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Confessions of a MI5 whistleblower: Part II

Our discussion with Annie Machon continues in a Q&A about "the war on whistleblowers".

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Former MI5 operative Annie Machon knows first-hand what happens to people who spill the truth about intelligence agencies.

Why did you decide to live in Berlin?

I think Germany is very attractive to many whistleblowers. Mainly because there’s that historic knowledge of how easy it is to slide into a totalitarian regime and a determination to protect against doing that again. Whereas the UK, and particularly the US, has this sort of mythology that they are the good guys. They don’t need to worry about this because everything they’re going to do is going to be good, isn’t it? And it’s not anymore. Over the last two decades that’s become very, very clear, and I think Snowden has just confirmed all our fears.

The irony is that as we now know, the NSA is still very present in Germany…

I think what Snowden has shown is that the BND is running out of control. Either they are breaching the constitution of the Germans with the knowledge and the approval of their physical masters, which is worrying because that means the whole constitution is shattered, or they are doing it rogue, which is even more worrying because who wants a state where you have the intelligence agency running amok behind the scenes, where the politicians who are supposed to be their physical masters don’t even know what’s going on!

So either way there are some serious questions to be answered here. But there is at least some outrage in Germany, and there is a political debate going on in the media, so that gives me hope. Whereas in the UK for example, since the Snowden disclosures and many other disclosures over the last two decades, what we saw was the media being very complacent and doing the government’s and the spies’ bidding.

How so?

Obviously, it’s well known that The Guardian had smashed its own disks by the order of the government. But what’s less known is that a “DA-Notice” was published, which is a media self-censorship mechanism in the UK where you get a bunch of senior spies and a bunch of senior media types who look at a story and if they think it might “damage national security”, then they spike that story. That’s precisely what happened with the Snowden disclosure. The other major newspapers aren’t covering it, the other major media outlets aren’t covering it. So there is no general media debate, there is no general political debate because that would shut down pretty quickly too.

And do you think it’s especially worse in the UK?

Yes. It’s very well known that the media is controlled on a number of levels by soft power and hard power. The soft power being that they’re all friends together and they get their stories from the spies, and as long as they keep producing the stories the spies want, they keep getting stories. The hard power is a whole range of different laws that can shut the media up. Journalists can be prosecuted under terrorism laws, they can be injuncted, they can be sued for libel, they can be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act just like whistleblowers. So the UK, over the last 100 years at least, has perfected this control mechanism.

We’ve also mythologised the spies very effectively with things like James Bond – we think the spies are the good guys and they are bit glamorous and they are doing something dangerous to protect national security. That takes us away from a meaningful debate about “what is national security?”. What are the major threats these days, and what is the best way to protect our country? We’re not having that, whereas I think a lot of other countries are – Germany in particular.

Have whistleblowers become the new heroes?

It depends on the environment which you are coming out of. The UK has historically been very secretive, with the Official Secrets Act pushing back against whistleblowers. Whistleblowers there tend to come out quite regularly. Countries which have historically been more open, like the US, have not felt the need to do so in the same way. However over the last couple of decades, particularly after 9/11, they have become much more secretive and a lot of people are very unhappy about the direction they took. You know, the shredding of their constitution, the shredding of civil liberties, the illegal wars, the fake intelligence, all that sort of stuff makes for very fertile ground for whistleblowers to come out. And yeah, I think there is a degree of them being trendy or something. I mean, I was involved in blowing the whistle in 1997.

That wasn’t so trendy back then?

No it wasn’t! [Laughs] It was fairly known, you know there was no word for whistleblowing apart from in English. There were plenty in the UK in the 1980s, a man called Clive Ponting who exposed war crimes in the Falklands War. There was a man called Peter Wright who wrote Spycatcher, a very famous book. Cathy Master exposed mass spying on left-wing activists, she was an MI5 officer in the 1980s. So the UK produced a law called the Official Secrets Act 1989, specifically to criminalise whistleblowing. That’s what David was arrested under.

Is there a “war on whistleblowers” now?

What we’re seeing now is a ramping up of, indeed, a war on whistleblowers. And this comes from the US. For example, in 2008 when Wikileaks started, there was a report drawn up by the US government to work out how to deal with what they called the “insider threat”, i.e. whistleblowers, i.e patriotic individuals who’d signed up to be there to do something good, who saw something really bad and wanted to do something about it, who then decided to do something extra-good to protect lives… and the people in power of course are threatened by this because they hate having transparency imposed on them. They are threatening whistleblowers with 35 years of prison, if not life. Including, for example, Thomas Drake, the NSA predecessor of Edward Snowden. I mean he went through all the right channels, up to a congressional hearing, and still got raided by the FBI and threatened with 35 years in prison. Now if that’s not a war on whistleblowers, I don’t know what is!

Obama is now known as having used the Espionage Act to shut up whistleblowers more frequently than any predecessors.

Yes, he has tried to prosecute seven whistleblowers from the intelligence agency since he’s come to power.

Is it just because it’s Obama? Or is this because there are more whistleblowers?

I think there are more whistleblowers, because there are more egregious war crimes and intelligence crimes being committed against not only the US, but the world population. That’s why more and more people of conscience are going to speak up. Now what they always try to do is crush them, destroy them, imprison them for life, to deter the future whistleblowers and that’s manifestly not working because Edward Snowden came out at the time when the Chelsea Manning trial was starting in June last year and despite that threat he still stepped up to the plate and said “this is what I’m going to expose because I think this is serious”.

And now, he’s in Russia. It was America’s worst PR operation ever, right?

Yes, and the Americans have none to blame but themselves. I mean the government were the ones that rescinded Snowden’s passport when he was in transit trying to get to permanent asylum offered to him in Ecuador. And it’s only because they took away his passport that he got stuck in Russia. And yet now the Americans are saying, “He was always working for the Russians, he’s a traitor.” That’s a load of crap!

That’s part of the war as well, demonisation…

Always, and you end up with this very tense situation being between a traitor and a hero in two different parts of your society and if you have to live through that for years it’s a very difficult psychological tension to have to deal with.

The whole saga has turned him into a bit of a hero – he’s the most famous whistleblower ever. Do you think it helps the cause?

I think there is a trajectory of anyone involved in this sort of work. A story breaks and all the media wants a piece of you and they get terribly excited about it, and that’s the moment when change can happen. That’s the moment when politicians can step up and say, “We are going to change the system. We’re going to have proper enquiries and make sure the spies work within the law.” If that doesn’t happen, the momentum goes, and we’ve seen this time and time again, you know? With all whistleblowing cases, including the publishing by Chelsea Manning stuff, the Edward Snowden stuff. It breaks my heart because one of the things Edward Snowden said in his very first interview, I think, was that the biggest fear he had was that what he did would change nothing. We all should stand up and, you know, force a change for the bravery he’s shown.

What do you think might happen to Snowden – a life-sentence in Russia?

Well, if sense ever prevails in the US, they will allow him back with a pardon and take his evidence and investigate and reign in these criminal intelligence agencies that are running amok, not just against US citizens but against the rest of us as well. Of course, that would imply common sense, and I’m not sure we’re going to see that anytime soon.

What do you think you can change right now?

It’s just spreading the message. People have this strange interest in spies and spying. I will use that platform to argue about these basic principles that we need to be aware of. We can still work within the established political system and lobby, for example, the European Parliament, to pass laws that protect the rights of EU citizens rather than the interests of global corporations or American national interests. But we can no longer assume that our government will protect our privacy, so we have to take those steps into our own hands, which is where we start using encryption and Tor, etc. And for those people that are not aware of how to do that, just go to a crypto party. They are being held worldwide now, where you can get geeks who can help. Keep pushing within the established system, but also don’t expect it to really protect you and take steps to protect yourself.