From Special Branch to Special Brew, Special Courts and Rendition
NO LONGER A TEAM, but testimony from MI5 whistleblowers Annie Machon and David Schayler, seen here in happier times, should not be discarded.
MENTION of Consulting Association blacklister and snoop Ian Kerr, who has just died when he might have been called to give more evidence about his activities and the companies he served, has brought to mind the bigger picture of surveillance, of which Kerr's business formed a part. What were his relations, and those of the Economic League before him, with the Secret State which we pay to watch over us?
MPs have been discussing the Justice and Security Bill, which is supposed to provide for oversight of the intelligence and security services, but actually provides among other things for secret courts where the spooks would be able to present their case against you, while like Kafka's hero in "The Trial" you would be kept in the dark as to what you were accused of, and of the evidence given against you.
From what I saw of today's debate some backbench Tory MPs showed more concern about the danger to civil liberties than leading Labourite and former Home (and later Foreign) Secretary Jack Straw, even though he was once on MI5's files himself from his supposedly left-wing student union days. We did get challenges to the authority of the secret state from the decent duo Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, and SDLP MP Mark Durkan from Foyle recalled how Tony Blair tried to buy off his opposition by offering committee places.
With fewer than 20 members in the chamber it seemed as if issues like secret courts, extraordinary rendition and oversight of security and intelligence services are not that important to MPs, though among those batting for the Establishment were Straw and former Tory Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, appointed chair of the Security and Intelligence Committee by David Cameron in 2010, and due to hold this post for the duration of this parliament.
Just as well these two were there in case anybody talked about them in their absence. Straw is at the centre of accusations over rendition to Libya which have led to a million pound payout to save MI6 agents appearing in court. Further back when British intelligence was plotting with al Qaida and Libyan dissidents to assassinate Gaddaffi, Malcolm Rifkind says he knew nothing about the conspiracy.
We are supposed to believe the security services and special powers they are seeking are only there to protect us from terrorists, but as former MI5 officer Annie Machon observes, "We are already seeing a slide towards expanding the definition of “terrorist” to include “domestic extremists”, activists, single issue campaigners et al,..."
Back in the Cold War years the bogey was Soviet spying and subversion, and not all the tales were untrue, but as Machon says in her book "Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers", the criteria set out by Home Secretary David Maxwell-Fyfe in 1952 could be widened. "He called on the services to identify any individual engaged in undermining Parliamentary democracy, national security and/or the economic well-being of the UK by violent, industrial or political means. In fact, many would argue that groups who used only political means to get their point across were merely exercising their democratic rights".
"In fact, MI5 devoted such significant resources to subversive groups from the 1940s to 1993, when subversion was finally downgraded, that F2 claimed to know more about the finances of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) than the Party did itself! In communism’s heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s, around 60 desk officers – each with a number of support staff – spied on the CPGB alone, although F Branch had dwindled to around nine or ten desk officers and agent runners, plus around 20–30 support and secretarial staff by the time I arrived in 1991.
"In February 1991 I joined F2. The section was tucked away in a little-known MI5 building in Bolton Street, Mayfair. The office was a classic, run-down civil service affair, with battered old wooden desks, lime green wall paint and threadbare carpets. The section when I joined had no computer system; all its records were on paper, a fact which surprised me, as easily accessible information is essential to an intelligence service. " (but also subject to the Data Protection Act -RP)
"My ‘job title’ was F2B/5, and I was in charge of a small team investigating the SWP. David joined F Branch a year later as F2C/7, to study anarchists, communists and extreme right-wingers. David and I met in F2 but we didn’t start going out with each other until spring 1993. Our eyes met across a crowded operations room, he always likes to joke.
"Despite my assessments, senior management in F2 ensured that the SWP assumed an increasingly prominent role in the work of the branch. MI5 management unremittingly applied pressure to me to beef up the case for the study of the SWP, particularly after its (legitimate) support for a number of industrial disputes in the early nineties, which of course posed no threat to national security or Parliamentary democracy. Despite the pressure, I still succeeded in terminating the last remaining telephone tap targeted against an individual subversive in the UK – Tony Cliff, the SWP’s founder – and drastically reducing the number of agents who for decades had been run against the SWP at great cost to the taxpayer. However, senior managers still insisted that a telephone tap stay in place on the party’s HQ.
Even then, F2 policy dictated that any individual who attended six or more meetings of the Socialist Workers’ Party was recordable as a ‘member: Trotskyist organisation’, even where the service knew that many individuals attended these meetings to protest against specific issues such as the NHS cuts or the poll tax, subjects of legitimate dissent.
"F2, being tucked away in the little-known MI5 building on Bolton Street off Piccadilly, was a relaxed section, with quite an esprit de corps. Consequently, during our time there David and I either personally reviewed or were shown by our colleagues the following PFs. Few of those listed actually belong or belonged to subversive organisations. According to MI5, they have or had ‘sympathies’ with these or other groups and are therefore worthy of MI5 investigation:
"John Lennon, Jack Straw MP, Ted Heath MP, Tam Dalyell MP, Gareth Peirce (solicitor), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Mike Mansfield (barrister), Geoffrey Robertson (barrister), Patricia Hewitt MP, Harriet Harman MP, Garry Bushell (journalist), Peter Mandelson (European commissioner), Peter Hain MP, Clare Short MP, Mark Thomas (comedian), Mo Mowlam (politician), Arthur Scargill (NUM leader, who famously had his own recording category: unaffiliated subversive), Neil Kinnock (politician), Bruce Kent (peace campaigner, )Joan Ruddock MP, Owen Oyston (businessman), Cherie Booth aka Blair, Tony Blair MP, David Steel (politician), Teddy Taylor MP, Ronnie Scott (jazz musician), Robin Cook MP, John Prescott MP, Mark Steel (comedian), Jack Cunningham MP, Mohammed Al Fayed (businessman), Mick McGahey (former union leader), Ken Gill (former union leader), Michael Foot (politician), Jack Jones (former union leader), Ray Buxton (former union leader), Hugh Scanlon (former union leader), Harold Wilson (politician), James Callaghan (politician), Richard Norton-Taylor (Guardian journalist).
"David and I also came across a file called: ‘Subversion in contemporary music’, which consisted of press clippings about Crass, then a well-known, self-styled ‘anarchist’ band; the Sex Pistols; and, rather surprisingly, UB40. ...
"The ‘subversion’ of cabinet ministers Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt was to have been leading members of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL — now Liberty), the very organisation designed to protect us from such unwarranted abuses of our liberties. At one point, David came across a series of minutes on a file dating from the early 1980s. They were written by Charles Elwell, a publicly named and notoriously paranoid former head of F2 who saw a red under every bed, and who had successfully argued that members of the executive of the NCCL were recordable as ‘suspected sympathiser: Communist’, simply for being members of the executive. He based this assumption on the fact that, as one or two leading members of the NCCL had Communist sympathies, the organisation was therefore by definition a Communist front organisation.
"This went beyond MI5’s own rules. It justified its work against legitimate non-subversive organisations such as trade unions, CND, the NCCL and the Greenham Common women by saying that it was not investigating these organisations or their members per se but was investigating subversive penetration of these groups.
"As a result, MI5 gathered ten thick volumes on both the Greenham women and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Inevitably, as a result of this, F2 gathered personal information on and details of legitimate political activists, which were passed to ministers in official Security Service reports – then known as Box 500 reports — under the guise of revealing subversive penetration of these organisations. The service also had a history of gathering information on trade union activity and industrial disputes on the same basis. However, it again went beyond a strict study of subversive activity, and passed information relating to legitimate industrial protest to ministers and the police.
"The decision regarding the Executive of the NCCL meant that MI5 could investigate an individual — that means tap their phones, follow their movements, break into their houses, place a bug in their homes — simply for being a member of the Executive of the NCCL, without having to establish any other connections to communism. This was clearly a breach of democratic rights.
"David’s main area of responsibility in F2 was for the anarchist group Class War and the rump of the Communist Party, which had decided to plug on with Marxism-Leninism, after the rest of the CPGB had renounced it and become the Democratic Left. He was surprised that MI5 still devoted such extensive resources to these groups. During recruitment, he had been told that MI5 was no longer looking in any great depth at subversives. MI5 lore had it that the study of Class War was beefed up in the wake of the Poll Tax riot in London in 1990, after the group’s posters and banners were seen on the news coverage. However, according to Special Branch officers, the violence in Trafalgar Square had started when front-line anti-riot police had lost control and turned on the demonstrators.
"By early 1992, Class War was a disorganised collection of around 200 anarchist individuals. As such, it posed no real threat to Parliamentary democracy or national security. F2 had no phone intercept on Class War because it did not have an HQ. However, the authorities did devote considerable resources to the group.
"Some years before David had joined F2, a Metropolitan Police Special Duties Section (SDS) agent, codenamed M2589, had penetrated Class War. Unlike the vast majority of agents recruited by MI5, he was not a member of an organisation who had been ‘turned’ by the service. He was a full-time policeman from Special Branch under deep cover. For six days a week, he lived, ate and breathed the life of a class warrior before returning to his normal life with friends and family for a day. Whether Class War merited this kind of resource intensive coverage is open to debate. I quote David:
'When I met M2589 in February 1992, at a safe house in London, it was quite obvious that this peculiar arrangement had affected the agent psychologically. After around four years of pretending to be an anarchist, he had clearly become one. To use the service jargon, he had gone native. He drank about six cans of Special Brew during the debrief, and regaled us with stories about beating up uniformed officers as part of his ‘cover’. Partly as a result, he was ‘terminated’ after the 1992 General Election. Without his organisational skills, Class War fell apart.'
"Did the agent make Class War more effective while he was there? In other words, did the state actually provide resources, which contributed to the spread of anarchism?"
In her blog "Using Our Intelligence" back on September 28 Annie Machon warned:
"I would suggest that the concept of secret courts will prove fatally dangerous to our democracy. It may start with the concept of getting the Big Bad Terrorist, but in more politically unstable or stringent economic times this concept is wide open to mission creep.
We are already seeing a slide towards expanding the definition of “terrorist” to include “domestic extremists”, activists, single issue campaigners et al, as I have written before. And just recently information was leaked about a new public-private EU initiative, Clean IT, that proposes ever more invasive and draconian policing powers to hunt down “terrorists” on the internet. This proposal fails to define terrorism, but does provide for endemic electronic surveillance of the EU. Pure corporatism.
Allowing secret courts to try people on the say-so of a shadowy, unaccountable and burgeoning spy community lands us straight back in the pages of history: La Terreur of revolutionary France, the creepy surveillance of the Stasi, or the disappearances and torture of the Gestapo.
Have we learned nothing?"
Since they quit MI5 together, Annie Machon and David Schayler have parted company, though they were still campaigning together when I saw them at a public meeting in Willesden some years back, bringing in their train a bunch of 9/11 conspiracy theorists who looked incongruously like they had strayed from a Countryside Alliance protest.
Apparently she left him when he took not to Special Brew but more exotic mind-altering substances. Schayler is reportedly living in a squat with something called the Rainbow movement, wearing high heels and a frock, and telling people he is the messiah, as well as quoting the famous Protocols. That sounds like MI5 alright, though he also believes the world will end in 2012. We've still got a couple of weeks to go.
Annie blames the security services for having pushed David Schayler to a breakdown. On the other hand he could be putting on a good act to persuade them he is no longer a threat and keep them off his back. It would make sense when you think what has happened to some others who knew too much.
On Straw, MI6 and Libya: