Keynote at Centre for Investigative Journalism Summer School, 16 July 2011


My next talk in the UK will be a keynote at the renowned CIJ summer school on 16th July. One of the major themes this year is whistleblowing, for obvious Wikileaks-related reasons, and it appears I shall be in good company.

My talk is at 2pm on the Saturday.  I understand the keynotes are open to the public, not just summer school attendees, so come along if you can and please spread the word!

UK Intelligence and Security Committee to be reformed?

The Guardian's spook commentator extraordinaire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has reported that the current chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in the UK Parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants the committee to finally grow a pair.  Well, those weren't quite the words used in the Grauny, but they certainly capture the gist.

If Rifkind's stated intentions are realised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, meaningful and democratic oversight for the first time in the 100-year history of  the three key UK spy agencies – MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to mention the defence intelligence staff, the joint intelligence committee and the new National Security Council .

FigleafFor many long years I have been discussing the woeful lack of real democratic oversight for the UK spies.  The privately-convened ISC, the democratic fig-leaf established under the aegis of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act (ISA), is appointed by and answerable only to the Prime Minister, with a remit only to look at finance, policy and administration, and without the power to demand documents or to cross-examine witnesses under oath.  Its annual reports are always heavily redacted and have become a joke amongst journalists.

When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apoplectic that Parliament should have any form of oversight whatsoever.  From their perspective, it was bad enough at that point that the agencies were put on a legal footing for the first time.  Spy thinking then ran pretty much along the lines of "why on earth should they be answerable to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians, who were leaky as hell and gossiped to journalists all the time"?

So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994.  They really had nothing to worry about.  I remember, I was there at the time.

This has been borne out over the last 17 years.  Time and again the spies have got away with telling barefaced lies to the ISC.  Or at the very least being "economical with the truth", to use one of their favourite phrases.  Former DG of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, has publicly said that "I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the committee [ISC] early on…".  Not to mention the outright lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whistleblower testimony, torture, and counter-terrorism measures.

But these new developments became yet more fascinating to me when I read that the current Chair of the ISC proposing these reforms is no less than Sir Malcolm Rifkind, crusty Tory grandee and former Conservative Foreign Minister in the mid-1990s.

For Sir Malcolm was the Foreign Secretary notionally in charge of MI6 when the intelligence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gaddafi Plot when MI6 funded a rag-tag group of Islamic extremist terrorists in Libya to assassinate the Colonel, the key disclosure made by David Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.

Obviously this assassination attempt was highly reckless in a very volatile part of the world; obviously it was unethical, and many innocent people were murdered in the attack; and obviously it failed, leading to the shaky rapprochement with Gaddafi over the last decade.  Yet now we are seeing the use of similar tactics in the current Libyan war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our government openly and shamelessly calling for regime change.

Malcolm_RifkindBut most importantly from a legal perspective, in 1996 the "Gaddafi Plot" MI6 apparently did not apply for prior written permission from Rifkind – which they were legally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act (the very act that also established the ISC).  This is the fabled, but real, "licence to kill" – Section 7 of the ISA – which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illegal acts committed abroad, if they have the requisite ministerial permission.

At the time, Rifkind publicly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanction the plot when the BBC Panorama programme conducted a special investigation, screened on 7 August 1997.  Rifkind's statement was also reported widely in the press over the years, including this New Statesman article by Mark Thomas in 2002.

That said, Rifkind himself wrote earlier this year in The Telegraph that help should now be given to the Benghazi "rebels" – many of whom appear to be members of the very same group that tried to assassinate Gaddafi with MI6's help in 1996 – up to and including the provision of arms.  Rifkind's view of the legalities now appear to be somewhat more flexible, whatever his stated position was back in the 90s. 

Of course, then he was notionally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any political fall-out.  Now he can relax into the role of "quis custodiet ipsos custodes?".  Such a relief.

I shall be watching developments around Rifkind's proposed reforms with interest.

How the Light Gets In festival – my talk

My recent talk at the excellent How the Light Gets In philosophy festival at Hay-on-Wye.  With credit and thanks to IAI TV and the staff of the Institute of Art and Ideas, the organisers the event.


Fair trials in the UK courts? Anyone?

This article in today’s Guardian about the ongoing repercussions of the Mark Kennedy undercover cop scandal earlier this year piqued my interest.

Mark_KennedyIt appears that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has suppressed key evidence about the all-too-apparent innocence of environmental protesters in the run-up to their trials.  In this case Mark Kennedy aka Stone, the policeman who for years infiltrated protest groups across Europe, had covertly recorded conversations during the planning sessions to break into Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station.

Kennedy offered to give evidence to prove that the unit he worked for at the time, the private and unaccountable ACPO-run National Public Order Investigations Unit (NPOIU), had witheld this key evidence.  It now appears that the police are claiming that they passed all the information on to the CPS, which then seems to have neglected  to hand it over to the protesters’ defence lawyers.

Keir_StarmerWhich makes it even more fascinating that in April this year the Director of Public Prosecutions, famous civil liberties QC Keir Starmer no less, took the unprecedented step of encouraging those same protesters to appeal against their convictions because of potential “police” cover-ups.

It’s just amazing, isn’t it, that when vital information can be kept safely under wraps these doughty crime-fighting agencies present a united front to the world?  But once someone shines a light into the slithery dark corners, they all scramble to avoid blame and leak against each other?

And yet this case is just the tip of a titanic legal iceberg, where for years the police and the CPS have been in cahoots to cover up many cases of, at best, miscommunication, and at worst outright lies about incompetence and potentially criminal activity.

Ian_TomlinsonA couple of months ago George Monbiot provided an excellent summary of recent “misstatements” (a wonderfully euphemistic neologism) by the police over the last few years, including such blatant cases as the death of Ian Tomlinson during the London G20 protests two years ago, the ongoing News of the World phone hacking case, and the counter-terrorism style execution, sorry, shooting of the entirely innocent Jean Charles de Menezes, to name but a few.

Monbiot also dwelt at length on the appalling case of Michael Doherty, a concerned father who discovered that his 13 year-old daughter was apparently being groomed by a paedophile over the internet.  He took his concerns to the police, who brushed the issue aside.  When Doherty tried to push for a more informed and proactive response, he was the one who was snatched from his house in an early morning raid and ended up in court, accused of abusive and angry phone calls to the station in a sworn statement by a member of the relevant police force, sorry, service.

And that would have been that – he would have apparently been bang to rights on the word of a police secretary – apart from the fact he had recorded all his phone calls to the police and kept meticulous notes on the progress of the case.  Only this evidence led to his rightful acquittal.

As Monbiot rightly concludes, “justice is impossible if we cannot trust police forces to tell the truth”.

It appears that the notion of “citizen journalists” is just sooo 2006.  Now we all need to be not only journalists but also “citizen lawyers”, just in case we have to defend ourselves against potential police lies.  Yet these are the very organisations that are paid from the public purse to protect civil society.  Is it any wonder that so many people have a growing distrust of them and concerns about an encroaching, Stasi-like, police state?

This is all part of engrained, top-down British culture of secrecy that allows the amorphous “security services” to think they can get away with anything and everything if they make a forceful enough public statement: black is white, torture is “enhanced interrogation”, and war is peace (or at least a “peacekeeping” mission in Libya….).  Especially if there is no meaningful oversight.  We have entered the Orwellian world of NewSpeak.

But plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  This all happened in the 1970s and 80s with the Irish community, and also in the 1990s with the terrible miscarriage of justice around the Israeli embassy bombing in 1994.  If you have the time, please do read the detailed case here: Download Israeli_Embassy_Case

We need to remember our history.

The Israeli Embassy Two – a gross miscarriage of justice

Samar_Alami Jawad_Botmeh Over the last few years there have been a number of egregious cases of police and state cover-ups in the UK around the deaths and wrongful prosecutions of innocent people.

This brings to my mind the appalling miscarriage of justice that occurred in the 1990s when two Palestinian students, a young woman called Samar Alami and a young man called Jawad Botmeh, were both wrongfully convicted of conspiracy to bomb the Israeli embassy in London in July 1994. 

In this case a highly sophisticated car bomb as detonated outside the embassy.  Thankfully nobody was killed, but a number of people suffered minor injuries.   Alami and Botmeh had connections to Palestinian political support groups based in London at the time, many of whom were rounded up during the investigation.  Botmeh had naively helped out a shadowy and never-identified figure called Reda Moghrabi, who asked for assistance in buying a second-hand car at auction.  This was the car that was used in the explosion.

Why is this case an example of establishment cover-up?  Well,  this was one of the cases that former MI5 officer David Shayler blew the whistle on during the 1990s.  He revealed the existence of two relevant documents that should have been disclosed to the defence but, for some unaccountable reason, were not.

The first, an agent report from a credible and trusted source, pointed to a non-Palestinian group planning the attack before it had even occurred.  This report was not acted upon by the MI5 officer responsible, who then tried to cover up her mistake.  She was caught out, and there was a much-discussed internal inquiry into the matter within MI5’s G Branch (international terrorism) in late 1994.

But there was another document – one written by G9/1, the senior MI5 officer who oversaw the post-incident investigation.  His view was that Mossad, the external Israeli intelligence agency, had carried out a controlled explosion outside its own embassy (the shadowy and unidentified Reda Moghrabi being the potentially crucial missing link) in order to acquire the long-demanded additional security protection around Israeli interests in the UK, and also to shatter the Palestinian support networks in London – a long-term objective of Mossad.

The government at the time tried to dismiss these disclosures.  However, the much-missed Private Eye investigative   journalist, Paul Foot, and the indefatigable lawyer, Gareth Peirce, followed them up and pursued them tirelessly through the media and the courts

And guess what?  It turns out that these two key documents had indeed not been disclosed to the legal defence team during the trial of Alami and Botmeh – and not just by the hapless spooks.  It emerged during the appeal hearing that no fewer than seven people from a variety of police and intelligence organisations had failed to disclose the relevant documentation to the defence.  This cannot be explained away as an innocent oversight, a cock-up – it bears all the hallmarks of a deliberate, systemic establishment cover-up.

All this represented, at the very least, a need for a retrial but also a possible gross miscarriage of justice.  And yet, while acknowledging that these documents did indeed exist during the appeal hearing and beyond, the presiding m’luds decided to ignore all case law and European law and let those two innocents rot in prison.  After all, it would be terribly embarrassing to vindicate the actions of an intelligence whistleblower, wouldn’t it?

As a result, the poor pawns in this sick establishment game, Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami, ended up serving their full sentences, despite the overwhelming body of evidence proving their innocence, and were finally released in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

For anyone interested in the detailed horror story behind this flagrant miscarriage of justice, here is the relevant chapter from my long-defunct book: Download The_Israeli_Embassy_Case

Former head of MI6 says that fact and fiction get mixed up

Sir_john_Scarlett Former head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett – he of the dodgy September Dossier fame that led inexorably to the UK's invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the death, maiming, depleted-uranium poisoning and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people – has complacently stated during his recent talk at the Hay Literary Festival that:

"One of the problems of intelligence work is that fact and fiction get very easily mixed up.  A key lesson you have to learn very early on is you keep them separate.”

Well, no doubt many, many people might just wish he'd listened to his own advice way back in September 2002.

Scarlett is, of course, the senior UK spook who made the case for the Iraq war.  Here's the link:  Download Iraq_WMD_Dossier

No doubt you will remember the li(n)es: not only that Iraq's non-existent  "weapons of mass destruction" could be launched within 45 minutes, but also that fake intelligence documents had persuaded MI6 that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger , as Colin Powell asserted during his persuasive speech to the UN in 2003.

Scarlett publicly took the rap and, by protecting Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, was rewarded with the top job at MI6 and the inevitable knighthood.  No doubt a suitable recognition for his entirely honourable behaviour.

But it gets worse – now he has apparently landed a lucrative job as an advisor on the situation in Iraq working for Norwegian oil mega-corporation, Statoil.

You couldn't make it up…

… or perhaps you could if you're a former top spy with an undeserved "K" and a lucrative oil contract who has difficulty separating fact from fiction……