Wednesday, 29 April 2015

In fighting terrorism, Britain is abandoning its liberal values

The Daily Star
Friday, April 17, 2015
By Michael Glackin

It says something about the world we now live in that we know more about Mullah Omar’s terror plans, despite the fact he has been in hiding for the last decade, than about someone who has undergone the scrutiny of two criminal trials at London’s Old Bailey, arguably the world’s most famous courthouse.

Thanks to the Afghan Taliban’s publication of Mullah Omar’s bizarre biography on April 6, we know about his love of grenade launchers, particularly the RPG-7, his “preferred weapon of choice,” and his future plans for Afghanistan.

If only we knew as much about the plans of the man whom British security and intelligence agencies believe poses such a grave risk to the national security of the United Kingdom that details of his arrest, terrorist plots and trials must be kept secret.

You may recall the case of Erol Incedal, a British national, who has twice stood trial on terrorism charges since being arrested at gunpoint in 2013. In an unprecedented move, the British government had attempted to hold both trials in secret, in the interests of “national security.” Following a legal challenge by media groups a compromise was arranged in which the trial was divided into three parts: public, in other words open to media and members of the public; private, with 10 “accredited journalists” allowed to attend but banned from reporting what they saw or heard; and closed, meaning completely secret, with just the accused, lawyers and the jury present.

Last year Incedal was convicted of possessing a bomb-making document on a mobile phone memory card. But the jury failed to reach a verdict on the more serious charge of planning a terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS. This included allegedly targeting former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and plotting a “Mumbai-style” attack in London.

After a second trial, even more of which was held in secret and which ended last month, a jury finally acquitted Incedal of that charge. This came after police and security agencies admitted that they had no idea what his alleged terror target was.

Following his acquittal Incedal was jailed on April 1 for three and a half years on the earlier charge of possessing the bomb-making document, a shorter sentence than the average house burglar receives. His friend, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who last year pleaded guilty to being in possession of an identical document, was jailed for three years. Having already spent 17 months on remand both men are likely to be free within months. The situation is beyond farce. What on earth was all this secrecy about?

Sentencing the two men, the judge, Mr. Justice Nicol, actually told them that they were not terrorists, but added that parliament had made possessing instructions for homemade bombs an offense because of the danger of their being in circulation.

So we can’t even call this a secret terror trial anymore. It’s just a sordid secret trial where the entire weight of the government has been used to ride roughshod over the principle of open justice, for no apparent reason. Considering that what the jury heard convinced them that Incedal was not plotting terror attacks, and bearing in mind the lengths to which the government went to keep this trial a secret, it must surely be in the national interest to know why Incedal has been cleared of being a terrorist.

This is the crux of the matter because we have no idea what really lay at the heart of Incedal’s prosecution in the first place, let alone the reason for all the secrecy that surrounded his case. Here is a man who has been found guilty of possessing a bomb-making manual, but whom two separate juries, who saw all the evidence, failed to convict of planning terror attacks.

It even emerged that Incedal had been in contact with a British extremist known as “Ahmed,” whom he had met on the border between Turkey and Syria. And yet the jury still cleared him. Why? We don’t know.

Amid all these questions we are faced with a government that has developed a worrying obsession with secrecy and the control of information – one that treats its laughingly inept security and intelligence services with mad devotion. The government appears to be in awe of the security services, and will do anything they ask without question.

We have seen this in the abject failure of parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee to criticize myriad intelligence failures or the acknowledged illegal activities of the service. The Incedal trial represents yet another erosion of freedom of expression in the U.K., from the pervasive snooping of the security services into our emails, to the government attacks on the media, which has seen more journalists put on trial than terrorists in recent years.

The final bizarre twist in this sorry affair came when Mr. Justice Nicol rejected a post-trial application brought by media to make the case details public now that the trial was over and there no longer was a need for secrecy.

Predictably, Nicol handed down two judgments, one open, and one secret. His open judgment ruled that prosecutors could be dissuaded from bringing such a case in the future if reporting restrictions were lifted. Why? The reason was detailed in the accompanying secret judgment, which of course, we cannot read.

This is a pathetic way to defend the values of freedom and democracy. Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said we have nothing to fear but fear itself.

It is sound advice, because the greatest threat to British values and freedoms just now is from hysteria, not terrorists.

Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 17, 2015, on page 7.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Echoes of Orwell in the United Kingdom

The Daily Star
Monday, March 23, 2015
By Michael Glackin

George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece “1984,” described a world of omnipresent government surveillance of its citizens. A world in which the rulers even invented a new language, Newspeak, in order to distort the true meaning of words and suppress dissent. Orwell’s novel, published in 1949, was largely, though not entirely, based on the regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But today his nightmare vision of society has worrying parallels with the shocking extent of the British government’s intrusion into our day-to-day lives.

The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee officially confirmed last week that the government was engaged in mass surveillance of the communications of millions of people. But in a long-awaited report into the revelations made by U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden two years ago, the ISC insisted this intrusive surveillance carried out by intelligence agencies was perfectly legal.

That’s because the intelligence services’ trawling of the emails, text messages and other online communications of law-abiding individuals isn’t actually mass surveillance. In a nod to Orwell’s Newspeak, the ISC prefers to call it “bulk interception” and “bulk collection.” As someone who has been embarrassed by the fact that I speak one language, I am now ashamed to discover I don’t even understand the language I thought I could speak.

According to the ISC, bulk interception or collection only becomes surveillance when the information is read by a human. Because most of the vast amounts of material collected by GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, are never actually read by anyone, it doesn’t qualify as mass surveillance.

But why collect information if you are not going to read it? Surely if any of the content is being stored it increases the likelihood that it will be accessed at some point? The ISC report insists that GCHQ only stores a small amount of the material it intercepts, but the exact figure is redacted so we have no idea how much is being held, or how long it is kept by the intelligence agencies.

The intelligence services insist they need to do all this, and much more, because they are searching for small needles of information about terrorists in the vast haystack of online communications. But as the record shows, and as The Guardian newspaper neatly put it, the biggest security problem appears to be the abject failure of the intelligence agencies to hold on to all the needles they pull out of haystacks.

Lest we forget, despite all its online snooping, the intelligence services failed to prevent a number of atrocities in the United Kingdom – from the London bombings of 2005 to the murder of off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 – despite the fact that the perpetrators in both cases were on the radar of intelligence services. Mohammed Emwazi, better known as ISIS killer Jihadi John, would not be in Syria butchering Westerners were it not for the intelligence services allowing him to escape from the U.K. while he was under their scrutiny.

By any sane rationale, these failures make the case for a better organized intelligence service. But in the twisted Orwellian prism of the government and the ISC they add up instead to increasing the powers of the spooks to collect Internet data on the rest of us, creating more hay for them to trawl through.

The ISC has essentially given the spooks the benefit of the doubt over the legality of their surveillance. They won’t need to in future, because the government intends to formally legalize the practice, or in the committee’s Newspeak, make the process more “transparent.”

Yet while calling for more transparency, the ISC also flatly rejected demands that a judge, rather than a government minister, should be responsible for authorizing the warrants – of which there were 517,236 issued last year – allowing “intrusive surveillance.” The mantra, repeatedly trotted out by government, is that the innocent have nothing to fear from its snooping.

That’s a lie. On the same day that the ISC was busy recommending more transparency, the government was busy trying to keep secret the extent of the intelligence services’ unlawful behavior. Almost unnoticed last week, lawyers acting for GCHQ, MI5, and MI6, insisted that the agencies should not have to admit whether they intercepted legally privileged conversations between lawyers and their clients.

The demand was made during a case before the Investigatory Powers Tribunal brought by the Libyan politician Abdel-Hakim Belhadj and his family. They were seized in a British-American rendition operation in 2004 and returned to be tortured by Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Tripoli.

The IPT deals with complaints about the conduct of the intelligence services. Belhadj is currently suing the government over its role in his rendition. His lawyers believe the intelligence services eavesdropped on their confidential communications in order to give the government an unfair advantage in court.

Belhadj is not a terrorist, and his court case against the government does not threaten the lives of British people. He is simply someone the government wants to silence, and based on the ISC report, that is enough for his communications with his lawyers to be legally intercepted.

The intelligence services play a crucial role in protecting the United Kingdom. But there is no evidence that mass surveillance of our Internet activity is making us safer. On the contrary there is plenty of evidence that intelligence failures have cost lives. Giving mass surveillance a retrospective legal basis will not change this, whatever the government decides to call it.

Michael Glackin,is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 23, 2015, on page 7.