Dutch festival OHM — Observe, Hack, Make

Today I am limber­ing up to attend the Dutch geek fest­iv­al, Observe Hack Make (OHM 2013). A lot of talks from whis­tleblowers, sci­ent­ists, geeks, futur­ists and bleed­ing edge tech people. The vis­ion­ar­ies?

You decide — all talks will be live streamed and avail­able after­wards. Enjoy!

RT interview as Bradley Manning conviction was announced

I was live on RT as the con­vic­tion of Brad­ley Man­ning was announced:

RT inter­view as the con­vic­tion of Brad­ley Man­ning was announced from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Dearlove Doublethink

Pub­lished on Con­sor­ti­um News, RT Op-Edge, and The Real News Net­work.

In a sen­sa­tion­al art­icle in a UK news­pa­per last week­end, the former head of the UK’s for­eign intel­li­gence gath­er­ing agency, MI6, appears to have broken the code of omer­tà around the fraud­u­lent intel­li­gence case used as the pre­text for the Iraq war in 2003.

DearloveSir Richard Dear­love, former head of MI6 and cur­rent Mas­ter of Pem­broke Col­lege, Cam­bridge, con­tac­ted the UK’s Mail on Sunday news­pa­per to state that he had writ­ten his ver­sion of the (ab)use of intel­li­gence in the run-up to the US/UK inva­sion of Iraq.  With the long-awaited and much-delayed offi­cial Chil­cot Enquiry into the case for war about to be pub­lished, Dear­love is obvi­ously aware that he might be blamed for the “sex­ing up” of the intel­li­gence, and that Teflon Tony Blair might once again shuffle off all respons­ib­il­ity.

You’ll no doubt have some vague recol­lec­tion that, in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War, the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment pro­duced a couple of reports “mak­ing a case for war”, as Major Gen­er­al Michael Laurie said in his evid­ence to the enquiry in 2011: “We knew at the time that the pur­pose of the [Septem­ber] dossier was pre­cisely to make a case for war, rather than set­ting out the avail­able intel­li­gence, and that to make the best out of sparse and incon­clus­ive intel­li­gence the word­ing was developed with care.”

The first such report, the Septem­ber Dossier (2002), is the one most remembered, as this did indeed “sex up” the case for war as the deceased Iraqi weapons inspect­or Dr Dav­id Kelly exposed. It also included the fraud­u­lent intel­li­gence about Sad­dam Hus­sein try­ing to acquire urani­um from Niger. It was this lat­ter claim that Colin Pow­ell used to such great effect at the UN Secur­ity Coun­cil.

Rupert_Murdoch

Also, just six weeks before the attack on Iraq, the “Dodgy” Dossier, based largely on a 12-year old PhD thes­is culled from the Inter­net, but con­tain­ing nug­gets of raw MI6 intel­li­gence — was presen­ted by spy and politi­cian alike as omin­ous pre­mon­it­ory intel­li­gence.

Most mem­or­ably in the UK, it led to the bogus “Brits 45 minutes from Doom” front-page head­line in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun news­pa­per, no less, on the eve of the cru­cial war vote in Par­lia­ment.

Inter­est­ingly from a Brit­ish leg­al pos­i­tion, it appears that Tony Blair and his spin doc­tor Alastair Camp­bell released this report without the pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion of the head of MI6, which means that they would appear to be in breach of the UK’s dra­coni­an secrecy law, the Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989).

Thus was made the dodgy case for war.  All lies — mil­lions of deaths and many more maimed, wounded, and dis­placed, yet no one held to account.

Sub­sequently, there was also the notori­ous leaked Down­ing Street Memo, where Sir Richard Dear­love was minuted as say­ing that the intel­li­gence and facts were being fit­ted around the [pre­de­ter­mined war] policy.

On July 23, 2002 at a meet­ing at 10 Down­ing Street, Dear­love briefed Tony Blair and oth­er seni­or offi­cials on his talks with his Amer­ic­an coun­ter­part, CIA Dir­ect­or George Ten­et, in Wash­ing­ton three days before.

In the draft minutes of that brief­ing, which were leaked to the Lon­don Times and pub­lished on May 1, 2005, Dear­love explains that George Bush had decided to attack Iraq and the war was to be “jus­ti­fied by the con­junc­tion of ter­ror­ism and weapons of mass destruc­tion.”  While then-For­eign Sec­ret­ary Jack Straw points out that the case was “thin,” Dear­love explains mat­ter-of-factly, “the intel­li­gence and facts are being fixed around the policy.”

Tony_BlairThere is no sign in the minutes that any­one hic­cuped — much less demurred — at ”mak­ing a case for war” and fur­ther­ing Blair’s determ­in­a­tion to join Bush in launch­ing the kind of “war of aggres­sion” out­lawed by the post-world war Nurem­berg Tribunal and the UN treaty.

The acqui­es­cence of the chief spies helped their polit­ic­al mas­ters main­line into the body polit­ic unas­sessed, raw intel­li­gence and forged doc­u­ments, with dis­astrous con­sequences for the people of Iraq and the world.

Yet Dear­love long remained unre­pent­ant. Even as recently as 2011, post-retire­ment and bloated with hon­ours, he con­tin­ued to deny culp­ab­il­ity. When ques­tioned about the Down­ing Street Memo dur­ing an address to the pres­ti­gi­ous Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Uni­on Soci­ety by the fear­less and fear­somely bright stu­dent, Silkie Carlo, Dear­love tried grandi­loquently to brush her aside.

But were the remarks in the Memo really “taken out of con­text” as Dear­love tried to assert? No – the text of the Memo was clear and expli­cit.

So Dear­love could poten­tially have saved mil­lions of lives across the Middle East if he had gone pub­lic then, rather than now as he is threat­en­ing, with his con­sidered pro­fes­sion­al opin­ion about the intel­li­gence facts being fit­ted around a pre­con­ceived war policy.

Would it not be lovely if these retired ser­vants of the crown, replete with respect, status and hon­ours, could actu­ally take a stand while they are in a pos­i­tion to influ­ence world events?

Doing so now, purely to pre­serve his repu­ta­tion rather than to pre­serve lives, is even more “eth­ic­ally flex­ible” than you would nor­mally expect of an aver­age MI6 intel­li­gence officer. Per­haps that is why he floated to the top of the organ­isa­tion.

Dear­love is right to be wor­ried about how both Chil­cot and his­tory will judge him.  These intel­li­gence fail­ures and lies have been picked over and spec­u­lated about for years. They are an open secret.

But hold­ing the gun of dis­clos­ure to the UK government’s head smacks of des­per­a­tion.  He is quoted as say­ing that he has no plans to breach the Offi­cial Secrets Act by pub­lish­ing his mem­oirs. But by pub­lish­ing an account of the run-up to the Iraq war, he would be still guilty of a breach of the OSA. It has been estab­lished under UK law that any unau­thor­ised dis­clos­ure crosses the “clear bright line” of the law. And Dear­love seems well aware of this – his ori­gin­al plan was for his account to be made avail­able after his death.

Rectum_DefendeI can see why he would plan that – firstly he would not risk pro­sec­u­tion under the dra­coni­an terms of the OSA, but his account would, in his view, set the record straight and pro­tect his repu­ta­tion for pos­ter­ity.  A posthum­ous win-win.

The offi­cial motto of the UK spies is “Regnum Defende” — defence of the realm. Serving intel­li­gence officers mord­antly alter this to “Rectum Defende” — politely trans­lated as watch your back.

Dear­love seems to be liv­ing up to the motto.  He must be one very frightened old man to be con­tem­plat­ing such pre­ma­ture pub­lic­a­tion.

With cred­it and thanks to former CIA ana­lyst, cur­rent truth-tell­er and gen­er­al pain in the “regnum” to the intel­li­gence estab­lish­ment, Ray McGov­ern, and also Sander Venema for his eleg­antly clas­sic­al rework­ing of the final image.

German complicity in NSA PRISM surveillance programme

My latest inter­view on RT about the Ger­man intel­li­gence agen­cies’ com­pli­city in the PRISM sur­veil­lance pro­gramme:

Revealed: Ger­many part­ner of NSA, Merkel denies know­ledge from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Edward Snowden’s dis­clos­ures first revealed that the NSA had been spy­ing on EU insti­tu­tions; cue Ger­man anger.

Then it was revealed that Ger­many is seen as a Class 3 part­ner in sur­veil­lance by the USA. This means that they are not deemed by the NSA to be intel­li­gence part­ners but rather tar­gets — in the same way as China, Iraq, and Saudi Ara­bia. This means that on aver­age half a bil­lion Ger­man com­mu­nic­a­tions are hoovered up by the NSA every month. And this des­pite a strong con­sti­tu­tion devised to pre­vent such excesses, as the memor­ies of the Gestapo and the Stasi still res­on­ate; cue Ger­man anger.

And now it appears that, des­pite their (unknown?) Class 3 status, the Ger­man intel­li­gence ser­vices, the for­eign BND and the domest­ic BfV, have them­selves been main-lin­ing off the NSA’s illeg­al PRISM pro­gramme; cue Ger­man.… polit­ic­al embar­rass­ment.
With friends like the USA, who needs enemies?

The “Insider Threat”

As the old media pro­pa­ganda battle inev­it­ably heats up around the Edward Snowden case, I stumbled across this little Amer­ic­an news gem recently. The premise being that poten­tial whis­tleblowers are now deemed to be the new “insider threat”.

Well, the US spooks and their friends have already had a pretty good run through the “reds under the bed” of McCarthy­ism, polit­ic­al sub­vers­ives, illeg­als, Muslims and “domest­ic extrem­ists”, whatever the hell that really means leg­ally.  Now they’ve hit on anoth­er threat­en­ing cat­egory to jus­ti­fy yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance crack­downs. What’s in a name.….

Firstly, this is old news resur­rec­ted in the wake of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures to scare people anew. Way back in 2008 the US gov­ern­ment wrote a report about “insider threats” and the per­ceived danger of the high-tech pub­lish­er Wikileaks and, in early 2010 the report was leaked to the very same organ­isa­tion.

Wikileaks1In 2008 the US gov­ern­ment strategy was to expose a Wikileaks source so that oth­ers would be deterred from using the con­duit in future. Well that didn’t hap­pen — Wikileaks tech­no­lo­gic­ally out­paced the lum­ber­ing, bru­tish might of the US and syco­phant­ic West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies.  The unfor­tu­nate Brad­ley Man­ning was exposed by an FBI snitch, Adri­an Lamo, rather than from any tech­nic­al fail­ure of the Wikileaks sub­mis­sion sys­tem.

What did occur was a mus­cu­lar dis­play of glob­al cor­por­at­ism, with nation after nation capit­u­lat­ing to take down the Wikileaks site, but mir­ror sites sur­vived that poin­ted to Switzer­land (which has a strong tra­di­tion of dir­ect demo­cracy, self defence and free speech and which remains stead­fastly inde­pend­ent from inter­na­tion­al dip­lo­mat­ic circle jerks the UN, NATO, and such like.

On top of that, all major fin­an­cial chan­nels stopped dona­tions to Wikileaks — an act now been deemed to be mani­festly illeg­al in some coun­tries.

Now, in the wake of the Man­ning and Snowden dis­clos­ures, the US main­stream media appears, inev­it­ably, to be try­ing to con­flate the cases of known trait­ors with, you’ve guessed it, bona fide whis­tleblowers.

Cases such as Ald­rich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who betrayed their coun­tries by selling secrets to an enemy power — the Soviet Uni­on — in an era of exist­en­tial threat. They were trait­ors to be pro­sec­uted under the US Espi­on­age Act (1917) — that is what it was designed for.

This has noth­ing what­so­ever to do with the cur­rent whis­tleblower cases and is just so much basic neuro-lin­guist­ic pro­gram­ming. *Yawn*. Do people really fall for that these days?

This is a tired old tac­tic much used and abused in the offi­cially secret UK, and the USA has learned well from its former colo­ni­al mas­ter — so much for 1776 and the con­sti­tu­tion.

How­ever, in the CBS inter­view men­tioned above it was subtly done — at least for a US broad­cast — with the com­ment­at­or sound­ing reas­on­able but with the imagery telling a very dif­fer­ent story.

In my view this con­fla­tion exposes a dark hypo­crisy at the heart of the mod­ern mil­it­ary-secur­ity com­plex. In the old days the “good­ies” and “bad­dies” were simplist­ic­ally demarc­ated in the minds of the pub­lic: free West good; total­it­ari­an East bad. This fol­lowed the main­stream pro­pa­ganda of the day, and those who worked for the oppos­i­tion — and the Soviet Uni­on gave the US/UK intel­li­gence axis a good run for its money — were pro­sec­uted as trait­ors.  Unless, of course, they emerged from the rul­ing class, when they were allowed to slip away and evade justice.

And of course many of us remem­ber the scan­dal of the Rus­si­an spy ring that was exposed in 2010 — many indi­vidu­als who had illeg­ally been infilt­rated into the US for dec­ades. Yet, when they were caught and exposed, what happened?  A deal was struck between the US and Rus­sia and they were just sent home.

No such lib­er­al­ity is shown to true mod­ern-day whis­tleblowers. Quite the oppos­ite, with the UK and the US will­ing to breach all estab­lished dip­lo­mat­ic pro­to­cols to hunt down their quarry. This des­pite the fact that the whis­tleblowers are lib­er­at­ing inform­a­tion about the illeg­al­ity of our own gov­ern­ments to empower all of us to act as informed cit­izens, and des­pite the fact that they are expos­ing glob­al-level crimes.

Bradley_Manning_2Brad­ley Man­ning and Edward Snowden have risked their lives to expose the fact that we are liv­ing under a glob­al police state and that our mil­it­ary and intel­li­gence agen­cies are run­ning amok across the plan­et, with CIA kill lists, rendi­tions, tor­ture, wars, drone strikes and dirty tricks.

Yet the West is not offi­cially at war, nor is it facing an exist­en­tial threat as it did dur­ing the Second World War or the so-called Cold War.  Des­pite this, the US has used the Espi­on­age Act (1917) more times in the last 5 years than over the pre­ced­ing cen­tury. Is it sud­denly infes­ted with spies?

Well, no.  But it is sud­denly full of a new digit­al gen­er­a­tion, which has grown up with the assump­tion that the inter­net is free, and which wants to guar­an­tee that it will remain free without Big Broth­er watch­ing over their shoulders.  Tal­en­ted indi­vidu­als who end up work­ing for the spy agen­cies will inev­it­ably be per­turbed by pro­grammes such as PRISM and TEMPORA. Law­yers, act­iv­ists and geeks have been warn­ing about this for the last two dec­ades.

By 1911 the UK had already put in place not only the proto-MI5, but also then added the first Offi­cial Secrets Act (OSA) to pro­sec­ute real trait­ors ahead of the First World War. The UK updated the OSA in 1989 spe­cific­ally to sup­press whis­tleblow­ing. The US has learned these leg­al sup­pres­sion les­sons well, not least by shred­ding its con­sti­tu­tion with the Pat­ri­ot Act.

How­ever, it has neg­lected to update its law against whis­tleblowers, fall­ing back instead onto the hoary old 1917 Espi­on­age Act — as I said before, more times in the past five years than over the last cen­tury.

This is indeed a war on whis­tleblowers and truth-tell­ers, noth­ing more, noth­ing less.

What are they so afraid of? Ideal­ists who believe in the old demo­crat­ic con­sti­tu­tions? The Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights and oth­er such fuddy-duddy con­cepts?

Or could the real enemy be the bene­fi­ciar­ies of the whis­tleblowers? When the US gov­ern­ment says that Man­ning or Snowden have aided the enemy, do they, could they, mean we the people?

The answer to that would logic­ally be a resound­ing “yes”. Which leads to anoth­er ques­tion: what about the nation states — China, Rus­sia, Iran — that we have been told repeatedly over the last few years are hack­ing and spy­ing on us?

The phrase “pot and kettle” springs to mind. There are no good­ies and bad­dies any more. Indeed, all that remains is out­right and shock­ing hypo­crisy.

Snowden has laid bare the fact that the US and its vas­sals are the most flag­rant prot­ag­on­ists in this cyber­war, even as our gov­ern­ments tell us that we must give up basic human rights such as pri­vacy, to pro­tect us from the glob­al threat of ter­ror­ism (while at the same time arm­ing and fund­ing our so-called ter­ror­ist enemies).

Yet whis­tleblowers who bravely step up and tell us our gov­ern­ments are com­mit­ting war crimes, that we are being spied on, that we live under Orwellian sur­veil­lance, are now the people being pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age, not the “real” spies and cer­tainly not the war crim­in­als.

In the CBS inter­view, former US Gen­er­al Michael Hay­den, ex-head of the CIA and NSA asked: “what kind of mor­al judge­ment does it take for someone to think that their view trumps that of two pres­id­ents, the Con­gress and Sen­ate, the court sys­tem and 35,000 co-work­ers at the NSA?”

Er, per­haps someone who does not want to col­lude in the most stark examples of glob­al war crimes and illeg­al sur­veil­lance? And per­haps someone who believes that the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was set up for a reas­on after the hor­rors of the Second World War?

When the rule of law breaks down, who is the real crim­in­al?

What we are wit­ness­ing is a gen­er­a­tion­al clash, not a clash of ideo­lo­gies. The old­sters still be believe in the Cold War nar­rat­ive (or even “cow­boys and Indi­ans”?) of good­ies, bad­dies and exist­en­tial threats. The digit­al gen­er­a­tions have grown up in the wake of 9/11 and all the asso­ci­ated gov­ern­ment­al over-reac­tion — war crimes go unre­por­ted and untried, real civil liber­ties are an his­tor­ic arte­fact, and the glob­al pop­u­la­tion lives under Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance. Why on earth is any­one, really, sur­prised when young people of hon­our and ideal­ism try to take a stand and make a dif­fer­ence?

We should be more wor­ried about our future if the whis­tleblowers were to stop com­ing for­ward.

My RNN interview — Snowden disclosures cause outrage across EU

Here is a recent inter­view I did for the Real News Net­work about the glob­al and European fall-out from the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures:

And here’s a ver­sion with the text.

Newsletter Excerpt re Edward Snowden

For read­ers who have not yet signed up to my monthly news­let­ter, here is the excerpt about Edward Snowden from my June edi­tion, with a little update at the end:

The Edward Snowden saga is riv­et­ing for me on so many levels.You’ll no doubt be aware of the case, unless you have been liv­ing in a cup­board for the last few weeks.  Snowden is the brave young NSA con­tract­or who has blown the whistle on a range of glob­al sur­veil­lance pro­grammes that the Amer­ic­ans and the Brits have developed over the last few years to fight the war on ter­ror­ism spy on all of us.

The sheer scale of his dis­clos­ures so far is incred­ible and has huge implic­a­tions for what remains of our demo­crat­ic way of life. Just today more inform­a­tion emerged to show that the NSA has been spy­ing on key EU insti­tu­tions — which might go some way to explain­ing why so much recent EU legis­la­tion appears to favour the interests of US cor­por­at­ism over those of European cit­izens.…

Pun­dits have been call­ing him the most sig­ni­fic­ant whis­tleblower since Daniel Ells­berg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Viet­nam war 40 years ago.  But I would go fur­ther.  In my view Edward Snowden is the most sig­ni­fic­ant whis­tleblower in mod­ern his­tory because, while Ells­berg dis­closed vital inform­a­tion, it was largely a mat­ter that affected the Amer­ic­ans and the hap­less Viet­namese.  What Snowden has exposed, just to date, impacts all of us around the world.

Snowden has con­firmed the darkest fears of leg­al experts, geeks and con­cerned glob­al cit­izens about the sheer scale of the sur­veil­lance soci­ety we all now live under.  Not only are our intel­li­gence agen­cies run­ning amok, they do so using the infra­struc­ture of the glob­al inter­net mega­corps.  What he has laid bare is the fact that we are all already liv­ing under full-blown fas­cism.

He played it so well with that early film stat­ing very clearly his motiv­a­tion to go pub­lic — to defend a way of life that he saw was under threat. He appears to have learned from the mis­takes of pre­vi­ous whis­tleblowers.  He chose a journ­al­ist who under­stands the issues and has the fire in the belly and the inter­na­tion­al pro­file to fight his corner.  Glenn Gre­en­wald is a fear­less cam­paign­ing law­yer-turned-journ­al­ist who for years has been defend­ing the work of Wikileaks, with the irony being that he is now the new Assange, being attacked, threatened and smeared for report­ing the dis­clos­ures.

Of course, I and many oth­er former whis­tleblowers have been swamped by the usu­al fren­zied media tsunami, called up for inter­view after inter­view.  For me this began just as I was about to turn in for the night at 11.30pm on 9th June, when RT rang me up ask­ing for an urgent live inter­view just as the iden­tity of Snowden was emer­ging across the world’s media.  After a frantic 15 minutes sort­ing out the makeup and the tech (in that order, nat­ur­ally), I was wide awake again and speak­ing on live TV.  From that came a slew of oth­er requests over the next few days, includ­ing many pro­grammes on the BBC, Sky News, and mul­tiple radio and news­pa­per inter­views.  I could barely find time to leave my phone and com­puter to get to the bath­room.…  Then the wave receded for a few days before Snowden fled to Rus­sia, when the whole cycle began again.

Read­ing about Snowden going on the run also brought back a num­ber of per­son­al memor­ies for me. In 1997 I fled the UK with Dav­id Shayler only 12 hours ahead of his ini­tial dis­clos­ures about MI5 crimin­al­ity break­ing in the UK media. We were pur­sued across Europe, and had a month lit­er­ally on the run, fol­lowed by a year liv­ing in hid­ing in la France Pro­fonde before Dav­id was arres­ted, pending extra­di­tion, at the request of the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment.  He spent almost 4 months in a Par­is pris­on before the French released him — their view being that he was a whis­tleblower, which was deemed to be a polit­ic­al offence for which France spe­cific­ally does not extra­dite.  We lived more openly in Par­is for anoth­er two years, although Dav­id was trapped in France — had he trav­elled to anoth­er coun­try the whole ghastly extra­di­tion pro­cess would have star­ted again.

Well, there are worse places than France to be trapped in exile, but even so it was dif­fi­cult for him.  How much more so for Edward Snowden, whose options are more ser­i­ously con­strained and who faces life in pris­on in the US if he is caught?  Know­ing the pen­al­ties he faces and being aware of the track­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies and the ruth­less dis­reg­ard for the law and human rights of the mod­ern US intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture, his bravery in expos­ing the glob­al US sur­veil­lance state is truly breath-tak­ing.

To fin­ish, here is one of my recent Sky News inter­views about the Edward Snowden case:

Sky TV inter­view on Snowden case from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Addendum: today’s news told us that Bolivi­an Pres­id­ent, Evo Morales’s offi­cial, dip­lo­mat­ic­ally pro­tec­ted, plane have been barred from fly­ing home from Moscow over much of Euro air­space, where he had been par­ti­cip­at­ing in high-level talks.  The reas­on being that Edward Snowden might have been be on board. Mor­ales was groun­ded in Aus­tria and had to sub­mit to a police search of the plane, against all dip­lo­mat­ic pro­tocol.  No Snowden was found, nat­ur­ally.

I see this as a very clev­er move by per­sons unknown — test­ing exactly what the inter­na­tion­al response would be if Edward Snowden tries to fly out of Rus­sia.  And the Europeans, under undoubted pres­sure from the US, have fallen for it hook, line and sinker.

The US-Euro com­pli­cit pat­sies have been flushed out by this dip­lo­mat­ic scan­dal. Demon­stra­tions are appar­ently already occur­ring against the French embassy in Bolivia.  And this on the same day that the French Pres­id­ent, Fran­cois Hol­lande, used the Snowden dis­clos­ures to delay the rightly-maligned US-EU trade agree­ment.

So, even as the French use the Snowden dis­clos­ures for polit­ic­al advant­age, they appar­ently refuse to assist the source.  Which is unfor­tu­nate — my memory of French law is that whis­tleblow­ing is deemed a polit­ic­al act and the French spe­cific­ally do not extra­dite for alleged polit­ic­al offences.

Per­haps the French con­sti­tu­tion and law have changed since Sarkozy took France into NATO.…

The Secret Policemen’s Balls-Up

First pub­lished on RT Op-Edge, with the slightly more cir­cum­spect title: “Brit­ish police secretly oper­ated out­side demo­crat­ic con­trol for years”. Also on HuffPo UK.

In the wake of the glob­al impact of the ongo­ing Edward Snowden saga, a smal­ler but still import­ant whis­tleblower story flared and faded last week in the UK media.

Peter Fran­cis revealed that 20 years ago he had worked as an under­cov­er cop in the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Force’s secret Spe­cial Demon­stra­tions Squad (SDS) sec­tion. In this role, Fran­cis stated that he was tasked to dig up dirt with which the Met could dis­cred­it the fam­ily of murdered black teen­ager, Steph­en Lawrence and thereby derail their cam­paign for a full and effect­ive police invest­ig­a­tion into his death.  The Lawrence fam­ily cor­rectly believed that the ori­gin­al invest­ig­a­tion had been fumbled because of  insti­tu­tion­al police racism at that time.

The fact that secret police were pos­ing as act­iv­ists to infilt­rate protest groups will come as no shock after the cas­cade of rev­el­a­tions about secret police­men in 2011, start­ing with DC Mark Kennedy/environmental act­iv­ist “Mark Stone”.  Kennedy was uncovered by his “fel­low” act­iv­ists, and nine more quickly emerged in the wake of that scan­dal. This has res­ul­ted in an enquiry into the shad­owy activ­it­ies of these most secret officers, accus­a­tions that the Crown Pro­sec­u­tion Ser­vice sup­pressed key evid­ence in crim­in­al tri­als, and a slew of court cases brought by women whom these (pre­dom­in­antly male) police officers seduced.

But the dis­clos­ures of Peter Fran­cis plumb new depths.  In the wake of the Steph­en Lawrence murder, many left-wing and anti-Nazi groups jumped on the band­wag­on, organ­ising demon­stra­tions and pro­vok­ing con­front­a­tions with the far-right Brit­ish Nation­al Party.  There was a clash near the BNP’s book­shop in south Lon­don in 1993.  So, sure, the Met Police could poten­tially just about argue that the under­cov­er officers were try­ing to gath­er advance intel­li­gence to pre­vent pub­lic dis­order and riot­ing, although the sheer scale of the oper­a­tion was utterly dis­pro­por­tion­ate.

How­ever, what is com­pletely bey­ond the Pale is this appar­ent attempt to smear the trau­mat­ised fam­ily of a murder vic­tim in order to derail their cam­paign for justice.

The role of under­cov­er cops spy­ing on their fel­low cit­izens who are polit­ic­ally act­ive is dis­taste­ful in a demo­cracy. And the fact that, until the ori­gin­al scan­dal broke in 2011, the recon­sti­t­uted SDS con­tin­ued to tar­get peace and envir­on­ment­al protest groups who offered no threat what­so­ever to nation­al secur­ity is dis­grace­ful — it smacks of the Stasi in East Ger­many.

To make mat­ters even worse, when details emerged two years ago, it became appar­ent that the SDS Ver­sion 2.0 was oper­at­ing out­side the form­al hier­archy of the police, with what little demo­crat­ic over­sight that would provide. In fact, it emerged that the SDS been renamed the Nation­al Pub­lic Order Intel­li­gence Unit (NPOIU) and had for years been the private fief­dom of a private lim­ited com­pany — the Asso­ci­ation of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).  With­in a notion­al demo­cracy, this is just gobsmack­ing.

So how did this mess evolve?

From the late 19th cen­tury the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch invest­ig­ated ter­ror­ism while MI5, estab­lished in 1909, was a counter-intel­li­gence unit focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al “sub­ver­sion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton, then head of MI5, effected a White­hall coup and stole primacy for invest­ig­at­ing Irish ter­ror­ism from the Met. As a res­ult MI5 magic­ally dis­covered that sub­ver­sion was not such a threat after all – this rev­el­a­tion only three years after the Ber­lin Wall came down – and trans­ferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-ter­ror­ism sec­tions. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly build­ing its counter-ter­ror­ism empire, des­pite this being more obvi­ously evid­en­tial police work.

Spe­cial Branch was releg­ated to a sup­port­ing role, dab­bling in organ­ised crime and anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but not ter­ribly excited about either. Its prestige had been ser­i­ously den­ted. It also had a group of exper­i­enced under­cov­er cops – known then to MI5 as the Spe­cial Duties Sec­tion – with time on their hands.

It should there­fore come as little sur­prise that ACPO came up with the bril­liant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domest­ic extrem­ists”. It renamed the SDS as the NPOIU, which first focused primar­ily on poten­tially viol­ent anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but mis­sion creep rap­idly set in and the unit’s role expan­ded into peace­ful protest groups. When this unac­count­able unit was revealed it rightly caused an out­cry, espe­cially as the term “domest­ic extrem­ist” is not recog­nised under UK law, and can­not leg­ally be used as jus­ti­fic­a­tion to aggress­ively invade an individual’s pri­vacy because of their legit­im­ate polit­ic­al beliefs and act­iv­ism.

So, as the police become ever more spooky, what of MI5?

As I men­tioned, they have been aggress­ively hoover­ing up the pres­ti­gi­ous counter-ter­ror­ism work. But, des­pite what the Amer­ic­ans have hys­ter­ic­ally asser­ted since 9/11, ter­ror­ism is not some unique form of “evil­tude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shock­ing one, but still a crime that should be invest­ig­ated, with evid­ence gathered, due pro­cess applied and the sus­pects on tri­al in front of a jury.

A mature demo­cracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern sus­pects or render them to secret pris­ons and tor­ture them for years. And yet this is pre­cisely what our spooks have been doing – par­tic­u­larly when col­lud­ing with their US coun­ter­parts.

Also, MI5 and MI6 have for years oper­ated out­side any real­ist­ic demo­crat­ic over­sight and con­trol. Until this year, the remit of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment has only covered the policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance of the spies. Since the committee’s incep­tion in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to mean­ing­fully address more ser­i­ous ques­tions about the spies’ role, and has been repeatedly lied to by seni­or spies and police officers.

The spooks are effect­ively above the law, while at the same time pro­tec­ted by the dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed dis­cus­sion about the real­ist­ic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the pro­tect­ive phrase “nation­al secur­ity”. But what does this mean?

The core idea should be safe­guard­ing the nation’s integ­rity. A group of well-mean­ing envir­on­ment­al pro­test­ers should not even be on the radar. And, no mat­ter how awful, the occa­sion­al ter­ror­ist attack is not an exist­en­tial threat to the fab­ric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi inva­sion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sus­tained bomb­ing of gov­ern­ment, infra­struc­ture and mil­it­ary tar­gets by the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA in the 1970s-90s.

Only once we under­stand the real threats can we as a nation dis­cuss the neces­sary steps to take to pro­tect ourselves effect­ively; what meas­ures should be taken, what liber­ties occa­sion­ally and leg­ally com­prom­ised, and what demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity exists to ensure that the secur­ity forces do not exceed their remit and work with­in the law.

It is only by going through this pro­cess that can we ensure such scan­dals as the secret police will remain firmly in the past. And in the wake not only of Peter Francis’s con­fes­sions but the sheer scale of the endem­ic elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance revealed by Edward Snowden, this long-over­due nation­al debate becomes ever more neces­sary.