Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Pub­lished on www​.polit​ics​.co​.uk, and Huff­ing­ton Post UK.

Fol­low­ing the awful murder of Drum­mer Lee Rigby in Wool­wich last week, the polit­ic­al securo­crats who claim to rep­res­ent the interests of the Brit­ish intel­li­gence ser­vices have swung into action, demand­ing yet fur­ther sur­veil­lance powers for MI5 and MI6 “in order to pre­vent future Wool­wich-style attacks”.

As I’ve writ­ten before, it was heart­en­ing that the UK Prime Min­is­ter said in the after­math of the attack that there would be no knee-jerk secur­ity reac­tion. How­ever, that has not deterred cer­tain intel­li­gence sock-pup­pets from polit­ic­al oppor­tunism — they stridently call for the resur­rec­tion of the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill that was earli­er this year kicked into the long grass. If the hawks are suc­cess­ful, the new law would have implic­a­tions not only for our freedoms at home, but also for our policy and stand­ing abroad.

Recently the civil liber­ties camp acquired a sur­pris­ing ally in this debate, with MI5 unex­pec­tedly enter­ing the fray.  And rightly so. There is abso­lutely no need for this new legis­la­tion, the requis­ite powers are already in place. Seni­or secur­ity sources have argued that those cit­ing the Wool­wich attack to pro­mote the snoop­ers’ charter are using a “cheap argu­ment”.

As I said in this recent BBC radio inter­view, all the neces­sary laws are already in place for MI5 either to pass­ively mon­it­or or aggress­ively invest­ig­ate per­sons of interest under the ori­gin­al terms of IOCA (1985) and updated in the Reg­u­la­tion of Invest­ig­at­ory Powers Act (RIPA 2000).

There now appears to be little doubt that the two Wool­wich sus­pects were well and truly on the MI5 radar. It has been repor­ted that they had been tar­gets for at least 8 years and that Michael Ade­bolajo had been approached to work as an agent by MI5 as recently as 6 months ago.

One of his friends, Abu Nusay­bah, recor­ded an inter­view for BBC’s News­night pro­gramme last week, only to be arres­ted by counter-ter­ror­ism police imme­di­ately after­wards. He stated that Ade­bolajo had been tor­tured and threatened with rape after his arrest in Kenya en route to Somalia, and that this treat­ment may have flipped him into more viol­ent action. Indeed, the tale gets ever mur­ki­er, with reports yes­ter­day stat­ing that Ade­bolajo was snatched by the SAS in Kenya on the orders of MI5.

Oth­er inform­a­tion has since been released by the organ­isa­tion Cage­Pris­on­ers indic­at­ing that Adebolajo’s fam­ily and friends had also been har­rassed to pres­sur­ize him into report­ing to MI5.

All of which obvi­ates the early claims that Ade­bolajo was either a “lone wolf” or a low-pri­or­ity tar­get. It cer­tainly indic­ates to me that MI5 will have at the very least been mon­it­or­ing Adebolajo’s com­mu­nic­a­tions data, espe­cially if they were try­ing to recruit him as a source. If that indeed turns out to have been the case, then without doubt MI5 will also have been inter­cept­ing the con­tent of his com­mu­nic­a­tions, to under­stand his think­ing and assess his access. Any­thing less would have been slip­shod — a derel­ic­tion of duty — and all this could and should have been done under the exist­ing terms of RIPA.

So what are the chances of some real over­sight or answers?

If we’re talk­ing about an inde­pend­ent inquiry, the chances are slim: the Inquir­ies Act (2005) passed little noticed into law, but it means that the gov­ern­ment and the depart­ment under invest­ig­a­tion can pretty much determ­ine the scope and terms of the inquiry to which they are sub­ject.

How­ever, might we nail the flag of hope to the mast of the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee of Par­lia­ment (ISC) — the com­mit­tee tasked with over­see­ing the work of the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies? The new DG of MI5, Andrew Park­er, has already sub­mit­ted a writ­ten report about Wool­wich and will be giv­ing evid­ence to the ISC in per­son next week about wheth­er MI5 missed some vital intel­li­gence or dropped the ball.

Th ISC of Par­lia­ment was estab­lished as part of the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act (1994) — the law that finally brought MI6 and GCHQ under the umbrella of notion­al demo­crat­ic over­sight. MI5 had already come into the leg­al fold with the Secur­ity Ser­vice Act (1989).

As I have writ­ten before, ini­tially the ISC was a demo­crat­ic fig-leaf — its mem­bers were appoin­ted by the PM not Par­lia­ment, it repor­ted dir­ectly to the PM, and its remit only covered the policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the UK’s intel­li­gence agen­cies.

Until this year the ISC could not invest­ig­ate oper­a­tion­al mat­ters, nor could it demand to see doc­u­ments or ques­tion top spooks under oath. Indeed, it has been well repor­ted that seni­or spies and police have long evaded mean­ing­ful scru­tiny by being “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”.

Former MI5 DG Sir Steph­en Lander in 2001 said “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the com­mit­tee early on”; a more recent DG, Sir Jonath­an Evans, had to admit in 2008 that MI5 had lied about its involve­ment in tor­ture; and Lord Blair, former Com­mis­sion­er of the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police, had to apo­lo­gise in 2008 for mis­lead­ing the ISC about the num­ber of thwarted ter­ror­ist attacks on his watch.

How­ever the cur­rent Chair of the ISC, Sir Mal­com Rif­kind, has pur­sued a more mus­cu­lar over­sight role. And it seems he has at least won some battles. The one good ele­ment to have come out of the con­ten­tious Justice and Secur­ity Act (2013) appears to be that the ISC has more dir­ect account­ab­il­ity to Par­lia­ment, rather than just to the PM (the dev­il is expressed in the detail: the ISC is now “of” Par­lia­ment, rather than “in” Par­lia­ment…).

Some­what more per­tin­ently, the ISC can now invest­ig­ate oper­a­tion­al mat­ters, demand papers and wit­nesses, and it appears they now have a spe­cial invest­ig­at­or who can go and rum­mage around the MI5 Registry for inform­a­tion.

It remains to be seen how effect­ive the ISC will real­ist­ic­ally be in hold­ing the intel­li­gence agen­cies to account, even with these new powers. How­ever, Sir Mal­colm Rif­kind has good reas­on to know how slip­pery the spies can be — after all, he was the For­eign Sec­ret­ary in 1995/6, the years when MI6 was fund­ing Al Qaeda asso­ci­ates to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya.  The attack went wrong, inno­cent people were killed and, cru­cially, it was illeg­al under UK law, as MI6 had not reques­ted the pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion for such a plot from the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, as required under Sec­tion 7(1) of the afore­men­tioned ISA (1994). Rif­kind has always claimed that he was not told about the plot by MI6.

So, in the interests of justice let us hope that the Rif­kind and the oth­er mem­bers of the ISC fully exer­cise their powers and that MI5’s new DG, Andrew Park­er is some­what more frank about the work of his agency than his pre­de­cessors have been. It is only through great­er hon­esty and account­ab­il­ity that our intel­li­gence agen­cies can learn from the mis­takes of the past and bet­ter pro­tect our coun­try in the future.

BBC Radio interview about the “snoopers’ charter”

Yes­ter­day I gave an inter­view to BBC Radio Ulster about the secur­ity fall-out of the Wool­wich murder and the cyn­ic­al polit­ic­al oppor­tunism of those call­ing, inev­it­ably, for great­er powers for the spies and a rein­tro­duc­tion of the pro­posed Com­munuic­a­tions Data Bill, dubbed the “snoop­ers’ charter”.

Here is the link.

Woolwich murder — the “why?” should be obvious

The bru­tal murder in Wool­wich last week of Drum­mer Lee Rigby rightly caused shock and out­rage. Inev­it­ably there has been a media feed­ing frenzy about “ter­ror­ist” attacks and home-grown rad­ic­al­isa­tion.  Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter, Dav­id Camer­on, felt it neces­sary to fly back from a key meet­ing in France to head up the Brit­ish secur­ity response.

One slightly heart­en­ing piece of news to emerge from all the hor­ror is that the PM has stated, at least for now, that there will be no knee-jerk secur­ity crack-down in the wake of this killing.  Sure, secur­ity meas­ures have been ramped up around mil­it­ary bases in the UK, but cyn­ic­al calls from the securo­crats to rean­im­ate a pro­posed “snoop­ers’ charter”, aka the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill, have for now been dis­coun­ted. And rightly so — MI5 already has all the neces­sary powers to mon­it­or sus­pects.

How­ever, there does still seem to be a polit­ic­ally disin­genu­ous view about the motiv­a­tion behind this murder.  Yet the sus­pects them­selves made no secret of it — indeed they stayed at the scene of the crime for twenty minutes appar­ently encour­aging pho­tos and smart phone record­ings in order to get across their mes­sage.  When the police armed response team finally arrived, the sus­pects reportedly charged at the police bran­dish­ing knives and pos­sibly a gun.  They were shot, but not fatally.  This may have been attemp­ted “sui­cide by cop” — delayed until they had said their piece.

This does not strike me as the actions of “crazed killers” as has been repor­ted in the media; rather it reminds me of the cold and cal­cu­lated actions of Nor­we­gi­an mass mur­der­er, Anders Breivik. The Wool­wich murder was designed to max­im­ize the impact of the mes­sage in this social media age.

And the mes­sage being? Well, it was indeed cap­tured on smart phone and sent out to the world.  The killers clearly stated that this was a polit­ic­al action designed to high­light the grue­some viol­ence daily meted out across North Africa, the Middle East, and Cent­ral Asia as a res­ult of the west­ern policy of mil­it­ary inter­ven­tion­ism.

This mani­fests in a vari­ety of ways: viol­ent res­ist­ance and insur­gency against pup­pet gov­ern­ments as we see in Iraq; interne­cine civil war in coun­tries such as post-NATO inter­ven­tion Libya; cov­ert wars fought by west­ern prox­ies, as we see in Syr­ia; or overt attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Afgh­anistan and Pakistan, where US and UK con­trolled drones tar­get mil­it­ants named for assas­sin­a­tion on pres­id­en­tially-approved CIA kill lists with the res­ult­ing col­lat­er­al murder of com­munity gath­er­ings, chil­dren and wed­ding parties.

All this does not jus­ti­fy the appalling murder in Wool­wich, and the per­pet­rat­ors must face justice for the crime.  How­ever, it does go some way to explain­ing why such an atro­city occurred, and we as a soci­ety need to face up to the facts or this will hap­pen again.

Say­ing this does not make me an apo­lo­gist for ter­ror­ism, any more than it did journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald — a writer who has had the journ­al­ist­ic attack dogs unleashed on him for sim­il­ar views. Bey­ond the group-think deni­al­ism with­in the Wash­ing­ton Belt­way and the West­min­ster Vil­lage, the cause and effect are now widely-recog­nised. Indeed, in her 2010 testi­mony to the Chil­cot Inquiry about the Iraq War, former head of MI5 Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller said pre­cisely the same thing — and I don’t think any­one would dare to label her “an apo­lo­gist for ter­ror­ism”.

The seed of Islam­ic extrem­ism was planted by west­ern colo­ni­al­ism, propag­ated by the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup against Pres­id­ent Mossade­gh of Iran, watered by their sup­port for a fledging Al Qaeda in the 1980s Afghan res­ist­ance to the Soviet inva­sion, and is now flour­ish­ing as a means both of viol­ently attempt­ing to eject west­ern occupy­ing forces from Muslim coun­tries and gain­ing retri­bu­tion against the West.

We need to face up to this new real­ity. The bru­tal murder of this sol­dier may be a one-off attack, but I doubt it.  Indeed, sim­il­ar attacks against French sol­diers in Toulouse occurred last year, and this week­end there has already been what appears to be a copy-cat attack against a sol­dier in Par­is.

In this endem­ic sur­veil­lance soci­ety ter­ror­ist groups are all too aware of the vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies inher­ent in large-scale, co-ordin­ated attacks, the plan­ning of which can be picked up by sigint or from inter­net “chat­ter”. Much sim­pler to go for the low-tech atro­city and cyn­ic­ally play the all-per­vas­ive social media angle for max­im­um cov­er­age.

The UK media has repor­ted that the Wool­wich sus­pects have been on the Brit­ish intel­li­gence radar for the last 8 years, but MI5 failed to take prompt action. The inev­it­able gov­ern­ment enquiry has been prom­ised, but the fall-back defens­ive pos­i­tion, already being trot­ted out by former spies and ter­ror­ism experts across the media is that the secur­ity ser­vices are nev­er going to be in a pos­i­tion to accur­ately pre­dict when every rad­ic­al­ised per­son might “flip” into viol­ence and that such “lone wolf” attacks are the most dif­fi­cult to stop.

As more news emerges, this is look­ing increas­ingly disin­genu­ous. Reports have emerged that one of the sus­pects, Michael Ade­bolajo, was approached to work as an agent for MI5 half a year ago, appar­ently after he had been arres­ted and assaul­ted by police in Kenya. This may be anoth­er example of the secur­ity ser­vices’ failed Pre­vent ini­ti­at­ive that seems to be caus­ing more harm that good with­in the young Brit­ish Muslim com­munity.

This story has been com­poun­ded by the recent intriguing arrest of one of Adebolajo’s friends, the self-styled Abu Nusay­bah, imme­di­ately after he had fin­ished record­ing an inter­view about this for the BBC’s News­night pro­gramme.  The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Counter-Ter­ror­ism Com­mand swooped at the Beeb and arres­ted the man on ter­ror­ism charges: he has now dis­ap­peared into the maw of the leg­al sys­tem.

The only long-term and poten­tially effect­ive solu­tion is to address the fun­da­ment­al issues that lead to Islam­ic viol­ence and ter­ror­ism and begin nego­ti­ations. The UK, at least, has been through this pro­cess before dur­ing the 1990s, when it was attempt­ing to resolve the civil war in North­ern Ire­land. Indeed my former boss, Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, stated as much dur­ing a BBC lec­ture in 2011, say­ing that the US and UK gov­ern­ments need to nego­ti­ate with Al Qaeda to reach a polit­ic­al set­tle­ment.

Over the last 20 years, Al Qaeda has con­sist­ently deman­ded the remov­al of the west­ern (pre­dom­in­antly US) mil­it­ary pres­ence from the Middle East. Since the 9/11 attacks our polit­ic­al elites and media have equally con­sist­ently spun us the line that Al Qaeda car­ries out attacks because it “hates our way of life, hates our freedoms”.

Unless our gov­ern­ments acknow­ledge the prob­lems inher­ent in con­tin­ued and viol­ent west­ern inter­ven­tion­ism, unless they can accept that the war on ter­ror res­ults in rad­ic­al­isa­tion, “blow­back” and yet more inno­cent deaths, and until they admit that nego­ti­ation is the only viable long-term solu­tion, we are all con­demned to remain trapped in this ghastly cycle of viol­ence.

RT interview about the Woolwich murder

Here is my RT inter­view yes­ter­day about the Wool­wich attack. A hor­rif­ic murder and my thoughts are with the fam­ily of the poor vic­tim.

That said, the Brit­ish and Amer­ic­an gov­ern­ments and the NATO coun­tries are disin­genu­ous of they think that their strategy of viol­ent inter­ven­tion­ism across North Africa, the Middle East and Cent­ral Asia will have no con­sequences. As a res­ult of our illeg­al wars, CIA kill lists and drone strikes, count­less fam­il­ies are suf­fer­ing such trauma, viol­ence and loss across the region every day.

RT inter­view: Lone-wolf attack to become main expres­sion of rad­ic­al­isa­tion? from Annie Machon on Vimeo.