Humour

So the ISC spent eighteen months (how did it take eighteen months? It shouldn’t have taken eighteen weeks) examining the background to Lee Rigby’s murder. Today it issued a report containing 59 recommendations, 44 of which were highly crticical of the intelligence and security services. They showed that the suspects had been the subject of no less than seven operations of interest (of varying levels of importance) and that one had even been given security clearance to return from Kenya where he was known to have been a member of al-Shabaab. The ISC also logged numerous instances of incompetence by each of the services including files lost, intelligence not logged and leads simply not followed up because officers were too lazy.

The end result of all this analysis is that the services responsible for the debacle have been rewarded with £130 million of extra funding. Meanwhile, the government has said that the whole episode was actually the fault of the internet service providers for not spotting the danger sooner.

Much has been made of a conversation that one of the suspects held on Facebook in which he discussed murdering a soldier. If only this had been made known to the authorities (wail the armchair generals), then the attack might have been averted. What the critics fail to notice is that the message in question was dated a full six months before the attack and was sent at a time when the suspect was already under surveillance. This surveillance was subsequently cancelled as it seemed that the suspect had become more interested in drug peddling. One Facebook message, violent though it was, is unlikely to have changed that assessment. Furthermore, critics also fail to realise that, even if this type of information had been handed over, it would have been in its raw state i.e. part of a massive tranche of data out of which the intelligence services would have had to find this particular message. And finally, even if the message had been found, amongst the 2000 or so suspects which the agencies already have on their books, this type of talk is common. They are always bragging to each other about doing some killing or attacking a building or kidnapping a celebrity and nine hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand it comes to nothing. So even with this “crucial” piece of evidence it is still highly unlikely that the attack would have been stopped.

Meanwhile, buried in the report is one really interesting recommendation: that the Prevent programme should be better funded as it has a far better chance of preventing these lone wolf attacks ever happening. This has been ignored in all the coverage. Nor has the ISC examined another key problem: that there is far too much duplication and waste in a system which has both police and a security service covering the same ground. There is far too much delay in developing, merging and following up intelligence leads. But you won’t hear anything about these points. In the first place, there are too many vested interests in maintaining two separate, but parallel empires. In the second place, it is a lot easier to throw money at a problem than to do any original thinking. And finally, the whole point of the report is to prepare the ground for new legislation. That is why the news about the Facebook conversation was leaked to the right-wing press on the morning of the report (as was pointed out by a former Conservative minister).

And so, as expected, the services have escaped without penalty. No-one has been sacked, no-one has been punished. Instead, the government is going to use that one Facebook conversation as the basis for a press campaign with which it will drive through more draconian communications monitoring powers. It will be a new Snoopers’ Charter implemented on a wave of carefully orchestrated public outrage. (Apologies if I sound a bit “conspiracy theorist”, but that’s the way it is). The end result is that not only are the services getting more funds, they are also getting greater powers. Who knows, perhaps next time, if the terrorists manage to detonate a bomb in a British city, the services will get £500 million extra? As an officer once said: “That’s the point about being the intelligence services – we never lose.”

If only it weren’t so tragic I could laugh.

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Oversight

The recently overhauled Intelligence and Security Committee appears to have failed its first major test. For some years I, and other critics, have been saying that, as the watchdog of the intelligence services, it is both toothless and blind. Not only did the Committee have little understanding of the world that it was supposed to be monitoring, but it also lacked the necessary powers to investigate that world.

Some of those criticisms were answered when the Committee was recently given increased powers including the use of a specialist investigator. This was something that the Committee originally had, but which was withdrawn when it proved a little too effective for the services’ liking. Sadly, although the Committee now has some of the resources it needs, it still seems to lack the necessary understanding to make effective use of those new tools.

The first indication of this is the imminent publication of the Committee’s investigation into events surrounding the brutal murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. Apparently, and as expected, the Committee will exonerate the intelligence services from any culpability. But it has now become clear that the Committee did not consider evidence from key witnesses, in particular regarding the allegation that constant pestering and threats from the intelligence services, were, in part, responsible for the radicalisation of the murderer. This might not appear to be so important, but bearing in mind the story printed below concerning Jamal Osman together with other stories elsewhere, there is a body of evidence that the services are being heavy handed in their recruitment approaches and that this might be having an adverse effect in the communities where they work. This is surely a matter for the Committee to consider as, if true, it has considerable implications for future security and intelligence work.

The sort of harrassment to which Osman and others have been subjected, seems so crass that it is scarcely believable – reminiscent in some ways of the tactics of certain police forces in the 1960s when they were recruiting criminal informants (“work for us or it will be trouble for you, sonny” etc). After scandals such as that of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad in the 1970s, the police successfully adapted their agent handling techniques which became far more effective. I know that because I have been involved in it. The corresponding problem with the intelligence services is, as ever, that blanket secrecy leads to an invulnerability to outside scrutiny and poor practices are allowed to continue unchecked. That is why I suspect that these abuses are continuing. The evidence is not conclusive, but it is at least worthy of someone’s consideration.

With such gaping holes in what should have been a fairly straightforward investigation, the omens for the Committee’s far more wide-ranging Privacy and Security Inquiry, caused in no small part by the Snowden revelations, do not look promising. The ISC still seems to have two key problems: the first is lack of understanding of how the intelligence services operate. In the past this was countered to a certain extent by Committee members such as Meta Ramsay who had experience of the intelligence world. As these people were also political creatures, this was not a perfect solution, but it did help. Sadly the Committee no longer has this expertise. The second problem is that although the Committee now has powers to investigate, its chief investigator is a retired senior police officer, not someone with an intelligence background. The methods and culture of the police world are as different from those of the intelligence world as white knight from black bishop. I suspect that he is blundering in the dark. Cynics will no doubt comment that this is the very reason he was chosen for the job without objection from any of the services.

The Committee, created in 1994, remains a work in progress. One reform has been made, but it appears that further reforms are needed.

Manipulation

There was an interesting article by Jamal Osman in Monday’s Guardian. Jamal is the Africa correspondent for Channel 4 News. He was originally born in Somalia and arrived in this country in 1999. He wrote of his “nightmare at the hands of Britain’s security services” and claimed that, in a job that requires frequent foreign travel, he had “been detained, questioned and harrassed almost every time I have passed through Heathrow airport.” He also wrote that he has been frequently approached in the UK by other intelligence officers whom he described as “the Vauxhall guys”. (The formal headquarters of MI6 being at Vauxhall Cross of course). Their clumsy recruitment approaches have included offers of cars, a house and even, most insultingly, help to marry four wives. Of late, because of his refusal to co-operate, the approaches have become more menacing. Most recently he was detained at Heathrow airport and told by his would-be handler that he was “an idiot”, “a bad person” and that he would “die angry” and that “the world would be a better place without him.” Hardly the perfect start to an agent-handler relationship.
      Jamal appears to assume that these approaches are to do with terrorism. It is more likely to be something else. The background is that after avowal in the 1990s, the intelligence services were faced with the problem of how to handle their public image now that they officially existed. By 2003, there was much talk among journalists that MI6 was going to open a formal press office and that a number of senior officers would be cleared to liaise with the media. All of this was suddenly quashed in 2004 with the arrival of John Scarlett, still raw from his exposure over the “dodgy dossier” affair. It is not clear whether it was his idea, but the service suddenly dropped plans for a press office and decided on a more manipulative approach which was to be known as “the press initiative”. Key journalists would be targeted for behind-the-scenes offers of private briefings. These briefings would be on a “take it or leave it” basis, but of course any journalists who didn’t print what was expected would see their access cut off pretty sharpish. In a world where many journalists are working on fixed contracts and where job security depends on the quality of their contacts, this has proved to a powerful tool in managing the media.
     The whole scheme was outlined in October 2007 by the Spectator magazine in an excellent article by David Rose, a journalist who had initially been part of the scheme, but later tried to assert his independence and was cast into the outer darkness. In fact David had been offered private briefings as early as 1992, which makes it clear that the initiative was not exactly new but rather the continuation or reinvigoration of an old practice. Even then it did not have universal support within the service. One of Rose’s MI6 contacts said: “The need is for a properly staffed, formal press office. … Unfortunately the current chief seems to take the view that no news is good news … that’s not only wrong, but naive.”
     The initiative continues to this day and it is likely that Jamal was one of the latest targets. Channel 4 News would be a prime asset for the intelligence services and a recent immigrant was possibly seen as a way in to a group with a high level of integrity. He is a brave man to resist their approaches because they can make life very unpleasant for him. Let’s hope that he and his colleagues continue to resist.

An old mystery

Lt. Colonel Harold Hartney was a senior US air force officer. In fact he was one of the first, an ace of the First World War who commanded the 27th Aero Squadron and the US 1st Pursuit Group. In his memoirs he tells the following strange tale:
     “I had been home (in England) only three hours. Irene had just told me of a sweet girl who had been living in the same house with her and had married one of the non-coms in the mystery-secret camp close by. An amazing development had been going on there. The local people thought it was the construction of a tremendous new explosive which would blow up whole towns and areas. One day men came to the house and took the young bride away and she was shot at 5:40 in the morning before I arrived (this would have been September 10th 1916). The activity that had been going on was the first secret development of the first tanks and the charming German spy had been caught trying to transmit news of it to her fatherland. C’est la guerre. It’s a good thing she didn’t get through. Some claim she did.”
     An exciting tale. But, hang on, no female German spies were executed in the UK during the First World War, so what is Hartney going on about? Some sort of wartime urban myth?
     Well possibly. After all, if such an execution really did take place then there has been a massive effort to keep it out of all public records and if that is true how did Hartney know the exact time of the woman’s execution? Furthermore, this was an era when there was much speculation about “la femme fatale”. Mata Hari was not arrested until the following year, but Gabrielle Petit had been executed by the Germans in April of that year and Edith Cavell in October of the year before. There was also much speculation during the war about “Die Fraulein Doktor”, a female German secret service officer who was supposed to command a ring of female super-agents – although I’m not sure that these tales were current as early as 1916.
     On the other hand there are several rather unsettling aspects to this story: Hartney was not the sort of officer to repeat idle gossip and his wife said that the woman was “living in the same house with her” so this is not just the case of some story heard third-hand down the pub.
     Was Hartney simply trying to spice up his memoirs? Was his wife lying to him for some reason? Or was someone lying to her about the reason for the bride’s sudden disappearance? Any (sensible) suggestions gratefully accepted.

Smears

The speech by President Obama last week represented a significant point, possibly a turning point, in the Edward Snowden debate. The President’s admission that, in certain cases, the power of the intelligence agencies needs to reined in and monitored was a step towards admitting that Snowden might have been right to take extreme measures. Of course it is not the whole argument, not by a long chalk, but it seriously undermined those in the intelligence world who claim that Snowden is simply a traitor and nothing more. It was the first step on a road which might eventually see Edward welcomed back to the country of his birth as a man who did something deeply questionable, but which had to be done.

It was no surprise that in the following days the intelligence machine struck back. The next phase of the attack was led by what might described as “the usual suspects” – Mike Rogers, Dianne Feinstein, Michael McCaul, etc – right wing hawks in Congress who reject any idea of limiting the intelligence empire of their friends. The new line of attack is to suggest that Snowden may have been secretly working for the Russians all along. No evidence was put forward, but there was plenty of innuendo along the line of “we suspect” and “the matter is under investigation”. Here is an example from Mike Rogers: “Some of the things we’re finding we would call clues that certainly would indicate to me that he had some help.” Could he be more vague?

You can see why they have chosen to do this: since they are losing the civil liberities argument as nations all around the world decide that there must be some limits on intrusions into the privacy of ordinary citizens, the intelligence agencies are going to attack Snowden in a way which will leave him in the impossible position of trying to prove a negative. How can he prove definitively that he wasn’t working for a foreign power? You simply can’t do it. And supporters of the intelligence empire will make sure that there is plenty more innuendo to keep the accusation alive. It is all rather similar to the “birthers” movement who claim that Obama was not born in the United States. It doesn’t matter how much evidence to the contrary you produce it will never be enough. But in the view of the intelligence agencies it is better to smear Snowden in the hope that he will not become an example to whistle blowers in the future rather than admit that perhaps, because of the extraordinary technological advances the world has seen in recent years, this was a debate that had to be held for the sake of us all. It would not have been held if it had not been for the actions of Edward Snowden.

Madness

So it appears that John Leso has escaped justice. For the past seven years, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been investigating the case of this man who sat watching  while suspects were being tortured at Guantanamo (not my description – this is from the Pentagon’s record). He was a member of a behavioural science consultation team based at Guantanamo and responsible for ensuring that the torture used during questioning was as effective as possible. On 31st December 2013, the APA finally announced that they had decided not to proceed with charges and that the case was formally closed. Laughably, one of the reasons given for excusing Leso’s behaviour was that his work pre-dated the ASA’s official condemation of torture. This seems to imply that torture was not a war crime until the ASA decided it was.

The original complaint was filed by Trudy Bond, a fellow psychologist and APA member, who was disgusted by Leso’s participation in these activities. It should have been a fairly straightforward matter: officially the APA is against torture and the evidence appeared conclusive. However this investigation went the way of similar official enquiries: it moved at a crawl until the original source of concern had faded from memory and then a report was sneaked out on a slow news day (31 Dec) saying that no action would be taken. The Leso case was seen as a litmus test for other prosecutions since this was believed to show the clearest indication of the involvement of American medical staff in torture and what the reaction by their professional organisations would be. It is now unlikely that similar investigations will proceed.

A certain section of the audience will say that terrorists – or in this case suspected terrorists  – deserve everything they get. It is easy to sympathise with that knee-jerk reaction. But if we are prepared to break our own laws and adopt the standards of our enemy simply to defeat our enemy then we do not solve the problem, we simply store up troubles for the future. The Leso case will be added to the litany of those who will, with some justification, be able to point and say that we are no better then they. Apparently we are prepared to stoop to the same depths because we, like them, believe that we are unquestionably in the right. It is another little recruiting sergeant created in the enemy’s camp.

For some it will be easy to dismiss what Leso did. But others will remember scenes of prisoners under torture from George Orwell’s 1984 or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or the hundreds of other real-life comparisons. Any human being who can sit back and watch another being tortured is… well, perhaps it is form of madness. And for those who try to suggest that Leso is not guilty of any offence or that he tried to stop what was happening, consider that he has not stepped forward to condemn these practices. His silence is compelling. Just don’t ask the American Psychological Association about it.

Straw Men

‘Fight for your laws as you would for the city ramparts’ – Anaximenes of Croton.

The words of a sixth century BC philosopher, but still pretty apposite. In the days of Anaximenes the threat to democracy was not only from enemies without, but also from dictatorship and oligarchy within. Recent comments about the Edward Snowden affair brought this comment to my mind. It seems to me that those who have criticised Snowden (and the newspapers which have published his information) have tried to win the argument about the future shape of the intelligence world by using the “straw man” defence i.e. put up a proposition which your opponents have not in fact used, then knock it down and claim to have won.

Politicians, intelligence chiefs and espionage fan-boys (I’m looking at you RUSI) repeatedly stress that the intelligence services do not operate outside the law and that those who claim this to be so are either misguided or malevolent. But in fact that is not their position. Rather, the critics are arguing that the intelligence services operate under legislation which was drawn up without considering the overwhelming power of the services to infiltrate and monitor the world of social networking and communication as they do today. You cannot, as another wise man once said, put new wine into old wine skins. The demand is for a review of the current legislation and a new democratic mandate before this sort of power is to be handed over permanently to the intelligence services.

They have it at the moment, but that does not mean that it is right.