Karma Police

As I type this I am listening to one of my all-time favourite albums, Radiohead’s seminal “OK, Computer”, that was released in spring 1997. The first time I heard it I was spellbound by its edginess, complexity, experimentalism and political overtones. My partner at the time, David Shayler, took longer to get it. Self-admittedly tone deaf, he never understood what he laughingly called the “music conspiracy” where people just “got” a new album and played it to death.

ST_Spies_on_the_RunHis opinion changed drastically over the summer of ’97 after we had blown the whistle on a series of crimes committed by the UK’s spy agencies. As a result of our actions – the first reports appeared in the British media on 24 July 1997 – we had fled the country and gone on the run around Europe for a month. At the end of this surreal backpacking holiday I returned to the UK to face arrest, pack up our ransacked home, and try to comfort our traumatised families who had known nothing of our whistleblowing plans.

“OK, Computer” was the soundtrack to that month spent on the run across the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain. Taking random trains, moving from hotel to hotel, and using false names, our lives were dislocated and unreal. So in each hotel room we tried to recreate a sense of homeliness – some candles, a bottle of wine, natch, and some music. In the two small bags, into which I had packed the essentials for our unknown future life, I had managed to squeeze in my portable CD player (remember those?), tiny speakers and a few cherished CDs. Such are the priorities of youth.

The joy of Radiohead broke upon David during that month – particularly the track “Exit Music (for a Film)”, which encapsulated our feelings as we fled the UK together. Once we were holed up in a primitive French farmhouse for the year after our month on the run, this was the album that we listened to last thing at night, holding onto each other tightly to ward off the cold and fear. Revelling in the music, we also drew strength from the dissident tone of the lyrics.

So it was with some mirthful incredulity that I yesterday read on The Intercept that GCHQ named one of its most iniquitous programmes after one of the classic songs from the album – “Karma Police”.

In case you missed this, the basic premise of GCHQ was to develop a system that could snoop on all our web searches and thereby build up a profile of each of our lives online – our interests, our peccadilloes, our politics, our beliefs. The programme was developed between 2007 and 2008 and was deemed functional in 2009. Who knows what information GCHQ has sucked up about you, me, everyone, since then?

As I have said many times over the years since Snowden and who knows how many others began to expose the out-of-control spy agencies, this is disproportionate in soi-dissent democracies. It is certainly not lawful by any stretch of the imagination. UK governmental warrants – which are supposed to regulate and if necessary circumscribe the activities of the spy snoopers – have repeatedly been egregiously abused.

They are supposed to make a case for targeted surveillance of people suspected of being a threat to the UK’s national security or economic well-being. The warrants, blindly signed by the Home or Foreign Secretary, are not designed to authorise the industrial interception of everyone’s communications. This is a crime, plain and simple, and someone should be held to account.

Talking of crimes, after a month on the run with David, I returned (as I had always planned to do) to the UK. I knew that I would be arrested, purely on the grounds that I had been an MI5 officer and was David Shayler’s girlfriend and had supported his whistleblowing activities. In fact my lawyer, John Wadham who was the head of the UK’s civil liberties union, Liberty, had negotiated with the police for me return to the UK and hand myself into the police for questioning. He flew out to Barcelona to accompany me back to the UK almost exactly eighteen years ago today.

Annie_arrestDespite the pre-agreements, I was arrested at the immigration desk at Gatwick airport by six burly Special Branch police officers and then driven by them up to the counter-terrorism interview room in Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for the maximum six hours before being released with no charge.

The music playing on the radio during this drive from the airport to my cell? Radiohead’s “Karma Police”.

One can but hope that karma will come into play. But perhaps the ending of “Exit Music…”  is currently more pertinent – we hope that you choke, that you choke…..

After all, the spies do seem to be choking on an overload of hoovered-up intelligence – pretty much every “ISIS-inspired” attack in the west over the last couple of years has reportedly been carried out by people who have long been on the radar of the spies.  Too much information can indeed be bad for our security, our privacy and our safety.

Exile – ExBerliner Article

My most recent article for the ExBerliner magazine:

What is exile? Other than a term much used and abused by many new expats arriving in Berlin, dictionary definitions point towards someone who is kept away from their home country for political reasons, either by regal decree in the past or now more probably self-imposed. But there are many other ways to feel exiled – from mainstream society, from your family, faith, profession, politics, and Berlin is now regarded as a haven.

However, let’s focus on the classic definition and a noble tradition. Every country, no matter how apparently enlightened, can become a tyrant to its own citizens if they challenge abuses of power. Voltaire was exiled in England for three years and soon after Tom Paine, a former excise man facing charges for seditious libel, sought refuge in France. More recent famous exiles include David Shayler, the MI5 whistleblower of the 1990s who followed in Paine’s footsteps pretty much for the same fundamental reasons, yet Alexander Litvinenko, the KBG whistleblower of the same era, ironically found safe haven in exile in the UK.

So, being an exile effectively means that you have angered the power structures of your home country to such an extent that other countries feel compelled to give you refuge, partly for legal or principled reasons, but also for political expediency. The current most famous exile in the world is, of course, Edward Snowden, stranded by chance in Russia en route to political asylum in Ecuador.

What does the act of fleeing into exile actually feel like? It is a wild leap into an unknown and precarious future, with great risk and few foreseeable rewards. At the same time, as you leave the shores of the persecuting country, evading the authorities, avoiding arrest and going on the run, there is an exhilarating, intense feeling of freedom – a sense that the die has very much been cast. Your old way of life is irrevocably at an end and the future is a blank slate on which you can write anything.

After Shayler and I fled to France in 1997, for the first year of the three we lived in exile we hid in a remote French farmhouse just north of Limoges – the nearest village was 2 kilometres away, and the nearest town a distant thirty. We lived in constant dread of that knock on the door and the ensuing arrest. And that, indeed, eventually did catch up with him.

As a result, for Shayler it meant the world grew increasingly small, increasingly confined. Initially, when we went on the run, we were free to roam across Europe – anywhere but the UK. Then, after the French courts refused to extradite him to Britain in 1998 to face trial for a breach of the draconian UK Official Secrets Act, France became the only place he could live freely. If he had then traveled to any other European country, the British would have again attempted to extradite him, probably successfully, so he was trapped.

However, there are worse places than France in which to find yourself stranded. As well as being one of the most beautiful and varied countries in the world it felt particularly poignant to end up exiled in Paris for a further two years.

It was also conveniently close to the UK, so friends, family, supporters and journalists could visit us regularly and bring Shayler supplies of such vital British staples as bacon and HP source. But he still missed the simple pleasures in life, such as being free to watch his beloved football team, or being able to watch the crappy late night comedy shows that the British endlessly churn out. Despite these small lacks, I shall always remember those years in France fondly, as a place of greater safety, a literal haven from persecution.

Of course, all this was in the era before the standardised European Arrest warrant, when national sovereignty and national laws actually counted for something. Finding a secure place of exile now would be almost an impossibility in Europe if you home country really wanted to prosecute you.

Many Western expats now talk of being “exiled in Berlin”, and they may indeed be self-exiled in search of a more sympatico life style, a buzzy group of like-minded peers, work opportunities or whatever. But until they have felt the full force of an extradition warrant, before the fuzz has actually felt their collars, this is realistically exile as a lifestyle choice, rather than exile as a desperate political necessity or, in Edward Snowden’s case, a potentially existential requirement.