UK sets up yet another costly spy agency

This art­icle was first pub­lished on RT Op Ed a month ago.

The UK Min­istry of Defence announced on 21 Septem­ber the estab­lish­ment of yet anoth­er Brit­ish spy agency, an amal­gam of mil­it­ary and secur­ity ser­vice pro­fes­sion­als designed to wage cyber war against ter­ror­ists, Rus­sia and organ­ised crime. The new agency will have upwards of 2000 staff (the size MI5 was when I worked there in the 1990s, so not incon­sid­er­able). I have been asked for a num­ber of inter­views about this and here are my thoughts in long form.

The UK already has a pleth­ora of spy agen­cies:

  • MI5 – the UK domest­ic Secur­ity Ser­vice, largely coun­ter­ing ter­ror­ism and espi­on­age;
  • MI6 – the Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice, tasked with gain­ing intel­li­gence abroad;
  • GCHQ – the gov­ern­ment elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance agency and best buds with the US NSA;
  • Nation­al Cyber Secur­ity Centre – an off­shoot that pro­tects the UK against cyber attacks, both state and crim­in­al;
  • NCA – the Nation­al Crime Agency, mainly invest­ig­at­ing organ­ised crime;
  • not to men­tion the police and Cus­toms cap­ab­il­it­ies.

To provide Amer­ic­an con­text, MI6 equates to the CIA, GCHQ and the NCSC equate to the NSA, and the NCA to the FBI. Which rather begs the ques­tion of where exactly MI5 fits into the mod­ern scheme – or is it just an ana­chron­ist­ic and undemo­crat­ic throw-back, a typ­ic­ally Brit­ish his­tor­ic­al muddle, or per­haps the UK’s very own Stasi?

So why the new and expens­ive agency at a time of nation­al fin­an­cial uncer­tainty?

Of course I acknow­ledge the fact that the UK deserves to retain a com­pre­hens­ive and impress­ive defence cap­ab­il­ity, provided it is used for that pur­pose rather than illeg­al, need­less wars based on spuri­ous polit­ic­al reas­ons that cost inno­cent lives. Every coun­try has the right and the need to pro­tect itself, and the cybers are the newly-defined battle lines.

Moreover, it might be overly simplist­ic to sug­gest that this is just more empire-build­ing on the part of the thrust­ing and ambi­tious young Sec­ret­ary of State for Defence, Gav­in Wil­li­am­son. Per­haps he really does believe that the UK mil­it­ary needs aug­ment­ing after years of cuts, as the former Deputy Chair­man of the UK Con­ser­vat­ive Party and er, well-known mil­it­ary expert, Lord Ash­croft, wrote in the Daily Mail. But why a whole new intel­li­gence agency at huge cost? Surely all the exist­ing agen­cies should already be able to provide adequate defence?

Addi­tion­ally, by singling out Rus­sia as the hos­tile, aggressor state, when for years the West has also been bewail­ing Chinese/Ira­ni­an/North Korean et al hack­ing, smacks to me of polit­ic­al oppor­tunism in the wake of “Rus­siagate”, the Skri­pals, and Russia’s suc­cess­ful inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia. Those of a cyn­ic­al bent among us might see this as polit­ic­ally expedi­ent to cre­ate the etern­al Emmanuel Gold­stein enemy to jus­ti­fy the ever-meta­stas­ising mil­it­ary-secur­ity com­plex. But, hey, that is a big tranche of the Brit­ish, and poten­tially the post-Brexit, Brit­ish eco­nomy.

The UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are there to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity and the eco­nom­ic well-being of the state”. So I do have some fun­da­ment­al eth­ic­al and secur­ity con­cerns based on recent West­ern his­tory. If the new organ­isa­tion is to go on the cyber offens­ive what, pre­cisely does that mean – war, unfore­seen blow back, or what?

If we go by what the USA has been exposed as doing over the last couple of dec­ades, partly from NSA whis­tleblowers includ­ing Bill Bin­ney, Tom Drake and Edward Snowden, and partly from CIA and NSA leaks into the pub­lic domain, a cyber offens­ive cap­ab­il­ity involves stock­pil­ing zero day hacks, back doors built into the inter­net mono­pol­ies, weapon­ised mal­ware such as STUXNET (now out there, mutat­ing in the wild), and the egre­gious break­ing of nation­al laws and inter­na­tion­al pro­to­cols.

To dis­cuss these points in reverse order: among so many oth­er rev­el­a­tions, in 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had cracked Bel­ga­com, the Bel­gian nation­al tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions net­work – that of an ally; he also revealed that the USA had spied on the Ger­man Chancellor’s private phone, as well as many oth­er Ger­man offi­cials and journ­al­ists; that GCHQ had been pros­ti­tut­ing itself to the NSA to do dirty work on its behalf in return for $100 mil­lion; and that most big inter­net com­pan­ies had col­luded with allow­ing the NSA access to their net­works via a pro­gramme called PRISM. Only last month, the EU also accused the UK of hack­ing the Brexit nego­ti­ations.

Last year Wikileaks repor­ted on the Vault 7 dis­clos­ures – a cache of CIA cyber weapons it had been stock­pil­ing. It is worth read­ing what Wikileaks had to say about this, ana­lys­ising the full hor­ror of how vul­ner­able such a stock­pile makes “we, the people”, vul­ner­able to crim­in­al hack­ing.

Also, two years ago a huge tranche of sim­il­arly hoarded NSA weapons was acquired by a crim­in­al organ­isa­tion called the Shad­ow Brokers, who ini­tially tried to sell them on the dark web to the highest bid­der but then released them into the wild. The cata­stroph­ic crash of NHS com­puters in the UK last year was because one of these cyber weapons, Wan­nac­ry, fell into the wrong crim­in­al hands. How much more is out there, avail­able to crim­in­als and ter­ror­ists?

The last two examples will, I hope, expose just how vul­ner­able such caches of cyber weapons and vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies can be if not prop­erly secured. And, as we have seen, even the most secret of organ­isa­tions can­not guar­an­tee this. To use the Amer­ic­an ver­nacu­lar, they can come back and bite you in the ass.

And the earli­er NSA whis­tleblowers, includ­ing Bill Bin­ney and Tom Drake, exposed just how easy it is for the spooks to manip­u­late nation­al law to suit their own agenda, with war­rant-less wiretap­ping, breaches of the US con­sti­tu­tion, and massive and need­less over­spend on pred­at­ory snoop­ing sys­tems such as TRAILBLAZER.

Indeed, we had the same thing in the UK when Theresa May suc­ceeded in finally ram­ming through the invi­di­ous Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (IPA 2016). When she presen­ted it to par­lia­ment as Home Sec­ret­ary, she implied that it was leg­al­ising what GCHQ has pre­vi­ously been doing illeg­ally since 2001, and extend their powers to include bulk metadata hack­ing, bulk data set hack­ing and bulk hack­ing of all our com­puters and phones, all without mean­ing­ful gov­ern­ment over­sight.

Oth­er coun­tries such as Rus­sia and China have passed sim­il­ar sur­veil­lance legis­la­tion, claim­ing as a pre­ced­ent the UK’s IPA as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for what are claimed by the West to be egre­gious pri­vacy crack­downs.

The remit of the UK spooks is to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity” (whatever that means, as we still await a leg­al defin­i­tion) and the eco­nom­ic well-being of the state. I have said this many times over the years – the UK intel­li­gence com­munity is already the most leg­ally pro­tec­ted and least account­able of that of any oth­er West­ern demo­cracy. So, with all these agen­cies and all these dra­coni­an laws already at their dis­pos­al, I am some­what per­plexed about the per­ceived need for yet anoth­er costly intel­li­gence organ­isa­tion to go on the offens­ive. What do they want? Out­right war?

Former MI6 spy v Wikileaks editor: First Amendment Rights

First pub­lished on RT Op-Ed on 24 August 2018.

While it is all too easy to become frus­trated and annoyed by what passes for news in the leg­acy media these days, this art­icle in the Daily Mail did arouse my par­tic­u­lar ire early one morn­ing – and in this instance no par­tic­u­lar blame attaches to the news­pa­per, it is simply report­ing some unpal­at­able facts.

The gist of it is that former Brit­ish MI6 intel­li­gence officer and cur­rent mer­cen­ary spy-for-hire, Chris­toph­er Steele, author of the dis­cred­ited “Dirty Dossier” about Don­ald Trump, has been accor­ded First Amend­ment rights in a court case in the USA.

You might won­der why this art­icle caused me so much splut­ter­ing annoy­ance over my break­fast? Steele’s treat­ment is in marked con­trast to that accor­ded to Wikileaks pub­lish­er and edit­or in chief, Juli­an Assange, and the hypo­crisy is breath­tak­ing. Allow me to expound.

Chris­toph­er Steele is a Brit­ish intel­li­gence officer of pretty much my vin­tage. Accord­ing to what is avail­able pub­licly, he worked for MI6, the Brit­ish over­seas intel­li­gence gath­er­ing agency, for 22 years, serving in Rus­si­an in the early 90s and in Par­is at the end of that dec­ade – around the time that MI5 whis­tleblower, Dav­id Shayler, was imprisoned in that city pending a failed extra­di­tion case to the UK. It is prob­able that Steele would have been mon­it­or­ing us then.

After being outed as an MI6 officer in 1999 by his former col­league, Richard Tom­lin­son, he was pretty much desk-bound in Lon­don until he resigned in 2009 to set up, in the inim­it­able way of so many former spooks, a private con­sultancy that can provide plaus­ibly deni­able ser­vices to cor­por­a­tions and per­haps their former employ­ers.

Steele estab­lished just such a mer­cen­ary spy out­fit, Orbis Busi­ness Intel­li­gence, with anoth­er ex-col­league Chris Bur­rows in 2009. Orbis made its name in expos­ing cor­rup­tion at the heart of FIFA in 2015 and was there­after approached as an out-sourced part­ner by Fusion GPS – the com­pany ini­tially hired to dig dirt on pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Don­ald Trump in 2016 by one of his Repub­lic­an rivals and which then went on to dig up dirt on behalf of Hil­ary Clinton’s DNC.

The res­ult is what has become known as the “Dirty Dossier”, a grubby col­lec­tion of pruri­ent gos­sip with no real evid­ence or prop­erly sourced inform­a­tion. As a former MI6 intel­li­gence officer, Steele should be hanging his head in shame at such a shoddy and embar­rass­ingly half-baked report.

On a slightly tan­gen­tial note, there has been some spec­u­la­tion, sup­pressed in the UK at least via the D Notice cen­sor­ship sys­tem, that MI6 agent and Rus­si­an trait­or Sergei Skri­p­al, the vic­tim of the alleged Novichok pois­on­ing in the UK earli­er this year, remained in con­tact with his hand­ler Pablo Miller, who also is repor­ted to work for Orbis Busi­ness Intel­li­gence. If this were indeed the case, then it would be a logic­al assump­tion that Orbis, via Miller, might well have used Skri­p­al as one of its “reli­able sources” for the Dossier.

Des­pite all this, Steele has won a leg­al case in the USA, where he had been sued by three Rus­si­an olig­archs who claimed that the Dirty Dossier tra­duced their repu­ta­tions. And he won on the basis that his report was pro­tec­ted by First Amend­ment rights under the con­sti­tu­tion of the USA, which guar­an­tees US cit­izens the right to free­dom of expres­sion. Des­pite the fact that Steele is Brit­ish:

But Judge Anthony Epstein dis­agreed, writ­ing in his judg­ment that “advocacy on issues of pub­lic interest has the capa­city to inform pub­lic debate, and thereby fur­thers the pur­poses of the First Amend­ment, regard­less of the cit­izen­ship or res­id­ency of the speak­ers”.”

This is the nub of the issue: Steele, a former offi­cial UK intel­li­gence officer and cur­rent mer­cen­ary spy-for-hire, is gran­ted leg­al pro­tec­tion by the Amer­ic­an courts for dig­ging up and sub­sequently leak­ing what appears to be con­tro­ver­sial and defam­at­ory inform­a­tion about the cur­rent Pres­id­ent as well as vari­ous Rus­si­ans, all paid for by Trump’s polit­ic­al oppon­ents. And Steele is giv­en the full pro­tec­tion of the US leg­al sys­tem.

On the oth­er hand we have an award-win­ning journ­al­ist and pub­lish­er, Juli­an Assange, whose organ­isa­tion Wikileaks has nev­er been found to report any­thing fac­tu­ally incor­rect in over 10 years, being told that if he were to be extra­dited from his cur­rent polit­ic­al asylum in the Ecuadori­an embassy in Lon­don to face the full wrath of a venge­ful Amer­ic­an estab­lish­ment, he is not entitled to claim pro­tec­tion of the First Amend­ment because his is an Aus­trali­an cit­izen not an Amer­ic­an.

It has been an open secret for years that the US gov­ern­ment has installed a secret Grand Jury in Vir­gin­ia (the home of the CIA) to invest­ig­ate Assange and bring him to “justice” for pub­lish­ing embar­rass­ing US gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments as well as evid­ence of war crimes. There have been calls from US politi­cians for the death sen­tence, life in pris­on without parole, and even assas­sin­a­tion. The US has been scrab­bling around for years to try to find any charge it could poten­tially throw at him – hell, it will prob­ably make up a new law just for him, so des­per­ate as it is to make an example of him.

How­ever, the fake “Rus­siagate” nar­rat­ive gave the US deep state an addi­tion­al spur – against all evid­ence and Assange’s own state­ments – it alleges that “Rus­sia” hacked the DNC and Podesta emails and Assange was the con­duit to make them pub­lic. This is seen as a win-win for the US estab­lish­ment, appar­ently if erro­neously prov­ing that Rus­sia hacked the US pres­id­en­tial elec­tion and con­firm­ing that Assange runs an “non-state hos­tile intel­li­gence agency”, accord­ing to cur­rent CIA Dir­ect­or, Mike Pom­peo

Except he does not. He is an edit­or run­ning a high-tech pub­lish­ing out­fit that has caused embar­rass­ment to gov­ern­ments and cor­por­a­tions around the world, not just Amer­ica. If he can be pro­sec­uted for pub­lish­ing inform­a­tion very much in the pub­lic interest, then all the leg­acy media feed­ing off the Wikileaks hydrant of inform­a­tion are equally vul­ner­able.

This being the case, surely he of all people requires the pro­tec­tion of the First Amend­ment in the USA? Oth­er­wise the concept that free media can hold power to account is surely dead?

Assange under increased threat

Spec­u­la­tion has been rife over the last couple of weeks that Juli­an Assange may be handed over to the Brit­ish by a new and pusil­lan­im­ous Ecuadori­an gov­ern­ment, thereby breach­ing its pledge to grant Assange polit­ic­al asylum and the pro­tec­tion due to a cit­izen of Ecuador. Here’s my take:

Ecuador Pres­id­ent threat­en­ing the polit­ic­al asylum of Assange from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Art of State Trolling — a Growing Market

Last week, while I was doing a num­ber of talks for Fun​z​ing​.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:

Pentagon devel­op­ing auto­mated social media troll farms from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Assange threatened by entire American Establishment

Here is the full inter­view I gave to RT on this top­ic.

And here is the slice of it they used in a news fea­ture they did with Assange:

Assange feels threatened by both Repub­lic­ans & Demo­crats fol­low­ing Clin­ton email leaks–Annie Machon from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

French intelligence exonerates Russia of election hacking

My recent RT inter­view about the French intel­li­gence report that exon­er­ated Rus­sia of try­ing to hack the recent pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, des­pite the claims of new Pres­id­ent, Emmanu­al Mac­ron. The same thing has happened in Ger­many too, much to Merkel’s dis­pleas­ure..

And so the tapestry of lies begins to fray:

No Evid­ence of Rus­si­an Hack­ing of French Elec­tion from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.

CIA and MI5 hacking our “Internet of Things”

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:

BBCCIA and MI5 Hack our TVs from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

And:

Wikileaks release info re CIA/MI5 hacks from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

News debate on Russian “hacking” allegations

On 9 Janu­ary RT hos­ted a live streamed debate on its news show about the US intel­li­gence report that attemp­ted to prove that Rus­sia had “hacked” the US elec­tion.

Also in the debate were former CIA Dir­ect­or, James Wool­sey, and former CIA intel­li­gence officer, Larry John­son.

Here it is:

RT Debate about Intel­li­gence Report into alleged ‘Rus­si­an hack­ing’ (Streamed Live) from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

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.

UN Ruling on Assange Case

Here is an inter­view I did for RT today as the news broke that the UN Work­ing Group on Arbit­rary Deten­tion would announce tomor­row the find­ings of its report into the Juli­an Assange case.

The BBC appar­ently repor­ted today that the rul­ing would be in Assange’s favour.

RT Inter­view re Assange UN Rul­ing from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Re:publica — The War on Concepts

This week I made my first vis­it to the re:publica annu­al geek­fest in Ber­lin to do a talk called “The War on Con­cepts”. In my view this, to date, includes the four wars — on drugs, ter­ror, the inter­net, and whis­tleblowers. No doubt the num­ber will con­tin­ue to rise.

Here’s the video:

republica_2015_Annie_Machon_The_War_on_Concepts from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Anything to Say? unveiled in Berlin

Last week artist Dav­ide Dormino unveiled his sculp­ture cel­eb­rat­ing whis­tleblowers in Alex­an­der­platz, Ber­lin.

Called “Any­thing to Say?”, the sculp­ture depicts Chelsea Man­ning, Edward Snowden and Juli­an Assange stand­ing on three chairs, with an empty fourth chair beside them, upon which we are all encour­aged to stand up on and speak our truth.

Dav­ide invited me to do just that for the unveil­ing cere­mony, along with Ger­man MP for the Green Party and whis­tleblower sup­port­er, Hans Chris­ti­an Stroebele and Wikileaks’ Sarah Har­ris­on. Here’s a report:

Anything_to_Say?_sculpture_unveiled_in_Berlin from Annie Machon on Vimeo.