Wednesday, April 16, 2014 

The conspiracy theories return.

Only on Monday were we mentioning in passing Sir Peter Gibson's truncated inquiry into alleged complicity in extraordinary rendition by our glorious security services and government. His final report sat waiting to be published for almost 18 months as arguments over which secret documents could and couldn't be included in full raged, regardless of how meek and mild Gibson's actual conclusions were. One of the key claims from all involved was this time the security services had cooperated fully, making the "vast majority" of requested documents available, except for those that couldn't be released without US permission.

Strange then that as Craig Murray posted on Monday, a source in the Foreign Office had told him our own government was lobbying the Americans over the similarly delayed Senate Intelligence Committee report into the rendition and wider torture programme operated by the CIA. Their worry was, even redacted, the release of the report's executive summary could damage the case currently being put before the courts blocking the attempt by Abdul Hakim Belhaj to seek compensation over his rendition. Despite the judge accepting the evidence for Belhaj's rendition via Hong Kong was all but established, to go any further would risk damage to the "national interest", i.e., the UK's relationship with the US.

Now via al-Jazeera America (and Yorkshire Ranter) comes another reason why both this government and the one previous would like the report's summary to remain sitting on President Obama's desk for a while yet. According to two US officials who have had access to parts of the 6,000 page report, it confirms for the first time that despite repeated denials from ministers back then and the Gibson inquiry not receiving any documents (PDF) that said otherwise, Diego Garcia was indeed used not only as a stopover point for rendition flights as was admitted in 2008, but also as a "black site".  This was with the full permission of the government, despite the likes of Jack Straw and David Miliband time after time telling parliament the exact opposite was the case.

If confirmed, it not only means ministers lied to both houses of parliament to protect the United States and its torture programme, it's also the first time the mistreatment of detainees has been found to have occurred on UK territory.  As all the reports up till now have also cleared the government of complicity in actual extraordinary rendition, having not considered the cases of Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi while downgrading the transfers of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna to Guantanamo as "renditions to detention", it would also for the first time leave the government with no wiggle room on that charge, potentially opening the way for more compensation claims, or even prosecution for those who gave the Americans permission to use their base on Diego Garcia as they saw fit.

Once again then we can be glad the eventual follow-up to the Gibson inquiry has been handed to the fearlessly independent Intelligence and Security Committee, the same one which let the intelligence chiefs know the questions they were going to be asked beforehand (although, it must be noted, they probably would have known anyway such are GCHQ's abilities).  It must also be a relief to Baroness Amos and David Miliband that they have since moved on from the Lords and the Commons respectively, as both insisted the government knew nothing about the use of Diego Garcia to host detainees, although there's a certain irony in how both are now involved in humanitarian work, Amoss at the UN and Miliband at International Rescue.  As for Jack Straw, he's set to leave parliament at the next election, probably before any subsequent inquiry reaches its conclusion.  While the chances of Inspector Knacker coming to call are unlikely, to judge by their past involvement in similar cases, it hopefully won't come too late to further tarnish what deserves to be regarded as one of the most ignominious political careers of recent times.  It might not be the equivalent of having your penis slashed with a scalpel, being deprived of sleep for over 11 days, forced into a pet carrier for two weeks or shackled to the ceiling of a cell by your wrists, but it's something.

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Thursday, December 19, 2013 

Rendition: one step closer to, something.

A day after saying I was right I can swiftly redress the balance by making clear I was also wrong.  There is actually very little in the Report of the Detainee Inquiry aka the Gibson report (PDF) that's been redacted.  Indeed, only one brief section of the report has been, although the main redaction consists of an entire paragraph (page 48 onwards, 5.23) which reading between the lines was an account of what MI5 and SIS officers saw on being allowed to interview detainees at Bagram airbase on the 9th of January 2002.  In what seems to be the first instance of an officer reporting back first hand the potential mistreatment of detainees, SIS Head Office responded by telegram on the 11th of January with advice that while it was "important that you do not engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment", "the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this".  In fact, international law explicitly states the opposite.  Another entire paragraph is then redacted, and this time it's impossible to know what the closed report said.

The main reason why more hasn't been redacted is immediately apparent on reading the rest of what is by inquiry standards, even one which was cancelled early, a fairly short document.  For anyone who presumed the report would deal in detail with individual cases of alleged complicity in rendition, they're likely be left extremely underwhelmed.  What the report amounts to is little more than a reprise of the narrative which those who've followed the rendition scandal from the outset will already be familiar with. This is hardly surprising when it draws heavily on the two previous reports by the Intelligence and Security Committee, 2005's detainee report and 2007's one on rendition. Both were wholly inadequate, thanks to how the ISC didn't then have the power to demand documents from the agencies, and the usual failure of the spooks to tell the truth. Gibson even fully accepts the ISC's defintion of what is and isn't an extraordinary rendition, so once again the agencies are cleared of personal involvement in rendition, despite the massive role played by MI5 in the transfer to Guantanamo of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna.

Despite also having almost full access to the documents requested from MI5 and SIS (the "vast majority" were released, although some, especially those requiring American consent have not been, which is interesting to note considering the NSA's horrendous failure to keep GCHQ documentation safe), new revelations are extremely few and far between. We already knew for instance that while expressing concern about conditions at Guantanamo in public when it opened, Jack Straw was agreeing the transfer of British citizens to the detention camp behind closed doors.  One new detail is that Straw, apparently looking for an alternative, suggested to David Blunkett the then being drafted Extradition Bill could try and restrict the precedent set by R vs Mullen, where the unlawful return of Nicholas Mullen from Zimbabwe had resulted in his conviction of conspiracy to cause explosions being quashed (page 35).  Blunkett reported back 5 months later saying "the obstacles to this suggestion are simply too formidable".

The key issue that remains is the one considered in chapter 6 of the report (page 73 onwards).  Despite what the then heads of MI5 and SIS said to the ISC previously, it's apparent there was more than enough evidence collected by the agencies themselves, not least from the reports of officers back to their heads, to suggest mistreatment was fairly widespread at Bagram and elsewhere.  Gibson says these "reports ... were of variable quality and viability", but when we now know that after the very first visit by British officers to Bagram they were reporting back their concerns only to be told they didn't have to worry their little heads about things like the Geneva convention, it's difficult not to conclude that some within the services knew full well what was happening.  Indeed, it seems as though as early as 2002 MI5 was conducting internal reviews in an attempt to collate the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo.  Despite this, the report reveals, no centralised record was subsequently kept of either allegations of mistreatment or first hand accounts from officers themselves.

As to whether ministers were informed of these concerns, something that has previously been unclear, the report does little to clear things up.  Tony Blair annotated a briefing note on Guantanamo saying although he had been sceptical about claims of torture, it had to be "quickly establish[ed] that it isn't happening".  Jack Straw was also made aware of the report from Bagram, and like Blair, annotated it; he also went on to intervene in both 2003 and 2004 with the Americans with concerns on the treatment and conditions British citizens were subject to.  It wasn't until after the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light however that Straw specifically asked SIS to provide him with information on their experiences in interviewing those held in Afghanistan.  As much as it seems the security services didn't go out of their way to keep ministers informed, the ministers themselves hardly seemed to have been too bothered either.

Which, again, isn't wholly surprising when we know Straw was involved at around the same time in the transfer of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi back to Libya.  Straw for his part responded in the Commons, once again denying that he was in "any way complicit in the unlawful rendition or detention of individuals by the United States or any other state".  The problem for Straw is that MI6 says they only acted in accordance with ministerial authority, meaning one of the two has to be wrong.

Aren't you glad then it'll be the ISC investigating once again, rather than a fusty old judge with a legion of lawyers getting fat off the taxpayer doing the interrogating?  Straw certainly must be, as no doubt are the intelligence services themselves.  Ken Clarke, who must have pulled the short straw and so gave today's Commons statement despite no longer being the justice minister, certainly didn't give anything approaching an adequate explanation as to why a judge-led inquiry can't take place now, with consideration of the alleged Libyan renditions delayed until the the court case and police investigation have concluded, whereas it seems the ISC can do both at the same time.  If nothing else, today's report makes clear that questions from parliamentarians, especially those who have previously held the same positions as those accused, are simply not going to be of the same standard as from those appointed to helm an independent inquiry, not least when the ISC is already conducting at least two other substantial investigations at the same time.

Then there's the very issue we started with.  This report has been with the prime minister for 18 months.  We can't know the battles that went on between Gibson and the Cabinet Office over the redactions, only in the end they've turned out to be relatively minor.  That it's taken such an incredible amount of time to be published does though suggest any report eventually issued by the ISC is even more likely to be affected.  I cannot possibly see how redacting that first paragraph dealing with events more than 10 years ago could affect national security now, and yet in the end Gibson gave in and allowed it to be removed.  When you also consider they've chosen to publish it on what has turned out to be a busy news day at the time of year when few are much interested in parliament, the potential for the hiding of embarrassment, let alone potentially criminal acts, remains immense.  It has at long last been stated fairly uneqovically, if carefully, that we chose to involve ourselves in rendition and the mistreatment of detainees during the initial period of the "war on terror".  It's how those involved are now held to account that matters, and the signs are that just as the CIA was allowed to get away with far worse, our own politicians and spies will be able to plead unique circumstances and get away with only stains on their character.  Those who were tortured will merely have to bear the very real scars for the rest of their lives.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013 

The futility of being right.

There are times when despite every fibre of your being telling you it makes you look an arse, you really just want to say I told you so/I was right/you people are damn fools.  In fact, it doesn't just make you look an arse, it means you almost certainly are an arse.  We hear complaints all that time that no one managed to predict the recession or the Arab spring, except of course for the tiny number some have deemed to be our latter day equivalent of Cassandras.  It doesn't matter it's more than likely those same people completely lucked out and prior to getting something right had been wrong, wrong, and thrice wrong, we tend to downplay such things in our search for those who seem to know something the rest of us dunderheads don't.

To labour the point even further, it's incredibly easy to pose a political soothsayer, not least when by far the best policy is to expect the worst and go from there.  Don't predict riots though, as even if you turn out to be right, you really do look a tool.  Chances are your hit rate if you're careful will be quite high, although considering others despite these rules have failed miserably, such as the sadly departed Mystic Mogg, or Mark "Osama bin Laden is dead" Steyn, perhaps there's more to it than there really seems.

Right, have I delayed the inevitable quite enough?  Those with longer memories will recall that back in the mists of time an inquiry into our "alleged" collusion in extraordinary rendition, helmed by a certain Sir Peter Gibson, was cancelled after further "allegations" against MI6 and Jack Straw came to light.  These "allegations" were such that almost exactly a year ago Sami al-Saadi received a £2m settlement without the government admitting any liability.  In other words, yes, we were perfectly happy to send those associated with an Islamic group opposed to Gaddafi (but which also had links to al-Qaida) back to the colonel's torture chambers, so long as it meant a few of our finest FTSE 100 companies got access to the country's copious natural resources.  A few years later, and a different government decided we would join forces with these terrorists to get rid of the man we felt we could do business with (although, if we're to believe David Shayler, we had already paid the LIFG to make an attempt on Gaddafi a few years previous to that).  Changing geopolitics, eh?

12 months on, and finally we've learned there is indeed to be a follow-on inquiry.  Only, as was predictable, rather than the judge-led independent inquiry hoped for by human rights groups and those others compensated by the governments it is instead to be carried out by, err, the Intelligence and Security Committee.  Yep, in what seems to be a deliberate joke on those of us who have been mocking the ISC for years now, the same committee that produced the ridiculous whitewash on rendition in the first place is to have a second try.  I'd like to say this boggles the mind, except as the general response to the Snowden revelations has made clear, we've come a long way from the days when the coalition was making a lot of noise about "freedom" bills and not introducing ID cards.

It does though raise the question of how such a committee can possibly even begin to hold either ministers or the security services to account.  The government seems to be asking Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretary, to sit in judgement of Jack Straw, former foreign secretary.  Also alongside Rifkind will be Hazel Blears, a minister at the same time as Straw was failing to stop the Iraq war and signing memorandums authorising renditions.  Will she be recusing herself?  One suspects not.  It also won't be able to get straight on with the work as the government continues to try to get Abdel Hakim Belhaj's case thrown out, meaning it's possible the inquiry won't have started until after the next election. Apparently enough then the government isn't even pretending to be interested in keeping its word any longer, and those hopes the likes of Liberty had for something better to turn up have very much not come to pass.  As even a goon like me thought was the most likely result.

We will however be getting Gibson's interim report, which will be somewhat limited as the inquiry never heard any evidence.  Seeing as it's also sat around for the best part of 18 months, it's bound to be redacted to the verge of complete pointlessness, and in the best Whitehall tradition, to blame precisely no one and also reach err, no conclusions whatsoever.  Fantastic.  It's also being published on the last parliamentary day before Christmas, no doubt alongside dozens of other unpleasant documents and statistics the government doesn't want anyone to know about.  Isn't it great being right?

No.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013 

The continuing mystery of the death of Gareth Williams.

Amid all the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, one thing seems to have been forgotten, including by myself.  Despite the attempts of intelligence agencies since they were first created to appear omniscient, they are not.  GCHQ may well have "mastered the internet" through the Tempora programme, but can they actually use it, as those of us critical of the security services believe, to spy on practically any piece of internet traffic if they wanted to, or is it, as Charles Farr additionally argued yesterday, that it does not provide them with the same capabilities as they wanted ISPs to give them via the data communications bill?  Could it be that Tempora merely exists because GCHQ and the government wanted to see if it was possible, and to help the Americans?

We obviously can't know.  What we do know is that down the years GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, despite having some major successes, have also from time after time failed disastrously.  As David Anderson said to the Home Affairs Select Committee, us Brits tend to think of the security services as Bletchley Park and James Bond. Not many of us are aware for instance that MI5 was first set up to combat an invented menace, or how the security services themselves never succeeded in discovering the traitors in their midst.  They failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 (although there most certainly were warnings that the American agencies didn't act on), or the Arab Spring.  The head of MI6 Sir John Sawers responded to that latter failure last week at the ISC by saying his agents aren't "crystal ball gazers".  Fair enough, but when they've been found wanting on so many occasions, including when intelligence agencies across the globe believed the lies of Curveball, isn't it something we should be concerned about? Or should we accept lessons truly have been learned this time?

We come then to the continuing mystery of the death of GCHQ employee Gareth Williams.  Seconded to MI6, he was found dead in the bath of the safe house where he lived, locked inside a holdall.  The inquest, hindered at pretty much every turn by MI6 demanding secrecy and the severely limited inquiry undertaken by the Metropolitan police, which seemed to take every statement given to it by GCHQ and MI6 staff at face value, ended with the coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox deciding on the balance of probabilities Williams had been unlawfully killed.  Her verdict was slightly undermined when footage emerged a couple of days later of a reporter advised by a retired army sergeant successfully locking herself into the same holdall, something two other experts to the inquest had failed to do.

Suitably chastened by the criticism, the Met relaunched their investigation, with MI6 second time around apparently deciding to be more cooperative.  A year and a bit later, Detective Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt has concluded that rather than being the victim of murder, on the balance of probabilities Williams most likely locked himself in the bag, and failing to get out, was quickly overcome by CO2 toxicity. He nonetheless admits he cannot be certain, and that it remains a possibility others were involved. Nor are there any answers as to why there were no fingerprints, including Williams', found on the padlock used to secure the holdall, or on the sides of the bath. It would though have been "theoretically possible" to get in the bath and holdall without leaving fingerprints, so this anomaly is not necessarily sinister.  Also unexplained is why Williams's iPhone had been reset to factory settings, or if he did get into the bag himself, how he was found in such a "neat" position.  Presuming this wasn't an extremely elaborate suicide, surely he would have been struggling to get out, unless he gave up and accepted his fate.

Understandably, Williams' parents are not convinced, and continue to think the coroner got closer to the truth. If we are to accept Hewitt's conclusion, there are only two explanations as to what happened. Either Williams, contrary to Wilcox's verdict, did have an interest in bondage and escapology, as perhaps indicated by his once having to be released from binds to his bed, or his work for MI6 and GCHQ included being trained in how to escape from and/or deal with extremely tight situations. This isn't entirely far-fetched: US special forces for instance have undergone waterboarding as part of their training. This isn't to say spies are being asked to emulate Houdini, but that perhaps Williams, becoming more confident in his training, felt he could go further on his own. This would also explain why the heating was turned up, and also how he managed not to leave any fingerprints on the bath.

If this is what happened though, it doesn't properly explain why MI6 weren't forthcoming from the outset. They could have told SO15 about the training, and intimated to the coroner as to why a secret session was absolutely necessary, but apparently did neither. If they have since come clean to Hewitt, then good, but why have they not decided to do so with his parents? Human fallibility explains why Williams' absence wasn't investigated until 8 days after he failed to turn up to work, but it still seems odd.

The other circumstances, such as the wiped iPhone, are similarly strange.  It's not beyond belief that the entire thing was part of a sex game, Williams having made contact with someone who killed him and then covered their tracks extraordinarily well, but if so it was done in public rather than over the phone or internet, there being no records of any calls or emails/messages.  As alluded to above, other agents have successfully concealed their sexuality, or in the case of Geoffrey Prime, paedophilia, but neither of the investigations have turned up any evidence to suggest Williams was gay or this was sex based.

We are then almost back where we started, none the wiser to the circumstances in which Williams died.  Using the respective razors of Occam and Hanlon would suggest Williams did manage to climb into and padlock the holdall himself, and that MI6 were incompetent rather than conspiratorial in their actions, backing up Hewitt's conclusions.  Can anyone possibly be blamed though for imagining more sinister forces may well have been at work?  We only learned that Alexander Litvinenko was an active MI6 agent last year, something which put his murder in an entirely different light.  As outlandish as it seems that Williams could have been killed by a foreign agency, MI6's failure to notice he was missing and to follow it up meant his body was decomposed to the point where it was impossible for any short-acting poison to be detected, while their initial actions in not revealing to the police that there was another identical holdall owned by Williams in their possession along with 9 memory sticks invites suspicion.  If anyone really does know what happened to Williams, they seem determined for the rest of us not to find out.

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Thursday, November 07, 2013 

The illusion of oversight.

It would be an exaggeration to say today's first ever public session with the heads of the intelligence agencies was a waste of time.  Finally getting MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to answer questions from a committee in front of the cameras is itself an achievement; not so long ago Andrew Parker and Sir John Sawers' predecessors were refusing to give evidence to any other parliamentary committee, and would only do so to the Intelligence and Security panel in closed session.

Apart from their showing up though, there wasn't much else to recommend them having bothered taking time out of their schedules.  A flavour of just how little we were likely to learn was in the ludicrous "security" measures that were taken: journalists weren't allowed to take their phones in, for who knows what reason, while the session was broadcast with a two minute delay just in case any information believed too sensitive was discussed or mentioned.  Considering it was unlikely Parker, Sawers or GCHQ's Sir Ian Lobban were suddenly going to detail exactly how it is we combat cyber espionage, or listen in to the communications between al-Qaida leaders, this presumably was meant to be in case a committee member quoted too liberally from the Edward Snowden revelations, or rather, to give the impression such sensitive material could be discussed.  All but needless to say, it wasn't.

There were at least a few minor points, mainly from Parker, which we weren't entirely aware of before.  He put an actual number on the plots which have been foiled since 7/7, saying there had 34, one or two of which had the potential to be mass casualty attacks, presumably a reference to the "liquid bombs" plot and the cell disrupted in Operation Crevice.  Seeing as we've heard from 3 different heads of MI5 now, including Parker, who have repeated the claim there are around 30 plots on-going at any one time, with 2,000 individuals involved in one way or another, these two figures don't exactly tally.  Is MI5 in fact more successful than it's letting on, or are the extremists less competent or committed than is routinely imagined? This discrepancy wasn't remarked on however, unsurprisingly.  Parker's other point of interest was, despite the whining from Labour earlier in the week, they don't regard the replacement of control orders with TPIMs as having had any adverse effect on security.

The rest of the session was dedicated almost entirely to questions that we either already know the answers to, or which the agencies themselves have responded to in one way or another.  Sawers gave the same response when asked if MI6 would ever work with foreign agencies who use torture that he has previously, saying that if he was concerned someone could be mistreated he'd get ministerial approval, and if he was certain there would be, authorisation would never be forthcoming.  This approach was presumably not in operation when two of Gaddafi's opponents were rendered back to the dictator's most notorious jail courtesy of MI6 with Jack Straw's signature, but none of the committee were crass enough to raise the issue. Sawers was also pleased the Justice and Security bill was passed, "as this meant they could "now defend themselves" in such cases, rather than say ensure such embarrassing details as the seven paragraphs never become public again.

You see, secrecy isn't to prevent the services being embarrassed or privacy concerns from becoming known, it's only to ensure those who want to do us harm aren't aware of how we prevent them from doing so, as "nosy" Parker made clear. The idea that GCHQ has been reading everyone's emails and listening in to phone calls just isn't true, said Lobban in response to some very carefully worded questions. Snowden's revelations of course didn't say that they did, as such a thing would be impossible, rather that Tempora has meant they can hoover up all that information. Lobban claimed that their approach was to get to the needle without upsetting the haystack, which was a wonderfully revealing analogy: GCHQ can apparently do the undoable! Or, err, they can't and don't.

Thus we moved on to the ordained Guardian bashing section. Sawers growled that the paper is "not particularly well placed to make [that] judgement" on what would and wouldn't affect national security, echoing the position chairman Malcolm Rifkind had already reached. Sawers added that "our adversaries had been rubbing their hands with glee ... al-Qaida are lapping it up", yet when the three were asked for specific examples of the damage done, they naturally refused to compound it by setting some out.  Lobban said they had "intelligence on specific terrorist groups discussing what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods", which rather suggests that, err, they haven't made any such shift yet, and that they might have been rather slapdash in the first place.  All three would expand on the damage done, but only in a closed session, meaning us proles will never be able to judge whether or not the three were telling the truth. Their point was also slightly undermined when they accepted that the ISC had not been kept informed of how their capabilities had developed, learning along with the rest of us from the Guardian, but this too would now be remedied in a closed session. No one suggested that this was perhaps a little late, nor does it inspire confidence they will be more up front in the future.

There were also some great big pork pies in amongst the dull stuff.  Parker, quite incredibly, said that MI5 "was not arguing for more intrusion and more and more powers", even going so far as to say they had turned down "disproportionate" offers in the past.  Really?  Did MI5 really tell Blair and then Brown they didn't want 90 days or 42 days detention?  Eliza Manningham-Buller might have said she didn't believe it was necessary, but that's not the same thing.  As for the data and communications bill we know full well all three agencies have been lobbying hard for, and which would have enshrined in law the powers the Guardian revealed GCHQ already has, we heard absolutely nothing about it.

The committee, with the possible exception of Lord Butler who asked a couple of the more searching questions, completely flunked the opportunity to get any real nuggets of information out of the three.  No one thought to ask why it was the Americans have funded GCHQ to the tune of £100m over the past three years, or what GCHQ meant when they boasted to the NSA that the "legal framework" here was a "unique selling point".  We also didn't hear why it was that only the prime minister and relevant secretaries knew about Tempora, with the national security council and other senior ministers not being informed.  If we're being charitable, perhaps two out of the Guardian's ten questions were somewhat addressed.  The rest were clearly far too pointed.
 

The real purpose of today was to present the illusion of oversight.  All three intelligence chiefs thought the current regime worked quite well, as indeed it does, for them at least.  When the head of the committee asking the questions makes clear the media simply doesn't have the knowledge to make a decision on what might damage national security, and so shouldn't publish anything without first consulting the very people they're about to expose, it's abundantly clear the entire system is a joke.  Even with its expanded powers, the ISC is a fig leaf, and whether the secret state likes it or not, it's one that goes on shrinking.  The sooner we have a regulator that's worthy of the name, the sooner the public concern about privacy and civil liberties will subside.  Sadly, that seems as far away as ever.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013 

Hip, hip hooray!

Can we have three cheers for the Intelligence and Security Committee?  Having postponed the hearing where the heads of MI5 and MI6 would have been questioned for the first time in public as it was "too busy" trying to get to the bottom of the Woolwich murder and the ability of GCHQ to get access to almost any data that it feels like, it's managed to come to a firm conclusion on whether or not the access GCHQ has had to the NSA's Prism programme broke the law.

Could you possibly believe that it didn't (PDF)?  Indeed, it was fairly obvious that it didn't when dear old Bill Hague stood up in parliament and inferred, for that was as far as he went, that everything GCHQ did was signed off by either him or another minister.  It was up to the Graun to inform us that everything was legal and hunky dory as GCHQ's Tempora programme, similar to that of Prism, is operated on the basis of certificates and warrants that are renewed every six months, taking advantage of the wide discretion given in paragraph 4, section 8 of the RIPA act 2000.

Of course, the ISC doesn't specifically state this is how the system operates, as that might make clear just how wide open it makes it for potential abuse.  It merely alludes to it, with the line that "a warrant for interception, signed by a Minister, was already in place".  Meekly, it does make the point that even though written just over a decade ago, RIPA is clearly out of date, as "it is proper to consider further whether the current statutory framework governing access to private communications remains adequate".

Which is only a slight understatement.  RIPA was never written with the intention of giving the security services access to what is likely thousands of terabytes worth of data, which can then be stored for up to 30 days. In part, this is was what the communications bill was meant to address: ministers and the security services just didn't think it was relevant to let us know that they already had access to the exact metadata that was to be collected through it (Tempora collect the data itself as well), under a system that is legal even if it stretches RIPA to absolute breaking point.

In a way, the revelations via Edward Snowden and the Graun have actually played into the securocrats' hands.  Now it's apparent that GCHQ can get access to whatever it wants anyway and it's all perfectly legitimate, what's the point of opposing a bill that will simply update it for a modern age?  Thanks also to the D-Notice and much of the media deciding that the security services are above suspicion, there's been hardly any outcry here at all about the impact on privacy, in complete contrast to how the news of snooping under Prism has been received in mainland Europe.  Moreover, we've got a generation growing up now used to sharing their lives online, apparently perfectly happy with the premise that if you've got nothing to hide you've nothing to fear, where movies actively celebrate how wonderful and beyond reproach Google is.  To say this doesn't bode well for a future where the internet is only going to become even more integral to everyday life no longer seems vaguely paranoid; instead, it looks set to become a fundamental challenge to civil liberties.

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Monday, July 01, 2013 

Not much intelligence etc.

The Intelligence and Security Committee wants to be taken seriously.  We know this because in its previous incarnation it was regarded as a bit of a joke, producing reports so ridiculously censored that its existence was a waste of everyone's time.  It was lied to repeatedly by the intelligence agencies, and when it wasn't being lied to it was more than happy to change the very meaning of words in order to clear those it was meant to be monitoring of any involvement in little things like extraordinary rendition.

When it then postpones the very first occasion on which it was meant to be questioning the heads of the security services because "it's too busy", meaning that it almost certainly won't be rescheduled until October once the summer recess is done and the party conferences are over, first you smell a rat and second it makes a mockery of the new powers it's received.  As the Graun almost incredulously reports, surely Thursday would have been a great opportunity to question those who normally prefer the shadows, both on whether more could have been done to prevent the murder of Lee Rigby (extremely dubious, although there's plenty they could have asked about MI5's involvement with Michael Adebolajo and his family) and on the revelations about GCHQ's spying on the G20 meetings and alleged tapping of the country's main fibre optic cables via Project Tempora.

Frankly, who knows whether it was the committee or the agencies that decided they simply couldn't be quizzed on TV when interest would have been high.  No, far better to let everything calm down, the accusations against GCHQ to be pushed to the back of minds, and then allow John Sawers and Andrew Parker to be extremely lightly grilled at some point in the future.  Taking into account that the trial of Adebolajo and Adebowale has been set for the 18th of November, it wouldn't surprise if the heads either refused to answer questions on the Woolwich murder in light of the trial, or if the session was pushed even further back.  Regardless of the reality, the ISC is hardly convincing that it is up to the job it's been set, and that's just the way that the spooks like it.

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Monday, June 24, 2013 

So it goes.

You don't really need me to tell you that there's a hilarious irony at work in the merry dance Edward Snowden is leading both the US authorities and journalists in. Thanks to his leaks we know that both the NSA and our own GCHQ believe that they have mastered the internet, working close to hand in glove with the world's major internet firms, even able to tap into the fibre optic cables that link the UK with the rest of the world. Can they manage to keep track of just one man though, despite his arriving in Moscow on a plane? The answer is a big fat nope.

What does seem to be the case is that his plan to catch a flight to Cuba today was an elaborate ruse, one that seems to have worked perfectly. While the hacks and no doubt others were all waiting for him to board the Aeroflot plane, it seems likely he was already slipping away. Who knows where he is, but it wouldn't surprise if, despite his apparent request for asylum in Ecuador, he now turned up in Iceland, the original safe haven he had in mind.

Almost needless to say, Snowden's escape, through authoritarian nations no less, has been enraging the right people. The Hong Kong authorities claim the warrant they were sent for Snowden's arrest was bodged, something denied by the Americans, while Russia is now essentially being threatened lest it dares allow him to leave. Considering the act recently passed in Congress that targets Russian officials alleged to have abused human rights, something deemed not necessary when dealing with far more oppressive nations, it wouldn't exactly be a surprise if they also decide to turn a blind eye to Snowden's departure, seven Russian fugitives returned by the US in recent years or not.

And we should be clear about this: while Snowden is not a soldier and so if repatriated couldn't be treated in the same way as Bradley Manning has under the court martial system, you can guarantee he wouldn't have a much better time of it. The United States hasn't been able to point to a single intelligence source who has suffered as a result of Manning's leaks, despite Wikileaks posting the raw files up for anyone to download. The best they could manage is the utterly ludicrous "aiding the enemy" charge, as though Osama bin Laden discovering what US ambassadors really thought about their hosts in some way helped al-Qaida.

Snowden, by contrast, has only passed on files that have exposed how personal information is increasingly being sucked up by the intelligence agencies, with either no oversight whatsoever or the most minimal conceivable.  Even if GCHQ was exaggerating in the documents Snowden leaked to Graun on Project Tempora, and the fact that they've also had a source in MI5 comment suggesting that it's fairly accurate what they can do, then it seems they've already got access to all the metadata they could ever need.  If they can also access the content of messages for three days, then they've already got powers which go beyond what the security services have been asking for in the Data Communications Act.  The idea that foreign intelligences agencies didn't already know about this, and have their own systems either in development or already in use is laughable.  Only if they didn't is it possible that Snowden's leaks have damaged national security either here or in the US.

Not that our leading politicians have commented.  While the Graun's latest story on Friday gained slightly more media attention than their previous expose of GCHQ's spying on the G20, for the most part the silence has continued.  Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee Malcolm Rifkind said that he expected GCHQ would provide a written report in response "within a day or so", and that it again seems will be that.  We might at some point in the future get a truncated, redacted report from the ISC which reassures that everything was in fact in order and we don't have anything to be worried about.  So it goes.

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Thursday, June 20, 2013 

The "treachery" of the Graun and the silence of the rest of the media.

On Monday, the Graun ran an extraordinary story.  Detailing how GCHQ had spied on delegates at two G20 summits in London in 2009, it made clear how even those regarded as allies had had their emails intercepted, with agents having gone to the extent of setting up internet cafes so as to make the process easier.  Justified on the grounds of defending "economic well-being", a clause included in the Intelligence Services Act 1994, it was really something far more mundane: an attempt to gain any sort of advantage in the negotiations.

Considering how much the right-wing press love Gordon Brown, you might have thought that the Graun's revelations would have had a significant impact.  But no.  With the exception of a couple of follow-ups, it seems most of the rest of the media wasn't interested.  Nor were they taken with the Graun's live Q&A session with their source for all the stories on the NSA, Prism and GCHQ, Edward Snowden.  With the exception of an attack piece in the Mail by Stephen Glover, where the man who was one of the founders of the Independent now writes up what Paul Dacre tells him to, nor has there been any real criticism of the paper for what Glover calls "treachery".  Roy Greenslade wonders why.

The most obvious answer, it seems, is that the D-Notice committee issued a polite note to editors after the first tranche of stories were given wide coverage.  While, as always, there had not yet been any contravention of the committee's guidelines, the "intelligence services are concerned that further developments of this same theme may begin to jeopardize both national security and possibly UK personnel".  How this could be the case when all the revelations have done is alerted the average citizen to just how far surveillance of the internet and phone calls has gone, with little in the way of oversight, and how GCHQ and the NSA work together is unclear.  If ever there was an example of the warning off of editors from publishing anything else, quite clearly this it.

All the same, as Dominic Ponsford writes, this doesn't explain why the media didn't bother to follow up the Graun's stories.  Once the Graun had breached the order, which is voluntary, the information was in the public domain and so there was no reason for the rest of the media to continue to abide by the order, as indeed happened once the news of Prince Harry's deployment to Afghanistan became public.  It also can't be that the Graun is now viewed as beyond the pale, else the original reports on the NSA wouldn't have been covered in the detail that they were.

It's more, as we've seen, that the security services are the one part of the state that tends to get a free pass from both right and left.  Where the left tends to have a blind side when it comes to the NHS and the right often seems to think the police can do no wrong (although even that's changed in recent times with the likes of the Mail deciding the police have become just another part of the PC (groan) state), both seem to be overwhelmed by how "keeping us safe" trumps civil liberties and basic accountability every time.  William Hague in the Commons didn't even attempt to seriously engage with the questions about how GCHQ worked with the NSA on Prism, he just said everything was hunky dory, and that was enough for both politicians and the press.  It is, as Greenslade writes, remarkable that the press that makes so much of its independence from the state and raises hell at the threat of regulation finds so little to worry about when it comes to the darkest reaches of government.

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Monday, June 10, 2013 

Through the prism.

Whenever the security services are criticised, we always get the same boilerplate response.  They do amazing work keeping us safe; they have to get it right every time while our enemies only have to be lucky once; we can't possibly be told of everything they're doing to protect us so they often prevent attacks we never even hear about it; and so on.  To which the obvious answer is: well, no shit.  The point surely is that with great power comes great responsibility.  As with the police or any other state service, they have to be held to account, even if everything can't be disclosed for very good reasons.

For all the claims from politicians that our intelligence agencies are some of the most open in the world, they simply don't have regulators worthy of the name.  The Intelligence and Security Committee has yet to prove it is up to the task, even with its boosted powers, such were the lies it was told about our involvement in rendition, and indeed the whitewash which the committee itself applied.  Nor are the commissioners any better, while the previous reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, was practically a creature of the security servicesHis replacement David Anderson does at least seem slightly more worthy of the description independent.  It also doesn't inspire confidence that the latest chairman of the ISC, Malcolm Rifkind, also chairs LEK, which provides consultancy to arms manufacturers.

When William Hague then says the law abiding have nothing to fear from GCHQ potentially having access to almost every piece of information an individual has shared with the majority of the internet giants via the US National Security Agency's Prism programme, you ought to know that the opposite is the case.  The old trope about those who have nothing to hide having nothing to be concerned about is so hoary that it shouldn't really need to be answered, but it ought to be even more ridiculous in a sad age of "revenge porn" and when so many share their most intimate secrets online.  Almost every single person has something in their past that they wouldn't want to become common knowledge, or which they would only ever share with their closest friends and family.  I most certainly have.

Whether or not it is the case that GHCQ have been using Prism as a way of getting around our more stringent laws on data interception isn't clear.  Certainly, that there were 197 such requests last year makes apparent that it's useful for something, although whether or not they gained access to information they otherwise hadn't been able to get hold of with the authorisation of a secretary of state or court order we can't know.  The inference from Hague in the Commons today was that these requests are also authorised either by him or another minister, hence why he and Cameron have both said that everything GCHQ does takes place under a legal framework.

He did at least recognise there might well need to be a change in the law, taking the point from David Blunkett of all people that while ministerial approval might still be required, it is not legally required.  This rather misses the point that we shouldn't be using what another intelligence service is accessing without oversight when it goes beyond what our own laws currently stipulate is permissible.  The proposed communications bill, which the joint committee said went too far, only proposes that the information that a message or action has been sent (metadata) be kept by ISPs, not the actual content itself.  Prism, by contrast, sucks in everything, and it seems with a certain amount of connivance from the likes of Facebook and Google, despite their claims to the contrary.

You don't have to be Alex Jones to be worried that while this data collection might currently be used to (in the main) protect us, it wouldn't take much for it to be used for mass surveillance, and indeed probably already is in any number of authoritarian states.  It should also concern us that contrary to the assurances from politicians, the tide is in fact towards ensuring the security services are further beyond proper scrutiny.  The justice and security bill that ensures there won't be a repeat of the "seven paragraphs" case has become law, the Gibson inquiry's report (what there is of it) is still yet to be published, while the Chilcot inquiry also seems to be stuck in limbo.  The communications data bill will eventually get passed in some form or another, precisely because the securocrats have too much influence and power for it not to be.  Just as we have an independent commission to monitor the police, so we should have a genuinely independent one for the intelligence agencies.  What we'll continue to have instead is the stonewalling and obfuscation that Hague in the main delivered to parliament today, along with the usual toadying from the majority on all sides.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013 

Not to speak ill of the dead...

The news of the death of Boris Berezovsky was undoubtedly one of those "oh Christ" moments.  The unexpected death of another of the exiles from Putin's Russia was always going to be investigated extremely carefully, lest there be even the slightest indication that it was anything other than natural or swiftly explained.  Such is the level of mistrust and suspicion directed at the government, much of it warranted, it must be said, the deaths of other dissidents and refugees have all been previously seized upon as potentially the work of the FSB, most notably in the case of Arkadi "Badri" Patarkatsishvili, who was quickly found to have passed away as a result of a heart attack, although that conclusion did little to allay the fears of those who think we should underestimate the KGB's successor at our peril.

It certainly isn't unknown for murders to be presented as suicides, including by those far less competent than state actors.  This said, everything known at the moment does point towards Berezovsky taking his own life.  A man who had spent two decades living in luxury, extremely highly regarded by the elite first in Russia in the 90s and then in the UK in the 2000s, he had been brought low through his own greed.  Described by Mrs Justice Gloster in the case he brought against his fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich as a "inherently unreliable witness" and of being "deliberately dishonest", the massive legal fees probably hurt more.  Combined with a huge settlement with his second wife, it was reported last week he was looking to sell an Andy Warhol print of Lenin worth around £50,000, something that appears to contradict the claims made since by Nikolai Glushkov that he had "managed to resolve his financial issues".  Having lost much if not almost all of his fortune, his friends report he had been depressed, and had sought treatment at the Priory.  Although those same friends have reported he seemed better, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that he may well have relapsed.

Nor does the timing make much sense.  Why dispense with someone who no longer poses a threat of any sort? Who knows just how much money Berezovsky did put in to attempting to get rid of Putin, but the results have been pretty negligible.  We can of course draw the analogy with Trotsky, in that Stalin's nemesis had never been so far removed from influence as he was when Ramón Mercader wielded the ice pick, but Berezovsky was no Trotsky (and Putin is no Stalin for that matter), however much the Kremlin's news agencies demonised him.

One thing Berezovsky's death ought to bring into sharper focus is the rather underreported evidence heard at the hearing ahead of the inquest into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. The lawyer on behalf of Litvinenko's widow, Marina, made submissions that set out the former KGB and FSB officer had swapped sides, and was a paid MI6 agent when he was poisoned with polonium.  It also seems as though he was working with the Spanish intelligence agencies, and that the plan was for him to travel with his alleged murderer, Andrei Lugovi, to the country to provide further information to the authorities there on the Russian mafia.

Not only does this raise questions about whether MI6 breached their duty of care to Litvinenko, it also puts his murder into an entirely different perspective.  This wasn't just a assassination of a man we offered shelter to, it was the murder of a state asset, and it was never felt appropriate that this should become public, at least not before his widow seemed to have exhausted every other avenue in her search for justice.  It also means that for years MI6 had someone on its books (the Mail claimed back in 2007 that Litvinenko had been an officer, but it wasn't widely followed up) who was making the most serious allegations possible about a rival service: that the FSB and Putin were prepared to bomb their own citizens in furtherance of their political aims.  It doesn't really get much more serious.  Were MI6 aware of any specific threats against Litvinenko, or indeed have any concerns whatsoever about having on the payroll someone who had become an enemy of his former employer?  And what of Berezovsky?  Did he have an association with the intelligence agencies too?

Whether we'll learn much from the inquest, delayed now until October, is unclear.  The government files on Litvinenko will be examined in secret before it opens after William Hague applied for a public interest immunity certificate, and so how much will be heard in public remains to be seen.

One vital witness due to appear was Berezovsky.  Something that has never been properly explained is just how far the relationship between Lugovi and Berezovsky went; Lugovi had served as the head of security for ORT, the Russian television channel then owned by Berezovsky and Patarkatsishvili, and so was someone Berezovsky believed could be trusted.  Regardless of the individual circumstances, that almost all those involved have either died or are boycotting the proceedings (Lugovi) doesn't inspire confidence that much is going to be resolved beyond what we already know.

Nonetheless, few in Russia will have shed tears at Berezovsky passing, even if few have much affection for Putin at this point.  Berezovsky's reputation as the robber baron in chief was in place long before he fled.  Indeed, it's arguable that if Russia hadn't been given the economic shock treatment it received after the fall of the Soviet Union, and if the oligarchs hadn't in turn profited so hugely from the rigged sell off of state assets that the Russian public wouldn't have taken so much to the strongman who was determined to put an end to the chaos that has now come to represent Yeltsin's reign.  That the likes of Berezovsky were taken so quickly into the bosom of the British establishment with little in the way of questioning about just what did go on in Russia during the mid-90s ought to be an abiding shame.  The least we can do now is ensure the truth about the death of Alexander Litvinenko comes out.

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013 

Keeping secrets secret.

There's a scene in the film Liar Liar (this will almost certainly be the only time I quote from a Jim Carrey film other than the Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind approvingly) in which Carrey's character, compelled to tell the truth after a wish made by his son, screams down the phone at a long-term client once again seeking his legal advice that he should "STOP BREAKING THE LAW, ASSHOLE".

 A similar scene ought to have been repeated a long time ago when it came to the intelligence agencies and their active collusion both with the US rendition programme, and indeed as we now know, MI6's own escapades in delivering opponents of Gaddafi back into his torture system, I mean prison system.  Of course, this could never have happened as, we also now know, it was Jack Straw who was signing the paperwork that authorised the rendition in the first place.

The misfortune of the coalition is that they've been the ones left to deal with the mess created by years of litigation from former detainees who believe, rather justifiably considering what's come to light as well as from their own experiences that both MI5 and SIS were up to their neck in rendition.  The government, desperate to ensure that hundreds of thousands of pages of documents detailing what was going on at the time the former Guantanamo detainees were either being transferred or in the odd case, actively handed over to the Americans remain secret, has in the aftermath of the "seven paragraphs" and a ruling by the Court of Appeal that allegations of wrongdoing must be heard in public, instead resorted to large cash settlements, accepting no culpability for what happened to the men.  The latest, a massive payout to Sami al-Saadi, one of the two men sent back to Gaddafi's holiday camps, was for £2.2 million.

An obvious solution to this unpleasantness would be, you would have thought, to not get involved in illegal conspiracies where "terrorist suspects" are flown to various black sites around the world, or as the rendition programme has since ceased, to not actively conspire with authoritarian states over the detention of opposition figures, regardless of the business interests involved.  This doesn't mean not working with states that we regard as having poor records on human rights whatsoever, when such relationships are vital to protecting our own citizens and interests, rather it means just not helping them with the things that our own courts would reject.

But no.  No, what we need instead to placate both foreign intelligence agencies and to protect our sources on the ground is closed material procedures in civil cases, similar to the current Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, where claimants (or defendants, in SIAC's case) are represented by special advocates who can only give a "gist" of the evidence against their clients to them.  Passed yesterday in parliament, the system will allow justice to be done, the claimants either vindicated or the intelligence agencies cleared of wrongdoing, the taxpayer no longer giving money to suspected terrorists to fund future missions, as Ken Clarke implied at one point, and our allies who have threatened to stop sharing intelligence due to a supposed breach of the "control" principle will be satisfied.

As Henry Porter (as an aside, it's worth noting the lack of outrage from the vast majority of those who condemned ZaNuLiarBore for their constant attacks on civil liberties this time round) and Richard Norton-Taylor have pointed out, these arguments might carry more weight if we didn't know all too well this part of the Justice and Security Bill only exists because of lobbying from the intelligence agencies.  The fact is that the courts were getting far too close to the truth: that despite all of the claims to the contrary, the security services are still involved in practices that are either incompatible with basic human rights or which rather than making us more safe, do the exact opposite.  While the Guantanamo detainees all decided to settle, as has al-Saadi since, it's more than possible that someone would emerge who had suffered either at their hands or indirectly who wouldn't, and would take the case all the way.  The seven paragraphs were enough to get ministers hyperventilating; some of the material contained in the documentation of the war on terror could be enough to alter the perception of the security services for a generation.

The row over the control principle was always secondary to this.  The Americans may well have been angered by the release of the seven paragraphs, but they were only ever released by our courts because the American courts had already let even more damning evidence on the treatment of Binyam Mohamed out into the public domain.  In any case, as David Davis pointed out during the debate, the Americans are more than willing to let intelligence out when it shows them in a good light, and to say their own levels of security were previously wanting considering Bradley Manning and Wikileaks is an understatement.  While it's certainly true that SIAC does not always find in the government's favour, as demonstrated in how Abu Qatada has been granted bail and in Ekaterina Zatuliveter's successful appeal against deportation as a spy, unless there are absolutely exceptional reasons justice must be open, and seen to be open.  Closed material procedures were designed to protect the blushes of the security services, and the amendments to the legislation haven't done anything to change this.

No surprise then that Jack Straw himself stood up in the Commons yesterday and argued against his own party.  Not for him a quiet life while the allegations against him continue to be investigated, and as the civil case from Mr Belhaj remains unresolved (Straw didn't take the opportunity to respond to Belhaj's offer of a settlement for a token sum and an apology), this was a case which required his expertise.  Never mind that it's that exact expertise which has seemingly led to the need for this bill, for as Straw reminded us, it's not scaremongering to say that to carry on in the position we are in is the equivalent of abandoning the intelligence agencies, and with it their ability to protect us.  Just as Straw once said it was a conspiracy theory there was any such thing as a rendition programme, so it would be deeply unwise to regard him as discredited now.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012 

The least they could do.

Right on cue, the news that the government has settled the case brought by Sami al-Saadi over the rendition of his entire family from Hong Kong to Libya only serves to underline how little has changed since the days of collusion with terrorist gangs in Northern Ireland.  Desperate to bring Libya in from the cold so that UK businesses could fully exploit the country's potential, both Tony Blair and Jack Straw went the extra mile in wooing one of the most vicious tyrants of our age, authorising Mark Allen to deal directly with Moussa Koussa in the rendition of both al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj.  Al-Saadi was bundled onto a plane in Hong Kong just three days after Blair's trip to Libya to shake hands with Gaddafi, while Belhaj had made a similarly forced trip two weeks prior to Blair's arrival.  Allen went so far as to write that the rendition of Belhaj was "the least we could do for you and Libya".

As with the settlements reached with the men who ended up in Guantanamo, the government has accepted no liability for what happened to al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir.  Both Munthir and Belhaj were senior leaders in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a faction which had close ties to al-Qaida, prior to its dissolution.  This association didn't bother us too much when Libya was a sworn enemy, however: according to David Shayler (prior, it must be said, to his espousal of 9/11 conspiracy theories) MI6 funded a failed assassination attempt on Gaddafi by the LIFG.  This accepting of no liability is despite it being the most clear-cut case of collusion with an authoritarian state, thanks to the documents discovered by Human Rights Watch, and our knowing full well that any promises sought that the men would not be mistreated were worthless.

It certainly brings into perspective the anger expressed by Blair at how he couldn't deport anyone designated as a "terrorist suspect" to wherever the hell he felt like; no doubt aware of how swiftly those opposed to a new dictatorial ally had been delivered into their grasp, it must have smarted that the likes of Abu Qatada and others kept winning their legal battles.  It also remains to be seen whether charges will be brought against anyone involved in these two cases: the Gibson inquiry into rendition was abandoned as a consequence, ostensibly for the reason that the investigation by the Met would have further delayed the hearing of evidence.  I'm certainly not holding my breath on that score. 

Considering then that Blair has been making such a killing through his work for Kazakhstan, and Straw will presumably be receiving royalties from his memoir, perhaps the pair would like to contribute towards the £2.2m cost to the taxpayer of their handiwork.  It's the least they could do for us, and the country's worldwide reputation for human rights, surely?

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Monday, August 20, 2012 

The continuing triumph of the securocrats.

I recall that, many aeons ago, good ol' Nicholas Clegg asked for ideas on what could be included in a freedom bill. The end result, the Protection of Freedoms Act, is it must be said one of the coalition's very few decent achievements. The amount of time "terrorist suspects" can be detained prior to charge is now 14 days rather than the 28, just a slight reduction on the 90 Tony Blair tried to ram through parliament, the section 44 "anti-terrorist" power the police had that allowed them to search anyone they felt like has gone, as has the biometric data of more than 1m of those arrested but not charged with any offence by the police, although how certain we can be of the destruction of the information is another matter.

We are though still completely in the thrall of securocrats, as a quick glance at the Graun today records. As though the vast majority of the security checks at airports weren't pointless enough, the coalition looks to be resurrecting an old Labour proposal to install similar scanning technology at railway and tube stations. They quite obviously won't be put in place everywhere, and so won't stop those determined to cause carnage who'll be able to enter the system at quieter points, but they will no doubt cause misery at the major terminals. Still, can't be too careful, can you?

The government certainly can't, at least not with intelligence provided by other governments. Not content with ensuring that there will never be a repeat of the release of the seven paragraphs, a memo on Binyam Mohamed which showed we knew the Americans had been involved in "rendering" detainees to foreign climes where they were to be tortured despite our repeated denials, information that we failed to act upon when those detained included British residents, we now learn that the very application for a closed material procedure can also be kept secret if necessary, to of course, "protect national security". In other words, it seems likely that every such order will be kept secret, as by its very nature intelligence involves national security.

If you believe the Ministry of Justice (snigger), this will in fact make it more likely that such claims will go to trial rather than result in settlements, just that we won't be able to know of the documentation that was involved. Which just ever so slightly misses the point, as it's that documentation that established the truth in the first place, and which shows the depths to which our security services are on occasion prepared to plunge. With the cancellation of the Gibson inquiry, and no replacement on the horizon, the desperate need to learn the lessons of our complicity in torture during the first phase of the war on terror seems to have been forgotten.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2012 

A nasty taste in the mouth.

There are many things about the investigation into the death of Gareth Williams that leave a nasty taste in the mouth. While the apparent murder of an MI6/GCHQ worker in such bizarre circumstances is always going to invite comment and speculation, it's fair to say that the leaks to the press alleging that Williams was either gay, a transvestite or had come to a sticky end at the hands of al-Qaida, all emanating from uncertain sources were little short of smears. The Met, having to work the case through the counter-terrorism branch SO15, were only able to take statements from MI6 officers that were then "anonymised" afterwards, making the process a travesty. The inquest heard that "assurances were taken" without any further questioning then taking place.

The inquest itself was delayed for over a year, yet this seemingly didn't allow the time for a detective from outside SO15 to be vetted and conduct the interviews again. When it did finally take place, the attitude of MI6 seems to have been remarkably similar to the one taken by MI5 for the 7/7 inquests: challenging every decision made towards openness, demanding anonymity and claiming "national security" would be endangered if almost anything approaching "sensitive" material was discussed in open court. SO15 it seems were similarly awed by their relationship with MI6: Detective Superintendent Michael Broster gave some truly extraordinary evidence, saying that as MI6 had been "very helpful throughout and continue to be" he saw no reason for memory sticks and another North Face bag found in Williams' office to be examined by the Met team, or indeed even told they existed, as the investigating officer only found out about them three days ago.

Most shocking of all is that MI6 didn't investigate why Williams hadn't turned up for work until 8 days after he was last seen. This was according to MI6 a simple error by his line manager, and yet it seems astonishing that an officer of any of the security services can vanish for days, missing appointments and meetings, without anyone attempting to make contact with them or seemingly wondering where he was. This was a man who had worked for the secret state his entire adult life, described as "brilliant", given an award as part of a team for his work on cryptic analysis. He was owed a duty of care, the same that the services offer to agents who have been caught in compromising circumstances without so much as batting an eyelid.

One line of inquiry quickly shut down was that Williams had been working under a separate identity, something that was apparently completely off limits. If this was the case, and he had gone abroad under one, then surely that is something that should have been considered. The police for their part still seem to be focused on the idea that his death his down to his private life, although the coroner appears to have dismissed this. Despite the likes of Mark Urban repeating myths that he was interested in claustrophilia, his internet use seems to have been minor, and his slight interest in bondage websites may well have been down to specific training he was about to undergo at MI6, something else they have declined to comment on.

If he was secretly gay, or interested in dressing up in women's clothes, then there seems to be no evidence that he indulged in either with partners, and no one has come forward to say they were involved with him when you would have expected they may have done. He never discussed either with the two female friends he had, or with his sister, all of whom he was close to. The women's clothes he bought had after all not been taken out of their packaging, more than suggesting they were either gifts or they were part of his interest in fashion.

Despite the coroner also saying there's no evidence that his death was connected to his work, which rather suggests that we're no further than when the investigation began, it's seems remarkable there's been so little comment on how the heating had been turned up in the flat, in spite of how it was August, likewise that there were no fingerprints in the bathroom near to the bath as you would expect. All of this suggests that this wasn't someone panicking at a sex game that went wrong, but as Williams's family suspects, something far more sinister. It's difficult not to think that MI6 knows exactly what happened to Gareth Williams, but they have no intention of letting anyone else know.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012 

Lying and the passing of time.

It's a wonderful thing, the passage of time. Yes, we all of course edge ever closer to the grave with each second that goes by, but look on the bright side: it also means your memory of unpleasant past events in your life gradually fades.

This onset of forgetfulness comes sooner to some than others. Take Tony Blair for instance. He claims to have "no recollection" of the rendition of Abdul Hakim Belhaj to Libya, something that took place a mere 2 weeks before he jetted in to meet Colonel Gaddafi and in effect declare the country open for business. Almost certainly part of the mutual process showing that both sides would get something out of the new relationship, you would have thought the prime minister should have known that his foreign intelligence service was conspiring with the CIA to provide a dictatorship with one of its most high profile opponents.

Then there's Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary. You might recall (he probably doesn't) that when first faced with the exposure of the US rendition programme he was absolutely certain that the British government had no case to answer. What was more, unless you believed the lovely Condoleezza Rice was lying, there was no programme whatsoever. It was akin to believing in conspiracy theories. 7 years later, and while Straw has changed his tune somewhat, he's still vehement that he knows nothing about this specific case. Rather, this is an example of MI6 simply not telling him what they were up to, as the security services are apparently wont to do on occasion. As he said, "[N]o foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time."

It certainly wouldn't be the first time that the security services have told lies to the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee, who most certainly weren't informed at any point of MI6's role in the rendition. Would they also though mislead the Foreign Office, and so close to the point at which our relationship with Libya was about to change so utterly? Either MI6 was completely out of control, authorising its own missions without informing ministers, delivering innocent people into the hands of torturers, or Jack Straw signed off on the entire thing. Which is more likely?

Happily, it's unlikely that should this or any future government think about doing anything similar that it'll be exposed as easily. I said at the time that it was a little early to welcome the cancelling of the Gibson inquiry when it was far from clear that we would ever get a replacement, let alone a more independent one, and with the continuing controversy over the secret courts plan which would stop them ever releasing the equivalent of the seven paragraphs again it just underlines that this government is not more enlightened, it's simply more subtle in slamming the door shut. Hands up anyone who thinks that there'll be charges once the Met have finished investigating the two Libyan renditions, regardless of the offering of £1m to Belhaj. Exactly.

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