Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Published on www.politics.co.uk, and Huffington Post UK.

Following the awful murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, the political securocrats who claim to represent the interests of the British intelligence services have swung into action, demanding yet further surveillance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to prevent future Woolwich-style attacks”.

As I’ve written before, it was heartening that the UK Prime Minister said in the aftermath of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk security reaction. However, that has not deterred certain intelligence sock-puppets from political opportunism – they stridently call for the resurrection of the draft Communications Data Bill that was earlier this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are successful, the new law would have implications not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and standing abroad.

Recently the civil liberties camp acquired a surprising ally in this debate, with MI5 unexpectedly entering the fray.  And rightly so. There is absolutely no need for this new legislation, the requisite powers are already in place. Senior security sources have argued that those citing the Woolwich attack to promote the snoopers’ charter are using a “cheap argument”.

As I said in this recent BBC radio interview, all the necessary laws are already in place for MI5 either to passively monitor or aggressively investigate persons of interest under the original terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).

There now appears to be little doubt that the two Woolwich suspects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been reported that they had been targets for at least 8 years and that Michael Adebolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.

One of his friends, Abu Nusaybah, recorded an interview for BBC’s Newsnight programme last week, only to be arrested by counter-terrorism police immediately afterwards. He stated that Adebolajo had been tortured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treatment may have flipped him into more violent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever murkier, with reports yesterday stating that Adebolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.

Other information has since been released by the organisation CagePrisoners indicating that Adebolajo’s family and friends had also been harrassed to pressurize him into reporting to MI5.

All of which obviates the early claims that Adebolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-priority target. It certainly indicates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been monitoring Adebolajo’s communications data, especially if they were trying to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been intercepting the content of his communications, to understand his thinking and assess his access. Anything less would have been slipshod – a dereliction of duty – and all this could and should have been done under the existing terms of RIPA.

So what are the chances of some real oversight or answers?

If we’re talking about an independent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquiries Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the government and the department under investigation can pretty much determine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are subject.

However, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) – the committee tasked with overseeing the work of the UK intelligence agencies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Parker, has already submitted a written report about Woolwich and will be giving evidence to the ISC in person next week about whether MI5 missed some vital intelligence or dropped the ball.

Th ISC of Parliament was established as part of the Intelligence Services Act (1994) – the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notional democratic oversight. MI5 had already come into the legal fold with the Security Service Act (1989).

As I have written before, initially the ISC was a democratic fig-leaf – its members were appointed by the PM not Parliament, it reported directly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, finance and administration of the UK’s intelligence agencies.

Until this year the ISC could not investigate operational matters, nor could it demand to see documents or question top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well reported that senior spies and police have long evaded meaningful scrutiny by being “economical with the truth”.

Former MI5 DG Sir Stephen Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the committee early on“; a more recent DG, Sir Jonathan Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involvement in torture; and Lord Blair, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, had to apologise in 2008 for misleading the ISC about the number of thwarted terrorist attacks on his watch.

However the current Chair of the ISC, Sir Malcom Rifkind, has pursued a more muscular oversight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good element to have come out of the contentious Justice and Security Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more direct accountability to Parliament, rather than just to the PM (the devil is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Parliament, rather than “in” Parliament…).

Somewhat more pertinently, the ISC can now investigate operational matters, demand papers and witnesses, and it appears they now have a special investigator who can go and rummage around the MI5 Registry for information.

It remains to be seen how effective the ISC will realistically be in holding the intelligence agencies to account, even with these new powers. However, Sir Malcolm Rifkind has good reason to know how slippery the spies can be – after all, he was the Foreign Secretary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was funding Al Qaeda associates to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.  The attack went wrong, innocent people were killed and, crucially, it was illegal under UK law, as MI6 had not requested the prior written permission for such a plot from the Foreign Secretary, as required under Section 7(1) of the aforementioned ISA (1994). Rifkind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.

So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rifkind and the other members of the ISC fully exercise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Parker is somewhat more frank about the work of his agency than his predecessors have been. It is only through greater honesty and accountability that our intelligence agencies can learn from the mistakes of the past and better protect our country in the future.

BBC Radio interview about the “snoopers’ charter”

Yesterday I gave an interview to BBC Radio Ulster about the security fall-out of the Woolwich murder and the cynical political opportunism of those calling, inevitably, for greater powers for the spies and a reintroduction of the proposed Communuications Data Bill, dubbed the “snoopers’ charter”.

Here is the link.

Woolwich murder – the “why?” should be obvious

The brutal murder in Woolwich last week of Drummer Lee Rigby rightly caused shock and outrage. Inevitably there has been a media feeding frenzy about “terrorist” attacks and home-grown radicalisation.  British Prime Minister, David Cameron, felt it necessary to fly back from a key meeting in France to head up the British security response.

One slightly heartening piece of news to emerge from all the horror is that the PM has stated, at least for now, that there will be no knee-jerk security crack-down in the wake of this killing.  Sure, security measures have been ramped up around military bases in the UK, but cynical calls from the securocrats to reanimate a proposed “snoopers’ charter”, aka the draft Communications Data Bill, have for now been discounted. And rightly so – MI5 already has all the necessary powers to monitor suspects.

However, there does still seem to be a politically disingenuous view about the motivation behind this murder.  Yet the suspects themselves made no secret of it – indeed they stayed at the scene of the crime for twenty minutes apparently encouraging photos and smart phone recordings in order to get across their message.  When the police armed response team finally arrived, the suspects reportedly charged at the police brandishing knives and possibly a gun.  They were shot, but not fatally.  This may have been attempted “suicide by cop” – delayed until they had said their piece.

This does not strike me as the actions of “crazed killers” as has been reported in the media; rather it reminds me of the cold and calculated actions of Norwegian mass murderer, Anders Breivik. The Woolwich murder was designed to maximize the impact of the message in this social media age.

And the message being? Well, it was indeed captured on smart phone and sent out to the world.  The killers clearly stated that this was a political action designed to highlight the gruesome violence daily meted out across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia as a result of the western policy of military interventionism.

This manifests in a variety of ways: violent resistance and insurgency against puppet governments as we see in Iraq; internecine civil war in countries such as post-NATO intervention Libya; covert wars fought by western proxies, as we see in Syria; or overt attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where US and UK controlled drones target militants named for assassination on presidentially-approved CIA kill lists with the resulting collateral murder of community gatherings, children and wedding parties.

All this does not justify the appalling murder in Woolwich, and the perpetrators must face justice for the crime.  However, it does go some way to explaining why such an atrocity occurred, and we as a society need to face up to the facts or this will happen again.

Saying this does not make me an apologist for terrorism, any more than it did journalist Glenn Greenwald – a writer who has had the journalistic attack dogs unleashed on him for similar views. Beyond the group-think denialism within the Washington Beltway and the Westminster Village, the cause and effect are now widely-recognised. Indeed, in her 2010 testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry about the Iraq War, former head of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller said precisely the same thing – and I don’t think anyone would dare to label her “an apologist for terrorism”.

The seed of Islamic extremism was planted by western colonialism, propagated by the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup against President Mossadegh of Iran, watered by their support for a fledging Al Qaeda in the 1980s Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion, and is now flourishing as a means both of violently attempting to eject western occupying forces from Muslim countries and gaining retribution against the West.

We need to face up to this new reality. The brutal murder of this soldier may be a one-off attack, but I doubt it.  Indeed, similar attacks against French soldiers in Toulouse occurred last year, and this weekend there has already been what appears to be a copy-cat attack against a soldier in Paris.

In this endemic surveillance society terrorist groups are all too aware of the vulnerabilities inherent in large-scale, co-ordinated attacks, the planning of which can be picked up by sigint or from internet “chatter”. Much simpler to go for the low-tech atrocity and cynically play the all-pervasive social media angle for maximum coverage.

The UK media has reported that the Woolwich suspects have been on the British intelligence radar for the last 8 years, but MI5 failed to take prompt action. The inevitable government enquiry has been promised, but the fall-back defensive position, already being trotted out by former spies and terrorism experts across the media is that the security services are never going to be in a position to accurately predict when every radicalised person might “flip” into violence and that such “lone wolf” attacks are the most difficult to stop.

As more news emerges, this is looking increasingly disingenuous. Reports have emerged that one of the suspects, Michael Adebolajo, was approached to work as an agent for MI5 half a year ago, apparently after he had been arrested and assaulted by police in Kenya. This may be another example of the security services’ failed Prevent initiative that seems to be causing more harm that good within the young British Muslim community.

This story has been compounded by the recent intriguing arrest of one of Adebolajo’s friends, the self-styled Abu Nusaybah, immediately after he had finished recording an interview about this for the BBC’s Newsnight programme.  The Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism Command swooped at the Beeb and arrested the man on terrorism charges: he has now disappeared into the maw of the legal system.

The only long-term and potentially effective solution is to address the fundamental issues that lead to Islamic violence and terrorism and begin negotiations. The UK, at least, has been through this process before during the 1990s, when it was attempting to resolve the civil war in Northern Ireland. Indeed my former boss, Eliza Manningham-Buller, stated as much during a BBC lecture in 2011, saying that the US and UK governments need to negotiate with Al Qaeda to reach a political settlement.

Over the last 20 years, Al Qaeda has consistently demanded the removal of the western (predominantly US) military presence from the Middle East. Since the 9/11 attacks our political elites and media have equally consistently spun us the line that Al Qaeda carries out attacks because it “hates our way of life, hates our freedoms”.

Unless our governments acknowledge the problems inherent in continued and violent western interventionism, unless they can accept that the war on terror results in radicalisation, “blowback” and yet more innocent deaths, and until they admit that negotiation is the only viable long-term solution, we are all condemned to remain trapped in this ghastly cycle of violence.

RT interview about the Woolwich murder

Here is my RT interview yesterday about the Woolwich attack. A horrific murder and my thoughts are with the family of the poor victim.

That said, the British and American governments and the NATO countries are disingenuous of they think that their strategy of violent interventionism across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia will have no consequences. As a result of our illegal wars, CIA kill lists and drone strikes, countless families are suffering such trauma, violence and loss across the region every day.

RT interview: Lone-wolf attack to become main expression of radicalisation? from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Journalists need to tool up

Published in the Huffington Post UK:

Over the last week more sound, fury and indignation has cascaded forth from the US media, spilling into the European news, about the American government and the Associated Press spying scandal.

Last week it emerged that the US Department of Justice monitored the telephones of, gasp, journalists working at AP. Apparently this was done to try to investigate who might have been the source for a story about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen. However, the dragnet seems to have widened to cover almost 100 journalists and potentially threatened governmental leakers and whistleblowers who, in these days of systematic security crackdowns in the US, are fast becoming Public Enemy No 1.

Now it appears that the US DoJ has been reading the emails of a senior Fox News reporter. And this has got the US hacks into a frightful tizz. What about the First Amendment?

Well, what about the fact that the Patriot Act shredded most of the US Constitution a decade ago?

Also, who is actually facing the security crackdown here? The US journalists are bleating that their sources are drying up in the face of a systematic witch hunt by the US administration. That must be hard for the journalists – hard at least to get the stories and by-lines that ensure their continued employment and the ability to pay the mortgage. This adds up to the phrase du jour: a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Er, yes, but how much harder for the potential whistleblowers? They are the people facing not only a loss of professional reputation and career if caught, but also all that goes with it. Plus, now, they are increasingly facing draconian prison sentences under the recently reanimated and currently much-deployed US 1917 Espionage Act for exposing issues in the public interest. Ex-NSA Thomas Drake faced decades in prison for exposing corruption and waste, while ex-CIA John Kiriakou is currently languishing in prison for exposing the use of torture.

The US government has learned well from the example of the UK’s Official Secrets Acts – laws that never actually seem to be wielded against real establishment traitors, who always seem to be allowed to slip away, but which have been used frequently and effectively to stifle dissent, cover up spy crimes, and to spare the blushes of the Establishment.

So, two points:

Firstly, the old media could and should have learned from the new model that is Wikileaks and its ilk. Rather than asset stripping the organisation for information, while abandoning the alleged source, Bradley Manning, and the founder, Julian Assange, to their fates, Wikileaks’s erstwhile allies could and morally should campaign for them. The issues of the free flow of information, democracy and justice are bigger than petty arguments about personality traits.

Plus, the old media appear to have a death wish: to quote the words of the former New York Times editor and Wikileaks collaborator Bill Keller, Wikileaks is not a publisher – it is a source, pure and simple. But surely, if Wikileaks is “only” a source, it must be protected at all costs – that is the media’s prime directive. Journalists have historically gone to prison rather than give away their sources.

However, if Wikileaks is indeed deemed to be a publisher and can be persecuted this way, then all the old media are equally vulnerable. And indeed that is what we are witnessing now with these spying scandals.

Secondly, these so-called investigative journalists are surprised that their phones were tapped?  Really?

If they are doing proper, worthwhile journalism, of course their comms will be tapped in a post-Patriot Act, surveillance-state world. Why on earth are they not taking their own and their sources’ security seriously? Is it amateur night?

In this day and age, any serious journalist (and there are still a few honourable examples) will be taking steps to protect the security of their sources. They will be tooled up, tech-savvy, and they will have attended Crypto-parties to learn security skills. They will also be painfully aware that a whistleblower is a person potentially facing prison, rather than just the source of a career-making story.

If mainstream journalists are serious about exposing corruption, holding power to account, and fighting for justice they need to get serious about source protection too and get teched-up. Help is widely available to those who are interested. Indeed, this summer the Centre for Investigative Journalism is hosting talks in London on this subject, and many other international journalism conferences have done the same over the last few years.

Sadly, the level of interest and awareness remains relatively low – many journalists retain a naive trust in the general legality of their government’s actions: the authorities may bend the rules a little for “terrorists”, but of course they will abide by the rules when it comes to the media…..

….or not. Watergate now looks rather quaint in comparison.

As for me: well, I have had some help and have indeed been teched-up. My laptop runs the free Ubuntu Linux (the 64 bit version for grown-ups) from an encrypted solid state hard drive. I have long and different passwords for every online service I use. My mail and web server are in Switzerland and I encrypt as much of my email as possible. It’s at least a start.

And here’s what I have to say about why journalists should think about these issues and how they can protect both themselves and their sources: Opening keynote “The Big Dig Conference” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

NORML Conference, 18-19th May in Bristol

LEAP_logoThis coming weekend NORML UK will be holding its first AGM and national conference in Bristol.

Mr Nice, aka Howard Marks, will be opening the event and speaking on the Saturday night during the two-day event.

Joining the event to discuss the need for a sensible and evidence-based rethink about drug policy will be many other speakers from groups such as Transform, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Beckley FoundationRelease, former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Tom Lloyd, and of course, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

The head of LEAP UK, former Met police detective and forensic money-laundering expert Rowan Bosworth-Davies, will be speaking on Sunday19th May.

I shall be speaking at the conference on the Saturday afternoon, and then enjoying the evening with Howard Marks et al.  Come along if you can.

MI6 “ghost money”

Here’s the full article about MI6 “ghost money”, now also published at the Huffington Post UK:

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has recently been criticised for taking “ghost money” from the CIA and MI6. The sums are inevitably unknown, for the usual reasons of “national security”, but are estimated to have been tens of millions of dollars. While this is nowhere near the eyebleeding $12 billion shipped over to Iraq on pallets in the wake of the invasion a decade ago, it is still a significant amount.

And how has this money been spent?  Certainly not on social projects or rebuilding initiatives.  Rather, the reporting indicates, the money has been funnelled to Karzai’s cronies as bribes in a corrupt attempt to buy influence in the country.

None of this surprises me. MI6 has a long and ignoble history of trying to buy influence in countries of interest.  In 1995/96 it funded a “ragtag group of Islamic extremists”, headed up by a Libyan military intelligence officer, in an illegal attempt to try to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi.  The attack went wrong and innocent people were killed.  When this scandal was exposed, it caused an outcry.

Yet a mere 15 years later, MI6 and the CIA were back in Libya, providing support to the same “rebels”, who this time succeeded in capturing, torturing and killing Gaddafi, while plunging Libya into apparently endless internecine war. This time around there was little international outcry, as the world’s media portrayed this aggressive interference in a sovereign state as “humanitarian relief”.

And we also see the same in Syria now, as the CIA and MI6 are already providing training and communications support to the rebels – many of whom, particularly the Al Nusra faction in control of the oil-rich north-east of Syria are in fact allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq.  So in some countries the UK and USA use drones to target and murder “militants” (plus villagers, wedding parties and other assorted innocents), while in others they back ideologically similar groups.

Recently we have also seen the Western media making unverified claims that the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons against its own people, and our politicians leaping on these assertions as justification for openly providing weapons to the insurgents too. Thankfully, other reports are now emerging that indicate it was the rebels themselves who have been using sarin gas against the people. This may halt the rush to arms, but not doubt other support will continue to be offered by the West to these war criminals.

So how is MI6 secretly spending UK taxpayers’ money in Afghanistan? According to western media reporting, it is being used to prop up warlords and corrupt officials. This is deeply unpopular amongst the Afghan people, leading to the danger of increasing support for a resurgent Taliban.

There is also a significant overlap between the corrupt political establishment and the illegal drug trade, up to and including the president’s late brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai.  So, another unintentional consequence may be that some of this unaccountable ghost money is propping up the drug trade.

Afghanistan is the world’s leading producer of heroin, and the UN reports that poppy growth has increased dramatically. Indeed, the UN estimates that acreage under poppy growth in Afghanistan has tripled over the last 7 years.  The value of the drug trade to the Afghan warlords is now estimated to be in the region of $700 million per year.  You can buy a lot of Kalashnikovs with that.

So on the one hand we have our western governments bankrupting themselves to fight the “war on terror”, breaking international laws and murdering millions of innocent people across North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia while at the same time shredding what remain of our hard-won civil liberties at home.

On the other hand, we apparently have MI6 and the CIA secretly bankrolling the very people in Afghanistan who produce 90% of the world’s heroin. And then, of course, more scarce resources can be spent on fighting the failed “war on drugs” and yet another pretext is used to shred our civil liberties.

This is a lucrative economic model for the burgeoning military-security complex.

However, it is a lose-lose scenario for the rest of us.

RT article about MI6’s Afghan “ghost money”

Here’s a link to my new article, published exclusively today on RT’s Op-Edge news site.

I discuss the recent news that MI6, in addition to the CIA, has been paying “ghost money” to the political establishment in Afghanistan, other examples of such meddling, and the probable unintended consequences.

Club of Amsterdam

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Club of Amsterdam.  The topic under discussion was “The future of digital identity”.  Many thanks to Felix and the team. A lively evening.

Annie Machon at the Club of Amsterdam from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
First published in my newsletter last week, amongst much else. Do sign up!