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.

Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, makes historic public appearance

For the first time in 100 years “C”, the head of the UK for­eign intel­li­gence ser­vice SIS (com­monly known as MI6) has gone pub­lic.

Former career dip­lo­mat Sir John Saw­ers (he of Speedo fame) yes­ter­day made a speech to the UK Soci­ety of Edit­ors in what appeared to be a pro­fes­sion­ally dip­lo­mat­ic rear-guard action in response to a num­ber of hot media top­ics at the moment.

Choos­ing both his audi­ence wisely and his words care­fully, he hit on three key areas:

Tor­ture: Leg­al cases are cur­rently going through UK courts on behalf of Brit­ish vic­tims of tor­ture, in which MI5 and MI6 intel­li­gence officers are alleged to have been com­pli­cit.  The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police are cur­rently invest­ig­at­ing a num­ber of cases.  Over the last week, a Brit­ish mil­it­ary train­ing manu­al on “enhanced” inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques has also been made pub­lic. How­ever, Saw­ers unblush­ingly states that MI6 abides by UK and inter­na­tion­al law and would nev­er get involved, even tan­gen­tially, in tor­ture cases.  In fact, he goes on to assert that the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are train­ing the rest of the world in human rights in this regard.

 

 

Whis­tleblow­ing: In the week fol­low­ing the latest Wikileaks coup — the Iraq War Diar­ies, com­pris­ing nearly 400,000 doc­u­ments detail­ing the every­day hor­ror of life in occu­pied Iraq, includ­ing war crimes such as murder, rape and tor­ture com­mit­ted by both US and UK forces — Saw­ers states that secrecy is not a dirty word: the intel­li­gence agen­cies need to have the con­fid­ence that whis­tleblowers will not emerge to in order to guard agent and staff iden­tit­ies, as well as main­tain­ing the con­fid­ence of their inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence part­ners that their (dirty?) secrets will remain, um, secret.  One pre­sumes he is advoc­at­ing against the expos­ure of war crimes and justice for the vic­tims.

This, one also pre­sumes, is the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for US politi­cians who pro­pose cyber-attacks against Wikileaks and the declar­a­tion by some US polit­ic­al insiders that Juli­an Assange, spokes­man of the organ­isa­tion, should be treated as an unlaw­fully des­ig­nated “unlaw­ful com­batant”, sub­ject to the full rigour of extra-judi­cial US power, up to and includ­ing assas­sin­a­tion. 

Spuri­ous media claims of unveri­fied “dam­age” are the hoary old chest­nuts always dragged out in whis­tleblower cases.  After Wikileaks released its Afghan War Blog in July, gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence com­ment­at­ors made apo­ca­lyptic pre­dic­tions that the leak had put mil­it­ary and agent lives at risk.  US Defense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates has since gone on the record to admit that this was simply not true. 

Dur­ing the Shayler whis­tleblow­ing case a dec­ade ago, the gov­ern­ment repeatedly tried to assert that agent lives had been put at risk, and yet the form­al judge­ment at the end of his tri­al stated that this was abso­lutely not the case.  And again, with the recent Wikileaks Iraq War Blog, gov­ern­ment sources are using the same old man­tra.  When will they real­ise that they can only cry wolf so many times and get away with it?  And when will the journ­al­ists regur­git­at­ing this spin wake up to the fact they are being played?

Account­ab­il­ity:  Saw­ers goes on to describe the mech­an­isms of account­ab­il­ity, such as they are.  He accur­ately states, as I have pre­vi­ously described ad nauseam, that under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, he is notion­ally respons­ible to his polit­ic­al “mas­ter”, the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, who has to clear in advance any leg­ally dubi­ous for­eign oper­a­tions (up to and includ­ing murder – the fabled “licence to kill” is not fic­tion, as you can see here).

The 1994 ISA also estab­lished the Prime Minister’s Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in Par­lia­ment, which many com­ment­at­ors seem to believe offers mean­ing­ful over­sight of the spies.  How­ever, as I have detailed before, this is a mere fig leaf to real account­ab­il­ity: the ISC can only invest­ig­ate issues of policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the spy agen­cies.  Dis­clos­ures relat­ing to crime, oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence or involve­ment in tor­ture fall out­side its remit.

But what hap­pens if intel­li­gence officers decide to oper­ate bey­ond this frame­work? How would min­is­ters or the ISC ever know?  Oth­er spy mas­ters have suc­cess­fully lied to their polit­ic­al mas­ters in the past, after all.

Sir John has the gall to say that, if an oper­a­tion is not cleared by the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, it does not pro­ceed.  But what about the Gadaf­fi Plot way back in 1996, when MI6 was spon­sor­ing a group of Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to try to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gadaf­fi without, it has been asser­ted, the pri­or writ­ten approv­al of the then-For­eign sec­ret­ary, Tory politi­cian Mal­com Rif­kind?  This was repor­ted extens­ively, includ­ing in this art­icle by Mark Thomas in the New States­man. What hap­pens if rogue MI6 officers blithely side-step this notion­al account­ab­il­ity — because they can, because they know they will get away with it — because they have in the past?

MoS_August_97_QPlot_CredibleIn the interests of justice, UK and inter­na­tion­al law, and account­ab­il­ity, per­haps a new Conservative/Coalition gov­ern­ment should now reas­sess its approach to intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers gen­er­ally, and re-exam­ine this spe­cif­ic dis­clos­ure about Libya, which has been backed up by inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence sources, both US and French, in order to achieve some sort of clos­ure for the inno­cent vic­tims in Libya of this MI6-fun­ded ter­ror­ist attack? And it is finally time to hold the per­pet­rat­ors to account — PT16, Richard Bart­lett, and PT16B, Dav­id Wat­son, who were the seni­or officers in MI6 respons­ible for the murder plot.

As civ­il­ised coun­tries, we need to rethink our approach to the issue of whis­tleblow­ing. Lies, spin,  pro­sec­u­tions and thug­gish threats of assas­sin­a­tion are beneath us as soci­et­ies that notion­ally adhere to the prin­ciples of demo­cracy.  If we can only real­ist­ic­ally hope that the actions of our gov­ern­ments, mil­it­ary forces, and intel­li­gence agen­cies are trans­par­ent and account­able via whis­tleblowers, then we need to ensure that these people are leg­ally pro­tec­ted and that their voices are heard clearly.

 

From Russia with Love (to the USA)

I’ve been fol­low­ing with interest the retro, Cold War spy saga cur­rently unfold­ing in the USA.  The head­lines being that 10 alleged Rus­si­an sleep­ers (“illeg­als” in spy lingo) have been arres­ted by the FBI and are now charged with “work­ing as agents of a for­eign power”, which car­ries a sen­tence of five years in pris­on.

These Rus­si­an “illeg­als”, some of whom reportedly have been liv­ing openly as Rus­si­an immig­rants, some as oth­er for­eign nation­als, have allegedly been infilt­rat­ing the US since the mid-1990s, and were tasked to get friendly with Amer­ic­an power-brokers, to glean what inform­a­tion they could about the thoughts of the US great and the good about Rus­sia, Iran, defence plans etc.

Whatever the truth of this case, and the charges are detailed, I find the tim­ing and media atten­tion giv­en to this story inter­est­ing for three key reas­ons:

From what has been repor­ted of the court papers, the FBI invest­ig­a­tion has been going on for years.  Appar­ently they have known about the spy ring since 2000, and have included com­mu­nic­a­tions inter­cept mater­i­al in the indict­ment dat­ing from 2004 and 2008, as well as sting oper­a­tions from the begin­ning of this year.  So it’s curi­ous that the FBI decided to swoop now, in the imme­di­ate after­math of a suc­cess­ful and, by all accounts friendly, meet­ing between the Rus­si­an and Amer­ic­an pres­id­ents in Wash­ing­ton DC

Many people are com­ment­ing on this aspect of the tim­ing.  And, indeed, one might spec­u­late about wheels with­in wheels — it appears that there are still hard­line fac­tions with­in the US admin­is­tra­tion that want to ensure that a warm­er work­ing rela­tion­ship can­not devel­op between Rus­sia and the USA. A strategy of ten­sion is good for busi­ness – espe­cially com­pan­ies like Hal­libur­ton and Xe (formerly Black­wa­ter) which profit from build­ing vast US mil­it­ary bases in Cent­ral Asia.

But what also intrigues me is the pos­sible behind-the-scenes action. 

OurManInHavanaThis story is get­ting blanket media cov­er­age.  It’s a good, old-fash­ioned, Cold War-style coup, hit­ting all the jin­go­ist­ic spy but­tons, just at a time when the US spooks are under pres­sure about their per­form­ance in the neb­u­lous and ever-shift­ing “war on ter­ror”, the shred­ding of con­sti­tu­tion­al rights, the illeg­al sur­veil­lance of domest­ic polit­ic­al act­iv­ists, and com­pli­city in extraordin­ary rendi­tion and tor­ture. It’s a use­ful “remind­er” that the bloated US secur­ity infra­struc­ture is worth all the money it costs, des­pite the dire state of US nation­al fin­ances. Pure pro­pa­ganda.

I’m also will­ing to bet that there is a more cov­ert aspect to this story too — some behind-the-scenes power play.  There are, at the last count, 17 acknow­ledged intel­li­gence agen­cies in the US, all com­pet­ing for prestige, power and resources.  By mak­ing these arrests, the FBI will see this as a step up in the spy peck­ing order.  It reminds me inev­it­ably (and per­haps flip­pantly) of the clas­sic spy nov­el by former intel­li­gence officer Gra­ham Greene, “Our Man in Havana”.  In this no doubt entirely fic­tion­al work, a Brit­ish MI6 asset invents a spy ring to increase his stand­ing and fund­ing from Lon­don HQ.

Also curi­ous is the role played by one Chris­toph­er Met­sos, allegedly the 11th man, not ini­tially arres­ted, who is repor­ted to have passed money to the spy ring.  He was caught yes­ter­day in Cyprus try­ing to board a plane to Hun­gary, and inex­plic­ably gran­ted bail — inex­plic­able at least to the Greek police, who always worry that their sus­pect will flee over the bor­der into the Turk­ish seg­ment of the island, nev­er to be seen again.  And this has indeed happened, accord­ing to The Guard­i­an news­pa­per this even­ing. Per­haps he has some urgent appoint­ments to sell vacu­um clean­ers north of the bor­der.….