Libya, MI6, and torture – interview on Press TV

Libya, MI6, torture, and more happy subjects discussed recently on “Africa Today” on Press TV. 

The programme was interesting, informed and balanced.  Do have a watch:

The Official Secrets Act – when will the British media learn?

I have been watching with a certain cynical interest the unfolding of Operation Weeting, one of the plethora of Metropolitan Police investigations into the UK phone hacking scandal, involving many of our favourite players: shady private investigators, predatory journalists, bent coppers, and politicians contorting themselves in an effort to protect both their own reputations and their Friends in High Places.  And the ripples are spreading internationally.  Nothing like a little bit of globilisation….

Rupert_and_Rebekah The Guardian newspaper has made most of the early running in exposing the corrupt practices of the now defunct News of the Screws, highlighting all the dubious tabloid practices of hacking, blagging, pinging, and god knows what else.  All this done with the help of bottom-feeding private investigators, but also manifestly with the help of corrupt police officers who were not averse to the idea of taking a bribe to help their friends in Wapping.  And how far might this "trickle down corruption" might have gone, um,  up?

Despite the self-righteousness of other UK newspapers, it has also now become apparent that these dubious and potentially illegal practices were common throughout Fleet Street, and other national newspapers are also under investigation.

And yet it appears that all this could have been nipped in the bud over a decade ago, when Steven Nott, a concerned British citizen, tried to expose the vulnerability of mobile phones after he stumbled across the practice by accident.  He took his findings to a variety of national newspapers, all of whom seem to have initially thought there was a good story, but every time the news was buried.  Well, I suppose it would be, wouldn't it – after all, why would hacks expose a practice that could be so useful?

But back to the dear old OSA and the media.

Police_news_international In yesterday's Observer newspaper, it was reported that the police have threatened the journalists at The Guardian with the Official Secrets Act (1989) to force them to disclose the identity of their source amongst the police officer(s) in Operation Weeting who leaked useful information to the newspaper to help its exposure of illegal practices.  And, rightly, the great and the good are up in arms about this draconian use of a particularly invidious law:

"John Cooper, a leading human rights lawyer and visiting professor at Cardiff University, echoed Evans's concerns. "In my view this is a misuse of the 1989 act," Cooper said. "Fundamentally the act was designed to prevent espionage. In extreme cases it can be used to prevent police officers tipping off criminals about police investigations or from selling their stories. In this instance none of this is suggested, and many believe what was done was in the public interest.

"Cooper added: "The police action is very likely to conflict with article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of speech."

But I think he's missing a bit of recent legal history here.  The UK had the 1911 OSA which was supposed to protect the country from espionage and traitors, who faced 14 years in prison upon conviction.  Needless to say this provision was rarely used – most of the cold war Soviet moles in the establishment were allowed to slink off to the USSR, or at the very most be stripped of their "K".

However, as I've written before, the revised 1989 OSA was much more useful for the establishment.  It was specifically put in place to stop whistleblowing after the embarrassment of the 1980s Clive Ponting/Belgrano case. 

Ponting The new act was specifically designed to strip away the "public interest" defence used by Ponting in his trial, and also to penalise journalists who had the temerity to report leaks and whistleblowing from the heart of the establishment.  The OSA (1989) has been used extensively since the late 1990s, despite the fact that many senior figures in the former Labour government opposed its provisions when it went through Parliament.   Journalists are just as liable as whistleblowers or "leakers" under the provisions of this act (the infamous Section 5).

So, back to The Guardian and its legal champions.  I agree with what they are saying: yes, the 1989 OSA  has a chilling effect on freedom of speech that unduly victimises both the whistleblower and the journalist; yes, it is a uniquely draconian law for a notional Western democracy to have on its books; yes, there should be a defence of "acting in the public interest"; and yes, the OSA should be deemed to be incompatible with Section 10(2) of the European Convention of Human Rights, guaranteeing free speech, which can only be circumscribed in the interests of "national security", itself a legally undefined, nebulous, and controversial phrase under British law.

David_Shayler_High_Court But if all the outraged lawyers read up on their case law, particularly the hearings and legal dogfights in the run up to Regina v Shayler cases, they will see that all these issues have been addressed, apparently to the satisfaction of the honourable m'luds who preside over British courts, and certainly to the establishment figures who like to use the OSA as their "get out of jail free" card.

So I wish The Guardian journalists well in this confrontation.  But I have to say, perhaps they would not have found themselves in this situation today vis a vis the OSA if, rather than just a few brave journalists, the media institutions themselves had put up a more robust fight against its provisions during its bastard birth in 1989 and its subsequent abuse.

It has been reported today that the police may have downgraded their investigation to a purely criminal matter, not the OSA.  Whatever happens does not obviate the need for the media to launch a concerted campaign to call for reform of the invidious OSA.  Just because one of their own is no longer threatened does not mean the chilling threat of this law has gone away.  As Martin Luther King said while imprisoned in 1963:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

I would also suggest the new generation working in the British media urgently read this excellent booklet produced by John Wadham of Liberty and Article 19 way back in 2000 Download Article_19_Liberty_on_OSA_2000,  to remind themselves of fundamental arguments against draconian legislation such as the OSA and in favour of the freedom of the press.

Libyans caught between a rock and a hard place

This article in today's New York Times, particularly these following two paragraphs, sent a shiver down my spine for the fate of the Libyan people:

Abdelhakim-Belhaj"The most powerful military leader is now Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the former leader of a hard-line group once believed to be aligned with Al Qaeda.The growing influence of Islamists in Libya raises hard questions about the ultimate character of the government and society that will rise in place of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s autocracy…..

….Mr. Belhaj has become so much an insider lately that he is seeking to unseat Mahmoud Jibril, the American-trained economist who is the nominal prime minister of the interim government, after Mr. Jibril obliquely criticized the Islamists."

The Libyans, finally free of Gaddafi's 42-year dictatorship, now seem faced with a choice between an Islamist faction that has stated publicly that it wants to base the new constitution on Sharia – a statement that must have caused a few ripples amongst Libya's educated and relatively  emancipated women – or a new government headed up by an American-trained economist. 

Shock_DoctrineAnd we all know what happens to countries when such economists move in: asset stripping, the syphoning off of the national wealth to transnational mega-corps, and a plunge in the people's living standards.  If you think this sounds extreme, then do get your hands on a copy of Naomi Klein's excellent "Shock Doctrine" – required reading for anyone who wants to truly understand the growing global financial crisis.

Of course, this would be an ideal outcome for the US, UK and other western forces who intervened in Libya. 

Mr Belhaj is, of course, another matter.  Not only would an Islamist Libya be a potentially dangerous result for the West, but should Belhaj come to power he is likely to be somewhat hostile to US and particularly British interests.  

Why?  Well, Abdul Hakim Belhaj has form.  He was a leading light in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a terrorist organisation which bought into the ideology of "Al Qaeda" and which had made many attempts to depose or assassinate Gaddafi, sometimes with the financial backing of the British spies, most notably in the failed assassination plot of 1996.

Of course, after 9/11 and Gaddafi's rapprochement with the West, this collaboration was all air-brushed out of history – to such an extent that in 2004 MI6 was instrumental in  kidnapping Belhaj, with the say-so of the CIA, and "extraordinarily rendering" him to Tripoli in 2004, where he suffered 6 years' torture at the hands of Libya's brutal intelligences services.  After this, I doubt if he would be minded to work too closely with UK companies.

So I'm willing to bet that there is more behind-the-scenes meddling from our spooks, to ensure the ascendency of Jibril in the new government.  Which will be great for Western business, but not so great for the poor Libyans…..

Spy documents found in Libya reveal more British double dealing

Musa_KousaA cache of highly classified intelligence documents was recently discovered in the abandoned offices of former Libyan spy master, Foreign Minister and high-profile defector, Musa Kusa.

These documents have over the last couple of weeks provided a fascinating insight into the growing links in the last decade between the former UK Labour government, particularly Tony Blair, and the Gaddafi regime.  They have displayed in oily detail the degree of toadying that the Blair government was prepared to countenance, not only to secure lucrative business contracts but also to gloss over embarrassing episodes such as Lockerbie and the false flag MI6-backed 1996 assassination plot against Gaddafi.

These documents have also apparently revealed direct involvement by MI6 in the “extraordinary rendition” to Tripoli and torture of two Libyans.  Ironically it has been reported that they were wanted for being members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the very organisation that MI6 had backed in its failed 1996 coup.

The secular dictatorship of Col Gaddafi always had much to fear from Islamist extremism, so it is perhaps unsurprising that, after Blair’s notorious “deal in the desert” in 2004, the Gaddafi regime used its connections with MI6 and the CIA to hunt down its enemies.  And, as we have all been endlessly told, the rules changed after 9/11…

The torture  victims, one of whom is now a military commander of the rebel Libyan forces, are now considering suing the British government.  Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary at the time, has tried to shuffle off any blame, stating that he could not be expected to know everything that MI6 does.

Well, er, no – part of the job description of Foreign Secretary is indeed to oversee the work of MI6 and hold it to democratic accountability, especially about such serious policy issues as “extraordinary rendition” and torture.  Such operations would indeed need the ministerial sign-off to be legal under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act.

There has been just so much hot air from the current government about how the Gibson Torture Inquiry will get to the bottom of these cases, but we all know how toothless such inquiries will be, circumscribed as they are by the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005.  We also know that Sir Peter Gibson himself has for years been “embedded” within the British intelligence community and is hardly likely to hold the spies meaningfully to account.

MoS_Shayler_11_09_2011So I was particularly intrigued to hear that the the cache of documents showed the case of David Shayler, the intelligence whistleblower who revealed the 1996 Gaddafi assassination plot and went to prison twice for doing so, first in France in 1998 and then in the UK in 2002, was still a subject of discussion between the Libyan and UK governments in 2007. And, as I have written before, as late as 2009 it was obvious that this case was still used by the Libyans for leverage, certainly when it came to the tit-for-tat negotiations around case of the murder in London outside the Libyan Embassy of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in 1984.

Of course, way back in 1998, the British government was all too ready to crush the whistleblower rather than investigate the disclosures and hold the spies to account for their illegal and reckless acts.  I have always felt that this was a failure of democracy, that it seriously undermined the future work and reputation of the spies themselves, and particularly that it was such a shame for the fate of the PBW (poor bloody whistleblower).

But it now appears that the British intelligence community’s sense of omnipotence and of being above the law has come back to bite them.  How else explain their slide into a group-think mentality that participates in “extraordinary rendition” and torture?

One has to wonder if wily old Musa Kusa left this cache of documents behind in his abandoned offices as an “insurance policy”, just in case his defection to the UK were not to be as comfortable as he had hoped – and we now know that he soon fled to Qatar after he had been questioned about the Lockerbie case.

But whether an honest mistake or cunning power play, his actions have helped to shine a light into more dark corners of British government lies and double dealing vis a vis Libya….

Senior UK psychiatrist struck off for abusive relationship

Ex-Dr Steven Lomax was last month summarily struck off from the UK register of doctors by the General Medical Council in London.

In this exceptional hearing, the GMC ruled that the former senior psychiatrist, who used to work as the Director of the Castel Hospital in Guernsey:

  • had an inappropriate emotional and sexual relationship with his patient, Michele Mauger;
  • had apparently destroyed her medical records;
  • had brought the medical profession into disrepute.


How do I know all this?  The victim of this egregious abuse, Michele Mauger, is my mother.

The GMC made an exception to hear this case in the light of the severity of the abuse and the overwhelming prima facie evidence of  Lomax's guilt.  Cases older than 5 years are usually not investigated.  Michele's abuse began over 23 years ago.

In a resounding condemnation, the GMC stated that he had "blatantly transgressed" the boundaries governing the doctor/patient relationship and that he had caused "irreparable damage both to the patient and her family".

There has been some coverage in the media.  Perhaps the most accurate reflection of what happened can be found in the  Guernsey Press: Download Guernsey_Press_front_page, Download Guernsey_Press_Interview

The governing body of the Guernsey hospitals, the Board of Health, would also appear to have some serious questions to answer.

Michele recently did an excellent interview on BBC Radio4: Woman's Hour, that encapsulated the core issues around this type of professional abuse. The interview is at the beginning of the show – listen here.

Last chance to find out what happened to Dr David Kelly – help needed

Many will be aware of the controversy surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly, the world-renowned weapons inspector who was said to have blown the whistle about the “sexing-up” of the intelligence case that took our countries into the 2003 Iraq War.

Dr_Kelly_2jpgIgnoring all standard British legal requirements, there has never been an inquest into Dr Kelly’s sudden death in 2003.  Subsequent government enquiries have tried to assert over the years that he committed suicide. However, a group of senior British doctors has consistently challenged these findings and stated that his death was not proved to be suicide beyond all reasonable doubt.

Dominic_GrieveThe current senior legal advisor to the UK Coalition government, Attorney General Dominic Grieve, promised before last year’s election that he would consider a formal inquest into Dr Kelly’s death.  However, since coming to power Grieve has retreated from that.  In addition, all the evidence surrounding the death of Dr Kelly will, exceptionally, remain classified for 70 years.

The British doctors, led by Dr David Halpin, have one last chance to get to the truth.  This week, they are applying for a Judicial Review of Grieve’s decision.

The legal papers need to be filed by 8th September, and the costs of this case will be at least £50,000, much of which has already been contributed by the doctors and supporters.  They are asking for donations to cover the remainder.  Please help if you can, spread the word to all your contacts, and ask them to make a financial pledge at this site.

Book review in The Sunday Express

Nothing like being paid to read a book – a win-win situation for me. 

Here's a link to my review in the Sunday Express newspaper of a new history of MI6, called "The Art of Betrayal" by Gordon Corera, the BBC's Security Correspondent.

And here's the article:

Friday August 19, 2011
By Annie Machon

THE Art of Betrayal: Life and Death in the British Secret Service
Gordon Corera Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £20

THE INTRODUCTION to The Art Of Betrayal, Gordon Corera's unofficial post-war history of MI6, raises questions about the modern relevance and ethical framework of our spies. It also provides an antidote to recent official books celebrating the centenaries of MI5 and MI6.

Corera, the BBC's security correspondent, has enjoyed privileged access to key spy players from the past few decades and, writing in an engaging, easy style, he picks up the story of MI6 at the point where the "official" history grinds to a halt after the Second World War.

Spy geeks will enjoy the swashbuckling stories from the Cold War years and he offers an intelligent exploration of the mentality of betrayal between the West and the former Soviet Union, focusing on the notorious Philby, Penkovsky and Gordievsky cases among many others.

For the more cynical reader, this book presents some problems. Where Corera discusses the aimless years of MI6 post-Cold War attempts at reinvention, followed by the muscular, morally ambiguous post-9/11 world, he references quotes from former top spies and official inquiries only, all of which need to be read with a healthy degree of skepticism. To use a memorable quote from the Sixties Profumo Scandal, also mentioned in the book: "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"

In Corera's view, there has always been inherent tension in MI6 between the "doers" (who believe that intelligence is there to be acted upon James Bond-style and who want to get their hands dirty with covert operations) and the "thinkers" (those who believe, a la George Smiley, that knowledge is power and should be used behind the scenes to inform official government policy).

He demonstrates that the "doers" have often been in control and the image of MI6 staffed by gung-ho, James Bond wannabes is certainly a stereotype I recognise from my years working as an intelligence officer for the sister spy organisation, MI5.

The problem, as this book reveals, is that when the action men have the cultural ascendancy within MI6 events often go badly wrong through establishment complacency, betrayal or mere enthusiastic amateurism.

That said, the opposing culture of the "thinkers", or patient intelligence gatherers, led in the Sixties and Seventies to introspection, mole-hunting paranoia and sclerosis.

Worryingly, many former officers down the years are quoted as saying that they hoped there was a "real" spy organisation behind the apparently amateur outfit they had joined, a sentiment shared by most of my intake in the Nineties.

Nor does it appear that lessons were learned from history: the Operation Gladio debacle in Albania and the toppling of Iran's first democratically-elected President Mossadeq in the Fifties could have provided valuable lessons for MI6 in its work in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya over the past two decades.

Corera is remarkably coy about Libya despite the wealth of now publicly-available information about MI6's meddling in the Lockerbie case, the illegal assassination plot against Gaddafiin 1996 and the dirty, MI6-brokered oil deals of the past decade.

Corera pulls together his recurring themes in the final chapters, exploring the compromise of intelligence in justifying the Iraq war, describing how the "doers" pumped unverified intelligence from unproven agents directly into the veins of Whitehall and Washington.

Many civil servants and middle-ranking spies questioned and doubted but were told to shut up and follow orders. The results are all-too tragically well known.

Corera does not, however, go far enough.

He appreciates that the global reach of MI6 maintains Britain's place in an exclusive club of world powers. At what price, though?

Here is the question he should perhaps have asked: in light of all the mistakes, betrayals, liberties compromised, lessons unlearned and deaths, has MI6 outlived its usefulness?

Annie Machon is a former MI5 intelligence officer and author.

Verdict 4/5