BBC Radio interview about the “snoopers’ charter”

Yes­ter­day I gave an inter­view to BBC Radio Ulster about the secur­ity fall-out of the Wool­wich murder and the cyn­ic­al polit­ic­al oppor­tunism of those call­ing, inev­it­ably, for great­er powers for the spies and a rein­tro­duc­tion of the pro­posed Com­munuic­a­tions Data Bill, dubbed the “snoop­ers’ charter”.

Here is the link.

Judicial rendition — the UK-US extradition treaty is a farce

Some­times I sit here read­ing the news —  on sub­jects in which I take a deep interest such as the recent police invest­ig­a­tion into UK spy com­pli­city in tor­ture, where the police decided not to pro­sec­ute — and feel that I should com­ment.  But really, what would be the point?  Of course the police would not find enough con­crete evid­ence, of course no indi­vidu­al spies would be held to account, des­pite the fact that the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment has already paid massive set­tle­ments to the vic­tims.

BelhadjNow there are reports that the police will be invest­ig­at­ing MI6 involve­ment in the extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture of two Liby­ans.  The case appears bang to rights, with doc­u­ment­ary evid­ence that high-rank­ing MI6 officers and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters were involved in and approved the oper­a­tion.  Yet I’m will­ing to bet that the plods at Scot­land Yard will still not be able to find the requis­ite evid­ence to pro­sec­ute any­body. 

The inev­it­able (and prob­ably wished-for out­come on the part of the author­it­ies) is that people become so weary and cyn­ic­al about the lack of justice that they stop fight­ing for it.  And they can tem­por­ar­ily suc­ceed, when we suc­cumb to cyn­ic­al burnout.

But the case repor­ted in today’s Daily Mail, that of a young Brit­ish stu­dent facing extra­di­tion to the US des­pite hav­ing broken no laws in the UK, suc­ceeded in rous­ing my wrath. 

Richard_ODwyerThe hap­less 23-year old Richard O’Dwyer faces 10 years in a max­im­um secur­ity Amer­ic­an pris­on.  His crime, accord­ing to the US, is that he set up a UK-based web­site that provided links to oth­er inter­na­tion­al web­sites that allegedly hos­ted copy­right mater­i­al.

This case is so troub­ling on so many levels it is dif­fi­cult to know where to begin.  There are issues around the crack­down of US cor­por­ate copy­right law, issues around the inequal­ity of the uni­lat­er­al Extra­di­tion Act 2003, and his­tor­ic ques­tions of US hypo­crisy about extra­di­tion.

So let’s start with the unsup­por­ted alleg­a­tions against poor Richard O’Dwyer.  He is a stu­dent who built a web­site that col­lated a list of sites in oth­er coun­tries that host films, books and music for free down­load.  O’Dwyer did not him­self down­load any copy­righted mater­i­al, and the web­sites he linked to were appar­ently with­in jur­is­dic­tions where such down­loads are not illeg­al.  Provid­ing a sign­post to oth­er leg­al inter­na­tion­al sites is mani­festly not a crime in the UK and he has nev­er been charged.

How­ever, over the last couple of dec­ades the US enter­tain­ment lobby has been fight­ing a vicious rear­guard action against copy­right infringe­ment, start­ing with the music, then the film, and now the pub­lish­ing industry.  The lob­by­ists have proved vic­tori­ous and the invi­di­ous SOPA and PIPA laws are soon to be passed by the US Con­gress.  All well and good you might think — it’s one of those mad US issues.  But oh no, these laws have glob­al reach.  What might be leg­al with­in the UK might still mean that you fall foul of US legis­la­tion.

Gary_McKinnon2Which is where the Extra­di­tion Act 2003 becomes par­tic­u­larly threat­en­ing.  This law means that any UK cit­izen can be deman­ded by and handed over to the US with no prima facie evid­ence.  As we have seen in the appalling case of alleged hack­er Gary McKin­non, it mat­ters not if the “crime” were com­mit­ted on UK soil (as you can see here, McKinnon’s case was not pro­sec­uted by the UK author­it­ies in 2002.  If it had been, he would have received a max­im­um sen­tence of 6 months’ com­munity ser­vice: if extra­dited he is facing up to 70 years in a US max­im­um secur­ity pris­on).

The UK gov­ern­ment has tried to spin the egre­gious Liby­an cases as “judi­cial rendi­tion” rather than “extraordin­ary kid­nap­ping” or whatever it’s sup­posed to be.  So I think it would be accur­ate to call Gary McKinnon’s case “judi­cial rendi­tion” too, rather than bor­ing old extra­di­tion.

Richard O’Dwyer appar­ently didn’t com­mit any­thing that could be deemed to be a crime in the UK, and yet he is still facing extra­di­tion to the US and a 10 year stretch.  The new US laws like SOPA threaten all of us, and not just with judi­cial rendi­tion. 

As I have men­tioned before, digit­al rights act­iv­ist Cory Doc­torow summed it up best: “you can’t make a sys­tem that pre­vents spy­ing by secret police and allows spy­ing by media giants”.  These cor­por­ate inter­net laws are a Tro­jan horse that will threaten our basic civil liber­ties across the board.

So now to my third point.  The hypo­crisy around the Amer­ic­an stance on extra­di­tion with the UK is breath­tak­ing.   The UK has been dis­patch­ing its own cit­izens off at an alarm­ing rate to the “tender” mer­cies of the US judi­cial sys­tem since 2004, with no prima facie evid­ence required.  In fact, the leg­al proof required to get a UK cit­izen extra­dited to the US is less than that required for someone to be extra­dited from one US state to anoth­er. 

The US, on the oth­er hand, delayed rat­i­fy­ing the law until 2006, and the bur­den of proof required to extra­dite someone to the UK remains high, so it is unbal­anced not only in concept but also in prac­tice.  And this des­pite the fact that the law was seen as cru­cial to facil­it­ate the trans­fer of highly dan­ger­ous ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the end­less “war on ter­ror”.

Why has this happened?  One can but spec­u­late about the power of the Irish lobby in the US gov­ern­ment, as Sir Men­zies Camp­bell did dur­ing a par­lia­ment­ary debate about the Act in 2006.   How­ever, it is well known that the US was remark­ably coy about extra­dit­ing IRA sus­pects back to the UK to stand tri­al dur­ing the 30-year “Troubles” in North­ern Ire­land.  We even have well-known apo­lo­gists such as Con­gress­man Peter King, the Chair­man of the Home­land Secur­ity Com­mit­tee attempt­ing to demon­ise organ­isa­tions like Wikileaks as ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tions, while at the same being a life-long sup­port­er of Sinn Féin, the polit­ic­al wing of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA.

UK_poodleThe double stand­ards are breath-tak­ing.  The US dic­tates an extra­di­tion treaty with the UK to stop ter­ror­ism, but then uses this law to tar­get those who might poten­tially, tan­gen­tially, minutely threaten the profits of the US enter­tain­ment mega-corps; and then it delays rat­i­fy­ing and imple­ment­ing its own law for poten­tially dubi­ous polit­ic­al reas­ons.

And the UK gov­ern­ment yet again rolls over and takes it, while inno­cent stu­dents such as Richard O’Dwyer must pay the price.  As his moth­er is quoted as say­ing: “if they can come for Richard, they can come for any­one”.

Security forces endanger agent lives, not whistleblowers…

Our esteemed gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and police forces always attack whis­tleblowers and organ­isa­tions such as Wikileaks on the grounds that unau­thor­ised dis­clos­ure of clas­si­fied inform­a­tion puts the lives of agents and inform­ants at risk.

Bob_QuickAgent iden­tit­ies, along with ongo­ing oper­a­tions (as Former Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions at the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, Bob Quick, found to his cost two years ago) and sens­it­ive invest­ig­at­ory tech­niques, are indeed in need of pro­tec­tion.  Much else is not — par­tic­u­larly inform­a­tion about lies, cov­er-ups, incom­pet­ence and crime.

Indeed, once you delve behind the scream­ing head­lines that whis­tleblower dis­clos­ures have risked agent lives, you often find that this is abso­lutely not the case — in fact their motiv­a­tion is usu­ally to pre­vent fur­ther need­less tor­ture, death and war crimes.  So the US Defence Sec­ret­ary, Robert Gates, was forced to admit that Wikileaks had indeed not endangered lives with the pub­lic­a­tion of the Afghan War Logs last year, and Dav­id Shayler’s tri­al judge, in his form­al rul­ing, stated that “no lives had been put at risk” by his whis­tleblow­ing.

Instead, there is a grow­ing body of evid­ence to sug­gest that the secur­ity forces are the very organ­isa­tions not tak­ing the pro­tec­tion and after­care of their agents ser­i­ously.

Mark Kennedy, the under­cov­er police officer who spied on UK envir­on­ment­al protest groups, has gone on the record to say that the super­vi­sion, care and psy­cho­lo­gic­al sup­port provided to him was woe­fully lack­ing.   Kev­in Fulton, a serving sol­dier who infilt­rated the IRA on behalf of the notori­ous Forces Research Unit, has sim­il­arly been hung out to dry and is now attempt­ing to sue the Brit­ish Gov­ern­ment to provide the prom­ised, adequate after­care.

Mar­tin McGart­land, who worked as a source in North­ern Ire­land at the height of “The Troubles” and is cred­ited with sav­ing 50 lives, has also borne the brunt of this lais­sez faire atti­tude since he stopped work­ing for intel­li­gence.  He has the scars to prove it too, hav­ing sur­vived assas­sin­a­tion attempts, and once blindly leap­ing out of a third floor win­dow in an frantic attempt to escape tor­ture at the hands of the IRA.  As he says:

Who would put their lives on the line nowadays when they can read what hap­pens to those who did?”, McGart­land says. “I can’t go home and the IRA are sup­posed to be a former ter­ror­ist group. Nobody is hunt­ing down my attack­ers and nobody in author­ity seems to care. That has a dir­ect impact on recruit­ing agents.…”

Denis_DonaldsonThe most egre­gious case is of Denis Don­ald­son, Sinn Féin’s Head of Admin­is­tra­tion at Stor­mont in North­ern Ire­land who was outed as a MI5 and police spy by Gerry Adams in 2006.  He was bru­tally murdered a few months later, allegedly by the Real IRA, hav­ing received little pro­tec­tion or sup­port from his erstwhile spook hand­lers.

So who is really more likely expose cur­rent agents to the risk of psy­cho­lo­gic­al dam­age, tor­ture and death, or to deter future agents from volun­teer­ing to work with the secur­ity forces?  Prin­cipled whis­tleblowers who expose crime and incom­pet­ence with due care for pro­tect­ing real secrets, or the spooks who take a cava­lier approach to the pas­tor­al care of their agents, and then hang them out to dry once their use­ful­ness is at an end?

The murder of Pat Finucane

Mov­ing swiftly past the pruri­ent, thigh-rub­bing glee that most of the old media seems to be exhib­it­ing over the alleged details of Juli­an Assange’s love life, let’s re-focus on the heart of the Wikileaks dis­clos­ures, and most import­antly the aims under­pin­ning them: trans­par­ency, justice, and an informed cit­izenry liv­ing with­in fully-func­tion­ing demo­cra­cies.  Such quaint notions.

In the media mael­strom of the Cableg­ate dis­clos­ures, and the res­ult­ing infant­ile and thug­gish threats of the Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al class, is easy to lose sight of the fact that many of the leaked doc­u­ments refer to scan­dals, cor­rup­tion and cov­er-ups in a range of coun­tries, not just the good old US of A.

Pat_FinucaneOne doc­u­ment that recently caught my atten­tion related to the notori­ous murder twenty-one years ago of civil rights act­iv­ist, Pat Finu­cane, in North­ern Ire­land.  Finu­cane was a well-known law­yer who was shot and killed in front of his wife and three small chil­dren.  There has long been spec­u­la­tion that he was tar­geted by Prot­est­ant ter­ror­ist groups, in col­lu­sion with the NI secret police, the army’s notori­ous and now-dis­ban­ded Forces Research Unit (FRU), and/or MI5.

Well, over a dec­ade ago former top plod, Lord (John) Stevens, began an inquiry that did indeed estab­lish such state col­lu­sion, des­pite hav­ing his inquiry offices burnt out in the pro­cess by person/s allegedly unknown half-way through the invest­ig­a­tion.  Stevens fought on, pro­du­cing a damning report in 2003 con­firm­ing the notion of state col­lu­sion with Irish Loy­al­ist ter­ror­ist activ­it­ies, but nev­er did cla­ri­fy exactly what had happened to poor Pat Finu­cane.

How­ever, Finucane’s trau­mat­ised fam­ily has nev­er stopped demand­ing justice.  The recent dis­clos­ure shines a light on some of the back-room deals around this scan­dal, and for that I’m sure many people thank Wikileaks.

The “Troubles” in North­ern Ire­land — such a quint­es­sen­tially Brit­ish under­state­ment, in any oth­er coun­try it would have been called a civil war — were decept­ive, murky and vicious on both sides.  “Col­lu­sion” is an elast­ic word that stretches bey­ond the strict notion of the state.  It is well-known that the US organ­is­tion, NORAID, sup­por­ted by many Amer­ic­ans claim­ing Irish ances­try, was a major fun­drais­ing chan­nel for, um, Sinn Féin, the polit­ic­al wing of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA, from the 1970s onwards. 

Peter_kingSuch net­works provided even more sup­port than Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya with his arms ship­ments, and the cash well only dried up post-9/11.  As you can see in this recent art­icle in the The Tele­graph, even the incom­ing Chair­man of the House Home­land Secur­ity Com­mit­tee, New York Con­gress­man Peter King (who iron­ic­ally called for the des­ig­na­tion of Wkileaks as a “for­eign ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tion”) appears to have been a life long sup­port­er of Sinn Féin.

With this in the back of our minds, it appears that Dub­lin and Wash­ing­ton kept push­ing for a full inquiry into Finucane’s murder — and in 2005 it looked like MI5 would finally co-oper­ate

How­ever, the dev­il was in the detail. Coin­cid­ent­ally, 2005 was the year that the UK gov­ern­ment rushed through a new law, the Inquir­ies Act, which scan­dal­ously allowed any depart­ment under invest­ig­a­tion (in this case MI5) to dic­tate the terms and scope of the inquiry. 

Col­lu­sion by any state in the unlaw­ful arrest, tor­ture, and extraju­di­cial murder of people — wheth­er its own cit­izens or oth­ers — is state ter­ror­ism.  Let’s not mince our words here.  Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al provides a clear defin­i­tion of this concept.

As the The Guard­i­an  art­icle about Finu­cane so succintly puts it:

When a state sanc­tions the killing of cit­izens, in par­tic­u­lar cit­izens who are law­yers, it puts the rule of law and demo­cracy in jeop­ardy. And when a state enlists aux­il­i­ary assas­sins, it cedes its mono­poly over state secrets: it may feel omni­po­tent, but it is also vul­ner­able to dis­clos­ure.”

Mercenaries1Indeed.  North­ern Ire­land was like a Petri dish of human rights abuses: tor­ture, Dip­lock courts (aka mil­it­ary tribunals), kid­nap­pings, curfews, shoot-to-kill, inform­ers, and state col­lu­sion in assas­sin­a­tions.

The infec­tion has now spread.  These are pre­cisely the tac­tics cur­rently used by the US, the UK and their “aux­il­i­ary assas­sins” across great swathes of the Middle East.  Per­haps this explains why our nation states have been out­flanked and have ceded their mono­poly over secrets.

Will justice ever be done?  In the past I would have said, sadly, that would be highly unlikely.  How­ever,  cour­ageous organ­isa­tions like Wikileaks and its ilk are improv­ing the odds.

Blitz Spirit?

Sir_Paul_StephensonThe most seni­or police officer in the UK, the Com­mis­sion­er of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Sir Paul Steph­en­son no less, is say­ing that the Brit­ish cit­izens are not tak­ing the threat of ter­ror­ism ser­i­ously enough.  “Al Qaeda” could strike at any minute, the enemy is with­in etc, etc.…

Now, for a man of his seni­or­ity, one pre­sumes that he has served as a police­man for a fair few years — pos­sibly in the 1970s, cer­tainly the 80s and 90s.  Which means that he should have a memory of what it means to be under the real, daily threat of bombs explod­ing that aimed to maim, kill and ter­ror­ize the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion of Lon­don and the rest of the UK.  After all, through­out those dec­ades the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA, backed by the fund-rais­ing activ­it­ies of cer­tain Amer­ic­an cit­izens and Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya — that erstwhile pat­ron of free­dom fight­ers every­where, now a staunch ally of the West in the “war on ter­ror” — was pretty much put­ting bombs down at will on UK streets.

Bishopsgate_Bombing_1993Dur­ing these years the UK has endured Lock­er­bie, Omagh, Bish­opsgate, Canary Wharf, and Manchester, to name but a few major atro­cit­ies.  A good sum­mary of the ter­ror­ist attacks against Lon­don alone over the last 150 years can be found here, with the first Tube bomb­ing occur­ring in 1885.  A pilot, Patrick Smith, also recently wrote a great art­icle about air­craft secur­ity and the sheer scale of the ter­ror­ist threat to the West in the 1980s — and asks a very per­tin­ent ques­tion: just how would we col­lect­ively react to such a stream of atro­cit­ies now? 

Put­ting aside my pro­fes­sion­al life at the time, I have per­son­al memor­ies of what it was like to live and work in Lon­don in the 1990s under the shad­ow of ter­ror­ism.  I remem­ber mak­ing my way to work when I was a fledging MI5 intel­li­gence officer in 1991 and com­mut­ing through Vic­tor­ia train sta­tion in Lon­don 10 minutes before a bomb, planted in a rub­bish bin, exploded on the sta­tion con­course.  One per­son was killed, and many sus­tained severe injur­ies.  One per­son had their foot blown off — the image haunted me for a long time.

I also vividly remem­ber, two years later, sit­ting at my desk in MI5’s May­fair office, and hear­ing a dull thud in the back­ground — this turned out to be a bomb explod­ing out­side Har­rods depart­ment store in Knights­bridge.  And let’s not for­get the almost daily dis­rup­tion to the tube and rail net­works dur­ing the 90s because of secur­ity alerts.  Every Lon­don­er was exhor­ted to watch out for, and report, any sus­pi­cious pack­ages left at sta­tions or on streets.  Yet because of the pre­ced­ing couple of dec­ades, this was already a nor­mal way of life in the city. 

Keep_Calm_and_Carry_On_PosterLon­don­ers have grown used to incon­veni­ence; they grumble a bit about the dis­rup­tion and then get on with their lives — echoes of the “keep calm and carry on” men­tal­ity that evolved dur­ing the Blitz years.  In the 1990s the only notice­able change to London’s diurn­al rhythm was that there were few­er US tour­ists clog­ging up the streets — an early indic­a­tion of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate, para­noid US reac­tion to a per­ceived ter­ror­ist threat.

Sep­ar­ate from the IRA, in 1994 a car bomb exploded out­side the Israeli embassy in Kens­ing­ton, Lon­don.  Des­pite ini­tial reports that Ira­ni­an-backed groups were respons­ible (and, it turns out, MI5 may have dropped the ball), Palestini­an act­iv­ists were blamed and con­victed, wrongly it turns out, as MI5 assessed that the Israeli intel­li­gence agency, Mossad, had pulled a dirty trick.

Ter­ror­ism on the streets of Lon­don was noth­ing new.  In the early 1980s my fath­er was in Lon­don attend­ing an invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ism course and nar­rowly missed two bomb­ings — one in a res­taur­ant at Marble Arch a couple of hours after he and the rest of the course mem­bers had been eat­ing there, and anoth­er later that night close to the hotel he was stay­ing in at Lan­caster Gate. 

Dawson's_Field_VC10My Pa had anoth­er near miss in 1970 when he was a young air­line pilot fly­ing VC-10s around the world for BOAC. He was sup­posed to be the pilot of the VC-10 that ended up at Dawson’s Field in Jordan — hijacked by mem­bers of the PFLP and even­tu­ally blown up.  He had been pre­ven­ted from fly­ing from Bahrain that day as he was suf­fer­ing a bad dose of the ‘flu.

To this day, his view about both these incid­ents is to shrug and carry on.  Yes, it was a close shave, but if you allow incid­ents like that to col­our the rest of your life, then the concept of ter­ror­ism has already won.

The UK and its cit­izens have had plenty of hands-on exper­i­ence of liv­ing with the real­ity of war, polit­ic­al viol­ence and ter­ror­ism.   As a res­ult, I’m con­stantly flab­ber­gas­ted by the glob­al secur­ity crack­down since 9/11 and par­tic­u­larly in the UK after 7th July 2005.  It was ghastly, and my heart bleeds for the vic­tims, fam­il­ies, and sur­viv­ors, but major ter­ror­ist atro­cit­ies are hardly new to the UK

Gerard_Conlan_Guildford_4_releaseThe UK gov­ern­ment seems now to have for­got­ten hard-learned les­sons from the 1970s and 80s in the war in North­ern Ire­land: that dra­coni­an meas­ures — tor­ture, shoot to kill, intern­ment, mil­it­ary-style tribunals —  not only don’t work, but also are counter-pro­duct­ive and act as recruit­ing grounds for ter­ror­ist groups.  The flag­rant mis­car­riages of justice around cases like the Guild­ford Four and Birm­ing­ham Six rein­forced this per­spect­ive.  

And the UK has not been alone in Europe when it comes to liv­ing with the daily real­ity of ter­ror­ism: the Span­ish have endured Basque sep­ar­at­ist attacks for four dec­ades, as have the French — in addi­tion to those per­pet­rated in Par­is with dev­ast­at­ing res­ults by Algeri­an Islam­ic groups in the 1990s.  Ger­many suc­cess­fully dealt with the Baader-Mein­hof Gang (Red Army Fac­tion), and oth­er European coun­tries, such as Bel­gi­um and Italy, have endured Oper­a­tion Gla­dio style ter­ror­ist attacks over recent dec­ades.

But in all those years, none of our coun­tries gave up on the concept of basic val­ues and freedoms — indeed they seemed to learn use­ful les­sons from the repress­ive, failed exper­i­ment in North­ern Ire­land.  So why are we now fall­ing in line, unthink­ingly, with the hys­ter­ic­al and bru­tal US response post 9/11? 

Das_leben_der_anderenIn the UK we are effect­ively liv­ing under a Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance state, as I have pre­vi­ously and extens­ively writ­ten.  Oth­er North­ern European coun­tries are con­stantly pres­sured to fall in line with the US “war on ter­ror” fear men­tal­ity.  To its cred­it Ger­many is react­ing cau­tiously, even in the face of the cur­rent, hyped-up ter­ror threat.  But then we Europeans know the les­sons of his­tory — we’ve lived them, and Ger­many more than most.  The ghosts of the Gestapo and the Stasi still cre­ate a fris­son of fear in the col­lect­ive Ger­man­ic memory.

But return­ing to that doughty crime fight­er, Sir Paul Steph­en­son.  The day after he ticked off the UK pub­lic for not tak­ing ter­ror­ism ser­i­ously enough, he is once again in the media, pre­dict­ing an era of grow­ing civil unrest in the wake of the stu­dent riots in Lon­don, and chillingly stat­ing that the rules of the game had changed.  For­get about try­ing to nego­ti­ate with cam­paign­ers — now the only way to deal with them is to spy on them, as The Guard­i­an repor­ted:

We have been going through a peri­od where we have not seen that sort of viol­ent dis­order,” Steph­en­son said. “We had dealt with stu­dent organ­isers before and I think we based it too much on his­tory. If we fol­low an intel­li­gence-based mod­el that stops you doing that. Obvi­ously you real­ise the game has changed. Regret­tably, the game has changed and we must act.”

Big_BrotherLast year the same news­pa­per revealed that ACPO, the seni­or police officers’ private asso­ci­ation, was run­ning an illeg­al unit to spy on “domest­ic extrem­ists” (read polit­ic­ally act­ive cit­izens).  In response to the pub­lic out­cry, the head of ACPO, Sir Hugh Orde, prom­ised to stop this Stasi-like prac­tice.  In the wake of the stu­dent protests, Sir Paul will prob­ably see a renewed need for the unit, no doubt under anoth­er name.  Big Broth­er grows apace — because, of course, we all know that Ocean­ia has always been at war with East­as­ia.…..

Remember, remember the 5th of November.…

Annie_on_Conviction_DayNovem­ber 5th has long had many levels of res­on­ance for me: Bon­fire Night of course, when I was a child — fire­works in the garden and burnt baked pota­toes from the fire; since the age of sev­en, cel­eb­rat­ing the birth­day of my old­est friend; and, since 2002, the memory of hav­ing to stand up in the wit­ness stand in an Old Bailey court room in Lon­don to give a mit­ig­a­tion plea at the tri­al of my former part­ner, see­ing his sen­tence reduced from the expec­ted thir­teen months to a “mere” six, and then hav­ing to deal for weeks with the media fall-out.  A strange mix of memor­ies.

Dav­id Shayler endured a “Kafkaesque tri­al” in 2002 in the sense that he was not allowed to make a defence due to gov­ern­ment-imposed gag­ging orders, des­pite all the rel­ev­ant mater­i­al already hav­ing been widely pubished in the media.  The issues were summed up well in this New States­man art­icle from that time. 

But the cur­rent debate about con­trol orders used against so-called ter­ror­ist sus­pects — my emphas­is — adds a whole new dimen­sion to the notori­ous phrase.

This recent, excel­lent art­icle in The Guard­i­an by law­yer Mat­thew Ryder about con­trol orders sums it up.  How can you defend a cli­ent if you are not even allowed access to the inform­a­tion that has led to the ori­gin­al accus­a­tion?

The Lib­er­al Demo­crats, in the run-up to the Gen­er­al Elec­tion earli­er this year, pledged to do away with con­trol orders, as they are an affront to the Brit­ish mod­el of justice.  How­ever, MI5 is put­ting up a strong defence for their reten­tion, but then they would, wouldn’t they? 

Much of the “secret” evid­ence that leads to a con­trol order appears to come from tele­phone inter­cept, but why on earth can this evid­ence not be revealed in a court of law?  It’s not like the notion of tele­phone bug­ging is a state secret these days, as I argued in The Guard­i­an way back in 2005.

BirmsixBear­ing all of the above in mind, do have a read of this inter­view with Paddy Hill, one of the vic­tims of the notori­ous wrong­ful con­vic­tions for the IRA Birm­ing­ham pub bomb­ings in 1974.  After being arres­ted, threatened, tor­tured and trau­mat­ised, he was forced to con­fess to a ter­rible crime he had not com­mit­ted. 

As a res­ult, he had to endure six­teen years in pris­on before his inno­cence was con­firmed.  He is still suf­fer­ing the con­sequences, des­pite hav­ing found the strength to set up the “Mis­car­riages of Justice Organ­isa­tion” to help oth­er vic­tims.

And then have a think about wheth­er we should blindly trust the word of the secur­ity forces and the police when they state that we have to give away yet more of our hard-won freedoms and rights in the name of the ever-shift­ing, ever-neb­u­lous “war on ter­ror”. 

Do we really need to hold ter­ror­ist sus­pects in police cells for 28 days without charge?  Will we really con­tin­ue to allow the head of MI6 to get away with blithely assert­ing, unchal­lenged, that Brit­ish intel­li­gence does its very best not to “bene­fit” from inform­a­tion extrac­ted via unthink­able tor­ture, as former UK ambas­sad­or Craig Mur­ray so graph­ic­ally described in his blog on 29th Octo­ber?

I’ve said it before, and I shall say it again: the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was put in place for a reas­on in 1948.  Let’s all draw a breath, and remem­ber, remem­ber.….

 

Gareth Peirce on Torture, Secrecy and the British State

Gareth_Peirce_1Lead­ing UK human rights law­yer, Gareth Peirce, has writ­ten a power­ful and elo­quent art­icle in the Lon­don Review of Books about the Brit­ish state’s involve­ment in tor­ture. 

She also broadens out the argu­ment to look at the fun­da­ment­al soci­et­al prob­lems — lack of account­ab­il­ity, secrecy, the use and abuse of the concept of “nation­al secur­ity”  — that cre­ated a cul­ture that facil­it­ates and con­dones tor­ture.

Gareth has fought for vic­tims of injustice for four dec­ades, focus­ing primar­ily on ter­ror­ism and intel­li­gence issues. 

A long piece, but stick with.  It’s worth it!

Fig Leaf to the Spies

The lack of any mean­ing­ful over­sight of the UK’s intel­li­gence com­munity was high­lighted again last week, when The Daily Mail repor­ted that a cru­cial fax was lost in the run-up to the 7/7 bomb­ings in Lon­don in 2005.

There has yet to be an offi­cial enquiry into the worst ter­ror­ist atro­city on the UK main­land, des­pite the call for one from trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies and sur­viv­ors and the legit­im­ate con­cerns of the Brit­ish pub­lic. To date, we have had to make do with an “offi­cial nar­rat­ive” writ­ten by a face­less bur­eau­crat and pub­lished in May 2006. As soon as it was pub­lished, the then Home Sec­ret­ary, John Reid, had to cor­rect egre­gious fac­tu­al errors when present­ing it to Par­lia­ment.

The Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) also did a shoddy first job, when it cleared the secur­ity forces of all wrong-doing in its ini­tial report pub­lished at the same time. It claimed a lack of resources had hampered MI5’s counter-ter­ror­ism efforts.

How­ever, fol­low­ing a use­ful leak, it emerged that MI5 had not only been aware of at least two of the alleged bombers before the attack, it had been con­cerned enough to send a fax up to West York­shire Police Spe­cial Branch ask­ing them to invest­ig­ate Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehz­ad Tan­weer. This fax was nev­er acted upon.

So the ISC has been forced to pro­duce anoth­er report, this time appar­ently admit­ting that, yes, there had been intel­li­gence fail­ures, most not­ably the lost fax. West York­shire SB should have acted on it. But the intel­li­gence officer in MI5 respons­ible for this invest­ig­a­tion should have chased it up when no response was forth­com­ing.

This second ISC report, which has been sit­ting on the Prime Minister’s desk for weeks already, is said to be “dev­ast­at­ing”. How­ever, I’m will­ing to bet that if/when it sees the light of day, it will be any­thing but.

The ISC is at best an over­sight fig leaf. It was formed in 1994, when MI6 and GCHQ were put on a stat­utory foot­ing for the first time with the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act. At the time the press wel­comed this as a great step for­ward towards demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity for the intel­li­gence com­munity. Well, it could not have been worse than the pre­vi­ous set-up, when MI5, MI6 and GCHQ did not offi­cially exist. They were not required to obey the laws of the land, and no MP was allowed to ask a ques­tion in Par­lia­ment about their activ­it­ies. As 1980s whis­tleblower Peter Wright so suc­cinctly put it, the spies could bug and burgle their way around with impun­ity.

So the estab­lish­ment of the ISC was a (very) lim­ited step in the right dir­ec­tion. How­ever, it is not a Par­lia­ment­ary Com­mit­tee. Its mem­bers are selec­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, and it is answer­able only to the PM, who can vet its find­ings. The remit of the ISC only cov­ers mat­ters of spy policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance. It is not empowered to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence nor crimes com­mit­ted by the spies. And its annu­al report has become a joke with­in the media, as there are usu­ally more redac­tions than coher­ent sen­tences.

The ISC’s first big test came in the 1990s fol­low­ing the Shayler and Tom­lin­son dis­clos­ures. These involved detailed alleg­a­tions of illeg­al invest­ig­a­tions, bungled oper­a­tions and assas­sin­a­tion attempts against for­eign heads of state. It is dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of more hein­ous crimes com­mit­ted by our shad­owy spies.

But how did the ISC react? If one reads the reports from the rel­ev­ant years, the only aspect that exer­cised the ISC was Shayler’s inform­a­tion that MI5 had on many MPs and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters. The ISC was reas­sured by MI5 that would no longer be able to use these files. That’s it.

For­get about files being illeg­ally held on hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent UK cit­izens; for­get about the illeg­al phone taps, the pre­vent­able deaths on UK streets from IRA bombs, inno­cent people being thrown in pris­on, and the assas­sin­a­tion attempt against Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya. The fear­less and etern­ally vigil­ant ISC MPs were primar­ily con­cerned about receiv­ing reas­sur­ance that their files would no longer be vet­ted by MI5 officers on the basis of mem­ber­ship to “sub­vers­ive” organ­isa­tions. What were they afraid of – that shame­ful evid­ence of early left-wing activ­ity from their fiery youth might emerge? Heav­en for­bid under New Labour.

Barely a day goes by when news­pa­per head­lines do not remind us of ter­rible threats to our nation­al secur­ity. Only in the last week, the UK media has repor­ted that the threat of espi­on­age from Rus­sia and China is at its highest since the days of the Cold War; that resur­gent Repub­lic­an ter­ror groups in North­ern Ire­land pose a graver danger to us even than Al Qaeda; that rad­ic­al­ised Brit­ish Muslim youth are return­ing from fight­ing with the Taliban to wage war on the streets of the UK. We have to take all this on trust, des­pite the intel­li­gence community’s appalling track record of bend­ing the truth to gain more powers and resources. This is why mean­ing­ful over­sight is so vitally import­ant for the health of our demo­cracy. The ISC is a long way from provid­ing that.

Spooks leave UK vulnerable to Russian mafia

Accord­ing to the Daily Mail this week, Rus­si­an secur­ity expert, Andrei Sold­atov, reck­ons the UK is wide open to the threat of the Rus­si­an mafia. He primar­ily blames the froid­eur that has blighted Anglo-Rus­si­an rela­tions since the Litv­inen­ko affair. How­ever, he also states that MI5 no longer has a role to play in invest­ig­at­ing organ­ised crime, and that has con­trib­uted to our vul­ner­ab­il­ity.

Nat­ur­ally res­ist­ing the tempta­tion to say that MI5’s involve­ment would not neces­sar­ily have afforded us any mean­ing­ful pro­tec­tion, I would say that this is down to a fun­da­ment­al prob­lem in how we organ­ise our response to threats to the nation­al secur­ity of this coun­try.

The secur­ity infra­struc­ture in the UK has evolved over the last cen­tury into a ter­ribly Brit­ish muddle. For his­tor­ic reas­ons, we have a pleth­ora of intel­li­gence agen­cies, all com­pet­ing for fund­ing, power and prestige: MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), spe­cial branches in every oth­er police force, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and HM Rev­en­ue and Cus­toms et al. Each is sup­posed to work with the oth­er, but in real­ity they guard their ter­rit­ory and intel­li­gence jeal­ously. After all, know­ledge is power.

MI5 and MPSB have always been the lead intel­li­gence organ­isa­tions oper­at­ing with­in the UK. As such, their cov­ert rivalry has been pro­trac­ted and bit­ter, but to the out­side world they appeared to rub along while MI5 was primar­ily focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al sub­ver­sion and the Met con­cen­trated on the IRA. How­ever, after the end of the Cold War, MI5 had to find new tar­gets or lose staff, status and resources.

In 1992 the then Home Sec­ret­ary, Ken Clarke, announced that MI5 was tak­ing over the lead respons­ib­il­ity for invest­ig­at­ing IRA activ­ity on the UK main­land — work that had been done by MPSB for over 100 years. Vic­tory was largely cred­ited to clev­er White­hall man­oeuv­er­ing on the part of the head of MI5, Stella Rim­ing­ton. The Met were furi­ous, and the trans­fer of records was frac­tious, to say the least.

Also, there was a year’s delay in the han­dover of respons­ib­il­ity. So MI5 arti­fi­cially main­tained the per­ceived threat levels posed by polit­ic­al sub­ver­sion in order to retain its staff until the trans­ition was com­plete. This meant that there was no real case for the aggress­ive invest­ig­a­tion of sub­vers­ive groups in the UK – which made all such oper­a­tions illeg­al. Staff in this sec­tion, includ­ing me, voci­fer­ously argued against this con­tin­ued sur­veil­lance, rightly stat­ing that such invest­ig­a­tions were thereby flag­rantly illeg­al, but the seni­or man­age­ment ignored us in the interests of pre­serving their empires.

How­ever, in the mid-1990s, when peace appeared to be break­ing out in North­ern Ire­land and bey­ond, MI5 had to scout around for more work to jus­ti­fy its exist­ence. Hence, in 1996, the Home Sec­ret­ary agreed that they should play a role in tack­ling organ­ised crime – but only in a sup­port­ing role to MPSB. This was nev­er a par­tic­u­larly pal­at­able answer for the spooks, so it is no sur­prise that they have sub­sequently dropped this area of work now that the threat from “Al Qaeda” has grown. Ter­ror­ism has always been per­ceived as high­er status work. And of course this new threat has led to a slew of increased resources, powers and staff for MI5, not to men­tion the open­ing of eight region­al headquar­ters out­side Lon­don.

But should we really be approach­ing a sub­ject as ser­i­ous as the pro­tec­tion of our nation­al secur­ity in such a haphaz­ard way, based solely on the fact that we have these agen­cies in exist­ence, so let’s give them some work?

If we are really faced with such a ser­i­ous ter­ror­ist threat, would it not be smarter for our politi­cians to ask the basic ques­tions: what is the real­ist­ic threat to our nation­al secur­ity and the eco­nom­ic well­being of the state, and how can we best pro­tect ourselves from these threats? If the most effect­ive answer proves to be a new, ded­ic­ated counter-ter­ror­ism organ­isa­tion, so be it. We Brits love a sense of his­tory, but a new broom will often sweep clean.

 

CCTV doesn’t prevent crime

So, the argu­ment about CCTV and our big broth­er soci­ety rumbles on. A seni­or police­man, Detect­ive Chief Inspect­or Mick Neville of the Visu­al Images, Iden­ti­fic­a­tions and Detec­tions Office (Viido) at New Scot­land Yard, has been quoted as say­ing that only 3 per cent of crimes have been solved by CCTV evid­ence. Des­pite the UK hav­ing the highest per cap­ita num­ber of CCTVs in the world, this brave new world has failed to make us safer.

A few oth­er police forces, and nat­ur­ally the secur­ity com­pan­ies flog­ging the kit, say that CCTV has at least dra­mat­ic­ally reduced oppor­tun­ist­ic crimes. Who should we believe?

What can­not be dis­puted is the fact that there are well over 4,000,000 CCTVs in this coun­try, and the organ­isa­tion, Pri­vacy Inter­na­tion­al, assesses that we are the most watched cit­izenry in Europe.

While some law-abid­ing cit­izens say they feel intim­id­ated by CCTV and how the inform­a­tion could poten­tially be mis­used, most people seem not to care. In fact, the major­ity appar­ently feel safer if they can see CCTV on the streets, even if this per­vas­ive sur­veil­lance has in no way dis­cour­aged crimes of viol­ence. So why this gap between per­cep­tion and real­ity?

One of my pet the­or­ies has always been to blame Big Broth­er. No, not the book. I have always been flum­moxed by the pop­ular­ity of the TV show and the pleth­ora of real­ity TV spin-offs. My instinct­ive reac­tion was that it was sim­il­ar to being “groomed” to accept round-the-clock intru­sion into our per­son­al lives. More than accept – desire it. The clear mes­sage is that such sur­veil­lance can lead to instant fame, wealth and access to the Z-list parties of Lon­don. And for that we are sleep-walk­ing into a real Orwellian night­mare.

Slightly flip­pant the­or­ies aside, it is inter­est­ing that one of the most cited examples of the need for CCTV was the Bish­opsgate bomb­ing in Lon­don in 1993. In this case a lorry bomb, filled with a tonne of home made explos­ive (HME) was det­on­ated in the heart of the city of Lon­don by the IRA. One per­son was killed, many were injured, and hun­dreds of mil­lions of pounds worth of dam­age was caused, not to men­tion the fact threat the IRA scored a huge pub­li­city coup.

But this had noth­ing to do with the lack or oth­er­wise of CCTV in the streets of the City. It was an intel­li­gence fail­ure, pure and simple.

This attack could and should have been pre­ven­ted. It occurred while I was work­ing in MI5, and it was widely known in the ser­vice at the time that the bomber should have been arres­ted six months before dur­ing a sur­veil­lance oper­a­tion. Des­pite the fact that he was seen check­ing out anoth­er lorry bomb in stor­age, he was allowed to walk free and escape to the Repub­lic of Ire­land due to pro­ced­ur­al cock-ups. Months later, he returned to the City and bombed Bish­opsgate.

By rely­ing increas­ingly on tech­no­lo­gies to pro­tect us, we are fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the Amer­ic­ans. They have always had an over-reli­ance on gad­gets and giz­mos when seek­ing to invest­ig­ate crim­in­als and ter­ror­ists: satel­lite track­ing, phone taps, bugs. But this hoover­ing up of inform­a­tion is nev­er an adequate replace­ment for pre­cise invest­ig­at­ive work. Plus, any crim­in­al or ter­ror­ist worth their salt these days knows not to dis­cuss sens­it­ive plans elec­tron­ic­ally.

Scat­ter-gun approaches to gath­er­ing intel­li­gence, such as blanket sur­veil­lance, still at this stage require human beings to pro­cess and assess it for evid­en­tial use. That, accord­ing to DCI Neville, is part of the prob­lem. There is just too much com­ing in, not enough staff, insuf­fi­cient co-oper­a­tion between forces, and the job lacks per­ceived status with­in the police.

The oth­er prob­lem of an over-reli­ance on tech­no­logy is that it can always be hacked. The most recent hack­ing has broken the RFID chips that we all carry in our pass­ports, Oyster cards and the planned ID cards. New tech­no­lo­gies can­not guar­an­tee that our per­son­al data is secure, so rather than pro­tect­ing us, they make us more liable to crimes such as iden­tity theft.

So once again nation­al and loc­al gov­ern­ment bod­ies have rushed to buy up tech­no­logy, without fully think­ing through either its applic­a­tion or its use­ful­ness. And without fully assess­ing the implic­a­tions for a free soci­ety. Just because the tech­no­logy exists, it does not mean that it is fit for pur­pose, nor that it will make us safer.