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.
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 UKSociety 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 MI6abides 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?
In 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.
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.
This 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.….