Why senior spooks are faking Brexit worries

On the front page of today’s Sunday Times comes a carefully controlled release from John Sawers, ex-C of SIS,  and Jonathan Evans, ex-head of MI5. They warn that Brexit would leave the UK in a more dangerous position, as intelligence-sharing arrangements with Europe would suffer.

The real reason Sawers and Evans have been ordered to go on-record is that the UK has to pretend that all the intelligence it sucks up via bulk intercept is done with EU permission, and thus some belated concern has to be shown that we care.  You need to remember that MPs Tom Watson and David Davies will soon have their day in court over the UK’s secret mass surveillance programmes – and they have chosen (for reasons not entirely clear) to go to Luxembourg, not Strasbourg. The EU has expedited the case with unusual and deliberate efficiency. The hearing is not far off.

In fact, the UK’s EU membership makes little difference. Britain is going to scoop all that information up regardless, from the UK and the EU and everywhere else Five Eyes can get access to. Remember that a few days after Bataclan another ex-C, Richard Dearlove, wrote in Prospect that “whether one is an enthusiastic European or not, the truth about Brexit from a national security perspective is that the cost to Britain would be low.” That’s the truth of it. Omand has been more cautious about Brexit, but then he is compelled to by dint of the warning he earlier issued against Scottish independence: it would (supposedly) give “rUK” a borders problem.

Sadly, senior spooks can never be taken at face value.

What underpins today’s release from Sawers and Evans is the drive to maintain and protect the mass surveillance machine. Bulk interception is a behemoth that has come to dominate the entire intelligence community, and this is already having a constitutional effect. It is a monster that cannot be stopped unless the West can tame or redefine the concept of national security, or find some way of subjecting it to the rule of law. You’ll know if that happens when judges start sending the odd senior spook to prison (for things like contempt of court, obstructing the course of justice, or perjury).

Alas, judges have always shown extreme deference to the intelligence community, and have done ever since the days of Mansfield Cumming. And so it is inevitable, given the rapid acceleration in growth which the IC has experienced through the War on Terror and bulk intercept, that the spooks present a real and growing constitutional concern.

It is becoming common for senior spooks to weigh in on all kinds of public policy issues. Other civil servants hold their tongue, but the spies enjoy special priviliges: lying to the public for the executive is part of their job description. If you’re in any doubt about that, I refer you to the history of Iraq.

PS The President of the European Commission has announced that the EU should form its own intelligence agency. Newspaper reports in the mainstream media are at unusual pains to make clear this is a product of his own internal think-tank. I doubt that. I suspect the proposal has come about because the USUK bulk interception boys have decided to offer the EU some of their intelligence take as a way of keeping Brussels on board with their covert data collection. Such an agency would provide the mechanism by which this product could be shared.

Current MI5 rates: visit a mosque over six weeks, earn two grand.

I argued earlier in the month that MI5 is more than adaquately funded and must be running at least two to three thousand Muslim agents. Much Islamist activity in the UK is paid for by the Security Service, which is a way of making sure it is monitored, but this also means that the threat of Muslim terrorism will never go away, because it pays very well to pretend it exists. I was not in the least surprised to read in today’s papers that the going rate for reporting on a mosque is about two grand for six weeks.

Incidentally, there are at least a thousand working mosques in the UK. If MI5 has an agent in each one, the bill for mosque informers alone runs to over £17m per year, and that still leaves perhaps a further two thousand or so pseudo-Islamists on the payroll. But considering MI5’s annual budget must exceed five hundred million, that’s chicken feed.

Much, if not most, terrorist activity in Northern Ireland was funded by MI5 too. Of course the IRA, and its rivals, are capable of signing a ceasefire agreement. This is not the case with lone wolf domestic Islamism. There are thousands of Islamist agents who have carte blanche to distribute illegal copies of Inspire (which is probably written by spooks in the first place) and pretend they want to blow up the Stock Exchange/Buckingham Palace/Ministry of Sound etc. British anti-terrorism efforts have created and sustained a network of dangerous posers with no command structure. What happens when, like Adebolajo, some decide to turn on their masters? How does the Security Service expect to get the genie back in the bottle?

Answer: it doesn’t. It will run forever. The money is there, after all. This is how institutions work. They can accept anything, except that which undermines the institution. The RUC was not so different.

 

 

 

There Are No Cleanskins: running agents in the age of social media

For as long as humint as existed, agents have supplied it. Defectors and refugees provide human intelligence, sometimes for very long periods of time prior to their actual departure from theatre. Other human intelligence comes from what you might call infiltration, through men and women who are enticed to join target organisations, or occupy other designated areas, using real or assumed identities.

That used to be the model, anyway. Problematically, assumed identities in an age of social media are impossible. You will be found out. Somebody will see you, and remember you. State-level intelligence agencies already have some capability to run automated facial recognition programmes on all popular social media. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons why employees of MI5, SIS and GCHQ are specifically forbidden to post or update social media profiles. Direct infiltration under cover, like the Metropolitan Police were doing with protest groups in the nineties, is no longer a viable technique. You cannot live long under alias if you are on the internet.

With that in mind, let us consider the sheer volume of agents which the British intelligence community is likely to be handling. MI5 used to state in its own recruitment literature that its handling officers are expected to run between twenty and thirty agents a head (remember the vast majority of these will be using their real identities). That sort of workload is probably similar to that found in SIS. Budgets for running agents have increased dramatically since 9/11, so it is reasonable to assume that networks have been growing since then. MI5 employ around 4,000 people. Assuming it can task one thousand operational intelligence officers with Islamic extremism, the Security Service’s biggest concern, they could very easily be expected to be running somewhere between two and three thousand agents. Almost every one of these will be people using their own identities, pretending to be committed jihadis.

In 2007 Jonathan Evans, then Director General of MI5, publicly announced that his officers were monitoring two thousand potential Islamic terrorists (“potential”, nota bene). In February of this year, “highly placed MI5 sources” told the Financial Times there were now 3,000 on the “watchlist”. You will notice that both these figures bracket exactly the likely range of MI5’s Islamist agent population. And I do not think this is a coincidence.

Ponder the history of Northern Ireland, a field in which MI5 applied far less resources than it currently does to combating Islamic extremism. By the time of the Good Friday Agreement, British intelligence was collectively running not hundreds, but thousands, of agents and informers in Ulster. Military personnel I knew often complained to me that “we know who all the bad guys are, we could take them all out in one weekend” but politics made it impossible. This was partly true. We didn’t just know who all the bad guys were, we were paying them. They were agents, also known as Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS).

In Northern Ireland, collusion between paramilitaries and the intelligence community was rife. British intelligence officers bloodied their hands. They protected informants even when they killed innocent civilians, and they continue to protect them today. As astonishing as it may seem, there are many cases where operational officers knew innocents would be killed, and they did nothing to stop it. They even actively helped facilitate it. According the De Silva Report, 85%  of UDA targeting was done by the British intelligence community. Although the BBC’s Panorama programme is often hyperbolic, asinine and biased, Darragh Macintyre’s Britain’s Secret Terror Deals was a superb recap of what we know.

Information about agent handling in Northern Ireland continues to drip into the public domain. The three reports of Lord Stevens are all still classified, but he has let slip some incredible revelations. During his investigations into collusion between terrorists and the British intelligence community, the former Met commissioner arrested 210 former paramilitaries.

“Of the 210 people we arrested,” Stevens told the press, “only three weren’t agents.”

Please, please ponder that statistic. Stevens’ sample shows an infiltration rate of 98.6%. At least half of the IRA were actually British informants. Now apply that ratio to the number of potential Islamist terrorist suspects mentioned above, bearing in mind that we are dedicating far more resources to this newer threat. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of jihadi suspects and jihadi agents, I suspect you would have two circles that almost exactly overlap.

The profile of Islamist terrorists supports this conclusion. There are no cleanskins. Every attempted act of terrorism, every terrorist sympathiser, everyone is already known and on file. But, we are told, the Security Services somehow overlooked them. Do you believe this? Do you believe the argument made by Evans and others, that “we simply don’t have the resources to follow everyone all of the time”? I believe the reverse is more likely. Our intelligence community is more than adequately resourced, and the vast majority of so-called jihadis have existing operational relationships with the police and/or the Security Service and/or some other branch of the intelligence community. Given the sheer scale of Britain’s agent network, mistakes in handling will be made, which explain instances like the murder of Lee Rigby (the Intelligence and Security Committee has yet to deliver its promised report on the mishandling of Michael Adebolajo).

Agents know their job requires that they break the law, and agents expect they will be protected from the consequences. This is the essence of the deal. In the words of one former Belfast agent, they “walked on water”. Some were effectively state-sponsored serial killers. Their successors exist today, paid recruits of SIS and MI5, in Iraq and Syria. I cannot and will not pretend I know that Jihadi John is a British agent, but he is the son of a former agent, and if I was a non-cleanskin Islamist agent in place I would behave exactly as he has done. Indeed, such behaviour may have been expected of me by my target, as a kind of test or induction. You could speculate on any number of reasons why Mohammed Emwazi became “radicalised”, but the most likely is surely that some intelligence agency was paying him. There is even a 2009 audio recording in circulation in which Emwazi claims he isn’t an extremist, and that MI5 are harassing him.

It is absolutely par for the course that Emwazi’s family is protected by the UK government. They have been given safe houses in Britain and Kuwait, where his father is voluntarily talking to Kuwaiti intelligence.

I think I know what will happen to the majority of UK Islamists who left to join ISIS. They will disappear, like all the Iraqi WMD scientists did. They will just vanish. They will be exfiltrated and offered new lives. It won’t be hard to get them out: the SAS are already driving around ISIS territory in fancy dress. Emwazi may already have left. Similarly, I am confident the bodies of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin will never be found. Undoubtedly, their families have been or will be offered settlements by the government.

“We’re confident [Khan is] dead but not absolutely categoric,” tweeted Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. Of course you can’t be categoric. Very few agents can be accommodated on re-entry as comfortably as Majiid Nawaz or Tommy Robinson.

 

FOOTNOTE Agents who were recruited in the late nineties, before the dawn of social media, and who are still in place, will have been compelled to continue under their assumed identities. There are probably still a couple in the trade union movement. Indeed I can think of one very likely candidate, who is currently demonstrating a puzzling solidarity with Ukrainian nationalists. I doubt any of his communist/anarchist colleagues have ever met a single member of his family.

 

 

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.

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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.)

 

Deciphering the ISC’s Woolwich Report Part Two: MI6’s Dirty War in Kenya

After a few news cycles it seems the media have finally caught up with the report’s most significant aspect: the harassment and torture of Adebolajo by MI5 and SIS respectively. I was amazed the Committee bothered to ask any questions about this at all, but they did. I’d be surprised if it was Rifkind’s idea. Understanding the significance of these questions necessitates context.

What transformed and magnified the murder of Lee Rigby into an act of terrorism, and a major politico-cultural event, was the British establishment and the milking of public sentiment. In fact it was this sensationalism which made the ISC report compulsory – the idea a man should be stabbed on a British street does not normally call for a pretend overhaul of the county’s intelligence apparatus. A British soldier was stabbed to death in Cyprus six months previously, and again the following summer in Barbados, without triggering government inquiries. The neighbourhood where Rigby was murdered sees stabbings on a weekly basis without arousing the slightest concern in Parliament or the media. Similarly, none of the murders committed by soldiers themselves (and there have been several in between the death of Drummer Rigby and today) have raised governmental eyebrows or editorial alarm. Ironically, it is the earnestness of the Woolwich report which reveals the mechanics of this absurd amplification.

To any neutral observer, Rigby’s murder was homicide as a precursor to suicide-by-cop. Any terroristic ambitions on the part of his killers had been reduced to nil by the 22nd of May 2013. The sudden, futile murder of Lee Rigby was the final act of two hopeless men. Given that the harassment and infiltration of Britain’s Muslim communities is intense, I had privately assumed, on hearing the news, that the pair had killed their handler. But the British military was simply following its standard procedure of informing the serviceman’s family before the press. Nevertheless my assumption was not a wholly misplaced. The report confirms what has already become widely known: Adebolajo spent his final years of freedom surrounded by aspiring handlers, against whom he ultimately rebelled.

The circumstantial and indirect evidence for this is abundant. The answers of the intelligence and security services on this point, and SIS in particular, when pressed by the Committee itself, are described in the report as “dismissive”, “pre-judging”, “completely inappropriate”, “uncertain”, “unclear”, “difficult”, “deeply unsatisfactory”. Suffice to say the Committee “does not agree with SIS’s assessment” and is “deeply concerned”. The root of all this is Adebolajo’s arrest and torture in Kenya.

Adebolajo flew to Kenya in late 2010, reportedly under a false passport which gave his name as Michael Olemindis Ndemolajo. Obtaining a false UK passport is tricky, but procuring one of specific age and ethnicity (a Nigerian Yoruba) under a very similar name is impressive – unless you’re an intelligence agency. The Kenyans arrested “Ndemolajo” in late November, at a guesthouse on the Kenyan island of Lamu, on the understanding he was trying to cross into neighbouring Somalia, and some days after this arrest Adebolajo appeared in court, and thus in Kenyan media, under that assumed identity. The Foreign Office apparently provided consular assistance to him under that name also.

SIS told the ISC they had no idea Adebolajo was in Kenya until two days after his arrest. In truth Adebolajo had been picked up by a Kenyan counter-terrorist unit that was part-staffed by SAS soldiers and part-run by SIS. Furthermore, one of the people instrumental in facilitating Adebolajo’s pseudonymous trip was a Kenyan-based British “Subject of Interest” already known to MI5. Five asked Six if he was their guy. Answer came there none, at least as far as the ISC knows.

So let’s recap: Adebolajo gets, from somewhere, a superb fake passport. He flies to Kenya. He has arranged to meet a guy out there who is probably already an MI6 agent. He is arrested and detained almost immediately, with the participation of British Special Forces. No legal grounds are given for his arrest. Despite this, he appears in court anyway, and his photo thus appears in the press.

Who took this photo?

Adebolajo as ‘Ndemolajo’ in a Mombasa courtroom. British officials told Kenyan police he was a “clean man.”

Interestingly, the photo was taken by one Michael Richards, an unknown photographer who has only ever distributed two photos through AFP – this, and one depicting the January 2012 appearance in a Mombasa courtroom of Lamu cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed, charged on six counts related to the illegal possession of firearms. He was bailed, and reappeared on the same charges in August, when the Kenya police explained they hadn’t actually taken any photos, or even an inventory, of the weapons in question. That’s because Rogo had been fitted up by the same SIS-led anti-terror unit that entrapped Adebolajo. When the trial duly collapsed, that same unit killed Rogo in an extrajudicial execution, shooting him more than seventeen times while he was driving his car, narrowly missing his five year-old daughter, but catching his wife in the leg. Still, that’s pretty good aim for a drive-by. That was in late August, 2012, and it triggered riots. It is impossible to understand the Woolwich killing without taking into account MI6’s dirty war in Kenya.

“The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers,” Adebolajo told a passerby that May morning on Wellington Street. “So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands? Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists and kill us?”

Adebolajo had been detained by those British soldiers. He had been tortured, or at least threatened with torture, by either those soldiers or their Kenyan accomplices, and he had a better idea of what the Secret Intelligence Service were doing in Kenya than any mainstream media outlet. By October this SAS-SIS Kenyan anti-terror outfit (ARCTIC in the ISC report) had performed five assassinations – that we know of- in as many months. The total as of today is 21.

On his return to the UK, Adebolajo is freely readmitted (Kenya maintains he was deported, the ISC were told he flew back under his own ticket). No interest is shows in his passport, his treatment while detained, the legal grounds for his arrest, or the identity of the individual/s he met during his stay. The Kenyan sojourn is as clear a set-up as you’ll ever see. Either SIS were trying to turn Adebolajo, or they were trying to turn his younger brother, a teacher in Saudi who they were in contact with around this time.

Back in the UK, separate from SIS’s efforts, MI5 step-up their attempts to claim him for their own. As far as we know, they confine these attempts to police harassment, or “disruption”. “Disruption,” the report explains, “is the term MI5 uses describe ‘actions taken to manage risks posed by Subjects of Interest or networks,’ for instance arresting and imprisoning an individual.” So at MI5’s insistence they pick Adebolajo up again and again, for alleged drugs offences (the ISC report refers to him openly as a drug dealer), for involvement in the London riots, anything they can possibly think of. He is never charged.

“Disruption based on criminal activities offers a potential opportunity to reduce the threat posed by extremists,” the report notes, approvingly, while failing to reflect that every known criminal allegation against Adebolajo was a fabrication by MI5. Bear in mind that during this time there is also a photo of Adebloajo, as Ndemolajo, in that Mombasa courtoom, registered with the photo library at AFP. Only SIS know that it’s him. This is probably just one of the things that Vauxhall Bridge had over the Adebolajo brothers. Anything recorded or videod during Michael’s Kenyan detention would also constitute effective leverage.

That’s the full backdrop to Michael Adebolajo’s last act while a free, albeit compromised, man. His younger and more impressionable co-criminal remains a cipher. Adebolajo’s decision to a murder a British soldier was his own, but it was shaped and formed by two things. The spirit of Islamist jihad was one. The second was his treatment by British intelligence. Each must share equal blame. It isn’t appropriate, or right, for SIS to treat UK citizens like they were Soviet officers. I wonder if those who aspired to control him have the self-awareness to feel guilty. Knowing the institutional mindset, I doubt it.

In between my last two posts the media have come somewhat closer to all this. Cameron has announced the new Intelligence Services Commissioner will look into possible SIS miscounduct. This will occur under greater secrecy, and with even more bias, than the ISC routinely operates, so I would expect it to be completely pointless. Very few people care anyway.