Tag Archives: Andrew Neil

‘The Russian Interference Report, Without Laughing’ | Craig Murray

Now the madding crowd has moved on, I take a mature look at the report by the Intelligence and Security Committee on Russia. It is so flawed it is tempting simply to mock it. But in fact, it is extremely dangerous.

It calls expressly and repeatedly for the security services to be actively involved in “policing the democratic space” and castigates the security services for their unwillingness to interfere in democratic process. It calls for tough government action against social media companies who refuse to censor and remove from the internet material it believes to be inspired by foreign states. It specifically accepts the Integrity Initiative’s Christopher Donnelly and Ben Nimmo as examples of good identifiers of the material which should be banned – even though Nimmo is the man who stated that use of the phrase “Cui bono” is indicative of a Russian troll, and who accused scores of ordinary Scottish Independence supporters of being Russian trolls.

In order for you to assess the threat of a report which specifically calls on the social media companies to ban those individuals the British government identifies as Russian trolls, and which calls on the security services to act against those people, remember Ian.

Ian was identified by the British government as a Russian troll, on the word of Nimmo and Donnelly – exactly the “experts” on which this report relies. This report proposes Ian, and people like him, be banned from social media and subject to security service surveillance.

Listen to Ian:

In short the report is a real threat to democracy. Its evidence base is appalling, and that is what I shall look at first.

The ISC took evidence from just five “experts” outside the intelligence services. They were Anne Applebaum, Bill Browder, Christopher Donnelly, Edward Lucas and Christopher Steele. I do not quite know how to get over to you the full significance of this. It would be impossible to assemble a group of five witnesses with any pretence whatsoever to respectability (and some of them have an extremely tenuous link to respectability) that would be more far out, right wing and Russophobic. They are the extreme fringe of anti-Russian thinking. They are nowhere near the consensus among the academic, diplomatic and other genuinely expert communities on Russia.

There is simply no attempt at balance whatsoever. The best I can try to get over the extent of this would be to compare it to a hypothetical parliamentary inquiry into Old Firm rivalry where the only witnesses are Scott Brown, Neil Lennon, John Hartson, the Green Brigade, and a Cardinal. There is not any attempt from the ISC to interview any witness who is even remotely balanced or can give the view from the other side. Some might feel that a report entitled simply “Russia” which called zero actual Russians as witnesses is somewhat flawed.

To go through those witnesses.

Anne Applebaum is the most respectable of them. I should state that I know both Anne (whom I know as Ania) and her husband, Radek Sikorski MEP, slightly from my time as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Poland (1994-8). Anne is a right wing journalist who has worked at both the Spectator and the American Enterprise Institute, a Randian think tank. She identifies as Polish and shares the understandable visceral distrust of Russia felt by the Polish right. Her husband Radek Sikorski is a long term friend of Boris Johnson, member of the Bullingdon Club, also worked at the American Enterprise Institute and is a former Defence Minister of Poland. Radek’s persona as a politician is very much based around his hawkish stance on Russia. Both Anne and Radek have consistently argued for the aggressive eastward expansion of NATO and forward stationing of US troops and missiles towards Russia.

Bill Browder is a billionaire who made his money out of the Russian people from the fallout of Russia’s chaotic privatisation process. He achieved fame by portraying his highly corrupt accountant, Sergei Magnitskiy, as a human rights campaigner murdered by the Russian authorities. Browder’s account of events was found to be fundamentally false by the European Court of Human Rights, in a judgement which received zero truthful reporting in Western media. Here is an extract from the judgement of the ECHR:

The applicants argued that Mr Magnitskiy’s arrest had not been based on a reasonable suspicion of a crime and that the authorities had lacked impartiality as they had actually wanted to force him to retract his allegations of corruption by State officials. The Government argued that there had been ample evidence of tax evasion and that Mr Magnitskiy had been a flight risk.

The Court reiterated the general principles on arbitrary detention, which could arise if the
authorities had complied with the letter of the law but had acted with bad faith or deception. It found no such elements in this case: the enquiry into alleged tax evasion which had led to
Mr Magnitskiy’s arrest had begun long before he had complained of fraud by officials. The decision to arrest him had only been made after investigators had learned that he had previously applied for a UK visa, had booked tickets to Kyiv, and had not been residing at his registered address.

Furthermore, the evidence against him, including witness testimony, had been enough to satisfy an objective observer that he might have committed the offence in question. The list of reasons given by the domestic court to justify his subsequent detention had been specific and sufficiently detailed.

The Court thus rejected the applicants’ complaint about Mr Magnitskiy’s arrest and subsequent detention as being manifestly ill-founded.

The ECJ found that Magnitskiy indeed died as a result of the shortcomings of Russia’s brutal prison regime – very similar to that of the United States in this regard – but that he was properly in prison on viable criminal charges. The western media may ignore the fact that Browder’s activism is motivated entirely by a desire to hold on to his own vast ill-gotten wealth, and that the highest of courts has found his campaigning is based on a false narrative, but it is deeply, deeply shocking that the members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, who must know the truth, still give Browder credibility. There is no sense in which Browder is a respectable witness.

Christopher Donnelly was forced to step down as a person with significant control of fake charity “The Institute for Statecraft” after the Scottish Charity Regulator found that:

“There was no clear explanation as to why the salaries being paid to charity trustees were considered reasonable and necessary, and we had concern about the charity trustees’ decision-making process around these payments. We do not consider that this private benefit was incidental to the organisation’s activities that advanced its purposes”.

In other words, making money for its trustees, principally Christopher Donnelly, was a purpose of the Institute for Statecraft, not an incidental benefit. This is what the Charity Regulator also found about this fake charity:

The Charity Regulator also found that the Integrity Initiative, run by the Institute for Statecraft, was sending out party political tweets. All of this activity was of course carried out with taxpayers money, the Integrity Initiative being funded by the FCO, the MOD, and the security services.

The Integrity Initiative is a covert propaganda organisation designed to do precisely what the ISC report accuses Russia of doing – covertly influencing politics in both the UK and numerous other countries by state sponsored propaganda disguised as independent journalism or social media posts. Christopher Donnelly heads the Integrity Initiative. Its basic method of operation is secretly to pay mainstream media journalists around the world to pump out disguised British government propaganda, and to run hidden social media campaigns doing the same thing.

All of the “expert witnesses” before the committee feature in the leaked Integrity Initiative documents as part of Integrity Initiative activites. They are all engaged in doing precisely what they here accuse the Russians of doing. The best exposition, to the highest academic standards, of the fascinating leaked documents of the Integrity Initiative operation is by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and the Media. You can very happily spend an hour looking through their report.

So the UK UK was asking its own paid propagandists what they thought of the Russian propagandists. Every one of the witnesses makes their living from postulating the Russian threat. They therefore said the Russian threat is very big indeed.

Edward Lucas is a hilarious professional Russophobe. He is the go-to anti-Russia expert of the BBC, and can be guaranteed to say something stimulating, such as this:

Lucas actually uses #newcoldwar in his twitter profile, and is jolly keen on the idea.

Christopher Steele is a charlatan and con-man. He is by no means unique in trading on the glamour and reputation of MI6 to build up a consultancy business after an undistinguished career as a middle ranking MI6 officer.

When Steele produced, for a large sum of money, his famous “Pee dossier” on Donald Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, it was obvious to anyone with any professional background in intelligence analysis that it simply could not be genuine. It claimed to have a level of access into Russian security circles which is greater than the penetration ever secured by MI6 or the CIA. I immediately pointed out its deficiencies, but these were ignored by an establishment media desperate to explain away the Trump insurgency into their political space.

Since then the dossier has simply fallen apart. Steele has been successfully sued by people named in the dossier. The lawyer Michael Cohen has shown that he was definitively not in Prague on the date Steele claimed he was meeting Russian hackers there, and indeed has never been to Prague. Most telling of all, it turns out that most of the content of the dossier was simply a compilation of the gossip of the Russian emigre community in Washington by Igor Danchenko, formerly a junior staff member at the Brookings Institute, a liberal foreign policy thinktank.

The silence of the media on the unravelling of the Steele Dossier has been so remarkable it has drawn comment in unexpected quarters:

Having seen the quality of the input, it is unsurprising that the report is a case of “rubbish in, rubbish out”. So let us now, with rubber gloves and a peg on the nose, pick through the rubbish.

To start at para 1, the tone is immediately set of paranoid antagonism to Russia. There is no attempt at balance whatsoever; anti-Russian statement is built on anti-Russian statement until we are supposed to be carried away by the stream of rhetoric to accept each succeeding proposition as it is piled up. Like this one:

The murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 demonstrated that Russia under President Putin had moved from potential partner to established threat.

Did it really? Accepting for the sake of argument that the official British explanation of Litvinenko’s death is true and it was a murder by the Russian state, does that show that Russia is an “established threat”? It would certainly be an appalling abuse of human rights and show Russia is a threat to Russian dissidents, but would it really show Russia is an “established threat” to you and me? Plenty of other countries murder their opponents abroad, notably the USA, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Uzbekistan, countries the UK government is proud to call allies. The UK kills opponents abroad continually, in drone strikes, including deliberately by drone killing its own citizens and even killing young British children. I can condemn all such murders equally. But why should we be carried away by the anti-Russian rhetoric into finding it uniquely reprehensible, only when Russia does it?

I could go through every single para of the report, but life is too short. I will however pick out places where the logic is far less convincing than the rhetoric is impressive. From Para 3:

its lack of strong independent public bodies and the fusion of government and business allow it to leverage all its intelligence, military and economic power at the same time to pose an all-encompassing security threat.

Really? Is Russia really that unified? In fact, this is a startling over-simplification. The extreme oligarchic structure which resulted from the wholesale looting of assets in the western-inspired and western-overseen chaos of Russian privatisation has resulted in a state which is indeed not a healthy democracy. But neither is it a monolith with no dissent and no conflicting interests, and Putin has continually to balance the desires and goals of different oligarchs and factions. Not many Russians would recognise the portrayal here of a super efficient and coherent state and business machine.

Besides, even if it were true, Russia would still only have one fifth of the population of the European Union and an economy the size of Spain. The attempt to pump up Russia as a massive threatening superpower is simply nonsense. What Russia does have is the ability to take decisive politico-military action, on a small scale in limited theatres, such as Crimea or Syria. It does so with success because it has a leader who is better at the game of international realpolitik that his western contemporaries. That is not a value judgement: I personally believe Putin is right in Syria and wrong in Crimea. But to blame Russia for the decrepit state of current western diplomacy is a stretch.

By para 4 the report is surfing along on a surreal wave of nonsense:

The security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage as, in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic.

Really? Nihilistic? Now the report has already stated that Russia is a remarkably monolithic and unified state apparatus, controlled presumably by President Putin. I can think of many adjectives to describe Putin, some of them not very pleasant – calculating, machiavellian and devious would be amongst them. But he is the absolute opposite of nihilist. He has a clearly defined view of Russia’s interests – and that view identifies Russian interests far too closely with himself and other oligarchs – and sets out diligently and consistently to advance those interests.

So you can define clear Russian policy goals in the international sphere. These include the consolidation of Russian influence in the former Soviet Union and, where possible, the re-integration of contiguous Russian majority speaking territory into Russia, as seen in Georgia and Ukraine. They include the reduction of democratic space for political dissent at home. They include the countering of American influence abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Central Asia. These are serious, hard-headed policies. The very last word I would use to describe them is nihilistic. The Russian oligarch class are as unquestioningly materialist as any class in any society, ever. They are not nihilists.

I can only imagine that the committee picked up on the word “nihilist” from one of the crazed flights of fancy of Edward Lucas.

Para 4 then blunders on into still stranger territory:

It is also seemingly fed by paranoia, believing that Western institutions such as NATO and the EU have a far more aggressive posture towards it than they do in reality.

What could give them that idea?

But what is really strange is the lack of self awareness; a report built entirely upon paranoia about the Russian threat accuses Russia of paranoia about the western threat.

The next few paragraphs make repeated reference to the “Salisbury attacks” and simply take for granted the narrative that Russia was responsible for these. This I am not prepared to do. Clearly some kind of spy subterfuge took place in Salisbury involving both the UK and Russia, but there are too many obvious lies in the official UK government account. I still have seen no answers to my ten outstanding questions, while the attribution of the poison gets ever shakier, with new revelations from that cesspool of corruption, the bureaucracy of the OPCW.

Paras 13 to 20, on cyber warfare, again show that complete lack of self-awareness. They attribute a number of cyber hacks to Russia and the GRU, as though we did not know from Wikileaks Vault 7 leaks that the CIA specifically has a programme, “Umbrage” for leaving behind fake evidence of a Russian hack. But more tellingly, they quote GCHQ as their source of information.

Now it is a simple truth that hacking Russian communications, including military, political, security, research and commercial communications, has been a core part of GCHQ tasking from its establishment. Assuming at least some of the attributions to Russia on cyber warfare are correct, the synthetic outrage at Russia doing what we have been doing to Russia on a far, far larger scale for decades, is laughable. Even more so when paras 20 to 24 talk of the need for the MOD and GCHQ to expand their offensive cyber warfare as though this were a retaliatory measure.

From para 27 onwards the committee is talking about broadcast and new media disinformation campaigns. Here it stops pretending it knows any secret intelligence and states its information is open source, as at footnote 24 where the sources are frothing mad Edward Lucas and fake charity purveyor Christopher Donnelly, telling us how terrible Russian troll campaigns are.

Yet again, there is a total lack of self awareness. The committee fails to note that Donnelly himself has been spending millions of UK taxpayers’ money (at least that which did not go into his own pocket) running absolutely, precisely the same kind of covert campaign of hidden influence propaganda that they are accusing Russia of running. They accuse Russia Today of bias as though the BBC did not have its own state propaganda bias. Yet again, the lack of self-awareness is stunning.

Now we start to reach the stage where all this sanctimonious hypocrisy become really dangerous. Before you read this next few paras of the report, I would remind you that the repression of every bad regime everywhere has always been, in the eyes of the repressive security service, defensive. It is always to protect the truth, to prevent the spread of the lies and disaffection of evil foreign influence. That was the justification of the Cheka, the Gestapo, the Stasi and every South American dictator. They were all protecting the people from foreign lies. Now read this from the committee, and consider what it really means:

33. Whilst we understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security Agencies might be involved in democratic processes – certainly a fear that is writ large in other countries – that cannot apply when it comes to the protection of those processes. And without seeking in any way to imply that DCMS is not capable, or that the Electoral Commission is not a staunch defender of democracy, it is a question of scale and access. DCMS is a small Whitehall policy department and the Electoral Commission is an arm’s length body; neither is in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy. Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority.

34. In our opinion, the operational role must sit primarily with MI5, in line with its statutory responsibility for “the protection of national security and, in particular, its protection against threats from espionage, terrorism and sabotage, from the activities of agents of foreign powers and from actions intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy … ”.38 The policy role should sit with the Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism (OSCT) – primarily due to its ten years of experience in countering the terrorist threat and its position working closely with MI5 within the central Government machinery. This would also have the advantage that the relationship built with social media companies to encourage them to co-operate in dealing with terrorist use of social media could be brought to bear against the hostile state threat; indeed, it is not clear to us why the
Government is not already doing this.

35. With that said, we note that – as with so many other issues currently – it is the social media companies which hold the key and yet are failing to play their part. The Government must now seek to establish a protocol with the social media companies to ensure that they take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material. Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act. Such a protocol could, usefully, be expanded to encompass the other areas in which action is required from the social media companies, since this issue is not unique to Hostile State Activity. This matter is, in our view, urgent and we expect the Government to report on progress in this area as soon as possible.

The government endorsed Donnelly/Nimmo operation identified Ian above as a Russian agent. I have no doubt they would count this article as Russian disinformation. They would set MI5 on Ian and I, and ensure our posts would be banned from social media. Only such a corrupt mainstream media as we have in the UK would fail entirely to note – and they have failed entirely to note – the extreme and illiberal aspects of this report.

There is a real danger identified by the report. But it is not Russia, it is the McCarthyite witch-hunt the report seeks to promote, ironically based upon an entire sea of disinformation.

By paragraph 42 the committee has left reality entirely behind in favour of a tour of Clintonland.

42. It was only when Russia completed a ‘hack and leak’ operation against the Democratic National Committee in the US – with the stolen emails being made public a month after the EU referendum – that it appears that the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area, given that the risk thresholds in the Kremlin had clearly shifted, describing the US ‘hack and leak’ as a “game changer”, 46 and admitting that “prior to what we saw in the States, [Russian interference] wasn’t generally understood as a big threat to [electoral] processes”.

Contrary to the committee’s bland assertion, it is now well established that there never was any Russian hack of the DNC. Mueller failed entirely, after spending US $32million, to establish either a hack or Russian “collusion” with the Trump campaign. The only “evidence” there ever was for the Russian hack was an affirmation by the DNC’s security consultants, Crowdstrike, and this summer we learnt that Crowdstrike had never had any evidence of a Russian hack either. While those of us close to Wikileaks have been explaining for years it was a leak, not a hack. We were ignored by the media as it did not fit with the official disinformation campaign.

The committee query why the UK security services were not alerted by the DNC hack to take additional measures against Russia. The answer to that is very simple. The UK and US security services share all intelligence, so the UK security services were well aware from the US intelligence information that there was in fact no Russian hack. Unlike their US counterparts, they were not led by Clinton appointed loyalists prepared to perpetuate and act upon the lie to try to serve their political masters. On the other hand, the UK security services evidently did not feel it necessary to dampen the ardour of the committee on this point when it was about to propose a large increase in their powers and their budgets.

I had already blogged on paragraph 41 of the report and its accusation of Russian interference in the election campaign, founded entirely on a published article on Medium by witch-finder general, the Livingston unionist Ben Nimmo. That article states, among other things, that many Independence supporters on social media also support Russia on Ukraine, and therefore must be agents of Russian influence – as opposed to Scots who happen to support Russia over Ukraine. It notes that a number of people who support Scottish Independence appear not to have English as their first language, and some have trouble with definite and indefinite articles; therefore, Nimmo concludes they must be Russian trolls. As though we have no migrants who support Scottish Independence – and ignoring the fact Polish, Lithuanian, indeed the majority of languages in the world, also do not use definite and indefinite articles.

Let us remind ourselves of Ben Nimmo’s brilliant identification of top Russian trolls, nine out of ten of which turned out to be ordinary Scottish Independence supporters who simply tweeted things Nimmo does not like, while the tenth is a news aggregation bot which actually has the word “bot” in its name. That the committee takes this stuff seriously is a fact so eloquent in itself, I need hardly say more.

When we arrive at section 49 we finally reach material with which I can wholeheartedly agree. The UK, and the City of London in particular, was absolutely wrong to have welcomed in with open arms the Russian billionaires whose fortunes had been looted from the Russian people in the chaotic privatisation process, where assets were seized often by brute force, sometimes by bribery. There is no decent society in which the Deripaskas, the Usmanovs, the Lebvedevs, the Abramovics, should be accorded respect. Dirty money corrupts financial and political institutions. The committee is absolutely correct about that.

But have these people been living under a rock? UK politics and society have been a stinking morass of corruption for generations. Saudi money has worked in exactly the same way as Russian, and has had a bigger political influence, leading to a quite disgusting blind eye being turned to appalling human rights violations and military aggression against civilians. The same is true of all the Gulf states. London has been awash for over 40 years with Nigerian plutocrats, every single one of whose wealth has been corruptly looted. When I worked at the British High Commission in Lagos, the snobs’ estate agent Knight Frank and Rutley had an office there, staffed by expatriates, which did nothing but sell Surrey mansions and Docklands penthouses to crooks.

Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Angola, Sierra Leone, there is not a blood diamond or corruptly acquired oil barrel whose proceeds do not wash up in London. Four of the world’s top ten tax evasion bases are British colonies. The committee was right to describe the City of London as a “laundromat” for looted money, but wrong to ascribe that mainly to Russia. That is without considering the disgusting activities of our own UK and US billionaires, who control our media and ultimately our politics.

I can join in the committee’s condemnation of Russian oligarchs influence in British society, and especially their influence as donors on the Tory party. But remember Mandelson/Deripaska. The corruption has no ideological basis except selfishness. The financial interests of British, American, Russian, Saudi, French, Malaysian or any other billionaires are entirely intertwined, as is their political influence. It is the billionaires against the people. The nationality of the particular billionaire is irrelevant. I strongly recommend this report by Transparency International on the massive involvement of “respectable” British institutions in facilitating obviously corrupt transactions.

Does anybody seriously believe the influence of Russian billionaires is somehow more pernicious in the UK than the Saudis or any of the others I have mentioned? Of course nobody believes that; this report only achieves its aim by a blinkered focus on a singular anti-Russian racism. I am not going to expound on any more of the report, because there is a limit to how much racism I am prepared to wade through.

But before closing, I want to consider how enthusiasm for the new Cold War has swept up pretty well the entire political and media class. There are of course those who were enthusiasts for the last Cold War, the military and security services, the arms industry and bottom feeders like Christopher Steele and Christopher Donnelly, who make a surprisingly fat living from peddling the disinformation the state wishes to hear.

But the “Russia is the enemy” narrative has been taken up not just by the traditional right, but by those who would probably self-describe as liberal or social democrat, by supporters of Blair and Hillary.

Most of the explanation for this lies in the success of Blair and Clinton in diverting the “left” into the neo-con foreign policy agenda, through the doctrine of “liberal intervention”, which was the excuse for much Victorian imperialism. The notion is that if you only bomb and maim people in developing countries enough, they will develop democratic forms of government.

This thesis is at best unproven. But once you persuade people to accept one form of war, they seem to become enthusiasts for more of it, particularly those who work in media. It remains the most important single fact in British politics that, despite the fact almost everybody now acknowledges that it was a disaster, nobody ever lost their job for supporting the Iraq war. Quite a few lost their job for opposing it, Greg Dyke, Carne Ross, Elizabeth Wilmshurst and Piers Morgan being among the examples. It is a simple matter of fact that the Iraq War’s biggest cheerleaders dominate the London political and media landscape, whereas there is no critic of the Iraq War in an important position of power.

But apart from the argument that we must oppose Russia because it is not a democracy (but not oppose Saudi Arabia because… well, because), something else is in play. The cosy liberal worldview has been shattered by a populist surge, as represented by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Both events are cataclysmic to the liberal mind and need to be explained.

For some reason, many mainstream liberals, especially the well-heeled ones who control the media and are columnists therein, are unable to acknowledge the truth. The truth is that our apparently comfortable modern society left a large number of people behind, who suffered loss of status from the ever-growing wealth gap and believed their opinions were not valued by an urban establishment they despised. These people revolted and had a right to revolt. That their discontent was seized upon and diverted by charlatans to unworthy political causes did not nullify the just causes of discontent. Loss of wages, job security and social status has bedeviled the disenfranchised at the same time that the plutocrats have been piling up personal wealth.

The upsurge of populism is a direct consequence of the vicious inequality of late stage capitalism, seasoned with racist attitudes to migrants which were themselves triggered by large waves of immigration the “liberal left” in fact caused with their obsessive pursuit of foreign invasion and destruction. That analysis, that the capitalist system they so wholeheartedly espouse and the wars for “freedom” they so ardently promote are the cause of the political setbacks they have encountered – is unpalatable to the media and political classes.

They therefore look for another cause for the raw political wounds of Trump and Brexit. Incredibly, they attempt to blame Putin for both. The notion that Russia, rather than deep disaffection of the less privileged classes, “caused” Trump, Brexit and even support for Scottish Independence is completely risible, yet uncritical acceptance of that analysis is fundamental to this report. It fits the mindset of the entire political and media establishment which is why it has been lauded, when it should be condemned as a real threat to the very political freedoms which it claims differentiate us from Russia.

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Click here to read the same article as it was originally published on Craig Murray’s official website on Wednesday August 12th.

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He was British Ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and Rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010.

I would like to thank Craig Murray for permission to share and republish this article. Not all of the views expressed are necessarily ones shared by wall of controversy.

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Filed under Britain, Craig Murray, internet freedom, Russia

play up! play up! and don’t play the game!

It is a fortnight since the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden first broke with revelations of a “previously undisclosed program called Prism, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats” announced to the world by Glenn Greenwald writing in the Guardian on Friday 7th:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

On that very same day I was heading down the M1 motorway to Watford with a friend to protest against the Bilderberg meeting taking place at the Grove hotel. A meeting that evidently has extremely close connections to those same “internet giants” who have been enabling the NSA as well as our own GCHQ to covertly snoop into every aspect of our lives. Indeed Google were already busy having their very own “private gathering” inside the same grounds of the very same hotel on days either side of the Bilderberg confab. In spite of being so closely connected to the inner circle of the Bilderberg clique, and thus to the very people who are engaged in this rampant abuse of our civil liberties, here’s what Google officially said to the Guardian:

In a statement, Google said: “Google cares deeply about the security of our users’ data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully. From time to time, people allege that we have created a government ‘back door’ into our systems, but Google does not have a back door for the government to access private user data.”

Plausible deniability, in other words, and it gets better:

Several senior tech executives insisted that they had no knowledge of Prism or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a program. “If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge,” one said.

An Apple spokesman said it had “never heard” of Prism.1

I imagine he’s probably never heard of those Foxconn factories in China with the suicide nets either.

Driving down in our van together we were missing the coverage of Snowden’s document release but then again we already knew all the most important details of the supposedly breaking story. That we are all now living under constant internet and telephone surveillance being old news to any who have cared to search within the margins or else entirely beyond the mainstream news. Since if you are familiar with the names of William Binney or Tom Drake, to name but two former NSA whistleblowers who have both featured in earlier posts, then Snowden’s document dump comes mainly as confirmation of prior knowledge. Details added, yes, but nothing substantially new or remotely surprising.

As we approached the M25 we had entered a twenty mile section of the M1 with CCTV cameras (unless we were both mistaken) fitted every hundred yards along the hard shoulder and funneling our way ahead to London. Having not driven along this newly refurbished stretch of the M1, I felt a growing unease at this additional and less anticipated evidence of where our society is so obviously heading, thoughts which were also combined with something more primal: a loathing of being so tightly boxed in. My friend said he felt similarly unnerved. The claustrophobia of high surveillance was creeping both of us out.

At Junction 8 we turned off and from there onwards followed the softly spoken instructions of our satnav. As patient as she was mellifluous, surely ‘Emily’, the satnav babe, was on our side, but hang on, what’s this…?

A secret ‘Big Brother’ operation is allowing officials to pinpoint the exact location of thousands of vehicles with satellite navigation systems.

The controversial scheme is built into the small print of a contract between the Department for Transport and the satnav company Trafficmaster.

Currently the ‘spy in the sky’ system is limited to some 50,000 drivers who have Trafficmaster’s Smartnav system.2

And that story was released back in 2007 so god knows what Emily gets up to these days… the flirty little snitch! Still, at least she knew the whereabouts of where we were heading, reliably delivering us to the entrance of the Bilderberg Fringe designated campsite where we were soon spotted by a warden who politely but promptly informed us that we were actually the wrong side of the hundred acres of scout parkland. In view of the latest child protection laws, the protesters, he informed us, were being located well away from the scouts and with access guarded by a couple of police vans on 24-hour patrol outside the gates just in case.

So we turned the van around and, without Emily to guide us now, aimed a little across country, down some forest tracks, and eventually coming to the proper site. It was dusk and we were soon parked up in a beautiful corner of the rolling Hertfordshire countryside, brewing up some teas and pulling out the camping chairs to idle the rest of the evening beside the white blossoms of the hawthorns and the brighter flush of ox-eye daisies. A lovely spot for camping, quiet and secluded, and also close enough to the main field to mingle with other campers who as darkness fell had put together a makeshift bonfire from pallets and entertained themselves with beers and music. It was odd to think that this accidental mix of people had all come along with the same singular intent. There to vent a little of our collective spleen directly towards the secretive banker-CEO-politico hobnobbing which was already well underway but happening five miles away inside the plush Grove hotel.

In many ways it was turning into a rather beautiful weekend. Beautiful weather, beautiful location and the following day, a beautiful gathering of common humanity hollering our peaceful but intransigent dissent across the lines of G4S security guards and towards the high security steel perimeter that surrounded the hotel half a mile away in the distance. Did the Bilderberg delegates hear our cries from our small but thronging paddock of free speech? I think they most probably did. Were they remotely listening to what any one of us had to say? Of course not – what do you think this is… a democracy or something?

In truth I’ve been struggling to decide what to write about the Bilderberg protests ever since I returned. The media, of course, knew exactly where to point its cameras. Alex Jones was bound to provide them with a story and offer a further distraction to the main event. Duly he obliged, goaded into action by the smug Andrew Neil and his supercilious sidekick David Aaronvitch (who ironically enough was once awarded the Orwell Prize – how Orwell must be turning in his grave). His latest rant going viral once again and thus overshadowing the more considered position of Tony Gosling who had sparred with Neil on the same subject only a few days earlier:

But then, Neil and Jones weren’t the only ones playing games over the Bilderberg weekend. For instance, the police liaison officers convivial mingling with the crowds was another little game with different rules. Likewise, the men in sharp suits who were milling around the gates of the Grove before drifting across to be matey with those of us enclosed within our little pen were part of yet another form of the same game. In response to all this or else for more provocative reasons, some of the protesters were playing parallel games of their own. Making entertaining announcements over their personal megaphones or more simply befriending those who helped to keep us under restraint.

And perhaps the one time the protesters really got the upper hand in these ongoing games was when two small children breached the security cordon and briefly ran amok. The G4S guards were clearly flustered and at a total loss to know what to do. Sure the meeting was taking place half a mile away across a canal with only one small bridge crossing and firmly sealed behind the newly installed and heavily patrolled perimeter fence high on the hill in the distance, but just what might have happened if these children had been permitted to run loose… might others have been inspired to boldly follow their lead?

Maybe if we sent all the kids out ahead, perhaps followed soon after by the pensioners and the disabled, then such a diversionary tactic might just be enough to keep the troops of security guards and mounted police sufficiently preoccupied for the rest of us to make a proper assault on the castle walls! I’m fairly sure I wasn’t alone in thinking such subversive thoughts… although these were just games of a purely imaginative kind. The single person who did in fact embark upon such daring act of civil disobedience having already been promptly captured; foiled within seconds by the lines of blue. She hadn’t stood an earthly. So why then had we all been submitted to airport-style security checks before being allowed entry into the paddock? Well, it was just another part of the games being played, as was the enormous police presence that accompanied some of the protesters, keeping an eye on their later pub rendezvous many miles away in a different village. Being followed hither and thither by security vans was all part of the festival, and of course we all enjoyed the romp no end.

Which basically sums up the lasting lesson of Bilderberg 2013 for me at least; that all of the many impositions and cruelties inflicted upon the downtrodden populations of this world by a small but dominant gang of well established oligarchs can actually be maintained only by virtue of such tacitly accepted games – games being so absolutely vital for ensuring that the world goes on working in the unjust way it does, with tyranny being so much more effectively instilled and ensured through disingenuous smiles and knowing winks than by any amount of armed security guards and steel fences. The fences and the guns being reserved for emergencies only and if the herd should ever get too out of control.

“One pro-transparency campaigner has had enough” wrote Charlie Skelton in his final Bilderblog for this year’s event, continuing with a quote:

“For too long, those in power made decisions behind closed doors, released information behind a veil of jargon and denied people the power to hold them to account.”

Who might that have been, you may wonder. Perhaps Michael Meacher, who was the only parliamentarian with the gumption to directly address the protesters gathered at the gates of the Grove. Well, no actually…

This particular critic of closed-doors government is a certain David Cameron, speaking shortly after taking office. “This coalition is driving a wrecking ball through that culture,” he said, “and it’s called transparency.”

And Cameron wasn’t alone in his humbug:

Cameron wasn’t the only one swinging the wrecking-ball of transparency inside this year’s Bilderberg. He was joined on the end of the chain by Jessica Mathews, who sits on the advisory council of Transparency International, and James Wolfensohn, who’s on the advisory council of Transparency International USA. Together, I’m sure, they were lobbying hard to open up this last bastion of murky politicking to the sunlight. If they could find the time between seminars.3

Click here to read more of Charlie Skelton’s summary of this year’s Bilderberg.

When I got home to Sheffield I had some explaining to do. Principally I needed to account for why it was I’d let myself get so sunburnt during the weekend. Now the strict answer was that due to the security checks and the long tailback that had resulted (many of the protesters, we understood, having been turned away at the entrance) I hadn’t been able to return from the paddock to pick up the sunscreen we’d rather foolishly left behind in our van. Not a terribly romantic answer and so I improvised. “A battle scar,” I told my nephews and niece when they asked me later, “received at the cost of fighting against the Bilderbergers.”

“Why are you fighting the Build-A-Bears?” my niece objected. “I love the Build-A-Bears” she added. “Not Build-A-Bears,” I explained, “but Bilderbergers…”

“What do they make?” she asked me. What do the make…? I hesitated. How could I explain to an eight year-old what the Bilderbergers make? “War,” I said bluntly after a pause. With both General Petraeus and Kissinger in attendance it seemed like a fair if simplified version of the truth.

Meanwhile Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, has been involved in quite a caper of his own, leading the American government a merry dance in an almost nostalgic game of Cold War cat and mouse. Landing first in Hong Kong and then taking a flight on to Moscow, the news media is now altogether consumed with speculation about when and where he’ll most likely turn up next, whereas some others, perhaps most notably Naomi Wolf, are also questioning Snowden’s motivations. Is he really who he purports to be?, asks Wolf, with the unstated implication being that his adventures might in some way be part of a “limited hangout” operation; a convenient way to leak out minimal information primarily to the advantage of the spy agencies involved. As a further response, some are already asking who Naomi Wolf really is… here for example is Dave Lindorff offering a counter-offensive in last week’s Counterpunch.

In my opinion questioning the motivation of both parties is perfectly legitimate, since after all I cannot vouch for either Wolf or Snowden, having absolutely no personal association with either one. Wolf’s speculations may indeed be wild and self-promoting, as Lindorff asserts, yet the fuller verdict on Snowden surely remains unclear. For though his release of the Prism documents was undoubtedly in the public interest, and for that reason alone he ought to be protected from any subsequent prosecution, yet as I pointed out above, the evidence he presents adds surprisingly little to what we already knew or might easily have presumed.

What Snowden unquestionably has achieved, however, is to put the matter of public surveillance under the mainstream spotlight. Yet does this alone automatically affirm him as our new hero for freedom and democracy? For there might indeed be, as Wolf tentatively points out, a more hidden agenda going on behind the scenes, and whether or not Snowden is a man of integrity, he may still be an unwitting dupe. This leak, which serves to apply extra pressure to Obama, might, for instance, help with forcing the beleaguered President’s hand in other areas. It could be that by such means, Obama may now be further pressured into engaging in all-out war on Syria – one conflict that Obama has so far managed to steer clear of. Snowden’s leak becoming the straw that finally broke the camel’s back…

That said, charging Snowden under the Espionage Act strikes another fierce blow against freedom of speech, issuing a chill warning to other potential whistleblowers who may contemplate speaking out in the public interest, and thereby further trampling on the tattered remains of the American constitution. It is right therefore that those who stand for freedom ought to back Snowden’s actions and demand that he is pardoned of any crime, but it is also wise to be cautious of all those who cross from behind enemy lines. So let’s also remind ourselves that Snowden worked for the NSA and though we may like to believe that a leopard can change its spots, the associated proverb helpfully cautions us not to wish to be deceived…

The truth is the truth and yet the truth gets harder and harder to find. Take Bilderberg again, which commentators like Andrew Neil assure us is just a private club, and nothing to bother our silly little heads about. Ken Clarke, answering questions in the House of Commons (see below), playing a similar gambit. But then why the cover up for so long, we may legitimately ask, and why does the BBC even now continue to stick with the party line (of “nothing to see here”) rather than asking the tougher questions directly of the Bilderbergers themselves?

As a consequence, when we desire to uncover any meaningful facts about Bilderberg (starting with its actual existence) we are instead forced to turn to the alternative media, and the same goes for most other pressing issues including, to stick with the pertinent illustration, the rise of the surveillance state. The BBC reporting next to nothing when William Binney and Tom Drake were spilling the beans about the NSA, but some years later totally seduced by the story of Edward Snowden. The best we can say is that this is too little too late: closing the stable door after the horse has well and truly bolted.

And the emphasis is also shifted. Stories not to reveal more about Bilderberg or to challenge NSA and GCHQ surveillance, but instead about what Alex Jones believes about Bilderberg or intrigue surrounding the continuing flight of Edward Snowden. The news becoming the metanews and the important message being lost in all the hubbub. In such a fashion we are cajoled into accepting the unacceptable. These kinds of reporting of the news helping to get us more accustomed to the idea of clandestine political gatherings and of the secret services spying into every area of our personal lives. The media playing their own considerable part in the very same game… tricking us into masking our fears with our own false grins as we laugh along with the lies and feign delight in our own deception.

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Update:

An article published in last Wednesday’s Washington Post [June 26th] offers further reasons to be cautious when it comes to Ed Snowden’s motivations. Entitled “Four years ago, Ed Snowden thought leakers should be ‘shot’”, it begins as follows:

Since he publicly acknowledged being the source of bombshell leaks about the NSA two weeks ago, Ed Snowden has portrayed government secrecy as a threat to democracy, and his own leaks as acts of conscience. But chat logs uncovered by the tech news site Ars Technica suggest Snowden hasn’t always felt that way.

“Those people should be shot in the balls,” Snowden apparently said of leakers in a January 2009 chat.

Click here to read the full article by Timothy B. Lee.

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Additional:

Here is the best video compilation of the Bilderberg Fringe event I have found uploaded:

1 From an article entitled “NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others” written by Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, published by the Guardian on June 7, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data

2 From an article entitled “Big Brother is keeping tabs on satnav motorists” published by the Daily Mail on September 25, 2007. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-483682/Big-Brother-keeping-tabs-satnav-motorists.html

3 From an article entitled “Bilderberg 2013: The sun sets on Watford” written by Charlie Skelton and published by the Guardian on June 11, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/11/bilderberg-davidcameron

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Britain, Charlie Skelton, internet freedom, mass surveillance