A couple of recent interviews about the themes of UK and EU security, going forward.
Europe_and_the_current_security_situation from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Post_Brexit_UK_EU_Security from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
A couple of recent interviews about the themes of UK and EU security, going forward.
Europe_and_the_current_security_situation from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Post_Brexit_UK_EU_Security from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
This article was first published on RT Op Ed a month ago.
The UK Ministry of Defence announced on 21 September the establishment of yet another British spy agency, an amalgam of military and security service professionals designed to wage cyber war against terrorists, Russia and organised crime. The new agency will have upwards of 2000 staff (the size MI5 was when I worked there in the 1990s, so not inconsiderable). I have been asked for a number of interviews about this and here are my thoughts in long form.
The UK already has a plethora of spy agencies:
To provide American context, MI6 equates to the CIA, GCHQ and the NCSC equate to the NSA, and the NCA to the FBI. Which rather begs the question of where exactly MI5 fits into the modern scheme – or is it just an anachronistic and undemocratic throw-back, a typically British historical muddle, or perhaps the UK’s very own Stasi?
So why the new and expensive agency at a time of national financial uncertainty?
Of course I acknowledge the fact that the UK deserves to retain a comprehensive and impressive defence capability, provided it is used for that purpose rather than illegal, needless wars based on spurious political reasons that cost innocent lives. Every country has the right and the need to protect itself, and the cybers are the newly-defined battle lines.
Moreover, it might be overly simplistic to suggest that this is just more empire-building on the part of the thrusting and ambitious young Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson. Perhaps he really does believe that the UK military needs augmenting after years of cuts, as the former Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party and er, well-known military expert, Lord Ashcroft, wrote in the Daily Mail. But why a whole new intelligence agency at huge cost? Surely all the existing agencies should already be able to provide adequate defence?
Additionally, by singling out Russia as the hostile, aggressor state, when for years the West has also been bewailing Chinese/Iranian/North Korean et al hacking, smacks to me of political opportunism in the wake of “Russiagate”, the Skripals, and Russia’s successful intervention in Syria. Those of a cynical bent among us might see this as politically expedient to create the eternal Emmanuel Goldstein enemy to justify the ever-metastasising military-security complex. But, hey, that is a big tranche of the British, and potentially the post-Brexit, British economy.
The UK intelligence agencies are there to protect “national security and the economic well-being of the state”. So I do have some fundamental ethical and security concerns based on recent Western history. If the new organisation is to go on the cyber offensive what, precisely does that mean – war, unforeseen blow back, or what?
If we go by what the USA has been exposed as doing over the last couple of decades, partly from NSA whistleblowers including Bill Binney, Tom Drake and Edward Snowden, and partly from CIA and NSA leaks into the public domain, a cyber offensive capability involves stockpiling zero day hacks, back doors built into the internet monopolies, weaponised malware such as STUXNET (now out there, mutating in the wild), and the egregious breaking of national laws and international protocols.
To discuss these points in reverse order: among so many other revelations, in 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had cracked Belgacom, the Belgian national telecommunications network – that of an ally; he also revealed that the USA had spied on the German Chancellor’s private phone, as well as many other German officials and journalists; that GCHQ had been prostituting itself to the NSA to do dirty work on its behalf in return for $100 million; and that most big internet companies had colluded with allowing the NSA access to their networks via a programme called PRISM. Only last month, the EU also accused the UK of hacking the Brexit negotiations.
Last year Wikileaks reported on the Vault 7 disclosures – a cache of CIA cyber weapons it had been stockpiling. It is worth reading what Wikileaks had to say about this, analysising the full horror of how vulnerable such a stockpile makes “we, the people”, vulnerable to criminal hacking.
Also, two years ago a huge tranche of similarly hoarded NSA weapons was acquired by a criminal organisation called the Shadow Brokers, who initially tried to sell them on the dark web to the highest bidder but then released them into the wild. The catastrophic crash of NHS computers in the UK last year was because one of these cyber weapons, Wannacry, fell into the wrong criminal hands. How much more is out there, available to criminals and terrorists?
The last two examples will, I hope, expose just how vulnerable such caches of cyber weapons and vulnerabilities can be if not properly secured. And, as we have seen, even the most secret of organisations cannot guarantee this. To use the American vernacular, they can come back and bite you in the ass.
And the earlier NSA whistleblowers, including Bill Binney and Tom Drake, exposed just how easy it is for the spooks to manipulate national law to suit their own agenda, with warrant-less wiretapping, breaches of the US constitution, and massive and needless overspend on predatory snooping systems such as TRAILBLAZER.
Indeed, we had the same thing in the UK when Theresa May succeeded in finally ramming through the invidious Investigatory Powers Act (IPA 2016). When she presented it to parliament as Home Secretary, she implied that it was legalising what GCHQ has previously been doing illegally since 2001, and extend their powers to include bulk metadata hacking, bulk data set hacking and bulk hacking of all our computers and phones, all without meaningful government oversight.
Other countries such as Russia and China have passed similar surveillance legislation, claiming as a precedent the UK’s IPA as justification for what are claimed by the West to be egregious privacy crackdowns.
The remit of the UK spooks is to protect “national security” (whatever that means, as we still await a legal definition) and the economic well-being of the state. I have said this many times over the years – the UK intelligence community is already the most legally protected and least accountable of that of any other Western democracy. So, with all these agencies and all these draconian laws already at their disposal, I am somewhat perplexed about the perceived need for yet another costly intelligence organisation to go on the offensive. What do they want? Outright war?
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…..
In the wake of another apparently victimised whistleblower emerging from the US intelligence community, here is an interview on the subject on RT:
First published by Consortium News.
On 5th June 2018 the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, unveiled his new counter-terrorism initiative that he says is targeting an ever-metastasising threat, yet it raises a raft of new questions about people’s rights.
The government is acting on the imperative that something needs to be done. But MI5 — officially known as the UK domestic Security Service and the lead organisation in combating terrorism within the UK — has already, since the start of the war on terror, doubled in size and has also been promised yet more staff over the next two years.
Yet despite these boosted resources for MI5, as well as increased funding and surveillance powers for the entire UK intelligence community, virtually every terror attack carried out in the UK over the last few years has been committed by someone already known to the authorities. Indeed, the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, had been aggressively investigated but MI5 ignored vital intelligence and closed down the active investigation shortly before he carried out the attack.
This failure to target known threats is not just a UK problem. Attacks across Europe over the last few years have repeatedly been carried out by people already on the local security radar.
New approaches are needed. But this latest offering appears to be a medley of already failed initiatives and more worryingly a potentially dangerous blueprint for a techno-Stasi state.
The main points of the new Home Office plan include: making MI5 share intelligence on 20,000 “subjects of concern” with a wide range of organisations, including local councils, corporations, local police, social workers, and teachers; calling on internet companies to detect and eradicate extremist or suspicious content; making online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay report suspicious purchases; increasing surveillance of big events and infrastructure; and passing even tougher anti-terrorism laws.
This all sounds reasonable to those who are fearful of random attacks on the streets or at events – that is unless one has seen in the past how some initiatives have already been proven to fail or can foresee in the future wholesale abuse of increased surveillance powers.
Intelligence is not Evidence
The most chilling part of the MI5 plan is sharing intelligence on 20,000 subjects of concern. First of all, this is intelligence – by nature gathered from a range of secret sources that MI5 would normally wish to protect. When communicating with counter-terrorism police, intelligence agencies will normally hide the source, but that will require an immense amount of work for 20,000 cases before the information can be shared. Secondly, bear in mind that intelligence is not evidence. Effectively MI5 will be circulating partially assessed suspicions, perhaps even rumours, about individuals, very widely about people who cannot be charged with any crime but who will fall under a deep shadow of suspicion within their communities.
Also if this intelligence is spread as widely as is currently being suggested, it will land in the laps of thousands of public bodies – for instance, schools, councils, social care organisations, and local police. Multiple problems could arise from this. There will no doubt be leaks and gossip within communities – so-and-so is being watched by MI5 and so on.
There will also be the inevitable mission-creep and abuse of power that we saw almost 20 years ago when a whole range of the same public bodies were allowed access to the new eavesdropping and surveillance law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). Back then, local councils were abusing counter-terrorism legislation to catch people who might be trying to play school catchment areas (districts) to get their children into better schools, or even, and I kid you not, might be cockle-rustling on their local beach. Of course, such intrusive electronic surveillance powers have been significantly increased since then, with the Investigatory Powers Act 2017, that allows bulk storage, bulk dataset hacking and hacking per se.
All this follows the notorious Home Office counter-terrorism PREVENT scheme – the failed parent of these new proposals.
A decade ago PREVENT was designed to reach out, build bridges with Muslim communities across Britain, encouraging them to report any suspicious behaviour to the authorities to nip incipient radicalisation in the bud. Unfortunately it did not quite work out that way. Young Muslims told stories of pressure from MI5 to spy on their communities. It destroyed community trust rather than built it.
Unfortunately, this new Home Office scheme goes even further down the wrong path. It asks teachers, social workers, the local police and other authority figures to go beyond reporting suspicious behaviour to actually be given a list of names to keep a awatch on “subjects of interest”.
The last time such a system of community informants used in Europe was ended when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and East Germany’s Stasi system of a vast network of informers was revealed in all its horror. How ironic that the same system that was devised to protect the East German youth from the “decadent influence” of Western ideals is now being proposed in a “decadent” Western country to spy on its own youth for traces of radicalisation.
Suffice to say that if the British government cannot even make the internet titans such as Google and Facebook pay their fair share in taxes, nor call Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to account in Parliament about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, then good luck forcing them make a meaningful effort to root out extremist material.
But even if they do agree, this idea is fraught with the troublesome question of who gets to decide whether something is extremist material or a dissenting opinion against the establishment? Facebook, Google and Youtube are already engaging in what can only be called censorship by de-ranking in search results material from legitimate dissident websites that they, with no history of exercising news judgement, deem “fake news”.Such established news sites such as Wikileaks, ConsortiumNews and World Socialist Web Site as well as many others listed on the notorious and unreliable PropOrNot list have taken a significant hit since these restrictions came into play on 23 April 2017.
Amazon, eBay and other retail companies are being asked to report suspicious sales of precursor materials for bombs and other weapons. Car hire companies will be asked to report suspicious individuals hiring cars and lorries. Algorithms to detect weapons purchases may be feasible, but denying rentals to merely “suspicious” individuals who’ve committed no crimes strays into Stasi territory.
Back in the era of fertiliser lorry and nail bombs, laws were put in place across Europe to require fertiliser companies to report strange purchases – from people who were not registered agriculturalists, for example, Unfortunately, this law was easily subverted by Norwegian right-wing terrorist, Anders Breivik, who simply worked to establish a farm and then legally purchased the ingredients for his Oslo car bomb in 2011.
You are Being Watched
The UK is known as having the most CCTV cameras per capita in the Western world. There have been various plans mooted (some leaked to Wikileaks) to hook these up to corporations such as Facebook for immediate face tagging capabilities, and the development of algorithms that can identify suspicious behaviour in real time and the police can move to intercept the “suspect”.
Face recognition cameras are being trialled by three police forces in the UK – with software that can allegedly watch crowds at events and in stations and potentially identify known criminals and suspects in a crowd and alert the police who will immediately move in and intercept.
Unfortunately, according to Big Brother Watch in the UK, these computer systems have up to a 98% failure rate. If the Home Secretary is really suggesting that such dodgy software is going to be used to police our public spaces I would suggest that he ask his geeks to go back and do their homework.
Do we really want to live in a country where our every movement is watched by technology, with the police waiting to pounce; a country where if we are running late or are having a stressed work day and seem “strange” to a person in a car hire company, we can be tracked as a potential terrorist; where children need to fear that if they ask awkward, if interested, questions of their teachers or raise family concerns with social care, they might already be on a watch list and their file is stacking up slowly in the shadows?
That way lies totalitariansim. I have been tracking how a state can slide unthinkingly into such a situation for years, particularly looking at such warnings from history as 1930s Germany and, over the last decade, I have seriously begun to fear for my country.
If these measures go through Britons could be living under SS-GB – the name of a book by the excellent spy writer, Len Deighton, in his envisioning of what the UK would have been like if the Nazis had succeed in invading during World War Two. The ultimate irony is that the acronym attributed to MI5 at international intelligence conferences way back in the 1990s used to be UK SS – UK Security Service. I hear it has changed now….
Since 2002 a unique award ceremony has taken place annually in either the USA or Europe: the Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence. This year it occurred in Washington DC on 22 September and was given to veteran journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Seymour Hersh.
Why unique? Well the group comprising the Sam Adams Associates is made up of former Western intelligence, military and diplomatic professionals, many of whom have spoken out about abuses and crimes committed by their employers. For their pains, most have lost their jobs and some have also lost their liberty.
Laureates include US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley (Time person of the year in 2002 and the first SAA laureate), publisher Julian Assange, UK Ambassador Craig Murray, and co-ordinator of the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran in 2007, Dr Tom Fingar.
The common theme that binds this disparate group together into a rather weird, wonderful and very informal global club is that they have all attempted to shine a light on the dark corners of government, to speak truth to power and expose wrongdoing and “fake news” for the greater good of humanity. It is appalling that they have to pay such a high personal price for doing this, which is why the Sam Adams Associates provides recognition and presents as its annual award — a candle stick, the “corner brightener”.
The Sam Adams Award has, over most recent years, gone to bona fide whistleblowers such as Tom Drake, Bill Binney, Jess Raddack and Chelsea Manning, while publishers, such as Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame, have also received recognition. But Seymour Hersh is the first mainstream journalist to receive the accolade.
Hersh has a long and illustrious career, beginning with his exposure of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war in 1969 . But it was an article he wrote about the April 2017 chemical attack in Syria that won him the award this year.
To remind people, on 4th April this year a chemical weapon was reportedly used against the civilian population of Idlib Province in Syria and civilians were reportedly killed. Ahead of any possible investigation, the international media unilaterally declared that the Assad régime had attacked its own people; President Trump immediately ordered a retaliatory strike on the Syrian Air Force base from where the alleged attackers launched their fighter jets, and was lauded by the militatry-industrial complex for firm and decisive action.
Except – this was all based on a lie, as Hersh established. However, despite his journalistic reputation, he was unable to publish this story in the American mainstream media, and instead had it published in Germany’s Die Welt.
The event in Washington this year was a game of two halves – the first was the dinner where Seymour Hersh was presented with his award, lauded by both former intelligence professionals and fellow investigative journalists for his work. It was a recognition of the value of true journalism – speaking truth to power and attempting to hold that power to account.
The second half of the evening, which Mr Hersh was unable to attend because of prior commitments, was the more general annual SAA celebration of all things truth telling and whistleblowing. I had the honour of MCing the event, which included a speech from Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, SAA founder Ray McGovern and many more.
Between us all we have decades of service and experience across different continents. Despite this geographical spread, common themes continue to emerge as they always do at Sam Adams events: official obfuscation, spy spin, media control, illegal war and more.
What to do? We shall continue to speak out in our work around the world – I just hope that the awareness spreads about the fake news that is daily peddled in the mainstream media and that more people begin to look behind the headlines and search for the truth of what is going on.
Whistleblowers, as well as their enablers in the publishing and media world, remain the regulators of last resort for truth and for justice.
Here is a link to the opening segment — other parts can be found on Youtube via World Beyond War 2017:
#NoWar2017 Sam Adams Associates with Ed Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, Annie Machon and Elizabeth Murray from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
My recent RT interview about the French intelligence report that exonerated Russia of trying to hack the recent presidential election, despite the claims of new President, Emmanual Macron. The same thing has happened in Germany too, much to Merkel’s displeasure..
And so the tapestry of lies begins to fray:
No Evidence of Russian Hacking of French Election from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Here are a couple of the interviews I have done this month, the first marking the release of US army whistleblower, Chelsea Manning and the second, ironically, discussing leaks from the US intelligence community, the most recent of which adversely impacted the investigation into the recent appalling Manchester bombing in the UK:
The Impact of Chelsea Manning from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
US Intelligence Leaking from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
A recent debate about “Russiagate” on RT’s Crosstalk show, with CIA whistleblower, John Kiriakou, and former US diplomat, James Jatras, along with host Peter Lavelle.
Debunking some of the wilder intelligence claims.….
Crosstalk on “Russiagate” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Yet again Wikileaks has come good by exposing just how much we are being spied upon in this brave new digital world — the Vault 7 release has provided the proof for what many of us already knew/suspected — that our smart gadgets are little spy devices.
Here are a couple of interviews I did for the BBC and RT on the subject:
BBC — CIA and MI5 Hack our TVs from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Wikileaks release info re CIA/MI5 hacks from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
Here’s a recent interview I did for RT UK’s flagship news programme, Going Underground with Afshin Rattansi, about the whole fake news, fake intelligence allegations swirling around President Trump’ administration at the moment:
RT Going Underground — the Issue of US Fake Intelligence from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
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.
ISIS Agent in German Spy Agency from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
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.
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: