The Sam Adams Associates — the Weirdest Club in the World

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.

A Couple of Interviews

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.

Crosstalk debate on Russiagate

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.

The NSA “Brain Drain”

The former head of the NSA, Keith Alex­an­der, is repor­ted to have said that the agency is facing a “brain drain” of its best staff, pre­dom­in­antly the young­er ones. Here is my per­spect­ive on this:

The NSA “Brain Drain” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

What price whistleblowers?

First pub­lished on Con­sor­ti­um News.

For­give my “infam­ously flu­ent French”, but the phrase “pour encour­ager les autres” seems to have lost its fam­ously iron­ic qual­ity. Rather than mak­ing an example of people who dis­sent in order to pre­vent future dis­sid­ence, now it seems that the USA is glob­ally pay­ing bloody big bucks to people in order to encour­age them to expose the crimes of their employ­ers – well, at least if they are work­ing for banks and oth­er fin­an­cial insti­tu­tions.

I have been aware for a few years that the USA insti­tuted a law in 2010 called the Dodd-Frank Act that is designed to encour­age people employed in the inter­na­tion­al fin­ance com­munity to report mal­feas­ance to the Secur­it­ies and Exchange Com­mis­sion (SEC), in return for a sub­stan­tial per­cent­age of any mon­ies recouped.

This law seems to have pro­duced a boom­ing busi­ness for such high-minded “whis­tleblowers” – if that could be the accur­ate term for such actions? They are cel­eb­rated and can receive multi-mil­lion dol­lar pay days, the most recent (unnamed) source receiv­ing $20 mil­lion.

Nor is this US ini­ti­at­ive just poten­tially bene­fit­ing US cit­izens – it you look at the small print at the bot­tom of this page, dis­clos­ures are being sent in from all over the world.

Which is all to the pub­lic good no doubt, espe­cially in the wake of the 2008 glob­al fin­an­cial crash and the ensu­ing fall-out that hit us all.  We need more clar­ity about arcane casino bank­ing prac­tices that have bank­rup­ted whole coun­tries, and we need justice.

But does rather send out a num­ber of con­tra­dict­ory mes­sages to those in oth­er areas of work who might also have con­cerns about the leg­al­ity of their organ­isa­tions, and which may have equal or even graver impacts on the lives of their fel­low human beings.

If you work in fin­ance and you see irreg­u­lar­it­ies it is appar­ently your leg­al duty to report them through appro­pri­ate chan­nels – and then count the $$$ as they flow in as reward – wheth­er you are a USA cit­izen or based else­where around the world. Such is the power of glob­al­isa­tion, or at least the USA’s self-appoin­ted role as the glob­al hege­mon.

How­ever, if you hap­pen to work in the US gov­ern­ment, intel­li­gence agen­cies or mil­it­ary, under the terms of the Amer­ic­an Con­sti­tu­tion it would also appear to be your sol­emn duty under oath to report illeg­al­it­ies, go through the offi­cially des­ig­nated chan­nels, and hope reform is the res­ult.

But, from all recent examples, it would appear that you get damn few thanks for such pat­ri­ot­ic actions.

Take the case of Thomas Drake, a former seni­or NSA exec­ut­ive, who in 2007 went pub­lic about waste and wan­ton expendit­ure with­in the agency, as I wrote way back in 2011. Tom went through all the pre­scribed routes for such dis­clos­ures, up to and includ­ing a Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee hear­ing.

Des­pite all this, Tom was abruptly snatched by the FBI in a viol­ent dawn raid and threatened with 35 years in pris­on.  He (under the ter­ri­fy­ing Amer­ic­an plea bar­gain sys­tem) accep­ted a mis­dimean­our con­vic­tion to escape the hor­rors of fed­er­al charges, the res­ult­ing loss of all his civic rights and a poten­tial 35 years in pris­on.  He still, of course, lost his job, his impec­cable pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion, and his whole way of life.

He was part of a NSA group which also included Bill Bin­ney, the former Tech­nic­al Dir­ect­or of the NSA, and his fel­low whis­tleblowers Kirk Wiebe, Ed Lou­mis and Diane Roark.

These brave people developed an elec­tron­ic mass-sur­veil­lance pro­gramme called Thin Thread that could win­now out those people who were genu­inely of secur­ity interest and worth tar­get­ing, a pro­gramme which would have cost the US $1.4 mil­lion, been con­sist­ent with the terms of the Amer­ic­an con­sti­tu­tion and, accord­ing to Bin­ney, could poten­tially have stopped 9/11 and all the attend­ant hor­rors..

Instead, it appears that backs were scratched and favours called in with the incom­ing neo-con gov­ern­ment of George W Bush in 2000, and anoth­er pro­gramme called Trail Bla­izer was developed, to the tune of $1.2 bil­lion – and which spied on every­one across Amer­ica (as well as the rest of the world) and thereby broke, at the very least, the terms of the Amer­ic­an con­sti­tu­tion.

Yet Bill Bin­ney was still sub­jec­ted to a FBI SWAT team raid – he was dragged out of the shower early one morn­ing at gun-point. All this is well doc­u­mented in an excel­lent film “A Good Amer­ic­an” and I recom­mend watch­ing it.

Rather a con­trast to the treat­ment of fin­an­cial whis­tleblowers – no retali­ation and big bucks. Under that law, Bill would have received a pay­out of mil­lions for pro­tect­ing the rights of his fel­low cit­izens as well as sav­ing the Amer­ic­an pub­lic purse to the tune of over a bil­lion dol­lars. But, of course, that is not exactly in the long-term busi­ness interests of our now-glob­al sur­veil­lance pan­op­ticon.

Pres­id­ent Dwight Eis­en­hower, in his vale­dict­ory speech in 1961, warned of the sub­vers­ive interests of the “mil­it­ary-indus­tri­al” com­plex.  That seems so quaint now.  What we are facing is a ster­oid-pumped, glob­al­ised mil­it­ary sur­veil­lance industry that will do any­thing to pro­tect its interests.  And that includes crush­ing prin­cipled whis­tleblowers “pour encour­ager les autres“.

Yet that mani­festly has not happened, as I need to move on to the even-more-egre­gious cases of Chelsea Man­ning and Edward Snowden.

The former, as you may remem­ber, was a former Amer­ic­an army private cur­rently serving 35 years in a US mil­it­ary pris­on for expos­ing the war crimes of the USA. She is the most obvi­ous vic­tim of out­go­ing-Pres­id­ent Obama’s war on whis­tleblowers, and surely deserving of his sup­posed out­go­ing clem­ency.

The lat­ter, cur­rently stran­ded in Rus­sia en route from Hong Kong to polit­ic­al asylum in Ecuador is, in my view and as I have said before, the most sig­ni­fic­ant whis­tleblower in mod­ern his­tory. But he gets few thanks – indeed incom­ing US Trump admin­is­tra­tion appointees have in the past called for the death pen­alty.

So all this is such a “won­der­fully out­stand­ing encour­age­ment” to those in pub­lic ser­vice in the USA to expose cor­rup­tion – not. Work for the banks and anonym­ously snitch – $$$kerch­ing! Work for the gov­ern­ment and blow the whistle – 30+ years in pris­on or worse. Hmmm.

If Pres­id­ent-Elect Don­ald Trump is ser­i­ous about “drain­ing the swamp” then per­haps he could put some ser­i­ous and mean­ing­ful pub­lic ser­vice whis­tleblower pro­tec­tion meas­ures in place, rather than pro­sec­ut­ing such pat­ri­ots?

After all, such meas­ures would be a win-win situ­ation, as I have said many times before – a prop­er and truly account­able chan­nel for poten­tial whis­tleblowers to go to, in the expect­a­tion that their con­cerns will be prop­erly heard, invest­ig­ated and crim­in­al actions pro­sec­uted if neces­sary.

That way the intel­li­gence agen­cies can become truly account­able, sharpen their game, avoid a scan­dal and bet­ter pro­tect the pub­lic; and the whis­tleblower does not need ruin their life, los­ing their job, poten­tially their free­dom and worse.

After all, where are the most hein­ous crimes wit­nessed?  Sure, bank crimes impact the eco­nomy and the lives of work­ing people; but out-of-con­trol intel­li­gence agen­cies that kid­nap, tor­ture and assas­sin­ate count­less people around the world, all in secret, actu­ally end lives.

All that said, oth­er West­ern lib­er­al demo­cra­cies are surely less dra­coni­an than the USA, no?

Well, unfor­tu­nately not.  Take the UK, a coun­try still in thrall to the glam­or­ous myth of James Bond, and where there have been mul­tiple intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers from the agen­cies over the last few dec­ades – yet all of them have auto­mat­ic­ally faced pris­on.  In fact, the UK sup­pres­sion of intel­li­gence, gov­ern­ment, dip­lo­mat­ic, and mil­it­ary whis­tleblowers seems to have acted as an exem­plar to oth­er coun­tries in how you stifle eth­ic­al dis­sent from with­in.

Sure, the pris­on sen­tences for such whis­tleblow­ing are not as dra­coni­an under the UK Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) as the ana­chron­ist­ic US Espi­on­age Act (1917). How­ever, the clear bright line against *any* dis­clos­ure is just as stifling.

In the UK, a coun­try where the intel­li­gence agen­cies have for the last 17 years been illeg­ally pros­ti­tut­ing them­selves to advance the interests of a for­eign coun­try (the USA), this is simply unac­cept­able. Espe­cially as the UK has just made law the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (2016), against all expert advice, which leg­al­ises all this pre­vi­ously-illeg­al activ­ity and indeed expan­ded the hack­ing powers of the state.

More wor­ry­ingly, the ultra-lib­er­al Nor­way, which blazed a calm and human­ist trail in its response to the mur­der­ous white-suprem­acist ter­ror­ist attacks of Anders Breivik only 5 years ago, has now pro­posed a dra­coni­an sur­veil­lance law.

And Ger­many – a coun­try hor­ri­fied by the Snowden rev­el­a­tions in 2013, with its memor­ies of the Gestapo and the Stasi – has also just expan­ded the sur­veil­lance remit of its spooks.

In the face of all this, it appears there has nev­er been a great­er need of intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers across the West­ern world. Yet it appears that, once again, there is one law for the bankers et al – they are cashed up, lauded and rewar­ded for report­ing leg­al­it­ies.

For the rest of the Poor Bloody Whis­tleblowers, it’s pro­sec­u­tion and per­se­cu­tion as usu­al, des­pite the fact that they may indeed be serving the most pro­found of pub­lic interests – free­dom, pri­vacy and the abil­ity to thereby have a func­tion­ing demo­cracy.

As always – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. So back to my flu­ent French, ref­er­enced at the start: we are, it seems, all still mired in the merde.



Webstock, New Zealand, 2016

Now, I speak all over the world at con­fer­ences and uni­ver­sit­ies about a whole vari­ety of inter­con­nec­ted issues, but I do want to high­light this con­fer­ence from earli­er this year and give a shout out for next year’s. Plus I’ve finally got my hands on the video of my talk.

Web­stock cel­eb­rated its tenth anniversary in New Zea­l­and last Feb­ru­ary, and I was for­tu­nate enough to be asked to speak there.  The hosts prom­ised a unique exper­i­ence, and the event lived up to its repu­ta­tion.

Webstock_2016They 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:

CIA threatens cyber attacks against Russia

The CIA was recently repor­ted to have issued the threat of cyber attacks against the Rus­si­an lead­er­ship, in retali­ation for alleged and unsub­stan­ti­ated claims that Rus­sia is try­ing to influ­ence the Amer­ic­an elec­tions.

Here is an inter­view I did yes­ter­day about this, and wider, issues:

Amer­ic­ans should fear elec­tion hack­ing by US estab­lish­ment, not Rus­sia’ from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

A Good American — Bill Binney

I have for a num­ber of years now been involved with a glob­al group of whis­tleblowers from the intel­li­gence, dip­lo­mat­ic and mil­it­ary world, who gath­er togeth­er every year as the Sam Adams Asso­ci­ates to give an award to an indi­vidu­al dis­play­ing integ­rity in intel­li­gence.

This year’s award goes to former CIA officer, John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s illeg­al tor­ture pro­gramme, but was the only officer to go to pris­on — for expos­ing CIA crimes.

The award cere­mony will be tak­ing place in Wash­ing­ton on 25 Septem­ber at the “World Bey­ond War” con­fer­ence.

Last year’s laur­eate, former Tech­nic­al Dir­ect­or of the NSA Bill Bin­ney, is cur­rently on tour across Europe to pro­mote an excel­lent film about both his and the oth­er stor­ies of the earli­er NSA whis­tleblowers before Edward Snowden — “A Good Amer­ic­an”.

The film is simply excel­lent, very human and very humane, and screen­ings will hap­pen across Europe over the next few months. Do watch if you can!

This is a film of the pan­el dis­cus­sion after a screen­ing in Lon­don on 18th Septem­ber:

A Good Amer­ic­an” — pan­el dis­cus­sion with ex-NSA Bill Bin­ney from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Fight for your Right to Privacy

A recent talk I gave to the excel­lent Spark​.me con­fer­ence in beau­ti­ful Montenegro:

Annie Machon at SparkMe con­fer­ence 2016 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Whistleblower Protections — RT Interview

Former US Attor­ney Gen­er­al, Eric Hold­er, has softened his stance on the Edward Snowden case and has tacitly admit­ted there should at least be a pub­lic interest leg­al defence for intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers.

Well, that’s my take — have a watch of my RT inter­view yes­ter­day or read here:

Dis­cuss­ing whis­tleblower pro­tec­tions from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Ibsen and Whistleblowers

The Chichester Fest­iv­al Theatre in the UK has been sta­ging Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, explor­ing the com­plex­it­ies of whis­tleblow­ing.

The CFT asked me to write an art­icle for the fest­iv­al pro­gramme about the value and role, the dangers and oppor­tun­it­ies, for twenty-first cen­tury whis­tleblowers. Here it is:

The Reg­u­lat­ors of Last Resort

Let us play a little game of word asso­ci­ation. I write “Edward Snowden” — and what is the first thought to leap into your mind? Hero? Trait­or? Who?

Or might it be whis­tleblower?

The con­tro­ver­sial issue of whis­tleblow­ing, which is at the heart of Ibsen’s play, has been firmly thrust into the pub­lic con­scious­ness over the last few years with the ongo­ing saga of Wikileaks and with high pro­file cases such as that of Chelsea Man­ning and, of course, Snowden him­self.

Often whis­tleblowers can get a bad rap in the media, deemed to be trait­ors, grasses or snitches. Or they are set on such an hero­ic ped­es­tal that their example can actu­ally be dis­cour­aging, mak­ing you con­sider wheth­er you would ever take such a risk, often with the depress­ing con­clu­sion that it would be impossible for a whole range of prac­tic­al reas­ons – pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion, job secur­ity, fam­ily safety, even liberty.

How­ever, you have to ask your­self why, when faced with these risks and reper­cus­sions, indi­vidu­als (in the man­ner of the fic­tion­al Dr Stock­mann) do indeed speak out; why they do still con­sider the risks worth tak­ing? Par­tic­u­larly those emer­ging from the world of intel­li­gence, the mil­it­ary or the dip­lo­mat­ic corps who face the most griev­ous pen­al­ties.

The UK spy com­munity is the most leg­ally pro­tec­ted and least account­able of any West­ern demo­cracy, but the USA is catch­ing up fast. So, as a res­ult of such entrenched gov­ern­ment­al secrecy across these areas, whis­tleblow­ing is real­ist­ic­ally the only avail­able aven­ue to alert your fel­low cit­izens to abuses car­ried out secretly in their name.

I have a nod­ding acquaint­ance with the pro­cess. In the 1990s I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, gen­er­ally known as MI5, before resign­ing to help my former part­ner and col­league Dav­id Shayler blow the whistle on a cata­logue of incom­pet­ence and crime. As a res­ult we had to go on the run around Europe, lived in hid­ing and exile in France for 3 years, and saw our friends, fam­ily and journ­al­ists arres­ted around us. I was also arres­ted, although nev­er charged, and Dav­id went to pris­on twice for expos­ing the crimes of the spies. It was a heavy price to pay.

How­ever, it could all have been so dif­fer­ent if the UK gov­ern­ment had agreed to take his evid­ence of spy crimes, under­take to invest­ig­ate them thor­oughly, and apply the neces­sary reforms. This would have saved us a lot of heartache, and could poten­tially have improved the work of the spies. But the government’s instinct­ive response is always to pro­tect the spies and pro­sec­ute the whis­tleblower, while the mis­takes and crimes go unin­vestig­ated and unre­solved. Or even, it often appears, to reward the mal­efact­ors with pro­mo­tions and gongs.

The dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) imposes a blanket ban on any dis­clos­ure what­so­ever. As a res­ult, we the cit­izens have to take it on trust that our spies work with integ­rity. There is no mean­ing­ful over­sight and no real account­ab­il­ity.

Many good people do indeed sign up to MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, as they want a job that can make a dif­fer­ence and poten­tially save lives. How­ever, once on the inside they are told to keep quiet about any eth­ic­al con­cerns: “don’t rock the boat, and just fol­low orders”.

In such an envir­on­ment there is no vent­il­a­tion, no account­ab­il­ity and no staff fed­er­a­tion, and this inev­it­ably leads to a gen­er­al con­sensus – a bul­ly­ing “group think” men­tal­ity. This in turn can lead to mis­takes being covered up rather than les­sons learned, and then poten­tially down a dan­ger­ous mor­al slide.

As a res­ult, over the last 15 years we have seen scan­dal heaped upon intel­li­gence scan­dal, as the spies allowed their fake and politi­cised inform­a­tion to be used make a false case for an illeg­al war in Iraq; we have seen them des­cend into a spir­al of extraordin­ary rendi­tion (ie kid­nap­ping) and tor­ture, for which they are now being sued if not pro­sec­uted; and we have seen that they facil­it­ate dodgy deals in the deserts with dic­tat­ors.

Since the Shayler case in the late 1990s, oth­er UK whis­tleblowers have hit the head­lines: GCHQ’s Kath­er­ine Gun, who exposed illeg­al spy­ing on our so-called allies in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003. She man­aged to avoid pro­sec­u­tion because of a pos­sible leg­al defence of neces­sity that res­ul­ted from Shayler’s case. Or Ambas­sad­or Craig Mur­ray, who exposed the tor­ture of polit­ic­al dis­sid­ents in Uzbek­istan – and when I say tor­ture, I mean the boil­ing alive of polit­ic­al oppon­ents of the régime, with the pho­to­graphs to prove it. Mur­ray was not pro­sec­uted, but he lost his career and was tra­duced with taw­dry slurs about his per­son­al life across the Brit­ish media.

The USA is little bet­ter. Since 2001 many intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers there have faced a grim fate. Ex-CIA officer John Kiriakou, who exposed the CIA’s tor­ture pro­gramme, lan­guished for three years in pris­on while the tor­tur­ers remain free; Bill Bin­ney, Ed Loomis, and Kirk Wiebe of the NSA were houn­ded and nar­rowly escaped pro­sec­u­tion for expos­ing NSA mal­feas­ance; a col­league, Tom Drake faced a 35-year pris­on sen­tence, des­pite hav­ing gone through all the approved, offi­cial chan­nels; and in 2013 a kangaroo court was held to try Chelsea Man­ning for her expos­ure of US war crimes. Inev­it­ably, it is the whis­tleblower Man­ning who is now serving a 35 year stretch in pris­on, not the war crim­in­als.

Pres­id­ent Obama has used and abused the 1917 US Espi­on­age Act against whis­tleblowers dur­ing his years in the White House more times than all his pre­de­cessors put togeth­er, while at the same time allow­ing a bone fide spy ring – the Rus­si­an illeg­als includ­ing Anna Chap­man — to return home in 2010. This para­noid hunt for the “insider threat” — the whis­tleblower — has been going on since at least 2008, as we know from doc­u­ments leaked, iron­ic­ally, to Wikileaks in 2010.

Against this back­ground, fully aware of the hideous risks he was tak­ing and the pro­spect of the rest of his life behind bars, in 2013 a young man stepped for­ward – Edward Snowden.

He was clear then about his motiv­a­tion and he remains clear now in the few inter­views he has done since: what he had seen on the inside of the NSA caused him huge con­cern. The Amer­ic­an intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture, along with its part­ner agen­cies across the world, was con­struct­ing a glob­al sur­veil­lance net­work that not only threatens the con­sti­tu­tion of the United States, but also erodes the pri­vacy of all the world’s cit­izens.

Even against such a back­ground of oth­er brave whis­tleblowers, Snowden stands out for me for three key reas­ons: his per­son­al and con­scious cour­age at such a time, the sheer scale of his dis­clos­ures, and the con­tinu­ing, glob­al impact of what he exposed.

Unfor­tu­nately, while whis­tleblowers under­stand the leg­al risks they are tak­ing when they emerge from the intel­li­gence world or the dip­lo­mat­ic corps, they are often media vir­gins and are etern­ally sur­prised by the way the treat­ment meted out to them.

Until the turn of the mil­len­ni­um, intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers had no choice but to entrust them­selves to the estab­lished media. Some like “Deep Throat”, the source of the Water­gate scan­dal in 1970s Amer­ica, were dis­trust­ful and remained in the shad­ows. Oth­ers, such as Daniel Ells­berg who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, or Clive Pont­ing who in 1982 released inform­a­tion about the sink­ing of the Gen­er­al Bel­grano dur­ing the Falk­lands War, were for­tu­nate to work with cam­paign­ing journ­al­ists who fought both for their sources and the prin­ciple of press free­dom. Even when Shayler went pub­lic in the late 1990s, he had no option but to work with the estab­lished media.

From per­son­al exper­i­ence, I can attest to the fact that this is not always a pain­less exper­i­ence. With a few hon­or­able excep­tions, most of the journ­al­ists will just asset-strip their whis­tleblowers for inform­a­tion. They make their careers, while the whis­tleblower breaks theirs.

Plus, There are many ways our soi-dis­ant free press can be manip­u­lated and con­trolled by the spies. The soft power involves induct­ing journ­al­ists to be agents of influ­ence with­in their organ­isa­tion, or cosy chats between edit­ors and spies, or pro­pri­et­ors and top spies – that is how stor­ies can be spun or dis­ap­peared.

The hard power is extens­ive too — the applic­a­tion of laws such as libel, counter-ter­ror­ism laws, injunc­tions, and also the use of the OSA against journ­al­ists them­selves. Or even blatant intim­id­a­tion, as happened after The Guard­i­an news­pa­per pub­lished the early Snowden dis­clos­ures – the police went in and phys­ic­ally smashed up the hard drives con­tain­ing his inform­a­tion.

All this casts that well known chilling effect on the free­dom of the press and the free-flow of inform­a­tion from the gov­ern­ment to the gov­erned, which is so vital for an informed and par­ti­cip­at­ory cit­izenry.

Which brings me back to Wikileaks. Estab­lished in 2007, this provides a secure and high-tech con­duit for whis­tleblowers that gives them more con­trol and securely stores the doc­u­ments to prove their alleg­a­tions. This is also why the US gov­ern­ment saw it as such a threat and has pur­sued it in such a dra­coni­an and pun­it­ive way over the years since the first big rev­el­a­tions in 2010. Iron­ic­ally, this is also partly why much of the tra­di­tion­al media turned on Wikileaks – it threatened the old media busi­ness mod­el.

But from a whistleblower’s per­spect­ive, Wikileaks and its suc­cessors offer a brave new world. The tech­no­lo­gic­al genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

There is, of course, anoth­er pos­sible path. The intel­li­gence agen­cies could estab­lish mean­ing­ful chan­nels for vent­il­a­tion of staff con­cerns, where the evid­ence is prop­erly invest­ig­ated and reforms made as neces­sary. Hav­ing such a sound pro­ced­ure in place to address con­cerns strikes me as a win-win scen­ario for staff effi­ciency and mor­ale, the organisation’s oper­a­tion­al cap­ab­il­ity and repu­ta­tion, and poten­tially the wider pub­lic safety too.

How­ever, unless and until secret­ive gov­ern­ment­al organ­isa­tions insti­tute such legit­im­ate and effect­ive aven­ues for poten­tial whis­tleblowers to go down, embar­rass­ing dis­clos­ures will con­tin­ue. Nobody sets out to be a whis­tleblower but, absent effect­ive reforms, they will remain our reg­u­lat­ors of last resort.

The NSA and Guantanamo Bay

Yes­ter­day The Inter­cept released more doc­u­ments from the Edward Snowden trove.  These high­lighted the hitherto sus­pec­ted by unproven involve­ment of the NSA in Guantanamo Bay, extraordin­ary rendi­tion, tor­ture and inter­rog­a­tion.

Here is my inter­view on RT about the sub­ject:

Snowden dis­clos­ures about NSA and Guantanamo from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Parliamentary Evidence on the UK Investigatory Powers Bill

My writ­ten evid­ence to the Scru­tiny Com­mit­tee in the UK Houses of Par­lia­ment that is cur­rently examin­ing the much-dis­puted Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Bill (IP):

1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for the UK’s domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, com­monly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my part­ner at the time, fel­low intel­li­gence officer Dav­id Shayler, expose a num­ber of instances of crime and incom­pet­ence we had wit­nessed dur­ing our time in the ser­vice.

2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphas­ises the import­ance of demo­crat­ic and judi­cial over­sight of the vari­ous cat­egor­ies of intrus­ive intel­li­gence gath­er­ing by estab­lish­ing an Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Com­mis­sion­er as well as sup­port­ing Judi­cial Com­mis­sion­ers. How­ever, I am con­cerned about the real and mean­ing­ful applic­a­tion of this over­sight.

3. While in the Ser­vice in the 1990s we were gov­erned by the terms of the Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act 1985 (IOCA), the pre­curs­or to RIPA, which provided for a sim­il­ar sys­tem of applic­a­tions for a war­rant and min­is­teri­al over­sight.

4. I would like to sub­mit evid­ence that the sys­tem did not work and could be manip­u­lated from the inside.

5. I am aware of at least two instances of this dur­ing my time in the ser­vice, which were cleared for pub­lic­a­tion by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whis­tleblowers”, so my dis­cuss­ing them now is not in breach of the Offi­cial Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide fur­ther evid­ence, either writ­ten or in per­son, about these abuses.

6. My con­cern about this draft Bill is that while the over­sight pro­vi­sions seem to be strengthened, with approv­al neces­sary from both the Sec­ret­ary of State and a Judi­cial Com­mis­sion­er, the interi­or pro­cess of applic­a­tion for war­rants will still remain opaque and open to manip­u­la­tion with­in the intel­li­gence agen­cies.

7. The applic­a­tion pro­cess for a war­rant gov­ern­ing inter­cep­tion or inter­fer­ence involved a case being made in writ­ing by the intel­li­gence officer in charge of an invest­ig­a­tion. This then went through four lay­ers of man­age­ment, with all the usu­al redac­tions and fin­ess­ing, before a final sum­mary was draf­ted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dis­patched to the Sec­ret­ary of State. So the min­is­ter was only ever presen­ted with was a sum­mary of a sum­mary of a sum­mary of a sum­mary of the ori­gin­al intel­li­gence case.

8. Addi­tion­ally, the ori­gin­al intel­li­gence case could be erro­neous and mis­lead­ing. The pro­cess of writ­ing the war­rant applic­a­tion was merely a tick box exer­cise, and officers would routinely note that such intel­li­gence could only be obtained by such intrus­ive meth­ods, rather than explor­ing all open source options first. The reval­id­a­tion pro­cess could be even more cava­lier.

9. When prob­lems with this sys­tem were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just fol­low orders. Dur­ing the annu­al vis­it by the Intel­li­gence Inter­cept Com­mis­sion­er, those with con­cerns were banned from meet­ing him.

10. Thus I have con­cerns about the real­ist­ic power of the over­sight pro­vi­sions writ­ten into this Bill and would urge an addi­tion­al pro­vi­sion. This would estab­lish an effect­ive chan­nel whereby officers with con­cerns can give evid­ence dir­ectly and in con­fid­ence to the Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Com­mis­sion­er in the expect­a­tion that a prop­er invest­ig­a­tion will be con­duc­ted and with no reper­cus­sions to their careers inside the agen­cies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford Uni­ver­sity three years ago out­lining these pro­pos­als:

11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scen­ario for all con­cerned. The agen­cies would have a chance to improve their work prac­tices, learn from mis­takes, and bet­ter pro­tect nation­al secur­ity, as well as avoid­ing the scan­dal and embar­rass­ment of any future whis­tleblow­ing scan­dals; the officers with eth­ic­al con­cerns would not be placed in the invi­di­ous pos­i­tion of either becom­ing com­pli­cit in poten­tially illeg­al acts by “just fol­low­ing orders” or risk­ing the loss of their careers and liberty by going pub­lic about their con­cerns.

12. I would also like to raise the pro­por­tion­al­ity issue. It strikes me that bulk inter­cept must surely be dis­pro­por­tion­ate with­in a func­tion­ing and free demo­cracy, and indeed can actu­ally harm nation­al secur­ity. Why? Because the use­ful, indeed cru­cial, intel­li­gence on tar­gets and their asso­ci­ates is lost in the tsunami of avail­able inform­a­tion. Indeed this seems to have been the con­clu­sion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the tar­gets were all vaguely known to the author­it­ies but resources were spread too thinly.

13. In fact all that bulk col­lec­tion seems to provide is con­firm­a­tion after the fact of a suspect’s involve­ment in a spe­cif­ic incid­ent, which is surely spe­cific­ally police evid­en­tial work. Yet the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the invas­ive inter­cept and inter­fer­ence meas­ures laid out in the Bill itself is to gath­er vital inform­a­tion ahead of an attack in order to pre­vent it – the very defin­i­tion of intel­li­gence. How is this pos­sible if the sheer scale of bulk col­lec­tion drowns out the vital nug­gets of intel­li­gence?

14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “nation­al secur­ity” has nev­er been defined for leg­al pur­poses in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step neces­sary before for­mu­lat­ing the pro­posed IP Bill? Until we have such a leg­al defin­i­tion, how can we for­mu­late new and intrus­ive laws in the name of pro­tect­ing an undefined and neb­u­lous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be pro­por­tion­ate with­in a demo­cracy?

Webstock in New Zealand

Webstock_2016_2I just want to say a huge thank you to the organ­isers of the 10th Web­stock Fest­iv­al in New Zea­l­and earli­er this month — def­in­itely worth the inter­min­able flights.

This is a tech-focused con­fer­ence that very much looks at the big­ger pic­ture and joins a whole num­ber of dif­fer­ent soci­et­al dots.

Plus they look after their “inspir­a­tion­al speak­ers” exceed­ingly well, with scary coach trips out of Wel­ling­ton and up the cliffs, a chance to appre­ci­ate the finer aspects of bowl­ing at a NZ work­ing men’s club, and a rip-roar­ing party at the end of the fest­iv­al. It was great to have the time to chat with so many amaz­ing people.

Oh, and I exper­i­enced my first earth­quake — 5.7 on the Richter Scale. Slightly dis­tant, but still impress­ive when you’re in a sway­ing 5th floor hotel room.  I ini­tially thought a bomb might have gone off in the base­ment.…  Thank­fully, NZ hotels are made of pli­able, if stern, stuff.

I was also shunted on to Radio New Zea­l­and for a half hour inter­view, dis­cuss­ing whis­tleblowers, spies, drugs and sur­veil­lance.  Here it is — it was fun to do — so thank you NZ.