A few minutes after Julian Assange was scandalously arrested and dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London last week, I was contacted by RT.com to do an interview. While further comments will follow, here are my initial thoughts:
The UK Ministry of Defence announced on 21 September the establishment of yet another British spy agency, an amalgam of military and security service professionals designed to wage cyber war against terrorists, Russia and organised crime. The new agency will have upwards of 2000 staff (the size MI5 was when I worked there in the 1990s, so not inconsiderable). I have been asked for a number of interviews about this and here are my thoughts in long form.
The UK already has a plethora of spy agencies:
- MI5 – the UK domestic Security Service, largely countering terrorism and espionage;
- MI6 – the Secret Intelligence Service, tasked with gaining intelligence abroad;
- GCHQ – the government electronic surveillance agency and best buds with the US NSA;
- National Cyber Security Centre – an offshoot that protects the UK against cyber attacks, both state and criminal;
- NCA – the National Crime Agency, mainly investigating organised crime;
- not to mention the police and Customs capabilities.
To provide American context, MI6 equates to the CIA, GCHQ and the NCSC equate to the NSA, and the NCA to the FBI. Which rather begs the question of where exactly MI5 fits into the modern scheme – or is it just an anachronistic and undemocratic throw-back, a typically British historical muddle, or perhaps the UK’s very own Stasi?
So why the new and expensive agency at a time of national financial uncertainty?
Of course I acknowledge the fact that the UK deserves to retain a comprehensive and impressive defence capability, provided it is used for that purpose rather than illegal, needless wars based on spurious political reasons that cost innocent lives. Every country has the right and the need to protect itself, and the cybers are the newly-defined battle lines.
Moreover, it might be overly simplistic to suggest that this is just more empire-building on the part of the thrusting and ambitious young Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson. Perhaps he really does believe that the UK military needs augmenting after years of cuts, as the former Deputy Chairman of the UK Conservative Party and er, well-known military expert, Lord Ashcroft, wrote in the Daily Mail. But why a whole new intelligence agency at huge cost? Surely all the existing agencies should already be able to provide adequate defence?
Additionally, by singling out Russia as the hostile, aggressor state, when for years the West has also been bewailing Chinese/Iranian/North Korean et al hacking, smacks to me of political opportunism in the wake of “Russiagate”, the Skripals, and Russia’s successful intervention in Syria. Those of a cynical bent among us might see this as politically expedient to create the eternal Emmanuel Goldstein enemy to justify the ever-metastasising military-security complex. But, hey, that is a big tranche of the British, and potentially the post-Brexit, British economy.
The UK intelligence agencies are there to protect “national security and the economic well-being of the state”. So I do have some fundamental ethical and security concerns based on recent Western history. If the new organisation is to go on the cyber offensive what, precisely does that mean – war, unforeseen blow back, or what?
If we go by what the USA has been exposed as doing over the last couple of decades, partly from NSA whistleblowers including Bill Binney, Tom Drake and Edward Snowden, and partly from CIA and NSA leaks into the public domain, a cyber offensive capability involves stockpiling zero day hacks, back doors built into the internet monopolies, weaponised malware such as STUXNET (now out there, mutating in the wild), and the egregious breaking of national laws and international protocols.
To discuss these points in reverse order: among so many other revelations, in 2013 Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had cracked Belgacom, the Belgian national telecommunications network – that of an ally; he also revealed that the USA had spied on the German Chancellor’s private phone, as well as many other German officials and journalists; that GCHQ had been prostituting itself to the NSA to do dirty work on its behalf in return for $100 million; and that most big internet companies had colluded with allowing the NSA access to their networks via a programme called PRISM. Only last month, the EU also accused the UK of hacking the Brexit negotiations.
Last year Wikileaks reported on the Vault 7 disclosures – a cache of CIA cyber weapons it had been stockpiling. It is worth reading what Wikileaks had to say about this, analysising the full horror of how vulnerable such a stockpile makes “we, the people”, vulnerable to criminal hacking.
Also, two years ago a huge tranche of similarly hoarded NSA weapons was acquired by a criminal organisation called the Shadow Brokers, who initially tried to sell them on the dark web to the highest bidder but then released them into the wild. The catastrophic crash of NHS computers in the UK last year was because one of these cyber weapons, Wannacry, fell into the wrong criminal hands. How much more is out there, available to criminals and terrorists?
The last two examples will, I hope, expose just how vulnerable such caches of cyber weapons and vulnerabilities can be if not properly secured. And, as we have seen, even the most secret of organisations cannot guarantee this. To use the American vernacular, they can come back and bite you in the ass.
And the earlier NSA whistleblowers, including Bill Binney and Tom Drake, exposed just how easy it is for the spooks to manipulate national law to suit their own agenda, with warrant-less wiretapping, breaches of the US constitution, and massive and needless overspend on predatory snooping systems such as TRAILBLAZER.
Indeed, we had the same thing in the UK when Theresa May succeeded in finally ramming through the invidious Investigatory Powers Act (IPA 2016). When she presented it to parliament as Home Secretary, she implied that it was legalising what GCHQ has previously been doing illegally since 2001, and extend their powers to include bulk metadata hacking, bulk data set hacking and bulk hacking of all our computers and phones, all without meaningful government oversight.
Other countries such as Russia and China have passed similar surveillance legislation, claiming as a precedent the UK’s IPA as justification for what are claimed by the West to be egregious privacy crackdowns.
The remit of the UK spooks is to protect “national security” (whatever that means, as we still await a legal definition) and the economic well-being of the state. I have said this many times over the years – the UK intelligence community is already the most legally protected and least accountable of that of any other Western democracy. So, with all these agencies and all these draconian laws already at their disposal, I am somewhat perplexed about the perceived need for yet another costly intelligence organisation to go on the offensive. What do they want? Outright war?
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?
In the wake of another apparently victimised whistleblower emerging from the US intelligence community, here is an interview on the subject on RT:
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:
Here is an interview I gave to RT about the recent news that Facebook has tagged 65,000 Russians as interested in “treason”. Hardly helpful, but similar to the other snooping with algorithms they have done across the West into people’s supposed views, and not least the involvement with Cambridge Analytica.
Here is an interview I did last night about the Russians “hacking” the UK general election last year, conveniently appearing in The Sunday Times yesterday ahead of the UK local elections.….
Ever since the story broke on 5th March about the strange case of the poisoning the former MI6 agent and Russian military intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, I have been asked to do interview after interview, commenting on this hideous case.
Of course, as the case developed the points I made also evolved, but my general theme has remained consistent: that, despite the immediate UK media hysteria that “it must be the Russians”, we needed to let the police and intelligence agencies the space and time to get on and build up an evidential chain before the UK government took action.
Unfortunately, this has not come to pass, with the UK encouraging its allies in an unprecedented wave of mass diplomatic expulsions around the world. One might say that perhaps Theresa May has some shit-hot secret intelligence with which to convince these allies. But intelligence is not evidence and, as we all too painfully remember from the Iraq War débâcle in 2003, any intelligence can be spun to fit the facts around a pre-determined policy, as was revealed in the leaked Downing Street Memo.
Anyway, from the bottom up in terms of chronology, here are a few of the interviews I have managed to harvest from the last few, crazy weeks. More will be added as they come in. And here are a couple of extras: a BBC Breakfast News item and a Talk Radio interview.
A longer and more detailed article will follow shortly.
Last week, while I was doing a number of talks for Funzing.com in London, I was invited into RT to discuss a new report about the US military advertising for programmers who could develop software that targeted Iranian, Chinese and Russian audiences via social media.
The timing proved interesting. Only days before, it was revealed by @musalbas at the CCC and then via Wikileaks that the UK government listening post, GCHQ, had apparently been doing the same thing since 2009.
And then, coincidentally, only a couple of days after the US disclosure, it was reported that Russia was now trolling Wikipedia.
A war of words ensued — and let’s hope that is all it remains. However, this report in the NYT today fills me with dread.
Here is my contribution from last week:
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: