A few minutes after Julian Assange was scandalously arrested and dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London last week, I was contacted by RT.com to do an interview. While further comments will follow, here are my initial thoughts:
My interview on RT.com about yet another attack against Julian Assange, editor in chief of Wikileaks, that threatens press freedom everywhere:
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?
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:
And here is the slice of it they used in a news feature they did with Assange:
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.
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:
Here is a video of a debate I was involved with about whistleblowers on the most recent edition of BBC debate show, Sunday Morning Live. The question under discussion: are whistleblowers heroes or villains?
BBC Sunday Morning Live from Annie Machon on Vimeo.
A shame that some of the studio guests used this opportunity to launch ad hominem attacks rather than focus on the key question, but I’m glad I could contribute.
The Real News Network coverage of the recent Sam Adams Award for Integrity in Intelligence, with contributions from many of the whistleblowers involved:
The SAAII is one of the few international recognitions for those within the intelligence community who follow their conscience, often at great professional and personal cost.
This year’s winner is Dr Tom Fingar, who headed up the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. He collated the official assessments of all 16 of America’s intelligence agencies, which unanimously assessed that Iran had ceased trying to build a nuclear weapon in 2003. This evidence-based analysis made it impossible for the Bush administration to push through its plans to launch a war against Iran in 2008. This excellent article by ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern explains Dr Fingar’s achievements far better than I could.
Over the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of working with the Union officers and fellow SAAIIers, especially renowned peace activists Ray McGovern and Elizabeth Murray (formerly of the US National Intelligence Council), to organise this event. Many of us will be speaking that evening, and Julian Assange will be doing a live video link.
All this in recognition of Dr Fingar’s contribution to professional, ethical intelligence work. Even in this “gloves-off”, post-9/11 world, it is heartening to hear that is possible.
I hope that many people can support and report on this event.
Published in The Huffington Post UK, 17 August 2012
A storm of diplomatic sound and fury has broken over Ecuador’s decision to grant political asylum to Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange. The UK government has threatened to breach all diplomatic protocol and international law and go into the embassy to arrest Assange.
The UK justifies this by citing the 1987 Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act, a law apparently put in place following the 1984 shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher from the Libyan Embassy in London. The murder resulted in an 11-day siege, and the embassy staff eventually being expelled from the country. Nobody has yet been brought to justice for this murder.
It is hard to equate the gravity of the crime that brought about the 1987 legislation — the murder of a policewoman — with Assange’s situation. Despite the screaming headlines, let us not forget that he is merely wanted for questioning in Sweden. Nevertheless, the UK is prepared to overturn all diplomatic protocol and create a dangerous international precedent to “get their man”, despite there being a clear lack of justification under the terms of the ’87 Act.
Many people in the western media remain puzzled about Assange’s fear of being held captive in the Swedish legal system. But can we really trust Swedish justice when it has been flagrantly politicised and manipulated in the Assange case, as has been repeatedly well documented. Indeed, the Swedish justice system has the highest rate per capita of cases taken to the ECtHR for flouting Article 6 — the right to a fair trial.
If Assange were extradited merely for questioning by police — he has yet to be even charged with any crime in Sweden — there is a strong risk that the Swedes will just shove him straight on the next plane to the US under the legal terms of a “temporary surrender”. And in the US, a secret Grand Jury has been convened in Virginia to find a law — any law — with which to prosecute Assange. Hell, if the Yanks can’t find an existing law, they will probably write a new one just for him.
So why all the sound and fury? What is this really all about?
Wikileaks is a ground-breaking new form of high-tech, award-winning journalism that has exposed corrupt practices across the world over the years. And crucially, in this war-torn, weary and financially broken world, it offers a secure conduit to whistleblowers who want to expose institutional crime and corruption for the public good.
Whistleblowers want to get their information out there, they want to make a difference, they want a fair hearing, and they don’t want to pay too high a personal price for doing so. Is that too much to ask?
By going public about serious concerns they have about their workplace, they are jeopardising their whole way of life: not just their professional reputation and career, but all that goes with it, such as the ability to pay the mortgage, their social circle, their family life, their relationship… Plus, the whistleblower can potentially risk prison or worse.
So, with these risks in mind, they are certainly looking for an avenue to blow the whistle that will offer a degree of protection and allow them to retain a degree of control over their own lives. In the old days, this meant trying to identify an honourable, campaigning journalist and a media organisation that had the clout to protect its source. While not impossible, that could certainly be difficult, and becomes increasingly so in this era of endemic electronic surveillance.
Today the other option is a secure, high-tech publishing conduit such as Wikileaks. This provides anonymity and a certain degree of control to the modern whistleblower, plus it allows their information to reach a wide audience without either being filtered by the media or blocked by government or corporate injunctions.
As someone who has a nodding acquaintance with the repercussions of blowing the whistle on a secret government agency, I have long seen the value of the Wikileaks model — and I also understand quite why governments feel so threatened by it. After all, no government or mega-corporation wants freedom of information and transparency forced upon it, nor an informed citizenry questioning its actions.
Our governments like to spout the phrase “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide” as they roll out yet another intrusive surveillance measure.
Wikileaks has turned that right back at them — hence this modern-day witch-hunt.
Outrage continues to swell about the peremptory extradition of British citizens to face trial on tenuous charges abroad.
Thanks to the tireless campaigning of distraught family members, a growing anger in the UK press, and indignant questions and debates in Parliament — even our somnambulant MPs have roused themselves to state that Something Must be Done — the Extradition Act 2003 is now centre stage, and reform of the law will no doubt occur at some point.
As there is a growing consensus, why the delay? I have a theory, but first let’s review some of the most troubling recent cases.
The case that really brought the issue to widespread public attention is the decade-long extradition battle of Gary McKinnon. With this sword of Damocles hanging over his head for so long, poor Gary has already effectively served a 10-year sentence, uncertain of his future and unable to work in his chosen profession. Thanks to the indefatigable campaigning of his mother, Janis Sharp, his case has received widespread support from the media and politicians alike.
Despite this the Home Secretary, Theresa May (who has recently been working so hard in Jordan to protect the rights of Abu Qatada), has dragged her feet abominably over making a decision about whether Gary should be extradited to the US to face a possible 70-year prison sentence — even though the UK investigation into his alleged crime was abandoned way back in 2002.
Then there is the more recent case of student Richard O’Dwyer, wanted in the US even though he lives in the UK and has broken no British laws. He is facing a 10 year maximum security sentence if extradited. Once again, his mother, Julia, is tirelessly fighting and campaigning for her son.
Most recently, Chris Tappin, a retired businessman and golf club president, has been shipped off to a Texas high security penitentiary following what sounds like a US entrapment operation (a technique not legally admissable in UK courts), and faces a 35 year sentence if convicted.
Despite having turned himself in, this elderly gent, who walks with the aid of a cane, is considered such a flight risk that he was last week denied bail. Once again, his wife Elaine has come out fighting.
My heart goes out to all these women, and I salute their tenacity and bravery. I remember living through a similar, if mercifully briefer, four months back in 1998 when the UK government tried and failed to extradite David Shayler from France to the UK to stand trial for a breach of the OSA. I remember with crystal clarity the shock of the arrest, the fear when he disappeared into a foreign legal system without trace, the anguish about his life in an alien prison.
And I remember the frightening moment when I realised I had to step up and fight for him — the legal case, dealing with MPs and the endless media work, including the terror of live TV interviews. And all this when you are worried sick about the fate of a loved one. Shall I just say it was a steep learning curve?
In the wake of the recent extradition cases, there have been questions in Parliament, motions, debates, reviews (Download Review), and there is an ongoing push for an urgent need for reform. And no doubt this will come, in time.
So why the delay? Why not change the law now, and prevent McKinnon, O’Dywer and many others being sacrificed on the American legal altar — the concept of “judicial rendition”, as I have mentioned before.
Well, I have a theory, one derived from personal experience. The British media — most notably the Daily Mail — inveigh against the unilateral extradition of UK citizens to the USA’s brutal prison régime. There is also some concern about extradition to other European jurisdictions — usually on the fringes to the south and east of the continent, regions where the British seem to have a visceral fear of corrupt officials and kangaroo courts.
But what many commentators seem to miss is the crucial legal connection — the extradition arrangements that ensure Brits can be shipped off to the US and many other legal banana republics comparable legal systems to face outrageous sentences are, in fact, embedded within the Extradition Act 2003. This is the act that enshrined the power of the European Arrest Warrant, the the act that was rushed through Parliament in the midst of the post-9/11 terrorism flap.
And, of course, this is the very act that is currently being used and abused to extradite Julian Assange to Sweden merely for police questioning (he has not even been charged with any crime), whence he can be “temporarily surrendered” to the delights of the US judicial process. Hmm, could this possibly be the reason for the delay in reforming the Act?
Let me guess, you think this is beginning to sound a bit tin-foil hat? Surely it is inconceivable that the British politicians and judges would delay righting a flagrant legal wrong that manifestly results in innocent people being unjustly extradited and prosecuted? Surely our government would move swiftly to protect its citizens?
As I mentioned, my theory stems from personal experience. Once again delving into the mists of time, in 1997 David Shayler blew the whistle on the wrongful conviction on terrorist charges of two innocent Palestinian students, Samar Alami and Jawad Botmeh. Their lawyer, the excellent Gareth Peirce, was immediately on the case, but the UK government dragged its heels for a year. Why?
During that time, the UK government tried to have Shayler extradited from France to the UK to stand trial. Government lawyers were confident of victory and delayed a decision on the students’ appeal against their convictions until the whistleblower was safely incarcerated in HMP Belmarsh, awaiting trial.
Except it all went wrong, and the French freed Shayler for being manifestly a political whistleblower, which in their legal opinion was not an extradictable offence. Only at that point did the UK government lawyers begin to work with Peirce on the Palestinian case, details of which can be found here.
So my theory is that the UK is dragging its feet about reforming the preposterous Extradition Act until it has Assange safely over in Sweden. However, they may be counting their chickens prematurely — and they should never, ever overlook the determination of the campaigning mother, in this case Christine Assange.
But in the meantime, while the UK continues to prostitute itself to the USA, how many more innocent people will have to suffer unjust and unjustifiable extradition?
Last year I had the honour to meet Julian Assange, the founder of the brilliant whistleblower website, WikiLeaks, that has been causing such a stir recently with the release of the decrypted US military film, “Collateral Murder”, and recently with the Afghan War Logs.
I have nothing but respect for WikiLeaks — it shines a torch into the dark corners of corrupt government and big business, and is the way forward in holding these organisations, which largely believe themselves to be above the law, at least somewhat to account.
Julian was kind enough to invite me to take part in a panel discussion with him at the Hacking at Random festival in the Netherlands last year. The discussion focused on whistleblowing and government accountability. Here’s the video: