously remain irre­deem­ably ideal­ist­ic.  Per­haps, as my fath­er hope­fully states on occa­sion, one day I’ll even­tu­ally grow up.….


Just how many unaccountable spy organisations are out there in the UK?

Black_sheep?Unsuc­cess­fully res­ist­ing the tempta­tion to say that the obvi­ous ones (MI5, MI6 and GCHQ) are still pretty unac­count­able, I was intrigued by a few recent art­icles in The Guard­i­an

George Mon­bi­ot, someone I have enorm­ous respect for but don’t always see eye-to-swiv­el­ling-eye with, wrote an excel­lent piece about the after­shocks of the Mark Kennedy/undercover cop scan­dal earli­er this year. 

Mon­bi­ot calls for the abol­i­tion of that demo­crat­ic­ally unac­count­able seni­or plod organ­isa­tion and PLC, the Asso­ci­ation of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).  This was the organ­isa­tion under whose aegis the under­cov­er cops spied on hap­less envir­on­ment protest­ors — the very people who are now being encour­aged to appeal against their con­vic­tions by Dir­ect­or of Pub­lic Pro­sec­u­tions, no less.

Mon­bi­ot quotes a couple of acronyms cov­er­ing this shady world of police spy­ing: NPOIU and NECTU.   But in anoth­er Guard­i­an art­icle today — about the police tak­ing pre-empt­ive steps against so-called anarch­ists in the run-up to the roy­al wed­ding — I saw this:

The Met is also get­ting intel­li­gence from the Fix­ated Threat Assess­ment Centre, a police unit set up in 2006 togeth­er with men­tal health agen­cies to identi­fy indi­vidu­als who are obsessed with mem­bers of the roy­al fam­ily, politi­cians or celebrit­ies.”

Que?  When was this unit set up, and who runs it?  What about data pro­tec­tion and pri­vacy of med­ic­al records?  Or are these notions already just quaint ana­chron­isms, and a de facto Big Broth­er data­base is already in place?

Per­haps it is time for ACPO to make a clean breast of all the little group­ings it has set up over the last dec­ade.….

Frontline Club/New Statesman (FCNS) whistleblower debate with Julian Assange

This house believes whis­tleblowers make the world a safer place.”

I was hon­oured to be asked to say a few words at the recent debate about the value of whis­tleblowers in Lon­don on 9th April 2011.

The Front­line Club and the left-wing New States­man magazine jointly hos­ted the event, which starred Juli­an Assange, edit­or in chief of Wikileaks.  Here is the debate in full:



Need­less to say, the oppos­i­tion had an uphill battle arguing not only against logic, the fair applic­a­tion of law, and the mean­ing of a vibrant and informed demo­cracy, but also against the new real­it­ies in the worlds of journ­al­ism and tech­no­logy. 

The first more dip­lo­mat­ic­ally-minded oppos­i­tion­ist adop­ted a policy of appease­ment towards the audi­ence, but the last two had to fall back on the stale and puerile tac­tics of name-call­ing and ad hom­inem attacks.  So good to see that expens­ive edu­ca­tions are nev­er a waste.…

The pro­pos­i­tion was sup­por­ted enthu­si­at­ic­ally by the sell-out crowd, a resound­ing vote of con­fid­ence in the demo­crat­ic notions of account­ab­il­ity and trans­par­ency.

Here’s a snip­pet of my (brief) con­tri­bu­tion to a fant­ast­ic after­noon:


My article about the role of the spies, The Guardian, 24 January 2011

Annie_1_Heleen_Banner Here’s a link to my art­icle in The Guard­i­an today, explor­ing the con­fused roles of mod­ern Brit­ish spies, and look­ing at some ways to sort out the mess.  Both the police and the spooks seem to be hav­ing a bit of an iden­tity crisis at the moment…


Are envir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists really a spy­ing pri­or­ity?

Rev­el­a­tions about police­men spy­ing on envir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists sug­gest we need a sense of per­spect­ive on threats to the nation.

The cas­cade of rev­el­a­tions about secret police­men, start­ing with PC Mark Kennedy/environmental act­iv­ist “Mark Stone”, has high­lighted the iden­tity crisis afflict­ing the Brit­ish secur­ity estab­lish­ment. Private under­cov­er police units are hav­ing their James Bond moment – cider shaken, not stirred – while MI5 has become ever more plod-like, yet without the accom­pa­ny­ing over­sight. How has this happened to our demo­cracy without any pub­lic debate?

From the late 19th cen­tury the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch invest­ig­ated ter­ror­ism while MI5, estab­lished in 1909, was a counter-intel­li­gence unit focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al “sub­ver­sion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton, then head of MI5, effected a White­hall coup and stole primacy for invest­ig­at­ing Irish ter­ror­ism from the Met. As a res­ult MI5 magic­ally dis­covered that sub­ver­sion was not such a threat after all – this rev­el­a­tion only three years after the Ber­lin Wall came down – and trans­ferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-ter­ror­ism sec­tions. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly build­ing its counter-ter­ror­ism empire, des­pite this being more obvi­ously evid­en­tial police work.

Spe­cial Branch was releg­ated to a sup­port­ing role, dab­bling in organ­ised crime and anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but not ter­ribly excited about either. Its prestige had been ser­i­ously tar­nished. It also had a group of exper­i­enced under­cov­er cops – known then as the Spe­cial Duties Sec­tion – with time on their hands.

It should there­fore come as little sur­prise that Acpo, the private lim­ited com­pany com­pris­ing seni­or police officers across the coun­try, came up with the bril­liant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domest­ic extrem­ists”. Acpo set up the Nation­al Pub­lic Order Intel­li­gence Unit (NPOIU). This first focused primar­ily on anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but mis­sion creep rap­idly set in and the unit’s role expan­ded into peace­ful protest groups. When this unac­count­able, Stasi-like unit was revealed it rightly caused an out­cry, espe­cially as the term “domest­ic extrem­ist” is not recog­nised under UK law, and can­not leg­ally be used as jus­ti­fic­a­tion to aggress­ively invade an indi­vidu­al’s pri­vacy because of their legit­im­ate polit­ic­al beliefs and act­iv­ism. So, plod has become increas­ingly spooky. What of the spooks?

As I men­tioned, they have been aggress­ively hoover­ing up the pres­ti­gi­ous counter-ter­ror­ism work. But, des­pite what the Amer­ic­ans have hys­ter­ic­ally asser­ted since 9/11, ter­ror­ism is not some unique form of “evil­tude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shock­ing one, but still a crime that should be invest­ig­ated, with evid­ence gathered, due pro­cess applied and the sus­pects on tri­al in front of a jury.

A mature demo­cracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern sus­pects or render them to secret pris­ons and tor­ture them for years. And yet this is pre­cisely what our spooks are now allegedly doing – par­tic­u­larly when col­lud­ing with their US coun­ter­parts.

Also, MI5 and MI6 oper­ate out­side any real­ist­ic demo­crat­ic over­sight and con­trol. The remit of the intel­li­gence and secur­ity com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment only cov­ers the policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance of the spies. Since the com­mit­tee’s incep­tion in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to mean­ing­fully address more ser­i­ous ques­tions about the spies’ role. The spooks are effect­ively above the law, while at the same time pro­tec­ted by the dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed dis­cus­sion about the real­ist­ic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the pro­tect­ive phrase “nation­al secur­ity”. But what does this mean?

The core idea should be safe­guard­ing the nation’s integ­rity. A group of well-mean­ing envir­on­ment­al pro­test­ers should not even be on the radar. And, no mat­ter how awful, the occa­sion­al ter­ror­ist attack is not an exist­en­tial threat to the fab­ric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi inva­sion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sus­tained bomb­ing of gov­ern­ment, infra­struc­ture and mil­it­ary tar­gets by the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA in the 70s-90s.

Once we under­stand the real threats, we as a nation can dis­cuss the steps to take to pro­tect ourselves; what meas­ures should be taken and what liber­ties occa­sion­ally and leg­ally com­prom­ised, and what demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity exists to ensure that the secur­ity forces do not exceed their remit and work with­in the law.

Security forces endanger agent lives, not whistleblowers…

Our esteemed gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and police forces always attack whis­tleblowers and organ­isa­tions such as Wikileaks on the grounds that unau­thor­ised dis­clos­ure of clas­si­fied inform­a­tion puts the lives of agents and inform­ants at risk.

Bob_QuickAgent iden­tit­ies, along with ongo­ing oper­a­tions (as Former Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions at the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, Bob Quick, found to his cost two years ago) and sens­it­ive invest­ig­at­ory tech­niques, are indeed in need of pro­tec­tion.  Much else is not — par­tic­u­larly inform­a­tion about lies, cov­er-ups, incom­pet­ence and crime.

Indeed, once you delve behind the scream­ing head­lines that whis­tleblower dis­clos­ures have risked agent lives, you often find that this is abso­lutely not the case — in fact their motiv­a­tion is usu­ally to pre­vent fur­ther need­less tor­ture, death and war crimes.  So the US Defence Sec­ret­ary, Robert Gates, was forced to admit that Wikileaks had indeed not endangered lives with the pub­lic­a­tion of the Afghan War Logs last year, and Dav­id Shayler­’s tri­al judge, in his form­al rul­ing, stated that “no lives had been put at risk” by his whis­tleblow­ing.

Instead, there is a grow­ing body of evid­ence to sug­gest that the secur­ity forces are the very organ­isa­tions not tak­ing the pro­tec­tion and after­care of their agents ser­i­ously.

Mark Kennedy, the under­cov­er police officer who spied on UK envir­on­ment­al protest groups, has gone on the record to say that the super­vi­sion, care and psy­cho­lo­gic­al sup­port provided to him was woe­fully lack­ing.   Kev­in Fulton, a serving sol­dier who infilt­rated the IRA on behalf of the notori­ous Forces Research Unit, has sim­il­arly been hung out to dry and is now attempt­ing to sue the Brit­ish Gov­ern­ment to provide the prom­ised, adequate after­care.

Mar­tin McGart­land, who worked as a source in North­ern Ire­land at the height of “The Troubles” and is cred­ited with sav­ing 50 lives, has also borne the brunt of this lais­sez faire atti­tude since he stopped work­ing for intel­li­gence.  He has the scars to prove it too, hav­ing sur­vived assas­sin­a­tion attempts, and once blindly leap­ing out of a third floor win­dow in an frantic attempt to escape tor­ture at the hands of the IRA.  As he says:

Who would put their lives on the line nowadays when they can read what hap­pens to those who did?”, McGart­land says. “I can’t go home and the IRA are sup­posed to be a former ter­ror­ist group. Nobody is hunt­ing down my attack­ers and nobody in author­ity seems to care. That has a dir­ect impact on recruit­ing agents.…”

Denis_DonaldsonThe most egre­gious case is of Denis Don­ald­son, Sinn Féin’s Head of Admin­is­tra­tion at Stor­mont in North­ern Ire­land who was outed as a MI5 and police spy by Gerry Adams in 2006.  He was bru­tally murdered a few months later, allegedly by the Real IRA, hav­ing received little pro­tec­tion or sup­port from his erstwhile spook hand­lers.

So who is really more likely expose cur­rent agents to the risk of psy­cho­lo­gic­al dam­age, tor­ture and death, or to deter future agents from volun­teer­ing to work with the secur­ity forces?  Prin­cipled whis­tleblowers who expose crime and incom­pet­ence with due care for pro­tect­ing real secrets, or the spooks who take a cava­lier approach to the pas­tor­al care of their agents, and then hang them out to dry once their use­ful­ness is at an end?

If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.…

Well, if you’ve done noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide.  Why object to increas­ing state sur­veil­lance powers?”

I speak reg­u­larly at inter­na­tion­al events about basic freedoms, civil liber­ties and encroach­ing police states, and this is one of the most fre­quently asked ques­tions.

This ques­tion is usu­ally posed in the con­text of the ubi­quit­ous CCTV cam­er­as that infest the streets of Bri­tain, where it is estim­ated that you can be pho­to­graphed hun­dreds of times a day going about your daily busi­ness in Lon­don. 

DroneNot to men­tion the talk­ing CCTV cam­er­as in the North of Eng­land, nor the increas­ing use of spy drones (as yet, reportedly, unweapon­ised — at least leth­ally)  over the skies of Bri­tain.  Nor the fact that the police officers in charge of CCTV units admit that the tech­no­logy is only use­ful as evid­ence in 3% of cases, and that viol­ent crime has actu­ally gone up since the spread of CCTV, so we’re cer­tainly no safer on our streets.

Nor do the well-mean­ing people ask­ing this ques­tion (who, one pre­sumes, have nev­er-ever done any­thing wrong in their lives, even to the extent of not drop­ping lit­ter) seem to grasp the his­tor­ic­al evid­ence: they retain an optim­ist­ic faith in the long-term benign inten­tions of our gov­ern­ments.

Yet as we’ve seen time and time again in his­tory, more dubi­ous, total­it­ari­an and malig­nant gov­ern­ments can indeed gain power, and will abuse and extend the sur­veil­lance laws and avail­able tech­no­logy against their own peoples.  And I’m not just talk­ing about Hitler­’s rise to power in the 1930s or the East Ger­man Stasi, although I’m in agree­ment with UK Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Michael Gove at the moment in say­ing that his­tory les­sons are nev­er a waste.…

Big_Brother_posterBut we also need to learn more recent les­sons: the UK in the 1970s-1990s, where the Irish com­munity as a whole was tar­geted because of fringe Repub­lic­an ter­ror­ism; or the Muslim com­munity post‑9/11, which lives with the real fear of of being arres­ted, extraordin­ar­ily rendered, tor­tured, or even assas­sin­ated on the say-so of unac­count­able intel­li­gence agen­cies; or even peace­ful protest groups in the USA and UK who are infilt­rated and aggress­ively invest­ig­ated by Stasi-like police officers.

The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was put in place for a very good reas­on in 1948: to pre­vent the hor­rors of state ter­ror­ism, viol­ence and gen­o­cide from ever hap­pen­ing again.  Amongst the essen­tial, inter­na­tion­ally-agreed core prin­ciples are the right to life, the right not to be tor­tured, free­dom of expres­sion, and the right to indi­vidu­al pri­vacy. 

Which brings me neatly back to the start of this art­icle.  This is pre­cisely why increas­ing state sur­veil­lance is a prob­lem.  Because of the post‑9/11, over-inflated, hyped-up threat from soi-dis­ant ter­ror­ist groups, we are all being pen­al­ised.  The bal­ance of power is shift­ing over­whelm­ingly in favour of the Big Broth­er state.

Well, almost.  The Wikileaks mod­el is help­ing to level the play­ing field, and whatever hap­pens to this trail-blaz­ing organ­isa­tion, the prin­ciples and tech­no­logy are out there and will be rep­lic­ated.  The genie can­not be put back in the bottle.

So, why not pose the very ques­tion in the title of this piece back on those who want to turn back the clock and erad­ic­ate Wikileaks — the gov­ern­ments, mega-cor­por­a­tions, and intel­li­gence agen­cies which have been outed, shamed and embar­rassed, and which are now try­ing to sup­press its work?

If you’ve done noth­ing wrong, you have noth­ing to hide.….