London Real TV Interview — coming soon

Here is a taster of my recent inter­view on Lon­don Real TV. It was diverse, lively and fun, and should be broad­cast in full tomor­row:

Annie Machon — Whis­tleblower — Lon­don Real TV from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Pub­lished on www​.polit​ics​.co​.uk, and Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

Fol­low­ing the awful murder of Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich last week, the polit­ic­al securo­crats who claim to rep­res­ent the interests of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence ser­vices have swung into action, demand­ing yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to pre­vent future Wool­wich-style attacks”.

As I’ve writ­ten before, it was heart­en­ing that the UK Prime Min­is­ter said in the after­math of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk secur­ity reac­tion. How­ever, that has not deterred cer­tain intel­li­gence sock-pup­pets from polit­ic­al oppor­tunism — they stridently call for the resur­rec­tion of the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill that was earli­er this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are suc­cess­ful, the new law would have implic­a­tions not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and stand­ing abroad.

Recently the civil liber­ties camp acquired a sur­pris­ing ally in this debate, with MI5 unex­pec­tedly enter­ing the fray.  And rightly so. There is abso­lutely no need for this new legis­la­tion, the requis­ite powers are already in place. Seni­or secur­ity sources have argued that those cit­ing the Wool­wich attack to pro­mote the snoop­ers’ charter are using a “cheap argu­ment”.

As I said in this recent BBC radio inter­view, all the neces­sary laws are already in place for MI5 either to pass­ively mon­it­or or aggress­ively invest­ig­ate per­sons of interest under the ori­gin­al terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).

There now appears to be little doubt that the two Wool­wich sus­pects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been repor­ted that they had been tar­gets for at least 8 years and that Michael Ade­bolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.

One of his friends, Abu Nusay­bah, recor­ded an inter­view for BBC’s News­night pro­gramme last week, only to be arres­ted by counter-ter­ror­ism police imme­di­ately after­wards. He stated that Ade­bolajo had been tor­tured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treat­ment may have flipped him into more viol­ent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever mur­ki­er, with reports yes­ter­day stat­ing that Ade­bolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.

Oth­er inform­a­tion has since been released by the organ­isa­tion Cage­Pris­on­ers indic­at­ing that Ade­bola­jo’s fam­ily and friends had also been har­rassed to pres­sur­ize him into report­ing to MI5.

All of which obvi­ates the early claims that Ade­bolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-pri­or­ity tar­get. It cer­tainly indic­ates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been mon­it­or­ing Ade­bola­jo’s com­mu­nic­a­tions data, espe­cially if they were try­ing to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been inter­cept­ing the con­tent of his com­mu­nic­a­tions, to under­stand his think­ing and assess his access. Any­thing less would have been slip­shod — a derel­ic­tion of duty — and all this could and should have been done under the exist­ing terms of RIPA.

So what are the chances of some real over­sight or answers?

If we’re talk­ing about an inde­pend­ent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquir­ies Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the gov­ern­ment and the depart­ment under invest­ig­a­tion can pretty much determ­ine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are sub­ject.

How­ever, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee of Par­lia­ment (ISC) — the com­mit­tee tasked with over­see­ing the work of the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Park­er, has already sub­mit­ted a writ­ten report about Wool­wich and will be giv­ing evid­ence to the ISC in per­son next week about wheth­er MI5 missed some vital intel­li­gence or dropped the ball.

Th ISC of Par­lia­ment was estab­lished as part of the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (1994) — the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notion­al demo­crat­ic over­sight. MI5 had already come into the leg­al fold with the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act (1989).

As I have writ­ten before, ini­tially the ISC was a demo­crat­ic fig-leaf — its mem­bers were appoin­ted by the PM not Par­lia­ment, it repor­ted dir­ectly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the UK’s intel­li­gence agen­cies.

Until this year the ISC could not invest­ig­ate oper­a­tion­al mat­ters, nor could it demand to see doc­u­ments or ques­tion top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well repor­ted that seni­or spies and police have long evaded mean­ing­ful scru­tiny by being “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”.

Former MI5 DG Sir Steph­en Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee early on”; a more recent DG, Sir Jonath­an Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involve­ment in tor­ture; and Lord Blair, former Com­mis­sion­er of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, had to apo­lo­gise in 2008 for mis­lead­ing the ISC about the num­ber of thwarted ter­ror­ist attacks on his watch.

How­ever the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has pur­sued a more mus­cu­lar over­sight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good ele­ment to have come out of the con­ten­tious Justice and Secur­ity Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more dir­ect account­ab­il­ity to Par­lia­ment, rather than just to the PM (the dev­il is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Par­lia­ment, rather than “in” Par­lia­ment…).

Some­what more per­tin­ently, the ISC can now invest­ig­ate oper­a­tion­al mat­ters, demand papers and wit­nesses, and it appears they now have a spe­cial invest­ig­at­or who can go and rum­mage around the MI5 Registry for inform­a­tion.

It remains to be seen how effect­ive the ISC will real­ist­ic­ally be in hold­ing the intel­li­gence agen­cies to account, even with these new powers. How­ever, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind has good reas­on to know how slip­pery the spies can be — after all, he was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was fund­ing Al Qaeda asso­ci­ates to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya.  The attack went wrong, inno­cent people were killed and, cru­cially, it was illeg­al under UK law, as MI6 had not reques­ted the pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion for such a plot from the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, as required under Sec­tion 7(1) of the afore­men­tioned ISA (1994). Rif­kind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.

So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rif­kind and the oth­er mem­bers of the ISC fully exer­cise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Park­er is some­what more frank about the work of his agency than his pre­de­cessors have been. It is only through great­er hon­esty and account­ab­il­ity that our intel­li­gence agen­cies can learn from the mis­takes of the past and bet­ter pro­tect our coun­try in the future.

BBC Radio interview about the “snoopers’ charter”

Yes­ter­day I gave an inter­view to BBC Radio Ulster about the secur­ity fall-out of the Wool­wich murder and the cyn­ic­al polit­ic­al oppor­tunism of those call­ing, inev­it­ably, for great­er powers for the spies and a rein­tro­duc­tion of the pro­posed Com­munuic­a­tions Data Bill, dubbed the “snoop­ers’ charter”.

Here is the link.

Fascism 2012 — the ongoing merger of the corporate and the state

I’m gradu­ally com­ing to after a knock-out blow last Octo­ber — the unex­pec­ted death of my beloved and only broth­er, Rich.  Words can­not describe.

But look­ing for­ward to the delights that 2012 will no doubt offer: Juli­an Assange remains trapped in a leg­al spider­’s web, but all cred­it to Wikileaks — it keeps on provid­ing the goods.  

The recent pub­lic­a­tion of the Spy­Files should have been a massive wake-up call, as it it high­lighted the increas­ing use and abuse of mer­cen­ary spy tech — all without any effect­ive over­sight, as I recently wrote in my art­icle for the Bur­eau of Invest­ig­at­ive Journ­al­ism

Need­less to say, the issue of massive com­mer­cial sur­veil­lance cap­ab­il­it­ies usu­ally remains con­fined to a niche media mar­ket, although the Daily Mail did rouse itself to report that shop­pers were being tracked via mobile phones as they con­sumed their way around malls.  Well, I sup­pose it’s a start.

With the growth of mer­cen­ary spy com­pan­ies in our minds, we should be even more con­cerned about the accel­er­ated shred­ding of our civil liber­ties, par­tic­u­larly in the US and UK.  Des­pite earli­er prom­ises that he would veto any such legis­la­tion, Pres­id­ent Obama signed into law the invi­di­ous NDAA on 31st Decem­ber.  This means that the US mil­it­ary is now empowered to seize and indef­in­itely detain, with no recourse to tra­di­tion­al due pro­cess, not only poten­tially all non-Amer­ic­ans across the plan­et à la the Guantanamo/extraordinary rendi­tion mod­el, but can now also do this to US cit­izens with­in their own coun­try.

Guantanamo_BayDes­pite the pas­sion­ate inter­net debate, the issue has unsur­pris­ingly been largely ignored by most of the main­stream cor­por­ate media.  But the pre­dom­in­antly US-based inter­net com­ment­ary dis­plays a breath­tak­ing hypo­crisy: yes, the NDAA is a ter­rible law with awful implic­a­tions for Amer­ic­an cit­izens.  How­ever, people around the world have been liv­ing with just this fear for a dec­ade, with whole com­munit­ies afraid of being snatched and dis­ap­peared into black CIA tor­ture facil­it­ies.   Where was the US out­rage then?  The Pas­tor Mar­tin Niemoeller poem remains as rel­ev­ant today as when it was writ­ten 70 years ago.

That said a couple of brave voices have spoken out: Naomi Wolf recently described how the US legis­lat­ors could iron­ic­ally find them­selves on the receiv­ing end of this law, if we go by all his­tor­ic pre­ced­ents.  Paul Craig Roberts was on froth­ing good form too, inveigh­ing against the war crimes of the US mil­it­ary, the per­se­cu­tion of Wikileaks for expos­ing those very crimes, and the evolving total­it­ari­an­ism of our coun­tries.

SOPAIn a digit­al mir­ror of the NDAA, the enter­tain­ment industry and their pet lob­by­ists are suc­cess­fully ram­ming through the invi­di­ous SOPA law.   As acclaimed digit­al rights act­iv­ist and author, Cory Doc­torow, described in his key­note at the recent CCC geek­fest in Ber­lin, these ostens­ibly com­mer­cial laws are in effect a stalk­ing horse for gov­ern­ments to seize con­trol of the inter­net.  As he wrote in the Guard­i­an “you can­’t make a sys­tem that pre­vents spy­ing by secret police and allows spy­ing by media giants”.  

With this in the back of our minds, the Wikileaks Spy­Files rev­el­a­tions about the increas­ing glob­al­isa­tion and com­mer­cial­isa­tion of cor­por­ate spy tech­no­logy are even more alarm­ing.  The gov­ern­ment spy agen­cies work with little effect­ive over­sight, but the mer­cen­ar­ies have a com­pletely free leg­al rein.  Intriguingly, it appears that unlike our own gov­ern­ments Afgh­anistan is alive to this prob­lem and is reportedly boot­ing out for­eign con­tract­ors. 

Yet the bal­ance of power in cer­tain west­ern coun­tries is slid­ing over­whelm­ingly towards police states —  or, indeed, fas­cism, if you take into con­sid­er­a­tion Benito Mus­solin­i’s defin­i­tion: “the mer­ger of state and cor­por­ate power”.

Our line of defence is slender — organ­isa­tions like Wikileaks, one or two politi­cians of con­science, a few remain­ing real invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ists and per­haps the odd whis­tleblower.  Bey­ond that, we must indi­vidu­ally get to grips with the threat, get informed, teched up, and pro­tect ourselves, as we can no longer rely on our gov­ern­ments to uphold our basic rights — you know, pri­vacy, free­dom of expres­sion, habeas cor­pus, and all those oth­er delight­fully old-fash­ioned ideas.

If we do not act soon, we may no longer be able to act at all in the near future.…  So I wish every­one an informed, pro­duct­ive and act­ive 2012!

 

 

UK Intelligence and Security Committee to be reformed?

The Guard­i­an’s spook com­ment­at­or extraordin­aire, Richard Norton-Taylor, has repor­ted that the cur­rent chair of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in the UK Par­lia­ment, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, wants the com­mit­tee to finally grow a pair.  Well, those wer­en’t quite the words used in the Grauny, but they cer­tainly cap­ture the gist.

If Rif­kind’s stated inten­tions are real­ised, the new-look ISC might well provide real, mean­ing­ful and demo­crat­ic over­sight for the first time in the 100-year his­tory of  the three key UK spy agen­cies — MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, not to men­tion the defence intel­li­gence staff, the joint intel­li­gence com­mit­tee and the new Nation­al Secur­ity Coun­cil .

FigleafFor many long years I have been dis­cuss­ing the woe­ful lack of real demo­crat­ic over­sight for the UK spies.  The privately-con­vened ISC, the demo­crat­ic fig-leaf estab­lished under the aegis of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (ISA), is appoin­ted by and answer­able only to the Prime Min­is­ter, with a remit only to look at fin­ance, policy and admin­is­tra­tion, and without the power to demand doc­u­ments or to cross-exam­ine wit­nesses under oath.  Its annu­al reports are always heav­ily redac­ted and have become a joke amongst journ­al­ists.

When the remit of the ISC was being drawn up in the early 1990s, the spooks were apo­plect­ic that Par­lia­ment should have any form of over­sight what­so­ever.  From their per­spect­ive, it was bad enough at that point that the agen­cies were put on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time.  Spy think­ing then ran pretty much along the lines of “why on earth should they be answer­able to a bunch of here-today, gone-tomor­row politi­cians, who were leaky as hell and gos­siped to journ­al­ists all the time”?

So it says a great deal that the spooks breathed a huge, col­lect­ive sigh of relief when the ISC remit was finally enshrined in law in 1994.  They really had noth­ing to worry about.  I remem­ber, I was there at the time.

This has been borne out over the last 17 years.  Time and again the spies have got away with telling bare­faced lies to the ISC.  Or at the very least being “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”, to use one of their favour­ite phrases.  Former DG of MI5, Sir Steph­en Lander, has pub­licly said that “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee [ISC] early on…”.  Not to men­tion the out­right lies told to the ISC over the years about issues like whis­tleblower testi­mony, tor­ture, and counter-ter­ror­ism meas­ures.

But these new devel­op­ments became yet more fas­cin­at­ing to me when I read that the cur­rent Chair of the ISC pro­pos­ing these reforms is no less than Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind, crusty Tory grandee and former Con­ser­vat­ive For­eign Min­is­ter in the mid-1990s.

For Sir Mal­colm was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary notion­ally in charge of MI6 when the intel­li­gence officers, PT16 and PT16/B, hatched the ill-judged Gad­dafi Plot when MI6 fun­ded a rag-tag group of Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to assas­sin­ate the Col­on­el, the key dis­clos­ure made by Dav­id Shayler when he blew the whistle way back in the late 1990s.

Obvi­ously this assas­sin­a­tion attempt was highly reck­less in a very volat­ile part of the world; obvi­ously it was uneth­ic­al, and many inno­cent people were murdered in the attack; and obvi­ously it failed, lead­ing to the shaky rap­proche­ment with Gad­dafi over the last dec­ade.  Yet now we are see­ing the use of sim­il­ar tac­tics in the cur­rent Liby­an war (this time more openly) with MI6 officers being sent to help the rebels in Benghazi and our gov­ern­ment openly and shame­lessly call­ing for régime change.

Malcolm_RifkindBut most import­antly from a leg­al per­spect­ive, in 1996 the “Gad­dafi Plot” MI6 appar­ently did not apply for pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion from Rif­kind — which they were leg­ally obliged to do under the terms of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (the very act that also estab­lished the ISC).  This is the fabled, but real, “licence to kill” — Sec­tion 7 of the ISA — which provides immunity to MI6 officers for illeg­al acts com­mit­ted abroad, if they have the requis­ite min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion.

At the time, Rif­kind pub­licly stated that he had not been approached by MI6 to sanc­tion the plot when the BBC Pan­or­ama pro­gramme con­duc­ted a spe­cial invest­ig­a­tion, screened on 7 August 1997.  Rif­kind’s state­ment was also repor­ted widely in the press over the years, includ­ing this New States­man art­icle by Mark Thomas in 2002.

That said, Rif­kind him­self wrote earli­er this year in The Tele­graph that help should now be giv­en to the Benghazi “rebels” — many of whom appear to be mem­bers of the very same group that tried to assas­sin­ate Gad­dafi with MI6’s help in 1996 — up to and includ­ing the pro­vi­sion of arms.  Rif­kind’s view of the leg­al­it­ies now appear to be some­what more flex­ible, whatever his stated pos­i­tion was back in the 90s. 

Of course, then he was notion­ally in charge of MI6 and would have to take the rap for any polit­ic­al fall-out.  Now he can relax into the role of “quis cus­todiet ipsos cus­todes?”.  Such a relief.

I shall be watch­ing devel­op­ments around Rif­kind’s pro­posed reforms with interest.

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.

My article about the role of the spies, 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…

 

Are envir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists really a spy­ing pri­or­ity?

Rev­el­a­tions about police­men spy­ing on envir­on­ment­al act­iv­ists sug­gest we need a sense of per­spect­ive on threats to the nation.

The 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.

It 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?

The 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.

Alan Johnson’s MI5 File?

Alan_JohnsonI won­der what inform­a­tion, if any, MI5 has on file about new-ish UK Home Sec­ret­ary, Alan John­son?  Or, more per­tin­ently, what HE thinks the spies might have.…..

How else explain his recent com­ments in The Daily Tory­graph? He said that he will be the voice of those who can­not defend them­selves — ie those poor, anonym­ous intel­li­gence officers in MI5.  He even drags out the hoary old chest­nut that a crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tion into prima facie evid­ence that the spooks have been involved in ser­i­ous crime — the tor­ture of anoth­er human being — would dam­age nation­al secur­ity. 

I’m sur­prised he man­aged to bite back Tony Blair’s infam­ous line, that an invest­ig­a­tion into pos­sible spy incom­pet­ence and crime would be a “ludicrous diver­sion”

Ever since Labour came to power in 1997, we have had a series of Home Sec­ret­ar­ies strain­ing to avoid doing their job vis a vis the spooks in Thames House: the job being that of polit­ic­al mas­ter of MI5, thereby provid­ing a modic­um of demo­crat­ic over­sight to an extremely power­ful and secret­ive organ­isa­tion, hold­ing it to account and ensur­ing it obeys the law. 

The role of Home Sec­ret­ary is not to be the cham­pi­on of unac­count­able spies who are pro­tec­ted from invest­ig­a­tion and over­sight by a whole raft of secrecy legis­la­tion.

More and more evid­ence is emer­ging that MI5 assisted the USA’s extraordin­ary rendi­tion plan, that it  was com­pli­cit in tor­ture, and that its officers have lied to cov­er their tracks.  Under this ava­lanche of scan­dal, some MPs have finally woken up to the fact that the Home Sec­ret­ary should be ensur­ing MI5 obeys the law.  Some are even dar­ingly sug­gest­ing that there should be prop­er Par­lia­ment­ary over­sight of the spies, rather than the fig leaf that is the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee — hand-picked by and only answer­able to the Prime Min­is­ter, and power­less to ques­tion intel­li­gence officers under oath, demand papers, or look at any­thing more ser­i­ous than policy, fin­ance or admin­is­tra­tion.

Walk_the_plankThe Met­ro­pol­it­an Police have even begun a crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tion into MI5’s com­pli­city in tor­ture.  While I doubt any case that could, ahem,  “dam­age nation­al secur­ity” will ever come to court,  a few juni­or officers may be asked to do the decent thing and quietly walk the plank. 

But the real issue — the closed, self-per­petu­at­ing group-think cul­ture, where officers should just fol­low orders and not rock the boat — will con­tin­ue unchal­lenged, res­ult­ing inev­it­ably in yet more scan­dals.

It is time we had a Home Sec­ret­ary who is up to the job and who has the back­bone to ini­ti­ate some mean­ing­ful reform of MI5

Amuse Bouche

A debate is cur­rently under way in the (ex) Land of the Free about how much pro­tec­tion intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers should be accor­ded under the law.

Yes, the coun­try that has brought the world the “war on ter­ror”, Guantanamo Bay, and the Pat­ri­ot Act, is hav­ing a mor­al spasm about how to best pro­tect those who wit­ness high crimes and mis­de­mean­ors inside the charmed circle of secrecy and intel­li­gence. 

And about time too, fol­low­ing the mess of rev­el­a­tions about spy com­pli­city in tor­ture cur­rently emer­ging on both sides of the pond.

Inter­est­ingly, intel­li­gence offi­cials in the US already have a smidgeon more lee­way than their UK coun­ter­parts.  In the US, if you wit­ness a crime com­mit­ted by spies, you have to take your con­cerns to the head of the agency, and then you can go to Con­gress.  In the UK, the only per­son you can leg­ally report crime to is the head of the agency involved, so guess how many suc­cess­ful com­plaints are made?  Even tak­ing your proven and legit­im­ate con­cerns to your elec­ted UK rep­res­ent­at­ives is a crime under the OSA.

Spooks in the UK now have access to an “eth­ic­al coun­sel­lor”, who has reportedly been vis­ited a grand total of 12 times by intel­li­gence officers since 2006.  But this per­son has no power to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of crime, and a vis­it guar­an­tees a career-block­ing black mark on your record of ser­vice: ie if you are the sort of per­son to worry your head with quaint ideas like eth­ics and mor­al­ity you are, at best, not a team play­er and, worse, a pos­sible secur­ity risk. 

WhistleThis is surely cul­tur­ally unsus­tain­able in a com­munity of people who gen­er­ally sign up to pro­tect the cit­izens of the coun­try and want to make a pos­it­ive dif­fer­ence by work­ing with­in the law?  Those who have con­cerns will resign, at the very least, and those who like to “just fol­low orders” will float to the top.  As one of the lead­ing pro­ponents for great­er whis­tleblower pro­tec­tion in the USA states in the linked art­icle:

The code of loy­alty to the chain of com­mand is the primary value at those insti­tu­tions, and they set the stand­ard for intens­ity of retali­ation.”

Some enlightened US politi­cians appear to be aware that intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers require pro­tec­tion just as all oth­er employ­ees receive under the law:  per­haps more so, as the nature of their work may well expose them to the most hein­ous crimes ima­gin­able.  There is also an argu­ment for put­ting prop­er chan­nels in place to ensure that whis­tleblowers don’t feel their only option is to risk going to the press.  Effect­ive chan­nels for blow­ing the whistle and invest­ig­at­ing crime can actu­ally pro­tect nation­al secur­ity rather than com­prom­ise it.

The nay-say­ers, of course, want to keep everything secret — after all, the status quo is cur­rently work­ing so well in uphold­ing demo­crat­ic val­ues across the globe.  Crit­ics of the new legis­la­tion talk of “dis­gruntled employ­ees .… glee­fully” spill­ing the beans.  Why is this hoary old line always dragged out in this type of dis­cus­sion?  Why are whis­tleblowers always described in this way, rather than called prin­cipled, brave or eth­ic­al?

Blanket secrecy works against the real interests of our coun­tries.  Mis­takes can be covered up, group-think ensures that crimes con­tin­ue, and any­one offer­ing con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism is labelled as a risky trouble­maker — no doubt a “dis­gruntled” one at that.

Of course, cer­tain areas of intel­li­gence work need to be pro­tec­ted: cur­rent oper­a­tion­al details (as ex-Met Assist­ant Com­mis­sion­er, Bob Quick has dis­covered), agent iden­tit­ies, and sens­it­ive tech­niques.  But the life blood of a healthy demo­cracy depends on open debate, vent­il­a­tion of prob­lems, and agreed solu­tions.  Informed and par­ti­cip­at­ory cit­izens need to know what is being done in their name.

Gareth Peirce on Torture, Secrecy and the British State

Gareth_Peirce_1Lead­ing UK human rights law­yer, Gareth Peirce, has writ­ten a power­ful and elo­quent art­icle in the Lon­don Review of Books about the Brit­ish state’s involve­ment in tor­ture. 

She also broadens out the argu­ment to look at the fun­da­ment­al soci­et­al prob­lems — lack of account­ab­il­ity, secrecy, the use and abuse of the concept of “nation­al secur­ity”  — that cre­ated a cul­ture that facil­it­ates and con­dones tor­ture.

Gareth has fought for vic­tims of injustice for four dec­ades, focus­ing primar­ily on ter­ror­ism and intel­li­gence issues. 

A long piece, but stick with.  It’s worth it!

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.

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.

UK Police Chief Misleads MPs

An inter­est­ing art­icle appeared in The Sunday Times today, stat­ing that Bri­tain’s top police­man, the Com­mis­sion­er of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Sir Ian Blair, had “unwit­tingly” misled the par­lia­ment­ary Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee about the need to increase the peri­od of deten­tion without charge for ter­ror­ist sus­pects in the UK from 28 to 42 days. Blair claimed that 12 major ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions had been foiled in Bri­tain since 2005. In fact, the art­icle reports that only 6 plots have been stopped. Blair has had to issue a grov­el­ling apo­logy via the Press Asso­ci­ation for this, umm, gaffe.

But the art­icle neg­lects to tell us how and why this new inform­a­tion came to light. So allow me to spec­u­late.

The Met, along with its shad­owy cohorts in MI5, is entrus­ted with pro­tect­ing Bri­tain from ter­ror­ist threats. Since 9/11 and the all-per­vas­ive war on ter­ror, Bri­tain’s secur­ity forces have been gran­ted sweep­ing new powers, resources and a huge increase in staff­ing levels to do this job. To ensure this is jus­ti­fied, they are con­tinu­ally telling us of the huge threat we face from ter­ror­ism and how suc­cess­ful they are in pro­tect­ing us. It is in their interests to talk this up.

Mean­while, over on the south bank of the river, MI6 con­tin­ues to suf­fer from the loss of prestige brought about by its mis­takes and lack of good intel­li­gence in the run-up to the Iraq inva­sion. There is no love lost between these three agen­cies, as they com­pete for power and resources. So, to use a good civil ser­vice phrase, I can­not rule out the pos­sib­il­ity that someone in MI6 leaked this inform­a­tion to have a pop at the Met and MI5.

How­ever, there is a more ser­i­ous aspect to this incid­ent. But for this inform­a­tion emer­ging, MPs and pub­lic alike would have had no way of know­ing that the per­ceived threat from ter­ror­ism had been grossly inflated in order for the police to gain yet more powers. We would have had to take Sir Ian’s word.

Well, we’ve been here before many, many times, most notori­ously when the intel­li­gence agen­cies would have us believe that Sad­dam had WMD that could attack Brit­ish interests with 45 minutes. This, of course, led to the Iraq war and the deaths of hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent men, women and chil­dren.

So how can we ensure we are told the truth by the spies? Well, great­er account­ab­il­ity and effect­ive par­lia­ment­ary over­sight would be a step in the right dir­ec­tion. But we don’t just need the cor­rect mech­an­isms in place in par­lia­ment. We also need MPs with the know­ledge, intel­li­gence and integ­rity to ask the dif­fi­cult ques­tions when faced with bogus asser­tions.