Former MI6 spy v Wikileaks editor: First Amendment Rights

First pub­lished on RT Op-Ed on 24 August 2018.

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?

Assange under increased threat

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:

Ecuador Pres­id­ent threat­en­ing the polit­ic­al asylum of Assange from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Useful Idiots”

Yet anoth­er trans-Atlantic think tank has cranked out a report attack­ing Rus­sia, and yet again the focus of their ire is RT​.com.

Of course, all media out­lets get attacked for “pro­pa­ganda” (you should see the Daily Mail BTL com­ments about the BBC!), but this par­tic­u­lar play book is get­ting old.

Here’s my take on the sub­ject on, you’ve guessed it, RT:

New “Putin’s Use­ful Idi­ots” Report from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

AcTVism film trailer

The AcTV­ism Munich media col­lect­ive is releas­ing a film on 19th April fea­tur­ing Noam Chom­sky, The Real News Net­work’s Paul Jay and  myself.

Filmed last Janu­ary, we dis­cussed the old and new media, act­iv­ism, and much more.

Here’s the trail­er:

AcTV­ism Trail­er — Chom­sky, Machon and Jay from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Holistic security for journalists and sources — Logan Symposium

Here is a short talk I gave at the recent Logan Sym­posi­um in Lon­don, where I dis­cussed a more hol­ist­ic approach for both journ­al­ists and their sources:

The Logan Sym­posi­um — Dec 6th — Annie Machon from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

New v old media — RT Crosstalk debate

I recently took part in a debate about the old versus the new “altern­at­ive” media and their rel­at­ive mer­its on RT’s Crosstalk with Peter Lav­elle:

crosstalk_placeholder

Whistleblowers deserve full coverage

Here is my recent RT inter­view about the recent dis­pute between Wikileaks and Glenn Gre­en­wald on what exactly the para­met­ers should be in media report­ing of whis­tleblower dis­clos­ures:

whistleblowers

Whis­tleblowers deserve full cov­er­age — RT inter­view from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Of course, thanks to Wikileaks this even­ing, we now know the coun­try that Glenn Gre­en­wald redac­ted from his ori­gin­al report was Afgh­anistan.

Why on earth should the Afgh­anis not be allowed to know the sheer scale of sur­veil­lance they live under? In fact, would many be sur­prised? This is an excel­lent related art­icle, do read.

International Journalism Festival, Perugia

Here is a pan­el dis­cus­sion I did at the Inter­na­tion­al Journ­al­ism Fest­iv­al in Per­u­gia, Italy, in May 2014:

scoop_century_placeholder

Circumventing the Panopticon, Transmediale Berlin

Last month I was on a pan­el dis­cus­sion at the Ber­lin Trans­me­diale con­fer­ence with NSA whis­tleblower Bill Bin­ney, Chelsea Man­ning rap­por­teur Alexa O’Brian, and act­iv­ist Diani Bar­reto. Here is the link to the full two hour event, and here is my speech:

transmediale

Trans­me­diale, Ber­lin 2014 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Snowden, privacy and the CCC

Here’s an RT inter­view I did about the media response to Edward Snowden, the media response, pri­vacy and what we can do.

Apt, as I am cur­rently at the Chaos Com­mu­nic­a­tion Con­gress (CCC) in Ham­burg, and shall be speak­ing about sim­il­ar issues this even­ing.

Most UK media con­cer­tedly ignore Snowden rev­el­a­tions, under gov’t pres­sure from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Riga Talk about Spies, Whistleblowers and the Media

Last week I was invited to dis­cuss the con­trol of the media by the spies and the gov­ern­ment appar­at­us by the Centre for Media Stud­ies at the Stock­holm School of Eco­nom­ics in Riga. Many thanks to Hans, Anders and the team for invit­ing me, and to Inese Voika , the Chair of Trans­par­ency Inter­na­tion­al in Latvia, for set­ting the scene so well.

I focused par­tic­u­larly on how journ­al­ists can work with and pro­tect whis­tleblowers:

Whis­tleblow­ing is the New Rock and Roll from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Edward Snowden — the Globalisation of Whistleblowing

I have held back from writ­ing about the Edward Snowden NSA whis­tleblow­ing case for the last week — partly because I was immersed in the res­ult­ing media inter­views and talks, and partly because I wanted to watch how the story developed, both polit­ic­ally and in the old media. The reac­tion of both can tell you a lot.

That does not mean that I did not have a very pos­it­ive response to what Snowden has done. Far from it. The same night the story broke about who was behind the leaks, I dis­cussed the implic­a­tions on an RT inter­view and called what he did Whis­tleblow­ing 2.0.

Why did I say that? Well, it appeared from his ini­tial video inter­view with The Guard­i­an that he had learned from pre­vi­ous whis­tleblow­ing cases: he had watched the media and care­fully chosen a journ­al­ist, Glenn Gre­en­wald, with a good track record on the rel­ev­ant issues who would prob­ably fight his corner fear­lessly; his inform­a­tion clearly demon­strated that the intel­li­gence agen­cies were spin­ning out of con­trol and build­ing sur­veil­lance states; he care­fully chose a jur­is­dic­tion to flee to that might have the clout to pro­tect him leg­ally against the wrath of an over-mighty USA; and he has used his inter­net and media savvy to gain as much expos­ure and pro­tec­tion as quickly as pos­sible.

edward_snowdenPlus, he has been incred­ibly brave, con­sid­er­ing the dra­coni­an war on whis­tleblowers that is cur­rently being waged by the Amer­ic­an admin­is­tra­tion. There have been three oth­er NSA whis­tleblowers in recent years, all also talk­ing about endem­ic sur­veil­lance. All have paid a high per­son­al price, all dis­played great bravery in the face of adversity yet, sadly, none has achieved the same level of inter­na­tion­al impact. Were we just deaf to their warn­ings, or has Snowden played this bet­ter?

I think a bit of both.  He’s a geek, a young geek, he will have seen what happened to oth­er whis­tleblowers and appears to have taken steps to avoid the same pit­falls. He has gone pub­lic to pro­tect his fam­ily and pre­vent harm to his former col­leagues in any ensu­ing witch-hunt. And he has fled the coun­try in order to remain at liberty to argue his case, which is key to keep­ing the story alive for more than a week in the gad­fly minds of the old media. I know, I’ve been involved in the same pro­cess.

He has blown the whistle to pro­tect an Amer­ic­an way of life he thinks “worth dying for”. Yet he has broadened out the issues inter­na­tion­ally — what hap­pens in Amer­ica impacts the rest of the world. This, in my view, is cru­cial.  I have been writ­ing for years that the US is increas­ingly claim­ing glob­al leg­al hege­mony over the entire inter­net, as well as the right to kid­nap, tor­ture and murder for­eign­ers at will.

The Pat­ri­ot Act has not only shred­ded the US con­sti­tu­tion, it also now appar­ently has glob­al reach for as long as our craven gov­ern­ments allow it to. Now we know that this is not some abstract concept, the­ory or spec­u­la­tion — we are all poten­tially being watched

Edward Snowden argued his case very effect­ively in a live chat on The Guard­i­an news­pa­per web­site. It became clear that he is indeed a new gen­er­a­tion of whisteblower. This is not someone who wit­nessed one crime and imme­di­ately felt he had to speak out. This is a tech­nic­al expert who watched, over time and with dis­may, the encroach­ing Big Broth­er sur­veil­lance state that is tak­ing over the world via the NSA and its clones.

He is young, he had faith that a new gov­ern­ment would mean change, but in the end felt com­pelled to take con­sidered action when he wit­nessed the unac­count­able mis­sion creep, the lim­ited and inef­fec­tu­al over­sight, and the neutered politi­cians who rush to reas­sure us that everything is leg­al and pro­por­tion­ate when they really have no idea what the spy agen­cies get up to.

In both the US and the UK the spies repeatedly get away with lying to the notion­al over­sight bod­ies about mis­takes made, rules bent, and illeg­al oper­a­tions. Former seni­or CIA ana­lyst, Ray McGov­ern, has cata­logued the US lies, and here are a few home-brewed Brit­ish examples. The inter­net com­pan­ies have also been wrig­gling on the hook over the last week.

Snowden appears to be very aware not only of poten­tial state level sur­veil­lance but also the glob­al cor­por­at­ist aspect of the sub­ver­sion of the basic com­pan­ies most people use to access the inter­net — Google, Face­book, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Skype et al. A few pion­eers have been dis­cuss­ing the need to pro­tect one­self from such cor­por­at­ist over­sight for years, and such pion­eers have largely been ignored by the main­stream: they’re “just geeks” they are “para­noid”, “tin foil hat” etc.

Edward Snowden has laid bare the truth of this glob­al­ised, cor­por­at­ist Big Broth­er state. From his pub­lic state­ments so far, he seems very alive to the inter­na­tion­al aspects of what he is reveal­ing. This is not just about Amer­ic­ans being snooped on, this affects every­body. We are all sub­ject to the bru­tal hege­mony that US securo­crats and cor­por­a­tions are try­ing to impose on us, with no rights, no redress under the law.

Big_Brother_posterWe have already seen this with the illeg­al US state take-down of Kim Dotcom’s secure cloud ser­vice, Megaup­load, with the glob­al per­se­cu­tion of Wikileaks, with Obama’s war on whis­tleblowers, with the NDAA, with the asym­met­ric extra­di­tion cases, with the drone wars across the Middle East and Cent­ral Asia.….  where to stop?

Snowden, through his incred­ible act of bravery, has con­firmed our worst fears. It is not just cor­por­a­tions that have gone glob­al — sur­veil­lance has too. And now, thank­fully, so too are whis­tleblowers.

What troubles me some­what is the way that the old media is respond­ing — even The Guard­i­an, which broke the story. Glenn Gre­en­wald is an excel­lent, cam­paign­ing journ­al­ist and I have no doubt what­so­ever that he will fight to the wire for his source.

How­ever, the news­pa­per as an entity seems to be hold­ing back the free flow of inform­a­tion. Char­it­ably, one could assume that this is to max­im­ise the impact of Snowden’s dis­clos­ures. Less char­it­ably, one could also see it as a way to eke out the stor­ies to max­im­ise the newspaper’s profits and glory. Again, it’s prob­ably a bit of both.

How­ever, I do not think this will ulti­mately work in the best interests of the whis­tleblower, who needs to get the inform­a­tion out there now, and get the whole debate going now.

Plus, today it was repor­ted that a D-Notice had been issued against the UK media last week. I have writ­ten before about this invi­di­ous self-cen­sor­ship with which the Brit­ish media col­lab­or­ates: seni­or edit­ors and seni­or mil­it­ary per­son­nel and spooks meet to agree wheth­er or not stor­ies may act against “nation­al secur­ity” (still a leg­ally undefined phrase), and ban pub­lic­a­tions accord­ingly. And this is “vol­un­tary” — what does that say about our press hold­ing power to account, when they will­ingly col­lude in the sup­pres­sion of inform­a­tion?

Plus, some of the key journ­al­ists at The Guard­i­an who were involved in the Wikileaks stitch-up are also now peck­ing away at the Snowden story. The old media are still con­tinu­ing to act as a bot­tle­neck of the free flow of inform­a­tion from whis­tleblowers to the pub­lic domain. In the post-Wikileaks era, this is a ret­ro­grade step. It is not for them to assess what the pub­lic needs to know, nor is it down to them to ana­lyse and second-guess why any whis­tleblower is doing what they are doing.

As Edward Snowden stated: “The con­sent of the gov­erned is not con­sent if it is not informed”.

Journalists need to tool up

Pub­lished in the Huff­ing­ton Post UK:

Over the last week more sound, fury and indig­na­tion has cas­caded forth from the US media, spill­ing into the European news, about the Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ment and the Asso­ci­ated Press spy­ing scan­dal.

Last week it emerged that the US Depart­ment of Justice mon­itored the tele­phones of, gasp, journ­al­ists work­ing at AP. Appar­ently this was done to try to invest­ig­ate who might have been the source for a story about a foiled ter­ror­ist plot in Yemen. How­ever, the drag­net seems to have widened to cov­er almost 100 journ­al­ists and poten­tially threatened gov­ern­ment­al leak­ers and whis­tleblowers who, in these days of sys­tem­at­ic secur­ity crack­downs in the US, are fast becom­ing Pub­lic Enemy No 1.

Now it appears that the US DoJ has been read­ing the emails of a seni­or Fox News report­er. And this has got the US hacks into a fright­ful tizz. What about the First Amend­ment?

Well, what about the fact that the Pat­ri­ot Act shred­ded most of the US Con­sti­tu­tion a dec­ade ago?

Also, who is actu­ally facing the secur­ity crack­down here? The US journ­al­ists are bleat­ing that their sources are dry­ing up in the face of a sys­tem­at­ic witch hunt by the US admin­is­tra­tion. That must be hard for the journ­al­ists — hard at least to get the stor­ies and by-lines that ensure their con­tin­ued employ­ment and the abil­ity to pay the mort­gage. This adds up to the phrase du jour: a “chilling effect” on free speech.

Er, yes, but how much harder for the poten­tial whis­tleblowers? They are the people facing not only a loss of pro­fes­sion­al repu­ta­tion and career if caught, but also all that goes with it. Plus, now, they are increas­ingly facing dra­coni­an pris­on sen­tences under the recently rean­im­ated and cur­rently much-deployed US 1917 Espi­on­age Act for expos­ing issues in the pub­lic interest. Ex-NSA Thomas Drake faced dec­ades in pris­on for expos­ing cor­rup­tion and waste, while ex-CIA John Kiriakou is cur­rently lan­guish­ing in pris­on for expos­ing the use of tor­ture.

The US gov­ern­ment has learned well from the example of the UK’s Offi­cial Secrets Acts — laws that nev­er actu­ally seem to be wiel­ded against real estab­lish­ment trait­ors, who always seem to be allowed to slip away, but which have been used fre­quently and effect­ively to stifle dis­sent, cov­er up spy crimes, and to spare the blushes of the Estab­lish­ment.

So, two points:

Firstly, the old media could and should have learned from the new mod­el that is Wikileaks and its ilk. Rather than asset strip­ping the organ­isa­tion for inform­a­tion, while abandon­ing the alleged source, Brad­ley Man­ning, and the founder, Juli­an Assange, to their fates, Wikileaks’s erstwhile allies could and mor­ally should cam­paign for them. The issues of the free flow of inform­a­tion, demo­cracy and justice are big­ger than petty argu­ments about per­son­al­ity traits.

Plus, the old media appear to have a death wish: to quote the words of the former New York Times edit­or and Wikileaks col­lab­or­at­or Bill Keller, Wikileaks is not a pub­lish­er — it is a source, pure and simple. But surely, if Wikileaks is “only” a source, it must be pro­tec­ted at all costs — that is the media’s prime dir­ect­ive. Journ­al­ists have his­tor­ic­ally gone to pris­on rather than give away their sources.

How­ever, if Wikileaks is indeed deemed to be a pub­lish­er and can be per­se­cuted this way, then all the old media are equally vul­ner­able. And indeed that is what we are wit­ness­ing now with these spy­ing scan­dals.

Secondly, these so-called invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists are sur­prised that their phones were tapped?  Really?

If they are doing prop­er, worth­while journ­al­ism, of course their comms will be tapped in a post-Pat­ri­ot Act, sur­veil­lance-state world. Why on earth are they not tak­ing their own and their sources’ secur­ity ser­i­ously? Is it ama­teur night?

In this day and age, any ser­i­ous journ­al­ist (and there are still a few hon­our­able examples) will be tak­ing steps to pro­tect the secur­ity of their sources. They will be tooled up, tech-savvy, and they will have atten­ded Crypto-parties to learn secur­ity skills. They will also be pain­fully aware that a whis­tleblower is a per­son poten­tially facing pris­on, rather than just the source of a career-mak­ing story.

If main­stream journ­al­ists are ser­i­ous about expos­ing cor­rup­tion, hold­ing power to account, and fight­ing for justice they need to get ser­i­ous about source pro­tec­tion too and get teched-up. Help is widely avail­able to those who are inter­ested. Indeed, this sum­mer the Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism is host­ing talks in Lon­don on this sub­ject, and many oth­er inter­na­tion­al journ­al­ism con­fer­ences have done the same over the last few years.

Sadly, the level of interest and aware­ness remains rel­at­ively low — many journ­al­ists retain a naïve trust in the gen­er­al leg­al­ity of their government’s actions: the author­it­ies may bend the rules a little for “ter­ror­ists”, but of course they will abide by the rules when it comes to the media.….

.…or not. Water­gate now looks rather quaint in com­par­is­on.

As for me: well, I have had some help and have indeed been teched-up. My laptop runs the free Ubuntu Linux (the 64 bit ver­sion for grown-ups) from an encryp­ted sol­id state hard drive. I have long and dif­fer­ent pass­words for every online ser­vice I use. My mail and web serv­er are in Switzer­land and I encrypt as much of my email as pos­sible. It’s at least a start.

And here’s what I have to say about why journ­al­ists should think about these issues and how they can pro­tect both them­selves and their sources: Open­ing key­note “The Big Dig Con­fer­ence” from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Talk at the Icelandic Centre for Investigative Journalism

Wikileaks spokes­man, Kris­tinn Hrafns­son, invited me to speak at the Iceland­ic Centre for Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism while I was in Ice­land in Feb­ru­ary.

While focus­ing on the inter­sec­tion and con­trol between intel­li­gence and the media, my talk also explores many of my oth­er cur­rent areas of interest.

Ice­land Journ­al­ists talk 2013 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.