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.

Terrorism, crime, or mental illness?

This morn­ing I was invited on to RT to do an inter­view about the break­ing story of a mass shoot­ing that occurred last night at a nightclub in Flor­ida in the USA.  You will, no doubt, have seen the head­lines by now — the biggest mass shoot­ing in mod­ern Amer­ic­an his­tory.

At the time, as the news was break­ing, I was some­what puzzled about what I could con­trib­ute — surely this was just anoth­er ghastly mas­sacre by the usu­al gun-tot­ing crazy that Amer­ica seems to spawn so reg­u­larly? After all, it seems that the Second Amend­ment is the last right stand­ing from the US con­sti­tu­tion, after all the oth­ers have been evis­cer­ated as a res­ult of the “war on ter­ror” and the social fric­tion caused by the fin­an­cial melt-down of the US eco­nomy?

How­ever, with a little thought on a mel­low European Sunday, I could see a num­ber of threads com­ing togeth­er, which I explored dur­ing the inter­view.  I would like to devel­op some of them fur­ther in this art­icle.

At the time I was inter­viewed, few hard facts had been con­firmed about the shoot­ing — merely a con­ser­vat­ive estim­ate of the num­ber of dead and wounded, and the fact the gun­man had been killed. Everything else was pure spec­u­la­tion. That did not stop much of the West­ern media from jump­ing to con­clu­sions — that this must be an ISIS-inspired attack and there­fore Muslim ter­ror­ism, by our cur­rent West­ern defin­i­tion.

I have a prob­lem with this cur­rent usage. When work­ing as an intel­li­gence officer with MI5 in the 1990s — at the height of the reli­gious civil war being waged between the Prot­est­ants and the Cath­ol­ics in North­ern Ire­land, our work­ing defin­i­tion was that “ter­ror­ism” was the use of viol­ence to achieve polit­ic­al aims. So “ter­ror­ism” has nev­er been a purely Muslim-ori­gin­ated concept, no mat­ter how the USA has chosen to define it since 9/11.

The reas­on I am mak­ing this rather obvi­ous point is that the USA, par­tic­u­larly, has always engendered some rather unsa­voury domest­ic “ter­ror­ist” groups, motiv­ated by Chris­ti­an or cult fan­at­icism — think the Branch Dav­idi­ans, or the Chris­ti­an fun­da­ment­al­ists mur­der­ing doc­tors and blow­ing up abor­tion clin­ics, or white suprem­acists ter­ror­ising black com­munit­ies or blow­ing up FBI offices such as the Oklahoma bomb­ing of 1995, which was ini­tially blamed on Middle East­ern ter­ror­ism. If that is not the use of viol­ence to achieve polit­ic­al aims, then our intel­li­gence agen­cies need to change the defin­i­tion of ter­ror­ism.

As the shoot­ings in the Pulse nightclub in Flor­ida spe­cific­ally tar­geted a LGBT crowd, it is just as feas­ible that the gun­man could have fun­da­ment­al­ist Chris­ti­an beliefs that urged him to tar­get this com­munity as some ISIS-inspired jihadi.  After all, we have seen sim­il­ar attacks in the UK, with the Lon­don nail bomber tar­get­ing gay nightclubs in 1999.

Yet the former is, to this day, widely seen as a mass killing, a “ram­page shoot­er” or a mad­man, and treated as a crim­in­al, where­as a Muslim com­mit­ting the same acts for sim­il­arly big­oted reas­ons is auto­mat­ic­ally deemed to be a ter­ror­ist. And we all know that “ter­ror­ism” is a unique form of “evil­tude” that imme­di­ately exposes the sus­pect  to great­er leg­al pen­al­ties at the very least and assas­sin­a­tion at the worst end of the scale, US cit­izen or not.

Ter­ror­ism is a crime — pure and simple — and it should be treated as a crime.  Muslim sus­pects of such crimes should not be kid­napped, tor­tured, held in isol­a­tion for years, or sub­ject to mil­it­ary tribunals with no real right to defence, any more than Chris­ti­an, athe­ist or any oth­er sus­pects should be.  Nor should spe­cific­ally “Muslim” ter­ror­ism be the excuse used to strip away all our basic and hard-won civic freedoms and human rights in our own coun­tries, yet that is what has been hap­pen­ing in the unend­ing “war on ter­ror”.

The UK went through this debate in the 1980s and 1990s — at the height of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA and Loy­al­ist para­mil­it­ary bomb­ing cam­paigns across the UK — which was anoth­er reli­gious-based ter­ror­ist war, as I men­tioned before.  It also — at least from the PIRA side, received the bulk of its fund­ing from the Amer­ic­an Irish dia­spora. In fact, des­pite the peace pro­cess in North­ern Ire­land signed with the Good Fri­day Agree­ment in 1998, this fund­ing from Amer­ica only finally dried up in the after­math of 9/11.

And what of the third point in the title — the men­tal health issue? I men­tion this because there was a recent case in Lon­don of a knife-wield­ing man fren­ziedly attack­ing com­muters in an under­ground rail­way sta­tion last year. The report­ing at the time declared that he had been shout­ing “this is for Syr­ia” — as he attacked his fel­low trav­el­lers. At the time every­one assumed he was anoth­er rad­ic­al­ised jihadi car­ry­ing out a lone wolf attack.  Indeed, even people at the scene seemed con­vinced. One wit­ness cried out “You ain’t no Muslim, bruv”, a heart­felt sen­ti­ment that went vir­al over social media.

This story was head­line news in the UK at the time. The tri­al recently reached its con­clu­sion, and it now appears that the per­pet­rat­or had ser­i­ous men­tal health issues.  These may have latched onto jihadi ter­min­o­logy, but the motiv­a­tion was not ter­ror­ist­ic.

The guy prob­ably needed an earli­er inter­ven­tion by health pro­fes­sion­als, but he slipped through the cracks. That does not make him a ter­ror­ist though — no mat­ter what he said in his frenzy — and yet this con­clu­sion cer­tainly did not get the front page head­lines the ini­tial attack received.

Let us also look at the so-called “lone wolf” attacks that have happened across West­ern coun­tries over the last few years — in Canada, Lon­don, Aus­tralia, the USA, Den­mark — as well as the Par­is and Brus­sels attacks.  Many of the prot­ag­on­ists were already on the radar of the West­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies, but because they are drown­ing in a tsunami of inform­a­tion garnered for the mass sur­veil­lance of us all, these cru­cial nug­gets of real intel­li­gence were swamped.

Even worse, it appears that many of the people sub­sequently fingered as the per­pet­rat­ors had already been approached by the intel­li­gence agen­cies, as appears to be the case in Flor­ida too.

So, how does this all come togeth­er? There is not doubt that genu­ine psy­cho­paths or sad­ists are attrac­ted to ter­ror­ist as well as crim­in­al gangs to give free rein to their tend­en­cies — ISIS is an abso­lutely hor­ri­fy­ing example of this.  But the ideo­logy of such groups can also attract from a dis­tance the men­tally fra­gile, who can become use­ful idi­ots or delu­sion­al fol­low­ers, or vul­ner­able indi­vidu­als who can even be manip­u­lated by law enforce­ment. Add into the mix fun­da­ment­al­ist reli­gion, cult, or racial suprem­acy beliefs and it all gets too messy, too fast.

And yet.… all these groups use ter­ror to achieve their goals, but only a few are deemed to be ter­ror­ists rather than crim­in­als — and we all know now that any­one labelled a ter­ror­ist faces far high­er pen­al­ties than these oth­er cat­egor­ies of crime.

Intel­li­gence agen­cies are there to pro­tect our nation­al secur­ity — ie our nation’s integ­rity and its very exist­ence.  As I have said for many years now, such threats include immin­ent inva­sion, as Bri­tain faced dur­ing the Second World War, or glob­al anni­hil­a­tion as we all faced dur­ing the Cold War.

The ran­dom attacks of ter­ror­ist — or crim­in­al groups or men­tally ill people — cause trauma to the coun­try and the com­munit­ies in which they occur, but they do not threaten our country’s very sur­viv­al.

We need to cla­ri­fy our think­ing urgently, both around the defin­i­tions applied to such crimes and to the pro­por­tion­al­ity of the response we make. This will allow us to pre­serve and strengthen the concept of the rule of law and the notion of demo­cracy under which we all hope to live.

OHM 2013 — The Joy of Geeks

ohm2013_logoHome and recovered from the rigours of the amaz­ing geek­fest, OHM 2013.

This was a 5-day fest­iv­al in the Neth­er­lands where 3000 geeks, act­iv­ists and whis­tleblowers gathered to have fun and also try to put the world to rights.  And this crowd, out of all act­iv­ist groups, has a fight­ing chance. The geeks are tooled-up, tech-savvy, and increas­ingly politi­cised after all the recent assaults on the inter­net and wider freedoms.

These include all the anti-pir­acy meas­ures (inter­est­ingly, Rus­sia has just joined the lost war that is the anti-pir­acy legis­la­tion, and the Rus­si­an pir­ates are going to form a Pir­ate Church, as this will give them spe­cial pro­tec­tions and rights under the law). It also includes all the invi­di­ous inter­na­tion­al agree­ments that the US and its Euro-vas­sals are try­ing to force down the throats of reluct­ant pop­u­la­tions: ACTA, PIPA, SOPA, TAFTA.… you name it, there’s a whole new anti-free­dom alpha­bet soup out there in addi­tion to the spook acronyms.

Not to men­tion all the illeg­al US take-downs of legit­im­ate busi­ness web­sites, such as Megaup­load, and the pan­op­tic sur­veil­lance powers of the NSA and its glob­al intel­li­gence bud­dies, long sus­pec­ted by many and now proven by the dis­clos­ures of the cour­ageous Edward Snowden.

So it was lovely to see at OHM an increas­ing politi­cisa­tion. This was partly because of all the above recent hor­rors, but also because the OHM organ­isers had pulled togeth­er a strong polit­ic­al and whis­tleblow­ing speak­er track. The attack against digit­al civil liber­ties is inex­tric­ably linked to and reflect­ive of the full-front­al attack on our his­tor­ic real-world freedoms:  endem­ic sur­veil­lance, kid­nap­ping, tor­ture, CIA kill lists, illeg­al wars, drone strikes, secret courts, and many oth­er encroach­ing hor­rors that I have writ­ten about ad nauseam. And this is just what we know about.

sinking_shipIn my view our West­ern demo­cra­cies have been at least fatally holed, if they have not yet foundered. Which, of course, means that our viol­ent, inter­ven­tion­ist attempts to bring “demo­cracy” to the devel­op­ing world are derided as hypo­crit­ic­al at best, and viol­ently res­isted at worst.

The new front-line of this struggle is “cyber” war­fare — be it the illeg­al aggress­ive attacks of such US/Israeli vir­uses against Iran such as Stuxnet (that is now roam­ing free in the wild and mutat­ing), or the slower wars of attri­tion against “pir­ates”, hack­ers, Wikileaks, and the grow­ing war on whis­tleblowers such as Brad­ley Man­ning and Edward Snowden.

Well, geeks are the new res­ist­ance and they have a fight­ing chance in my view. And this is why I think that they are our best hope.

SAMSUNGThis was my exper­i­ence of OHM. Three thou­sand of the best and the bright­est from around the world gathered togeth­er not just to have fun play­ing with bleed­ing-edge tech, hack­ing and build­ing toys, and cre­at­ing slightly sur­real, if beloved, hov­er-pets (see right), but also who turned out in their thou­sands to listen to and absorb the exper­i­ences of a num­ber of inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers. In the wake of the Edward Snowden case, this is a hot top­ic in these circles and there was a huge impetus to help.

We whis­tleblowers had a fab­ulous time too. One is a “nat­ur­al-born geek” — Tom Drake, formerly of the NSA, who was threatened with 35 years in pris­on because he dared to dis­close prob­lems with his organ­isa­tion. His law­yer, gov­ern­ment law­yer-turned-whis­tleblower Jes­selyn Radack, also spoke of her exper­i­ences. Coleen Row­ley, the FBI whis­tleblower who exposed the intel­li­gence fail­ure in the US in the run-up to 9/11 and was voted Time Per­son of the Year in 2002 also gave a fant­ast­ic talk called “Secrecy Kills”, and former CIA ana­lyst and pres­id­en­tial “briefer”, Ray McGov­ern, gave the open­ing key­note speech, focus­ing on the need to speak out and pre­serve our rights. I fin­ished the quin­tet of whis­tleblowers and provided the Euro-per­spect­ive.

And of course the pat­ron saint of whis­tleblowers also did one of the key talks — but he had to be beamed in. Juli­an Assange, who was free to attend HAR, the last such event in the Neth­er­lands four years ago, was unavoid­ably detained in his embassy refuge in the UK.

OHM_Great_Spook_Panel_2013

Photo by Rein­oud van Leeuwen (http://​rein​oud​.van​.leeuwen​.net/)

The whis­tleblowers all came togeth­er for one of the big ses­sions of OHM — the “Great Spook Pan­el”, mod­er­ated by the indom­it­able Nick Farr. The pan­el was basic­ally a call to arms for the next gen­er­a­tion. This addressed the need to stand up to pro­tect our rights against all the egre­gious erosions that have occurred since 9/11.  The response was hugely enthu­si­ast­ic. I hope this goes glob­al, and the wider com­munity fol­lows up.

It cer­tainly did in one way. Ray McGov­ern announced the estab­lish­ment of the Edward Snowden Defence Fund at the end of the pan­el dis­cus­sion, and the dona­tions poured in for the rest of the event.

So a very suc­cess­ful fest­iv­al. How do I make that assess­ment? Well, on top of all the fun, vari­ety of talks and net­work­ing, the Dutch intel­li­gence ser­vice, the AIVD (an unfor­tu­nate-sound­ing name to most Eng­lish speak­ers), reques­ted a plat­form at the event after the Great Spook Pan­el was announced in the pro­gramme.

Such an act­ive and open response shows a degree of push-back against a per­ceived “threat”. No doubt the organ­isa­tion wanted to inject the estab­lish­ment anti-venom before the truth-tell­ers had their say. Any­way, on the grounds that most whis­tleblowers are gen­er­ally denied a main­stream media plat­form and/or are smeared, the AIVD was pro­hib­ited the stage.

Of course, the AIVD would have been very wel­come to buy a tick­et like nor­mal humans or pay the cor­por­ate rate to attend to show sup­port for the com­munity — its officers might have learned some­thing.…

FBI Whistleblower Sibel Edmonds

Sibel_EdmondsI strongly recom­mend you take the time to watch this film about FBI whis­tleblower, Sibel Edmonds.

Kill the Mes­sen­ger”  joins some inter­est­ing dots, not just about what might have been going on round Sibel’s case, but also adds a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive to the notori­ous out­ing of CIA officer, Valer­ie Plame.

Of course, a film that invest­ig­ates how the might of the state can be used to stifle the legit­im­ate dis­sent of a whis­tleblower will always res­on­ate with me.

Same mes­sage, dif­fer­ent coun­try.

Amuse Bouche

A debate is cur­rently under way in the (ex) Land of the Free about how much pro­tec­tion intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers should be accor­ded under the law.

Yes, the coun­try that has brought the world the “war on ter­ror”, Guantanamo Bay, and the Pat­ri­ot Act, is hav­ing a mor­al spasm about how to best pro­tect those who wit­ness high crimes and mis­de­mean­ors inside the charmed circle of secrecy and intel­li­gence. 

And about time too, fol­low­ing the mess of rev­el­a­tions about spy com­pli­city in tor­ture cur­rently emer­ging on both sides of the pond.

Inter­est­ingly, intel­li­gence offi­cials in the US already have a smidgeon more lee­way than their UK coun­ter­parts.  In the US, if you wit­ness a crime com­mit­ted by spies, you have to take your con­cerns to the head of the agency, and then you can go to Con­gress.  In the UK, the only per­son you can leg­ally report crime to is the head of the agency involved, so guess how many suc­cess­ful com­plaints are made?  Even tak­ing your proven and legit­im­ate con­cerns to your elec­ted UK rep­res­ent­at­ives is a crime under the OSA.

Spooks in the UK now have access to an “eth­ic­al coun­sel­lor”, who has reportedly been vis­ited a grand total of 12 times by intel­li­gence officers since 2006.  But this per­son has no power to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of crime, and a vis­it guar­an­tees a career-block­ing black mark on your record of ser­vice: ie if you are the sort of per­son to worry your head with quaint ideas like eth­ics and mor­al­ity you are, at best, not a team play­er and, worse, a pos­sible secur­ity risk. 

WhistleThis is surely cul­tur­ally unsus­tain­able in a com­munity of people who gen­er­ally sign up to pro­tect the cit­izens of the coun­try and want to make a pos­it­ive dif­fer­ence by work­ing with­in the law?  Those who have con­cerns will resign, at the very least, and those who like to “just fol­low orders” will float to the top.  As one of the lead­ing pro­ponents for great­er whis­tleblower pro­tec­tion in the USA states in the linked art­icle:

The code of loy­alty to the chain of com­mand is the primary value at those insti­tu­tions, and they set the stand­ard for intens­ity of retali­ation.”

Some enlightened US politi­cians appear to be aware that intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers require pro­tec­tion just as all oth­er employ­ees receive under the law:  per­haps more so, as the nature of their work may well expose them to the most hein­ous crimes ima­gin­able.  There is also an argu­ment for put­ting prop­er chan­nels in place to ensure that whis­tleblowers don’t feel their only option is to risk going to the press.  Effect­ive chan­nels for blow­ing the whistle and invest­ig­at­ing crime can actu­ally pro­tect nation­al secur­ity rather than com­prom­ise it.

The nay-say­ers, of course, want to keep everything secret — after all, the status quo is cur­rently work­ing so well in uphold­ing demo­crat­ic val­ues across the globe.  Crit­ics of the new legis­la­tion talk of “dis­gruntled employ­ees .… glee­fully” spill­ing the beans.  Why is this hoary old line always dragged out in this type of dis­cus­sion?  Why are whis­tleblowers always described in this way, rather than called prin­cipled, brave or eth­ic­al?

Blanket secrecy works against the real interests of our coun­tries.  Mis­takes can be covered up, group-think ensures that crimes con­tin­ue, and any­one offer­ing con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism is labelled as a risky trouble­maker — no doubt a “dis­gruntled” one at that.

Of course, cer­tain areas of intel­li­gence work need to be pro­tec­ted: cur­rent oper­a­tion­al details (as ex-Met Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er, Bob Quick has dis­covered), agent iden­tit­ies, and sens­it­ive tech­niques.  But the life blood of a healthy demo­cracy depends on open debate, vent­il­a­tion of prob­lems, and agreed solu­tions.  Informed and par­ti­cip­at­ory cit­izens need to know what is being done in their name.