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Deciphering the ISC’s Woolwich Report Part One: it isn’t about Facebook

Well, the ISC report into the murder of Lee Rigby turned out to be a 200 page pdf which did contain some surprises (see my previous post). In an age of 24 hour rolling news cycles, it’s clear no media outlet bothered to properly read it before commenting. Some broadcasters and newspapers announced the report deemed the attack “unpreventable”, others the exact opposite. This sort of ambiguity does not creep into parliamentary reports by accident, I can promise you. It is very deliberate and there is a knack to it.

In this case the big “what if” lauded by the report was the “discovery” that apparently Michael Adebolajo contacted “an individual overseas” in December 2012 on an unnamed social network and told him, graphically but non-specifically, of his intent to kill a soldier. The Committee were told (by whom we know not) that this material came to light only after the sad murder of Drummer Rigby. We can only assume they were not misinformed. I wouldn’t be greatly suprised if the message had never existed in the first place. In any case:

“It is difficult to speculate on the outcome,” wrote the Committee, modestly, before adding with no discernible effort “but [if MI5 had access to this exchange] there is a significant possibility that MI5 would then have been able to prevent the attack.”

What the report doesn’t reflect is that all the social media are backdoored to hell by the NSA. The Snowden leaks made all this perfectly clear. There may very well be some interdepartmental squabbles, and the information might not flow with complete freedom across the Atlantic, but all MI5 had to do, if it wanted to see that message, was look. It didn’t.

“The party which could have made a difference,” the Rrport opines, “was the company on whose platform the exchange took place. However, this company does not appear to regard itself as under any obligation to ensure that its systems identify such exchanges, or to take action or notify the authorities when its communications services appear to be used by terrorists. There is therefore a risk that, however unintentionally, it provides a safe haven for terrorists to communicate within.”

Much like the Royal Mail doesn’t open everybody’s envelopes, for example. The ISC now seem to want pro-active scanning – presumably on some automated keyword algorithm basis – that automatically scans Facebook content so it can be passed on to the authorities for anything terror-related. This is probably already being done. The ISC, untroubled by legal implications or current practices, or indeed the possibility that it might alert the world’s terrorists to an open channel, decided to hoist this flag up the mast anyway, although it admitted it had no real idea what was going on.

“It has been difficult to gain a clear understanding from GCHQ and the company of exactly what happened in this particular case. The monitoring process used by the company is still not sufficiently clear to the Committee or, it appears, to GCHQ. On the basis of the evidence we have received, the company does not have procedures to prevent terrorists from planning attacks using its networks.”

You can perhaps forgive the ISC for failing to achieve clarity here. After all, their US equivalent has no idea what’s going on either. The US Senate’s Intelligence Committee has been lied to repeatedly by very senior people about the scope of the NSA’s DIGINT activity. In fact, the NSA even hacked the computers of the Committee itself, which it then intimidated and smeared (I’m sure the NSA knows quite a lot about Rifkind et al too).

Whether the Committee were hoodwinked about this communications blackspot or not, what beggars belief is the idea that they should then chose to conspicuously highlight it. Hey, it’s official! If you’re a UK terrorist, get your Facebook dummy accounts set up now!

You’re left wondering if this is disinformation, which is exactly the sort of thing a hobbled ISC would put out, or incompetence, a binary dilemma which has long been the hallmark of intelligence services everywhere. Conventional government departments can easily be dismissed as unfit for purpose, while those which labour under the veil of the Official Secrets Act offer the tantalising prospect there is actually something else going on. Often there is: lying. However, in this aspect the report’s opinions neatly echo those expressed by GCHQ’s new director Robert Hannigan in the FT earlier this month (which includes the inevitable swipe at that great whistle-blower Edward Snowden). The report and the FT article are so obviously synchronised one is reminded of Rifkind’s stated belief that the Committee should be a public relations agency for the intelligence services. Is “Colonel” Rifkind a spook manqué or is he just expertly handled?

In summary, the Facebook stuff is a bum steer. Possibly, assuming actual competence, it was conceived as an easy headline to distract from the Report’s meatier element: the very likely role of the SIS in facilitating the torture of British citizens abroad (in this case Adebolajo). To my great astonishment, this is something the report actually touches on.

 More in Part Two.

NB Aside from the ISC’s uninformed and remit-breaking decision to blame the internet for everything, The Open Rights Group have listed twenty two other missed opportunities, beyond this Facebook message, which should have flagged Adebolajo as a threat. These are all listed in the report itself, but de-emphasised, so the focus can rest on social media. The Group’s list can be read here. Personally, before Britain’s Perma-War on Terror opens a new front in Palo Alto, I think it might be worth reassessing the bloody shambles that is our foreign policy, but that would probably require a revolution a la Russell Brand.

 

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