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. 

Fair trials in the UK courts? Anyone?

This art­icle in today’s Guard­i­an about the ongo­ing reper­cus­sions of the Mark Kennedy under­cov­er cop scan­dal earli­er this year piqued my interest.

Mark_KennedyIt appears that the Crown Pro­sec­u­tion Ser­vice (CPS) has sup­pressed key evid­ence about the all-too-appar­ent inno­cence of envir­on­ment­al pro­test­ers in the run-up to their tri­als.  In this case Mark Kennedy aka Stone, the police­man who for years infilt­rated protest groups across Europe, had cov­ertly recor­ded con­ver­sa­tions dur­ing the plan­ning ses­sions to break into Ratcliffe-on-Soar power sta­tion.

Kennedy offered to give evid­ence to prove that the unit he worked for at the time, the private and unac­count­able ACPO-run Nation­al Pub­lic Order Invest­ig­a­tions Unit (NPOIU), had witheld this key evid­ence.  It now appears that the police are claim­ing that they passed all the inform­a­tion on to the CPS, which then seems to have neg­lected  to hand it over to the pro­test­ers’ defence law­yers.

Keir_StarmerWhich makes it even more fas­cin­at­ing that in April this year the Dir­ect­or of Pub­lic Pro­sec­u­tions, fam­ous civil liber­ties QC Keir Starm­er no less, took the unpre­ced­en­ted step of encour­aging those same pro­test­ers to appeal against their con­vic­tions because of poten­tial “police” cov­er-ups.

It’s just amaz­ing, isn’t it, that when vital inform­a­tion can be kept safely under wraps these doughty crime-fight­ing agen­cies present a united front to the world?  But once someone shines a light into the slith­ery dark corners, they all scramble to avoid blame and leak against each oth­er?

And yet this case is just the tip of a titan­ic leg­al ice­berg, where for years the police and the CPS have been in cahoots to cov­er up many cases of, at best, mis­com­mu­nic­a­tion, and at worst out­right lies about incom­pet­ence and poten­tially crim­in­al activ­ity.

Ian_TomlinsonA couple of months ago George Mon­bi­ot provided an excel­lent sum­mary of recent “mis­state­ments” (a won­der­fully euphemist­ic neo­lo­gism) by the police over the last few years, includ­ing such blatant cases as the death of Ian Tom­lin­son dur­ing the Lon­don G20 protests two years ago, the ongo­ing News of the World phone hack­ing case, and the counter-ter­ror­ism style exe­cu­tion, sorry, shoot­ing of the entirely inno­cent Jean Charles de Menezes, to name but a few.

Mon­bi­ot also dwelt at length on the appalling case of Michael Doherty, a con­cerned fath­er who dis­covered that his 13 year-old daugh­ter was appar­ently being groomed by a pae­do­phile over the inter­net.  He took his con­cerns to the police, who brushed the issue aside.  When Doherty tried to push for a more informed and pro­act­ive response, he was the one who was snatched from his house in an early morn­ing raid and ended up in court, accused of abus­ive and angry phone calls to the sta­tion in a sworn state­ment by a mem­ber of the rel­ev­ant police force, sorry, ser­vice.

And that would have been that — he would have appar­ently been bang to rights on the word of a police sec­ret­ary — apart from the fact he had recor­ded all his phone calls to the police and kept metic­u­lous notes on the pro­gress of the case.  Only this evid­ence led to his right­ful acquit­tal.

As Mon­bi­ot rightly con­cludes, “justice is impossible if we can­not trust police forces to tell the truth”.

It appears that the notion of “cit­izen journ­al­ists” is just sooo 2006.  Now we all need to be not only journ­al­ists but also “cit­izen law­yers”, just in case we have to defend ourselves against poten­tial police lies.  Yet these are the very organ­isa­tions that are paid from the pub­lic purse to pro­tect civil soci­ety.  Is it any won­der that so many people have a grow­ing dis­trust of them and con­cerns about an encroach­ing, Stasi-like, police state?

This is all part of engrained, top-down Brit­ish cul­ture of secrecy that allows the amorph­ous “secur­ity ser­vices” to think they can get away with any­thing and everything if they make a force­ful enough pub­lic state­ment: black is white, tor­ture is “enhanced inter­rog­a­tion”, and war is peace (or at least a “peace­keep­ing” mis­sion in Libya.…).  Espe­cially if there is no mean­ing­ful over­sight.  We have entered the Orwellian world of NewS­peak.

But plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  This all happened in the 1970s and 80s with the Irish com­munity, and also in the 1990s with the ter­rible mis­car­riage of justice around the Israeli embassy bomb­ing in 1994.  If you have the time, please do read the detailed case here: Down­load Israeli_Embassy_Case

We need to remem­ber our his­tory.

Guardian article: the role of the spies in the UK

Here’s the text of an art­icle I wrote for The Guard­i­an a while ago, where I sug­gest we need a fresh per­spect­ive and some clear think­ing on the role of the spies in the UK

Worth reit­er­at­ing, fol­low­ing the pre-empt­ive arrest of pro­test­ers:

Mark_KennedyThe cas­cade of rev­el­a­tions about secret police­men, start­ing with PC Mark Kennedy/environmental act­iv­ist “Mark Stone”, has high­lighted the iden­tity crisis afflict­ing the Brit­ish secur­ity estab­lish­ment. Private under­cov­er police units are hav­ing their James Bond moment – cider shaken, not stirred – while MI5 has become ever more plod-like, yet without the accom­pa­ny­ing over­sight. How has this happened to our demo­cracy without any pub­lic debate?

From the late 19th cen­tury the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch invest­ig­ated ter­ror­ism while MI5, estab­lished in 1909, was a counter-intel­li­gence unit focus­ing on espi­on­age and polit­ic­al “sub­ver­sion”. The switch began in 1992 when Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton, then head of MI5, effected a White­hall coup and stole primacy for invest­ig­at­ing Irish ter­ror­ism from the Met. As a res­ult MI5 magic­ally dis­covered that sub­ver­sion was not such a threat after all – this rev­el­a­tion only three years after the Ber­lin Wall came down – and trans­ferred all its staff over to the new, sexy counter-ter­ror­ism sec­tions. Since then, MI5 has been eagerly build­ing its counter-ter­ror­ism empire, des­pite this being more obvi­ously evid­en­tial police work.

Spe­cial Branch was releg­ated to a sup­port­ing role, dab­bling in organ­ised crime and anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but not ter­ribly excited about either. Its prestige had been ser­i­ously tar­nished. It also had a group of exper­i­enced under­cov­er cops – known then as the Spe­cial Duties Sec­tion – with time on their hands.

Acpo_logoIt should there­fore come as little sur­prise that Acpo, the private lim­ited com­pany com­pris­ing seni­or police officers across the coun­try, came up with the bril­liant idea of using this skill-set against UK “domest­ic extrem­ists”. Acpo set up the Nation­al Pub­lic Order Intel­li­gence Unit (NPOIU). This first focused primar­ily on anim­al rights act­iv­ists, but mis­sion creep rap­idly set in and the unit’s role expan­ded into peace­ful protest groups. When this unac­count­able, Stasi-like unit was revealed it rightly caused an out­cry, espe­cially as the term “domest­ic extrem­ist” is not recog­nised under UK law, and can­not leg­ally be used as jus­ti­fic­a­tion to aggress­ively invade an individual’s pri­vacy because of their legit­im­ate polit­ic­al beliefs and act­iv­ism. So, plod has become increas­ingly spooky. What of the spooks?

As I men­tioned, they have been aggress­ively hoover­ing up the pres­ti­gi­ous counter-ter­ror­ism work. But, des­pite what the Amer­ic­ans have hys­ter­ic­ally asser­ted since 9/11, ter­ror­ism is not some unique form of “evil­tude”. It is a crime – a hideous, shock­ing one, but still a crime that should be invest­ig­ated, with evid­ence gathered, due pro­cess applied and the sus­pects on tri­al in front of a jury.

A mature demo­cracy that respects human rights and the rule of law should not intern sus­pects or render them to secret pris­ons and tor­ture them for years. And yet this is pre­cisely what our spooks are now allegedly doing – par­tic­u­larly when col­lud­ing with their US coun­ter­parts.

Also, MI5 and MI6 oper­ate out­side any real­ist­ic demo­crat­ic over­sight and con­trol. The remit of the intel­li­gence and secur­ity com­mit­tee in par­lia­ment only cov­ers the policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance of the spies. Since the committee’s incep­tion in 1994 it has repeatedly failed to mean­ing­fully address more ser­i­ous ques­tions about the spies’ role. The spooks are effect­ively above the law, while at the same time pro­tec­ted by the dra­coni­an Offi­cial Secrets Act. This makes the abuses of the NPOIU seem almost quaint. So what to do? A good first step might be to have an informed dis­cus­sion about the real­ist­ic threats to the UK. The police and spies huddle behind the pro­tect­ive phrase “nation­al secur­ity”. But what does this mean?

Climate_camp_and_policeThe core idea should be safe­guard­ing the nation’s integ­rity. A group of well-mean­ing envir­on­ment­al pro­test­ers should not even be on the radar. And, no mat­ter how awful, the occa­sion­al ter­ror­ist attack is not an exist­en­tial threat to the fab­ric of the nation in the way of, say, the planned Nazi inva­sion in 1940. Nor is it even close to the sus­tained bomb­ing of gov­ern­ment, infra­struc­ture and mil­it­ary tar­gets by the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA in the 70s-90s.

Once we under­stand the real threats, we as a nation can dis­cuss the steps to take to pro­tect ourselves; what meas­ures should be taken and what liber­ties occa­sion­ally and leg­ally com­prom­ised, and what demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity exists to ensure that the secur­ity forces do not exceed their remit and work with­in the law.

Security forces endanger agent lives, not whistleblowers…

Our esteemed gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and police forces always attack whis­tleblowers and organ­isa­tions such as Wikileaks on the grounds that unau­thor­ised dis­clos­ure of clas­si­fied inform­a­tion puts the lives of agents and inform­ants at risk.

Bob_QuickAgent iden­tit­ies, along with ongo­ing oper­a­tions (as Former Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er of Spe­cial Oper­a­tions at the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, Bob Quick, found to his cost two years ago) and sens­it­ive invest­ig­at­ory tech­niques, are indeed in need of pro­tec­tion.  Much else is not — par­tic­u­larly inform­a­tion about lies, cov­er-ups, incom­pet­ence and crime.

Indeed, once you delve behind the scream­ing head­lines that whis­tleblower dis­clos­ures have risked agent lives, you often find that this is abso­lutely not the case — in fact their motiv­a­tion is usu­ally to pre­vent fur­ther need­less tor­ture, death and war crimes.  So the US Defence Sec­ret­ary, Robert Gates, was forced to admit that Wikileaks had indeed not endangered lives with the pub­lic­a­tion of the Afghan War Logs last year, and Dav­id Shayler’s tri­al judge, in his form­al rul­ing, stated that “no lives had been put at risk” by his whis­tleblow­ing.

Instead, there is a grow­ing body of evid­ence to sug­gest that the secur­ity forces are the very organ­isa­tions not tak­ing the pro­tec­tion and after­care of their agents ser­i­ously.

Mark Kennedy, the under­cov­er police officer who spied on UK envir­on­ment­al protest groups, has gone on the record to say that the super­vi­sion, care and psy­cho­lo­gic­al sup­port provided to him was woe­fully lack­ing.   Kev­in Fulton, a serving sol­dier who infilt­rated the IRA on behalf of the notori­ous Forces Research Unit, has sim­il­arly been hung out to dry and is now attempt­ing to sue the Brit­ish Gov­ern­ment to provide the prom­ised, adequate after­care.

Mar­tin McGart­land, who worked as a source in North­ern Ire­land at the height of “The Troubles” and is cred­ited with sav­ing 50 lives, has also borne the brunt of this lais­sez faire atti­tude since he stopped work­ing for intel­li­gence.  He has the scars to prove it too, hav­ing sur­vived assas­sin­a­tion attempts, and once blindly leap­ing out of a third floor win­dow in an frantic attempt to escape tor­ture at the hands of the IRA.  As he says:

Who would put their lives on the line nowadays when they can read what hap­pens to those who did?”, McGart­land says. “I can’t go home and the IRA are sup­posed to be a former ter­ror­ist group. Nobody is hunt­ing down my attack­ers and nobody in author­ity seems to care. That has a dir­ect impact on recruit­ing agents.…”

Denis_DonaldsonThe most egre­gious case is of Denis Don­ald­son, Sinn Féin’s Head of Admin­is­tra­tion at Stor­mont in North­ern Ire­land who was outed as a MI5 and police spy by Gerry Adams in 2006.  He was bru­tally murdered a few months later, allegedly by the Real IRA, hav­ing received little pro­tec­tion or sup­port from his erstwhile spook hand­lers.

So who is really more likely expose cur­rent agents to the risk of psy­cho­lo­gic­al dam­age, tor­ture and death, or to deter future agents from volun­teer­ing to work with the secur­ity forces?  Prin­cipled whis­tleblowers who expose crime and incom­pet­ence with due care for pro­tect­ing real secrets, or the spooks who take a cava­lier approach to the pas­tor­al care of their agents, and then hang them out to dry once their use­ful­ness is at an end?

My article in The Guardian, 24 January 2011

Annie_1_Heleen_Banner Here’s a link to my art­icle in The Guard­i­an today, explor­ing the con­fused roles of mod­ern Brit­ish spies, and look­ing at some ways to sort out the mess. 

Both the police and the spooks seem to be hav­ing a bit of an iden­tity crisis at the moment…