Mythology as Propaganda: lessons from the Ring of Brodgar

I rarely watch broadcast television. When I do I tend to watch documentaries from the previous century, all of which seem more intelligent and civil than the tosh we put out today (thank god for the iPlayer archives). However, I recently caught the Sacred Wonders of Britain on repeat, which was presented by Neil Oliver and originally broadcast in 2014. It really wasn’t too bad. In fact, Oliver’s passion for neolithic Orkney is intellectually contagious.

It is a very welcome passion, because our culture and identity has never been able to fathom the henges, monoliths and barrows which still dot our landscape. Our prehistory might be self-evident but it is indigestible. One may glimpse its ruins from almost any A-road, but they remain eternally exotic and foreign and alien. Our failure to make sense of the neolithic – to draw some meaningful, human line from the people of these monuments to us – parallels a centuries-old inability to accept the landscape around us. Hence the ultimate failure of the romantics, who, heads stuffed full of pastoral nonsense, could never accept modernity any more than Wordsworth could accept the liberté, égalité, fraternité of the French Revolution. It echoes too the Marxist notion of capitalist alienation, a palpable sensation for any sentient being who has ever spent any time at all in an out-of-town retail centre or industrial estate. Behind all this stand the stones, saying something we cannot understand.

The mystery of Orkney's perfect circle

The mystery of Orkney’s perfect circle

Neolithic Orkney saw continuous occupation and development between 3000BC and 2000BC. Its most famous site may be the amazing ruins of Skara Brae, but the Ring of Brodgar, less than seven miles away, is generally regarded as the finest stone circle in the British Isles, as well as one of the oldest. Oliver explained that the stones which formed the Ring came from many different parts of the island. Individual slabs were probably brought to the Ring by every extended family who formed part of the island community, from each stead of land. Like every other neolithic monument, its purpose remains unknown, but its curious composition suggests an essential element. From what I understand of Oliver’s theory, the Ring has to be understood as a polity made physical. It was the construction of a symbol of community, and in that act of construction an actual community was forged. Generations would speak of the travails of the stones, of which stone was theirs, of how arduous or comical or tragic its transport, and so on. Therein lies the true meaning of the Ring of Brodgar, although people are also inclined to add on additional and hypothetical elements.

This meaning, however, has been eclipsed. It has been hidden for centuries until it was revealed by modern technology. In its place sprung mythology, the first of which apparently originated with the vikings, or some early precursor of the viking peoples. From this period comes the tale that the Ring was a circle of dancing giants, turned to stone by the sunrise. This sort of nonsense is common to most of Europe if not the world. One wonders if anyone ever really believed it. What really was its purpose? The Ring of Brogdar offers a clue.

Invaders from Scandinavia arrived in the ninth century and promptly projected their own theology onto the neolithic monuments of Orkney. But they also had to explain how such monuments had come into existence in the first place, and they could hardly admit to what the stones really signified – that they were the symbolic and literal fruition of an earlier and more advanced micro-civilisation, which the parasitic and less advanced vikings had helped to destroy. This was a reality that could not be admitted. An alternative explanation had to be found, and its plausibility was not important. What mattered was that it wasn’t the truth, because the truth would have destroyed the self-image of the people who now walked the land.

I don’t know how deliberately this mythology was crafted to serve that purpose, but there can’t be much doubt that this is exactly what the new story of the stones served to do. Was there some Machiavellian skald behind it all? I doubt that. Humanity’s collective need for delusion and denial probably surpasses its individual genius.

History, if done properly, should be strange. I agree with Patrick Kellier on this. I disagree with the safe, anodyne interpretation that the historic should essentially be like today but different. The frontiers of history always rest upon the profoundly unknown. That which makes history something other than alien is, more often than not, something other than the truth. This is the lesson of the Ring Of Brodgar.

It also causes me to reflect a little on “conspiracy theory”. The term has little value other than as a term of abuse, and anyone who is critical of British foreign policy or the work of our intelligence community will inevitably be labelled a conspiracy theorist. Since 9/11 much cultural capital and public money has been spent elucidating the dangers of “conspiracy theory”. Naturally, such voices feel compelled to advance the idea the term “conspiracy theory” has some intrinsic currency, that it is a concept capable of definition, beyond that of simply doubting establishment narratives. Conspiracy theory, they commonly offer, is “history for losers”. Well. Perhaps such voices might like to consider that the very fabric of history is itself “history for losers”. History is a deep grave made of loss and defeat, of the forgotten, the dead, the disappeared. That sheening gloss which the victors weave over it never lasts for long, and, as each winning generation succumbs to the next, only adds to the strata. Anyone who might offer that “conspiracy theory” is “history for losers” is a political animal who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near history. Or politics, for that matter.


Keeping Up Appearances: how MoD profligacy cloaks our military impotence

In today’s Telegraph journalist and former RN officer Lewis Page has written a stunner of an article advocating the break-up of the RAF. Well, he hasn’t really. I suspect the sub-editor pointed his argument to that conclusion, and guided by his own service bias, he went along with it. What Page is really arguing is that our armed forces are scandalously under-resourced yet phenomenally expensive, so we should can our indigenous, subsidized arms industry and just buy US material. And you can make a very compelling argument about that.

We should cancel our order for A400M European transport planes, and buy more C-17s and C-130s cheaply from the US.

The Navy should not be allowed its new frigates: instead it should purchase basic ships to act as floating bases for helicopters, Marines and Tomahawk missiles. The Army should likewise move away from tanks and artillery, and towards integrated air support. If the soldiers really feel a need for Apache helicopters once they have F-18s and Reapers, we could replace them: but we should buy straight from Boeing this time, rather than a job-creation scheme in Yeovilton.

The utter incompetence of MoD procurement is legendary, but most senior officers (of whom there are far too many), all senior civil servants, and the entire political class are in cahoots to cover up the dire state of Britain’s military. They have long conspired to present the illusion of military power to the public, and justify it by pretending they are really presenting that self-same illusion to our enemies, a la Sun Tzu. It’s a dishonesty that kills British servicemen and wastes billions of pounds of public money.

This is why, for example, the Navy are about to take ownership of two typically overbudget aircraft carriers, but have no VTOL jets to put on them. And on a personal level, I have long been fascinated by the exquisite awfulness of the SA80. The same army that used the Brown Bess musket, the Lee Enfield, and the FN FAL, fine firearms all, has wielded one of the worst rifles in the world for twenty years. The SA80 was designed and manufactured in Britain, but the only military to have imported it is Bermuda’s (in Bravo Two Zero the author Andy McNab descibes the SA80 as “the Rolls Royce of rifles” and says it is far superior to the M16; it’s one of the clearest signs that the MoD were granted editorial influence over the manuscript).

Page’s argument makes complete sense overall, even if he picks rather unfairly on the RAF. It’s an argument that has been made numerous times by all sorts of qualified people ever since the Options for Change review in 1990. But every time this argument is made a crucial point is missed: if we abandon our flailing, useless, indigenous arms industry our relationship with America becomes transparent. We will have to admit, and the world will plainly see, we are simply a client state. Like Saudi Arabia. The unipolar nature of the world will become glaringly obvious.

In reality it is not national pride that compels Britain to squander so much of its national wealth on crappy, home-grown materiel. It is realpolitik. It hides the extent to which we rely on American support. Indeed, it is only American support which has kept us on the UN Security Council these past few decades.  Our stupid rifles and rented nukes and empty aircraft carriers and dead soldiers and dodgy arms deals obscure the reality that we are, in effect, a Yankee vassal. Once the British and American military begin to look identical (same uniforms, same weapons, same vehicles) this truth becomes inescapable, and diplomatically, this limits America’s freedom to maneuver. Furthermore, any change to the line-up or structure of the UN SC would be globally destabilizing, and not in a way that British or American governments would like (the rest of the world might feel differently).

Any American general knows full well the reality of the situation: they are the military superpower, and we are a foreign policy fig leaf. Since the end of the Cold War, our role as an American ally has provided no military benefit to them, but rather the opposite: it makes their operational theatre more difficult to manage. Britain is a landing strip and a diplomatic lever. In terms of American domestic politics, we are a helpful, bleeding extension to the echo chamber. Ponder that the next time some shoddy kit kills a British soldier. It is all an illusion, and one that disadvantages Britain above all.

Americans have complained vocally about the latest round of cuts to UK defence spending. Whenever they have complained in the past, it has usually been because they want to boost their own war budgets back home. This time they are rather more worried, but not for the stated reason. Our current defence cuts do not threaten our effective military capability: Britain lost that years ago. It’s gone. We could just about manage a little police action, like Operation Barras, but that’s about it. What worries the Yanks now is this: we can no longer afford even the illusion of military independence.

That’s a difficult line to sell in sentimental old Blighty, where we cling to our poppies and tattered imperial dreams, but the Americans can see things without the rose tint. As far as the British public are concerned, Tommy Atkins don’t need no fancy jets or decent bullpups or poncy armour, because he’s the salt of the bloody English earth, and the finest fightin’ soldier that the world has ever seen.

Help for Heroes indeed.

Able Seaman William McNeilly: Entrapped by MI5?

It’s only May, but Able Seaman William McNeilly is already leading the pack for Worst Whistleblower of the Year Award. McNeilly is – or was – a Royal Navy sailor assigned to one of our Vanguard-class nuclear deterrent submarines. He went on leave, tried unsuccessfully to get his self-authored report published in the national press (it was two days before the election), then went AWOL. It finally started to circulate in the national press after it was picked up by the (Scottish) Sunday Herald.

Essentially, McNeilly maintains that the Vanguard subs are poorly maintained, insufficiently secure, easy to infiltrate and not-fit-for-purpose. With the sardonic wit characteristic of the British military, his report was summarised by one anonymous ARRSE poster thus:

“So all a terrorist needs to do to access the missile control centre of a nuclear sub is to join the Royal Navy. I bet they are kicking theirselves over not figuring that one out.”

But broadly speaking, McNeilly might have a point. The secrecy which has long shrouded our Vanguard subs may be wholly necessary for reasons of national security, but equally, that self-same secrecy would also cloak severe levels of incompetence and inadequacy. One does wonder sometimes. Even so, McNeilly’s whistle-blowing is distinctly unconvincing. He has committed very serious breaches of secrecy and protocol for a report that isn’t really any more damning than a bad editorial. My initial impression, when I first heard the story, was that McNeilly is a young and not especially worldly man, who went on shore leave and desperately wanted an excuse not to go back. So this report is his excuse.

But this is a far murkier story than that. Instead of embracing anonymity, McNeilly went public from the gate. He even posted his passport and RN ID card on the net.


Looks old for 25, doesn’t he?

Specifically, McNeilly posted it on Scribd, which, nudged by the security services, promptly took it down, as it did his report (whistleblowers take note). Wikileaks, still a far more reliable channel for this sort of thing, has snatched and uploaded it all here. The report has gone through three revisions, and in the last  McNeilly also trumpeted how he had been able to take three flights unmolested since he went public. So that’s all a bit weird. Where he lost me, however, was here (I’ve bolded the key bits):

“This [my report] contains references to CB8890: The instructions for the safety and security of the Trident II D5 strategic weapon system. I’m sure all the Strategic Weapon System (SWS) personnel are scratching their heads and wondering how I’m writing this on my personnel laptop and referencing a book, which is contained within a safe in the Missile Control Centre (MCC). The MCC is the compartment used to control the launch of the nuclear missiles. It can only be accessed by people on the access list, and no personnel electronics are allowed. I was on the access list but how could I have gotten a copy of every single chapter on to my phone? A hidden camera? No. Smuggled the book out then filmed it? No. What I did was walk into a room were no recording devices are allowed. I sat down; took my Samsung Galaxy SII (white) out of my pocket, and recorded the entire book word for word.

That doesn’t sound like whistleblower to me. That sounds like a spy.

Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, both in my opinion genuine whistleblowers, released huge amounts of information. In fact the number of documents leaked by Snowden is in fact so large it is extremely difficult to quantify. But despite repeated (and dishonest) assertions to contrary, none of it got anybody killed; none of it “aided the enemy”; none of it even put anyone in danger. Consider the context too. With Manning and Snowden, their government was doing something illegal; their military and intelligence apparatus was facilitating that illegality; and the spooks and the generals were lying routinely lying to both the public and the politicians about it. McNeilly’s case is drastically different. The Vanguard subs are legal, and the secrecy that surrounds them is entirely justified.

Now consider this: in 2012, Petty Officer Edward Devenny (also from Northern Ireland, as is William McNeilly) was entrapped by MI5 agents posing as Russian spies. Over three months they ploughed him with drink and offerered him a number of inducements to provide classified information. Devenny, whose service record was until then pretty exemplary, eventually succumbed. When he was tried, it emerged that one of the things “Dima” and Vladimir” wanted him to do was use his mobile phone to record some classified manuals inside the sub. McNeilly, for reasons which defy any explanation other than espionage, has done exactly the same thing.

McNeilly’s long statement reminded me very much of the stereotypical defector. He exaggerates his importance, experience, and knowledge; he boasts of his intelligence; he complains of his mistreatment; he repeatedly insists that he isn’t interested in money; he avers that deep down he is loyal to his country and his branch of service – in fact he is doing this for the greater good. This is pretty much a bullet-point list of the attitudes struck by your stereotypical defector, and with good reason: they are pampered and pressured into believing this garbage by their handlers.

During Devenny’s trial, it emerged he was hugely suspicious he was being entrapped. This isn’t surprising, considering every Vanguard sailor knows it’s something MI5 and the MOD police occasionally attempt. In fact this is public knowledge, and has been ever since Chapman Pincher started writing counter-intelligence manuals. Devenny even told the officers entrapping him he believed that was exactly what they were doing. But the Security Service persisted, and eventually, after a night on the booze, Devenny crossed the line and took some snaps.

Reading McNeilly’s statement it is all but too apparent that someone – and almost certainly our own people – had been buttering him up. Perhaps they posed as concerned liberals, and lured him into “doing a Snowden” with offers of money and fame. Or they may have faked being foreign spies, as with Devenny, in which case McNeilly realised last-minute what was going on, and has re-styled himself as a whistleblower to furnish himself with a nobler motivation. One or the other. But if the story tells us anything, it’s that MI5’s Ulster office has very little to do these days. Either that or Northern Irish submariners are inherently inclined to treachery – but that is something I would stridently deny, having a touch of the Orangeman in my lineage.

(Incidentally, if counter-intelligence officers entrap a serviceman like this, and then agree with him to keep his crime a secret, they have an agent for life – and that’s how Lee Harvey Oswalds are made.)


Russia-bashing on May Day

May Day is significant for a number of reasons. A traditional Spring holiday in many agrarian cultures, it has since the Second International been designated as  International Workers’ Day. In over a hundred countries around the world it is officially recognised as a state holiday to celebrate the debt society owes to its labouring classes. Appropriately enough, it also marks the end of Nazi Europe, because in 1944 the first of May saw the last full day’s fighting between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in the streets of Berlin. The iconic photograph of a Red Army soldier hoisting the hammer and sickle up the Reichstag roof was taken on May the second.

The day after May Day, Berlin, 1944. Close enough, Ivan.

The day after May Day, Berlin, 1944.

Here is how the BBC celebrated May Day this year. The day marks not socialism, nor the end of the Nazi Regime, nor Soviet and Allied victory, but “the most infamous rape in history”. The Rape Of Berlin, the accompanying documentary, aired on BBC World Service the day after. This was emphatically not a news story. It was a re-tread of material that had been extensively covered by popular historian Antony Beevor in his 2002 book Berlin: The Downfall. It received widespread media coverage at the time, both in the BBC and the national press, even though it wasn’t exactly original research then either. There is nothing but anecdotal evidence to support the idea that Red Army soldiers raped a lot of German women after Berlin fell, but what evidence there is comes from Germans and Russians alike, and appears credible. I would not deny for a moment that it happened, and that it was widespread.

The rape of German woman by Red Army troopers is a perfectly valid historical subject, but it is not news, and this is the anniversary of many other important things too. It heralded the end of World War Two, and the thousands of rapes these soldiers probably committed were only one terrible episode in a series of larger atrocities. The Nazis killed almost twenty seven million Russians in their misbegotten blitzkrieg for lebensraum. The war they began, and the holocaust it accelerated, ended when the Red Army finished fighting its 1700 mile counter-attack from Stalingrad to Berlin. The Soviet Union lost 80,000 men during the Battle of Berlin alone. Why this attempt, at this time, to fix “The Rape of Berlin” in the popular consciousness?

The article and documentary above are the work of Lucy Ash, who happens to be the wife of John Kampfner. She began her radio career as a producer for the BBC’s Moscow bureau in 1990. Since the Euromaidan, Ash has reportedly extensively on developments in the Ukraine, from the usual MSM position that Russia is an aggressive, duplicitous, tyrannical, expansionist enemy to freedom and democracy, two values she inevitably portrays as inalienable Western traits. See, for example, here, here, and here (this last one is particularly interesting for those who believe the LGBT drive against the Winter Olympics constituted hypocritical, propagandist Russia-bashing fed by Washington-funded NGOs).

Lucy Ash, Professional Russophobe.

Lucy Ash, Professional Russophobe.

Ash subscribes to a weltanschauung in which the pro-Russian inhabitants of eastern Ukraine do not exist. They are something between victims and mannequins, behind which hide Putin’s covert commandos. Tweeting an Anne Applebaum article (unsurprisingly, she’s an Applebaum fan) Ash observes the Ukrainian civil war is an artificial construct, and that there is no history of ethnic conflict between the people of the Ukraine. How strange that Ash, with her abiding interest in Russia’s World War Two history, should appear ignorant of Stepan Bandera, and the neo-Nazis who now comprise the mainstay of Kiev’s military forces.

It is this selective and political viewpoint which underpins “The Rape of Berlin”. Ash managed to get her May Day Rape of Berlin story in the Daily Telegraph too, under her own by-line, where it was echoed by the paper’s Moscow correspondent Roland Oliphant. Olpihant reported from Moscow that this year’s May Day parade had a turnout of over 100,000. Events in the Ukraine, he wrote, had given it a certain flavour – many marchers wore the orange and black ribbons of St George, invoking military valour in defence of the Motherland. This was totally predictable, given that Kiev’s US-endorsed coup government is currently busy killing the Russian majority inhabiting its eastern regions. This, however, is not something Oliphant (or Ash) can admit to.

May Day in Russia, Oliphant insists, is merely “the beginning of a week of days off and general skiving that is the highlight of the working calendar”. More egregious still is Oliphant’s further insistence that May Day is only celebrated at all because “the cult of the Second World War” is “the nearest thing Vladimir Putin’s state has to an official ideology.” Plainly Oliphant, who hails from East Sussex, has never once witnessed the chest-beating way his own country, and his own paper, regard Britain’s sacrifices in both world wars.

Neither Oliphant, nor Ash, has reported that since the Kiev coup, May Day is now banned in the Ukraine, where the Communist and Socialist parties are now also banned, as was, briefly, the Russian language itself. But then anti-communism has always been one of the hallmarks of fascism.

After last year’s May Day, in Odessa, Ukrainian neo-nazis burnt forty-two pro-Russian trade unionists to death in their own headquarters while the police looked on and did nothing. Svobada‘s press office have said the party wants to celebrate that day – the 2nd of May, 2014 – as “a day of victory over the Kremlin terrorist groups, the day of purification from the Kremlin infection”. President Petro Poroshenko even told journalists that the Russians had secretly placed “toxic substances” in the Trade Unions House to increase the number of civilian deaths, and that the whole thing was a false flag. No one in the Western press has condemned Poroshenko as a conspiracy theorist, and it appears neither Oliphant nor Ash consider any of this relevant as regards their May Day reportage.

The fire in Odessa. Pic courtesy of the Fort Russ blog.

The fire in Odessa. Pic courtesy of the Fort Russ blog.

Perhaps if Lucy Ash is interested in the sexual crimes of World War Two soldiers, she might also like to investigate the millions of rapes committed by German soldiers during Operation Barbarossa, or the thousands of rapes committed by American GIs in Europe (estimates for this figure varying wildly between 11,ooo and 190,000). If Ash was feeling particularly reflective, she might like to ponder that mass rape has always been how the hegemonic state demonises its enemies, as was seen recently during NATO’s regime change in Libya. But none of that would serve the purposes of the New Orthodoxy.


EDIT TO ADD: This May Day, US-led air strikes in northern Syria killed “at least” 52 civilians. Perhaps Ash might also like to consider why the West can support anti-government forces in Syria but Moscow cannot support anti-government forces in Novorussia.

EDIT TO FURTHER ADD: Also this May Day, US-supported air strikes in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is trying to reinstall its unpopular puppet leader, hit a hospital and medical camp, killing at least 58 civilians and injuring at least 67. Again, perhaps Ash or some other proponent of the New Orthodoxy might care to explain how the Saudis can bomb another country in order to return its ousted dictator to power without a word of disagreement from the mainstream media.

“Spookthink”: intelligence agencies and institutional mindsets

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Civil Service personified.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Civil Service personified.

Intelligence agencies are institutions. If we really want to understand the reality of our domestic and foreign policy, we must remember that every spook is a civil servant, and every agency is ultimately no more than a government department. Increasingly I have adopted the view that Britain’s “intelligence community” have no grand, inter-generational geopolitical plans. In this day and age, what government department really does? That requires vision, which is not the stuff of bureaucrats. What our spooks actually crave is an easy life, except for the ambitious, who seek status and promotion, much like anyone else. I recently encountered two examples which illustrate this nicely.

Alex Wallerstein’s commendable nuclear secrecy blog, Restricted Data, has examined the uncensored Franck Report. Essentially, this was the work of a very small sub-group of civilian scientists who were part of the thousands of scientists working on the Manhattan Project. They grouped to form the Committee on Political and Social Problems, and were chaired by Nobel Laureate and German-Jewish émigré James Franck. They were the only part of the Project to officially register any inquiry at all into the political and social problems of this new atomic weaponry. They predicted the arms race and the problems of proliferation, and observed that a global atomic arms control regime would become imperative. They went on to say that the US would find this difficult to implement if it launched these secret weapons against occupied cities, because its global moral standing would sink to the level of Nazi Germany. They proposed “demonstrating” the bomb instead of using it against civilian populations, and allowing hostile governments to see what it could do.

How Little Boy was eventually "demonstrated".

How Little Boy was eventually “demonstrated”.

Their report was more or less ignored. President Hoover was never told it existed. Nobody even mentioned the  demonstration option to him. The report remained classified until after the war, and when it was finally published, in the May 1946 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, it was heavily censored. Unredacted reports began circulating on the net two or three years’ ago (Wallerstein’s research shows that the redactions were entirely political, and nothing to do with national security).

“It doesn’t appear that anybody who had the authority to drop the bomb agonized over the question before dropping it,” Wallerstein writes. “What agonizing there was mostly came after the fact.”

As the notes of the Targeting Committee reflect, the men of the Manhattan Project spent far, far longer deciding where to drop the bomb than whether they should drop the bomb at all, and what the wider consequences of that act might be. The most awesome and destructive weapon mankind had ever devised was dropped simply because it was built. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the inevitable consequences of institutional mindset, with its inherent inability to question itself from any external perspective.

Franke’s Committee succeeded, at least, in raising the concerns of the US Secretary of War, who safeguarded himself by demanding that some other senior scientists be found to disagree with it. This doesn’t seem to have been particularly difficult. The Manhattan Project promptly supplied another committee in response, the so-called Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee on Nuclear Power, an ad hoc line-up consisting of Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. They signed off on a short paper titled Recommendations on The Immediate Use of Nuclear Weapons.

Ernest Lawrence later told a friend that they only debated the matter for ten minutes prior to signing the document. That bears some repeating: the architects of the atomic bomb spent ten minutes debating whether or not it should be used. The Manhattan Project had by then been running for about three years.

After Hiroshima, Ernest Lawrence told everyone he had been in favour of the demonstration option all along. James Franck abandoned atomic physics and worked on photosynthesis instead. Only one scientist ever left the Manhattan Project on the grounds of conscientious objection. He was a Pole named Jospeh Rotblat. When he asked to leave, he was immediately and groundlessly traduced as a Soviet spy.  Unknown sources fabricated evidence to this effect.

(That Rotblat was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize is a reflection of how independent the Nobel Committee, and Sweden, used to be. Would Martin Luther King get a Peace Prize from today’s Committee? I think they would be more inclined to J. Edgar Hoover’s view. But I digress.)

One should bear Joseph Rotblat in mind on the rare occasions when the employees of secret institutions are openly seen to display objective thought. The treatment of Edward Snowden shows that nothing has changed. This is how institutions work. Such entities cannot question themselves, and reflexively abhor constituent individuals who can. This tendency is probably strongest in “secret” institutions, because the nature of that secrecy acts to further prohibit scrutiny while providing easier ways to castigate dissent. Meaningful self-inquisition is vital for institutional functionality, and it is a virtual impossibility in places like GCHQ, SIS, MI5, the DIS, or indeed anywhere in the MOD.

You could improve the efficicency of this place simply by setting it on fire.

You could improve the efficiency of this place simply by boarding it up.

My second lesson on how the institutional mindset affects intelligence agencies was provided by a reading of Kim Philby’s autobiography. As far as I’m aware, Kim Philby is the greatest British spy who ever lived. He spied for the other side, of course, but the fact remains (and tells us something about the nature of the intelligence world itself, but I digress).  Anyway, during World War Two, the British Legation in Berne had a German walk-in carrying suitcases full of Nazi documents. It took a lot of nerve to cross the Swiss border with a suitcase full of secret Nazi paperwork, so the Brits rejected him out of hand as a plant. Undeterred, the German promptly walked over to the Americans’ newly opened OSS office, then headed by Allen Dulles, where he was warmly welcomed. The documents he carried proved to be authentic and were highly valued by all customers. Dulles reckoned he was the best Nazi source of the war. He was almost certainly Fritz Kolbe.

One of the greatest walk-ins of all time. We told him to bugger off.

One of the greatest walk-ins of all time. We told him to bugger off.

Philby recounts how senior officers at SIS responded to news of their mistake not by accepting and learning from the obvious truth, but by continuing to dismiss the intel as fake without even attempting verification. The worst of the bunch were Claude Dansey, then Assistant Chief, and Felix Cowgill, Six’s head of counter-espionage, both of whom sought to repress any product from the Berne walk-in purely to protect their own reputations and advance their own careers. Bear in mind this was before 1943 was over; prescient minds may have seen which way the war would end, but there was still an awful lot of it left. Philby was only able to authenticate this valuable information, via the Government Code and Cypher School, because his superior, Cowgill, went off to America for a few weeks. And he was only able to secure authorisation for distribution from Dansey by offering to fake its origin, so that when the OSS’ Berne stuff arrived on British desks it looked like it was from a British source (with this in mind I am extremely curious about the actual origin of things like the Oslo Report).

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Dansey thought he was pretty amazing.

Lieutenant Colonel Sir Claude Dansey considered himself pretty amazing.

I find the attitudes Philby relates very telling. They are entirely in accordance with the institutional mindset. Namely, that the first priority of any member of any institution is always their standing within that institution. Their second priority is the reputation of the institution itself: Dansey did tell Philby he didn’t want SIS to be overshadowed by the OSS, but this only as a subsequent justification when his transparent careerism came to light. These priorities, together with the incapacity for objective judgement outside the institutional lens (see above), comprise the Iron Law of Institutions, which needs to be borne in mind whenever one considers any intelligence agency or service. We might call it spookthink.

Spookthink does a lot to explain Iraq, and indeed Iraq does a lot to affirm the Law. There are a lot of people who could probably have stopped us waging an illegal, destructive, misguided war if they a) had some objective, non-institutional idea about the failings of their department/s and b) hadn’t cared more about their own good standing (as they saw it). Perhaps, like Dansey did, some of these folk argue they only sought to protect the reputation of their employer instead. If so, that reputation was upheld only in certain parts of Washington, and perhaps not even there. Amongst the British people, and maybe most of the world, it remains irrevocably damaged.

Two conclusions spring to mind. One: institutions are probably the worst entities which could exist for collecting and analysing secret, important information (“intelligence” is wholly an institutional term). Two: if, as Karl Popper argued, our institutions are what safeguard open society, they might just as easily close it too. Perhaps, by dint of their very structure, they might be more inclined to do so.

The Master of Pembroke College.

The Master of Pembroke College. Worryingly.


2015: A Year of Blow-back Beckons

If the Charlie Hebdo shootings signify anything, it’s that the year ahead will be one of blow-back for Western foreign policy. Despite the bold assertions of Obama’s State of the Union address, the high tide mark of Western influence has been reached. Ponder what is currently happening at home and abroad, and consider the context.

The so-called “Arab Spring” delivered the opposite of what our pundits and politicos promised. After a Western-sponsored coup d’etat Egypt is now a military dictatorship busily jailing and executing the elected Muslim Brotherhood it displaced. Meanwhile, GCC sponsorship and a NATO bombing campaign has turned Libya into a violent Islamist basket-case. In Yemen, despite widespread popular unrest, Saudi-puppet President Saleh hung on to power, ruling from Riyadh. Eventually his vice-president succeeded him, a man of almost identical political leanings, with what is claimed to be 99.8% of the vote (he was the only candidate in the election).

In Bahrain the government simply blamed the Shia for the uprisings and sprayed the protestors with bullets, torturing more than a few and cracking down on any sort of free speech and political assembly, a process which continues to this day. The Bahraini King did establish an Independent Commission of Inquiry to look into it all, which did confirm that yes, widespread human rights abuses from torture up to murder had taken place. It then suggested “recommendations” which would “improve accountability and bring government practice into line with international standards”. A tyrannical massacre was thus reduced to a matter of management, practices and standards. Bahrain’s Commission was such a staggering example of cynical state arrogance that I am sure it could only have been suggested by the mandarins of the British civil service.

In Tunisia alone things worked out reasonably well but the worst of the Arab Spring took place, of course, in Syria, where a brutal dictatorship had a long history of meeting popular uprisings with bloody suppression. The leaders there stood their ground, and what happened next revealed the true dynamics behind this so-called Arab Spring: the demonstrators turned out to be foreign-paid or foreign-born Islamist guerrillas with no central agenda, manifesto, or negotiating platform. Western media repeatedly and consistently misreported this fact, spreading instead all-too-familiar disinformation about WMD and human rights, and clinging to the manufactured Manichean narrative of good-democratic-Western-minded freedom fighters versus evil Arab dictator.

The reality is that Syria’s foreign-sponsored civil war made the incumbent government truly popular amongst the people who actually had to live in the country. Assad went from being a dictator to an elected president, one who had voluntarily disarmed his country of WMD under international supervision, and who was tabling substantial domestic reform. In contrast his opponents, those we pay and support, were silent, squabbling killers posting crazy YouTube videos. We know them now as the Islamic State. The idea that we could ever productively support a credible “moderate resistance” in Syria was either a fig-leaf to cloak our anti-democratic alliance with the Emiratis, or utter stupidity.

For those who could see all this, Kiev’s Euromaidan was simply the opening of a new front. Moscow had been one of Assad’s key supporters; Putin had been clear that Russia would veto any UN proposal for Western air strikes against the country. Russia had by then learnt the lessons of Libya: apparently we hadn’t. Thus the States, Israel, and the Emiratis lent their unconditional support to whoever promised they could shift the Ukraine out of its Russian orbit, a task almost as impossible and destructive as forcefully dislodging Gaddafi or Assad or Saddam. They were driven by the same “levitating self-confidence” (as John Le Carre put it) which saw them invade Iraq. Now, as will generally happen when you decide to challenge observable reality, everything is unravelling. Can we really insist it is perfectly legitimate to fund guerrillas in Syria, against an elected President, and at the same time isolate Russia on the grounds (for which we provide no evidence) that it is funding resistance fighters on its own doorstep? Fighters, one might add, who are resisting an unconstitutional government, and who are acting in pursuit of regional self-determination? It’s utter nonsense. Obama has no right to speak of advancing democracy in the Ukraine. Territorial integrity, perhaps, but no more.

The underlying point is that the West and its proxies have failed. Inevitably. Assad is staying, at least until his third seven year term expires in 2021. If social media is anything to go by, the chatter I’ve picked up suggests that Syrians are now more concerned with Lebanon and Iran than with the dwindling proponents of the Civil War, which is now in endgame, something that may be reflected in Israel’s airstrike against Iranian brigadier general Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi. Terrorist bombings will continue, but recede to what the Royal Ulster Constabulary used to call “a tolerable degree of violence”.  Meanwhile IS will hold on to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, which will become a dwindling pocket of heavily bombed jihadis. The House of Saud’s proposed security wall is a trick borrowed from Israel, and reveals not just a similar siege mentality, but the unspoken alliance which now exists between the Arab monarchies and the Zionist project. That alliance is one aspect of an over-arching change, further seen in the news that Saudia Arabia is re-opening its Embassy in Baghdad after a period of twenty-five years (that it didn’t open one during the American occupation is telling).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how high the Saudis build their wall. Acceptance of Assad is inevitable, as is rapprochement with Iran. As rapprochement nears, the propaganda against it will grow ever more ridiculous (see for example this piece of abject fantasy in Der Speigel). But it will happen. Then, in a process which has already started, a few hundred active, armed Islamist jihadis will return to their native Europe. Until now the West has either covertly facilitated or deliberately ignored their activities, because they were aligned to foreign policy goals. When the GCC realise Iran isn’t a threat, and the Emiratis reach an accomodation with Tehran,the only purchase anyone will have on these people will be their government handlers – assuming they had any.

Officially, the War on Terror has gone on for fourteen years, but these networks present something new. Until now, those Muslims arrested by British police for UK terrorism offences have generally been entrapped halfwits guilty of little more than saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or downloading a dodgy PDF. The calibre of Islamist now returning from the Middle East is quite different. Consequently we will see an even greater reduction in our human rights and civil liberties: witness John Sawers’ witless appeal for The End Of The Internet As We Know It. While some of this blather is probably retrospective justification for collection techniques already underway, if there is anything more they can grab, the intelligence community will take it. Secrecy will become the new privacy, and not everyone will be able to afford it.

Much has been written about the increasing militarisation of US police departments, particularly in the US, where social division and material inequality only worsened during the country’s first black Presidency. The tear gas and Pentagon-supplied armoured vehicles of Ferguson are a symptom of this. Remember, this was a country that responded to the flooding of New Orleans by building impromptu prison camps. The American state is terrified of large public protest; as terrified as the Gulf monarchies, probably. The UK government isn’t that much different. From 2005 to 2010 they banned protest anywhere within half a mile of Westminster.

The reason the American government is so senstive about this is because they have spent the last two decades paying for “colour revolutions” in countries of interest, not just covertly but overtly, through the National Endowment for Democracy. Similarly, the Emiratis have been paying for the boots-on-the-ground in Libya and Syria and parts of Iraq, and look what they’ve achieved. There is a general strategy here.

Supposedly, we have spent the years since 9/11 making the Middle East safe for democracy. We have failed. Instead, we have become much more like the Gulf monarchies we prop up. Our democracies have grown brittle and autocratic. Our governments are unrepresentative. Our media is supine and craven. Our institutions are hollowed out. Our societies are divided by caste. This is the blow back of our long War on Terror: we have finally created an environment conducive to real terrorism.



The 2014 NATO Summit in Cardiff and Newport

Being that Cardiff and Newport are home territory to me I popped down to Cardiff Castle last night to see this “ring of steel” that everyone was talking about. There is a massive fence around Cardiff castle, where there was a summit dinner last night, and also around the Celtic Manor Resort, where the summit itself is being held. A lot of roads are closed and there are half a dozen Royal Navy vessels in the Bay.

I expected that there might be protests, and where there are protests, there is generally trouble: kettling, mass arrests, and so on. The Minor Injuries Unit at Barry Hospital had been temporarily coverted to an emergency triage centre. At an anarchist bookfair in Bristol earlier in the year, I had met a man, who seemed to me very obviously like an undercover policeman, who was desperately trying to get people to sign up for “direct action” at the NATO summit. I mean literally sign up: he had a clipboard and he wanted names and email addresses. He had few takers but I detected what I thought was something of a groundswell.

I turned up in Cardiff wearing a jacket and tie, which is regulation attire for the protest voyeur, as it can help you get through a police cordon. But despite a heavy police presence from all over the UK, the atmosphere wasn’t oppressive. Although every constabulary in Britain clearly wanted a piece of the action (I saw police from Devon and Cornwall, Humberside and Kent) there was really very little for them to do but stand around and wave to small children. Unlike the last NATO summit in Chicago in 2012, I saw hardly any protesters at all. By that I mean less than thirty. There were less people in town than average too. Cardiff seems to have dealt with the summit by ignoring it.

There is much to be said about security theatre in general, and about NATO too, which is at present a profoundly terrible organisation without any core rationale, and thus subsumed totally by the fringe politics of Washington zealots, which has led to it doing more harm than good for the last few years. And by harm I mean killing thousands of civilians and violently destabilizing entire countries. However, in South Wales, absolutely nothing was happening. I had it in mind, before visiting, to write some “outpost of Empire” spiel about Fortress Cardiff and the new world order, but what a misconception that was. It turns out being an outpost of Empire is quite pleasant, if a bit boring. It was a nice evening and I spent most of it in a beer garden with friends.

To be honest the worst thing about the Newport summit was that atrocious Welcome to Wales video with Matthew Rhys and Damian Lewis and HelenMcCrory. Somebody wrote and paid for that. I would love to know who.

On the plus side I did see a V-22 Osprey in flight, the most expensive helicopter ever built, zooming in low over Sofia Gardens at night. Very big and very quiet, like something out of a sci-fi film, with its lights slowly strobing. Oh, and there are going to be 300 new jobs in Caerphilly building Scouts (a small armoured fighting vehicle, or AFV) for General Dynamics UK. They look rubbish though, to be honest.