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:
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?
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…..
Last week, while I was doing a number of talks for Funzing.com in London, I was invited into RT to discuss a new report about the US military advertising for programmers who could develop software that targeted Iranian, Chinese and Russian audiences via social media.
The timing proved interesting. Only days before, it was revealed by @musalbas at the CCC and then via Wikileaks that the UK government listening post, GCHQ, had apparently been doing the same thing since 2009.
And then, coincidentally, only a couple of days after the US disclosure, it was reported that Russia was now trolling Wikipedia.
A war of words ensued — and let’s hope that is all it remains. However, this report in the NYT today fills me with dread.
Here is my contribution from last week:
And here is the slice of it they used in a news feature they did with Assange:
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:
Published on Consortium News on 16 January 2017.
The clash between plutocratic President-elect Trump and the CIA is shaping up to be the heavy-weight prize fight of the century, and Trump at least is approaching it with all the entertaining bombast of Mohammed Ali at the top of his game. Rather than following the tradition of doing dirty political deals in dark corners, more commonly known as fixing the match, Trump has come out swinging in the full glare of the media.
In that corner we have a deal-making, billionaire “man of the people” who, to European sensibilities at least, reputedly espouses some of the madder US domestic obsessions and yet has seemed to offer hope to many aggrieved Americans. However, it is his professed position on building a rapprochement with Russia and cooperating with Moscow to sort out the Syrian mess that caught my attention and that of many other independent commentators internationally.
In the opposite corner his opponents have pushed the CIA into the ring to deliver the knock-out blow, but this has yet to land. Despite jab after failed jab, Trump keeps evading the blows and comes rattling back against all the odds. One has to admire the guy’s footwork.
So who are the opponents ranged behind the CIA, yelling encouragement through the ropes? The obvious culprits include the US military industrial complex, whose bottom line relies on an era of unending war. As justification for extracting billions — even trillions — of dollars from American taxpayers, there was a need for frightening villains such as Al Qaeda and, even more so, the head choppers of ISIS. However, since the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, those villains no longer packed so scary a punch, so a more enduring villain, like Emmanuel Goldstein, the principal enemy in George Orwell’s “1984”, was required. Russia was the obvious new choice, the old favourite from the Cold War play book.
The western intelligence agencies have a vested interest in eternal enemies to ensure both eternal funding and eternal power, hence the CIA’s entry into the fight. As former British MP and long-time peace activist George Galloway so eloquently said in a recent interview, an unholy alliance is now being formed between the “war party” in the US, the military-industrial-intelligence complex and those who previously would have publicly spurned such accomplices: American progressives and their traditional host, the Democratic Party.
Yet, if the DNC had not done its best to rig the primaries in favour of Hillary Clinton, then perhaps we would not be in this position. Bernie Sanders would now be the President-elect.
These establishment forces have also revealed to the wider world a fact long known but largely dismissed as conspiracy theory by the corporate mainstream media, that the two-party system in both the US and the UK is a sham. In fact, we are governed by a globalised élite, working in its own interest while ignoring ours. The Democrats, openly disgruntled by Hillary Clinton’s election loss and being seen to jump into bed so quickly with the spooks and the warmongers, have laid this reality bare.
In fact, respected US investigative journalist Robert Parry recently wrote that an intelligence contact admitted to him before the election that the intelligence agencies did not like either of the presidential candidates. This may go some way to explaining the FBI’s intervention in the run up to the election against Hillary Clinton, as well as the CIA’s attempts to de-legitimise Trump’s victory afterwards.
Whether that was indeed the case, the CIA has certainly held back no punches since Trump’s election. First the evidence-lite assertion that it was the Russians who hacked the DNC emails and leaked them to Wikileaks: then the fake news about Russia hacking the voting computers; that then morphed into the Russians “hacked the election” itself; then they “hacked” into the US electric grid via a Vermont utility. All this without a shred of fact-based evidence provided, but Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats last month solidified this dubious reality in Americans’ minds.
All this has so far culminated, of course, in the “dirty dossier” allegations last week about Trump, which he has rightly knocked down — it was desperately poor stuff.
This last item, from a British perspective, is particularly concerning. It appears that a Washington dirt-digging company was hired by a Republican rival to Trump to unearth any potential Russian scandals during the primaries; once Trump had won the nomination this dirt-digging jobbery was then taken over by a Democrat supporter of Hillary Clinton. The anti-Trump investigation was then sub-contracted to an alleged former British spy, an ex-MI6 man named Christopher Steele.
Much has already been written about Steele and the company, much of it contradictory as no doubt befits the life of a former spy. But it is a standard career trajectory for insiders to move on to corporate, mercenary spy companies, and this is what Steele appears to have done successfully in 2009. Of course much is predicated on maintaining good working relations with your former employers.
That is the aspect that interests me most — how close a linkage did he indeed retain with his former employers after he left MI6 in 2009 to set up his own private spy company? The answer is important because companies such has his can also be used as cut-outs for “plausible deniability” by official state spies.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that happened in this case, but Steele reportedly remained on good terms with MI6 and was well thought of. For a man who had not been stationed in Russia for over 20 years, it would perhaps have been natural for him to turn to old chums for useful connections.
But this question is of extreme importance at a critical juncture for the UK; if indeed MI6 was complicit or even aware of this dirt digging, as it seems it might have been, then that is a huge diplomatic problem for the government’s attempts to develop a strong working relationship with the US, post-Brexit. If MI6’s sticky fingers were on this case, then the organisation has done the precise opposite of its official task — “to protect national security and the economic well-being of the UK”.
MI6 and its US intelligence chums need to remember their designated and legislated roles within a democracy — to serve the government and protect national security by gathering intelligence, assessing it impartially and making recommendations on which the government of the day will choose to act or not as the case may be.
The spies are not there to fake intelligence to suit the agenda of a particular régime, as happened in the run-up to the illegal Iraq war, nor are they there to endemically spy on their own populations (and the rest of the world, as we know post-Snowden) in a pointless hunt for subversive activity, which often translates into legitimate political activism and acts of individual expression.
And most especially the intelligence agencies should not be trying to subvert democratically elected governments. And yet this is what the CIA and a former senior MI6 officer, along with their powerful political allies, appear to be now attempting against Trump.
If I were an American I would be wary of many of Trump’s domestic policies. As a European concerned with greater peace rather than increasing war, I can only applaud his constructive approach towards Russia and his offer to coöperate with Moscow to staunch the bloodshed in the Middle East.
That, of course, may be nub of his fight with the CIA and other vested interests who want Russia as the new bogeyman. But I would bet that Trump takes the CIA’s slurs personally. After all, given the ugliness of the accusations and the lack of proof, who would not?
So, this is a world championship heavy-weight fight, over who gets to hold office and wield power, an area where the US and UK intelligence agencies have considerable experience in rigging matches and knocking out opponents. Think, for instance, Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953; Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973; Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003; and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Syria is punch-drunk but still standing, thanks to some good corner support from Russia.
However, it would appear that Trump is a stranger to the spies’ self-defined Queensbury Rules in which targets are deemed paranoid if they try to alert the public to the planned “régime change” or they become easy targets by staying silent. By contrast, Trump appears shameless and pugnacious. Street-smart and self-promoting, he seems comfortable with bare-knuckle fighting.
This match has already gone into the middle rounds with Trump still bouncing around on his toes and relishing the fight. It would be ironic if out of this nasty prize fight came greater world peace and safely for us all.