Intelligence services and democracy

Annie Machon, the former UK intelligence operator who resigned to reveal criminality within the intelligence services, discusses with Lars Schall the relationship between those services and democracy (and Fascism), their limited success in combating „terror“, and the extent to which profiteering is part of their modus operandi.

By Lars Schall

The following interview with Annie Machon was originally published today at ASIA TIMES ONLINE here.

Annie Machon is a former intelligence officer for MI5, the UK Security Service, who resigned in the late 1990s to blow the whistle regarding criminality within the intelligence agencies. Before working for MI5, she studied Classics at the University of Cambridge (MA) and was active in the publishing business. She is now a public speaker, writer, media pundit, political campaigner, and PR consultant. She is the Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Europe. In 2005. she published the book Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers: MI5 and the David Shayler Affair (Book Guild Ltd). You can visit Annie Machon’s own personal web site here.

Lars Schall: Ms. Machon, are democracy and secrecy incompatible? Or, asked differently: are secret intelligence agencies more of a threat to democracy?

Annie Machon: It is a multi-stranded question, I think. It is a difficult one. Obviously, there is a role for secret intelligence organizations to protect us against threats to our national security. However, on the one hand we have never, in the UK certainly, ever tried to legally define national security. So it is a very elastic phrase, which can be used for a multitude of things. I think if you have some sort of secretive organization investigating the more serious crimes, such as terrorist attacks or organized crime, then there need to be very clear accountability models in order to ensure that they are overseen democratically. Obviously, in Germany there are historic lessons about how that can slide into dictatorial machines, with the Gestapo and Stasi and organizations like that. So unless you have proper meaningful democratic oversight, which is rigorous, then you cannot have effective secret organizations within a democracy. So it is very difficult.

What we are seeing with the Edward Snowden disclosures particularly, is that the whole thing is out of balance at the moment. In the UK, for example, there has been a big scandal about the fact that GCHQ is tapping into fiber optic cables going between America and Europe. And the politicians immediately swung into place, saying: Oh no but we have this wonderful oversight system in the UK, we know what they are doing. However, the National Security Council did not have a clue about tempering. The parliaments did not have a clue about tempering. The cabinet did not have a clue about tempering, nor did the oversight committee, the intelligence and security committee. None of them even knew that this thing existed – or at least, that is what they say.

I think we are seeing something similar in Germany with the BND developing the XKeyscore – which is again another Edward Snowden disclosure that shows that they are involved in actively developing stuff for the NSA, while the political class says: we didn’t know anything about this.

LS: Is it a surprise to you that the NSA is treating Germany like a combat state?

AM: It is interesting, isn’t it, because on the one hand, the NSA classes Germany as a third tier partner, in the same level as Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, China, all these target countries. And yet, on the other hand, they are saying: No, you are a partner, work with us and develop stuff for us. And they happily go along with it. So, the hypocrisy, I think, is quite stark. And the fact that the BND is happy to go along with it, despite the German constitution to protect people’s privacy, is alarming. The fact that political classes either did know and went along with it, or did not know as they are stating, is also alarming. Because then you have spies running in secret again.

LS: Can it be that the state power becomes the largest criminal organization in the respective territory – even in the so-called democratic societies?

AM: Criminal might be a strong word. Most people within the intelligence agencies are doing a good job, protecting their countries and the rest. However, their actions will speak louder than words. And if they are breaking the law, even with the best intentions, then they are, indeed, criminals. And because of the overarching secrecy around these organizations we give so much trust to these organizations. If they are breaking the law or bending it, then yes, they are creating the most serious threat to our democracy that it is possible. Because if we have secret police, if we have agencies that can spy on our citizens, if we have global agencies that can spy on all systems, then we have no privacy. And unless we have privacy, the right to communicate freely and read and talk and discuss and meet, then we have no mechanism to protect against an encroaching fascist state. And it is that very freedom that protects democracy against encroachments of power. And that is what we are losing, I think.

LS: Would you say that fascism in the West has a bright future ahead?

AM: In some countries, yes. I go with Mussolini’s definition of fascism, which sees it as the merger between the corporations and the state. And how can we not say that after what happened to US now, and how could we not say that after what happened in the UK? So, absolutely, it is not brown shirts storm-troopers running around in the streets and kicking in doors; but all the powers are in place in the UK and the US for a police state. They’re just not being applied to most people, yet.

What worried me recently, was that the Guardian newspaper, which has been breaking the Snowden case, was subjected to raid by the secret agency. They smashed their computers. And they used this sort of bogus example of well, you know, if we do not do this, this information might fall into the hands of the terrorists. And it is crazy because that is actually getting very close to 1933 in Germany with the brown shirts.

LS: However, brown shirts would be a little bit too obvious nowadays.

AM: They don’t need them now, they are suited and booted and wearing nice ties. Moreover, they can do their things remotely as well. There is for example a new form of spy software, which can be implanted onto your computer remotely, or can be built into your computer before you buy it. Even clean computers from the shops, which is actually at the BIOS level, which is between the hardware and the software. And this spyware, if it is detected in one piece of hardware on your computer, it mutates and moves to another piece of hardware in your computer and spy on you. So it morphs around the whole hardware in your computer. And one of the arguments, for example, of keeping a privacy with open source software, which means that the source code is open, it’s readable, people can check for back doors, this stuff hides in the layer below it. So it is very difficult to crack and to find them right in time. And that is really frightening.

LS: Is mainstream / corporate media in the West rather an accomplice of intelligence agencies than a kind of controller?

AM: The mainstream media should be holding these people to account, and that is precisely, I think, what the Guardian has been trying to do. And that is why it has been threatened. Unfortunately, I think too often, the mainstream media becomes very complicit with the spies, and I have done loads of talks at various journalist conferences about this, where they have soft power and hard power. So the soft power is where they give journalists scoops, and give them stories and off they go. Or they become sorts of agents, reporting back on stories coming out of their news room. Or they can even be part of fake stories from the specialist sections within the spies. So, you have that situation.

Then also you see them being threatened by a whole set of laws. For example, the official secrets act in the UK can stop journalists from reporting stuff, because they can be imprisoned for two years for reporting what a whistleblower has to say. And there are production orders, there are injunctions, there are super injunctions, there are governmental injunctions, and so on. The range of power that can be used against them is massive, certainly in the UK, and we are seeing it increasingly in the US. So, even if they want to, it is very difficult to effectively hold these people to account because these people can spy on what they are doing, even before they break a story.

These are some of the reasons why people switched off from mainstream media and turned to the Internet. And this is why I think WikiLeaks has been good, because we could, as people, as citizens, read their own intelligence, read their own information.

LS: But the Internet is also undermined with disinformation planted by intelligence agencies.

AM: Yes. And also, have you heard of astroturfing?

LS: No.

AM: This is a great one. If you have a legitimate grassroots campaign, you can get people who are paid or asked by intelligence agencies or by governments, to go into that and troll on the websites and then they could set up fake grassroots campaigns. And that is why they call it astroturfs. So, yes, it is quite easy to build up fake campaigns to argue a position.

LS: Whose interests are ultimately served by secret intelligence agencies in the West?

AM: Well, their own, I think, is the best answer. As I said, we have never in the West defined legal purposes for national security needs. What we have at the moment, is that they find any possible threat to justify an encroaching surveillance state. So, it is a bit of a problem. And then you get this conflation between national security and the national interest, and that tends to become a sort of establishment class interest, certainly in the UK.

But I think what has been most alarming about what Snowden has said is that we see a spy infrastructure, which has become global, which appears to be there to serve the interest of a global elite, business elite or corporatist elite or whatever. And because of that there cannot be any meaningful democratic accountability in oversight within the individual nations‘ needs. If you have got the NSA globally investigating, or the GCHQ globally investigating, and the ministers in the UK say, oh we know what GCHQ is doing, we sign a warrant every six months, and they tell us we are okay. That is not oversight.

So, who are they precisely working for? I think they have lost sight of that themselves. And as I said before, I don’t think the fact that everyone working at intelligence agencies is bad. You know, a lot of people go into these agencies to make a difference, and to do a good job. But it is a very closed world, and as soon as they take one wrong turn, that wrong turn can be magnified 1,000-fold. And I think that is what we are seeing at the moment.

LS: One thing that intelligence agencies are involved with is the so called „war on drugs“. Has that war failed?

AM: It has failed in its public aims, which is a drug-free world. Because since the war on drugs has been waged for the last 40 years, we have seen, you know, usage increase, the quality of the drugs increase, prices going through the floor, all the metrics show that it has failed in terms of the stated aims.

In terms of why it is really in place, the basic thing is, it creates this huge black market global economy, which is worth up to half a trillion dollars per year, which funds global drug cartels, violent gangs, destabilizes whole regions and governments, and also funds over half the terrorist organizations across the countries. That is the estimation of the DEA. So that, one, is very good for a certain black market business, and two, it funds the banks. You know, some of this money has got to go somewhere. And banks who are getting caught up in drug money laundering, they get piddling fines, which actually do not disincentives them from carrying on doing it. And then of course the drug war has given the Americans particularly an excuse to intervene in various countries across the world over the decades.

LS: But isn’t then the drug war in reality a success?

AM: From that perspective probably, yes.

LS: For example in Afghanistan, right?

AM: Afghanistan is very interesting. Since we brought democracy to the grateful people of Afghanistan, the Taliban now controls large space of the country. The drug trade there is worth hundreds of millions of dollars per year. And most of that money goes to the Taliban, who we then fight as our terrorist enemies in Afghanistan. So, it is a cyclical thing, we have the war, we have probation since the drug trade underground, which creates this huge black market economically, which then funds our terrorist enemies. And then we fight the war on terror as well. So, it is very good for big business, it is very good for the military security complex.

LS: And intelligence agencies are big time profiteers of this business, too, aren’t they?

AM: Well, one of the questions is, if they make a seizure, where does that money go to?

LS: And where do the drugs go to?

AM: That is another interesting question, yes.

LS: Related to the recent revelations regarding the global surveillance programs of the national security agency, have you seen any credible piece of evidence so far that these programs are doing any good in the so-called „war on terror“?

AM: Absolutely not. I would suggest that they actually hinder the war on terror. Real good investigative intelligence work means that you target someone. And you aggressively investigate them. If you data-mine and you have to rely on algorithms for assessment of people’s profiles on possible actions in the future, then the margin for error is so huge, that you are going to get a lot of false positives, and probably a lot of false negatives, too. The only way you can really do proper focused intelligence or police and evidential gathering work is to identify the possible suspects, and then investigate them deeply. And perhaps sending human sources as well to report back.

LS: Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, says that Edward Snowden and the journalists that he is working with are helping terrorists. (1) True or false?

AM: It is a load of crap. He would say that, wouldn’t he not? You know, the whole position with this is: Edward Snowden has actually revealed that we are all being spied on, that we are living in an Orwellian dystopia. And any terrorist worth their salt these days is not going to be using basic internet technology. They are going to be quite sophisticated about how they communicate securely. Of course they are. Whatever Snowden has disclosed was not anything they did not know already. And it is we, the citizens, who need to know what has been done by our governments and by our intelligence agencies.

LS: Moreover, Parker claims that British intelligence is using its apparatus only against terrorists and targets that are a threat to national security. Once again: true or false?

AM: Well, this is an interesting phrase and I have read it before. Of course, it is going to say terrorists, or Islamic terrorists or subversives or whatever. So, it is the phrase of the month. Effectively, what he is doing now, he is just hovering up information about us all. So suddenly we, the public, are the enemy.

Now, this goes back to the question: what does it take to be someone who might be deemed to be a threat to national security? In the UK there was a leaked document showing that the occupy group in the City of London two years ago were called terrorists by the local police. And they sent a letter up to the banks. So suddenly these people who had camped outside St. George’s Cathedral, were deemed to be terrorists. And it is down to MI5 to say: You are a threat to national security. They do not have to provide any proof or evidence or intelligence … nothing. They just say: You are a threat to national security, and therefore we will investigate you. And that bit of his sentence is what really said it all. It is so elastic. He can do whatever he wants with it.

LS: The U.K.’s signal intelligence (SIGINT) agency, the GCHQ, according to a Snowden document reported on by Der Spiegel on September 15, 2013, believes that NSA’s Follow the Money bank surveillance is too intrusive. The GCHQ has not exhibited much reluctance about its SIGINT missions, according to other Snowden-leaked documents. Do you know anything about NSA’s Follow the Money SIGINT penetration of the banking sector and why the seemingly imperturbable GCHQ would worry that it was too intrusive?

AM: I do not know the specifics, but I mean if they can get into all the other internet systems, they are going to get into that, too. And money is a very good way of tracing what people are doing and where they are going.

LS: You voiced the opinion in the past that the GCHQ is effectively prostituting itself to NSA. Why so?

AM: Because, they are supposed to be there to protect UK national security. And what they are doing is taking hundreds of millions of dollars from the NSA in order to get the wherewithal to build these new systems, like tempering, which is the fiber optic intercept of the Atlantic cables. And the documents that have been released by Snowden show that the senior management of the GCHQ are desperate to fulfill what the NSA wants of them. So they become this outpost of the NSA in the UK, and they are no longer working to protect British interests. And if that is not prostitution, then what is?

LS: Does the NSA provide the other 15 US. intelligence agencies, that working in other areas, the possibilities of information gathering? The background of my question: it may be true that the NSA does not engage in economic espionage. However, if the possibility of information gathering is provided to other agencies, which then take care of the economic espionage field, the statement of the NSA is true, but the information is still ultimately wrong.

AM: Yes, of course. Once the NSA has that information, of course they are going to field it out to the other random organizations as required. So anything GCHQ for example wires to the NSA will go to the other intelligence agencies in the US.

LS: Does the NSA essentially monitor each and every major financial capital move, and thus may steer a great deal of the global economy through certain tracks?

AM: I think if they are spying on all of us, and they got this new data center in Utah, then of course they are hovering up all this information. Whether they then analyze it and use it, is a good question.

LS: But don’t you think that the NSA is interested to support the American economy and especially the financial system and therefore is giving information to players on Wall Street?

AM: That is certainly a possibility, yes. I mean, I am aware of people speculating about that. However, we are seeing that Wall Street and the banks actually are quite a big threat to the economic well-being and the stability especially of the USA. So if they are helping Wall Street, then they are contributing to destabilizing their country.

LS: Recently, you and other whistleblowers were invited to give testimony in front of the LIBE Committee at the European Parliament. (2) How did this come about? And what were the conclusions you draw from the testimonies you’ve heard there?

AM: It came about, because there is a Civil Liberties and Justice Committee in the European Parliament, and they are having a look at the impact of the NSA revelations in terms of the European sovereignty, particularly: Should we be spying on some country that is supposed to be an ally? So they had a statement where they wanted testimony of whistleblowers, talking about the implications of what the NSA doing in terms of eroding the EU and our countries‘ sovereignties. And also: What could be put in place to protect the citizens in the future? And also what is the best way to protect whistle-blowers? And that is how Tom Drake from the NSA and Jesselyn Radack from the State Department and myself were invited to say: This is what the process is like. This is a crushing experience to go through. And actually there are simple things that can be put in place to protect future whistle-blowers. We should plan for everybody.

LS: Is PRISM & Co. just the tip of the iceberg – for example in comparison to the DARPA project Total Information Awareness (TIA) respectively Trusted Information Environment (TIE)?

AM: Yes, PRISM is probably just the tip of the iceberg, it is going to get a lot worse. And I wish they would hurry up and get more information out there. One, because we need to know the systems, and two, because the sheer scale of the horror would create more international indignation. And will create more potential for Edward Snowden, the whistleblower.

LS: Something different, but maybe not: What are your thoughts on the so-called offshore leaks? It does not look like a genuine act of investigative journalism to me, but rather like an intelligence operation, or more precisely: a demonstration of performance capacity.

AM: That is a nice way of putting it, yes. I think what we saw at the offshore leaks was: Look, this is the old media, we can still do this, we do not need WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks is dangerous; we can still do our job and get together. And I think they were handed some information to make them look like they were still capable of doing proper investigative leak journalism. And I suppose a test for this, the way that we can assess whether or not it is real or not, is what changes. And nothing has changed. I mean, sure we have always known anyway, there are billionaires stash trillions offshore, but the point is: None of the laws are changing. Nobody is going after these offshore bank people. So I think, yes, it was just a display to reassure people that mainstream media can still do something.

LS: What do you perceive as solutions to the problems at hand regarding NSA and Co?

AM: Solutions? God, that is not a small question, is it? I suppose the fundamental solution that we could all take, is that we all could say to our governments: Okay, you have been telling us, paddling all these lies over the years about, you know, rats under the bed and Islamic terrorism, and whistleblowers are a new inside threat, blah blah blah. But what are the real threats to our national integrity? I think the solution is to get back to first principles. What are the threats to our countries? How do we best police them? How can we do it legitimately, legally and accountably? And if that means, for example, abolishing all 16 of the US intelligence agencies, or all three of major UK intelligence agencies, which have evolved historically, and they always find jobs, because, you know, they always find a new threat. And just say: Let us have a new counter-terrorism agency, because terrorism is really such a threat, and investigate in public, gather the evidence, put them on trial and deal with that crime as it occurs, rather than saying: Oh yes, but we like James Bond, you know, we like George Smiley. And as we have seen historically, every time when a threat goes, like the cold war, where suddenly counter-espionage became less important, counter-subversion disappeared, and terrorism became the new big thing, why do we not just get a situation where we have to assess what the basic threats are? And then we just give the jobs to the boys?

LS: Shouldn’t the public also demand that more evidence is given to it by NSA & Co. whether they made terrorist attacks impossible?

AM: Well, in the UK and the US both agencies have been caught out lying multiple times. I mean, they say: Oh yes, but we need all these powers because we have stopped 54 terrorist attacks in the US over the last few years. And in fact it turns out: one, maximum, potentially two. In the UK again, we have had the intelligence and security committee, which is is not parliamentary, it is prime ministerial, been lied to … and it has been multiple times by successive heads of MI5 and by top senior police officers.

LS: Do you support the free trade zone that is developed in secrecy between the US and the EU? It looks as if it does only serve the interest of big corporations and financial institutions. (3)

AM: Yes, and I do not trust it, because it was done undemocratically. A bit like ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that they almost pushed through last year. If you have these big agreements, which even our so-called democratically elected MEPs cannot read, they are just told to sign, is not a democratic act. And I do not support it purely from that point of view. You know, no matter what these trade agreements say, if it is done in secrecy, then it is bound to be in the interest of the people who set these trade agreements. Most of these trade agreements seem to be written by the lobbyists of these big corporations.

LS: Wouldn’t it be nice if the people have a say in this? You know, if they could vote for or against such an agreement?

AM: It would be lovely, wouldn’t it? I think that is called democracy. I suppose one of the interesting countries in Europe is Switzerland, where they do have a more direct form of democracy. And they are much more progressive on a number of great socially conceptive countries.

LS: Is democracy in the West rather a show than reality?

AM: Absolutely. Certainly in the UK and the US particularly, we have a circled two-party state. There is no real choice between which party is in control. That is the very definition of a totalitarian state, where, you know, there is one-party of politics.

LS: And within this show, the intelligence agencies are very important for the perception management?

AM: Yes, and also: The politicians say they are in control of the intelligence agencies because of some notional law that gives notional oversight, but actually they do not know what is actually being done by the intelligence. And they have no means of finding out. They just do what they are told.

LS: Thank you very much for taking your time, Ms. Machon!

AM: Thank you.

1. 1) See Tom Whitehead: „GCHQ leaks have ‚gifted‘ terrorists ability to attack ‚at will‘, warns spy chief“, Daily Telegraph, October 9, 2013, here.
2. See here.
3. See for example here.

Lars Schall is a German financial journalist.

(Copyright 2013 Lars Schall)

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