British politicians Droning on

Published in The Huffington Post UK, 2 October 2012

Only in the mad world of modern British politics could it be possible to connect MPs, drones and royal breasts. Is this sounding a little too bizarre? Let me explain….

Way back in 2008 Conservative MP Damien Green, who was at the time the Shadow Minister for Immigration, was arrested on suspicion of eliciting leaks from a Home Office civil servant that appeared to confirm the then Labour government was covering up UK immigration figures.

When I say arrested, this was not the standard, civilised and pre-arranged appointment at the local nick, which the police traditionally allow their political “masters” or, for that matter, their buddies at News International.

Oh no, this was a full-on, Cold War-style arrest, carried out by the Metropolitan Police Counter-Terrorism command (known in the old days as Special Branch). Intriguingly, civil servants appeared to have misleadingly hyped up the need for a heavy-handed police response by stating that they were “in no doubt that there has been considerable damage to national security already as a result of some of these leaks“.

And indeed, the resulting arrests bore all the hall-marks of a national security case: secret police, dawn raids, and counter-terrorism style searches of the family home, the constituency office, and – shock – an invasion of Green’s office in parliament.

Yet Green was not arrested under the terms of the Official Secrets Act. Instead, both he and his hapless whistleblower, Christopher Galley, were only seized on suspicion of breaching some arcane Victorian law (“aid­ing and abet­ting mis­con­duct in pub­lic office”).  I suppose arresting a sitting MP for a breach of the OSA would have been just too politically tricky.

Leaving aside the understandable upset caused to Green’s wife and children by the raid on their home, plus the fact that the police violated not only their personal effects such as bed sheets and love letters but also confidential legal papers about child abuse cases that Mrs Green was working on, what really caused outrage in the media and political classes was the fact that Plod had dared to invade the hallowed ground of parliament.

There was an outcry from politicians about the “encroaching police state”. The case was duly dropped, the senior officer, Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, had to resign (but only after committing yet another political gaffe), and other stories, such as the MP expenses scandal, grabbed the attention of the mainstream media.

Roll on four years, and Damien Green has now ascended to the giddy heights of Home Office Minister of State for Police and Criminal Justice. Well, meeting his new staff must have been an interesting experience for him.

But what is this man now doing in his eminent role, to stop the slide into the encroaching police state that is the UK? Of all people, one would expect him to be sensitive to such issues.

Sadly, he appears to have already gone native on the job. It was reported yesterday that he is proposing the use of police drones to spy on the UK population, but in an “appropriate and proportionate” manner of course.

The concept of small aerial drones being used by UK police has been mooted for a few years now – indeed some police forces and security agencies have already bought them. But whereas the initial, standard justification was that it would help in the “war on terror” (as it has so ably done in the Middle East, where innocent families are routinely slaughtered in the name of assassinating militants), mission-creep has already set in.  Damien Green stated at the launch of the new National Police Air Service (NPAS) that drones could be useful monitoring protests and traffic violations. It has even been reported that the Home Office plans to use non-lethal weapons to do so.

Of course there are problems around the use of drones in UK airspace.  Our skies are already very crowded and they could present a hazard to aircraft, although the BBC has reported that drones could be airborne in the next few years.  This appears to be the only argument holding the use of drones in check – forget about civil liberties and privacy issues.

This is particularly pertinent as we look at the evolution of drone technology.  Currently the UK police are discussing toy-sized drones, but it has already been reported that drones the size of birds or even insects, with autonomous intelligence or swarm capabilities are being developed. And don’t even get me started on the subject of potential militarisation….

There is a whole debate to be had about what can be viewed and what cannot – where does the public sphere end and the private begin? A couple of years ago I suggested somewhat facetiously that our best hope of defeating the introduction of surveillance drones in the UK might be indignant celebs suing the paparazzi for using the technologies.  But perhaps the ante has already been upped in the recent fall-out from the Duchess of Cambridge and her royally papped breasts.

If drone technology becomes widespread, then nobody will have any privacy anywhere. But who knows, before we get to that stage perhaps HM Queen will come out swinging on the side of privacy for her granddaughter-in-law, if not for the rest of her “subjects”. If that were to happen then no doubt Damien Green will abandon his new-found enthusiasm for these airborne surveillance pests; if not to stop the “encroaching police state” of which he must have such colourful recollections, then at least to safeguard any potential knighthood in his rosy ministerial future.

Boiling Frogs

BoilingfrogsThis Saturday, October 2, I'll be speaking at the Southwark Playhouse in London, in between the matinee and evening performances of an excellent new play by Steven Bloomer called "Boiling Frogs".  The play looks at the erosion of civil liberties in the UK, in the name of protecting us from the "war on terror", and is being performed by The Factory, an innovative theatre troupe.

My talk will be called "Are We There Yet?", and will assess how far down the road the UK has moved towards being a de facto police state: what do we mean by this, and what are the indicators we should watch out for?

Gestapo Past and Present

So last week I was on holiday with my lovely Dutchman in Cologne on the Rhine in Germany, a city steeped in history and now chiefly famous for its Gothic cathedral, widely reputed to be pretty much the last building left standing in the city at the end of WW2.  Easily resisting both this religious hotspot and, with slightly more difficulty, the  siren calls of the brauerei, we decided on a bit of culture, some museums and a stroll along the river. 

However, it turns out that not one but two buildings had survived WW2 in their entirety.  Tucked away on a backstreet, we found the second survivor: the Gestapo HQ, which had been preserved as it was found at the end of the war to serve as a ghastly warning to history.  

Gestapo_HQ2Well, as someone who regularly speaks at conferences across the world about human rights, totalitarianism and encroaching police states, I felt I had to have a look.  The building is a nondescript office block that looks perfectly innocent from the outside.  Three floors are open to the public.  On the first is the museum, with the history of the rise to power of the Nazis.  It was hideously fascinating to read how freedoms and rights were incrementally eroded as the state slipped ever more from democracy.  The majority of the German people went sleep-walking into national socialism.  As soon as Hitler had any sort of political power his attack-dogs, the SS, used disproportionate, sudden, and shocking violence against Germany's own citizens to crush any nascent resistance.  So from 1933 onwards the population was terrorised, as "undesirables" were routinely snatched from their homes for questioning, torture and imprisonment. 

Gestapo_HQ_Annie_2And the propaganda in the media that was on display…..  Shall I just say, even more unsubtle than that which is used against us today.  I suppose these dark arts have developed over the intervening years.

MischaBut it was the lower floors that packed the strongest punch.  The basement, just below street level, held the cells – tiny, dank spaces where as many as 30 people had been herded together.  And the walls are covered in graffiti in all the languages of Europe – sad, desperate messages to the future from people who were "disappeared". They seemed to want to leave a record of the fact simply that they had existed: they had loved, they missed their families, they were trying to hold their heads high despite the agonies inflicted daily, they were innocent, they were about to die……

Hold_your_head_highThere was one more level – the reinforced rat hole deep underground, which served both as the air-raid shelter for the Gestapo officers (the prisoners were left upstairs in their cells during the raids), and as the torture rooms.  Considerately, the Gestapo carried out their most brutal interrogations underground, so that the screams could not be heard at street level.

As we emerged, somewhat silent, from this museum, I noticed that we, and many other visitors, all turned to stare at this building: it looked so bland and innocuous from the outside.  But then people would inspect the basement windows that hid the cells.  The smokers in the group all sparked up as soon as they were outside, dragging hard on their cigarettes.  Others just stood silently. 

So the museum does its job.  It is a powerful warning from the grave.  Homo homini lupus: man is wolf to man, ever has been and ever will be, absent adequate legal restraint.  This is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put in place in 1948, to prevent such atrocities from happening again.

Yet, at the risk of sounding sententious, such abuse is going on around the world right now, particularly in the cause of the endless, nebulous "war on terror".  We have been lazy, blind and foolish, letting our basic rights slide away.  People are disappeared, extraordinarily rendered, to foreign prisons and tortured for years.  Assassination lists have been drawn up by US intelligence agencies; suspects face kangaroo, military-style courtrooms, where they face the death penalty but are not allowed to know the full case against them; our governments aggressively, illegally, invade other countries, and yet the politicians who lie to take us into these wars, thereby causing the needless death, poisoning, maiming and displacement of millions of people, are not called to account for their crimes, as they should be under the Nuremberg Principles, the Rome Statute, and the International Criminal Court.

We, the citizens of still just-about-functioning democracies, should be ashamed.  We need to re-remember our history and take a stand – before it's too late.

Protest_and Resist

Talking about totalitarianism at ETH-0, January 2010

ETH-0_PosterIn January I had the pleasure of speaking in The Netherlands at the excellent geekfest known as ETH-0.  Rather than just banging on about the spooks, I thought it was time to take a step back and examine what exactly we mean when we talk about totalitarianism, police states, and how far down the road our countries have gone.

I also wanted to drive home to an audience, many of whom are too young to remember the Cold War, what exactly it would be like to live under a police state with its endemic surveillance. 

And here’s the talk:

The Real Reason for the Police State?

DroneI haven’t written here for a while, despite the embarras de richesses that has been presented to us in the news recently: Dame Stella saying that the UK is becoming a police state;  drones will patrol the streets of Britain, watching our every move; databases are being built, containing all our electronic communications; ditto all our travel movements. What can a lone blogger usefully add to this?  Only so much hot air – the facts speak for themselves.

Plus, I’ve been a bit caught up over the last couple of months with Operation Escape Pod. Not all of us are sitting around waiting for the prison gates to clang shut on the UK. I’m outta here!

But I can’t resist an interesting article in The Spectator magazine this week. And that’s a sentence I never thought I would write in my life.

Tim Shipman, quoting a plethora of anonymous intelligence sources and former spooks, asserts that Britain’s foreign policy is being skewed by the need to placate our intelligence allies, and that the CIA is roaming free in the wilds of Yorkshire.

His sources tell him that the UK is a “swamp” of Islamic extremism, and that the domestic spies are terrified that there will be a new terrorist atrocity, probably against US interests but it could be anywhere, carried out by our very own home-grown terrorists. According to Shipman, this terrible prospect had all the spooks busily downing trebles in the bars around Vauxhall Cross in the wake of the Mumbai bombings.

Apart from the suggestion that the spies’ drinking culture appears to be as robust as ever, I find this interesting because well-sourced spook spin is more likely to appear in the august pages of The Speccie than in, say, Red Pepper. But if this is an accurate reflection of the thinking of our politicians and intelligence community, then this is an extremely worrying development. It goes a long way to explaining why the UK has become the most policed state in the Western world.

Yes, in the 1990s the UK practised a strategy of appeasement towards Islamic extremists. MI5’s view was always that it was better to give radicals a safe haven in the UK, which they would then be loathe to attack directly, and where a close eye could be kept on them.

This, of course, was derailed by Blair’s Messianic mission in the Middle East. By unilaterally supporting Bush’s adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the teeth of stark warnings about the attendant risks from the head of MI5, Britain has become “the enemy” in the eyes of radical Islam. The gloves are off, and we are all at greater risk because of our former PM’s hubris.

But now we apparently have free-range CIA officers infiltrating the Muslim communities of the UK.  No doubt Mossad is also again secretly  tolerated, despite the fact that they had been banned for years from operating in the UK because they were too unpredictable (a civil service euphemism for violent).

And I am willing to bet that this international perception that UK spooks will be caught off-guard by an apparently British-originated terrorist attack is the reason for the slew of new totalitarian laws that are making us all suspects. The drones, the datamining and the draconian stop-and-search laws are designed to reassure our invaluable allies in the CIA, Mossad, ISI and the FSB.  They will not be put in place to “protect” us.