BBC Sunday Morning Live – whistleblower debate

Here is a video of a debate I was involved with about whistleblowers on the most recent edition of BBC debate show, Sunday Morning Live. The question under discussion: are whistleblowers heroes or villains?

BBC Sunday Morning Live from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
A shame that some of the studio guests used this opportunity to launch ad hominem attacks rather than focus on the key question, but I’m glad I could contribute.

RT interview on Manning sentencing

Here is my most recent RT interview, live as Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in a US prison for blowing the whistle and exposing war crimes:

RT Interview about Manning sentencing from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Another abuse of UK terrorism laws

First published on RT Op-Edge.

David Miranda had just spent a week in Berlin, before flying back to his home country, Brazil, via London’s Heathrow airport. As he attempted to transit on to his flight home – not enter the UK, mind you, just make an international connection –  he was pulled to one side by the UK’s border security officers and questioned for nine hours, as well as having all his technical equipment confiscated.

Glenn Greenwald and his partner David MirandaHe was detained for the maximum period allowed under the draconian terms of Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act (2000).  His apparent “crime”? To be the partner of campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald who broke the Edward Snowden whistleblowing stories.

Miranda’s detention has caused outrage, rightly, around the world. Diplomatic representations have been made by the Brazilian government to the British, UK MPs are asking questions, and The Guardian newspaper (which is the primary publisher of  Greenwald’s stories), has sent in the lawyers.

This episode is troubling on so many levels, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Magna_CartaFirstly, the Terrorism Act (2000) is designed to investigate, er, terrorism – at least, so you would think. However it is all too easy for mission creep to set in, as I have been saying for years.  The definition of terrorism has expanded to cover activists, placard wavers, and protesters as well as, now apparently, the partners of journalists.  The old understanding of due legal process is merely yet another quaint, British artefact like the Magna Carta and habeas corpus.

In the UK we now have secret courts covering all things “national security”, we have pervasive Big Brother surveillance as exemplified by GCHQ’s TEMPORA programme, and we have our spies involved in kidnapping and torture.

So Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act is just another small nail in the coffin of historic British freedoms. Under its terms, anyone can be pulled aside, detained and questioned by border security guards if they are “suspected of” involvement in, the commissioning of, or financial support for terrorism. The detainee is not allowed to speak to a lawyer, nor are they allowed not to answer questions, on pain of criminal prosecution. Plus their property can be indefinitely seized and ransacked, including computers, phones, and other gadgets.

Under Schedule 7 people can be questioned for a maximum of 9 hours. After that, the authorities either have to apply for a formal extension, charge and arrest, or release. According to a UK government document, 97% people are questioned for less than 1 hour then released and only 0.06% are held for six hours.  Miranda was held up until the last minute of the full nine hours before being released without charge.

Secondly, this abuse of power displays all too clearly the points that Edward Snowden has disclosed via Greenwald about a burgeoning and out-of-control surveillance state. The detention of Miranda displays all the obsessive vindictiveness of a wounded secret state that is buzzing around, angry as a wasp. Snowden has the protection of the only state currently with the power to face down the brute might of US “diplomacy”, and Greenwald still has the shreds of journalist protections around him.

Friends and partners, however, can be seen as fair game.

I know this from bitter personal experience. In 1997 former MI5 intelligence officer, David Shayler, blew the whistle on a whole range of UK spy crimes: files on government ministers, illegal phone taps, IRA bombs that could have been prevented, innocent people in prison, and an illegal MI6 assassination plot against Gaddafi, which went wrong and innocent people died.

Working with a major UK newspaper and with due respect for real national secrets, he went public about these crimes.  Pre-emptively we went on the run together, so that we could remain free to argue about and campaign around the disclosures, rather than disappearing into a maximum security prison for years. After a month on the run across Europe, I returned to the UK to work with our lawyers, see our traumatised families, and pack up our smashed-up, police-raided flat.

Annie_arrest_BWIn September 1997 I flew back with my lawyer from Spain to London Gatwick. I knew that the Metropolitan Police Special Branch wanted to interview me, and my lawyer had negotiated this ahead of my travel.  Despite this, I was arrested at the immigration desk by six heavies, and carted off to a counter-terrorism suite at Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for six hours.

At that point I had done nothing more than support David. As another ex-MI5 officer I agreed that the spies needed greater oversight and accountability, but actually my arrest was because I was his girlfriend and going after me would be leverage against him. But is got worse – two days later Shayler’s two best friends and his brother were arrested on flagrantly trumped-up charges. None of us was ever charged with any crime, but we were all kept on police bail for months.

Looking back, our treatment was designed to put more pressure on him and “keep him in his box” – it was pure intimidation. Journalists and students were also threatened, harassed, and in one case charged and convicted for having the temerity to expose spy crimes disclosed by Shayler. To this day, none of the criminals in the UK intelligence agency has ever been charged or convicted.

So the threats and intimidation around the Snowden case, and the detention of Greenwald’s partner, are old, old tactics. What is new is the sheer scale of blatant intimidation, the sheer brutish force. Despite the full glare of global internet and media coverage, the US and UK spooks still think they can get away with this sort of intimidation. Will they? Or will we, the global citizenry, draw a line in the sand?

Oh, and let’s not forget the sheer hypocrisy as well – the US condemns Snowden for seeking refuge in Russia, and castigates that country for its civil rights record on certain issues. Be that as it may, the US establishment should look to the log in its own eye first – that one of its young citizens faces the death sentence or life-long incarceration for exposing (war) crimes against the global community as well as the country’s own constitution.

There is an internationally-recognised legal precedent from the Nuremburg Nazi trials after World War 2: “just following orders” is not a defence under any law, particularly when those orders lead to victimisation, war crimes and genocide.  The UK border guards, as well as the international intelligence communities and military, would do well to heed that powerful lesson from history.

So this overzealous use of a law to detain the partner of a journalist merely travelling through the UK should make us all pause for thought. The West has long inveighed against totalitarian regimes and police states. How can they not recognise what they have now become? And how long can we, as citizens, continue to turn a blind eye?

Keeping Abreast of Privacy Issues

In the wake of the Edward Snowden disclosures about endemic global surveillance, the rather threadbare old argument about “if you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” has been trotted out by many Big Brother apologists.

But it’s not about doing anything wrong, it’s about having an enshrined right to privacy – as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights agreed in 1948.  And this was enshrined in the wake of the horrors of World War 2, and for very good reason.  If you are denied privacy to read or listen, if you are denied privacy to speak or write, and if you are denied privacy about whom you meet and see, then freedom has died and totalitarianism has begun.

Those were the lessons learned from the growth of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s.  If you lose the right to privacy, you also lose the ability to push back against dictatorships, corrupt governments, and all the attendant horrors.

How quickly we forget the lessons of history: not just the rights won over the last century, but those fought and died for over centuries. We recent generations in the West have grown too bloated on ease, too financially fat and socially complacent, to fully appreciate the freedoms we are casually throwing away.

body_armourSo what sparked this mini-rant? This article I found in my Twitter stream (thanks @LossofPrivacy). It appears that a US police department in Detroit has just sent out all the traditionally vital statistics of its female officers to the entire department – weight, height and even the bra size of individual female police officers have been shared with the staff, purely because of an email gaffe.

Well people make mistakes and hit the wrong buttons. So this may not sound like much, but apparently the women in question are not happy, and rightly so. In the still macho environment of law enforcement, one can but cringe at the “joshing” that followed.

Putting aside the obvious question of whether we want our police officers to be tooled up like Robocop, this minor debacle highlights a key point of privacy. It’s not that one needs to hide one’s breasts as a woman – they are pretty much obvious for chrissakes – but does everyone need to know the specifics, or is that personal information one step too far? And as for a woman’s weight, don’t even go there…..

So these cops in Detroit, no doubt all up-standing pillars of their communities, might have learned a valuable lesson. It is not a “them and us” situation – the “them” being “terrorists”, activists, communists, liberals, Teabaggers – whatever the theme du jour happens to be.

It is about a fundamental need for privacy as human beings, as the Duchess of Cambridge also discovered last year. This is not just about height, bra size or, god forbid, one’s weight. This is about bigger issues if not bigger boobs. We all have something we want kept private, be it bank statements, bonking, or bowel movements.

However, with endemic electronic surveillance, we have already lost our privacy in our communications and in our daily routines – in London it is estimated that we are caught on CCTV more than 300 times a day just going about our daily business.

More importantly, in this era of financial, economic and political crises, we are losing our freedom to read and watch, to speak and meet, and to protest without fear of surveillance. It is the Stasi’s wet dream, realised by those unassuming chaps (and obviously the chapesses with boobs) in law enforcement, the NSA, GCHQ et al.

But it is not just the nation state level spies we have to worry about. Even if we think that we could not possibly be important enough to be on that particular radar (although Mr Snowden has made it abundantly clear that we all are), there is a burgeoning private sector of corporate intelligence companies who are only too happy to watch, infiltrate and destabilise social, media and protest groups. “Psyops” and “astro-turfing” are terrifying words for anyone interested in human rights, activism and civil liberties. But this is the new reality.

So, what can we do? Let’s remember that most law enforcement people in the varied agencies are us – they want a stable job that feels valued, they want to provide for their families, they want to do the right thing. Reach out to them, and help those who do have the courage to speak out and expose wrongdoing, be it law enforcement professionals speaking out against the failed “war on drugs” (such as those in LEAP) or intelligence whistleblowers exposing war crimes, illegal surveillance and torture.

Thomas_PaineBut also have the courage to protest and throw the tired old argument back in the faces of the security proto-tyrants. This is what the founding fathers of the USA did: they risked being hanged as traitors by the British Crown in 1776, yet they still made a stand. Using the “seditious” writings of Tom Paine, who ended up on the run from the UK, they had the courage to speak out, meet up and fight for what they believed in, and they produced a good first attempt at a workable democracy.

Unfortunately, the USA establishment has long been corrupted and subverted by corporatist interests. And unfortunately for the rest of the world, with the current geo-political power balance, this still has an impact on most of us, and provides a clear example of how the changing political landscape can shift the goal posts of “acceptable” behaviour – one day your are an activist waving a placard, the next you are potentially deemed to be a “terrorist”.

But also remember – we are all, potentially, Tom Paine. And as the endless, nebulous, and frankly largely bogus “war on terror” continues to ravage the world and our democracies, we all need to be.

In this post-PRISM world, we need to take individual responsibility to protect our privacy and ensure we have free media. At least then we can freely read, write, speak, and meet with our fellow citizens. We need this privacy to be the new resistance to the creeping totalitarianism of the global elites.

Read the seminal books of Tom Paine (while you still can), weep, and then go forth…..

With thanks to my mother for the title of this piece. It made me laugh.

OHM 2013 – interview on German TV

The German TV station came to OHM to film interviews with whistleblowers and hacktivists for a documentary about the Edward Snowden NSA disclosures.

Here’s the clip:

German TV clip on NSA from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

OHM 2013 – Geeks and Drugs

ohm2013_logoAs I have mentioned before, the Dutch geekfest Observe, Hack, Make (OHM 2013) was not just a chance for geeks to play with cool tech toys, the whole event also had a very strong political track. While there was inevitably a lot of focus on whistleblowing in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, another speaker track attracted a lot of attention: global drug policy and the failure of prohibition.

This was a track I suggested and I was pleased that three speakers were given the chance to discuss this on the main stage. While coming to the subject from radically different perspectives and experiences, the underlying message of all three was that the “war on drugs” was an abject failure that caused massive and increasing harm to the global population.

John Gilmore was first up. John made his dosh during the tech boom, and has since spent significant sums trying to reform the failed drug policies within his home country, the good ol’ US of A. Of course, there, it was always going to be an uphill battle.  The USA is the fountain head of prohibition, ramming the drug conventions of 1961, 1971, and 1988 through the United Nations by brute diplomatic force.

To this day, the US remains the key power ensuring that the UN upholds these conventions, despite the fact that the policy of prohibition has manifestly failed, despite the fact that many countries have experimented successfully with harm reduction and decriminalisation of personal use, and despite the fact that these laws are from a different era and are wildly out of date – in the 1960s HIV and AIDS had yet to emerge, and rapidly mutating “legal highs” were unknown.

And let’s not forget that the USA is the world’s biggest consumer country of drugs. It is America that drives this illegal market. And it is in America that 20 states have legalised the medicinal use of cannabis, and two states have fully legalised the use even, gasp, purely for pleasure. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

But change is afoot. Primarily, I believe, because the USA no longer needs the “war on drugs” as a pretext for invading/interfering with other countries, now it has the “war on terror”. But also because of the excellent work of research and educational civil society groups. The Beckley Foundation, set up by Amanda Feilding in 1998, is one such.

Amanda gave an excellent talk, focusing on the dual nature of Beckley’s work: policy and scientific research. Her view is that sound national and international policy cannot be developed unless it is based on evidence, research and facts. Yet the current “war on drugs” has become almost an article of faith that too many politicians are afraid to challenge.

Beckley aims to provide the research and the facts. It funds and establishes scientific research that enables leading scientists, such as Professor David Nutt in the UK, to research the potential therapeutic benefits of currently illegal drugs, and also to assess the different societal harms caused by all drugs, both licit and illicit. To date, the prohibition orthodoxy has inhibited free scientific research to the detriment of many people across the planet.

Amanda was pleased to be able to announce two new research projects just starting in the UK, into the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and LSD. Beckley has also recently commissioned a cost benefit analysis of the legalisation of (only) cannabis is the UK. The results will be formally announced in September, so for now I shall confine myself to saying that they are encouraging.

Using such research, Beckley is thus in a position to advise governments about developing fact-base policy. One of the key areas of the world investigating potentially beneficial alternatives to prohibition is Latin America, and Amanda has developed close working relationships with a number of governments across the region.

And understandably so – Latin America, as one of the key producer regions of the world, has been ravaged by the drug wars. Violent organised crime cartels have grown so wealthy and powerful that they can subvert whole countries, corrupt governments and law enforcement, and terrorise whole populations in their quest to dominate the illegal drugs trade.

In Mexico, since the war on drugs was ramped up 7 years ago, it is estimated that over 70,000 innocent people have been kidnapped, tortured and killed in drug-related violence. Many have simply been disappeared.

Finally I also did a talk at OHM as the European director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

LEAP is a unique voice in the global drug policy debate. The organisation, only 11 years old, has over 100,000 supporters and a presence in 120 countries. We consist of police officers, judges, lawyers, prison governors, intelligence personnel, and even drug czars. What unites us is a shared professional knowledge, experienced across the spectrum of drug law enforcement, that prohibition has egregiously failed.

Over the last 50 years drug use has exponentially increased, the potency of illegal drugs has increased, they are ubiquitously available, and the price of street drugs has gone through the floor. Faced with this information, how can our governments claim they are winning the “war on drugs” to create a “drug free world”? Quite the opposite – prohibition has enabled a global and exponentially growing black market.

I became aware of the drug prohibition failure while I was working for MI5. One of my postings involved investigating terrorist logistics, which meant that I had to work closely with UK Customs across the UK. This experience made me very aware that the “war” had been lost.  It also made me very aware, early on, that there was a massive overlap between the illegal drug market and terrorist funding.

The US DEA estimates that over half of the designated terrorist groups around the world gain the bulk of their funding from drugs money. So on the one hand prohibiting drugs and fighting the “war on drugs” sends the market underground and that black money provides a key revenue stream to the terrorists. On the other hand the West is also waging the “war on terror”.  What they give with one hand they take away with another.

One stark example of this is the current melt-down in Libya – country that was “gratefully” liberated by NATO two years ago. The dictator was tortured and killed, MI6 and the CIA were helping the “spontaneous” rebels. the infrastructure was ruined, and the bulk of the country is now run by bandit militias which brutalise the inhabitants pr impose hard-line Islamism on them. Many predicted this would happen, including myself.

What was not predicted was the explosion in the drug trade. Over the last decade western Africa has become one of the main transit regions between the producer countries (Latin America) and the consumer countries in Europe. It now appears that this lucrative trade has not only resulted in destabilising countries, leading to violent narco-states such as Mali and Guinea-Bissau, the trade has also become a stream of income to Al Qaeda affiliated groups in Libya. Which is bad for western security, is bad for the stability of Libya, but is also bad for the people of Libya, where there has reportedly been an explosion of drug use and rocketing infections of HIV.

There have been many successful attempts to alleviate the penalisation of drug users in many European countries – Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland spring to mind. Because of more liberal decriminalisation laws, all these countries have seen a decrease in drug use and associated crime, plus good health outcomes and the freeing up of law enforcement resources across the spectrum to go for the drug traders.

However, we in LEAP would argue that only full regulation, control and taxation of the drug market will deal with the scourge of the international drug trade. Until that happens, this global trade, estimated by even the UN at being worth between $320 billion and $500 billion per year, will only profit organised crime cartels and terrorist organisations.

The “war on drugs” has failed. Albert Einstein said that the very definition of insanity was to continue to do the same, even if it repeatedly fails, in the hope that you will eventually get a different outcome. That is what we are seeing with prohibition.

And the geek community understand this too. Of course they do, they are scientists. I was heartened by their interest and by their response. Let’s all campaign to end this insanity.

Here is a video of my talk at OHM on the subject:

LEAP – Ending the war on drugs and people (OHM 2013) from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

LEAP_logo

OHM 2013 – The Joy of Geeks

ohm2013_logoHome and recovered from the rigours of the amazing geekfest, OHM 2013.

This was a 5-day festival in the Netherlands where 3000 geeks, activists and whistleblowers gathered to have fun and also try to put the world to rights.  And this crowd, out of all activist groups, has a fighting chance. The geeks are tooled-up, tech-savvy, and increasingly politicised after all the recent assaults on the internet and wider freedoms.

These include all the anti-piracy measures (interestingly, Russia has just joined the lost war that is the anti-piracy legislation, and the Russian pirates are going to form a Pirate Church, as this will give them special protections and rights under the law). It also includes all the invidious international agreements that the US and its Euro-vassals are trying to force down the throats of reluctant populations: ACTA, PIPA, SOPA, TAFTA…. you name it, there’s a whole new anti-freedom alphabet soup out there in addition to the spook acronyms.

Not to mention all the illegal US take-downs of legitimate business websites, such as Megaupload, and the panoptic surveillance powers of the NSA and its global intelligence buddies, long suspected by many and now proven by the disclosures of the courageous Edward Snowden.

So it was lovely to see at OHM an increasing politicisation. This was partly because of all the above recent horrors, but also because the OHM organisers had pulled together a strong political and whistleblowing speaker track. The attack against digital civil liberties is inextricably linked to and reflective of the full-frontal attack on our historic real-world freedoms:  endemic surveillance, kidnapping, torture, CIA kill lists, illegal wars, drone strikes, secret courts, and many other encroaching horrors that I have written about ad nauseam. And this is just what we know about.

sinking_shipIn my view our Western democracies have been at least fatally holed, if they have not yet foundered. Which, of course, means that our violent, interventionist attempts to bring “democracy” to the developing world are derided as hypocritical at best, and violently resisted at worst.

The new front-line of this struggle is “cyber” warfare – be it the illegal aggressive attacks of such US/Israeli viruses against Iran such as Stuxnet (that is now roaming free in the wild and mutating), or the slower wars of attrition against “pirates”, hackers, Wikileaks, and the growing war on whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

Well, geeks are the new resistance and they have a fighting chance in my view. And this is why I think that they are our best hope.

SAMSUNGThis was my experience of OHM. Three thousand of the best and the brightest from around the world gathered together not just to have fun playing with bleeding-edge tech, hacking and building toys, and creating slightly surreal, if beloved, hover-pets (see right), but also who turned out in their thousands to listen to and absorb the experiences of a number of international intelligence whistleblowers. In the wake of the Edward Snowden case, this is a hot topic in these circles and there was a huge impetus to help.

We whistleblowers had a fabulous time too. One is a “natural-born geek” – Tom Drake, formerly of the NSA, who was threatened with 35 years in prison because he dared to disclose problems with his organisation. His lawyer, government lawyer-turned-whistleblower Jesselyn Radack, also spoke of her experiences. Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower who exposed the intelligence failure in the US in the run-up to 9/11 and was voted Time Person of the Year in 2002 also gave a fantastic talk called “Secrecy Kills”, and former CIA analyst and presidential “briefer”, Ray McGovern, gave the opening keynote speech, focusing on the need to speak out and preserve our rights. I finished the quintet of whistleblowers and provided the Euro-perspective.

And of course the patron saint of whistleblowers also did one of the key talks – but he had to be beamed in. Julian Assange, who was free to attend HAR, the last such event in the Netherlands four years ago, was unavoidably detained in his embassy refuge in the UK.

OHM_Great_Spook_Panel_2013

Photo by Reinoud van Leeuwen (http://reinoud.van.leeuwen.net/)

The whistleblowers all came together for one of the big sessions of OHM – the “Great Spook Panel“, moderated by the indomitable Nick Farr. The panel was basically a call to arms for the next generation. This addressed the need to stand up to protect our rights against all the egregious erosions that have occurred since 9/11.  The response was hugely enthusiastic. I hope this goes global, and the wider community follows up.

It certainly did in one way. Ray McGovern announced the establishment of the Edward Snowden Defence Fund at the end of the panel discussion, and the donations poured in for the rest of the event.

So a very successful festival. How do I make that assessment? Well, on top of all the fun, variety of talks and networking, the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD (an unfortunate-sounding name to most English speakers), requested a platform at the event after the Great Spook Panel was announced in the programme.

Such an active and open response shows a degree of push-back against a perceived “threat”. No doubt the organisation wanted to inject the establishment anti-venom before the truth-tellers had their say. Anyway, on the grounds that most whistleblowers are generally denied a mainstream media platform and/or are smeared, the AIVD was prohibited the stage.

Of course, the AIVD would have been very welcome to buy a ticket like normal humans or pay the corporate rate to attend to show support for the community – its officers might have learned something….

UK spy agency GCHQ prostitutes itself to NSA

From the middle of a Dutch field at the OHM 2013 festival, I managed to do this interview for RT about GCHQ taking large sums of money from its US equivalent, the NSA:

UK spy agency GCHQ prostitues itself to NSA in corrupt relationship (HD) from Annie Machon on Vimeo.