A Tangled Web

Also pub­lished on the Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

A couple of days ago I was invited onto RT Arab­ic TV to do an inter­view about the ongo­ing cluster­fuck that is Syr­ia, with a par­tic­u­lar focus on the issue of West­ern jihadis allegedly flood­ing into the coun­try.

The premise, pushed across much of the West­ern media, is that these newly trained jihadis will then return home chock-full of insur­gency know-how, ready to unleash ter­ror on their unwit­ting host coun­tries.

And, yes, there is an ele­ment of truth in this:  the les­sons of the US-backed mujahideen in 1980s Afgh­anistan and onwards across the Middle East since then is test­a­ment to that. Not that this les­son seems to have been absorbed by West­ern gov­ern­ments, who con­tin­ue reck­lessly to back “rebel” forces across North Africa and the Middle East.

Or has it, at least on a cer­tain level? If you do a little dig­ging into where these stor­ies are eman­at­ing from, anoth­er pic­ture emerges.

Farr 1.jpgThe basis for these scare stor­ies is a heav­ily-spun recent report, pro­duced by the Office for Secur­ity and Counter-Ter­ror­ism (OSCT).  What is this, you might ask? Well, it appears to be a sine­cure with­in the UK’s Home Office.  The head of the organ­isa­tion is a hawk­ish securo­crat called Charles Farr, a former seni­or MI6 officer from the cold war era.

In 2007 Mr Farr (OBE) moved to his new home at the Home Office, where he is con­veni­ently in a rela­tion­ship with Fiona Cun­ning­ham, spe­cial advisor to his new boss the Home Sec­ret­ary Theresa May. Oh, and then he applied to be the civil ser­vant in charge of the Home Office, but was recently turned down for that job a couple of months ago.

So how is Farr now spend­ing his time?  Well, he has just released a report, and it appears that he is behind some of the most egre­gious recent assaults on basic Brit­ish freedoms.

Where to begin? His depart­ment was behind the Pre­vent cam­paign — sup­posedly a social ini­ti­at­ive to reach out to dis­af­fected youth in Bri­tain and help “pre­vent” their rad­ic­al­isa­tion. Unfor­tu­nately, Pre­vent has been pub­licly lam­basted for intim­id­at­ing young Muslim men and try­ing to brow­beat them into report­ing on their com­munit­ies.

On top of that, Charles Farr has, it has been repor­ted, been one of the key lob­by­ists push­ing for the total­it­ari­an “Snoop­ers’ Charter” — a pro­posed law that would allow the intel­li­gence and law enforce­ment agen­cies to hoover up all our data com­mu­nic­a­tions.

And finally, Mr Farr is one of the key sup­port­ers of the utterly undemo­crat­ic new Justice and Secur­ity Bill that enshrines the concept of “secret courts”, all done in the name of pro­tect­ing “nation­al secur­ity”, natch.  Or in oth­er words, cov­er­ing up the embar­rass­ment of the intel­li­gence agen­cies when they are caught red-handed in illeg­al activ­it­ies such as kid­nap­ping and tor­ture.

So, is it purely coin­cid­ent­al that this is the same upstand­ing Brit­ish pub­lic ser­vant report­ing that Syr­ia will be a new breed­ing-ground for rad­ic­al­ised Muslim youth attack­ing the UK? Or might there be a sneak­ing sus­pi­cion that the threat could be yet anoth­er excuse to be used to ramp up the case for all these undemo­crat­ic and deeply unpop­u­lar new laws?

Let’s not to for­get that the UK has a his­tory of back­ing such insur­gency groups when it suits them, and then turn­ing on them for polit­ic­al expedi­ency — shades of Abdel Hakim Bel­haj in Libya, any­one? It strikes me that the situ­ation in Syr­ia is evolving along sim­il­ar lines.

So let’s retain a healthy scep­ti­cism about the wheels and cogs of ves­ted interests and media manip­u­la­tion whirr­ing behind securo­crats such as Charles Farr. The pre­dic­tions of his Office for Secur­ity and Counter-Ter­ror­ism could have dam­aging con­sequences for our liber­ties in the UK; they could also have poten­tially fatal con­sequences for many thou­sands of people in Syr­ia and the wider Middle East.

The Free Speech Debate

My recent inter­view for the excel­lent Oxford Uni­ver­sity Free Speech Debate pro­ject, run by Pro­fess­or Timothy Gar­ton Ash.  I dis­cuss whis­tleblow­ing, the Offi­cial Secrets Act, Wikileaks and much more:

Gestapo Courts

Pub­lished in The Huff­ing­ton Post UK, 30 Septem­ber 2012

Pub­lished in The Real News Net­work, 30 Septem­ber 2012

A lot of sound and fury has been expen­ded in the Brit­ish media over the last few months about the Coali­tion gov­ern­ment’s pro­pos­al to enact secret courts via the pro­posed Justice and Secur­ity Bill — purely for ter­ror­ist cases, you under­stand. Which, of course, is OK as we all know ter­ror­ists are by defin­i­tion the Bad­dies.

Except we need to drill down into the detail of the pro­pos­als, have a look at some his­tory, and think through the future implic­a­tions.

The concept of secret courts emerged from the offi­cial UK spook sec­tor — MI5 and MI6 have been lob­by­ing hard for such pro­tec­tion over recent years.  Their argu­ment revolves around a num­ber of civil cases, where Brit­ish vic­tims of extraordin­ary rendi­tion and sub­sequent tor­ture have sued the pants off the spies through civil courts and received some recom­pense for their years of suf­fer­ing.

The most notori­ous case was that of Binyam Mohamed, who was repeatedly tor­tured in a black pris­on in Morocco, with Brit­ish spies allegedly con­trib­ut­ing to his ques­tion­ing. And we’re not talk­ing about a few stress pos­i­tions, awful as they are. Mohamed was strung up and had his penis repeatedly slashed with a razor.

MI5 and MI6 are aggrieved because they could not defend them­selves in the res­ult­ant civil actions brought against them, and they (and their former polit­ic­al mas­ter Jack Straw) are par­tic­u­larly wor­ried about future cases around the MI6-organ­ised Liby­an rendi­tions exposed last year.  The spies’ argu­ment is that hav­ing to pro­duce evid­ence in their own defence would dam­age that ever-flex­ible but curi­ously vague concept of “nation­al secur­ity”.

Well, they would say that, would­n’t they?

The spooks have tra­di­tion­ally used the “nation­al secur­ity” argu­ment as the ulti­mate get-out-of-jail-free card.  It has nev­er been leg­ally defined, but it is unfail­ingly effect­ive with judges and politi­cians.

We saw sim­il­ar argu­ments dur­ing the post‑9/11 secur­ity flap, when many ter­ror­ist sus­pects were scooped up and interned in high secur­ity Brit­ish pris­ons such as Bel­marsh on the say-so of face­less intel­li­gence officers. No evid­ence needed to be adduced, nor could it be chal­lenged. The sub­sequent con­trol order sys­tem was equally Kafkaesque.

That’s not to say that cer­tain interned indi­vidu­als might not have been an act­ive threat to the UK.  How­ever, in the “good” old days (god, I sound ancient), sus­pects would have had evid­ence gathered against them, been tried by a jury, con­victed and imprisoned. The sys­tem was nev­er per­fect and evid­ence could be egre­giously with­held, but at least appeals were pos­sible, most not­ably in the case of the Birm­ing­ham Six.

Since 9/11 even breath­ing the word “ter­ror­ist” has meant that all these his­tor­ic com­mon law prin­ciples seem to have been jet­tisoned.  Even before the pro­posed enshrine­ment of “secret courts” in the new Bill, they are already being used in the UK — the Spe­cial Immig­ra­tion Appeal Com­mis­sion (SIAC) tribunals hear secret evid­ence and the defend­ant’s chosen law­yer is not allowed to attend. Instead a spe­cial, gov­ern­ment-approved advoc­ate is appoin­ted to “rep­res­ent the interests” of the defend­ant who is not allowed to know what his accusers have to say. And there was no appeal.

But all this is so unne­ces­sary.  The powers are already in place to be used (and abused) to shroud our notion­ally open court pro­cess in secrecy.  Judges can exclude the press and the pub­lic from court rooms by declar­ing the ses­sion in cam­era for all or part of the pro­ceed­ings.  Plus, in nation­al secur­ity cases, gov­ern­ment min­is­ters can also issue Pub­lic Interest Immunity Cer­ti­fic­ates (PIIs) that not only bar the press from report­ing the pro­ceed­ings, but can also ban them from report­ing they are gagged — the gov­ern­ment­al super-injunc­tion.

So the powers already exist to pro­tect “nation­al secur­ity”.  No, the real point of the new secret courts is to ensure that the defend­ant and, par­tic­u­larly in my view, their chosen law­yers can­not hear the alleg­a­tions if based on intel­li­gence of any kind. Yet even the spies them­selves agree that the only type of intel­li­gence that really needs to be kept secret involves ongo­ing oper­a­tions, agent names, and sens­it­ive oper­a­tion­al tech­niques.

 And as for the right to be tried by a jury of your peers — for­get it.  Of course jur­ies will have no place in such secret courts.  The only time we have seen such dra­coni­an judi­cial meas­ures in the UK out­side a time of offi­cial war was dur­ing the Troubles in North­ern Ire­land — the infam­ous Dip­lock Courts — begin­ning in the 1970s and which incred­ibly were still in use this year.

I am not an apo­lo­gist of ter­ror­ism although I can under­stand the social injustice that can lead to it.  How­ever, I’m also very aware that the threat can be arti­fi­cially ramped up and manip­u­lated to achieve pre­con­ceived polit­ic­al goals.

I would sug­gest that the concept of secret courts will prove fatally dan­ger­ous to our demo­cracy.  It may start with the concept of get­ting the Big Bad Ter­ror­ist, but in more polit­ic­ally unstable or strin­gent eco­nom­ic times this concept is wide open to mis­sion creep.

We are already see­ing a slide towards expand­ing the defin­i­tion of “ter­ror­ist” to include “domest­ic extrem­ists”, act­iv­ists, single issue cam­paign­ers et al, as I have writ­ten before. And just recently inform­a­tion was leaked about a new pub­lic-private EU ini­ti­at­ive, Clean IT, that pro­poses ever more invas­ive and dra­coni­an poli­cing powers to hunt down “ter­ror­ists” on the inter­net. This pro­pos­al fails to define ter­ror­ism, but does provide for endem­ic elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance of the EU. Pure cor­por­at­ism.

Allow­ing secret courts to try people on the say-so of a shad­owy, unac­count­able and bur­geon­ing spy com­munity lands us straight back in the pages of his­tory: La Ter­reur of revolu­tion­ary France, the creepy sur­veil­lance of the Stasi, or the dis­ap­pear­ances and tor­ture of the Gestapo.

Have we learned noth­ing?

Spies,Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair

My book about the Shayler affair (includ­ing the MI6 plot to assas­in­ate Col. Gad­dafi) and my exper­i­ences as an Intel­li­gence Officer in MI5.

I was invited on to “The Richard and Judy Show” in 2005 to talk about my book, and it is fea­tured on the show’s web­site.

Wil­li­am Pod­more was kind enough to review my work:

In this remark­able book, Annie Machon makes ser­i­ous alleg­a­tions against the Brit­ish state’s intel­li­gence ser­vices, MI5 and MI6. Ms Machon and her part­ner Dav­id Shayler are former high-rank­ing MI5 officers, both now retired from the ser­vice. The book’s alleg­a­tions derive from their exper­i­ences and deserve at least to be the sub­ject of inquiry.

She asserts that MI5 has illeg­ally invest­ig­ated thou­sands of Brit­ish cit­izens for their polit­ic­al views; that there was col­lu­sion between the Army Forces Research Unit and loy­al­ist ter­ror­ists; that MI5 failed to stop four major ter­ror­ist attacks in Bri­tain, even though it had reli­able evid­ence; and that MI5 and MI6 let a known Liby­an ter­ror­ist into Bri­tain and let him set up a ter­ror­ist net­work here.

She alleges that MI6’s counter-Ira­ni­an sec­tion used the Sunday Tele­graph (and the journ­al­ists Con Cough­lin, John Simpson and Domin­ic Lawson) to try to blame Iran for the 1988 Lock­er­bie bomb­ing, the destruc­tion of flight PA103. MI6 was try­ing to deflect atten­tion from the fact that it was actu­ally a Liby­an retali­ation for the US bomb­ing of Tripoli (backed by Thatch­er) in 1986.

The book’s most sig­ni­fic­ant alleg­a­tion is that MI6 illeg­ally paid tens of thou­sands of pounds to Al-Qa’ida in 1995–96 to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi and seize power in Libya. In the attemp­ted coup, sev­er­al inno­cent civil­ians and secur­ity police were killed. If this is true, MI6, a Brit­ish state agency, sponsored our ter­ror­ist enemies in a con­spir­acy to murder, which res­ul­ted in the killing of inno­cent civil­ians.

But Blair refuses to hear any evid­ence against the intel­li­gence ser­vices, and pro­sec­utes and har­asses crit­ics and whis­tleblowers. The Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee, set up under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act to over­see the ser­vices, is no use, because it is appoin­ted by and reports only to the Prime Min­is­ter.

The intel­li­gence ser­vices should work under the rule of law and respect demo­crat­ic rights. Ter­ror­ist sus­pects should be arres­ted and brought to tri­al under crim­in­al law, not detained, or executed, without tri­al, as has happened in North­ern Ire­land and else­where.

The intel­li­gence ser­vices are sup­posed to pro­tect us, but it would appear that they have instead con­nived in ter­ror­ism, put­ting us at great­er risk of ter­ror­ist attack.

The Cam­paign for Press and Broad­cast­ing Free­dom (CPBF) also high­lighted it.

The book can be ordered through Amazon.