The Value of Whistleblowers

I was recently invited to write an art­icle for the Nat West Busi­ness Sense online magazine about the poten­tial value and bene­fits of whis­tleblowers.  Here’s the link, and here’s the art­icle:

The con­tro­ver­sial issue of whis­tleblow­ing has been firmly thrust into the pub­lic con­scious­ness over the last few years with the ongo­ing saga of Wikileaks.

Often whis­tleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be trait­ors, grasses or snitches.  How­ever, rather than a phe­nomen­on to be feared, if handled cor­rectly whis­tleblowers can often be bene­fi­cial to their organ­isa­tions.  Allow me to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is not all bleak.  Recently, Dr Tom Fin­gar received The Sam Adams Award for Integ­rity in Intel­li­gence in Oxford for his work on com­pil­ing the US Nation­al Intel­li­gence Estim­ate of 2007.  In this he sum­mar­ised the con­clu­sions of all 16 US intel­li­gence agen­cies by say­ing that Iran had ceased try­ing to devel­op a nuc­le­ar weapons cap­ab­il­ity in 2003.

There was immense polit­ic­al pres­sure on him to sup­press this evid­ence, but he went ahead with the report and thereby single-handedly hal­ted the US government’s rush to war with Iran.  By hav­ing the cour­age to do his job with integ­rity, Dr Fin­gar is respons­ible for sav­ing count­less lives across Iran.

In the world of intel­li­gence, where secrecy is para­mount, where crimes can hushed up, and where there is no aven­ue for voicing con­cern and dis­sent, it is per­haps inev­it­able that whis­tleblowers will con­tin­ue to emerge.

But in oth­er sec­tors of work mis­takes can be just as life threat­en­ing and the need for expos­ure just as great.  In the UK over the last few years many seni­or med­ic­al whis­tleblowers have emerged from the NHS, detail­ing mis­takes and incom­pet­ence that have put the pub­lic at risk.  Alas, rather than learn from mis­takes made, all too often NHS bosses have either vic­tim­ised the whis­tleblowers by sus­pend­ing them or ruin­ing their repu­ta­tion, or they have insisted that they sign gag­ging orders and then covered up the mis­takes.  Neither option is a good out­come either for staff mor­ale or for patient safety.

While the cul­ture of cov­er-up exists, so too will whis­tleblowers. How could this be resolved, and what would be the poten­tial bene­fits?

If employ­ers insti­tute a cul­ture of trust and account­ab­il­ity, where employ­ees with con­cerns can be fairly heard, the appro­pri­ate action taken, and justice done, the needs and imper­at­ives behind whis­tleblow­ing would dis­ap­pear. Poten­tial prob­lems could be nipped in the bud, improv­ing pub­lic trust and con­fid­ence in the prob­ity of the organ­isa­tion and avoid­ing all the bad pub­li­city fol­low­ing a whis­tleblow­ing case.

Plus, of course, the poten­tial whis­tleblowers would have a legit­im­ate aven­ue to go down, rather than hav­ing to turn their lives inside out – they would no longer need to jeop­ard­ise their pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion and all that goes with it such as career, income, social stand­ing and even, poten­tially their free­dom.

Hav­ing a sound pro­ced­ure in place to address staff con­cerns strikes me as a win-win scen­ario – for staff effi­ciency and mor­ale, the organisation’s oper­a­tion­al cap­ab­il­ity and repu­ta­tion, and poten­tially the wider pub­lic, too.

How to stop war — Make Wars History

A recent Make Wars His­tory event in the UK Par­lia­ment, hos­ted by John McDon­nell MP, with Chris Cover­dale and myself speak­ing.  Some prac­tic­al steps we can all take to make wars his­tory:

Make Wars His­tory talk in Par­lia­ment, April 2013 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Interview on the Abby Martin show, RT America

My recent inter­view on “Break­ing the Set”, Abby Martin’s show on RT Amer­ica, dis­cuss­ing all things whis­tleblow­ing:

Secret Agent Turns Whis­tleblower from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Welcome to the Annie Zone

Annie_thumbnailRather than the usu­al run-of-the-mill nar­ciss­ism, the phrase “wel­come to the Annie Zone” is more usu­ally uttered in des­pair­ing tones when my über-geek part­ner is faced with yet anoth­er inex­plic­able tech fail­ure of laptops and phones in my prox­im­ity.

I just tell him that he should see me as the ulti­mate geek chal­lenge.…

How­ever, for the pur­poses of this blog, the Annie Zone is rolling out the red car­pet of wel­comes — I am launch­ing a new monthly news­let­ter that you can sign up to.  The news­let­ter will sum­mar­ise my art­icles, inter­views, and loads of oth­er links I’ve found inter­est­ing over the last month. It will also give you a bit of an insight into the strange and var­ied half-life of a whis­tleblower. The first news­let­ter will come out at the end of April.

To the right of this post there is a box to input your email address and a but­ton to click. This web­site is designed and hos­ted with secur­ity and pri­vacy in mind (both yours and mine). Neither I or my team will give out your email address or data to any organ­isa­tion for any reas­on.

Also, here’s a link to my new about​.me page, which col­lates as much of the social media as I can bear to use.

Security and liberty — the aftermath of the Boston bombings

An abbre­vi­ated ver­sion of this art­icle was pub­lished by RT Op-Edge yes­ter­day.

News of the two bombs in Boston, in which 3 people have so far died and more than 100 have been injured, has rico­cheted around the world.  Bey­ond the grim stat­ist­ics, there is little con­crete evid­ence about the who and the why, and nor will there be pos­sibly for days or even weeks.  This con­fu­sion is inev­it­able in the wake of such an attack, as the intel­li­gence agen­cies and police play frantic catch-up to identi­fy the per­pet­rat­ors and, we hope, bring them to justice — although of course in post-Pat­ri­ot Act, post-NDAA Amer­ica, the per­pet­rat­ors are more likely to find their names on the CIA’s pres­id­en­tially-approved kill list.

In the absence of facts, the media fills its air­waves with spec­u­la­tion and repe­ti­tion, thereby inad­vert­ently whip­ping up yet more fear and uncer­tainty.  The fall-out from this is an erup­tion of pre­ju­dice in the social media, with desk bound her­oes jump­ing to con­clu­sions and advoc­at­ing viol­ent repris­als against whole swathes of the Middle East.  And this fear and hate plays straight into the hands of the “enemy-indus­tri­al com­plex” so aptly described by Tom Engel­hardt recently.

With that in mind, let’s take a moment to pay our respects to those who died in ter­ror­ist attacks on Monday. Even a quick surf through the inter­net pro­duces a grim and no doubt incom­plete tally: Iraq (55); Afgh­anistan (7); Somalia (30); Syr­ia (18); Pakistan (4); USA (3). All these num­bers rep­res­ent someone’s child, moth­er, friend, broth­er, loved one, and all will be mourned.

Alas, not all of these vic­tims will receive as much air-time as the unfor­tu­nates caught up in the Boston attacks. And this is espe­cially the case where attacks are car­ried out by the Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary against sus­pec­ted “insur­gents” across the Middle East.

Indeed, on the same day The Tele­graph repor­ted that the UN spe­cial rap­por­teur on counter-ter­ror­ism and human rights, fam­ous Brit­ish bar­ris­ter Ben Emmer­son (Queen’s Coun­sel), had stated that drone strikes across the Middle East were illeg­al under inter­na­tion­al law. Their con­tin­ued use only served to legit­im­ise Al Qaeda attacks against the US mil­it­ary and its infra­struc­ture in the region.

bradley_manningAs we saw in 2010 when Wikileaks released the video, “Col­lat­er­al Murder”, such atro­cit­ies are covered up for years, denied by the gov­ern­ment, nor will the per­pet­rat­ors be held to account — they are prob­ably still serving in the mil­it­ary. Instead the whis­tleblower who exposed this crime, Brad­ley Man­ning, lan­guishes in pris­on facing a court mar­tial, and the pub­lish­er of the mater­i­al, Wikileaks, faces glob­al repres­sion and a secret fed­er­al grand jury indict­ment.

With its end­less, spec­u­lat­ive scare­mon­ger­ing about the Boston attacks, the US media plays a diabol­ic­al role in fur­ther­ing the work of the attack­ers — ie ter­ror­ising the pop­u­la­tion, indu­cing them to live in a state of abject fear.  Of course, once suit­ably ter­ror­ised, the US people will be even more will­ing to give away what remains of their his­tor­ic freedoms, all in the name of increas­ing their secur­ity.  Well, we know the views of one late, great Amer­ic­an on this sub­ject, Ben­jamin Frank­lin: “those who would give up essen­tial liberty to pur­chase a little tem­por­ary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety”.

Indeed, the abrog­a­tion of liberty in the USA has pat­ently not res­ul­ted in great­er secur­ity, as Boston has so bru­tally demon­strated. No soci­ety can pro­tect itself abso­lutely against ter­ror­ism.

In a demo­cracy, just as rights come with respons­ib­il­it­ies, so freedoms come with risk. And we need to remem­ber that those freedoms were hard-won by our ancest­ors and will be equally dif­fi­cult to win back if we heed­lessly throw them away now, while the risks remain stat­ist­ic­ally neg­li­gible.

Guantanamo_BaySuc­cess­ive US gov­ern­ments have already decim­ated the basic rights of the US people in the post-9/11 secur­ity pan­ic. At the sharp end, people, both glob­ally and now also in Amer­ica, can be extraordin­ar­ily rendered (kid­napped) to black pris­on sites and tor­tured for years on the word of anonym­ous intel­li­gence officers, they can be denied due leg­al pro­cess, and they can be killed on pres­id­en­tial decree by drone strikes — a real-world ver­sion of the snuff video.

Addi­tion­ally, the US has des­cen­ded into a pan­op­tic­an sur­veil­lance state, with endem­ic data-min­ing of com­mu­nic­a­tions, air­borne drone spy­ing, and the cat­egor­isa­tion of pro­test­ers as “domest­ic extrem­ists” or even “ter­ror­ists” who are then beaten up by mil­it­ar­ised police forces. This oti­ose secur­ity theatre con­stantly reminds US cit­izens to be afraid, be very afraid, of the enemy with­in.

Ter­ror­ist atro­cit­ies are crim­in­al acts, they are not a sep­ar­ate form of “evil­tude”, to use George Bush-era ter­min­o­logy.  As such, the crim­in­als behind such attacks should be invest­ig­ated, evid­ence gathered, and they should be tried in front of a jury of their peers, where justice can be done and be seen to be done. So it is troub­ling that the Boston FBI bur­eau chief, Richard Des­Laur­i­ers, is today quoted in the New York Times as say­ing he is work­ing on “a crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tion that is a poten­tial ter­ror­ist invest­ig­a­tion”. The pre­cise dif­fer­ence being?

Like­wise, ter­ror­ist attacks are not an exist­en­tial threat to the fab­ric of the nation, even events on the scale of 9/11.  How­ever, I would sug­gest that the response of the secur­ity-indus­tri­al com­plex poses a great­er exist­en­tial threat to the future well-being of the USA. The post-9/11 secur­ity crack­down in the USA has eroded core demo­crat­ic val­ues, while the mil­it­ary response across the Middle East has bank­rup­ted Amer­ica and cre­ated a gen­er­a­tion of poten­tial enemies.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Com­pare and con­trast the response of the Nor­we­gi­an people in the after­math of the ter­ror­ist attacks and murder of 77 people by Anders Breivik. As a coun­try, there was a need to see justice done, but not to allow such an appalling attack to com­prom­ise the val­ues of the soci­ety and des­troy a cher­ished way of life for all.  And this the Nor­we­gi­an people achieved.

BishopsgateSim­il­arly between the late 1980s and the late 1990s the UK endured Lock­er­bie, Omagh, Bish­opsgate, Canary Wharf, and Manchester, to name but a few major atro­cit­ies.  A good sum­mary of the ter­ror­ist attacks against Lon­don alone over the last 150 years can be found here, with the first Tube bomb­ing occur­ring in 1885.  A pilot, Patrick Smith, also recently wrote a great art­icle about air­craft secur­ity and the sheer scale of the ter­ror­ist threat to the West in the 1980s — and asks a very per­tin­ent ques­tion: just how would we col­lect­ively react to such a stream of atro­cit­ies now?

Dur­ing the 1990s, at the height of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA’s bomb­ing cam­paign on main­land Bri­tain, I lived in cent­ral Lon­don and worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK’s domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice (MI5). Put­ting aside my pro­fes­sion­al life, I have per­sonal memor­ies of what it was like to live under the shad­ow of ter­ror­ism.  I remem­ber mak­ing my way to work in 1991 and com­mut­ing through Vic­toria train sta­tion in Lon­don 10 minutes before a bomb, planted in a rub­bish bin, exploded on the sta­tion con­course.  One per­son was killed, and many sus­tained severe injur­ies.  One per­son had their foot blown off — the image haunted me for a long time.

I also vividly remem­ber, two years later, sit­ting at my desk in MI5’s May­fair office, and hear­ing a dull thud in the back­ground — this turned out to be a bomb explod­ing out­side Har­rods depart­ment store in Knights­bridge.  And let’s not for­get the almost daily dis­rup­tion to the tube and rail net­works dur­ing the 1990s because of secur­ity alerts.  Every Lon­doner was exhor­ted to watch out for, and report, any sus­pi­cious pack­ages left at sta­tions or on streets.

Lon­don­ers grew used to such incon­veni­ence; they grumbled a bit about the dis­rup­tion and then got on with their lives — echoes of the “keep calm and carry on” men­tal­ity that evolved dur­ing the Blitz years.  In the 1990s the only notice­able change to London’s diurn­al rhythm was that there were few­er US tour­ists clog­ging up the streets — an early indic­a­tion of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate, para­noid US reac­tion to a per­ceived ter­ror­ist threat.

In con­trast to the post-9/11 years, the UK did not then react by shred­ding the basic freedoms of its people.  There were cer­tainly con­tro­ver­sial cases and heated debates about how long you could hold a ter­ror­ist sus­pect without charge, but the way of life con­tin­ued much as before. Now, twelve years after 9/11 — an attack on a dif­fer­ent con­tin­ent — the UK has all the laws in place to enact a de facto police state with­in days.

Life and liberty are both pre­cious. It is always tra­gic when lives are be lost in the name of some twis­ted or arcane polit­ic­al cause; it is even more tra­gic when the liberty of all is also lost as a res­ult.

Statue_of_Liberty_7My heart goes out to those who were injured and to the friends and fam­il­ies who have lost loved ones in the Boston attacks, in the same way it goes out to all those who were killed and maimed across the Middle East yes­ter­day.

How­ever, I do urge cau­tion in the US response; evid­ence needs to be gathered and justice seen to be done. Anoth­er secur­ity crack­down on a fear­ful US pop­u­la­tion will hurt Amer­ic­ans much more than two bombs in Boston ever could, while yet more remotely-con­trolled revenge killings across the Middle East will kill, maim and dis­place many more thou­sands.

I shall leave you with a quote from anoth­er great Amer­ic­an, Thomas Jef­fer­son:

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the acci­dent­al opin­ion of the day; but a series of oppres­sions, begun at a dis­tin­guished peri­od, and pur­sued unal­ter­ably through every change of min­is­ters too plainly proves a delib­er­ate, sys­tem­at­ic plan of redu­cing us to slavery.

A Tangled Web

Also pub­lished on the Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

A couple of days ago I was invited onto RT Arab­ic TV to do an inter­view about the ongo­ing cluster­fuck that is Syr­ia, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on the issue of West­ern jihadis allegedly flood­ing into the coun­try.

The premise, pushed across much of the West­ern media, is that these newly trained jihadis will then return home chock-full of insur­gency know-how, ready to unleash ter­ror on their unwit­ting host coun­tries.

And, yes, there is an ele­ment of truth in this:  the les­sons of the US-backed mujahideen in 1980s Afgh­anistan and onwards across the Middle East since then is test­a­ment to that. Not that this les­son seems to have been absorbed by West­ern gov­ern­ments, who con­tin­ue reck­lessly to back “rebel” forces across North Africa and the Middle East.

Or has it, at least on a cer­tain level? If you do a little dig­ging into where these stor­ies are eman­at­ing from, anoth­er pic­ture emerges.

Farr 1.jpgThe basis for these scare stor­ies is a heav­ily-spun recent report, pro­duced by the Office for Secur­ity and Counter-Ter­ror­ism (OSCT).  What is this, you might ask? Well, it appears to be a sine­cure with­in the UK’s Home Office.  The head of the organ­isa­tion is a hawk­ish securo­crat called Charles Farr, a former seni­or MI6 officer from the cold war era.

In 2007 Mr Farr (OBE) moved to his new home at the Home Office, where he is con­veni­ently in a rela­tion­ship with Fiona Cun­ning­ham, spe­cial advisor to his new boss the Home Sec­ret­ary Theresa May. Oh, and then he applied to be the civil ser­vant in charge of the Home Office, but was recently turned down for that job a couple of months ago.

So how is Farr now spend­ing his time?  Well, he has just released a report, and it appears that he is behind some of the most egre­gious recent assaults on basic Brit­ish freedoms.

Where to begin? His depart­ment was behind the Pre­vent cam­paign — sup­posedly a social ini­ti­at­ive to reach out to dis­af­fected youth in Bri­tain and help “pre­vent” their rad­ic­al­isa­tion. Unfor­tu­nately, Pre­vent has been pub­licly lam­basted for intim­id­at­ing young Muslim men and try­ing to brow­beat them into report­ing on their com­munit­ies.

On top of that, Charles Farr has, it has been repor­ted, been one of the key lob­by­ists push­ing for the total­it­ari­an “Snoop­ers’ Charter” — a pro­posed law that would allow the intel­li­gence and law enforce­ment agen­cies to hoover up all our data com­mu­nic­a­tions.

And finally, Mr Farr is one of the key sup­port­ers of the utterly undemo­crat­ic new Justice and Secur­ity Bill that enshrines the concept of “secret courts”, all done in the name of pro­tect­ing “nation­al secur­ity”, natch.  Or in oth­er words, cov­er­ing up the embar­rass­ment of the intel­li­gence agen­cies when they are caught red-handed in illeg­al activ­it­ies such as kid­nap­ping and tor­ture.

So, is it purely coin­cid­ent­al that this is the same upstand­ing Brit­ish pub­lic ser­vant report­ing that Syr­ia will be a new breed­ing-ground for rad­ic­al­ised Muslim youth attack­ing the UK? Or might there be a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion that the threat could be yet anoth­er excuse to be used to ramp up the case for all these undemo­crat­ic and deeply unpop­u­lar new laws?

Let’s not to for­get that the UK has a his­tory of back­ing such insur­gency groups when it suits them, and then turn­ing on them for polit­ic­al expedi­ency — shades of Abdel Hakim Bel­haj in Libya, any­one? It strikes me that the situ­ation in Syr­ia is evolving along sim­il­ar lines.

So let’s retain a healthy scep­ti­cism about the wheels and cogs of ves­ted interests and media manip­u­la­tion whirr­ing behind securo­crats such as Charles Farr. The pre­dic­tions of his Office for Secur­ity and Counter-Ter­ror­ism could have dam­aging con­sequences for our liber­ties in the UK; they could also have poten­tially fatal con­sequences for many thou­sands of people in Syr­ia and the wider Middle East.

Anonymous Interventions

Anoth­er RT inter­view today, dis­cuss­ing the take-down of many Israeli web­sites by hackt­iv­ist group, Anonym­ous:

Israel Hacked — Anonym­ous assault act of protest, not ter­ror from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The motiv­a­tion behind the protest, as pos­ted by Anonym­ous, stated to the Israeli gov­ern­ment: “You have NOT stopped your end­less human right viol­a­tions. You have NOT stopped illeg­al set­tle­ments. You have NOT respec­ted the cease­fire. You have shown that you do NOT respect inter­na­tion­al law.