Keeping Abreast of Privacy Issues

In the wake of the Edward Snowden dis­clos­ures about endem­ic glob­al sur­veil­lance, the rather thread­bare old argu­ment about “if you have done noth­ing wrong and have noth­ing to hide, you have noth­ing to fear” has been trot­ted out by many Big Broth­er apo­lo­gists.

But it’s not about doing any­thing wrong, it’s about hav­ing an enshrined right to pri­vacy — as recog­nised in the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights agreed in 1948.  And this was enshrined in the wake of the hor­rors of World War 2, and for very good reas­on.  If you are denied pri­vacy to read or listen, if you are denied pri­vacy to speak or write, and if you are denied pri­vacy about whom you meet and see, then free­dom has died and total­it­ari­an­ism has begun.

Those were the les­sons learned from the growth of fas­cism in the 1930s and 1940s.  If you lose the right to pri­vacy, you also lose the abil­ity to push back against dic­tat­or­ships, cor­rupt gov­ern­ments, and all the attend­ant hor­rors.

How quickly we for­get the les­sons of his­tory: not just the rights won over the last cen­tury, but those fought and died for over cen­tur­ies. We recent gen­er­a­tions in the West have grown too bloated on ease, too fin­an­cially fat and socially com­pla­cent, to fully appre­ci­ate the freedoms we are cas­u­ally throw­ing away.

body_armourSo what sparked this mini-rant? This art­icle I found in my Twit­ter stream (thanks @LossofPrivacy). It appears that a US police depart­ment in Detroit has just sent out all the tra­di­tion­ally vital stat­ist­ics of its female officers to the entire depart­ment — weight, height and even the bra size of indi­vidu­al female police officers have been shared with the staff, purely because of an email gaffe.

Well people make mis­takes and hit the wrong but­tons. So this may not sound like much, but appar­ently the women in ques­tion are not happy, and rightly so. In the still macho envir­on­ment of law enforce­ment, one can but cringe at the “josh­ing” that fol­lowed.

Put­ting aside the obvi­ous ques­tion of wheth­er we want our police officers to be tooled up like Rob­ocop, this minor débâcle high­lights a key point of pri­vacy. It’s not that one needs to hide one’s breasts as a woman — they are pretty much obvi­ous for chris­sakes — but does every­one need to know the spe­cif­ics, or is that per­son­al inform­a­tion one step too far? And as for a woman’s weight, don’t even go there.….

So these cops in Detroit, no doubt all up-stand­ing pil­lars of their com­munit­ies, might have learned a valu­able les­son. It is not a “them and us” situ­ation — the “them” being “ter­ror­ists”, act­iv­ists, com­mun­ists, lib­er­als, Teabag­gers — whatever the theme du jour hap­pens to be.

It is about a fun­da­ment­al need for pri­vacy as human beings, as the Duch­ess of Cam­bridge also dis­covered last year. This is not just about height, bra size or, god for­bid, one’s weight. This is about big­ger issues if not big­ger boobs. We all have some­thing we want kept private, be it bank state­ments, bonk­ing, or bowel move­ments.

How­ever, with endem­ic elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance, we have already lost our pri­vacy in our com­mu­nic­a­tions and in our daily routines — in Lon­don it is estim­ated that we are caught on CCTV more than 300 times a day just going about our daily busi­ness.

More import­antly, in this era of fin­an­cial, eco­nom­ic and polit­ic­al crises, we are los­ing our free­dom to read and watch, to speak and meet, and to protest without fear of sur­veil­lance. It is the Stas­i’s wet dream, real­ised by those unas­sum­ing chaps (and obvi­ously the chapesses with boobs) in law enforce­ment, the NSA, GCHQ et al.

But it is not just the nation state level spies we have to worry about. Even if we think that we could not pos­sibly be import­ant enough to be on that par­tic­u­lar radar (although Mr Snowden has made it abund­antly clear that we all are), there is a bur­geon­ing private sec­tor of cor­por­ate intel­li­gence com­pan­ies who are only too happy to watch, infilt­rate and destabil­ise social, media and protest groups. “Psy­ops” and “astro-turf­ing” are ter­ri­fy­ing words for any­one inter­ested in human rights, act­iv­ism and civil liber­ties. But this is the new real­ity.

So, what can we do? Let’s remem­ber that most law enforce­ment people in the var­ied agen­cies are us — they want a stable job that feels val­ued, they want to provide for their fam­il­ies, they want to do the right thing. Reach out to them, and help those who do have the cour­age to speak out and expose wrong­do­ing, be it law enforce­ment pro­fes­sion­als speak­ing out against the failed “war on drugs” (such as those in LEAP) or intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers expos­ing war crimes, illeg­al sur­veil­lance and tor­ture.

Thomas_PaineBut also have the cour­age to protest and throw the tired old argu­ment back in the faces of the secur­ity proto-tyr­ants. This is what the found­ing fath­ers of the USA did: they risked being hanged as trait­ors by the Brit­ish Crown in 1776, yet they still made a stand. Using the “sedi­tious” writ­ings of Tom Paine, who ended up on the run from the UK, they had the cour­age to speak out, meet up and fight for what they believed in, and they pro­duced a good first attempt at a work­able demo­cracy.

Unfor­tu­nately, the USA estab­lish­ment has long been cor­rup­ted and sub­ver­ted by cor­por­at­ist interests. And unfor­tu­nately for the rest of the world, with the cur­rent geo-polit­ic­al power bal­ance, this still has an impact on most of us, and provides a clear example of how the chan­ging polit­ic­al land­scape can shift the goal posts of “accept­able” beha­viour — one day your are an act­iv­ist wav­ing a plac­ard, the next you are poten­tially deemed to be a “ter­ror­ist”.

But also remem­ber — we are all, poten­tially, Tom Paine. And as the end­less, neb­u­lous, and frankly largely bogus “war on ter­ror” con­tin­ues to rav­age the world and our demo­cra­cies, we all need to be.

In this post-PRISM world, we need to take indi­vidu­al respons­ib­il­ity to pro­tect our pri­vacy and ensure we have free media. At least then we can freely read, write, speak, and meet with our fel­low cit­izens. We need this pri­vacy to be the new res­ist­ance to the creep­ing total­it­ari­an­ism of the glob­al elites.

Read the sem­in­al books of Tom Paine (while you still can), weep, and then go forth.….

With thanks to my moth­er for the title of this piece. It made me laugh.

OHM 2013 — interview on German TV

The Ger­man TV sta­tion came to OHM to film inter­views with whis­tleblowers and hackt­iv­ists for a doc­u­ment­ary about the Edward Snowden NSA dis­clos­ures.

Here’s the clip:

Ger­man TV clip on NSA from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

UK spy agency GCHQ prostitutes itself to NSA

From the middle of a Dutch field at the OHM 2013 fest­iv­al, I man­aged to do this inter­view for RT about GCHQ tak­ing large sums of money from its US equi­val­ent, the NSA:

UK spy agency GCHQ pros­titues itself to NSA in cor­rupt rela­tion­ship (HD) from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Magna Carta versus Snoopers’ Charter

black_sheep_text_OK, this has to be a bleed­ing obvi­ous point, but I feel moved to make it any­way.

After the bru­tal Wool­wich murder of  Drum­mer Lee Rigby,  there were calls from the Brit­ish securo­crats to resur­rect the dis­cred­ited Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data bill — aka the Snoop­ers’ Charter.  Cap­it­al­ising on the nation’s shock, they believed it was the right time to push through a par­tic­u­larly dra­coni­an piece of legis­la­tion, as I wrote at the time.

The aim of the Snoop­er­’s Charter is to store all the meta-data of our com­mu­nic­a­tions in the UK, which means they can poten­tially be used as evid­ence against us at some neb­u­lous future point if the leg­al goal­posts shift — as they seem to be doing at an alarm­ing rate these days.

Not only are act­iv­ists now being called “domest­ic extrem­ists” or “ter­ror­ists”, but the concept of secret courts seems to be meta­stas­ising at an alarm­ing rate — it is not longer just a concept used in immig­ra­tion and now civil courts, it has reached the giddy heights of the Supreme Court in the UK, with the secret hear­ings around the Ira­ni­an Mel­lat bank. Top UK Law Lord Neuber­ger was recently quoted, in the Daily Mail of all places, as say­ing that secret justice is no justice.

But I digress. Post-Wool­wich, the securo­crats were over­taken by events. The cour­ageous Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the fact that the NSA and its pals like GCHQ are already hoover­ing up all our elec­tron­ic com­mu­nic­a­tions, as well as spy­ing on top politi­cians. As a res­ult the securo­crats have gone to ground, but no doubt they will try to slith­er out again soon.

Or per­haps not — today still fur­ther sur­veil­lance hor­rors emerged as a res­ult of the Snowden dis­clos­ures: the UK listen­ing post GCHQ, which has long had an unhealth­ily inces­tu­ous rela­tion­ship with the NSA, has gone to the next level with the “Total Mas­tery of the Inter­net” pro­gramme, code­named “TEMPORA.

The repor­ted cap­ab­il­it­ies of TEMPORA are huge — GCHQ can tap into all the inform­a­tion flow­ing through the trans-Atlantic fibre optic cables and bey­ond. It is truly suck­ing on the fire hydrant of inform­a­tion

This should be gobsmack­ing news, but the concept was already repor­ted in The Register 4 years ago. The trouble is, nobody really cared then or just thought it was a bunch of geeks being para­noid. Now this is glob­al news thanks to the brave actions of a whis­tleblower.

One has to won­der if the UK gov­ern­ment is so keen to ram the Snoop­ers’ Charter into law as a ret­ro­grade jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the endem­ic PRISM and TEMPORA snoop­ing that has already been going on for years? And let’s not for­get the old pro­to­type snoop­ing programe, ECHELON

As a lead­ing European pri­vacy cam­paign­er recently wrote, by the year 1215 Brit­ish bar­ons had more basic rights under the Magna Carta than we mod­ern day serfs can pos­sibly aspire to now.

How can we be going back­wards, so fast?

O tem­pora, o mores indeed.…. some clas­si­cist, some­where in the bowels of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence agen­cies, is hav­ing a laugh.

Echelon Redux

Just a quick­ie, as this is some sort of hol­i­day sea­son appar­ently.  How­ever, this did annoy me.   In the same way that Pres­id­ent Obama signed the invi­di­ous NDAA on 31st Decem­ber last year, des­pite his prot­est­a­tions about veto­ing etc, it appears the US gov­ern­ment has sneaked/snuck through (please delete as appro­pri­ate, depend­ing on how you pro­nounce “tomato”) yet anoth­er dra­coni­an law dur­ing the fest­ive sea­son, which appar­ently fur­ther erodes the US con­sti­tu­tion and the civil rights of all Amer­ic­ans.

Yet anoth­er prob­lem for our benighted cous­ins across the pond, you might think.  But as so often hap­pens these days, bonkers Amer­ic­an laws can affect us all.

Yes­ter­day the Sen­ate approved an expan­sion of the terms of the For­eign Intel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Act (FISA).  This allows the US intel­li­gence ser­vices to hoover up, if you’ll par­don the mild intel­li­gence joke, the emails of god-fear­ing, law-abid­ing Amer­ic­ans if they are exchan­ging emails with pesky for­eign­ers.

Well of course the whole world now knows, post 9/11, that all for­eign­ers are poten­tial ter­ror­ists and are now being watched/snatched/extraordin­ar­ily rendered/tor­tured/assas­sin­ated with impun­ity.  In Europe we have had many people suf­fer this way and some have man­aged to achieve recog­ni­tion and resti­tu­tion.  That appears to do little to stop the drone wars and blood-let­ting that the USA has unleashed across the Middle East.

But the NDAA and the exten­ded FISA should at least rouse the ire of Amer­ic­ans them­selves: US cit­izens on US soil can now poten­tially be tar­geted.  This is new, this is dan­ger­ous, right?

Well, no, not quite, as least as far as the inter­cep­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tions goes.

The Ech­el­on sys­tem, exposed in 1988 by Brit­ish journ­al­ist Duncan Camp­bell and rein­vestig­ated in 1999, put in place just such a (leg­ally dubi­ous) mech­an­ism for watch­ing domest­ic cit­izens.  The sur­veil­lance state was already in place, even if through a back door, as you can see from this art­icle I wrote 4 years ago, which included the fol­low­ing para­graph:

ECHELON was an agree­ment between the NSA and its Brit­ish equi­val­ent GCHQ (as well as the agen­cies of Canada, Aus­tralia, and New Zea­l­and) whereby they shared inform­a­tion they gathered on each oth­ers’ cit­izens. GCHQ could leg­ally eaves­drop on people out­side the UK without a war­rant, so they could tar­get US cit­izens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agen­cies could evade any demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity, and still get the intel­li­gence they wanted.

The only dif­fer­ence now is that FISA has come blast­ing through the front door, and yet people remain qui­es­cent.

The Gareth Williams Inquest

What a mess, what a cov­er-up.  The inquest into the sad, strange death of Gareth Wil­li­ams con­cluded yes­ter­day, with the cor­on­er rais­ing more ques­tions than she was able to answer.

It was also pat­ently obvi­ous that both MI6 and the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Counter-Ter­ror­ism Squad (SO15) hampered the invest­ig­a­tion, for the inev­it­able reas­ons of “nation­al secur­ity”.

When will MI6 real­ise that it is not above the law?

My heart goes out to Gareth­’s fam­ily.

UK spies get a B+ for intrusive surveillance in 2010

Black_sheep?The quan­go­crats charged with over­see­ing the leg­al­ity of the work of the UK spies have each pro­duced their undoubt­ably author­it­at­ive reports for 2010. 

Sir Paul Kennedy, the com­mis­sion­er respons­ible for over­see­ing the inter­cep­tion of com­mu­nic­a­tions, and Sir Peter Gib­son, the intel­li­gence ser­vices com­mis­sion­er, both pub­lished their reports last week.  

Gib­son has, of course, hon­our­ably now stood down from his 5‑year over­sight of MI5, MI6, and GCHQ in order to head up the inde­pend­ent enquiry into spy com­pli­city in tor­ture. 

And both the reports say, nat­ur­ally, that it’s all hunky-dorey.  Yes, there were a few mis­takes (well, admis­trat­ive errors — 1061 over the last year), but the com­mis­sion­ers are con­fid­ent that these were neither malign in intent nor an indic­a­tion of insti­tu­tion­al fail­ings. 

So it appears that the UK spies gained a B+ for their sur­veil­lance work last year.

Both com­mis­sion­ers pad out their reports with long-win­ded descrip­tions of what pre­cisely their role is, what powers they have, and the full, frank and open access they had to the intel­li­gence officers in the key agen­cies. 

They seem sub­limely unaware that when they vis­it the spy agen­cies, they are only giv­en access to the staff that the agen­cies are happy for them to meet — intel­li­gence officers pushed into the room, primped out in their party best and scrubbed behind the ears — to tell them what they want to hear. 

Any intel­li­gence officers who might have con­cerns have, in the past, been rig­or­ously banned from meet­ing those charged with hold­ing the spies to demo­crat­ic account.….

.…which is not much dif­fer­ent from the over­sight mod­el employed when gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, the notion­al polit­ic­al mas­ters of MI6, MI6 and GCHQ, sign off on bug­ging war­rants that allow the aggress­ive invest­ig­a­tion of tar­gets (ie their phones, their homes or cars, or fol­low them around).  Then the min­is­ters are only giv­en a sum­mary of a sum­mary of a sum­mary, an applic­a­tion that has been titrated through many mana­geri­al, leg­al and civil ser­vice fil­ters before land­ing on their desks.  

So, how on earth are these min­is­ters able to make a true eval­u­ation of the worth of such an applic­a­tion to bug someone? 

They just have to trust what the spies tell them — as do the com­mis­sion­ers. 

Sunday Telegraph Article, August 2010

Below is text of an art­icle I wrote, pub­lished in The Sunday Tele­graph a while ago about what it’s actu­ally like to enter the won­der­ful world of spy­ing (just in case it’s ever air­brushed out of his­tory!):

My so-called life as a spy”

Spies have always loved liv­ing in Pimlico: a civ­il­ised area in cent­ral Lon­don, handy for strolling to the office, and won­der­fully con­veni­ent for that mid­night dash to work if your oper­a­tion sud­denly goes live. Plus, the loc­al pubs are pretty good for the cus­tom­ary after-work moan.

Pimlico_flatI lived there myself when I worked as an intel­li­gence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, so the murder of Gareth Wil­li­ams in a nearby street gave me a bit of a jolt. While his death remains shrouded in mys­tery, what has been repor­ted of his life sounds like clas­sic GCHQ.

There are dis­tinct cul­tures with­in each of the three major UK spy agen­cies: MI5, the UK domest­ic secur­ity ser­vice; MI6, the over­seas intel­li­gence organ­isa­tion; and GCHQ, the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions HQ.

MI6 officers, as people who may have to work inde­pend­ently and under­cov­er abroad, tend to be con­fid­ent, indi­vidu­al­ist­ic and “eth­ic­ally flex­ible”, while MI5 officers need to co-ordin­ate a broad range of resources and people to run an oper­a­tion, which requires great­er team-build­ing. Of the three agen­cies, GCHQ remains the most secret­ive and inward-look­ing, and is staffed pre­dom­in­antly with “boffin” types. Wil­li­ams, with his math­em­at­ic­al skills and loner tend­en­cies, would be a typ­ic­al employ­ee.

Des­pite the intel­li­gence com­munity present­ing a united front to the out­side world, cul­ture clashes between the three agen­cies are com­mon­place. Staff on second­ment between agen­cies – as Wil­li­ams was, from GCHQ to MI6 – can have a rough time fit­ting into a new envir­on­ment, work­ing with col­leagues who eye them with sus­pi­cion, as the divi­sions jockey for power, prestige and resources with­in White­hall.

So what is life like work­ing as a spy? The world of intel­li­gence is not so much isol­at­ing as insu­lat­ing. Even as you pro­ceed through the con­vo­luted recruit­ment pro­cess, you find your­self enter­ing a par­al­lel uni­verse, one that exists along­side your every­day life.

Thames_House_Millbank_EntranceFrom that first, explor­at­ory meet­ing with an intel­li­gence officer in an unmarked build­ing in cent­ral Lon­don, you have to with­draw a little from your old exist­ence. You are asked not to tell your fam­ily and friends, and imme­di­ately have to sign a noti­fic­a­tion of the rig­or­ous terms of the Offi­cial Secrets Act, whereby if you talk about your work, you risk impris­on­ment.

The pro­cess of induc­tion into this world is intriguing, flat­ter­ing and seduct­ive. The agen­cies tend to avoid the James Bond wan­nabes, and those inspired by the fake glam­our of Spooks. The key motiv­a­tion is gen­er­ally want­ing to do a job that can make a dif­fer­ence, pro­tect the coun­try and poten­tially save lives. The secret ele­ment adds spice and per­haps com­pensates for the anor­ex­ic pay. When I star­ted work­ing for MI5 in 1991, at the fast-track gradu­ate level, the start­ing salary was £14,500 pa – a good £5,000 less than my peer group from Cam­bridge earned in their blue-chip jobs. The pay has improved some­what since then, but you don’t become a spy for the money.

The vet­ting pro­cess is pro­trac­ted. For MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, officers are required to have the highest clear­ance – Developed Vet­ting. This begins with a home vis­it. Dis­con­cert­ingly, I soon found myself in the fam­ily sit­ting room being grilled about my sex life by a little, grey-haired lady who looked just like a favour­ite grand­moth­er, until you looked into her eyes.

Then the pro­cess widens. I had to nom­in­ate four friends who were will­ing to be inter­viewed about me, and they were asked to sug­gest yet more people… so secrecy becomes impossible. One friend, of a Left-wing hue, dis­ap­proved of my recruit­ment; even those who were sup­port­ive were reluct­ant to ask me too much. As I couldn’t talk to them freely about my life, they felt increas­ingly shut out, so I lost old friends along the way.

The_spy_who_loved_meUnsur­pris­ingly, new officers begin to social­ise increas­ingly with their col­leagues, and close friend­ships grow rap­idly. With­in this clique, we could talk shop at din­ner parties, use the same slang and ter­min­o­logy, dis­cuss our work, and whinge about our bosses. With out­siders, we could nev­er be fully ourselves. This, inev­it­ably, often led to more than friend­ships. What might oth­er­wise be called office romances flour­ished. I met my former part­ner, Dav­id Shayler, when we were both in our first post­ing in MI5.

Such rela­tion­ships were not exactly encour­aged, but were gen­er­ally seen as a good thing by man­age­ment – unless, of course, it was a clandes­tine mat­ter that could leave the officer vul­ner­able to black­mail. Such affairs were seen as vet­ting offences.

Among spies, an old double stand­ard held firm. There was one couple who were caught in flag­rante in the office, not once but twice. The male officer was put on “garden­ing leave” for six months; the woman was sacked.

For the first few weeks in the job, the feel­ing of unreal­ity and dis­lo­ca­tion is strong. The only sol­id inform­a­tion you have about your new pos­i­tion, as you walk into the office for the first time, is the grade at which you will be work­ing – noth­ing else.

My first post­ing was to the small counter-sub­ver­sion sec­tion, F2. Even though it was a desk job, the inform­a­tion I was deal­ing with came from sens­it­ive sources: inter­cep­ted com­mu­nic­a­tions, reports from agents who had pen­et­rated tar­get groups, police reports. And yet, with­in a few weeks, the hand­ling of such secret and intrus­ive inform­a­tion became entirely nor­mal.

Invest­ig­a­tions can be very fast-paced, par­tic­u­larly in the counter-ter­ror­ism sec­tions. Gen­er­ally, officers work reg­u­lar hours but occa­sion­ally, if an oper­a­tion goes live, you work around the clock. If it proves a suc­cess, there might be a news item on the tele­vi­sion about it – but obvi­ously without the full back story. That can be a sur­real exper­i­ence. You feel pride that you’ve achieved what you signed up to do, but you can­not dis­cuss it with any­body out­side the office. At such moments, the dis­con­nect from main­stream life is intensely sharp.

Regnum_DefendeHow­ever, when some­thing goes wrong – a bomb goes off in which civil­ians die – the feel­ings are even more intense. Guilt, anger, frus­tra­tion, and a scramble to ensure that the blame doesn’t attach to your sec­tion. The offi­cial motto of MI5 is Regnum Defe
nde – defence of the realm. Staff mord­antly used to joke that it should more accur­ately be Rectum Defende.

Per­son­al secur­ity also ensures that there is a con­stant bar­ri­er between you and the nor­mal world. If you meet someone inter­est­ing at a party, you can­not say too much about what you do, and such reti­cence can appear unfriendly. The cov­er story that MI5 officers use is that they work as civil ser­vants at the Min­istry of Defence; for MI6, it is the For­eign Office. This usu­ally stops people from ask­ing too much more, either through dis­cre­tion or, frankly, bore­dom. Once or twice, people pushed me for more inform­a­tion, and my para­noia anten­nae imme­di­ately began to twitch: why are they so inter­ested? Are they spies or, God for­bid, journ­al­ists?

I had the mis­for­tune once of using this cov­er story at a party, only to find my inter­locutor actu­ally worked for the real Min­istry of Defence, and wanted to know which sec­tion I worked in, who my col­leagues were, how long I had been there… Thank­fully, the magic word “Box” – slang used to describe MI5 with­in White­hall, derived from the organisation’s old PO Box 500 num­ber – brought that line of con­ver­sa­tion to an abrupt halt.

As an intel­li­gence officer, you quickly learn to be dis­creet on the tele­phone and in emails. Oblique con­ver­sa­tions become the norm, and this bleeds into your per­son­al life, too, much to the frus­tra­tion of friends and fam­ily.

The inter­net is anoth­er chal­lenge. As a “spook”, the last thing you want to see is your pho­to­graph on a friend’s Face­book page. Or, even worse, hol­i­day snaps show­ing you in your Speedos, as the cur­rent head of MI6, Sir John Saw­yer, found to his cost last year.

And what about when you come to leave the intel­li­gence ser­vice, as I did after five years. Can you ever really have a nor­mal life after­wards, and shake off the mind­set?

Many of my former col­leagues have left and built careers in a wide vari­ety of areas. But I won­der how many still look auto­mat­ic­ally over their shoulders as they put their key in the front door; how many tear up paper before throw­ing it in the bin; and how many are reflex­ively reti­cent about their per­son­al life?

Would I want to be a spy these days? No, thank you. I’m hap­pi­er in the real world.

* Annie Machon is the author of Spies, Lies and Whis­tleblowers (Book Guild)

Echelon and the Special Relationship

Journ­al­ist and writer James Bam­ford, has a new book, “The Shad­ow Fact­ory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eaves­drop­ping on Amer­ica” (Doubleday), which came out this week in the United States.

Bam­ford is a former pro­du­cer at ABC News of thirty years’ stand­ing, and his book has caused quite a stir. One of his key gripes is the fact that for­eign com­pan­ies try to acquire work in sens­it­ive US depart­ments. He cites in par­tic­u­lar the attempt in 2006 of Israeli data secur­ity com­pany, Check Point Soft­ware Tech­no­lo­gies, to buy an Amer­ic­an com­pany with exist­ing con­tracts at the Defence Depart­ment and the NSA. This deal was stopped after the FBI objec­ted.

For­eign soft­ware and secur­ity com­pan­ies work­ing with­in intel­li­gence agen­cies are indeed a prob­lem for any coun­try. It com­prom­ises the very notion of nation­al sov­er­eignty. In the UK, MI5 and many oth­er gov­ern­ment depart­ments rely on pro­pri­et­ary soft­ware from com­pan­ies like Microsoft, notori­ous for their vul­ner­ab­il­ity to hack­ers, vir­uses and back door access. Should our nation’s secrets really be exposed to such eas­ily avoid­able vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies?

Anoth­er sec­tion of the book to have hit the head­lines is Bam­ford’s claims that bed­room “con­ver­sa­tions” of sol­diers, journ­al­ists and offi­cials in Iraq have been bugged by the Nation­al Secur­ity Agency (NSA).

Bam­ford, who is by no means a fan of the NSA in its cur­rent rampant form, makes the mis­take of think­ing that in the inno­cent days pre‑9/11, the agency respec­ted demo­crat­ic rights enshrined in the US con­sti­tu­tion and nev­er snooped on US cit­izens in their own coun­try.

While tech­nic­ally this might be true, does nobody remem­ber the ECHELON sys­tem?

ECHELON was an agree­ment between the NSA and its Brit­ish equi­val­ent GCHQ (as well as the agen­cies of Canada, Aus­tralia, and New Zea­l­and) whereby they shared inform­a­tion they gathered on each oth­ers’ cit­izens. GCHQ could leg­ally eaves­drop on people out­side the UK without a war­rant, so they could tar­get US cit­izens of interest, then pass the product over to the NSA. The NSA then did the same for GCHQ. Thus both agen­cies could evade any demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity, and still get the intel­li­gence they wanted.

Spe­cial rela­tion­ship, any­one?

Fig Leaf to the Spies

The lack of any mean­ing­ful over­sight of the UK’s intel­li­gence com­munity was high­lighted again last week, when The Daily Mail repor­ted that a cru­cial fax was lost in the run-up to the 7/7 bomb­ings in Lon­don in 2005.

There has yet to be an offi­cial enquiry into the worst ter­ror­ist atro­city on the UK main­land, des­pite the call for one from trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies and sur­viv­ors and the legit­im­ate con­cerns of the Brit­ish pub­lic. To date, we have had to make do with an “offi­cial nar­rat­ive” writ­ten by a face­less bur­eau­crat and pub­lished in May 2006. As soon as it was pub­lished, the then Home Sec­ret­ary, John Reid, had to cor­rect egre­gious fac­tu­al errors when present­ing it to Par­lia­ment.

The Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) also did a shoddy first job, when it cleared the secur­ity forces of all wrong-doing in its ini­tial report pub­lished at the same time. It claimed a lack of resources had hampered MI5’s counter-ter­ror­ism efforts.

How­ever, fol­low­ing a use­ful leak, it emerged that MI5 had not only been aware of at least two of the alleged bombers before the attack, it had been con­cerned enough to send a fax up to West York­shire Police Spe­cial Branch ask­ing them to invest­ig­ate Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehz­ad Tan­weer. This fax was nev­er acted upon.

So the ISC has been forced to pro­duce anoth­er report, this time appar­ently admit­ting that, yes, there had been intel­li­gence fail­ures, most not­ably the lost fax. West York­shire SB should have acted on it. But the intel­li­gence officer in MI5 respons­ible for this invest­ig­a­tion should have chased it up when no response was forth­com­ing.

This second ISC report, which has been sit­ting on the Prime Minister’s desk for weeks already, is said to be “dev­ast­at­ing”. How­ever, I’m will­ing to bet that if/when it sees the light of day, it will be any­thing but.

The ISC is at best an over­sight fig leaf. It was formed in 1994, when MI6 and GCHQ were put on a stat­utory foot­ing for the first time with the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act. At the time the press wel­comed this as a great step for­ward towards demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity for the intel­li­gence com­munity. Well, it could not have been worse than the pre­vi­ous set-up, when MI5, MI6 and GCHQ did not offi­cially exist. They were not required to obey the laws of the land, and no MP was allowed to ask a ques­tion in Par­lia­ment about their activ­it­ies. As 1980s whis­tleblower Peter Wright so suc­cinctly put it, the spies could bug and burgle their way around with impun­ity.

So the estab­lish­ment of the ISC was a (very) lim­ited step in the right dir­ec­tion. How­ever, it is not a Par­lia­ment­ary Com­mit­tee. Its mem­bers are selec­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, and it is answer­able only to the PM, who can vet its find­ings. The remit of the ISC only cov­ers mat­ters of spy policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance. It is not empowered to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence nor crimes com­mit­ted by the spies. And its annu­al report has become a joke with­in the media, as there are usu­ally more redac­tions than coher­ent sen­tences.

The ISC’s first big test came in the 1990s fol­low­ing the Shayler and Tom­lin­son dis­clos­ures. These involved detailed alleg­a­tions of illeg­al invest­ig­a­tions, bungled oper­a­tions and assas­sin­a­tion attempts against for­eign heads of state. It is dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of more hein­ous crimes com­mit­ted by our shad­owy spies.

But how did the ISC react? If one reads the reports from the rel­ev­ant years, the only aspect that exer­cised the ISC was Shayler’s inform­a­tion that MI5 had on many MPs and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters. The ISC was reas­sured by MI5 that would no longer be able to use these files. That’s it.

For­get about files being illeg­ally held on hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent UK cit­izens; for­get about the illeg­al phone taps, the pre­vent­able deaths on UK streets from IRA bombs, inno­cent people being thrown in pris­on, and the assas­sin­a­tion attempt against Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya. The fear­less and etern­ally vigil­ant ISC MPs were primar­ily con­cerned about receiv­ing reas­sur­ance that their files would no longer be vet­ted by MI5 officers on the basis of mem­ber­ship to “sub­vers­ive” organ­isa­tions. What were they afraid of – that shame­ful evid­ence of early left-wing activ­ity from their fiery youth might emerge? Heav­en for­bid under New Labour.

Barely a day goes by when news­pa­per head­lines do not remind us of ter­rible threats to our nation­al secur­ity. Only in the last week, the UK media has repor­ted that the threat of espi­on­age from Rus­sia and China is at its highest since the days of the Cold War; that resur­gent Repub­lic­an ter­ror groups in North­ern Ire­land pose a graver danger to us even than Al Qaeda; that rad­ic­al­ised Brit­ish Muslim youth are return­ing from fight­ing with the Taliban to wage war on the streets of the UK. We have to take all this on trust, des­pite the intel­li­gence com­munity’s appalling track record of bend­ing the truth to gain more powers and resources. This is why mean­ing­ful over­sight is so vitally import­ant for the health of our demo­cracy. The ISC is a long way from provid­ing that.

Straw Man

The gov­ern­ment is push­ing through yet anoth­er piece of legis­la­tion designed to provide “pub­lic ser­vice hon­esty, integ­rity and inde­pend­ence” to the Brit­ish people. As part of this strategy, the draft Con­sti­tu­tion­al Renew­al Bill even con­tains a sec­tion to provide pro­tec­tion for gov­ern­ment whis­tleblowers. Need­less to say, spies are auto­mat­ic­ally excluded (see sec­tion 25 (2) of the draft Bill).

The draft Bill states that any whis­tleblowers from with­in the ranks of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ will be dealt with intern­ally. This has always been the case for MI5 and 6 (des­pite the government’s breath­tak­ing lies dur­ing the Shayler case that he could have gone to any crown ser­vant with his con­cerns). How­ever, in the case of GCHQ, this Bill will take away employ­ees’ rights to go to an inde­pend­ent Com­mis­sion­er, to bring it into dra­coni­an line with its sis­ter agen­cies.

So, to put this bluntly, those in our intel­li­gence agen­cies who exper­i­ence eth­ic­al qualms about their work or, even worse, wit­ness crimes, will have to take their con­cerns to the head of the very agency com­mit­ting these crimes. Let’s guess how far these com­plaints will go.

Now, some might say that it’s naïve to think that the intel­li­gence agen­cies don’t com­mit illeg­al or uneth­ic­al acts. All I can say to that is — grow up. James Bond is a myth. Even the bad old days of the Cold War when, as former MI5 officer Peter Wright put it, MI5 could “bug and burgle its way around Lon­don” with impun­ity are long gone. The 1985 Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act (and sub­sequent legis­la­tion), the 1989 Secur­ity Ser­vice Act, and the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, have put paid to that. In line with basic human rights, the spies now have to apply for min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion based on, ahem, a sol­id intel­li­gence case, to aggress­ively invest­ig­ate a tar­get.

Dur­ing the 10 month peri­od of my recruit­ment to MI5 in 1990, I was repeatedly told that the organ­isa­tion had to obey the law; that it was evolving into a mod­ern counter-ter­ror­ism agency. If that is indeed the case, then why is MI5 still to this day not account­able in the same way as the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch, which does the same work?

And who is the brave politi­cian ensur­ing that our intel­li­gence com­munity can remain shrouded in secrecy and pro­tec­ted from cri­ti­cism by the full force of the law? Stand up Justice Min­is­ter Jack Straw.

It just remains for me to say that Straw has a cer­tain his­tory in this area. In 1997, when Shayler blew the whistle, Straw was the Home Sec­ret­ary, the gov­ern­ment min­is­ter charged with over­see­ing MI5. One of Shayler’s early dis­clos­ures was that MI5 held files on a num­ber of politi­cians, includ­ing Straw him­self. Did Straw demand to see his file in angry dis­be­lief? No, he meekly did the spies’ bid­ding and issued a blanket injunc­tion against Shayler and the UK’s nation­al media.

But think about it — this is a clas­sic Catch 22 situ­ation. Either MI5 was right to open a file on Straw because he was a polit­ic­al sub­vers­ive and a danger to nation­al secur­ity – in which case, should he not have imme­di­ately resigned as Home Sec­ret­ary? Or MI5 got it wrong about Straw. In which case he should have been invest­ig­at­ing this mis­take and demand­ing to know how many oth­er inno­cent UK cit­izens had files wrongly and illeg­ally opened on them.

But Straw did neither. Per­haps he was wor­ried about what the spies could reveal about him? It’s inter­est­ing that he is yet again rush­ing to pro­tect their interests….

 

Spies and the Law

For con­text, here’s a little bit of back­ground inform­a­tion about the UK’s spy agen­cies, and the leg­al con­straints with­in which they are sup­posed to oper­ate.

There are three primary agen­cies: MI5 (the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice), MI6 (Secret Intel­li­gence Ser­vice — SIS) and GCHQ (the Gov­ern­ment Com­mu­nic­a­tions HQ). Bey­ond this inner circle, there is the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB), the spe­cial branches of every oth­er police force in the UK, mil­it­ary intel­li­gence, and Cus­toms, amongst oth­ers.

MI5 and MI6 were set up in 1909 dur­ing the build up to the First World War, when their remit was to uncov­er Ger­man spies. For the next 80 years they didn’t offi­cially exist and oper­ated out­side the law.

In 1989 MI5 was put on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time when par­lia­ment passed the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act. This stated that it had to work with­in leg­al para­met­ers, and if it wanted to do some­thing that would oth­er­wise be illeg­al, such as break­ing into and bug­ging someone’s house, it had to get the writ­ten per­mis­sion of its polit­ic­al mas­ter, the Home Sec­ret­ary. Without that, MI5 would be break­ing the law just as you or I would be.

MI6 and GCHQ were not put on a leg­al foot­ing until the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and are answer­able to the For­eign Sec­ret­ary. The same Act also set up the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee in Par­lia­ment as a sop to demo­crat­ic over­sight. The ISC is respons­ible for over­see­ing the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the three agen­cies. It has abso­lutely no remit to look at their oper­a­tion­al run­ning, nor can it invest­ig­ate alleged crimes com­mit­ted by them. Even if it could, the ISC has no power to call for wit­nesses or demand doc­u­ments from the spooks. Moreover, the com­mit­tee is appoin­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, answer­able only to him, and he can vet its find­ings. Much of the ISC’s annu­al reports are blanked out.

When I was recruited by MI5 in the early 1990s, the organ­isa­tion was at great pains to explain that it worked with­in the law, was account­able, and its work was mainly invest­ig­at­ing ter­ror­ism. Once I began work­ing there, this quickly proved to be untrue. MI5 is incom­pet­ent, it breaks the law, con­nives at the impris­on­ment of inno­cent people, illeg­ally bugs people, lies to gov­ern­ment (on whom it holds per­son­al files) and turns a blind eye to false flag ter­ror­ism. This is why I resigned and helped to blow the whistle.

With all this hys­teria about the threat from Al Qaeda, and the ava­lanche of new powers and resources being thrown at the spooks, as well the erosion of our liber­ties, we need to keep a cool head. Why don’t our politi­cians take a step back and ask what pre­cisely are the scale and nature of the threats facing this coun­try, and how can we best police them? As Sir Ian Blair recently showed, we can­not take the secur­ity forces’ words about this at face value.

There’s a lot of his­tor­ic bag­gage attached to MI5 and 6, par­tic­u­larly after their dirty tricks against the left in the 1980s. As they are now primar­ily doing a poli­cing job against ter­ror­ism, why not just clear the decks and start again? Set up a ded­ic­ated counter-ter­ror­ism agency, which is prop­erly account­able to par­lia­ment, as the police already are and the spies are not.

As it stands the UK has the most secret­ive intel­li­gence agen­cies in the west­ern world. They are exempt from the Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act, and pro­tec­ted by the dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act. The 1989 OSA makes it a crim­in­al offence for any­one to blow the whistle on crimes com­mit­ted by the spies, and it is no longer pos­sible for a whis­tleblower to argue that they acted in the pub­lic interest.

No oth­er west­ern demo­cracy has spies who are quite so unac­count­able, nor so pro­tec­ted from scru­tiny by the law. The closest ana­lo­gies are prob­ably the intel­li­gence agen­cies of coun­tries such as Libya or Iran. Par­tic­u­larly as we now know that MI5 and MI6 officers are con­niv­ing in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and the use of tor­ture.

Are they leg­al? Yes, now, in the­ory. Do they abide by the law? Only when it suits them. Are they eth­ic­al? Abso­lutely not.