UK sets up yet another costly spy agency

This art­icle was first pub­lished on RT Op Ed a month ago.

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?

Facebook snooping on Russians

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.

Face­book implic­ated in more sur­veil­lance from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Blaming Russia is the Default Electoral Position in the West

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.….

Déjà vu UK news­pa­per claims 2017 elec­tions influ­enced by…well, you know from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Sergei Skripal — some of my interviews

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.

CGTN “Dia­logue” dis­cus­sion about the Skri­p­al case 26 03 2018 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

 

RT Inter­na­tion­al News Inter­view 10 03 2018 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

 

CrossTalk on Sergei Skri­p­al ‘Pub­li­city Murder’ from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

 

Al Jazeera’s “Inside Story” 08 03 2018 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

 

Good Morn­ing Bri­tain Inter­view 06 03 2018 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

 

BBC News­night 05 03 2018 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

RT Inter­view about the Skri­p­al case 05 03 2018 from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

More Russiagate Rubbish

An RT inter­view about the over-reac­tion around the head of the CIA, Mike Pom­peo, meet­ing his Rus­si­an counter-part:

More Rus­siagate Rub­bish from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The Art of State Trolling — a Growing Market

Last week, while I was doing a num­ber of talks for Fun​z​ing​.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:

Pentagon devel­op­ing auto­mated social media troll farms from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Useful Idiots”

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

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

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

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

French intelligence exonerates Russia of election hacking

My recent RT inter­view about the French intel­li­gence report that exon­er­ated Rus­sia of try­ing to hack the recent pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, des­pite the claims of new Pres­id­ent, Emmanu­al Mac­ron. The same thing has happened in Ger­many too, much to Merkel’s dis­pleas­ure..

And so the tapestry of lies begins to fray:

No Evid­ence of Rus­si­an Hack­ing of French Elec­tion from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

No evidence of Trump/Russia Collusion

My RT inter­view today about the state­ment made by the Chair of the US Con­gres­sion­al Chair of the Intel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, Dev­in Nunes, about the lack of any evid­ence of col­lu­sion between the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and Rus­sia:

US Con­gress­man — No Evid­ence of Rus­sia-Trump Col­lu­sion from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Recent interviews: UK Cyber Security, Kim Dotcom, and Iraq

I’ve done a few more inter­views this month for RT, on a vari­ety of issues:

US boots on the ground in Iraq

USA Boots on the Ground in Iraq — again. from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

The extra­di­tion case against Megaupload’s founder, Kim Dot­com

Megaupload’s Kim Dot­com faces extra­di­tion from NZ to USA from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

And the launch of the UK’s new Cyber Secur­ity Centre, soon after the new Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (aka the “snoop­ers’ charter”) became law

The launch of the UK’s new Nation­al Cyber Secur­ity Centre from Annie Machon on Vimeo.

Donald Trump v the Spooks

Pub­lished on Con­sor­ti­um News on 16 Janu­ary 2017.

The clash between plu­to­crat­ic Pres­id­ent-elect Trump and the CIA is shap­ing up to be the heavy-weight prize fight of the cen­tury, and Trump at least is approach­ing it with all the enter­tain­ing bom­bast of Mohammed Ali at the top of his game. Rather than fol­low­ing the tra­di­tion of doing dirty polit­ic­al deals in dark corners, more com­monly known as fix­ing the match, Trump has come out swinging in the full glare of the media.

In that corner we have a deal-mak­ing, bil­lion­aire “man of the people” who, to European sens­ib­il­it­ies at least, reputedly espouses some of the mad­der US domest­ic obses­sions and yet has seemed to offer hope to many aggrieved Amer­ic­ans. How­ever, it is his pro­fessed pos­i­tion on build­ing a rap­proche­ment with Rus­sia and cooper­at­ing with Moscow to sort out the Syr­i­an mess that caught my atten­tion and that of many oth­er inde­pend­ent com­ment­at­ors inter­na­tion­ally.

In the oppos­ite corner his oppon­ents have pushed the CIA into the ring to deliv­er the knock-out blow, but this has yet to land.  Des­pite jab after failed jab, Trump keeps evad­ing the blows and comes rat­tling back against all the odds. One has to admire the guy’s foot­work.

So who are the oppon­ents ranged behind the CIA, yelling encour­age­ment through the ropes? The obvi­ous cul­prits include the US mil­it­ary indus­tri­al com­plex, whose bot­tom line relies on an era of unend­ing war. As jus­ti­fic­a­tion for extract­ing bil­lions — even tril­lions — of dol­lars from Amer­ic­an tax­pay­ers, there was a need for fright­en­ing vil­lains such as Al Qaeda and, even more so, the head chop­pers of ISIS.  How­ever, since the Rus­si­an inter­ven­tion in Syr­ia in 2015, those vil­lains no longer packed so scary a punch, so a more endur­ing vil­lain, like Emmanuel Gold­stein, the prin­cip­al enemy in George Orwell’s “1984”, was required.  Rus­sia was the obvi­ous new choice, the old favour­ite from the Cold War play book.

The west­ern intel­li­gence agen­cies have a ves­ted interest in etern­al enemies to ensure both etern­al fund­ing and etern­al power, hence the CIA’s entry into the fight. As former Brit­ish MP and long-time peace act­iv­ist George Gal­lo­way so elo­quently said in a recent inter­view, an unholy alli­ance is now being formed between the “war party” in the US, the mil­it­ary-indus­tri­al-intel­li­gence com­plex and those who pre­vi­ously would have pub­licly spurned such accom­plices: Amer­ic­an pro­gress­ives and their tra­di­tion­al host, the Demo­crat­ic Party.

Yet, if the DNC had not done its best to rig the primar­ies in favour of Hil­lary Clin­ton, then per­haps we would not be in this pos­i­tion. Bernie Sanders would now be the Pres­id­ent-elect.

These estab­lish­ment forces have also revealed to the wider world a fact long known but largely dis­missed as con­spir­acy the­ory by the cor­por­ate main­stream media, that the two-party sys­tem in both the US and the UK is a sham. In fact, we are gov­erned by a glob­al­ised élite, work­ing in its own interest while ignor­ing ours. The Demo­crats, openly dis­gruntled by Hil­lary Clinton’s elec­tion loss and being seen to jump into bed so quickly with the spooks and the war­mon­gers, have laid this real­ity bare.

In fact, respec­ted US invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ist Robert Parry recently wrote that an intel­li­gence con­tact admit­ted to him before the elec­tion that the intel­li­gence agen­cies did not like either of the pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. This may go some way to explain­ing the FBI’s inter­ven­tion in the run up to the elec­tion against Hil­lary Clin­ton, as well as the CIA’s attempts to de-legit­im­ise Trump’s vic­tory after­wards.

Wheth­er that was indeed the case, the CIA has cer­tainly held back no punches since Trump’s elec­tion. First the evid­ence-lite asser­tion that it was the Rus­si­ans who hacked the DNC emails and leaked them to Wikileaks: then the fake news about Rus­sia hack­ing the vot­ing com­puters; that then morph­ed into the Rus­si­ans “hacked the elec­tion” itself; then they “hacked” into the US elec­tric grid via a Ver­mont util­ity.  All this without a shred of fact-based evid­ence provided, but Obama’s expul­sion of 35 Rus­si­an dip­lo­mats last month solid­i­fied this dubi­ous real­ity in Amer­ic­ans’ minds.

All this has so far cul­min­ated, of course, in the “dirty dossier” alleg­a­tions last week about Trump, which he has rightly knocked down — it was des­per­ately poor stuff.

This last item, from a Brit­ish per­spect­ive, is par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing. It appears that a Wash­ing­ton dirt-dig­ging com­pany was hired by a Repub­lic­an rival to Trump to unearth any poten­tial Rus­si­an scan­dals dur­ing the primar­ies; once Trump had won the nom­in­a­tion this dirt-dig­ging job­bery was then taken over by a Demo­crat sup­port­er of Hil­lary Clin­ton. The anti-Trump invest­ig­a­tion was then sub-con­trac­ted to an alleged former Brit­ish spy, an ex-MI6 man named Chris­toph­er Steele.

Much has already been writ­ten about Steele and the com­pany, much of it con­tra­dict­ory as no doubt befits the life of a former spy. But it is a stand­ard career tra­ject­ory for insiders to move on to cor­por­ate, mer­cen­ary spy com­pan­ies, and this is what Steele appears to have done suc­cess­fully in 2009.  Of course much is pre­dic­ated on main­tain­ing good work­ing rela­tions with your former employ­ers.

That is the aspect that interests me most — how close a link­age did he indeed retain with his former employ­ers after he left MI6 in 2009 to set up his own private spy com­pany? The answer is import­ant because com­pan­ies such has his can also be used as cut-outs for “plaus­ible deni­ab­il­ity” by offi­cial state spies.

Of course, I’m not sug­gest­ing that happened in this case, but Steele reportedly remained on good terms with MI6 and was well thought of.  For a man who had not been sta­tioned in Rus­sia for over 20 years, it would per­haps have been nat­ur­al for him to turn to old chums for use­ful con­nec­tions.

But this ques­tion is of extreme import­ance at a crit­ic­al junc­ture for the UK; if indeed MI6 was com­pli­cit or even aware of this dirt dig­ging, as it seems it might have been, then that is a huge dip­lo­mat­ic prob­lem for the government’s attempts to devel­op a strong work­ing rela­tion­ship with the US, post-Brexit. If MI6’s sticky fin­gers were on this case, then the organ­isa­tion has done the pre­cise oppos­ite of its offi­cial task — “to pro­tect nation­al secur­ity and the eco­nom­ic well-being of the UK”.

MI6 and its US intel­li­gence chums need to remem­ber their des­ig­nated and legis­lated roles with­in a demo­cracy — to serve the gov­ern­ment and pro­tect nation­al secur­ity by gath­er­ing intel­li­gence, assess­ing it impar­tially and mak­ing recom­mend­a­tions on which the gov­ern­ment of the day will choose to act or not as the case may be.

The spies are not there to fake intel­li­gence to suit the agenda of a par­tic­u­lar régime, as happened in the run-up to the illeg­al Iraq war, nor are they there to endem­ic­ally spy on their own pop­u­la­tions (and the rest of the world, as we know post-Snowden) in a point­less hunt for sub­vers­ive activ­ity, which often trans­lates into legit­im­ate polit­ic­al act­iv­ism and acts of indi­vidu­al expres­sion.

And most espe­cially the intel­li­gence agen­cies should not be try­ing to sub­vert demo­crat­ic­ally elec­ted gov­ern­ments. And yet this is what the CIA and a former seni­or MI6 officer, along with their power­ful polit­ic­al allies, appear to be now attempt­ing against Trump.

If I were an Amer­ic­an I would be wary of many of Trump’s domest­ic policies. As a European con­cerned with great­er peace rather than increas­ing war, I can only applaud his con­struct­ive approach towards Rus­sia and his offer to coöper­ate with Moscow to staunch the blood­shed in the Middle East.

That, of course, may be nub of his fight with the CIA and oth­er ves­ted interests who want Rus­sia as the new bogey­man.  But I would bet that Trump takes the CIA’s slurs per­son­ally. After all, giv­en the ugli­ness of the accus­a­tions and the lack of proof, who would not?

So, this is a world cham­pi­on­ship heavy-weight fight, over who gets to hold office and wield power, an area where the US and UK intel­li­gence agen­cies have con­sid­er­able exper­i­ence in rig­ging matches and knock­ing out oppon­ents. Think, for instance, Ira­ni­an Prime Min­is­ter Mohammad Mossad­eq in 1953; Chilean Pres­id­ent Sal­vador Allende in 1973; Iraqi lead­er Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003; and Liby­an lead­er Muam­mar Gad­dafi in 2011. Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-Assad in Syr­ia is punch-drunk but still stand­ing, thanks to some good corner sup­port from Rus­sia.

How­ever, it would appear that Trump is a stranger to the spies’ self-defined Queens­bury Rules in which tar­gets are deemed para­noid if they try to alert the pub­lic to the planned “régime change” or they become easy tar­gets by stay­ing silent. By con­trast, Trump appears shame­less and pug­na­cious. Street-smart and self-pro­mot­ing, he seems com­fort­able with bare-knuckle fight­ing.

This match has already gone into the middle rounds with Trump still boun­cing around on his toes and rel­ish­ing the fight. It would be iron­ic if out of this nasty prize fight came great­er world peace and safely for us all.

BBC News Channel, 12 January 2017

As the story about the fake “dirty dossier” com­plied on Don­ald Trump by former MI6 officer, Chris­toph­er Steele, gath­er impetus, I was asked to do ultiple inter­views. Here is the first with the BBC News Chan­nel:

BBC News Chan­nel from Annie Machon on Vimeo.