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 uber-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.