My recent interview about the German domestic spy agency, the BfV – the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, ironically – being allegedly infiltrated by ISIS.
Now, I speak all over the world at conferences and universities about a whole variety of interconnected issues, but I do want to highlight this conference from earlier this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.
Webstock celebrated its tenth anniversary in New Zealand last February, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak there. The hosts promised a unique experience, and the event lived up to its reputation.
They wanted a fairly classic talk from me – the whistleblowing years, the lessons learnt and current political implications, but also what we can to do fight back, so I called my talk “The Panopticon: Resistance is Not Futile”, with a nod to my sci-fi fandom.
So why does this particular event glow like a jewel in my memory? After expunging from my mind, with a shudder of horror, the 39 hour travel time each way, it was the whole experience. New Zealand combines the friendliness of the Americans – without the political madness and the guns, and the egalitarianism of the Norwegians – with almost equivalent scenery. Add to that the warmth of the audience, the eclecticism of the speakers, and the precision planning and aesthetics of the conference organisers and you have a winning combination.
Our hosts organised vertigo-inducing events for the speakers on the top of mile-high cliffs, as well as a surprisingly fun visit to a traditional British bowling green. Plus I had the excitement of experiencing my very first earthquake – 5.9 on the Richter scale apparently. I shall make no cheap jokes about the earth moving, especially in light of the latest quakes to hit NZ this week, but the hotel did indeed sway around me and it wasn’t the local wine, excellent as it is.
I mentioned eclecticism – the quality of the speakers was ferociously high, and I would like to give a shout out to Debbie Millman and her “joy of failure” talk, Harry Roberts, a serious geek who crowd-sourced his talk and ended up talking seriously about cocktails, moths, Chumbawamba and more, advertising guru Cindy Gallop who is inspiring women around the world and promoting Make Love Not Porn, and Casey Gerald, with his evangelically-inspired but wonderfully humanistic talk to end the event.
All the talks can be found here.
It was a fabulous week. All I can say is thank you to Tash, Mike, and the other organisers.
If you ever have the chance to attend or speak at the event in the future, I seriously recommend it.
And here’s the video of my talk:
I have for a number of years now been involved with a global group of whistleblowers from the intelligence, diplomatic and military world, who gather together every year as the Sam Adams Associates to give an award to an individual displaying integrity in intelligence.
This year’s award goes to former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s illegal torture programme, but was the only officer to go to prison – for exposing CIA crimes.
Last year’s laureate, former Technical Director of the NSA Bill Binney, is currently on tour across Europe to promote an excellent film about both his and the other stories of the earlier NSA whistleblowers before Edward Snowden – “A Good American“.
The film is simply excellent, very human and very humane, and screenings will happen across Europe over the next few months. Do watch if you can!
This is a film of the panel discussion after a screening in London on 18th September:
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.
His 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.
Despite 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.
According to journalist Glenn Greenwald, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has stated that the US and UK spy agencies threatened to cut Germany out of the intelligence-sharing loop if it gave safe haven to NSA whistlebower, Edward Snowden.
Here is my view of the situation on RT today:
My recent interview on RT show “In the Now” about gender equality in the British spy agencies:
So this week the murderous beheader of the Islamic State, “Jihadi John”, has been unmasked. His real identity is apparently Mohammed Emwazi, born in Kuwait and now a British citizen who was raised and educated in west London
Much sound, fury and heated debate has been expended over the last couple of days about how he became radicalised, who was to blame, with MI5 once more cast in the role of villain. In such media sound-bite discussions it is all too easy to fall into facile and polarised arguments. Let us try to break this down and reach a more nuanced understanding.
First up is the now-notorious press conference hosted by the campaigning group, Cage, in which the Research Director, Asim Qureshi , claimed that MI5 harassment of Emwazi was the reason for his radicalisation. Emwazi had complained to Cage and apparently the Metropolitan Police that over the last six years MI5 had approached him and was pressurising him to work as an agent for them. According to Cage, this harassment lead to Emwazi’s radicalisation.
Yet recruitment of such agents is a core MI5 function, something it used to do with subtlety and some success, by identifying people within groups who potentially could be vulnerable to inducements or pressure to report back on target organisations. In fact, British intelligence used to be much more focused on gathering “HUMINT”. The very best intelligence comes from an (ideally) willing but at least co-operative human agent: they are mobile, they can gain the trust of and converse with targets who may be wary of using electronic communications, and they can be tasked to gather specific intelligence rather than waiting for the lucky hit on intercept.
MI5 used to be good at this – spending time to really investigate and identify the right recruitment targets, with a considered approach towards making the pitch.
However, it appears since 9/11 and the start of the brutal “war on terror” that two problems have evolved, both of which originated in America. Firstly, British intelligence seems to have followed their US counterparts down a moral helter-skelter, becoming re-involved in counter-productive and brutal activities such as kidnapping, internment and torture. As MI5 had learned at least by the 1990s, such activities inevitably result in blow-back, and can act as a recruiting drum to the terrorist cause of the day.
(Tangentially, the Home Office also instigated the Prevent programme – in concept to counter radical Islam in vulnerable social communities, but in practice used and abused by the authorities to intimidate and coerce young Muslims in the UK.)
Secondly, British intelligence seems over the last decade to have blindly followed the US spies down the path of panoptican, drag-net electronic surveillance. All this has been long suspected by a few, but confirmed to the many by the disclosures of Edward Snowden over the last couple of years. Indeed it seems that GCHQ is not merely complicit but an active facilitator and enabler of the NSA’s wilder ideas. And what we now know is horrific enough, yet it currently remains just the tip of the iceberg.
This deluge of information creates gargantuan haystacks within which some genuine intelligence needles might reside – to use the terminology of the spy agency cheerleaders. However, it concurrently swamps the intelligence agencies in useless information, while also certainly throwing up a percentage of false-positives. Bearing in mind the sheer scale of the legally dubious snooping, even a 0.001% of false positives could potentially produce thousands of erroneous leads.
Curious people now have a world of information at their fingertips. They may click on an intriguing link and find themselves on a radical website; even if they click out quickly, the panopticon will have logged their “interest”. Or they could donate money to an apparently legitimate charity; “like” the wrong thing on Facebook; follow the wrong person on Twitter; have their email hacked, or whatever….
The Big Brother Borg algorithms will crunch through all of this information predictably and predictively, with subtleties lost and mistakes made. Mind you, that happened in a more limited fashion too at the height of the Cold War subversion paranoia in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, when schoolboys writing to the Communist Party HQ for information for school projects could end up with a MI5 file, and divorcing couples could denounce each other. But at least, then, whole populations were not under surveillance.
I think this may go some way towards explaining so many recent cases where “lone wolf” attackers around the world have been known to their national intelligence agencies and yet been left to roam free, either discounted as too low level a threat in the flood of information or otherwise subjected to bungled recruitment approaches.
In the analogue era much time, research and thought would go into identifying persons of interest, and more crucially how to approach a target either for disruption or recruitment. I should think that the spy super-computers are now throwing up so many possible leads that approaches are made in a more hurried, ill-informed and less considered way.
And this can result in cases such as Michael Adebolayo whom MI5 approached and allegedly harassed years before he went on to murder Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. The same may well have happened with Mohammed Emwazi. Once someone has been targeted, they are going to feel paranoid and under surveillance, whether rightly or wrongly, and this might result in growing resentment and push them into ever more extreme views.
However, I would suggest that MI5 remains merely the tool, following the directives of the UK government in response to the ever-expanding, ever-nebulous war on terror, just as MI6 followed the directives of the Blair government in 2003 when it allowed its intelligence to be politicised as a pretext for an illegal war in Iraq. MI5 might be an occasional catalyst, but not the underlying cause of radicalisation.
Unfortunately, by immersing itself in the now-overwhelming intelligence detail, it appears to be missing the bigger picture – just why are young British people taking an interest in the events of the Middle East, why are so many angry, why are so many drawn to radical views and some drawn to extreme actions.
Surely the simplest way to understand their grievances is to listen to what the extremist groups actually say? Osama Bin Laden was clear in his views – he wanted US military bases out of Saudi Arabia and US meddling across the Middle East generally to stop; he also wanted a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.
Jihadi John states in his ghastly snuff videos that he is meting out horror to highlight the horrors daily inflicted across the Middle East by the US military – the bombings, drone strikes, violent death and mutilation.
To hear this and understand is not to be a sympathiser, but is vital if western governments want to develop a more intelligent, considered and potentially more successful policies in response. Once you understand, you can negotiate, and that is the only sane way forward. Violence used to counter violence always escalates the situation and everyone suffers.
The USA still needs to learn this lesson. The UK had learned it, resulting in the end of the war in Northern Ireland, but it now seems to have been forgotten. It is not rocket science – even the former head of MI5, Lady Manningham-Buller, has said negotiation is the only successful long-term policy when dealing with terrorism.
Along with the UK, many other European countries have successfully negotiated their way out of long-running domestic terrorist campaigns. The tragedy for European countries that have recently or will soon suffer the new model of “lone wolf” atrocities, is that our governments are still in thrall to the failed US foreign policy of “the war on terror”, repeated daily in gory technicolour across North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, and now Ukraine.
Global jihad is the inevitable response to USA global expansionism, hegemony and aggression. As long as our governments and intelligence agencies in Europe kowtow to American strategic interests rather than protect those of their own citizens, all our countries will remain at risk.
A recent interview I gave while in Stockholm to the Privacy as Innovation project:
Here is my keynote speech at the recent Internetdagarna (Internet Days) conference in Stockholm, Sweden, discussing all things whistleblower, spy, surveillance, privacy and TTIP:
This morning, I would say at the crack of dawn but it was still dark, I was invited on to Aftonbladet TV to talk about my story, the role of whistleblowers, the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, and threats to the internet. Here is the interview:
Here is my recent interview on RT discussing the UK listening post, GCHQ, its prostitution to America’s NSA, and the failure of oversight:
Here’s my interview from yesterday on RT’s excellent Breaking the Set show with host, Abby Martin. We discussed all things spy, surveillance, Snowden, oversight, and privacy. A fun and lively interview! Thanks, Abby.
All these organisations came together to hold an international conference in support of whistleblowers on 18th June in Amsterdam.
It was a creative event, mixing up lawyers, journalists, technologists and whistleblower support networks from around the world at an event with speeches and workshops, in order for everyone to learn, share experiences, and develop new methodologies and best practice to help current and future whistleblowers.
A stimulating and productive day, at which I did the opening keynote:
In the wake of the recent ARD interview with Edward Snowden, here are my comments on RT yesterday about the NSA’s involvement in industrial espionage:
I recommend looking at the Edward Snowden’s support website, and also keep an eye open for a new foundation that will be launched next month: Courage – the fund to protect journalistic sources.