Wednesday, November 04, 2015 

The securocrats win again! The securocrats win again!

Last week, you won't have missed the release of the latest James Bond film, Spectre.  By most accounts it's quite good, although there's always the lingering suspicion that as Bond is pretty much the only distinctly British franchise still going that pulls in any money, the critics tend to go rather soft on it.

Last week, as you might have missed and in what was either an example of serendipity, good fortune, or grotesque cynicism, also saw the intelligence agencies come out from the shadows as never before.  The Times was given unprecedented access to GCHQ's "doughnut" home in Cheltenham, hacks apparently free to poke around, ask questions and see how there's absolutely nothing to be suspicious about when it comes to our friends intercepting and sifting through bulk data.  Not quite as unprecedented but still relatively novel was a further speech by head of MI5 Andrew Parker, again making clear just how we have nothing to fear from his organisation's request for the laws governing his operation to be updated, sentiments reminiscent of his live interview on the Today programme a month previous.  This charm offensive, very different to the previous attempt at one which rather fell at the first hurdle when the new head of GCHQ essentially said that the major internet firms were just as bad as the terrorists, has continued up to and including today.  Despite GCHQ coming round and smashing up the Guardian's hard drive with the Snowden files on it, the paper has found space for a senior GCHQ officer called "Peter" to correct some unfortunate "myths" that have arisen.  He concludes, obligatorily, with a reference to Bletchley Park.

The publication today of the draft Investigatory Powers Bill would never had occurred had it not been for Snowden's revelations, something that Theresa May and the government would rather chew glass than recognise.  Then again, it's almost as if Snowden didn't happen anyway.  Despite today's bill outlining precisely what GCHQ especially and the security services as a whole were getting up to, as it had to thanks to the government recognising that RIPA was no longer fit for purpose, the change is now everything will be totally above board rather than hidden behind layers of secrecy and obfuscation.  The bulk interception via Tempora, the hacking and breaking into of servers and the computers of targets, the gathering, both overt and covert of "bulk personal datasets", it all remains, despite any cautious remarks made by David Anderson in his report.  The other innovations are those to oversight, with the creation of a single commissioner to act as reviewer of terrorism legislation and effective spook watchdog, and the "double lock", whereby ministers will need to also have the OK of a "judicial commissioner" to authorise an interception warrant.

Considering the major spin operation that went before the publication of this bill, with myriad leaks and hacks invited in for high-level briefings, just how quickly the new "double lock" has unravelled is something to behold.  David Davis and others have realised that rather than it being a case of the "judicial commissioners" reviewing the evidence, as the minister will have before granting permission, all they'll essentially be doing is examining whether the correct protocol has been followed.  Barring an alteration, they will be little more than a rubber stamp.  This is in line with the Intelligence and Security Committee report and sort of follows the compromise outlined in the RUSI report, but is in contradiction of Anderson who advised full judicial oversight.  Now that the bill has finally been published, beyond outlining his role Anderson seems to be taking a step back, leaving parliament to make its decision.

Whether that's entirely wise when Andy Burnham before even seeing the full bill declared that it wasn't a return of the snoopers' charter, wasn't an act authorising mass surveillance is very much open to question.  Nick Clegg, who blocked the attempt back in 2012 to ram through this bill's predecessor was also apparently mollified.  And indeed, it would be churlish to deny that the government hasn't been forced by the work of Anderson and others to justify exactly what powers it wants and set out its case: the documents published alongside the bill are voluminous, to the point where anyone trying to make sense of them has been all but crushed under the digital weight of all the PDFs.

Key to the most controversial new measure, the requirement for ISPs to retain 12 months worth of data on which sites and services every one of us use, accessible without a warrant to the police, security services and everyone except your local councillor Tom Cobley, is the operational case (PDF).  Provided within are examples of just what the authorities are currently unable to do due to their current powers; there is not a single case study provided relating to terrorism.  Instead it focuses on the other standard justification, preventing or investigating child sexual exploitation, with a couple of other examples concerning organised crime and fraud tacked on at the end.  As the police cannot simply ask Facebook, Google or Twitter on the off chance if the person they are investigating on the basis of the communications data they have obtained under the current laws also used their services, as this would not be "proportional" or meet the current necessity tests, the only alternative seemingly is to get ISPs to retain the IP addresses visited instead.

If it doesn't immediately follow how if the former is not proportional wholesale retention is, the answer fairly obviously is that going through the same hoops is rather tiresome for the police and others.  That, and since the Snowden revelations cooperation with overseas based service operators have been grudging at best, it's the obvious recourse: go after the organ grinders, not the monkeys.  If it still doesn't make sense that this data will be available to the police without a warrant given the potential for abuse, nor that a whole year's worth of data will be expected to be retained, data that ISPs currently do not retain, then sadly the answer seems to be the point is this is all about the potential for fishing expeditions.  Related in the operational case is that of 6025 referrals to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, 14% or 862 could have been taken forward if ICR data had been retained.  More pertinent however is that 3470 referrals contained both fixed and dynamic IP data.  As it is not clear whether these referrals would also contain the specific time one of these IPs accessed the indecent images in the referral, the government appears to be proposing the police have the capability to go through the whole log for that IP.  The potential is there for the police not just to act on that specific referral, but also on any other "illegal" or questionable websites that have been visited.  There are plenty of examples of individuals being arrested for one offence, only for that to be dropped and then charges to be brought over "extreme pornography" following searches of seized devices, including in cases where the evidence has been highly questionable or where they were extenuating circumstances.

And then, of course, there's the potential for this cache of data to be misused, abused or hacked.  Despite Theresa May claiming the police would not be able to make a request to find out if someone visited a specific website, Adam Banks points out the bill and fact sheets suggest the powers are far broader than that.  The analogy made to an itemised phone bill is a nonsense: phone numbers are just that, numbers.  We share things with our ISPs that we would have never have done previously with our mere phone provider: the URLs up to the first slash we visit might not reveal entirely our darkest secrets, desires, fears, but they most certainly give more than an inkling.  This is the data that the government thinks should be made accessible to state bodies, excluding local authorities, without a warrant.  If this isn't a mass surveillance programme, then what on earth would amount to one?

Except, typically, today's new power won't affect the terrorists and the more teched up crims.  They'll already be using Tor or other darknets, sat behind proxies or VPNs.  That the operational case doesn't mention terrorism is the giveaway: those who really do have something to hide know that the authorities are out to get them and act accordingly.  Those caught up will be the curious, the idiots, those who previously would have been detected anyway, if slightly further down the line.  Anyone who wasn't aware of what's on the cards now will be, further reducing the efficacy of the new law.

Ministers seem to be relying on how as a nation we have always been far less concerned about privacy and the actions of our intelligence agencies than either the Americans, aware of the scandals involving the FBI and CIA, or the Germans, living with the legacy of the Nazis and then the Stasi.  It is Bletchley Park, Alan Turing, Enigma, Bond, rather than Peter Wright, the infiltration of groups on the left, the remaining questions over collusion in Northern Ireland, the refusal until very recently to operate in so much as half light, let alone be as open as the security services can be.  As David Allan Green has identified, the strategy has been to try and buy off those most likely to make a fuss.  The Wilson doctrine might have been declared illegal, but a judge and the prime minister will have to sign off before any MP can have their communications intercepted.  The media meanwhile can be reassured that their sources have been given more protection than has been the case, not that the press other than the usual coalition of Guardian, Independent and FT was likely to say anything in opposition anyway.  When it comes to ordinary folk, those with the most to lose from these plans, only the traditional voices, those derided and ignored before, are speaking up.  Judicial oversight of warrants might yet be tightened, but the securocrats have played a blinder on everything else.  Once again, they've won. 

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Monday, June 15, 2015 

Magna Carta and all that.

I'd like to think we can all agree it takes a special kind of cretin to use the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the document that established all are equal under the law, to argue in fact only they can "restore the reputation of human rights".  Considering the chief argument being made for a British Bill of Rights is it would prevent criminals, terrorists and other unworthy sorts from invoking Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, that of the right to a private and family life in order to avoid deportation, although how this would be accomplished without also leaving said convention at the same time as ripping up the Human Rights Act has never been answered, it does put in a whole new perspective David Cameron's decision to say it was "ironic" that "the good name of human rights has sometimes become distorted and devalued".  Call me a stuffy pedant, but I'd say it was beyond ironic, in fact an example of a politician without the slightest sense of shame to use Magna Carta as a backdrop to say some will be more equal than others under the law if and when he gets his way.

Then again, Magna Carta has always been a symbol rather than anything real in any case.  Everything you think you know about it is almost certainly wrong, and as Jack of Kent so admirably argues, there is no contradiction in politicians and other worthies celebrating a document that cannot be relied on in court while wanting to repeal one on which you can.  Rights in the view of so many are things you can expect to be given to you as hard and fast as you can take them, and if you can't, well hard cheese.  It's also noticeable historians chuckle and roll their eyes at all this nonsense, knowing full well that Magna Carta sure didn't stop King after King from doing whatever the hell they liked, while politicians, often in the main law or PPE graduates, go into raptures over it.  Not all of them, obviously, but a fair number.

Cameron's dedication to destroying an act that does work, frankly all too well for the government and establishment's liking, is of a piece with the fondness of the spooks for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.  Described by the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation last week as "undemocratic" and "intolerable", with the situation in which we are currently in deemed "unnecessary", I wondered if the intelligence agencies wouldn't finally see sense and embrace David Anderson's recommendations, couched as they were in language and arguments that mollified libertarians like me while still providing the agencies with the powers they say they need.

Yesterday's front page piece in the Sunday Times rather answered such thinking.  According to a number of anonymous sources, the cache of files taken by Edward Snowden has been successfully cracked by both the Chinese and Russians, leading to MI6 needing to extract a number of agents for fear they could have been killed as a result.  The entire report, without needing to read the responses from those in the know, such as Glenn Greenwald, Ryan Gallagher and the Graun, is bollocks of the hairiest, most obvious kind.  Snowden apparently has blood on his hands, and yet there is no evidence of anyone being harmed.  Que?

You don't have to question how the Russians and Chinese could have gained access to the files when the only people in possession of them are journalists, Snowden himself having destroyed his copies after he handed them over, something not previously questioned by anyone.  Nor does another howler, like the precise figure of 1.7m documents accessed by our enemies when the NSA previously admitted it simply didn't and couldn't know how many files Snowden had taken give the game away.  It's how crude and transparent the sourcing is: when Seymour Hersh questions the official version of events in the killing of bin Laden, his reliance on unnamed intelligence sources is ridiculed.  Hersh's recent exposes may be nonsense, but they are no less believable than a supposed newspaper of record (stop sniggering) noting down everything briefed to it by a government and then reprinting it verbatim.

The "exclusive" given to the Sunday Times is revenge, plain and simple.  David Anderson confirmed in his report that without Snowden, absolutely nothing would have changed.  The Intelligence and Security Committee had never asked precisely how GCHQ monitored the internet, so it hadn't thought it necessary to keep them up to date with things like Tempora or their relationship with the NSA.  Anderson's recommendation that judges review and authorise warrants rather than politicians raises the possibility they might be slightly more critical in their appraisal than ministers have previously, and that would never do.

There's also the simple spite factor, that and letting everyone know how they might react in the future.  The smashing up of the Guardian's copy in this country of the Snowden files was utterly pointless when it came to "ending the debate", but it carried with it the message of acting because they could.  Smearing Snowden further and claiming those dastardly Rushkies and Chinese have got their hands on the locations of our brave spies is meant to reinforce how so much as talking about things we're not supposed to know is to damage our security.  You might think you've won this round, it says, with the Anderson report, but just you wait.  When all else fails, appeal to the court of public opinion, with its memories of Bletchley Park and hagiographies of Alan Turing.

It's utterly pitiful behaviour, and yet it shows how worried the government and the securocrats are.  They've done everything they can to deny there is any need for a debate or to worry about what those in the shadows are up to, when even the American authorities have in the main accepted the powers they had went too far in some areas.  Instead of going down the same path, the Anderson report having given them the chance to back down without losing much in the way of face, the age old tactic of anonymous briefing to a trusted hack and newspaper is the response.  When you can't make the perfectly reasonable argument that we can't foresee the future, can't know what the next threat might be, and so have to be ready for every eventuality without resorting to outright lies, there is clearly a problem with accountability.  They saw back in 1215 that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  800 years on some still need to learn that lesson.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015 

When maintaining the status quo feels like something to celebrate.

David Anderson QC's review of the various laws authorising and regulating the interception of data by the state is as good as we possibly could have hoped for.  Compared to the work of parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee, well, there's no comparison.  Not a single redaction for a start, very little in the way of obfuscation or outright distraction, regardless of how transparent those attempts to muddy the debate have been, and outright recognition that if it had not been for the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden, we would still know almost nothing about the way GCHQ hoovers up our data with the very minimum of oversight.  Anderson still, contradictorily, criticises Snowden, but that is to be expected.  The independent reviewer of terrorism clearly does not swallow the bluster from the security services that major damage has been done to them, despite accepting "national security" has been affected.  When national security is defined so widely, and presumably in this instance includes damage to the reputation of said security services, it could hardly be otherwise.

He does nonetheless accept the pleas of GCHQ for the bulk interception of data to be allowed to continue.  He did at least manage to persuade the powers that be to disclose the general outline of the examples previously provided to the ISC for why bulk interception, which if nothing else gives us something of an idea as to what we're giving up in terms of privacy in order to prevent.

This is not to say the examples given are beyond question (they're contained in Annex 9 of the report): most eye-catching is the claim that without bulk data, an airline worker with links to al-Qaida would not have been convicted.  As Joshua Rozenberg writes, this almost certainly refers to the case of Rajib Karim, who was in email contact with the then leader of al-Qaida in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, since killed in a US drone strike.  You would of course expect someone like al-Awlaki to be under surveillance, although how precisely GCHQ identified Karim we can't know.  Nor can we know how exactly "bulk data" is being defined in this instance: yes, Karim might not have been identified if al-Awlaki also hadn't been targeted, presumably under the rules governing bulk interception rather than as a specific target, but that's rather different to how our "external communications", i.e. the use of any website not hosted in the UK are considered by the intelligence agencies to fall under bulk interception as a whole.  Two of the case studies provided do not so much as relate to subsequent law enforcement action in this country at all.  While this is evidence of the efficacy of bulk interception in cases where intelligence or what we would normally consider to be standard surveillance techniques have started off the investigation, it hardly convinces that the ordinary sifting through of the vast amounts of data being collected will ever on its own save lives, or outweigh the potential abuse of such access to personal data.

That aside, the report on the whole is so well argued that if the intelligence agencies had any sense, they would take a good hard look at Anderson's recommendations and five principles, of minimising no-go areas, limited powers, rights compliance, clarity and transparency and a unified approach and adopt them as their own.  Anderson writes of just how co-operative everyone was with him, as you would expect, and yet these are the same agencies that once free of the presence of those reviewing them go back to demanding redactions in reports, that over-the-top levels of secrecy be maintained and the delivering of self-defeating lectures that we're all so familiar with.  There is in essence absolutely nothing in the report they should disagree with, at least if they realise things can no longer go on as they were, but whether organisations which by their very nature have to be paranoid and constantly on the lookout for new ways to break things can handle such concepts remains unclear.

The problem you suspect will in fact be more with the politicians than the agencies themselves.  Ministers will be loth to give away to judges the authorising of interception warrants, not least because it's another power they'll lose.  So too will it affect their direct line into the agencies, and considering the past at times fractious relationship between the spies and politicians, that's not something necessarily to be welcomed.  Anderson also reiterates the past criticisms of the proposed Data Communications Bill, aka the snoopers' charter, essentially saying the case for it has still to be made, despite "compulsory retention of records of user interaction with the internet" being "useful", as he terms it.  Well yes, useful it would certainly be; as for being justifiable, in the same way as bulk interception is justifiable, not without safeguards far beyond what has been outlined so far.  

All things considered though, especially when we think of how with a Tory majority, a Labour party that looks certain to head back to the right and when the only party remotely interested in civil liberties as a whole has been reduced to a rump, this report in different hands could have been the sum of all fears.  Instead it looks set to merely maintain the status quo.  These days, that feels like a victory.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 

Project Mayhem urges you to stay safe.

Blame it on the ultimately superficial, shallow and obvious nature of my mind, but my first thought after seeing ACPO's "STAY SAFE" leaflets was blimey, have we really now reached the point where the police are taking pointers from Project Mayhem, aka Tyler Durden's psy-ops campaign in Fight Club?  Is the next step billboards telling everyone the best way of warding off a terrorist attack is dousing yourself in oil?

Yep, counter-terrorism awareness week is clearly in full effect.  Chiefly this seems to consist of urging Londoners to be suspicious of absolutely everyone and everything at all times, which, let's be honest, isn't exactly the most alien concept to most.  See a dog hanging around Euston without its owner?  Best report it, could be a bomb dog.  Spy a bearded gentleman with a rucksack fiddling around with its contents?  First check he isn't a hipster by looking to see if he has the obligatory tattoos peaking out from under his sleeves, and if he doesn't, kick the ever living shit out of him.  Or alternatively, duck and cover.  Err, run, hide and tell?

Quite what the point of such leaflets is always escapes me.  How else are most going to react should they be caught up in a Mumbai-style attack?  They're not going to be like me and walk towards the AK-47 wielding fanatic, thankful at last for a stroke of luck, they're going to be, err, running, hiding and phoning up our friends in CO19, who hopefully won't shoot the first Brazilian they come across.  Nor has there been the slightest indication a Mumbai in this country is a real possibility, despite Theresa May saying one had been disrupted without, naturally, giving further details.  The most recent intelligence, again, if we're to believe it, was the police themselves were the most likely target.  You don't have to be a natural cynic to wonder if the point in fact isn't to scare people, coming the same week as the rest of the hype over the jihadi threat.

It'd be easier to take also if there wasn't the all too familiar sight of otherwise intelligent people acting like dunderheads.  Malcolm Rifkind was beyond certain last night that Facebook could report every single instance of wannabe terrorists colluding if they wanted to, as they do it when it comes to child abuse.  Except of course they don't, and even if it was possible to review every single instance of an account being flagged when eleventy billion status updates are posted every day, there's no guarantee whatsoever the police or the intelligence agencies would then act upon it, as Rifkind's own report made clear.  Blaming the social networks is though a surefire win, as demonstrated by this morning's front pages, especially when so many don't realise how the systems they have in place work and when it's always easier to point the finger at the service provider rather than the individual, as we've seen in similar instances.

As for how it distracts from the other problems with the government's proposed legislation, that's a bonus.  The example today of the brothers convicted of attending a training camp in Syria indicates just how often the system of "managed return" is likely to be used in practice, unless we see a policy change from the police.

By any measure, the Nawaz brothers would have been perfect candidates for such a scheme: they joined not Islamic State but Junud al-Sham, a group which according to Shiraz Maher has since allied with Ahrar al-Sham, part of the Islamic Front, a jihadist but until recently supported by Saudi Arabia section of the rebels.  When you add how they travelled back in August of last year, when both government and media agreed how wonderful such allies of the Free Syrian Army were, it strikes as more than a trifle rich they're now starting prison terms of 4 and a half years and 3 years respectively.  The judge accepted there was no evidence they intended to do anything in this country, and the fact they returned after a month of training without fighting, albeit with trophies, also suggests they weren't cut out for the war.  If others like them are to be prosecuted, then "managed return" with its agreeing to be interviewed by the police, and possible compulsory attendance of deradicalisation programmes seems like a gesture rather than anything practical.

Instead the emphasis seems to be on confiscating passports, without it being clear whether those denied the chance to fight in Syria or Iraq will then be properly monitored.  It leaves those who do support Islamic State, such as Siddhartha Dhar, arrested with Anjem Choudary's mob of blowhards, easily able to skip bail and laugh at the intelligence agencies from afar.   As previously argued, the best policy could be to let those who want to go to do so, and then deal with them if and when they seek to return, otherwise we risk increasing the chance those desperate to be martyrs will resort to launching their own plans here.

At the moment the coalition seems to want the worst of all worlds.  Whether it be in restricting free speech on campus, promoting the frankly hopeless Prevent scheme which targets completely the wrong people, closing down the last avenue through which families might try to save their kidnapped loved ones, blaming internet companies as part of a vendetta or allowing the police to run a frankly ridiculous "awareness" week, the plans seem designed to embitter, alienate and scare without doing anything that actually might help prevent radicalisation in the first place.  Is it worth mentioning at this point how until very recently successive governments claimed our presence in Afghanistan was about stopping terrorist attacks on British streets?  Can anyone remind me how that's working out?  Or indeed whether the insane contortions of our Syria policy which saw us first lionise the Syrian opposition only to then all but side with Assad to battle Islamic State might have contributed to the current mess?  No, probably not.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 

The real face of 21st century insecurity.

(This is almost 2,000 words.)

To believe in most conspiracy theories, you need also to believe in the concept of all powerful government.  9/11 couldn't possibly have been the work of 19 men armed only with boxcutters and rudimentary knowledge of flying planes, that's far too implausible.  Instead, it was an inside job, possibly involving explosives that were planted in the twin towers when they were built, possibly involving holograms that looked like planes, all in the aid of justifying war and/or wars designed to take control of more Middle Eastern oil.  Or maybe the owner of the WTC wanted the insurance money, and was so motivated by greed he felt no compunction about the lives of the people in the buildings he was going to first have planes flew into, and then demolished remotely.

Except, as anyone who pays the slightest attention will quickly realise, government is not all powerful.  The intelligence agencies, despite having incredible powers of surveillance are not all knowing, let alone an panopticon.  In fact, for the most part they're just as stupid as you or I.  They rely chiefly for many of their outlandish claims on how the vast majority of the public don't remember the last time they were told about just how massive the threat level is, not to mention how the media for the most part repeats those same claims without hesitation.  More to the point, why shouldn't they when those wishing us harm say that's precisely what they intend just before they kill their latest victims?

We are then facing perhaps the most severe level of threat ever, says Theresa May.  Since 7/7 40 major plots have been disrupted, including ones we know about, such as the liquid bombs one, as well others we might not, like a Mumbai-style massacre, which could be a reference to the on-going Erol Incedal semi-secret trial.  This is the most severe level of threat since the last most severe level of threat.  For I recall former Met commissioners telling us how the "sky was dark", such was the scale of plotting going on, former MI5 heads warning of 30 on-going plots, of 2,000 individuals associated with extremism.  To be taken in by this nonsense you need to completely forget about the IRA, and more or less, every single past agitator either inside or outside the country.  In reality, the only thing that distinguished Islamist extremists from other terrorists was they didn't issue warnings, and were prepared to kill indiscriminately.

Now even that claim doesn't properly stand up.  As the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into what did or didn't go wrong with the security services' dealings with the two men convicted of killing Lee Rigby makes clear (PDF), the most pernicious threat right now is not so much from "lone wolves", those who have no contact whatsoever with other extremists, but "self-starters" (page 80, para 232).  Self-starters are those without major links to an al-Qaida franchise or Islamic State, but who are inspired by their example and decide to do something, anything.  They will be known to other extremists, probably having appeared on the periphery of investigations carried out by the police or MI5/GCHQ, just not considered an imminent threat.  Without the support and resources available to those with direct links to an AQ franchise, they're likely to think smaller and go for something achievable rather than spectacular.  Such as killing a soldier, or perhaps beheading the first person they don't like the look of.

This raises the question of just what is and isn't terrorism.  Within hours of Lee Rigby's murder his death was being defined as a terrorist act, rather than a homicide egregiously justified by his killers as revenge for British foreign policy.  The implication seems to be all someone needs to do is shout "Allah akbar" or the equivalent for their violence to be deemed terrorist inspired.  Any other factors can then be disregarded, and lessons must be learned from the failure to prevent the attack in the first place.

In the absence of there being anything or anyone to blame, or the refusal to apportion blame where it would most obviously lie based on the evidence, something else can always be found.  When it's done in such a transparent, utterly flagrant way as it has by the ISC and the government though, it just insults everyone's intelligence.  The first part of this week has been designated as a time to highlight "the threat" and demonstrate why yet more new powers are necessary, with the ISC report at the core, despite it having been ready for publication for weeks if not months.  It's a brilliant report, in that in the style of the very best it provides documentary evidence of how incompetent MI5 and MI6 can be, taking months to process intelligence and follow it up, leaving crucial details out of reports provided to the police, removing Michael Adebolajo from his status as a subject of interest, despite his links to 5 other major investigations and so on, and then reserves its real ire for Facebook for not passing on what it considers the one key piece of intelligence the security services believe could have prevented the attack.

It does this despite openly contradicting itself.  The key intelligence not passed on by Facebook was a conversation between Michael Adebowale and an extremist with links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the former spoke of wanting to kill a soldier and received advice on how to go about doing so (page 127, para 378).  It seems fairly damning, until you consider how a similar piece of intelligence on Adebowale was used, or rather not used.  Back in 2012 GCHQ reported an unknown individual, not at that time identified as Adebowale, had been espousing "views includ[ing] references to operating as a lone wolf (or lone actor), and other general extremist remarks" (page 77, para 221).  The ISC notes at first sight this seems "striking", only for the committee to be reassured by the director general of MI5 that "those sorts of things said, and worse, on these sorts of [sites] are very common" and "[T]he vast majority of it, *** translates into no action at all". 

You can of course argue that going into the specifics of an attack is very different to vaguely talking of wanting to be a lone wolf, as does the contact with someone with links to AQAP, although at the time the intelligence agencies didn't know that was the case.  The same argument as made by Andrew Parker could though surely be applied to the exchange on Facebook; the vast majority of such talk would similarly translate into no action at all.  The real difference seems to be GCHQ obtained the first conversation, while Facebook didn't until after the murder discover the interaction between Adebowale and "Foxtrot", despite a number of Adebowale's accounts being automatically closed due to links to terrorism.  Adebowale closed the account used to contact "Foxtrot" himself.

Just then as Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ used his first day in the job to describe social media companies and other tech giants as "facilitators of crime and terrorism" so today David Cameron was denouncing the likes of Facebook for providing a "safe haven" for terrorists, intentionally or not.  All this cant seems purely down to how accessing the personal data, meta or otherwise of everyone has been made harder by the shift towards greater encryption by the data companies.  Despite the efforts of GCHQ to master the internet, the ISC report claims in what seems to be the first official confirmation of the existence of Tempora, without naming it as such, in theory, "GCHQ can access around ***% of global internet traffic and approximately ***% of internet traffic entering or leaving the UK" (para 410, page 135).  James Ball suggests Edward Snowden believed GCHQ could access 20% of UK internet traffic, although as neither Adebowale or "Foxtrot" were under investigation at the time they wouldn't have known what to look for anyway.

Quite what the real aim is remains far more opaque.  As Alan Travis and others point out, what GCHQ and the government seem to be demanding is either that social media companies do their job for them, which is an impossibility; or, far more dangerously, that they let governments and their intelligence agencies do whatever they like with the data passing through the servers.  Even if we accept they have the very best of intentions, why should a US company hand over information without objection to a UK government agency and not say do the same for the Russians or Chinese when their requests would no doubt be made on the very same terms?  The argument they already do so when it comes to child exploitation is bogus, and more to the point, as we saw with the raids on Tor, disrupting paedophile networks still appears to come second to the war on drugs.

The report also downplays or accepts "national security" excuses for why MI5's attempts to recruit Adebolajo can neither be confirmed or denied (page 44, para 117).  Despite this, the ISC "investigated all aspects of MI5’s actions thoroughly, and [has] not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by MI5", so clearly any suggestion the "harassment" of Adebolajo may have contributed to his actions must similarly be dismissed.  MI6 was also wholly uninterested in Adebolajo's claims he was mistreated when arrested in Kenya (page 153, para 461), presumed to be intending to join up with al-Shabaab with Somalia, with the ISC concluding "we would have expected that all allegations of mistreatment would now be treated with the seriousness they merit" and that "whatever we now know about him as an individual does not detract from the fact that his allegations were not dealt with appropriately".  Again, any impact the alleged mistreatment could have ultimately had on Adebolajo's actions, considering the links between the UK and the anti-terrorism unit in Kenya codenamed ARCTIC, must obviously be disregarded.

As the Graun puts it, the "bleak truth is that it's possible nothing would have saved Lee Rigby from his awful fate".  Despite the government or the agencies themselves occasionally repeating the old adage that whereas they have to be lucky every time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once, protecting the public in the face of such odds remains one of the few things they continue to boast about.  It doesn't matter that governments wilfully redefine terrorism to be almost anything, raising the stakes even further, to the point where schools are deemed not to be doing enough to tackle extremism if sixth form societies have Facebook pages with links to radical preachers, still everything must be seen to be done, even if it turns out to be counter-productive or worse.  Continuously ramping up the perceived threat helps no one, and yet successive governments have done it.  When the intelligence agencies then fail, as they will, the blame has to be diverted.  If that in turn further helps the securocrats who are never satisfied with the material they have access to, so much the better, again in spite of how Tempora is useless against one determined person armed with a sharp knife.  All the technology, all our powers of surveillance, all our intelligence, brought low by men armed with a car, an unloaded gun and a few blades.  There is the true insecurity of the 21st century, and it's not the stuff conspiracy theories are made of.

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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?


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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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