Spies need more oversight, not new powers

Published on www.politics.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.