‘Old school snooping needed amid Europe high security alert’

Annie Machon
Annie Machon is a former intel­li­gence officer for MI5, the UK Secur­ity Ser­vice, who resigned in the late 1990s to blow the whistle on the spies’ incom­pet­ence and crimes with her ex-partner, David Shayler. Draw­ing on her var­ied exper­i­ences, she is now a pub­lic speaker, writer, media pun­dit, inter­na­tional tour and event organ­iser, polit­ical cam­paigner, and PR con­sult­ant. She is also now the Dir­ector of LEAP, Europe. She has a rare per­spect­ive both on the inner work­ings of gov­ern­ments, intel­li­gence agen­cies and the media, as well as the wider implic­a­tions for the need for increased open­ness and account­ab­il­ity in both pub­lic and private sectors.
© Peter Nicholls
Spy agencies shouldn’t rely on electronic surveillance alone and need to go back to old techniques they moved away from after 9/11, including sources and agents, to get preemptive intelligence before an attack occurs, says former MI5 agent Annie Machon.

RT: A railway station in Belgium was evacuated because of what happened to be a loudspeaker in a bag. Railway officials said there's a psychosis among the people now, would you agree? How scared are people in Europe at this point?

Annie Machon: I think certainly in Brussels there’s a heightened tension, particularly after the Paris attacks and Brussels went through a Level 4 security lockdown when it became pretty much a ghost town. However, I think there’s a fine line to be walked here which is to be scared or to just to be aware.  And I think actually today was a good sign because people are aware that they need to be vigilant, they need to look out for possible bombs on the public transport… And I think it is a good sign because it helps the security forces, particularly the police to take action when necessary.

It reminds me very strongly of living in London in the 1990s at the height of the provisional IRA bombing campaign on the UK Mainland where bombs did go off, sure, but mainly every week there was some sort of security threat. Someone called in and said there is a suspicious package on the tube, on the underground, or something like that. And I think it just brings people together to a certain extent in a sort of ‘blitz spirit’ where people are aware that their environment might be endangered but they are not going to panic about that.  

Ricardo Baretzky, President from European Centre for Information Policy and Security told RT: “The Security forces across Europe are very much aware of what is happening at the moment. And I think the last Paris attack has shaken people a little bit up. What we have to pay attention to is: the cross-sharing of data has still to improve a lot. And the present situation with regard to public safety has to be taken into account - how it is going to be happening and the way they are going to go forward in combating terrorism in Europe”.

RT: Austria and Italy have warned of possible terror attacks this festive season, it looks they possess some information about that. Does it mean they've got the situation under control?

AM: I think, certainly, that there are indications of chatter. I think that information came from an allegedly friendly intelligence agency, I am betting on the NSA picking up chatter on the internet. However, there was an interesting report today from the anonymous Hacktivist group which said that they had uncovered, and foiled an ISIS attack in Italy. Perhaps, these two stories are linked, I am not sure. But certainly people are going to be very vigilant and concerned that things might happen in a couple of cities over the festive period, it would be an ideal time for ISIS to try and strike.

© Yves Herman

RT: How wise are these warnings by European officials? Wouldn't it fuel even more panic among the citizens?

AM: I think generalized warnings based just on the chatter or from friendly agencies can have a negative effect. Going back to the Level 4 security alert that gripped Brussels a few weeks ago, if people know that there is a specific intelligence saying that something might happen, people will take the measures necessary and be very careful about what they do and accept a security crackdown. If we have our politicians though saying generally: “ISIS is going to strike at any time and its terrible and we all could be terribly afraid,” then it is a bit like the old story of Peter and the Wolf where we stop being afraid on the daily basis of the wolf. And that is not a bad thing – we have to have a healthy skepticism as well. Let’s not forget that the chance of dying in any sort of terrorist attack are infinitesimally small across the West.

RT: How flawless is the European security now? Are the cities ready to prevent another attack?

AM: … Over the last couple of years we have seen a number of lone-wolf attacks and most of those people were already on watch lists. But because the spies have their resources spread too thin because they are hovering up all of our information through electronic surveillance, they are not targeting the known suspects properly in a way they should. I hope that they’ve caught up now and they are beginning to deploy a wider range of investigatory techniques, including human intelligence, sources and agents that can be run into these groups and against individuals of note in order to get preemptive intelligence before an attack occurs and stop the attack happening. That’s always been how the intelligence works best and something the intelligence agencies across the world need to go back to because they moved away from it after 9/11 and became very reliant on electronic surveillance solely. And I think it is dangerous part to go down for all of us.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.