My RTTV interview today about Libya, torture, and UK double-dealing:
My RTTV interview today about Libya, torture, and UK double-dealing:
It was widely reported today that a number of well-respected British lawyers and civil liberties organisations are questioning the integrity of the much-trumpeted inquiry into UK spy complicity in torture.
And about time too. One hopes this is all part of a wider strategy, not merely a defensive reaction to the usual power play on the part of the British establishment. After all, it has been apparent from the start that the whole inquiry would be questionable when it was announced that Sir Peter Gibson would be chairing the inquiry.
Gibson has certain form. He was until recently the Intelligence Services Commissioner — the very person who for the last five years has been invited into MI5, MI6 and GCHQ for cosy annual chats with carefully selected intelligence officers (ie those who won’t rock the boat), to report back to the government that democratic oversight was working wonderfully, and it was all A‑OK in the spy organisations.
After these years of happy fraternising, when his name was put forward to investigate potential criminal complicity in torture on the part of the spies, he did the publicly decent thing and resigned as Commissioner to take up the post of chair of the Torture Inquiry.
Well, we know the establishment always like a safe pair of hands.… and this safety has also been pretty much guaranteed by law for the last six years.
Ever since the Inquiries Act 2005 was pushed through as law, with relatively little press awareness or parliamentary opposition, government departments and intelligence agencies have pretty much been able to call the shots when it comes to the scope of supposedly independent inquiries.
Interestingly, Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary who now chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, has also weighed in to the debate. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he stated:
“I cannot recollect an inquiry that’s been proposed to be so open as we’re having in this particular case. When was the last time the head of MI5 and the head of MI6 – the prime minister has made quite clear – can be summoned to this inquiry and be required to give evidence?”
This from the senior politician who has always denied that he was officially briefed about the illegal assassination plot against Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in 1996; this from the man who is now calling for the arming of the very same extremists to topple Gaddafi in the ongoing shambles that is the Libyan War; and this from the man who is also loudly calling for an extension of the ISC’s legal powers so that it can demand access to witnesses and documents from the spy organisations.
No doubt my head will stop spinning in a day or two.…
The Guardian’s spook commentator extraordinaire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has reported that the current chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in the UK Parliament, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants the committee to finally grow a pair. Well, those weren’t quite the words used in the Grauny, but they certainly capture the gist.
If Rifkind’s stated intentions are realised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, meaningful and democratic oversight for the first time in the 100-year history of the three key UK spy agencies — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to mention the defence intelligence staff, the joint intelligence committee and the new National Security Council .
For many long years I have been discussing the woeful lack of real democratic oversight for the UK spies. The privately-convened ISC, the democratic fig-leaf established under the aegis of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act (ISA), is appointed by and answerable only to the Prime Minister, with a remit only to look at finance, policy and administration, and without the power to demand documents or to cross-examine witnesses under oath. Its annual reports are always heavily redacted and have become a joke amongst journalists.
When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apoplectic that Parliament should have any form of oversight whatsoever. From their perspective, it was bad enough at that point that the agencies were put on a legal footing for the first time. Spy thinking then ran pretty much along the lines of “why on earth should they be answerable to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians, who were leaky as hell and gossiped to journalists all the time”?
So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994. They really had nothing to worry about. I remember, I was there at the time.
This has been borne out over the last 17 years. Time and again the spies have got away with telling barefaced lies to the ISC. Or at the very least being “economical with the truth”, to use one of their favourite phrases. Former DG of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, has publicly said that “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the committee [ISC] early on…”. Not to mention the outright lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whistleblower testimony, torture, and counter-terrorism measures.
But these new developments became yet more fascinating to me when I read that the current Chair of the ISC proposing these reforms is no less than Sir Malcolm Rifkind, crusty Tory grandee and former Conservative Foreign Minister in the mid-1990s.
For Sir Malcolm was the Foreign Secretary notionally in charge of MI6 when the intelligence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gaddafi Plot when MI6 funded a rag-tag group of Islamic extremist terrorists in Libya to assassinate the Colonel, the key disclosure made by David Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.
Obviously this assassination attempt was highly reckless in a very volatile part of the world; obviously it was unethical, and many innocent people were murdered in the attack; and obviously it failed, leading to the shaky rapprochement with Gaddafi over the last decade. Yet now we are seeing the use of similar tactics in the current Libyan war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our government openly and shamelessly calling for régime change.
But most importantly from a legal perspective, in 1996 the “Gaddafi Plot” MI6 apparently did not apply for prior written permission from Rifkind — which they were legally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act (the very act that also established the ISC). This is the fabled, but real, “licence to kill” — Section 7 of the ISA — which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illegal acts committed abroad, if they have the requisite ministerial permission.
At the time, Rifkind publicly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanction the plot when the BBC Panorama programme conducted a special investigation, screened on 7 August 1997. Rifkind’s statement was also reported widely in the press over the years, including this New Statesman article by Mark Thomas in 2002.
That said, Rifkind himself wrote earlier this year in The Telegraph that help should now be given to the Benghazi “rebels” — many of whom appear to be members of the very same group that tried to assassinate Gaddafi with MI6’s help in 1996 — up to and including the provision of arms. Rifkind’s view of the legalities now appear to be somewhat more flexible, whatever his stated position was back in the 90s.
Of course, then he was notionally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any political fall-out. Now he can relax into the role of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”. Such a relief.
I shall be watching developments around Rifkind’s proposed reforms with interest.
UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, reportedly made the startling statement recently that the military intervention in Libya “unlike Iraq, is necessary, legal and right”.
Would it not be wonderful if he could take the next logical step towards joined-up thinking and consider sending our esteemed Middle East Peace Envoy, a certain Mr T Blair, over for a spot of porridge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague? After all, Cameron has now clearly implied that the Iraq war was “unnecessary, illegal and wrong”.….
But back to Libya. With the ongoing crisis — now war — much is being written about how the previous UK government collaborated with the Gaddafi régime in the last decade — while tacitly glossing over the last year of Coalition government where, no doubt, similar levels of coöperation and back-slapping and money-grubbing were going on at the highest levels to ensure the continuing flow of oil contracts to the UK.
But, yes, we should be dissecting the Labour/Gaddafi power balance. Gaddafi had New Labour over the proverbial (oil) barrel from the late 1990s, when MI5 whistleblower David Shayler exposed the failed and illegal MI6 assassination plot against Colonel Gaddafi, using as fall-guys a rag-tag group of Islamic extremists. The newly-elected Labour government’s knee-jerk response at the time was to believe the spook’s denials and cover-up for them. Perhaps not so surprising, as the government ministers of the day were uncomfortably aware that the spies held files on them. But this craven response did leave the government position exposed, as Gaddafi well knew.
The CIA was fully cognisant of this failed plot at the time, as were the French intelligence services. The Gaddafi Plot is once again being referenced in the media, including the Telegraph, and a recent edition of the Huffington Post. The details are still relevant, as it appears that our enterprising spooks are yet again reaching out to a rag-tag group of rebels — primarily Islamists and the Senussi royalists based around Benghazi.
The lessons of the reckless and ill-thought out Gaddafi Plot were brushed under the carpet, so history may yet again be doomed to repeat itself. Yes, Gaddafi has been one of the biggest backers of terrorism ever, and yes he has brutalised parts of his own population, but if he were deposed how can the West be sure that those stepping into the power vacuum would not be even more dangerous?
The Libyan government continued to use the 1996 MI6 assassination plot as leverage in its negotiations with the New Labour government right up until (publicly at least) 2009. Musa Kousa, the current Foreign Minister, played a key role throughout. For many years Kousa was the head of the Libyan External Security Organsiation and was widely seen as the chief architect of international Libyan-backed terrorism against the USA, the UK and France.
Another apparent example of this moral blackmail caught my eye recently — this report in the Daily Mail. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was afforded MI6-backed protection when he was finally allowed into the UK in September 2002 to study at the LSE.
The timing was particularly interesting, as only months earlier Saif had won a libel case against the UK’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper. A grovelling apology was made by the newspaper, but Saif refrained from asking for “exemplary damages” — which he would almost certainly have won. The resulting pay-off for this restraint appears to be that a mere five months later he was welcomed into the UK with MI6-facilitated protection.
Saif’s relations with the UK had not always been so rosy. As background to this case, in 1995 the Sunday Telegraph had fallen hook, line and sinker for a MI6 classic propaganda operation. As The Guardian reported, the secretive MI6 media manipulation section, Information Operations, (I/Ops), had successfully spun a fake story to hapless spook hack, Con Coughlin, that Gaddafi Junior was involved in currency fraud. This story was fake, but the paper trail it produced was used by the spies as a pretext to prevent Saif from entering the UK at the time.
By 2002 this was all old history, of course. Saif was welcomed to the UK, officially to study for his MA and PhD at the London School of Economics (and showing his gratitude to that august institution with a hefty donation of £1.5 million — it makes the new tuition fees for UK students seem better value for money), and unofficially to chum up to various Establishment enablers to end Libya’s pariah status, open up lucrative trade channels, and get the SAS to train up Libya’s special forces.
The UK military must be just loving that now.….
So I get the feeling that the UK government has over the last decade indeed “danced with the devil”. After decades of viewing Libya and Colonel Gaddafi as a Priority One JIC intelligence target, the UK government fell over itself to appease the Gaddafi régime in the wake of the bungled assassination attempt in 1996 and the libelling of his son. These were the sticks Gaddafi used; the carrots were undoubtedly the Saif/MI6-facilitated oil contracts.
Of course, all this is now pretty much a moot point, following Dave Cameron’s “necessary, legal and right” military intervention. If the wily old Colonel manages to hang on grimly to some semblence of power (and he has an impressive track-record of surviving against the odds), then I doubt if he’ll be happy to coöperate with British oil companies in the future. At the very least.
If Gaddafi is deposed, who can realistically predict the intentions and capabilities of those who will fill the power vacuum? We should have learnt from Afghanistan and Iraq: my enemy’s enemy is my friend — until he becomes my enemy again.….
Here is an interview I did today for RRTV about the evolving war in Libya:
As I’ve mentioned before, the former heads of UK intelligence agencies have a charming habit of speaking out in support of the rule of law, civil liberties, proportionality and plain common sense — but usually only after they have retired.
Perhaps at their leaving parties their consciences are extracted from the security safe, dusted off and given back — along with the gold watch?
Even then, post-retirement, they might try to thrice-deny potentially world-changing information, as Sir Richard Dearlove did when questioned by the fearless and fearsomely bright Silkie Carlo about the leaked Downing Street Memo at his recent speech at the Cambridge Union. (The links are in two parts, as the film had to be mirrored on Youtube — Dearlove claimed copyright on the orginal Love Police film and had it taken down.)
And “out of context”, my left foot — he could potentially have saved millions of lives in the Middle East if he’d gone public with his considered professional opinion about the intelligence facts being fitted around a preconceived war policy in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if these esteemed servants of the state, replete with respect, status and honours, could actually take a stand while they are still in a position to influence world events?
My former boss, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, has been unusually vociferous since her retirement in 2007 and elevation to the peerage. She used her maiden speech to the House of Lords to object to the proposed plans to increase police detention of terrorist suspects without charge from 28 to 42 days; she recently suggested that the “war on terror” is unwinnable and that we should, if possible, negotiate with “Al Qaeda” (well, it worked with the Provisional IRA); and that the “war on drugs” had been lost and the UK should treat recreational drug use as a health rather than a criminal issue. She steals all my best lines.…
But credit where credit is due. Despite the fact that she used the full power of the British state to pursue terrorist suspects up until 2007 and investigate drug barons in the 1990s, she did apparently try to make a stand while en poste in the run-up to the Iraq War. Last year she gave evidence to the Chilcot Enquiry, stating that she had officially briefed the government that an invasion of Iraq would increase the terrorist threat to the UK.
So it’s obvious that once a UK Prime Minister has come over all Churchillian he tends to ignore the counsel of his chief spooks, as we’ve seen with both the Downing Street Memo the Chilcot Enquiry.
With that in mind, I’ve read with interest the recent press reports that the UK authorities apparently knew about Colonel Gaddafi retaining stockpiles of mustard gas and sarin (despite the fact that the world was assured in 2004 that it was his renunciation of WMDs that allowed him back into the international diplomatic fold) .
So the key question is surely: is this another erroneous “45 minutes from attack” moment, with Gaddafi’s alleged stockpiles of WMD a perfect scaremongering pretext to push for a full-on régime change in Libya; or is this genuine, and we were all lied to about Gaddafi’s destruction of his WMD stockpiles for economic advantage and fat, juicy oil contracts?
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article quoting the concern of “government insiders” about Gaddafi’s potential future terrorism threat against the West, up to and including WMDs, should he cling on to power. Well, yes, it would hardly be surprising if he were now to be as mad as a wasp with his ex-new best buddies. Despite the sordid rapprochement in the last decade, he has been for much of his life an inveterate enemy of the West and sponsor of worldwide terrorism.
Rather than waiting for his “K” and his retirement, would it not be wonderful if the current head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, could extract his conscience from that dusty security safe and make a useful and informed statement to shed some light on the mess that the Libyan war is rapidly becoming? He could potentially change the course of world history and save untold lives.
Now I’m not a huge follower of US political theatrics. Give it a few years and the US of A will probably exit from the world stage pursued by a bear (or panda). So why waste your time on a dying beast? All you can do is try to avoid the death throes as best you can.
But this did piqué my interest, purely from the Hollywood-blockbuster schlock value. The new Chair of the US Homeland Security Committee, Republican Congressman for New York Peter King, has opened a hearing called “The Extent of Radicalization (with a “z”) in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response.”
Here is the Download Full_text and here’s the video of King’s opening statement:
Now isn’t it wonderful that esteemed politician Peter King has woken up to the dangers of “the enemy within” — or not? Over the last last few months he has flagrantly displayed his profound ignorance vis a vis the concept of terrorism. Last December he called for the designation of Wikileaks, the high-tech conduit extraordinaire for public-spirited whistleblowers around the world, as a “terrorist organistion”.
And this from a politician who is reported to be a life-long supporter of the political wing of the Provisional IRA — another religious minority group that fought for its self-proclaimed ideals — and was for decades the “enemy within” the UK.
In fact, until 9/11 the US Irish community was by far the biggest funder of PIRA terrorism for decades — so don’t believe everything that is written about Colonel Gaddafi of Libya.
I suppose it still holds true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and Rep Peter King is clearly adhering to that point of view.….
Looking at the above video, I can’t get out of my head that it’s a bit like putting the fictional organised crime boss, Tony Soprano, in charge of a government committee investigating organised crime.
But it gets worse. King even mentions the dread phrase “despite what passes for conventional wisdom in certain circles, there is nothing radical or un-American in holding these hearings”. Wasn’t that also what a certain Senator Joe McCarthy said in the 1950s about the Communist witchhunts?
Such moronic statements would potentially be amusing — if it were not for the fact that Peter Chair is the King of the Homeland Security Committee of the world’s dying and desperate super-power, the USA.
Oops, silly me, I muddled the words.….
But sadly he is, and no doubt the whole world will feel the repercussions of this. The morphing of the fictional Tony Soprano and paranoid Joe Kennedy has spawned a hellish brat — let’s call him Emmanuel Goldstein, for ease of reference.
Here is an interview I did for RTTV on 3 March 2011 about the possibility of Western intervention in the unfolding Libyan crisis:
Interestingly, a radio recording of the Dutch “rescue” mission I mentioned has appeared on the internet. It appears that the pilots were less than honest about their flight plans and intentions, saying that they were heading to their ship south of Malta rather than back towards Tripoli.… where they are eventually caught.
Also, do have a read of this excellent article by Seamus Milne of The Guardian about ramifications of possible Western intervention.
That said, it looks like this viewpoint is being ignored. The Daily Mail reported today that MI6 officers and SAS soldiers are massing in the East of Libya to assist the rebels. Well, at least they’re doing it openly now, unlike the illegal and failed Gaddafi Plot of 1996.
So I’m a bit puzzled here. UK Prime Minister Dave Cameron is quoted in today’s Daily Telegraph as saying that:
“It is not acceptable to have a situation where Colonel Gaddafi can be murdering his own people using aeroplanes and helicopter gunships and the like and we have to plan now to make sure if that happens we can do something to stop it.”
But do his American best buddies share that, umm, humane view? First of all they have the CIA assassination list which includes the names of US citizens (ie its own people); then those same “best buddies” may well resort to assassinating Wikileaks’s Julian Assange, probably the most high profile dissident in international and diplomatic circles at the moment; plus they are already waging remote drone warfare on many hapless Middle Eastern countries — Yeman, Afghanistan, Pakistan.….
Oh, and now the UK government seems poised to launch covert spy drones into the skies of Britain. Even the UK’s most right-wing mainstream newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, expressed concern about this today. Apparently these drones have yet to be weaponised.….
It’s a slippery slope down to an Orwellian nightmare.
My interview for RTTV about the current Libyan crisis:
Olivia Crellin interrogates Annie Machon on her life after MI5
by Olivia Crellin
Thursday 3rd February 2011
Annie Machon, former MI5 agent, is the image of glamour and guts. Her blonde hair, of the bombshell variety, frames a face that, far from being that of the reserved and stealthy spook, exudes energy, enthusiasm, and openness.
Unlike her former partner, the whistleblower David Shayler, Machon seems to have emerged relatively unscathed from the years immediately following the couple’s attempts to reveal serious MI5 blunders in 1996.
Now working as a self-professed “author, media pundit, journalist, campaigner and prominent public speaker”, she has made a “new way of life” out of selling herself, her past, and her story. And she’s doing a good job.
Machon, who studied Classics at Cambridge, is the most recent in a long line of famous spies to have emerged from the University – most notably the Cambridge Spies who defected to the Russians during the Cold War.
Best known for her whistle-blowing on issues such as MI5’s alleged involvement in the attempted assassination on Gaddafi, Machon is an oft-consulted expert on current affairs topics such as Wikileaks, the infiltration of activist groups, and the 9/11 Truth Movement, critiquing what she sees as contemporary society’s descent into a “police state”.
Commenting on the “very British mess” that is the current UK Intelligence Services, Machon’s answers to my questions blend personal anecdote with hard-hitting assertions. She sounds convincing. Despite no longer having any insider information, she still has plenty to say.
Recruited during the “marginally golden ethical era” of the 1990s, Machon’s experience of MI5 was nevertheless riddled with antiquation, confusion, insularity and suffocation.
Drawing attention to MI5 and MI6’s “culture of just-follow-orders”, an ethos that former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington also acknowledged, Machon believes that the UK Intelligence Services have, for a long time, been their own worst enemy.
Entrenched in unnecessary laws, a “hangover” from the organisation’s counter-espionage origins, Machon states that until the spooks “open up a little bit to constructive criticism from the other side, so that [MI5] can get a bit of fresh air, they’re going to spiral down into… torture and things.”
While Machon asserts that there was no use of torture in her time with the agency – it was considered “counter-productive” and “unethical” – she did hear some horror stories from the older boys’ experience in Northern Ireland including one case concerning an agent, codenamed Steak Knife, who was permitted to torture and even kill his fellow intelligence officers in order to keep his cover in the “Nutting Squad” of the IRA – “A sick James Bond gotten out of hand.”
Machon refers to these stories as “a sort of petri dish of the abuses that we are seeing now with the Muslim community”. Just as the trend to target one group of society returns, the use of torture, as experienced in Ireland, comes full circle. “It makes me shiver,” Machon tells me, “that people who were perhaps my friends, idealistic twenty-somethings when I was an officer, who I might’ve had drinks with, had dinner with, whatever, might be those people now.”
While there seems to be a “democratic will” to get rid of “some of the more Draconian laws from under the last government”, Machon believes that instances such as Mark Kennedy’s undercover infiltration of an activist group demands society to take a closer look at the ways in which we protect national security. “Once you start eroding someone’s civil liberties on one front, it’ll cascade. That’s how Germany found itself in a Fascist state in the 1930s,” the former-spy asserts. “They didn’t wake up one morning and Hitler was in power. It’s a very slippery slope.” This is why Machon, above all other issues, is calling for an “adult debate” about the workings of Secret Intelligence in a “mature democracy”.
One organization that Machon sees as contributing to this debate is Wikileaks. Machon praised this form of new media, calling it “fantastic” as a “high-tech conduit to enable whistleblowers” in contrast to the “self-censorship and fear” of the mainstream press, which blocks the flow of such information to the public.
Machon advised students at the Cambridge Union to find alternative sources of information for their news, citing countries’ deceptive use of false-flag terrorism. “I’m not saying that every major terrorist atrocity might be a dirty trick, but you have to keep that possibility in the back of your mind,” she warned.
“It’s all about a sort of breach of trust,” Machon concludes, which is “corrosive for a democracy.” Whether it’s an issue like 9/11, or the bailing out of the banks or the war in Iraq, Machon asserts that the erosion of civil liberties is finally forcing society to “become democratically engaged again, which cannot be bad.”
In many ways Annie Machon is serving her country as stealthily and determinedly as if she had never left MI5. Taking the “same sort of fundamental drive to try and make a difference, to try and change things for the better,” into this new arena of her work, she hands me a red-and-black business card with her shades-toting self on it and the phrase “Using Our Intelligence” emblazoned on the front.
“There’s always the debate,” she tells me cryptically, “is it better to be inside the tent pissing out or outside the tent pissing in?”
Moving swiftly past the prurient, thigh-rubbing glee that most of the old media seems to be exhibiting over the alleged details of Julian Assange’s love life, let’s re-focus on the heart of the Wikileaks disclosures, and most importantly the aims underpinning them: transparency, justice, and an informed citizenry living within fully-functioning democracies. Such quaint notions.
In the media maelstrom of the Cablegate disclosures, and the resulting infantile and thuggish threats of the American political class, is easy to lose sight of the fact that many of the leaked documents refer to scandals, corruption and cover-ups in a range of countries, not just the good old US of A.
One document that recently caught my attention related to the notorious murder twenty-one years ago of civil rights activist, Pat Finucane, in Northern Ireland. Finucane was a well-known lawyer who was shot and killed in front of his wife and three small children. There has long been speculation that he was targeted by Protestant terrorist groups, in collusion with the NI secret police, the army’s notorious and now-disbanded Forces Research Unit (FRU), and/or MI5.
Well, over a decade ago former top plod, Lord (John) Stevens, began an inquiry that did indeed establish such state collusion, despite having his inquiry offices burnt out in the process by person/s allegedly unknown half-way through the investigation. Stevens fought on, producing a damning report in 2003 confirming the notion of state collusion with Irish Loyalist terrorist activities, but never did clarify exactly what had happened to poor Pat Finucane.
However, Finucane’s traumatised family has never stopped demanding justice. The recent disclosure shines a light on some of the back-room deals around this scandal, and for that I’m sure many people thank Wikileaks.
The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland — such a quintessentially British understatement, in any other country it would have been called a civil war — were deceptive, murky and vicious on both sides. “Collusion” is an elastic word that stretches beyond the strict notion of the state. It is well-known that the US organistion, NORAID, supported by many Americans claiming Irish ancestry, was a major fundraising channel for, um, Sinn Féin, the political wing of the Provisional IRA, from the 1970s onwards.
Such networks provided even more support than Colonel Gaddafi of Libya with his arms shipments, and the cash well only dried up post‑9/11. As you can see in this recent article in the The Telegraph, even the incoming Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, New York Congressman Peter King (who ironically called for the designation of Wkileaks as a “foreign terrorist organisation”) appears to have been a life long supporter of Sinn Féin.
With this in the back of our minds, it appears that Dublin and Washington kept pushing for a full inquiry into Finucane’s murder — and in 2005 it looked like MI5 would finally co-operate.
However, the devil was in the detail. Coincidentally, 2005 was the year that the UK government rushed through a new law, the Inquiries Act, which scandalously allowed any department under investigation (in this case MI5) to dictate the terms and scope of the inquiry.
Collusion by any state in the unlawful arrest, torture, and extrajudicial murder of people — whether its own citizens or others — is state terrorism. Let’s not mince our words here. Amnesty International provides a clear definition of this concept.
As the The Guardian article about Finucane so succintly puts it:
“When a state sanctions the killing of citizens, in particular citizens who are lawyers, it puts the rule of law and democracy in jeopardy. And when a state enlists auxiliary assassins, it cedes its monopoly over state secrets: it may feel omnipotent, but it is also vulnerable to disclosure.”
Indeed. Northern Ireland was like a Petri dish of human rights abuses: torture, Diplock courts (aka military tribunals), kidnappings, curfews, shoot-to-kill, informers, and state collusion in assassinations.
The infection has now spread. These are precisely the tactics currently used by the US, the UK and their “auxiliary assassins” across great swathes of the Middle East. Perhaps this explains why our nation states have been outflanked and have ceded their monopoly over secrets.
Will justice ever be done? In the past I would have said, sadly, that would be highly unlikely. However, courageous organisations like Wikileaks and its ilk are improving the odds.
On 6 December I appeared on RTTV’s CrossTalk discussion programme alongside whistleblowing UK ex-diplomat Carne Ross, to talk about the implications of Wikileaks:
For the first time in 100 years “C”, the head of the UK foreign intelligence service SIS (commonly known as MI6) has gone public.
Former career diplomat Sir John Sawers (he of Speedo fame) yesterday made a speech to the UK Society of Editors in what appeared to be a professionally diplomatic rear-guard action in response to a number of hot media topics at the moment.
Choosing both his audience wisely and his words carefully, he hit on three key areas:
Torture: Legal cases are currently going through UK courts on behalf of British victims of torture, in which MI5 and MI6 intelligence officers are alleged to have been complicit. The Metropolitan Police are currently investigating a number of cases. Over the last week, a British military training manual on “enhanced” interrogation techniques has also been made public. However, Sawers unblushingly states that MI6 abides by UK and international law and would never get involved, even tangentially, in torture cases. In fact, he goes on to assert that the UK intelligence agencies are training the rest of the world in human rights in this regard.
Whistleblowing: In the week following the latest Wikileaks coup — the Iraq War Diaries, comprising nearly 400,000 documents detailing the everyday horror of life in occupied Iraq, including war crimes such as murder, rape and torture committed by both US and UK forces — Sawers states that secrecy is not a dirty word: the intelligence agencies need to have the confidence that whistleblowers will not emerge to in order to guard agent and staff identities, as well as maintaining the confidence of their international intelligence partners that their (dirty?) secrets will remain, um, secret. One presumes he is advocating against the exposure of war crimes and justice for the victims.
This, one also presumes, is the justification for US politicians who propose cyber-attacks against Wikileaks and the declaration by some US political insiders that Julian Assange, spokesman of the organisation, should be treated as an unlawfully designated “unlawful combatant”, subject to the full rigour of extra-judicial US power, up to and including assassination.
Spurious media claims of unverified “damage” are the hoary old chestnuts always dragged out in whistleblower cases. After Wikileaks released its Afghan War Blog in July, government and intelligence commentators made apocalyptic predictions that the leak had put military and agent lives at risk. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has since gone on the record to admit that this was simply not true.
During the Shayler whistleblowing case a decade ago, the government repeatedly tried to assert that agent lives had been put at risk, and yet the formal judgement at the end of his trial stated that this was absolutely not the case. And again, with the recent Wikileaks Iraq War Blog, government sources are using the same old mantra. When will they realise that they can only cry wolf so many times and get away with it? And when will the journalists regurgitating this spin wake up to the fact they are being played?
Accountability: Sawers goes on to describe the mechanisms of accountability, such as they are. He accurately states, as I have previously described ad nauseam, that under the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, he is notionally responsible to his political “master”, the Foreign Secretary, who has to clear in advance any legally dubious foreign operations (up to and including murder – the fabled “licence to kill” is not fiction, as you can see here).
The 1994 ISA also established the Prime Minister’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) in Parliament, which many commentators seem to believe offers meaningful oversight of the spies. However, as I have detailed before, this is a mere fig leaf to real accountability: the ISC can only investigate issues of policy, finance and administration of the spy agencies. Disclosures relating to crime, operational incompetence or involvement in torture fall outside its remit.
But what happens if intelligence officers decide to operate beyond this framework? How would ministers or the ISC ever know? Other spy masters have successfully lied to their political masters in the past, after all.
Sir John has the gall to say that, if an operation is not cleared by the Foreign Secretary, it does not proceed. But what about the Gadaffi Plot way back in 1996, when MI6 was sponsoring a group of Islamic extremist terrorists in Libya to try to assassinate Colonel Gadaffi without, it has been asserted, the prior written approval of the then-Foreign secretary, Tory politician Malcom Rifkind? This was reported extensively, including in this article by Mark Thomas in the New Statesman. What happens if rogue MI6 officers blithely side-step this notional accountability — because they can, because they know they will get away with it — because they have in the past?
In the interests of justice, UK and international law, and accountability, perhaps a new Conservative/Coalition government should now reassess its approach to intelligence whistleblowers generally, and re-examine this specific disclosure about Libya, which has been backed up by international intelligence sources, both US and French, in order to achieve some sort of closure for the innocent victims in Libya of this MI6-funded terrorist attack? And it is finally time to hold the perpetrators to account — PT16, Richard Bartlett, and PT16B, David Watson, who were the senior officers in MI6 responsible for the murder plot.
As civilised countries, we need to rethink our approach to the issue of whistleblowing. Lies, spin, prosecutions and thuggish threats of assassination are beneath us as societies that notionally adhere to the principles of democracy. If we can only realistically hope that the actions of our governments, military forces, and intelligence agencies are transparent and accountable via whistleblowers, then we need to ensure that these people are legally protected and that their voices are heard clearly.