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 regime.

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 regime 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,  reportedly a much-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 Fein'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…..