A couple of recent interviews about the themes of UK and EU security, going forward.
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:
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?
First published by Consortium News.
Just after midnight on 16 August I was called by LBC in London for a comment on a breaking story on the front page of The Daily Telegraph about British spies hacking the EU. Even though I had just retired to bed, the story was just too irresistible, but a radio interview is always too short to do justice to such a convoluted tale. Here are some longer thoughts.
For those who cannot get past the Telegraph pay wall, the gist is that that the EU has accused the British intelligence agencies of hacking the EU’s side of the negotiations. Apparently some highly sensitive and negative slides about the British Prime Minister’s plan for Brexit, the Chequers Plan, had landed in the lap of the British government, which then lobbied the EU to suppress publication.
Of course, this could be a genuine leak from the Brussels sieve, as British sources are claiming (well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?). However, it is plausible that this is the work of the spies, either by recruiting a paid-up agent well-placed within the Brussels bureaucracy, or through electronic surveillance.
Before dismissing the latter option as conspiracy theory, the British spies do have form. In the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, the USA and UK were desperate to get a UN Security Council resolution to invade Iraq, thus providing a fig leaf of apparent legitimacy to the illegal war. However, some countries within the UN had their doubts and the USA asked Britain’s listening post, GCHQ, to step up its surveillance game. Forewarned is forearmed in delicate international negotiations.
How do we know this? A brave GCHQ whistleblower called Katherine Gun leaked the information to The Observer. For her pains, she was threatened with prosecution under the draconian terms of the UK’s 1989 Official Secrets Act, and faced two years in prison. The case was only dropped three weeks before her trial was due to begin, partly because of the feared public outcry, but mainly because her lawyers threatened to use the legal defence of “necessity” – a defence won only three years before during the case of MI5 whistleblower, David Shayler. Tangentially, a film is this year being made about Gun’s story.
We also have confirmation from one of the early 2013 Edward Snowden disclosures that GCHQ had hacked its way into the Belgacom network – the national telecommunications supplier in Belgium. Even back then there was an outcry from the EU bodies, worried that the UK (and by extension its closest intelligence buddy the USA), would gain leverage with stolen knowledge.
So, yes, it is perfectly feasible that the UK could have done this, even though it was illegal back in the day. GCHQ’s incestuous relationship with the America’s NSA gives it massively greater capabilities than other European intelligence agencies, and the EU knows this well, which is why is is concerned to retain access to the UK’s defence and security powers post-Brexit, and also why it has jumped to these conclusions about hacking.
But that was then and this is now. On 1st January 2017 the UK government finally signed a law called the Investigatory Powers Act, governing the legal framework for GCHQ to snoop. The IPA gave GCHQ the most draconian and invasive powers of any western democracy. Otherwise known in the British media as the “snoopers’ charter”, it had been defeated in Parliament for years, but Theresa May, then Home Secretary, pushed it through in the teeth of legal and civil society opposition. This year the High Court ordered the UK government to redraft the IPA as it is incompatible with European law.
The IPA legalised what GCHQ had previously been doing illegally post-9/11, including bulk metadata collection, bulk data hacking, and bulk hacking of electronic devices.
It also notionally gave the government greater oversight of the spies’ actions, but these measures remain weak and offer no protection if the spies choose to keep quiet about what they are doing. So if GCHQ did indeed hack the EU, it is feasible that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister remained ignorant of what was going on, despite being legally required to sign off on such operations. In which case the spies would be running amok.
It is also feasible that they were indeed fully briefed and an argument could be made that they would be correct to do so. GCHQ and the other spy agencies are required to protect “national security and the economic well-being” of Great Britain, and I can certainly see a strong argument could be made that they were doing precisely that, provided they had prior written permission for such a sensitive operation, if they tried to get advance intelligence about the EU’s Brexit strategy.
This argument becomes even more powerful when you consider the problems around the fraught issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an issue about which the EU is being particularly intransigent. If a deal is not made then the 1998 Good Friday Agreement could be under threat and civil war might again break out in Northern Ireland. You cannot get much more “national security” than that and GCHQ would be justified in this work, provided it has acquired the necessary legal sign-offs from its political masters.
However, these arguments will do nothing to appease the enraged EU officials. No doubt the UK government will continue to state that this was a leak from a Brussels insider and oil will, publicly at least, be seen to have been poured on troubled diplomatic waters.
However, behind the scenes this will multiply the mutual suspicion,and will no doubt unleash a witch hunt through the corridors of EU power, with top civil servant Martin Selmayr (aka The Monster) cast as Witchfinder General. With him on your heels, you would have to be a very brave leaker, whistleblower, or even paid-up agent working for the Brits to take such a risk.
So, perhaps this is indeed a GCHQ hack. However justifiable this might be under the legally nebulous concept of “national security”, this will poison further the already toxic Brexit negotiations. As Angela Merkal famously if disengenously said after the Snowden revelation that the USA had hacked her mobile phone: “no spying among friends”. But perhaps this is an outdated concept – nor has the EU exactly been entirely friendly to Brexit Britain.
I am just waiting for the first hysterical claim that it was the Russians instead or, failing them, former Trump strategist-in-chief, Steve Bannon, reportedly currently on a mission to build a divisive Alt-Right Movement across Europe…..
On 5th June 2018 the UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, unveiled his new counter-terrorism initiative that he says is targeting an ever-metastasising threat, yet it raises a raft of new questions about people’s rights.
The government is acting on the imperative that something needs to be done. But MI5 — officially known as the UK domestic Security Service and the lead organisation in combating terrorism within the UK — has already, since the start of the war on terror, doubled in size and has also been promised yet more staff over the next two years.
Yet despite these boosted resources for MI5, as well as increased funding and surveillance powers for the entire UK intelligence community, virtually every terror attack carried out in the UK over the last few years has been committed by someone already known to the authorities. Indeed, the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, had been aggressively investigated but MI5 ignored vital intelligence and closed down the active investigation shortly before he carried out the attack.
This failure to target known threats is not just a UK problem. Attacks across Europe over the last few years have repeatedly been carried out by people already on the local security radar.
New approaches are needed. But this latest offering appears to be a medley of already failed initiatives and more worryingly a potentially dangerous blueprint for a techno-Stasi state.
The main points of the new Home Office plan include: making MI5 share intelligence on 20,000 “subjects of concern” with a wide range of organisations, including local councils, corporations, local police, social workers, and teachers; calling on internet companies to detect and eradicate extremist or suspicious content; making online marketplaces such as Amazon and eBay report suspicious purchases; increasing surveillance of big events and infrastructure; and passing even tougher anti-terrorism laws.
This all sounds reasonable to those who are fearful of random attacks on the streets or at events – that is unless one has seen in the past how some initiatives have already been proven to fail or can foresee in the future wholesale abuse of increased surveillance powers.
Intelligence is not Evidence
The most chilling part of the MI5 plan is sharing intelligence on 20,000 subjects of concern. First of all, this is intelligence – by nature gathered from a range of secret sources that MI5 would normally wish to protect. When communicating with counter-terrorism police, intelligence agencies will normally hide the source, but that will require an immense amount of work for 20,000 cases before the information can be shared. Secondly, bear in mind that intelligence is not evidence. Effectively MI5 will be circulating partially assessed suspicions, perhaps even rumours, about individuals, very widely about people who cannot be charged with any crime but who will fall under a deep shadow of suspicion within their communities.
Also if this intelligence is spread as widely as is currently being suggested, it will land in the laps of thousands of public bodies – for instance, schools, councils, social care organisations, and local police. Multiple problems could arise from this. There will no doubt be leaks and gossip within communities – so-and-so is being watched by MI5 and so on.
There will also be the inevitable mission-creep and abuse of power that we saw almost 20 years ago when a whole range of the same public bodies were allowed access to the new eavesdropping and surveillance law, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (2000). Back then, local councils were abusing counter-terrorism legislation to catch people who might be trying to play school catchment areas (districts) to get their children into better schools, or even, and I kid you not, might be cockle-rustling on their local beach. Of course, such intrusive electronic surveillance powers have been significantly increased since then, with the Investigatory Powers Act 2017, that allows bulk storage, bulk dataset hacking and hacking per se.
All this follows the notorious Home Office counter-terrorism PREVENT scheme – the failed parent of these new proposals.
A decade ago PREVENT was designed to reach out, build bridges with Muslim communities across Britain, encouraging them to report any suspicious behaviour to the authorities to nip incipient radicalisation in the bud. Unfortunately it did not quite work out that way. Young Muslims told stories of pressure from MI5 to spy on their communities. It destroyed community trust rather than built it.
Unfortunately, this new Home Office scheme goes even further down the wrong path. It asks teachers, social workers, the local police and other authority figures to go beyond reporting suspicious behaviour to actually be given a list of names to keep a awatch on “subjects of interest”.
The last time such a system of community informants used in Europe was ended when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and East Germany’s Stasi system of a vast network of informers was revealed in all its horror. How ironic that the same system that was devised to protect the East German youth from the “decadent influence” of Western ideals is now being proposed in a “decadent” Western country to spy on its own youth for traces of radicalisation.
Suffice to say that if the British government cannot even make the internet titans such as Google and Facebook pay their fair share in taxes, nor call Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to account in Parliament about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, then good luck forcing them make a meaningful effort to root out extremist material.
But even if they do agree, this idea is fraught with the troublesome question of who gets to decide whether something is extremist material or a dissenting opinion against the establishment? Facebook, Google and Youtube are already engaging in what can only be called censorship by de-ranking in search results material from legitimate dissident websites that they, with no history of exercising news judgement, deem “fake news”.Such established news sites such as Wikileaks, ConsortiumNews and World Socialist Web Site as well as many others listed on the notorious and unreliable PropOrNot list have taken a significant hit since these restrictions came into play on 23 April 2017.
Amazon, eBay and other retail companies are being asked to report suspicious sales of precursor materials for bombs and other weapons. Car hire companies will be asked to report suspicious individuals hiring cars and lorries. Algorithms to detect weapons purchases may be feasible, but denying rentals to merely “suspicious” individuals who’ve committed no crimes strays into Stasi territory.
Back in the era of fertiliser lorry and nail bombs, laws were put in place across Europe to require fertiliser companies to report strange purchases – from people who were not registered agriculturalists, for example, Unfortunately, this law was easily subverted by Norwegian right-wing terrorist, Anders Breivik, who simply worked to establish a farm and then legally purchased the ingredients for his Oslo car bomb in 2011.
You are Being Watched
The UK is known as having the most CCTV cameras per capita in the Western world. There have been various plans mooted (some leaked to Wikileaks) to hook these up to corporations such as Facebook for immediate face tagging capabilities, and the development of algorithms that can identify suspicious behaviour in real time and the police can move to intercept the “suspect”.
Face recognition cameras are being trialled by three police forces in the UK – with software that can allegedly watch crowds at events and in stations and potentially identify known criminals and suspects in a crowd and alert the police who will immediately move in and intercept.
Unfortunately, according to Big Brother Watch in the UK, these computer systems have up to a 98% failure rate. If the Home Secretary is really suggesting that such dodgy software is going to be used to police our public spaces I would suggest that he ask his geeks to go back and do their homework.
Do we really want to live in a country where our every movement is watched by technology, with the police waiting to pounce; a country where if we are running late or are having a stressed work day and seem “strange” to a person in a car hire company, we can be tracked as a potential terrorist; where children need to fear that if they ask awkward, if interested, questions of their teachers or raise family concerns with social care, they might already be on a watch list and their file is stacking up slowly in the shadows?
That way lies totalitariansim. I have been tracking how a state can slide unthinkingly into such a situation for years, particularly looking at such warnings from history as 1930s Germany and, over the last decade, I have seriously begun to fear for my country.
If these measures go through Britons could be living under SS-GB – the name of a book by the excellent spy writer, Len Deighton, in his envisioning of what the UK would have been like if the Nazis had succeed in invading during World War Two. The ultimate irony is that the acronym attributed to MI5 at international intelligence conferences way back in the 1990s used to be UK SS – UK Security Service. I hear it has changed now….
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.….
I’ve done a few more interviews this month for RT, on a variety of issues:
US boots on the ground in Iraq
The extradition case against Megaupload’s founder, Kim Dotcom
And the launch of the UK’s new Cyber Security Centre, soon after the new Investigatory Powers Act (aka the “snoopers’ charter”) became law
Here’s a recent interview I did for RT UK’s flagship news programme, Going Underground with Afshin Rattansi, about the whole fake news, fake intelligence allegations swirling around President Trump’ administration at the moment:
For the first time a serving head of a major intelligence service in the UK, Andrew Parker the Director General of the UK domestic Security Service, has given an interview to a national newspaper.
Interestingly, he gave this interview to The Guardian, the paper that has won awards for publishing a number of the Edward Snowden disclosures about endemic illegal spying and, for its pains, had its computers ritually smashed up by the powers that be.
The timing was also interesting — only two weeks ago the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (the only legal body that can actually investigate allegations of spy crime in the UK and which has so far been an unexceptional champion of their probity) broke ranks to assert that the UK spies have been illegally conducting mass surveillance for 17 years — from 1998 to 2015.
This we could all deduce from the disclosures of a certain Edward Snowden in 2013, but it’s good to have it officially confirmed.
Yet at the same time the much-derided Investigatory Powers Bill has been oiling its way through the Parliamentary system, with the culmination this week.
This “Snoopers’ Charter”, as it is known, has been repeatedly and fervently rejected for years.
It has been questioned in Parliament, challenged in courts, and soundly condemned by former intelligence insiders, technical experts, and civil liberties groups, yet it is the walking dead of UK legislation — nothing will kill it. The Zombie keeps walking.
It will kill all notion of privacy — and without privacy we cannot freely write, speak, watch, read, activate, or resist anything future governments choose to throw at us. Only recently I read an article about the possibility of Facebook assessing someone’s physical or mental health — potentially leading to all sorts of outcomes including getting a job or renting a flat.
And this dovetails into the early Snowden disclosure of the programme PRISM — the complicity of the internet megacorps — as well as the secret back doors what were built into them.
It will be the end of democracy as we (sort of ) know it today. And, as we know from the Snowden disclosures, what happens in the UK will impact not just Europe but the rest of the world.
So how does this all link into the MI5 head honcho’s first live interview? Well, the timing was interesting — ahead of the Investigatory Powers Bill passing oleaginously into law and with the ongoing demonisation of Russia.
Here is an interview I gave to RT about some of these issues:
Here is a recent interview I did for the RT UK’s flagship news channel, “Going Underground” about the horrors of the proposed Investigatory Powers Bill — the so-called “snoopers charter” — that will legalise previously illegal mass surveillance, mass data retention, and mass hacking carried out by GCHQ in league with the NSA:
My interview starts at 19 minutes in — there is Brexit stuff first, about which I shall write more about soon.…
It was reported in The Guardian newspaper today that the UK parliamentary joint committee on human rights was questioning the legal framework underpinning the use of British drone strikes against terrorist suspects.
Here is an interview I did for RT today about the questionable legality of the UK drone strike programme:
My written evidence to the Scrutiny Committee in the UK Houses of Parliament that is currently examining the much-disputed Investigatory Powers Bill (IP):
1. My name is Annie Machon and I worked as an intelligence officer for the UK’s domestic Security Service, commonly referred to as MI5, from early 1991 until late 1996. I resigned to help my partner at the time, fellow intelligence officer David Shayler, expose a number of instances of crime and incompetence we had witnessed during our time in the service.
2. I note that the draft IP Bill repeatedly emphasises the importance of democratic and judicial oversight of the various categories of intrusive intelligence gathering by establishing an Investigatory Powers Commissioner as well as supporting Judicial Commissioners. However, I am concerned about the real and meaningful application of this oversight.
3. While in the Service in the 1990s we were governed by the terms of the Interception of Communications Act 1985 (IOCA), the precursor to RIPA, which provided for a similar system of applications for a warrant and ministerial oversight.
4. I would like to submit evidence that the system did not work and could be manipulated from the inside.
5. I am aware of at least two instances of this during my time in the service, which were cleared for publication by MI5 in my 2005 book about the Shayler case, “Spies Lies, and Whistleblowers”, so my discussing them now is not in breach of the Official Secrets Act. I would be happy to provide further evidence, either written or in person, about these abuses.
6. My concern about this draft Bill is that while the oversight provisions seem to be strengthened, with approval necessary from both the Secretary of State and a Judicial Commissioner, the interior process of application for warrants will still remain opaque and open to manipulation within the intelligence agencies.
7. The application process for a warrant governing interception or interference involved a case being made in writing by the intelligence officer in charge of an investigation. This then went through four layers of management, with all the usual redactions and finessing, before a final summary was drafted by H Branch, signed by the DDG, and then dispatched to the Secretary of State. So the minister was only ever presented with was a summary of a summary of a summary of a summary of the original intelligence case.
8. Additionally, the original intelligence case could be erroneous and misleading. The process of writing the warrant application was merely a tick box exercise, and officers would routinely note that such intelligence could only be obtained by such intrusive methods, rather than exploring all open source options first. The revalidation process could be even more cavalier.
9. When problems with this system were voiced, officers were told to not rock the boat and just follow orders. During the annual visit by the Intelligence Intercept Commissioner, those with concerns were banned from meeting him.
10. Thus I have concerns about the realistic power of the oversight provisions written into this Bill and would urge an additional provision. This would establish an effective channel whereby officers with concerns can give evidence directly and in confidence to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner in the expectation that a proper investigation will be conducted and with no repercussions to their careers inside the agencies. Here is a link to a short video I did for Oxford University three years ago outlining these proposals:
11. This, in my view, would be a win-win scenario for all concerned. The agencies would have a chance to improve their work practices, learn from mistakes, and better protect national security, as well as avoiding the scandal and embarrassment of any future whistleblowing scandals; the officers with ethical concerns would not be placed in the invidious position of either becoming complicit in potentially illegal acts by “just following orders” or risking the loss of their careers and liberty by going public about their concerns.
12. I would also like to raise the proportionality issue. It strikes me that bulk intercept must surely be disproportionate within a functioning and free democracy, and indeed can actually harm national security. Why? Because the useful, indeed crucial, intelligence on targets and their associates is lost in the tsunami of available information. Indeed this seems to have been the conclusion of every inquiry about the recent spate of “lone wolf” and ISIS-inspired attacks across the West – the targets were all vaguely known to the authorities but resources were spread too thinly.
13. In fact all that bulk collection seems to provide is confirmation after the fact of a suspect’s involvement in a specific incident, which is surely specifically police evidential work. Yet the justification for the invasive intercept and interference measures laid out in the Bill itself is to gather vital information ahead of an attack in order to prevent it – the very definition of intelligence. How is this possible if the sheer scale of bulk collection drowns out the vital nuggets of intelligence?
14. Finally, I would like to raise the point that the phrase “national security” has never been defined for legal purposes in the UK. Surely this should be the very first step necessary before formulating the proposed IP Bill? Until we have such a legal definition, how can we formulate new and intrusive laws in the name of protecting an undefined and nebulous concept, and how can we judge that the new law will thereby be proportionate within a democracy?
Here’s a recent interview I did for BBC World about the three top British spies deigning, for the first time ever, to be publicly questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee in parliament, which has a notional oversight role:
It subsequently emerged that they only agreed to appear if they were told the questions in advance. So much for this already incredibly limited oversight capability in a notional Western democracy.….
First published on RT Op-Edge.
David Miranda had just spent a week in Berlin, before flying back to his home country, Brazil, via London’s Heathrow airport. As he attempted to transit on to his flight home — not enter the UK, mind you, just make an international connection — he was pulled to one side by the UK’s border security officers and questioned for nine hours, as well as having all his technical equipment confiscated.
He was detained for the maximum period allowed under the draconian terms of Schedule 7 of the UK’s Terrorism Act (2000). His apparent “crime”? To be the partner of campaigning journalist Glenn Greenwald who broke the Edward Snowden whistleblowing stories.
Miranda’s detention has caused outrage, rightly, around the world. Diplomatic representations have been made by the Brazilian government to the British, UK MPs are asking questions, and The Guardian newspaper (which is the primary publisher of Greenwald’s stories), has sent in the lawyers.
This episode is troubling on so many levels, it is difficult to know where to begin.
Firstly, the Terrorism Act (2000) is designed to investigate, er, terrorism — at least, so you would think. However it is all too easy for mission creep to set in, as I have been saying for years. The definition of terrorism has expanded to cover activists, placard wavers, and protesters as well as, now apparently, the partners of journalists. The old understanding of due legal process is merely yet another quaint, British artefact like the Magna Carta and habeas corpus.
In the UK we now have secret courts covering all things “national security”, we have pervasive Big Brother surveillance as exemplified by GCHQ’s TEMPORA programme, and we have our spies involved in kidnapping and torture.
So Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act is just another small nail in the coffin of historic British freedoms. Under its terms, anyone can be pulled aside, detained and questioned by border security guards if they are “suspected of” involvement in, the commissioning of, or financial support for terrorism. The detainee is not allowed to speak to a lawyer, nor are they allowed not to answer questions, on pain of criminal prosecution. Plus their property can be indefinitely seized and ransacked, including computers, phones, and other gadgets.
Under Schedule 7 people can be questioned for a maximum of 9 hours. After that, the authorities either have to apply for a formal extension, charge and arrest, or release. According to a UK government document, 97% people are questioned for less than 1 hour then released and only 0.06% are held for six hours. Miranda was held up until the last minute of the full nine hours before being released without charge.
Secondly, this abuse of power displays all too clearly the points that Edward Snowden has disclosed via Greenwald about a burgeoning and out-of-control surveillance state. The detention of Miranda displays all the obsessive vindictiveness of a wounded secret state that is buzzing around, angry as a wasp. Snowden has the protection of the only state currently with the power to face down the brute might of US “diplomacy”, and Greenwald still has the shreds of journalist protections around him.
Friends and partners, however, can be seen as fair game.
I know this from bitter personal experience. In 1997 former MI5 intelligence officer, David Shayler, blew the whistle on a whole range of UK spy crimes: files on government ministers, illegal phone taps, IRA bombs that could have been prevented, innocent people in prison, and an illegal MI6 assassination plot against Gaddafi, which went wrong and innocent people died.
Working with a major UK newspaper and with due respect for real national secrets, he went public about these crimes. Pre-emptively we went on the run together, so that we could remain free to argue about and campaign around the disclosures, rather than disappearing into a maximum security prison for years. After a month on the run across Europe, I returned to the UK to work with our lawyers, see our traumatised families, and pack up our smashed-up, police-raided flat.
In September 1997 I flew back with my lawyer from Spain to London Gatwick. I knew that the Metropolitan Police Special Branch wanted to interview me, and my lawyer had negotiated this ahead of my travel. Despite this, I was arrested at the immigration desk by six heavies, and carted off to a counter-terrorism suite at Charing Cross police station in central London, where I was interrogated for six hours.
At that point I had done nothing more than support David. As another ex-MI5 officer I agreed that the spies needed greater oversight and accountability, but actually my arrest was because I was his girlfriend and going after me would be leverage against him. But is got worse — two days later Shayler’s two best friends and his brother were arrested on flagrantly trumped-up charges. None of us was ever charged with any crime, but we were all kept on police bail for months.
Looking back, our treatment was designed to put more pressure on him and “keep him in his box” — it was pure intimidation. Journalists and students were also threatened, harassed, and in one case charged and convicted for having the temerity to expose spy crimes disclosed by Shayler. To this day, none of the criminals in the UK intelligence agency has ever been charged or convicted.
So the threats and intimidation around the Snowden case, and the detention of Greenwald’s partner, are old, old tactics. What is new is the sheer scale of blatant intimidation, the sheer brutish force. Despite the full glare of global internet and media coverage, the US and UK spooks still think they can get away with this sort of intimidation. Will they? Or will we, the global citizenry, draw a line in the sand?
Oh, and let’s not forget the sheer hypocrisy as well — the US condemns Snowden for seeking refuge in Russia, and castigates that country for its civil rights record on certain issues. Be that as it may, the US establishment should look to the log in its own eye first — that one of its young citizens faces the death sentence or life-long incarceration for exposing (war) crimes against the global community as well as the country’s own constitution.
There is an internationally-recognised legal precedent from the Nuremburg Nazi trials after World War 2: “just following orders” is not a defence under any law, particularly when those orders lead to victimisation, war crimes and genocide. The UK border guards, as well as the international intelligence communities and military, would do well to heed that powerful lesson from history.
So this overzealous use of a law to detain the partner of a journalist merely travelling through the UK should make us all pause for thought. The West has long inveighed against totalitarian regimes and police states. How can they not recognise what they have now become? And how long can we, as citizens, continue to turn a blind eye?