A few minutes after Julian Assange was scandalously arrested and dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London last week, I was contacted by RT.com to do an interview. While further comments will follow, here are my initial thoughts:
Category Archives: Law
Former MI6 spy v Wikileaks editor: First Amendment Rights
First published on RT Op-Ed on 24 August 2018.
While it is all too easy to become frustrated and annoyed by what passes for news in the legacy media these days, this article in the Daily Mail did arouse my particular ire early one morning – and in this instance no particular blame attaches to the newspaper, it is simply reporting some unpalatable facts.
The gist of it is that former British MI6 intelligence officer and current mercenary spy-for-hire, Christopher Steele, author of the discredited “Dirty Dossier” about Donald Trump, has been accorded First Amendment rights in a court case in the USA.
You might wonder why this article caused me so much spluttering annoyance over my breakfast? Steele’s treatment is in marked contrast to that accorded to Wikileaks publisher and editor in chief, Julian Assange, and the hypocrisy is breathtaking. Allow me to expound.
Christopher Steele is a British intelligence officer of pretty much my vintage. According to what is available publicly, he worked for MI6, the British overseas intelligence gathering agency, for 22 years, serving in Russian in the early 90s and in Paris at the end of that decade – around the time that MI5 whistleblower, David Shayler, was imprisoned in that city pending a failed extradition case to the UK. It is probable that Steele would have been monitoring us then.
After being outed as an MI6 officer in 1999 by his former colleague, Richard Tomlinson, he was pretty much desk-bound in London until he resigned in 2009 to set up, in the inimitable way of so many former spooks, a private consultancy that can provide plausibly deniable services to corporations and perhaps their former employers.
Steele established just such a mercenary spy outfit, Orbis Business Intelligence, with another ex-colleague Chris Burrows in 2009. Orbis made its name in exposing corruption at the heart of FIFA in 2015 and was thereafter approached as an out-sourced partner by Fusion GPS – the company initially hired to dig dirt on presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016 by one of his Republican rivals and which then went on to dig up dirt on behalf of Hilary Clinton’s DNC.
The result is what has become known as the “Dirty Dossier”, a grubby collection of prurient gossip with no real evidence or properly sourced information. As a former MI6 intelligence officer, Steele should be hanging his head in shame at such a shoddy and embarrassingly half-baked report.
On a slightly tangential note, there has been some speculation, suppressed in the UK at least via the D Notice censorship system, that MI6 agent and Russian traitor Sergei Skripal, the victim of the alleged Novichok poisoning in the UK earlier this year, remained in contact with his handler Pablo Miller, who also is reported to work for Orbis Business Intelligence. If this were indeed the case, then it would be a logical assumption that Orbis, via Miller, might well have used Skripal as one of its “reliable sources” for the Dossier.
Despite all this, Steele has won a legal case in the USA, where he had been sued by three Russian oligarchs who claimed that the Dirty Dossier traduced their reputations. And he won on the basis that his report was protected by First Amendment rights under the constitution of the USA, which guarantees US citizens the right to freedom of expression. Despite the fact that Steele is British:
“But Judge Anthony Epstein disagreed, writing in his judgment that “advocacy on issues of public interest has the capacity to inform public debate, and thereby furthers the purposes of the First Amendment, regardless of the citizenship or residency of the speakers”.”
This is the nub of the issue: Steele, a former official UK intelligence officer and current mercenary spy-for-hire, is granted legal protection by the American courts for digging up and subsequently leaking what appears to be controversial and defamatory information about the current President as well as various Russians, all paid for by Trump’s political opponents. And Steele is given the full protection of the US legal system.
On the other hand we have an award-winning journalist and publisher, Julian Assange, whose organisation Wikileaks has never been found to report anything factually incorrect in over 10 years, being told that if he were to be extradited from his current political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London to face the full wrath of a vengeful American establishment, he is not entitled to claim protection of the First Amendment because his is an Australian citizen not an American.
It has been an open secret for years that the US government has installed a secret Grand Jury in Virginia (the home of the CIA) to investigate Assange and bring him to “justice” for publishing embarrassing US government documents as well as evidence of war crimes. There have been calls from US politicians for the death sentence, life in prison without parole, and even assassination. The US has been scrabbling around for years to try to find any charge it could potentially throw at him – hell, it will probably make up a new law just for him, so desperate as it is to make an example of him.
However, the fake “Russiagate” narrative gave the US deep state an additional spur – against all evidence and Assange’s own statements – it alleges that “Russia” hacked the DNC and Podesta emails and Assange was the conduit to make them public. This is seen as a win-win for the US establishment, apparently if erroneously proving that Russia hacked the US presidential election and confirming that Assange runs an “non-state hostile intelligence agency”, according to current CIA Director, Mike Pompeo
Except he does not. He is an editor running a high-tech publishing outfit that has caused embarrassment to governments and corporations around the world, not just America. If he can be prosecuted for publishing information very much in the public interest, then all the legacy media feeding off the Wikileaks hydrant of information are equally vulnerable.
This being the case, surely he of all people requires the protection of the First Amendment in the USA? Otherwise the concept that free media can hold power to account is surely dead?
Have British Spies been hacking the EU?
First published by Consortium News.
Just after midnight on 16 August I was called by LBC in London for a comment on a breaking story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph about British spies hacking the EU. Even though I had just retired to bed, the story was just too irresistible, but a radio interview is always too short to do justice to such a convoluted tale. Here are some longer thoughts.
For those who cannot get past the Telegraph pay wall, the gist is that that the EU has accused the British intelligence agencies of hacking the EU’s side of the negotiations. Apparently some highly sensitive and negative slides about the British Prime Minister’s plan for Brexit, the Chequers Plan, had landed in the lap of the British government, which then lobbied the EU to suppress publication.
Of course, this could be a genuine leak from the Brussels sieve, as British sources are claiming (well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?). However, it is plausible that this is the work of the spies, either by recruiting a paid-up agent well-placed within the Brussels bureaucracy, or through electronic surveillance.
Before dismissing the latter option as conspiracy theory, the British spies do have form. In the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, the USA and UK were desperate to get a UN Security Council resolution to invade Iraq, thus providing a fig leaf of apparent legitimacy to the illegal war. However, some countries within the UN had their doubts and the USA asked Britain’s listening post, GCHQ, to step up its surveillance game. Forewarned is forearmed in delicate international negotiations.
How do we know this? A brave GCHQ whistleblower called Katherine Gun leaked the information to The Observer. For her pains, she was threatened with prosecution under the draconian terms of the UK’s 1989 Official Secrets Act, and faced two years in prison. The case was only dropped three weeks before her trial was due to begin, partly because of the feared public outcry, but mainly because her lawyers threatened to use the legal defence of “necessity” – a defence won only three years before during the case of MI5 whistleblower, David Shayler. Tangentially, a film is this year being made about Gun’s story.
We also have confirmation from one of the early 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures that GCHQ had hacked its way into the Belgacom network – the national telecommunications supplier in Belgium. Even back then there was an outcry from the EU bodies, worried that the UK (and by extension its closest intelligence buddy the USA), would gain leverage with stolen knowledge.
So, yes, it is perfectly feasible that the UK could have done this, even though it was illegal back in the day. GCHQ’s incestuous relationship with the America’s NSA gives it massively greater capabilities than other European intelligence agencies, and the EU knows this well, which is why is is concerned to retain access to the UK’s defence and security powers post-Brexit, and also why it has jumped to these conclusions about hacking.
But that was then and this is now. On 1st January 2017 the UK government finally signed a law called the Investigatory Powers Act, governing the legal framework for GCHQ to snoop. The IPA gave GCHQ the most draconian and invasive powers of any western democracy. Otherwise known in the British media as the “snoopers’ charter”, it had been defeated in Parliament for years, but Theresa May, then Home Secretary, pushed it through in the teeth of legal and civil society opposition. This year the High Court ordered the UK government to redraft the IPA as it is incompatible with European law.
The IPA legalised what GCHQ had previously been doing illegally post‑9/11, including bulk metadata collection, bulk data hacking, and bulk hacking of electronic devices.
It also notionally gave the government greater oversight of the spies’ actions, but these measures remain weak and offer no protection if the spies choose to keep quiet about what they are doing. So if GCHQ did indeed hack the EU, it is feasible that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister remained ignorant of what was going on, despite being legally required to sign off on such operations. In which case the spies would be running amok.
It is also feasible that they were indeed fully briefed and an argument could be made that they would be correct to do so. GCHQ and the other spy agencies are required to protect “national security and the economic well-being” of Great Britain, and I can certainly see a strong argument could be made that they were doing precisely that, provided they had prior written permission for such a sensitive operation, if they tried to get advance intelligence about the EU’s Brexit strategy.
This argument becomes even more powerful when you consider the problems around the fraught issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an issue about which the EU is being particularly intransigent. If a deal is not made then the 1998 Good Friday Agreement could be under threat and civil war might again break out in Northern Ireland. You cannot get much more “national security” than that and GCHQ would be justified in this work, provided it has acquired the necessary legal sign-offs from its political masters.
However, these arguments will do nothing to appease the enraged EU officials. No doubt the UK government will continue to state that this was a leak from a Brussels insider and oil will, publicly at least, be seen to have been poured on troubled diplomatic waters.
However, behind the scenes this will multiply the mutual suspicion,and will no doubt unleash a witch hunt through the corridors of EU power, with top civil servant Martin Selmayr (aka The Monster) cast as Witchfinder General. With him on your heels, you would have to be a very brave leaker, whistleblower, or even paid-up agent working for the Brits to take such a risk.
So, perhaps this is indeed a GCHQ hack. However justifiable this might be under the legally nebulous concept of “national security”, this will poison further the already toxic Brexit negotiations. As Angela Merkal famously if disengenously said after the Snowden revelation that the USA had hacked her mobile phone: “no spying among friends”. But perhaps this is an outdated concept – nor has the EU exactly been entirely friendly to Brexit Britain.
I am just waiting for the first hysterical claim that it was the Russians instead or, failing them, former Trump strategist-in-chief, Steve Bannon, reportedly currently on a mission to build a divisive Alt-Right Movement across Europe…..
Assange under increased threat
Speculation has been rife over the last couple of weeks that Julian Assange may be handed over to the British by a new and pusillanimous Ecuadorian government, thereby breaching its pledge to grant Assange political asylum and the protection due to a citizen of Ecuador. Here’s my take:
Ecuador President threatening the political asylum of Assange from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
US breaks diplomatic protocol
With very little notice, the US has ejected Russian diplomats and broken diplomatic protocol to raid the sovereign premises:
US raids Russian diplomatic compounds. from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Assange threatened by entire American Establishment
Here is the full interview I gave to RT on this topic.
And here is the slice of it they used in a news feature they did with Assange:
Assange feels threatened by both Republicans & Democrats following Clinton email leaks–Annie Machon from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Recent interviews: UK Cyber Security, Kim Dotcom, and Iraq
I’ve done a few more interviews this month for RT, on a variety of issues:
US boots on the ground in Iraq
USA Boots on the Ground in Iraq — again. from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
The extradition case against Megaupload’s founder, Kim Dotcom
Megaupload’s Kim Dotcom faces extradition from NZ to USA from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
And the launch of the UK’s new Cyber Security Centre, soon after the new Investigatory Powers Act (aka the “snoopers’ charter”) became law
The launch of the UK’s new National Cyber Security Centre from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Perils of Censorship in the Digital Age
First published on RT OP-Edge.
The ripple effects of the Donald Trump election victory in America continue to wash over many different shorelines of public opinion, like so many mini-tsunamis hitting the Pacific rim over the last few last weeks. The seismic changes have indeed been global, and not least in Europe.
First up, the Eurocrats have been getting in a bit of a flap about the future of NATO, as I recently wrote. In the past I have also written about the perceived “insider threat” - in other words, whistleblowers — that has been worrying governments and intelligence agencies across the Western world.
Currently the Twittersphere is lighting up around the issue of “fake news”, with Western mainstream media (news purveyors of the utmost unsullied probity, naturally) blaming Trump’s unexpected victory variously on the US alt-media shock jocks, fake news trolls and bots, and sovereign-state media outlets such as the Russian RT and Sputnik.
In the wake of US Democrat claims that Russia was interfering in the election process (not a practice that the USA has ever engaged in in any other country around the world whatsoever), we now have the US Green Party presidential candidate apparently spontaneously calling for recounts in three key swing-states in the USA.
The German government has already expressed concern that such “fake” news might adversely influence the almost inevitable re-election for a fourth term as Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Despite having been proclaimed the closest partner of the USA by President Obama on his recent speed-dating visit to Europe, and perhaps wary of the rising nationalist anger (I hesitate to write national socialist anger, but certainly its ugly face is there too in the German crowd) Merkal is getting in an electoral first strike.
At a slightly more worrying level, the European Parliament on 23 November voted for a resolution to counter “propaganda” from Russia — and incredibly equated that country’s media with terrorist groups such as ISIS — the very organisation that Russia is currently trying to help crush in Syria and which the West and NATO are at least officially opposed to.
Equating the content of licensed and networked media outlets — however much they may challenge Western orthodoxies — to the horrors of ISIS snuff videos seems to me to be wilfully blind if not downright and dangerously delusional. Or perhaps we should just call it propaganda too?
Whatever happened to the rights of freedom of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights? Or the concept that a plurality of opinion encourages a healthy democracy?
In America too, we have had reports this week that Google and Facebook are censoring alleged “fake” news. This is the start of a very slippery slope. Soon anyone who dissents from the orthodoxy will be deemed fake and disappear into the corporate memory black hole. Google in 2014 suggested a precursor to this, the Knowledge Vault, a search system that would promote approved websites and disappear those deemed inaccurate at least by Google algorithms. But who controls those?
Once again our corporate overlords seem to be marching remarkably in time — almost a lock step — with the mood of the political establishment.
So how did this all kick off? With remarkably prescient timing, in October the arch-neoconservative UK-based think tank, the Henry Jackson Society, published a report entitled “Putin’s Useful Idiots: Britain’s Right, Left and Russia”. Well, at least it got its apostrophes right, but much of the rest is just so much hate-filled bile against those who call out the failed Washington Consensus.
The Henry Jackson Society is an odious organisation that was founded in Cambridge eleven years ago. One of its initial signatories was Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of the UK’s foreign intelligence agency MI6, and of some personal notoriety for peddling the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that took the UK into the disastrous and illegal Iraq war in 2003, as well as feeding in the fake intelligence about Iraq trying to acquire uranium from Niger that US Secretary of State Colin Powell used as a justification for the same war at the United Nations.
Despite all this, he remains happily retired, bloated with honours, while at the same time threatening the British establishment with his full memoirs to posthumously preserve his reputation and avoid prosecution for a breach of the Official Secrets Act, as I have written before.
The Henry Jackson Society has also folded into itself an organisation called the Centre for Social Cohesion — apparently established to build better integration for the Muslim community in the UK, but which for the last decade has done nothing but stir up Islamophobia. As others have written, the phrase “modern McCarthyites” might not be stretching this concept too far. And now it seems to be turning its ire against Russia.
Its emphasis has been unrelentingly anti-Islam for many years, so it was interesting that this establishment-embedded Society had a fully-formed report about the renewed Red Menace subverting our Western media just ready and waiting to be published ahead of the US elections.
So where does this all leave us?
It may well be that Facebook will begin to disappear so-called fake news — which could have repercussions for all the activist groups that, against all advice and common sense, continue to offer up their plans/organise events on that medium.
We may see the same censorship on Google, as well as dissident websites disappearing down the proposed memory-hole of the Knowledge Vault. Sure, such pages may be recorded on sites like the WayBack Machine et al, but who really searches through that reflexively? Most us us don’t even get through the first page of Google hits anyway. In our digital age, this will make the 20th century practice of your analogue dictator — the airbrushing of political opponents out of history — look positively quaint.
But, just as the Gutenberg Press was a radical innovation in the 15th century that led to a rapid spread of written ideas and the resulting censorship, repression and a thriving underground media, so the the current crackdown will lead to the same push-back.
Then we have to consider the potential censorship of state-owned news outlets such as RT, the Chinese CCTV, and the Iranian Press TV. Where will that leave other state-owned organisations such as the BBC, RAI and other international Euro-broadcasters? Oh, of course, they are part of the Western media club, so it’s all hunkey-dorey and business as usual.
But this can be a two-sided fight — only two months ago RT’s UK bankers, the state-owned Nat West Bank, announced that they were going to shut down the channel’s UK accounts, with no reason or redress. I gather that a similar threat was then issued against the BBC in Russia, and the case was quietly dropped.
Over the last 20 years I have been interviewed by hundreds of major media outlets across Europe, many of them state-owned. However, it is only when I appear on RT.com that I am accused of supporting a state-propaganda outlet, of being a useful idiot — and this has become increasingly marked over the last couple of years.
All these measures smack of an ill-informed and out-of-touch panic reaction by a hitherto complacent establishment. Before they attempt to airbrush history, we need to remember that history teaches some useful lessons about such elitist crackdowns: they never end well for anyone.
What price whistleblowers?
First published on Consortium News.
Forgive my “infamously fluent French”, but the phrase “pour encourager les autres” seems to have lost its famously ironic quality. Rather than making an example of people who dissent in order to prevent future dissidence, now it seems that the USA is globally paying bloody big bucks to people in order to encourage them to expose the crimes of their employers – well, at least if they are working for banks and other financial institutions.
I have been aware for a few years that the USA instituted a law in 2010 called the Dodd-Frank Act that is designed to encourage people employed in the international finance community to report malfeasance to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), in return for a substantial percentage of any monies recouped.
This law seems to have produced a booming business for such high-minded “whistleblowers” – if that could be the accurate term for such actions? They are celebrated and can receive multi-million dollar pay days, the most recent (unnamed) source receiving $20 million.
Nor is this US initiative just potentially benefiting US citizens – it you look at the small print at the bottom of this page, disclosures are being sent in from all over the world.
Which is all to the public good no doubt, especially in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash and the ensuing fall-out that hit us all. We need more clarity about arcane casino banking practices that have bankrupted whole countries, and we need justice.
But does rather send out a number of contradictory messages to those in other areas of work who might also have concerns about the legality of their organisations, and which may have equal or even graver impacts on the lives of their fellow human beings.
If you work in finance and you see irregularities it is apparently your legal duty to report them through appropriate channels – and then count the $$$ as they flow in as reward – whether you are a USA citizen or based elsewhere around the world. Such is the power of globalisation, or at least the USA’s self-appointed role as the global hegemon.
However, if you happen to work in the US government, intelligence agencies or military, under the terms of the American Constitution it would also appear to be your solemn duty under oath to report illegalities, go through the officially designated channels, and hope reform is the result.
But, from all recent examples, it would appear that you get damn few thanks for such patriotic actions.
Take the case of Thomas Drake, a former senior NSA executive, who in 2007 went public about waste and wanton expenditure within the agency, as I wrote way back in 2011. Tom went through all the prescribed routes for such disclosures, up to and including a Congressional Committee hearing.
Despite all this, Tom was abruptly snatched by the FBI in a violent dawn raid and threatened with 35 years in prison. He (under the terrifying American plea bargain system) accepted a misdimeanour conviction to escape the horrors of federal charges, the resulting loss of all his civic rights and a potential 35 years in prison. He still, of course, lost his job, his impeccable professional reputation, and his whole way of life.
He was part of a NSA group which also included Bill Binney, the former Technical Director of the NSA, and his fellow whistleblowers Kirk Wiebe, Ed Loumis and Diane Roark.
These brave people developed an electronic mass-surveillance programme called Thin Thread that could winnow out those people who were genuinely of security interest and worth targeting, a programme which would have cost the US $1.4 million, been consistent with the terms of the American constitution and, according to Binney, could potentially have stopped 9/11 and all the attendant horrors..
Instead, it appears that backs were scratched and favours called in with the incoming neo-con government of George W Bush in 2000, and another programme called Trail Blaizer was developed, to the tune of $1.2 billion – and which spied on everyone across America (as well as the rest of the world) and thereby broke, at the very least, the terms of the American constitution.
Yet Bill Binney was still subjected to a FBI SWAT team raid – he was dragged out of the shower early one morning at gun-point. All this is well documented in an excellent film “A Good American” and I recommend watching it.
Rather a contrast to the treatment of financial whistleblowers – no retaliation and big bucks. Under that law, Bill would have received a payout of millions for protecting the rights of his fellow citizens as well as saving the American public purse to the tune of over a billion dollars. But, of course, that is not exactly in the long-term business interests of our now-global surveillance panopticon.
President Dwight Eisenhower, in his valedictory speech in 1961, warned of the subversive interests of the “military-industrial” complex. That seems so quaint now. What we are facing is a steroid-pumped, globalised military surveillance industry that will do anything to protect its interests. And that includes crushing principled whistleblowers “pour encourager les autres“.
Yet that manifestly has not happened, as I need to move on to the even-more-egregious cases of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
The former, as you may remember, was a former American army private currently serving 35 years in a US military prison for exposing the war crimes of the USA. She is the most obvious victim of outgoing-President Obama’s war on whistleblowers, and surely deserving of his supposed outgoing clemency.
The latter, currently stranded in Russia en route from Hong Kong to political asylum in Ecuador is, in my view and as I have said before, the most significant whistleblower in modern history. But he gets few thanks – indeed incoming US Trump administration appointees have in the past called for the death penalty.
So all this is such a “wonderfully outstanding encouragement” to those in public service in the USA to expose corruption – not. Work for the banks and anonymously snitch – $$$kerching! Work for the government and blow the whistle – 30+ years in prison or worse. Hmmm.
If President-Elect Donald Trump is serious about “draining the swamp” then perhaps he could put some serious and meaningful public service whistleblower protection measures in place, rather than prosecuting such patriots?
After all, such measures would be a win-win situation, as I have said many times before – a proper and truly accountable channel for potential whistleblowers to go to, in the expectation that their concerns will be properly heard, investigated and criminal actions prosecuted if necessary.
That way the intelligence agencies can become truly accountable, sharpen their game, avoid a scandal and better protect the public; and the whistleblower does not need ruin their life, losing their job, potentially their freedom and worse.
After all, where are the most heinous crimes witnessed? Sure, bank crimes impact the economy and the lives of working people; but out-of-control intelligence agencies that kidnap, torture and assassinate countless people around the world, all in secret, actually end lives.
All that said, other Western liberal democracies are surely less draconian than the USA, no?
Well, unfortunately not. Take the UK, a country still in thrall to the glamorous myth of James Bond, and where there have been multiple intelligence whistleblowers from the agencies over the last few decades – yet all of them have automatically faced prison. In fact, the UK suppression of intelligence, government, diplomatic, and military whistleblowers seems to have acted as an exemplar to other countries in how you stifle ethical dissent from within.
Sure, the prison sentences for such whistleblowing are not as draconian under the UK Official Secrets Act (1989) as the anachronistic US Espionage Act (1917). However, the clear bright line against *any* disclosure is just as stifling.
In the UK, a country where the intelligence agencies have for the last 17 years been illegally prostituting themselves to advance the interests of a foreign country (the USA), this is simply unacceptable. Especially as the UK has just made law the Investigatory Powers Act (2016), against all expert advice, which legalises all this previously-illegal activity and indeed expanded the hacking powers of the state.
More worryingly, the ultra-liberal Norway, which blazed a calm and humanist trail in its response to the murderous white-supremacist terrorist attacks of Anders Breivik only 5 years ago, has now proposed a draconian surveillance law.
And Germany – a country horrified by the Snowden revelations in 2013, with its memories of the Gestapo and the Stasi – has also just expanded the surveillance remit of its spooks.
In the face of all this, it appears there has never been a greater need of intelligence whistleblowers across the Western world. Yet it appears that, once again, there is one law for the bankers et al – they are cashed up, lauded and rewarded for reporting legalities.
For the rest of the Poor Bloody Whistleblowers, it’s prosecution and persecution as usual, despite the fact that they may indeed be serving the most profound of public interests – freedom, privacy and the ability to thereby have a functioning democracy.
As always – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. So back to my fluent French, referenced at the start: we are, it seems, all still mired in the merde.
Webstock, New Zealand, 2016
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:
Head of MI5 goes public
For the first time a serving head of a major intelligence service in the UK, Andrew Parker the Director General of the UK domestic Security Service, has given an interview to a national newspaper.
Interestingly, he gave this interview to The Guardian, the paper that has won awards for publishing a number of the Edward Snowden disclosures about endemic illegal spying and, for its pains, had its computers ritually smashed up by the powers that be.
The timing was also interesting — only two weeks ago the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (the only legal body that can actually investigate allegations of spy crime in the UK and which has so far been an unexceptional champion of their probity) broke ranks to assert that the UK spies have been illegally conducting mass surveillance for 17 years — from 1998 to 2015.
This we could all deduce from the disclosures of a certain Edward Snowden in 2013, but it’s good to have it officially confirmed.
Yet at the same time the much-derided Investigatory Powers Bill has been oiling its way through the Parliamentary system, with the culmination this week.
This “Snoopers’ Charter”, as it is known, has been repeatedly and fervently rejected for years.
It has been questioned in Parliament, challenged in courts, and soundly condemned by former intelligence insiders, technical experts, and civil liberties groups, yet it is the walking dead of UK legislation — nothing will kill it. The Zombie keeps walking.
It will kill all notion of privacy — and without privacy we cannot freely write, speak, watch, read, activate, or resist anything future governments choose to throw at us. Only recently I read an article about the possibility of Facebook assessing someone’s physical or mental health — potentially leading to all sorts of outcomes including getting a job or renting a flat.
And this dovetails into the early Snowden disclosure of the programme PRISM — the complicity of the internet megacorps — as well as the secret back doors what were built into them.
It will be the end of democracy as we (sort of ) know it today. And, as we know from the Snowden disclosures, what happens in the UK will impact not just Europe but the rest of the world.
So how does this all link into the MI5 head honcho’s first live interview? Well, the timing was interesting — ahead of the Investigatory Powers Bill passing oleaginously into law and with the ongoing demonisation of Russia.
Here is an interview I gave to RT about some of these issues:
Commentary on MI5’s first nwspaper interview from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
A Good American — Bill Binney
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.
The award ceremony will be taking place in Washington on 25 September at the “World Beyond War” conference.
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:
“A Good American” — panel discussion with ex-NSA Bill Binney from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Defending Human Rights in a Digital Age
This is an (abbreviated) version of my contribution to a panel discussion about human rights in a digital age, hosted last December by Professor Marianne Franklin and Goldsmiths University in London:
Goldsmiths University Privacy Discussion, December 2015 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Terrorism, crime, or mental illness?
This morning I was invited on to RT to do an interview about the breaking story of a mass shooting that occurred last night at a nightclub in Florida in the USA. You will, no doubt, have seen the headlines by now — the biggest mass shooting in modern American history.
At the time, as the news was breaking, I was somewhat puzzled about what I could contribute — surely this was just another ghastly massacre by the usual gun-toting crazy that America seems to spawn so regularly? After all, it seems that the Second Amendment is the last right standing from the US constitution, after all the others have been eviscerated as a result of the “war on terror” and the social friction caused by the financial melt-down of the US economy?
However, with a little thought on a mellow European Sunday, I could see a number of threads coming together, which I explored during the interview. I would like to develop some of them further in this article.
At the time I was interviewed, few hard facts had been confirmed about the shooting — merely a conservative estimate of the number of dead and wounded, and the fact the gunman had been killed. Everything else was pure speculation. That did not stop much of the Western media from jumping to conclusions — that this must be an ISIS-inspired attack and therefore Muslim terrorism, by our current Western definition.
I have a problem with this current usage. When working as an intelligence officer with MI5 in the 1990s — at the height of the religious civil war being waged between the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland, our working definition was that “terrorism” was the use of violence to achieve political aims. So “terrorism” has never been a purely Muslim-originated concept, no matter how the USA has chosen to define it since 9/11.
The reason I am making this rather obvious point is that the USA, particularly, has always engendered some rather unsavoury domestic “terrorist” groups, motivated by Christian or cult fanaticism — think the Branch Davidians, or the Christian fundamentalists murdering doctors and blowing up abortion clinics, or white supremacists terrorising black communities or blowing up FBI offices such as the Oklahoma bombing of 1995, which was initially blamed on Middle Eastern terrorism. If that is not the use of violence to achieve political aims, then our intelligence agencies need to change the definition of terrorism.
As the shootings in the Pulse nightclub in Florida specifically targeted a LGBT crowd, it is just as feasible that the gunman could have fundamentalist Christian beliefs that urged him to target this community as some ISIS-inspired jihadi. After all, we have seen similar attacks in the UK, with the London nail bomber targeting gay nightclubs in 1999.
Yet the former is, to this day, widely seen as a mass killing, a “rampage shooter” or a madman, and treated as a criminal, whereas a Muslim committing the same acts for similarly bigoted reasons is automatically deemed to be a terrorist. And we all know that “terrorism” is a unique form of “eviltude” that immediately exposes the suspect to greater legal penalties at the very least and assassination at the worst end of the scale, US citizen or not.
Terrorism is a crime — pure and simple — and it should be treated as a crime. Muslim suspects of such crimes should not be kidnapped, tortured, held in isolation for years, or subject to military tribunals with no real right to defence, any more than Christian, atheist or any other suspects should be. Nor should specifically “Muslim” terrorism be the excuse used to strip away all our basic and hard-won civic freedoms and human rights in our own countries, yet that is what has been happening in the unending “war on terror”.
The UK went through this debate in the 1980s and 1990s — at the height of the Provisional IRA and Loyalist paramilitary bombing campaigns across the UK — which was another religious-based terrorist war, as I mentioned before. It also — at least from the PIRA side, received the bulk of its funding from the American Irish diaspora. In fact, despite the peace process in Northern Ireland signed with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, this funding from America only finally dried up in the aftermath of 9/11.
And what of the third point in the title — the mental health issue? I mention this because there was a recent case in London of a knife-wielding man frenziedly attacking commuters in an underground railway station last year. The reporting at the time declared that he had been shouting “this is for Syria” — as he attacked his fellow travellers. At the time everyone assumed he was another radicalised jihadi carrying out a lone wolf attack. Indeed, even people at the scene seemed convinced. One witness cried out “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”, a heartfelt sentiment that went viral over social media.
This story was headline news in the UK at the time. The trial recently reached its conclusion, and it now appears that the perpetrator had serious mental health issues. These may have latched onto jihadi terminology, but the motivation was not terroristic.
The guy probably needed an earlier intervention by health professionals, but he slipped through the cracks. That does not make him a terrorist though — no matter what he said in his frenzy — and yet this conclusion certainly did not get the front page headlines the initial attack received.
Let us also look at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that have happened across Western countries over the last few years — in Canada, London, Australia, the USA, Denmark — as well as the Paris and Brussels attacks. Many of the protagonists were already on the radar of the Western intelligence agencies, but because they are drowning in a tsunami of information garnered for the mass surveillance of us all, these crucial nuggets of real intelligence were swamped.
Even worse, it appears that many of the people subsequently fingered as the perpetrators had already been approached by the intelligence agencies, as appears to be the case in Florida too.
So, how does this all come together? There is not doubt that genuine psychopaths or sadists are attracted to terrorist as well as criminal gangs to give free rein to their tendencies — ISIS is an absolutely horrifying example of this. But the ideology of such groups can also attract from a distance the mentally fragile, who can become useful idiots or delusional followers, or vulnerable individuals who can even be manipulated by law enforcement. Add into the mix fundamentalist religion, cult, or racial supremacy beliefs and it all gets too messy, too fast.
And yet.… all these groups use terror to achieve their goals, but only a few are deemed to be terrorists rather than criminals — and we all know now that anyone labelled a terrorist faces far higher penalties than these other categories of crime.
Intelligence agencies are there to protect our national security — ie our nation’s integrity and its very existence. As I have said for many years now, such threats include imminent invasion, as Britain faced during the Second World War, or global annihilation as we all faced during the Cold War.
The random attacks of terrorist — or criminal groups or mentally ill people — cause trauma to the country and the communities in which they occur, but they do not threaten our country’s very survival.
We need to clarify our thinking urgently, both around the definitions applied to such crimes and to the proportionality of the response we make. This will allow us to preserve and strengthen the concept of the rule of law and the notion of democracy under which we all hope to live.