UK state spy program targets innocent

The headline may not come as any surprise but a damning report has been released on a key strand of the British government’s counterterrrorism strategy, Preventing Violent Extremism (or just ‘Prevent’). £140m (around $200m US) has been allocated to this program but much of it seems to have been devoted not to combatting nascent Islamic extremism (which is the stated aim) but MI5 simply collecting masses of information on entirely innocent British Muslims – information that will be kept until they are 100 years old! Part of this is because of the tenuous nature of the strategy in the first place: how would one define or identify those who are not terrorists but might become so? Will it be, as in cases reported by The Guardian, the student who attends a lecture on the conditions in Gaza or Muslim men with mental health problems? And much of this depends on teachers and lecturers reporting students. Therefore the program would seem inevitably to encourage suspicion and distrust, as Arun Kundnani writes and as the general tone of left and civil liberties critique has reinforced. But opposition has come from all sides: Pauline Neville-Jones, the Conservative shadow security minister, but also former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee and political director of the Foreign Office, has also condemned the whole approach of New Labour, which she argues is rooted in the identification of discrete ‘communities’ who share similar characteristics. This can of course be the basis of a form of multiculturalism, but at times of increased security and suspicion it seems all to easy for it to morph into what is effectively racial profiling…

US cameras to see the whole of the moon…

There’s been a story developing for a while now on the US-Canadian border. This used to be one of the most casual and friendly of borders, indeed there are families stretched across both sides and in many places the border meant only slight differences in the price of some goods…

But no more. There might be a new president, but Obama seems to be allowing the Bush-era plans for strengthening the border with Canada to continue. There are now CCTV towers being erected, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) patrolling, and new much stricter passport regulations and customs and immigration checks. As usual this seems to be being done with a kind of macho indifference to the opinions of the Canadians that is making the US actions doubly unpopular.

If this seems like some kind of sci-fi nightmare then then most crazy, Philip K. Dick-style element is to be found on the Michigan-Ontario border at Port Huron, where the Sierra Nevada Corporation, a US military aerospace company, has launched a tethered balloon camera (the company calls it an MAA (medium altitude airship) pointed at the town of Sarnia across the border. This isn’t even an official scheme, it’s a private company trying to sell this insanity to the Department of Homeland Security, and naturally the Mayor and citizens of Sarnia are angry about this international violation of their privacy, and many of both sides of this border think that this intensified security as an attack on the trust that exists between Americans and Canadians.

So what are Sarnians doing? They are giving the cameras something to look at, that’s what. More specifically they are planning to drop their pants for a mass ‘moon the balloon’, which in these days of ever more insane surveillance schemes seems just about the only possible response.

“Harpooning fish from an airplane”: NSA surveillance of US citizens

If the NSA can put this down to a period of bad leadership and bad policy, it might be allowed to get on with what it does relatively unhindered in the Obama era.

Boingboing has a link to a ten-miunte long MSNBC inerview with Russell Tice, an ex-National Security Agency (NSA) employee who is the latest in the long line of NSA whistleblowers after the likes of Wayne Madsen and Magaret Newsham. Tice’s revelations concern the NSA’s monitoring of internal communications in the USA after 9/11. According to Tice, the NSA both swept all US communications and also targeted specific groups, including journalists, for more comprehensive collection.

I have no idea how genuine Tice is and in many ways, despite the occasional choice phrase to describe SIGINT operations like the one with which I titled this post, he is a lot less interesting than Madsen or Newsham in that he’s not really telling us anything we didn’t know already. There is also a rather naive attitude from mainstream organisations like MSNBC that this is all down to the evil President Bush. This seems to suggest a lack of knowledge of history – do they really not remember the massive scandal over the very same use of watchlists by the NSA on behalf of the FBI in the 1960s? The huge inquiry led by Senator Frank Church in the 1970s? Can they continue to pretend that this is all totally new and that we can forget about ECHELON and the fact that this kind of surveillance is pervasive and systematic and becomes more so as technologies of collection, archiving and analysis improve? That is and always has been, what the NSA does in conjunction with its UKUSA network of largely subordinate allies and helpers (see this nice summary from Le Monde).

Of course this could be another explanation of Tice’s role, and the reason why he is being allowed to do the rounds of the newspapers and TV stations. Far from being simply a disaffected employee, he might be either a knowing or unknowing part of a media strategy by the NSA. If the NSA can put this down to a period of bad leadership and bad policy, it might be allowed to get on with what it does relatively unhindered in the Obama era. We shall see… or rather, we probably won’t!

NB: I wrote my PhD thesis on the networks of NSA-related bases around the world, including Menwith Hill, not far from where I live. It is worth checking out Cryptome’s Eyeball series of aerial views of NSA and other secret sites.

Fort George C. Meade, Maryland, Headquarters of the NSA
Fort George C. Meade, Maryland, Headquarters of the NSA

Official report on Omagh surveillance predictably clears GCHQ

An official report into allegations that the British intelligence services could have prevented the bombing of the town of Omagh by a renegade faction of the IRA in 1998 has, not entirely surprisingly, vindicated the intelligence services.

BBC TV’s current affairs strand, Panorama, had alleged that Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ, Britain’s equivalent of the US National Security Agency) had been monitoring the mobile phone communications of the bombers as they were moving towards Omagh, but did not inform the police on the ground in Northern Ireland.

The inquiry, chaired by the Intelligence Services Commissioner, Sir Peter Gibson, found no convincing evidence for this claim – which is of course, not to say that is wasn’t true. Let’s face it, it is highly unlikely that you would ever get GCHQ to admit to making mistakes let alone deliberately not giving information to the police on the ground. And even the ISC is not going to know whether GCHQ bosses are telling the whole truth or withholding information.

Justice in the case of the Omagh bombing has been hampered by murky behind the scenes dealings, despite the fact that it is widely known who was involved in planning and carrying out the attacks. Certainly the families of the victims of Omagh are probably right to reject the findings of this cozy establishment report, so typical of the way the British state polices itself.