Christopher Steele, David Kelly, and the Hutton Inquiry

Not this again: the media have one image of Steele, and yes, he's wearing a tuxedo.

Not this again: the media have one image of Steele, and yes, he’s wearing a tuxedo.

My last post expressed concern about the possibility our intelligence services might seek to unduly influence British elections, and since then it has transpired that a former SIS officer, and a few of his former SIS colleagues, sought to do precisely that to the last US Presidential election. Months before the vote, Christopher Steele was privately touting a now notorious dossier of entirely fictional Trump allegations supplied to him (so Steele claimed) by impeccable sources in Russian intelligence. The finer details of this episode are unclear to me, but what I find particularly interesting is the light it casts on an aspect of the Hutton Inquiry, which was held (14 years ago now) to examine “the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly”.

I have no idea if Christopher Steele and David Kelly ever met, although considering Steele was working under diplomatic cover in Moscow while Kelly toured the country as part of a secret biowarfare inspection team, I think it’s safe to say they may well have done. Although they both relied on obviously unreliable humint to draft dodgy dossiers, no working relationship suggests itself. What I am more interested in is Christopher Steele’s current whereabouts.

After Steele was named as the originator of this dossier the press were at his family home within hours. The exact process by which he was identified, and his home tracked down, is also unclear, but by the time the journalists arrived, he had gone. According to reports, Steele and his family had left the night before. They had dropped their three cats off with a neighbour for safekeeping, and without saying where they were going, they disappeared in such a hurry that they left all their lights on. Where they are now, nobody knows. Every single mainstream media outlet has it that Steele’s family are in a safe house some where, and “security sources” (whoever they might be) are briefing journos to this effect.

When David Kelly first came to the attention of the world’s media, when he was “blown”, he too, together with his wife Janice, very suddenly disappeared from their family home. Nobody knew where they went. To this day, we – the public – do not know where the Kellys were between the 9th and 12th of July 2003. Without providing actual addresses (or being asked for them), Janice Kelly told the Inquiry they stayed at a hotel in Weston-Super-Mare and a friend’s house in Cornwall.  The problem with this is that eyewitnesses saw them at other locations during this period. Rod Godfrey, a fellow weapons inspector living near Swindon, told the Inquiry he was visited by Kelly at his home on the morning of the 10th. And a few locals in Kelly’s village told me (and plenty of other people) that Kelly still attended the cribbage night in the Hind’s Head as usual.

As I maintain in Kelly’s biography, Dark Actors, the couple were almost certainly accommodated in a government safe house during this period. It is, after all, exactly what is happening to the Steeles. It is standard procedure for anyone who maintains and utilises covert human sources for SIS. The holy, unbreakable bond between source and handler can never be broken: this is perhaps the only cardinal rule of intelligence work, and it is obeyed even when the sources feed the handlers nothing but rubbish. Even rubbish has its uses, as long as it’s the right kind of rubbish, and it isn’t hard for sources to guess at what is required. The point is that to keep these relationships secure, both source and handler must be protected.

Now that he has gone to ground, Steele may never publicly surface ever again. Kelly, in comparison, was shoved back into the media limelight by his own government within days. He was never allowed back into Iraq, and shortly after his televised appearance before the Select Committee, he killed himself. Kelly’s sources were rounded up by the Americans, put into orange jump suits, and repatriated into other countries under false identities. Those who are still alive experience very close supervision by their new host governments and by the US. Steele’s sources, on the other hand, are still out there, and still selling. To say this situation opens a can of worms is an understatement. But the point I wanted to raise is this:

Steele’s safe house reminds us that Janice Kelly’s testimony to Hutton was deliberately stripped of any SIS content. The same went for any other “witness” appearing at Hutton who depended in any way on a civil service pension. These witnesses had to secure permission from the government before they appeared, and their testimony was vetted in advance by Treasury solicitors. The late Brian Jones relates all this in his book. Those witnesses who couldn’t be cowed in this way weren’t called. And Hutton, of course, agreed to it all, his deference to national security being absolutely typical of the British judiciary.

Anyone who thinks you can hold a satisfactory inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly while allowing the government to omit any detail its deems pertinent to national security is deeply deluded, or stridently dishonest.

It’s worse than Denning in ’63.

An inquiry into Steele is equally important, given that it would touch not just on the subversion of democratic processes but also, critically, the toxic interplay between private sector money and intelligence community sources. Kelly got crucified, Steele gets to sneak off into the shadows a wealthy man. Why? Both of them peddled rubbish. But only one of them ever briefed truthfully against his own government.

Steele's house in Farnham. Wonder what a land registry search would show. An offshore holding company in the Caribbean, perhaps?

Steele’s house in Farnham. I wonder what a land registry search would show. An offshore holding company in the Caribbean, perhaps?


Full Circle: MANPADS, Mi-8s and Muslim fundamentalists

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan the CIA helped fund and train Islamist guerillas. Despite the fact they were totalitarian religious fanatics and terrorists to boot, the US gave them money and material, including personal, portable, surface-to-air rockets known as Stingers, enabling them to take down Russian helicopters like the Mi-8.

Islamists down Mi-8 in Afghanistan, 1988.

Islamists down Russian Mi-8 in Afghanistan with US rockets, 1988.

It didn’t turn out too well.

During the Syrian Civil War, the CIA are helping to fund and train Islamist guerillas. Despite the fact they are totalitarian religious fanatics and terrorists to boot, the US are giving them money and material, including personal, portable, surface-to-air rockets known as MANPADS, enabling them to take down Russian helicopters like the Mi-8.

Islamists down Russian MI-8 in Syria with US rockets, 2016

Islamists down Russian Mi-8 in Syria with US rockets, 2016

There is no reason at all to think this will work out any better than it did last time.

Sadly the policy is supported by not just the current US President, but by his likely Democrat successor Hillary Clinton, the UK government and – at the time of blogging – most of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing, as Talleyrand said.

Chilcot’s out

And it is very long. I intend to read it all, in a thorough and critical manner, as is appropriate. The report is, quite explicitly, not a document that lends itself to the bitesize, instantaneous communications of social media. The mainstream media, whose categorical and inherent failures have only worsened since the drums of the Iraq war began beating, has no resources nor inclination to mount a meaningful appreciation (I understand the Guardian has put out an appeal for help, of all things).

The Chilcot Report is politics, politics of the most immense and important scale, disguised as history. To process it on its own terms is an academic project.

The executive summary alone is 150 pages. I have already spotted a couple of errors, which are worrying things to find in a frontispiece. I’m not 100% sure about Chilcot’s opening statement either, his confident assertion that “Saddam” was in breach of a UN resolution specifically.

I have said for some years that criticism of the Inquiry must be suspended until its report was published. Well, that time has come. But it must be read first. It would be ironic to rush to judgement.

Naturally, those who seek to wield and mould public opinion will not wait to project their decided viewpoint onto the airwaves and column inches. That endeavour is already underway, as part of the general daily thrum of the west’s cultural hegemony. Distrust anything or anybody pretending to offer you the findings at a glance. Those journalists at the pre-publication lock-in had two and a half hours, at most, to digest over two and a half million words and Chilcot has been careful not to offer up any headline conclusions. Whatever meat there is in this lies under the skin.

That only real battle we can fight now is the right to ensure the coming generations understand what really happened here. The establishment aleady know. They knew at the time, and they have been spinning ever since.

The loudest voices are the least honest.

Only a mounting civic activism can counter them.

The Orlando shootings at Pulse nightclub

Four days have passed since the latest American massacre and I have been struck by the dearth of anything resembling proper reporting. The media appears to have been completely controlled by the Orlando Police Department. Journalistic efforts have thus amounted to little more then writing up official press releases, and a few dozen “death knocks” – approaching the traumatised survivors and asking them how they feel. These are never enlightening interviews. Consequently, the narrative is owned by the state, and it is consequently riven with a series of troubling holes.

Please note I’m not claiming this is a false flag, or some staged “fake crisis”. I am not endorsing any kind of conspiracy theory, but the current story is unbelievable, and the Orlando Police Department has contradicted itself numerous times. This is not unusual with shocking and violent events of this nature. Waco, for example, was serially misreported by the press and lied about by the state.

I find it incredible, given the number of deaths (49) and casualties (53?) that none were caused by parties other than the massacre’s perpatrator, Omar Mateen. There were, apparently, three seperate gun battles between Mateen and police over forty minutes or so. This happened in a crowded nightclub at closing time. According to the official story, every single bullet found its intended home. No accomplices, and no friendly fire or “blue on blue”. Every civilian victim was the result of one man’s murderous intent whilst every shot fired by the police was justified and accurate.  I doubt very much this can be true, but Western society and culture is now infantilised to the point where every armed official is automatically a hero.

Mateen himself remains a mystery – his methods, aims, motives and situation are relayed to us entirely by the Orlando Police department. I see no reason to believe any of their claims here any more than I would believe the Metropolitan Police when it claimed that Jean Charles de Menezes jumped a ticket barrier whilst wearing a big heavy coat, carrying a rucksack which had wires sticking out of it, that he refused to stop when challenged, and so was consequently shot. The Met then released a photo of de Menezes they had altered to make him look more like a Muslim, and when each of their claims was proven untrue, it then responded by labelling him a cocaine user and a rapist.

You are not a conspiracy theorist simply because you refuse to blindly believe everything you are told. As regards the shootings at Pulse, I would like to know what OPD officer Adam Gruler was really doing at the club when Mateen arrived, and what transpired between them. The Orlando Police Department has given a number of contradictory answers as to whether Gruler was in uniform or not, and whether he was on police time or working for the club, pulling “extra duty”. One source claimed Gruler was searching the club for an underage teenager who had entered using a false ID, others that he provided private security. Both of these mutually exclusive claims strike me as unlikely, and I don’t know why there is any confusion here at all. The Orlando Police Department certainly know the answers. But what appears certain is that Gruler was armed, and that the initial Pulse shootings involved a gunfight between himself and Mateen.

Officer Adam Gruler is a veteran of Orlando PD. In 2006, the Orlando Sentinel had this to say about him:

Adam Gruler is a hunter.

That’s one of the nicknames given inside the Orlando Police Department to the young, aggressive cops sent to patrol in and around Parramore, one of Orlando’s toughest and poorest neighborhoods. Their job: create a “no-tolerance zone” for crime of all kinds.

By police accounts, the 29-year-old Gruler is good at it. From 2003 to 2005, he averaged 156 arrests a year. He has won individual and unit citations. He has busted people for possession of everything from crack cocaine to an AK-47 assault rifle…Adam Gruler is on the hunt. In his Ford Crown Victoria cruiser, with a 12-gauge shotgun and an AR-15 assault rifle mounted beside him.

Gruler is as aggressive as any American cop. John Kurtz videotaped Gruler in 2011 as the officer repeatedly assaulted a suspect who was already handcuffed and prone. Gruler then arrested Kurtz for (incredibly) “resisting arrest without violence”. Surprise surprise, Kurtz’s video recording disappeared in the evidence locker. Kurtz himself was sentenced to 30 days in prison with a year on probation. This is how American police forces work. I have little difficulty in believing Mateen was a murderous lunatic, but what was Gruler doing there? What was the chronology and logic of the escalation?

The importance and significance of all these issues will soon become apparent. But they were apparent to the Orlando Police Department from the very start, and it is the OPD which is controlling the news.



Judas Iscariot is the Secret Saint of Spooks and Agents

“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.” John 1:10.

“Not one, but all of the things attributed by tradition to Judas Iscariot are false.” Thomas De Quincey

The man who really gave us the Easter Bank Holiday probably isn’t the guy you think he is.

It was never about the money.

It was never about the money.

At Sunday School children are told that Judas Iscariot is the arch-betrayer, the fallen apostle who gave Jesus to the Romans, consigning the Son of God to a public and excruciating death for thirty pieces of silver. Like all mainstream media narratives, that tale is useful to certain powerful parties, but it doesn’t really make much sense, does it?

Let us forget for a moment the theological paradox that it is impossible to betray an all-knowing deity, and focus on the prosaic. As certain intrepid Gnostics have pointed out, Jesus Christ was a famous preacher who gave daily performances to audiences of thousands. Roman security services hardly needed a visual id on the suspect. They couldn’t possibly have required the services of Judas Iscariot. Judas, as he is officially portrayed, is entirely superfluous.

Many of the Gnostic texts, dismissed by the early church as heretical, described him as the best of the apostles (whether he was the best or the worst, he was still selected by an omnipotent deity, so one can safely assume Judas possessed at least some virtue). De Quincey later postulated that Judas must have led the authorities to Jesus so that the Son of God would be forced to reveal his true divinity, in all its powers, thereby triggering a mass uprising against the Roman Empire. Others have resorted to philosophy in order to justify the story. Some argue Judas vilified and mortified his own flesh so as to glorify Christ, some offer that Judas believed himself unworthy of being good and acted out of humility, some maintain Judas sought hell because he thought happiness and morality to be divine attributes only, some consider him to be an instrument in the mystery of humanity’s pre-planned redemption. That last viewpoint is perhaps the only one which is broad enough to be irrefutable, and it makes clear that Judas Iscariot was a tool. He was an agent, and not of the Roman Empire.

The true nature of Judas’ actions are unknown. His motivation is a mystery, and his ultimate fate is widely disputed. Matthew has him hanging himself in the Potter’s Field, as per the conclusion of some vague prophecy. In the Acts of the Apostles he simply falls down and bursts asunder. The Codex Tchacos, found in Egypt in the seventies, says he was stoned by the other disciples. The early Christian leader Papias told his followers Judas wandered about like a tramp until he was run over by a chariot. I like to think he went to ground somewhere and died in his old age.

In Three Versions of Judas, a short story of characteristic genius by the brilliant Jorge Luis Borges, he is revealed to be… well, I think you should read that yourself, if you’re interested.

But a famous, vilified, individual, about whom we know nothing except that the official version cannot be true, an individual who appears, pivotally, at a turning point in history? Judas Iscariot’s canonization is officially refuted by all organised Christian religions, but somewhere a very small circle of people knew what he did and why. The reasons are all gone now: forgotten, lost to history. The truth of it will never be known. The only thing we have is the outcome. I wonder if it all worked out as intended. I doubt it. Life never does.

So here’s to all the Judases, to the mysterious and despicable names which confound us, the Mohammed Emwazis and Lee Harvey Oswalds and Saad Al Hillis and Jonathan Moyles and Edward Snowdens and Kim Philbys and Hafizullah Amins, and to their handlers, the Sarah Davies’ and Anthony Arnolds and Michael Savages. May the secret policemen of the world keep their distance a little while longer yet.

Ends and means, my readers. Enjoy your eggs.

Iran: What about the flux capacitor?

The shekel has a lot to say about the Iranian nuclear deal. Zionism’s proclivity to see danger lurking everywhere has always made it a welcome influence on Capitol Hill, where shouting about evil foes has been the Republican modus operandi since the Cold War. It itsn’t at all suprising that America’s right-wing, and its mainstream media, are screaming blue bloody murder about Obama’s “historic” nuclear deal with Iran. I haven’t yet read the finer details of the agreement, but I’m sure it contains sufficient loopholes for the hawks to subvert it inside a few years, just as they did with UNSCOM in Iraq.

In my preliminary opinion the deal is a perfectly legitimate piece of politics with the dangers and risks mostly on the Iranian side. The anti-deal hysteria, however, has been ignorant and rampant in equal measure. My favourite nugget, which I relate here for flavour, is related by Said Arikat at al-Araby, concering the four and a half hour grilling the Senate Foreign Relations Committe gave John Kerry:

The hearing itself bordered at times on the ridiculous.For example, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson (a former plastics business executive) took it upon himself to lecture Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz (a nuclear physicist by trade) about the dangers of something called an Electromagnetic Pulse bomb – a staple of science fiction, and an age-old worry within certain right-wing groups who thrive on conspiracy theories.

Until recently, Iran has never been accused of wishing to acquire fictitious weaponry.


And for Washington that’s business as normal, folks. Ron Johnson has a degree in business and accountancy from the University of Minnesota. AIPAC was actually one of his smallest campaign contributors, although the organization/s behind a further $449,000 of his war chest is categorized by Maplight as “unknown.”



Why Hilary’s Deleted Emails Are More Dangerous Than Any Leak

“Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.” Pravin Lal, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Firaxis Games.


Every foreign policy catastrophe has, at its root, secret diplomacy. Examples abound, yet we refuse to learn from them, and the same mistakes are repeated again and again, to terrible, illegal, counter-productive, and sometimes genocidal effect. The most important thing we could demand of our politicians is transparency, but recent events show that if anything, we are moving further away from it, and into an era of secrecy, elitism, and obfuscation.

Secret diplomacy is generally considered to be one of the fundamental causes of the First World War. As it drew to its murderous close, US President Woodrow Wilson drew up fourteen points as a blueprint for a permanent world peace, first among which was a ban on private diplomacy. The world needed “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view”. The principle became a founding covenant of the League of Nations.

It was too late for Wilson to undo the damage caused by that secret diplomacy which had occurred during the war itself. The worst of this affected a region which is still reeling from the trauma: the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration were both drawn up behind closed doors. Inevitably, the Great War also saw a great amount of propaganda too. Propaganda and secret diplomacy are co-dependent, because covert rationales can never be publicly exposed, and so additional motives must be manufactured. In this regard too, the Great War foreshadowed the future.

In my own lifetime, secret diplomacy was rife, and continues to shape events like never before. The countless assassinations and coups and proxy wars of the Cold War were all the product of secret diplomacy. None bode well. But since the War on Terror, secret diplomacy has exploded. In fact, the harbinger event of our current age, 9/11, has a foreign policy component which continues to be deliberately concealed at the highest level: the role of Saudi Arabia.

Then came the invasion of Iraq, an act of secret diplomacy writ large. The truth behind it remains impenetrable, we can only be certain it was never enacted for the reasons proposed to the public. Naturally, as with all secret diplomacy, the key decisions were all made in a very tight circle, whose members refuse to reveal their true deliberations. All of this is now notorious. A quick (British) sketch would include the “sofa cabinet” of Tony Blair, which refused to take minutes; the use of ministerial veto by Jack Straw to prevent publication of what minutes were taken; the refusal by the Cabinet Office to release the minutes of conversations between Blair and Bush in the build-up to war; the concealment of exhaustive intelligence that disproved Blair’s assertion that Saddam Hussein was developing WMD. In America the situation was even graver.

This terrible secrecy became entrenched to the extent that those who breached it, or even alleged it existed, either lost their jobs or were prosecuted as criminals. David Kelly, of course, is an example which is close to my heart, but there are many others. Civil servant David Keogh and MP’s researcher Leo O’Connor were both jailed simply for passing minutes of a 2004 Bush-Blair meeting to O’Connor’s MP (who, to his undying shame, dobbed them in to Downing Street and Special Branch). The content of the memo they passed on has never been made public, but it is believed to relate to future planned war crimes, such as bombing the media offices of a respected broadcaster in a neutral country. It is, at the time I write this, still illegal in the UK to suggest that the secret trial of Keogh and O’Connor proved that Bush and Blair supported bombing Al Jazeera’s branch in Qatar.

One decision from this episode I find particularly curious is Coalition Provisional Authority Order Two, which disbanded the Iraqi military. Nobody has owned up to this. It was the first thing Paul Bremer did when Bush appointed him Presidential Envoy. Bremer has said only that he worked it out with the Pentagon, and considering Bremer’s only line manager was superhawk neocon Donald Rumsfeld, it seems likely that that Rummy was instrumental. But Rumsfeld isn’t talking, and George Bush has even said he can’t remember why they did it. What is tantalising about this disastrous decision is the light it shines, namely that the ultimate geopolitical aim of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to destroy Iraq as a sovereign nation. This is exactly what Saddam and most Iraqis believed the West always intended, and history has borne them out.

Although it remains intrinsically self-defeating, secret diplomacy has only accelerated since the fall of Baghdad. On one side we have a wall of silence and lies, on the other we have empirical reality and the odd leak. A case in point would be what Seymour Hersh reported as “the redirection”, whereby America presaged its withdrawal from Iraq by covertly fomenting Sunni sectarianism not just in Iraq (where it also boosted the Kurds) but also in Syria and Lebanon, thereby ensuring the impossibility of a stable, democratic Iraq. This began with an informal meeting of inner-circle Bush-era neocons, presided over by Elliott Abrams, architect of some earlier eighties secret diplomacy known as Iran-Contra. Faced with the stark truth that secret diplomacy hadn’t worked, they concluded this was simply because it hadn’t been secret enough, and “the redirection” was confined almost entirely to the Vice President’s office. Even the spooks were frozen out.

Fast forward to Hilary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, during which she used a private server, which allowed her, when State Department officials asked for copies of her emails, to delete about 30,000 of them. Hilary’s private server was a deliberate and very blatant circumvention of American law. Those emails are gone. They will never be subpoenaed by Congress. They will never be collected by the National Archives and Records Administration. I suspect that like the Nixon with his tapes, Hilary cannot bring herself to bin them entirely, but for the purposes of everyone else in the world, they are no more. This sets a disastrous precedent. It is the precise opposite of what Woodrow Wilson advised in the aftermath of the world’s worst ever war.

Consider where we have come to. There is something called the truth. There is something called democracy. At home or abroad, effective government policy has to rest on both those points. Yet whenever anyone (often through enormous sacrifice) drags some element of the foreign policy sphere towards either, they are branded traitors, and/or mentally ill. As with that terrible Assange biopic, they are accused of “stealing” secrets. But they haven’t stolen them, they have only given them to us, to history and the world. The information is still there, in its classified silo. They are accused of endangering lives, or worse, but every time these accusations are made they are swiftly rebutted by fact.

Wherever you stand on Assange and Snowden and Manning et all, you must concede this: the whistleblower who hands you a memo is a far lesser worry than the warmonger who burns it behind closed doors. There isn’t a single plaintiff whose life has been endangered by the revelations of Wikileaks and Snowden, but there are bodies falling in Libya and Syria and Yemen and the Ukraine every day, and I do not know if our true role in these crises will ever be officially disclosed. History is set to become a very challenging discipline if chunks of it can now be routinely deleted.




The Hutton Inquiry website is quietly disposed of

When Brian Hutton commenced his inquiry into “the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly” it was heralded as a paradigm of government openness. That sounds hard to believe given how it turned out, but more than a few people praised it for the light it shone on government and military processes. It revealed a great deal of David’s personal life too. It rifled through his emails and phone bills and shared whatever information it thought pertinent with the public.

All this openness was highly selective, of course. There was a great deal Hutton chose not to share or examine, and in doing so he obscured the true pressures that were acting on Kelly that fateful day. This sleight-of-hand was partly what allowed him to pronounce not only that Kelly committed suicide (a conclusion that I too share, although with far less certainty) but also that his suicide had nothing to do with the Iraq War but was instead brought about by his intense shame in having been caught out talking to journalists off-the-record without permission. That evidence which the Inquiry had not selected, but which it could not reasonably withhold, such as the testimony of David Broucher (who appeared at his own insistence), Hutton traduced or ignored.  But nevertheless, the Hutton Inquiry website was a fantastic resource for any researcher or historian, and it contained a great deal of primary documentation, however selective it might be, available for download as PDFs. Alas, it is no more.

I tried to access it today for the first time in two years and found that the domain now belongs to one Alistair Maylum of Faversham, Kent, who (it appears) buys and sells domain names. The government has jettisoned the lot. The transcripts and the PDFs are no longer there. Instead any visitors are confronted with a generic web template for a personal injury solicitors. I mean look at it.  However fake Hutton’s openness, this is a sadder and more cynical development still. The website could not possibly have been axed for reasons of cost, its costs were trifling. It was something else, incompetence or censorship or both.

My biography of Kelly, Dark Actors, came out in July 2013. Within four months the website I had used extensively to research it was offline. Many of its footnotes and citations now point nowhere. So trust not in the cloud, and always download whatever you can, because the cloud sees all, and what may be there one day may not be there the next.

(Thankfully the transcripts are still mirrored here, as for the documentary evidence, I have no idea if a comprehensive mirror exists anywhere.)

POSTSCRIPT: All is not lost! Peter Beswick has very helpfully pointed out that the whole Hutton site (as far as I can see) is currently mirrored in the National Archives web archive. Thank god for that. For the link to the mirror, see his comment below. My despondency was somewhat misplaced.



That terrible Snowden article in The Sunday Times isn’t psyops

The Sunday Times has published an atrocious bit of journalism about the Edward Snowden revelations, alleging the whistleblower has “betrayed” British spies to the Russians and Chinese. The piece is an entirely unsubstantiated mishmash of unattributed sources who frequently contradict each other as well as many facts about the case which are already established.

While I was completely unsurprised to see the piece picked up and echoed uncritically by other components of Britain’s mainstream media, such as the BBC, I was heartened to see that the piece has already been comprehensively demolished online by just about every relevant blogger, news site and forum (highlights include Glenn Greenwald here and Craig Murray here; incidentally the Greenwald piece has already come under a spurious legal challenge from the Sunday Times, while Murray’s website has succumbed to a mysterious DNS attack) What an incredible display of the profound and innate difference between corporate and online media. But in America, the crucible of the Snowden story, even parts of the corporate media had a hard time swallowing this terrible, terrible piece of work – which the Sunday Times published as a headline, front-page story. Look, for example, at this interview between CNN anchor George Howell and one of the Sunday Times reporters responsible for the piece, “home affairs correspondent” Tom Harper (who is young Harper related to, I wonder?).

A common reaction to this story is to assume the piece is a result of government disinformation. After all, spooks and authoritarians everywhere are trying to vilify Snowden and cover up the extent of the illegality he exposed, and these efforts have always been fairly transparent and predictable. However, the Harper piece is even worse than that. As Craig Murray observes, the article contains so many operational misconceptions about gathering humint that I can only conclude that the disinformation is all on the part of the newspaper.

I have said it before now, and I will say it again here: corporate media is so lazy, venal and biased that it disinforms as a matter of course. It cannot always be the fault of the spooks when a newspaper or broadcaster lies. In this grubby scrape for a story I suppose that Harper may indeed have spoken to officers of MI5 or SIS, but only perhaps a recent graduate entrant, or a dim and distant retiree; someone who has basically no operational knowledge, and is keen to inflate their importance and the seriousness of their department (this is a trait of civil servants the world over). As for any non-attributable utterances coaxed out of officials at the Home Office or in Downing Street, well, they would know literally nothing about British agents in China or anywhere else.

This is story is so poor, its fact-checking and verification so shoddy, and its general thrust at such variance with the American version of events, that the blame must lie with the paper. It wasn’t just Tom Harper who wrote it, after all. The by-lines also went to Richard Kerbaj, the Sunday Times’ very own security correspondent, and Tim Shipman, its political editor. That’s how deep the rot is. And remember that the Sunday Times is not exactly short of cash.

How long can a major British newspaper get away with punting nonsense like this? The influence of the idiot box and the dead tree press must surely be diminishing at a yearly rate. There will surely come a day when people marvel that such things ever swung elections, and I hope very much it comes soon. Only one thing is sure: we won’t be reading about in the press, or hearing about it on the television. The more a rag like The Sun roars its relevance, for example, the more worried you know News International is.

“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.