Merkel NSA phone tapping

My inter­view today for RT about the Ger­man prosecutor’s decision to stop the invest­ig­a­tion of the NSA tap­ping Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone, and much more:

End of Merkel NSA Spy Probe Case on RT Inter­na­tion­al from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Age of Transparency?

Black_sheep_text?Well, this is an inter­est­ing case in the US.  Thomas Drake, a former seni­or exec­ut­ive at the Amer­ic­an Nation­al Secur­ity Agency (NSA), the US elec­tron­ic eaves­drop­ping organ­isa­tion, is being charged under the 1917 US Espi­on­age Act for allegedly dis­clos­ing clas­si­fied inform­a­tion to a journ­al­ist about, gasp, the mis­man­age­ment, fin­an­cial waste and dubi­ous leg­al prac­tices of the spy­ing organ­isa­tion.  These days it might actu­ally be more news­worthy if the oppos­ite were to be dis­closed.…

How­ever, under the terms of the Espi­on­age Act, this des­ig­nates him an enemy of the Amer­ic­an people on a par with bona fide trait­ors of the past who sold secrets to hos­tile powers dur­ing the Cold War.

It strikes me that someone who reports mal­prac­tice, mis­takes and under-per­form­ance on the part of his (secret­ive) employ­ers might pos­sibly be someone who still has the motiv­a­tion to try to make a dif­fer­ence, to do their best to pro­tect people and serve the genu­ine interests of the whole coun­try.  Should such people be pro­sec­uted or should they be pro­tec­ted with a leg­al chan­nel to dis­clos­ure? 

Thomas Drake does not sound like a spy who should be pro­sec­uted for espi­on­age under the USA’s anti­quated act, he sounds on the avail­able inform­a­tion like a whis­tleblower, pure and simple.  But that won’t neces­sar­ily save him leg­ally, and he is appar­ently facing dec­ades in pris­on.  Pres­id­ent Obama, who made such a song and dance about trans­par­ency and account­ab­il­ity dur­ing his elec­tion cam­paign, has an even more egre­gious track record than pre­vi­ous pres­id­ents for hunt­ing down whis­tleblowers — the new “insider threat”.

This, of course, chimes with the Brit­ish exper­i­ence.  So-called left-of-centre polit­ic­al can­did­ates get elec­ted on a plat­form of trans­par­ency, free­dom of inform­a­tion, and an eth­ic­al for­eign policy (think Blair as well as Obama), and promptly renege on all their cam­paign prom­ises once they grab the top job. 

In fact, I would sug­gest that the more pro­fessedly “lib­er­al” the  gov­ern­ment, the more it feels empowered to shred civil liber­ties.  If a right-wing gov­ern­ment were to attack basic demo­crat­ic freedoms in such a way, the offi­cial oppos­i­tion (Democrats/Labour Party/whatever) would be obliged to make a show of oppos­ing the meas­ures to keep their core voters sweet.  Once they’re in power, of course, they can do what they want.

One stark example of this occured dur­ing the passing of the Brit­ish Offi­cial Secrets Act (1989) which, as I’ve writ­ten before, was spe­cific­ally designed to gag whis­tleblowers and pen­al­ise journ­al­ists.  The old OSA (1911) was already in place to deal with real trait­ors.

And who voted against the passing of this act in 1989?  Yes, you’ve guessed it, all those who then went on to become Labour gov­ern­ment min­is­ters after the 1997 Labour elec­tion land­slide — Tony Blair, Jack Straw, the late Robin Cook and a scrum of oth­er rather for­get­table min­is­ters and Attor­ney Gen­er­als.….  And yet it was this very New Labour gov­ern­ment in the UK that most often used the OSA to halt the free-flow of inform­a­tion and the dis­clos­ures of informed whis­tleblowers.  Obama has indeed learnt well.

It’s an oldie but still a good­ie: as one of my law­yers once wryly told me, it doesn’t mat­ter whom you vote for, the gov­ern­ment still gets in.….

Secrecy laws come out of the closet

Finally the true inten­tions behind the dra­coni­an Brit­ish law, the Offi­cial Secrets Act, and sim­il­ar espi­on­age-related laws in oth­er coun­tries such as the USA, have been laid bare.  All is revealed — these laws appar­ently have noth­ing what­so­ever to do with pro­tect­ing nation­al secur­ity and coun­ter­ing espi­on­age — their primary pur­pose is to stifle dis­sent and legit­im­ate cri­ti­cism of the state.

How can I tell?  Well, look at the reac­tion to the ongo­ing Wikileaks rev­el­a­tions, as opposed to today’s UK spy scan­dal involving the par­lia­ment­ary assist­ant of a hitherto unre­mark­able MP

WikileaksThe now-notori­ous Wikileaks site has been going since 2007 and, in this brief time, has shone a bright light on such nas­ties as Trafigura, the BNP, Sci­ento­logy, Cli­mateg­ate, Guantanamo, the Aus­trali­an inter­net black­list, Sarah Pal­in, and much more.

The site achieved world-wide notori­ety this year with four big stor­ies — start­ing with the har­row­ing film “Col­lat­er­al Murder”, which demon­strated clearly that the Pentagon had been lying to the dis­traught fam­il­ies of the vic­tims of this video-game nasty for years. 

Since then Wikileaks has clev­erly worked with selec­ted media oulets such as The Guard­i­an, The New York Times and Der Spiegel in Ger­many to give us the Afghan War logs and Iraq war files, which exposed endem­ic bru­tal­ity, tor­ture and war crimes (all in the name of spread­ing demo­cracy, of course), and cul­min­at­ing over the last week with the ongo­ing Cableg­ate expose.

The response?  Well the major­ity of the old media, par­tic­u­larly those that didn’t share in the juicy scoops, has been in attack mode: con­demning whis­tleblow­ing; vil­i­fy­ing the char­ac­ter of Wikileaks spokes­per­son, Juli­an Assange; and glee­fully report­ing the wide­spread cyber­space crack­down (Amazon pulling the site, Payp­al stop­ping con­tri­bu­tions, the ongo­ing hack attacks). 

But this is just so much hot air — what about the real sub­stance of the dis­clos­ures?  The viol­ent hor­ror, war crimes, and gov­ern­ment lies?  Why is our so-called Fourth Estate not demand­ing a response to all this ter­rible evid­ence?

Julian_AssangeHow­ever, it is the reac­tion of the US polit­ic­al class that is most gob-smack­ingly shock­ing.  The half-wits call for Assange’s pro­sec­u­tion under the US Espi­on­age Act (even though he’s an Aus­trali­an); to have him executed, assas­sin­ated by drone attack, or unlaw­fully dis­ap­peared as an “unlaw­ful com­batant”; and make hys­ter­ic­al calls for Wikileaks to be placed on the US list of pro­scribed for­eign ter­ror­ist organ­isa­tions.  Daniel Ells­berg, the fam­ous Pentagon Papers whis­tleblower, fears for Assange’s life.

Well, you can always tell how effect­ive a whis­tleblower is by the response you engender when telling truth to power, and this is a pretty strik­ing vin­dic­a­tion.

Of course, Juli­an Assange is not strictly speak­ing a whis­tleblower per se.  He is the next gen­er­a­tion — a highly-cap­able, high-tech con­duit, using his “hack­iv­ist” skills to out-pace and out-smart those who seek to con­ceal vital inform­a­tion.

As he said dur­ing a TED​.com inter­view last sum­mer, he strives to live by the ideal that to be a man is to be “cap­able and gen­er­ous, not to cre­ate vic­tims, but to nur­ture them…”.  And this is indeed the pro­tec­tion Wikileaks offers, an aven­ue of secure dis­clos­ure for people of con­science on the inside, without their hav­ing to go pub­lic to estab­lish the bona fides of what they are say­ing, with the res­ult­ing vic­tim­isa­tion, loss of career, liberty, and pos­sibly life.

Still, politi­cians seem unable to make the dis­tinc­tion — they are solely focused on loss of face, embar­rass­ment, and shor­ing up the wall of secrecy that allows them to get away with lies, tor­ture and war crimes.  I hope that com­mon sense will pre­vail and Assange will not become anoth­er sac­ri­fi­cial vic­tim on the altar of “nation­al secur­ity”.

Katia_ZSo why did I say at the start that the secrecy laws have come out of the closet?  Well, in the wake of all this recent media and polit­ic­al hys­teria about Wikileaks, this little espi­on­age gem appeared in the UK media today.   Essen­tially, the UK Home Sec­ret­ary is boot­ing out an alleged Rus­si­an spy, Ms Katia Zat­uliv­eter who, des­pite get­ting through secur­ity vet­ting (MI5, any­one?), was really an SVR agent  work­ing as the Par­lia­ment­ary assist­ant to Mike Han­cock MP — a man who hap­pens to have a spe­cial interest in Rus­sia and who serves on the UK’s Par­lia­ment­ary Defence Select Com­mit­tee.

Now, in the old days such alleged activ­ity would mean an auto­mat­ic arrest and prob­able pro­sec­u­tion for espi­on­age under the Offi­cial Secrets Acts (1911 and 1989). If we go with what the old media has repor­ted, this would seem to be a clear-cut case.  Dur­ing the Cold War for­eign spies work­ing under dip­lo­mat­ic cov­er could be dis­creetly PNGed (the jar­gon for declar­ing a dip­lo­mat per­sona non grata).  How­ever, this young woman was work­ing in Par­lia­ment, there­fore can have no such dip­lo­mat­ic cov­er.  But deport­a­tion and the avoid­ance of embar­rass­ment seems to be the order of the day — as we saw also with the explu­sion of the Rus­si­an spy ring from the US last sum­mer).

Which demon­strates with a start­ling clar­ity the real inten­tions behind the Brit­ish OSA and the Amer­ic­an Espi­on­age Act.  The full force of these laws will auto­mat­ic­ally be brought to bear against those expos­ing crime in high and secret places, pour enour­ager les autres,  but will rarely be used against real spies. 

Proof pos­it­ive, I would sug­gest, that these laws were draf­ted to pre­vent cri­ti­cism, dis­sent and whis­tleblow­ing, as I’ve writ­ten before, but not mean­ing­fully to pro­tect our nation­al secur­ity.  One can but hope that the Wikileaks débâcle acts as the long-over­due final nail in the OSA coffin.

Would it not be won­der­ful if our “esteemed” legis­lat­ors could learn from recent events, draw a col­lect­ive deep breath, and finally get to grips with those who pose a real threat to our nations — the people who lie to take us into illeg­al wars, and intel­li­gence officers involved in tor­ture, assas­sin­a­tion and espi­on­age?

From Russia with Love (to the USA)

I’ve been fol­low­ing with interest the retro, Cold War spy saga cur­rently unfold­ing in the USA.  The head­lines being that 10 alleged Rus­si­an sleep­ers (“illeg­als” in spy lingo) have been arres­ted by the FBI and are now charged with “work­ing as agents of a for­eign power”, which car­ries a sen­tence of five years in pris­on.

These Rus­si­an “illeg­als”, some of whom reportedly have been liv­ing openly as Rus­si­an immig­rants, some as oth­er for­eign nation­als, have allegedly been infilt­rat­ing the US since the mid-1990s, and were tasked to get friendly with Amer­ic­an power-brokers, to glean what inform­a­tion they could about the thoughts of the US great and the good about Rus­sia, Iran, defence plans etc.

Whatever the truth of this case, and the charges are detailed, I find the tim­ing and media atten­tion giv­en to this story inter­est­ing for three key reas­ons:

From what has been repor­ted of the court papers, the FBI invest­ig­a­tion has been going on for years.  Appar­ently they have known about the spy ring since 2000, and have included com­mu­nic­a­tions inter­cept mater­i­al in the indict­ment dat­ing from 2004 and 2008, as well as sting oper­a­tions from the begin­ning of this year.  So it’s curi­ous that the FBI decided to swoop now, in the imme­di­ate after­math of a suc­cess­ful and, by all accounts friendly, meet­ing between the Rus­si­an and Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents in Wash­ing­ton DC

Many people are com­ment­ing on this aspect of the tim­ing.  And, indeed, one might spec­u­late about wheels with­in wheels — it appears that there are still hard­line fac­tions with­in the US admin­is­tra­tion that want to ensure that a warm­er work­ing rela­tion­ship can­not devel­op between Rus­sia and the USA. A strategy of ten­sion is good for busi­ness – espe­cially com­pan­ies like Hal­libur­ton and Xe (formerly Black­wa­ter) which profit from build­ing vast US mil­it­ary bases in Cent­ral Asia.

But what also intrigues me is the pos­sible behind-the-scenes action. 

OurManInHavanaThis story is get­ting blanket media cov­er­age.  It’s a good, old-fash­ioned, Cold War-style coup, hit­ting all the jin­go­ist­ic spy but­tons, just at a time when the US spooks are under pres­sure about their per­form­ance in the neb­u­lous and ever-shift­ing “war on ter­ror”, the shred­ding of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, the illeg­al sur­veil­lance of domest­ic polit­ic­al act­iv­ists, and com­pli­city in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture. It’s a use­ful “remind­er” that the bloated US secur­ity infra­struc­ture is worth all the money it costs, des­pite the dire state of US nation­al fin­ances. Pure pro­pa­ganda.

I’m also will­ing to bet that there is a more cov­ert aspect to this story too — some behind-the-scenes power play.  There are, at the last count, 17 acknow­ledged intel­li­gence agen­cies in the US, all com­pet­ing for prestige, power and resources.  By mak­ing these arrests, the FBI will see this as a step up in the spy peck­ing order.  It reminds me inev­it­ably (and per­haps flip­pantly) of the clas­sic spy nov­el by former intel­li­gence officer Gra­ham Greene, “Our Man in Havana”.  In this no doubt entirely fic­tion­al work, a Brit­ish MI6 asset invents a spy ring to increase his stand­ing and fund­ing from Lon­don HQ.

Also curi­ous is the role played by one Chris­toph­er Met­sos, allegedly the 11th man, not ini­tially arres­ted, who is repor­ted to have passed money to the spy ring.  He was caught yes­ter­day in Cyprus try­ing to board a plane to Hun­gary, and inex­plic­ably gran­ted bail — inex­plic­able at least to the Greek police, who always worry that their sus­pect will flee over the bor­der into the Turk­ish seg­ment of the island, nev­er to be seen again.  And this has indeed happened, accord­ing to The Guard­i­an news­pa­per this even­ing. Per­haps he has some urgent appoint­ments to sell vacu­um clean­ers north of the bor­der.….