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Former British intelligence whistleblower Annie Machon: Europeans angry at spying revelations, but laws protect spy agencies from accountability

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

As NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden continues to leak documents shedding light on spying conducted by the U.S. and its allies, today we’ll look at the international ramifications of his actions.

Now joining us to talk about the latest news is Annie Machon. She was an intelligence officer for the U.K.’s MI5 in the 1990s, but she left after blowing the whistle on incompetence and crimes of the British spy agencies. She’s now a writer, media commentator, political campaigner, and international public speaker on a variety of intelligence-related issues. She’s also the director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, in Europe.

Thank you so much for joining us, Annie.

ANNIE MACHON, FMR. MI5 INTELLIGENCE OFFICER: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

NOOR: So, Annie, can you give us your reaction to Edward Snowden and his ongoing leaks in light of your own personal experiences as a whistleblower?

MACHON: Well, obviously I’ve been riveted by what he’s had to say and the content of his disclosures. But also it brought back a number of personal memories for me, because in the 1990s I worked as an intelligence officer for MI5 and resigned with my then partner and colleague David Shayler to blow the whistle on an awful series of crimes of the U.K. spy agencies.

And it’s interesting looking at the Snowden story, because he’s the only whistleblower I’ve ever seen, apart from us, to preemptively go on the run in order to remain at liberty to argue his corner in order to keep the stories coming out, because he feels they’re important to be discussed in an intelligent manner. So for us it’s a strange thing to watch. You know, he fled to Hong Kong. He’s now in Moscow. His liberty is at stake.

In our case, we had to flee to the Netherlands and then on to France in the summer of 1997 with MI5 and at MI6 and the secret police of the U.K. hot on our trail. And they wanted to try and arrest us and put us on trial for breach of the Official Secrets Act as if we were the criminals, not the people who were actually committing the crimes within the intelligence agencies.

NOOR: And you’re joining us from Europe. Can you talk about what kind of reaction his revelations have had? You know, he’s revealed the U.S. relationship with spying in England, as well as countries like Germany and elsewhere.

MACHON: Well, it’s been quite riveting, because, of course, there has been a very close relationship particularly between the U.K. intelligence agencies, the spying post, the listening post called GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and the NSA over the decades. So I think most people sort of assumed that sort of thing went on, but they didn’t know for sure. And suddenly Snowden has confirmed not only that it is going on, but the sheer scale that they can now spy on us. We’re looking at something with the technical capability of the internet. They can read everything that we say, everything that we write, everything that we ingest, everything we think. So what we’re looking at is quite a dystopian sort of surveillance global state, which is what the U.S. is now building.

So the indignation across Europe, particularly the fact that Snowden has revealed that E.U. partners were spied on in order for the U.S. to get advantage in trade negotiations and political negotiations, have certainly produced quite a lot of anger over here. And it’s also interesting as well, because certainly countries like Germany and France have very strong constitutions to protect basic civil liberties and basic human rights, including the right to privacy. And Germany particularly of all countries, with its history of the Gestapo and the Stasi, the secret police in East Germany, has a very, very strong Constitution to protect individuals’ privacy and freedom to communicate privately. And suddenly we’re seeing that that doesn’t exist anymore, because the NSA has produced this global surveillance state.

So there’s been a lot of anger over here and a lot of pushback. And, of course, it’s now jeopardizing certain trade talks. It’s jeopardizing certain other internet sort of agreements and things like that. I mean, for example, last year we had this thing they were trying to push through called ACTA, the Anti-Copyright Trade Agreement, which was enforced on Europe by the entertainment industry in the U.S., and that got squashed because there was massive revulsion and there were sort of demonstrations trying to get rid of it in Europe. And then they tried to push it back into the European legislation. And now, of course, with issues of Tempora, which is the U.K. and the U.S. picking up all the information transatlantically, and PRISM, where they can spy on everything we’re doing on social media, what we’re looking at is a huge pushback against U.S. internet legal hegemony.

NOOR: And it hasn’t been just the U.S. conducting this surveillance. Is that correct?

MACHON: Absolutely. I mean, the U.K. has definitely been playing a major role in this too. The Tempora program that Edward Snowden revealed shows that GCHQ can hook into all transatlantic fiber-optic cables between the the U.S. and Europe. So they can pick up everything. And this is done illegally under U.K. law, as far as I can see, because there are supposed to be very strict regulations about what they can intercept. And even if you’re doing a domestic phone call or a domestic email, you know, U.K.-to-U.K. address, often these things take whatever route is available, which can be international. So what we’re looking at now is the ability to spy on everybody everywhere. So this is a real problem, I think, for our democracies.

And there is no meaningful oversight in the U.K. We have a series of very archaic laws that are designed to ensure that if someone is a real threat to national security, like a terrorist or whatever, then if you want to investigate them, you get a politically approved warrant in order to invasively investigate the communications of that person. What we’re looking at now is just hoovering up everyone’s information. It’s data mining on a massive scale. So the new technology has allowed people, has allowed the spies to do this. And we are unaware of this. And they’re trying to bend the old laws to fit the modern technological capability.

And this is a problem for everybody. People try and say, well, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. It’s not about that. One, we have a basic right to privacy enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. And two, the idea of you’ve done nothing wrong can shift. The goalposts can shift. And they have shifted over the past, so that, you know, today you might be out on the streets waving a placard because you’re objecting to some political action or to some environmental issue or something. Tomorrow, if the laws change–and the governments can change the laws–suddenly tomorrow you might be deemed to be a domestic extremist or a terrorist or whatever because you are objecting and protesting. So the old adage, you know, you’re doing nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear, is just bogus.

NOOR: So some of Snowden’s critics have attacked him for releasing how the U.S. collects data internationally, saying that this jeopardizes national security. What’s your response to those claims?

MACHON: I think anyone involved in things like terrorism or money laundering or organized crime or pedophilia or whatever is going to be very conscious of the fact that they can be tracked and surveilled using electronic communications anyway. They will have already taken steps to protect themselves. So applying this sort of law as a sort of massive scoop to hoover up everybody’s information actually just gets the information of those who are innocent, who are just going about their daily lives.

And of course the U.S. government is going to say he’s a traitor, he did this for whatever reason. But I think he’s made it very plain in what he has stated publicly, which is not much, but he has stated publicly that he believes in the way of life, the U.S. Constitution, such as it is now. He believes that it’s worth fighting for. In fact, he’s even said it’s worth dying for. So the old ideas of basic human rights, of basic privacy, of the freedom to communicate with our friends, with our family, with our contacts without necessarily having Big Brother looking over our shoulders is fundamental to a free and open democracy. And that’s what he’s saying he’s trying to protect. And I certainly agree with what he’s saying. And, of course, the mainstream media, of course the propaganda arm of the government is going to say he’s a traitor or spy or whatever. This is what happens to every whistleblower who comes out. Every time a whistleblower exposes the criminality of the state, they will be deemed to be the criminal. They will be smeared by the government. And we see this time and time and time again.

NOOR: Now, lawsuits have been filed in the U.S. and in England this week challenging aspects of this surveillance. Can you talk about the prospects of getting a measure of accountability from these surveillance agencies?

MACHON: Well, in the U.K. I think it’s highly unlikely. Everything is [incompr.] U.K. intelligence agencies are protected behind a whole barrage of laws, not least the Official Secrets Act 1989. And even our foreign secretary has gone on the record saying, dismissing what Snowden said, saying of course the intelligence agencies have to obey the law.

And I mentioned before, the law ten, 15, 20, 25 years ago to govern this sort of activity, and of course the tech has–the technology has exponentially expanded since that time, and yet it’s being–the laws are being elastically extended to cover the new technological capabilities. There is very little likelihood that we will get open justice in the U.K. In the U.S., even 10, 15 years ago, one might have had more hope that there would be open justice. However, since the Patriot Act came into force, I think it’s unlikely that we will ever get into any real meaningful oversight of the spies thereto. It’s almost like the FISA court, which covers the sort of intelligence intercepts laws, has become a sort of secret equivalent of the Supreme Court. So if the Supreme Court is trying to investigate something, there will just be complete cover-up of what the intelligence agencies do, and it’ll go to the FISA court.

NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.

MACHON: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Annie Machon was an intelligence officer for the UK's MI5 in the 1990s, but she left after blowing the whistle on the incompetence and crimes of the British spy agencies. She is now a writer, media commentator, political campaigner, and international public speaker on a variety of intelligence-related issues. She is also the Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) in Europe.