Page 1 of 2 Intelligence services and democracy
By Lars Schall
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?
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"?