Snowden showed us we are sleepwalking into Orwellian horror - ex-intelligence officer

The art of espionage has changed – the internet has given the surveillance agencies unprecedented capabilities to snoop at anyone, anywhere. On the other side are the whistleblowers, to whom World Web has given the chance to see what is really going on behind the closed doors of Big Brother. Who is right? Is wrongdoing justified for the sake of security? Today we put these questions to the former intelligence officer, Michael Smith.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:And our guest today is Michael Smith, the former British military intelligence officer and author. So, as an intelligence insider, what is your take on whistleblowers that have recently been in the spotlight, such as Assange, Manning, Snowden – do they deserve scorn or praise?

Michael Smith: I think there’s a mix of the two, really. I think the big one, of course, has been Edward Snowden and the information he provided was very important, because we didn’t know the extent of government surveillance of our emails, our telephone calls. Indeed in this country a couple of years ago the government tried to pass a bill through Parliament called the “Data Communications Bill” which would have allowed them to force communication suppliers, providers, to provide details of the emails, telephone calls and such like. MPs threw that out; the Parliamentarians threw that out, and said “we don’t want it”.MPs, ministers and the prime minister have gone to the parliament and said “we need this bill” when actually they had all the data already. They were lying to parliament, so this is a major issue. More importantly, of course, there’s this whole surveillance issue and how people feel about the government prying on everything you do, absolutely everything now.

SS: Also we’ve seen in the documents the NSA has given money to GCHQ – isn’t that a compromise of national interests and security, when an intelligence service receives money from a foreign power?

MS: There’s always been a link, since the Second World War, between NSA and GCHQ and personally I don’t see an issue with that because obviously Britain and America have been very close allies. Britain doesn’t have the money, obviously, that America has to throw at these massive surveillance programs and interception of foreign communications. I think there has to be a distinct difference between interception of foreign governments communications, foreign military communication and, of course, for Britain and America, that as long as you and I have been alive, that’s we’ve been watching the Russians and you guys have been watching us – that’s a normal part of international relations and I don’t see that this is a major problem now. I think people understand that goes on. It’s when they are carrying out surveillance of their own societies and of course was something that went on extensively during the Cold War in the Eastern Block and we railed against it – and now we find we’re doing it ourselves.

SS: When we talk about Snowden revelations as far as British or American society goes…I mean the files reveal surveillance on a level that is unprecedented – is that scale of spying really necessary? I mean, essentially considering something like the Boston Marathon Bombings, is it even useful?

MS: Well this is a big question, isn’t it? I mean some of the stuff that the Americans have been doing… Mainway for example, which is the collection of domestic data, including telephone calls, was going on before 9\11, so you have to question it’s as effective as they claim is, you have to question whether it is as important as they claim it is. Of course, for all our countries, for Britain, America, Russia, China – every one of those countries has problems with Al-Qaeda terrorists and we have to deal with terrorists, and we all had terrorist attacks at various times. That’s the major threat and of course the government has the responsibility to have a check on it, but actually, if you look at Al-Qaeda and its capabilities in recent years – they have diminished very, very heavily, and it is arguable that the threat from Al-Qaeda terrorism is much lower now than it ever was, and it is highly questionable in my view whether you need such a pervasive surveillance system. I’m not making a judgment, I’m just saying that these questions have to be asked and in particular, of course, the issue here and issue in America is that, as it stands, these surveillance operations appear to be illegal under our laws, so why is the government pursuing them? And why our ministers are signing them away, saying “it’s ok because I’ve signed it” – and that does makes it legal in America if the president signs it. But it’s still highly questionable, it’s not been passed by either Congress or Parliament in Britain and I think that there are huge question marks over this and it shouldn’t be happening in the way it’s happening.

SS:I couldn’t agree with you more, because it’s all passing under the blanket of war against terror and I don’t see how Snowden’s revelations have hurt counter-terrorism work in Britain or in the US, right? He has just said to the world that we are all being listened to.

MS: To be candid, I don’t think that Snowden’s revelations, as they’ve appeared in the Guardian or in the Washington Post, or the New York Times or Der Spiegel – I don’t think they’ve had caused any damage to security, and I think there were some minor things about the use of sources which had some revelatory vacuum, but frankly the damage was done not when the Guardian published its stories about Edward Snowden’s leaks and NSA and GCHQ surveillance. The damage was done when Edward Snowden flew into Hong-Kong international airport and the Chinese got details of how they’ve been doing what they’ve did, so that’s the damage to national security for Britain and America. But over the years there has always been these national security scandals and the security services, the intelligence services recover, every country has had its traitor.

SS:You’ve used the word “traitor” – do you see Snowden as a traitor?

MS: No, I don’t see Snowden as a traitor. Actually, I see him as a naïve young man, who’s spraying information all over the place when really what he needed to do was bring the information that mattered. We’ve seen large amounts of information, slowly seep out into the public consciousness – and very slowly over here, much quicker in America – but some of the Guardian’s revelations have been really uninteresting, boring. Some of them have been spectacular – only recently they revealed some, like 50 or 60 of exposés from the Snowden leaks that GCHQ handed over the data for every single British mobile phone, IDs, email identity to the Americans. That sort of information is really damaging, that sort of information is having an impact in Britain. Initially the impact was very light, people sort of thought “Well, the intelligence services should be looking for Al-Qaeda terrorists”, but as the extent of the whole thing has come out over here, people are beginning to question it much more than they had previously. I think in the situation where MPs had actually rejected the bill that sought to provide this sort of information, when the GCHQ was already providing this information to ministers, to the prime minister, I think that’s a disgraceful duplicity. It’s just the wrong to treat the British people, it’s the wrong way to treat MPs and Parliament. We rest here on this idea that we live in a democratic society, if you abuse the instruments of democratic power, then you aren’t actually living in a democratic power anymore – you’re living in…in what we’re increasingly becoming. We’re sleepwalking towards a dystopian society here, because it’s not just these telephone calls, these emails that are intercepted. If you walk down the street, cameras follow you, if you drive along main roads your car is registered because the cameras pick up your registration plate, your sat-nav can be traced, your mobile phone can be traced, your use of data-cards can be traced – all of this can be traced. Just a few computer algorithms, away from the society where a bureaucrat could type in my name, or anyone’s name and get a whole file on us, and actually be told precisely where we are at any moment – that’s the sort of society that George Orwell wrote about in “1984”, that no British citizen wants to live in. I don’t think any citizen in the world really wants to live in that sort of society.

SS:Now, you wrote the story about US and UK intelligence community providing false information to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Was it incompetence, genuine mistake, complicity with the governments? What would you conclude?

MS: The problem with British intelligence in that area was that it got too close with the government in terms of what government wanted as the end result, rather than providing the intelligence that was required, so it provided the Blair government with the information it felt it needed to justify the war, when actually that information was probably not as strong as the government wanted it. The government then ramped it up even further – by writing an introduction to the intelligence. They published the intelligence in the dossier and they put in an introduction which distorted the intelligence that was in the dossier, and then they briefed out. Alastair Campbell, who was Mr. Blair’s spin-doctor, briefed out to the newspapers an even more ramped-up version of the intelligence. So, the intelligence started off reasonably well and if it had been kept within proper analysis, if it was reported with the proper caveats it would not have caused the damage it did. Unfortunately it was distorted further up the line by the politicians, by Alastair Campbell, the political spin-master for Tony Blair.

SS: I see two problems here – first of all in light of fixing the intelligence about Iraq, how can people in the US and UK trust their intelligence services at all? And, what about the governments, how do they know they are not being misled by the secret services as well?

MS: Well, I think that in America the CIA was bypassed really by the Pentagon, and you have to remember the Pentagon was run at the time by Donald Rumsfeld who was very-very hardline, a very right-wing Defense Secretary determined to use 9\11 to attack Iraq from the very start, determined to prove that Iraq was a major threat when actually it wasn’t a major threat. We do have this problem which didn’t just occur with Iraq of course, it has occurred with Libya as well, where countries which weren’t major threats we’ve got involved in wars in, which we didn’t need to get involved at all. The intelligence was fixed in America within the Pentagon and the CIA reacted against that and tried to fight against it. There is some confusion over the detail there because the CIA thought that MI6 got some stuff wrong when actually they got some stuff right; MI6 relied too heavily, because of the political pressure from above, on sources which did not have the authority that they were given by MI6.

SS: Who exactly do you mean?

MS: Well, when you start putting pressure on people for information, then all sorts of things start happening – you put stress on the system. If you got an agent who’s paid money and you say “Look, we need information urgently” he then knows that he can get money for that information and so he comes up with any information he can – and it’s not necessarily in his area of expertise. He will have sub-agents, people who work for him, who also work for money – they will be under pressure to come out with the information and the attraction for getting money for information means that intelligence is not going to be of the same standard that you would normally get from simple collection. Some of the stuff on what the Iraqis were doing was nonsense and some stuff on what the Iraqis were doing was true. So it brought the intelligence services into disrepute in this country, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

SS: We’ve just talked about secret services in general – they seem to exist in a very close and unaccountable world. There is no space there for transparency, right? It doesn’t imply transparency, so how can they be kept in check?

MS: Well, it’s a good question and before the Snowden revelations I would have said that you need Parliamentary committees to look at them and you need sound, careful oversight from ministers. But the Intelligence and Security Committee made itself look like a lapdog here, we certainly had a big to-do about the intelligence service chiefs appearing before the Intelligence and Security Committee, and all they did was come out with answers to predetermined questions, so they’ve been told what questions are going to be asked and they answered them and they grandstanded basically. They used the opportunity to say “all this information being published in the Guardian is disgraceful and its causing a major threat to national security.” Over time these committees tend to go native, they tend to start feeling part of the system themselves, being protective of the intelligence and security services rather than forever asking questions. I am a journalist, you’re a journalist – my belief is that as a journalist your job is to throw stones and sometimes you might be throwing stones at someone who is doing nothing wrong, but you should be throwing stones, all the time, asking questions all the time. You shouldn’t be saying “yes, this is wonderful and this is lovely and everything is fine” – because it isn’t.

SS: Michael, in a nutshell – what would you say is the main difference between the way secret services operated in your days and now?

MS: I think they have much more capability technologically, the ability to do things, the ability to find information out is immense – you have to remember we were dealing with the IRA, so we were dealing with terrorists on a routine basis at the time there was a major campaign going on in this country. We were dealing with the PLO abroad and with foreign countries and we managed to produce an awful lot of intelligence. The guys now have an amazing amount of ways of producing intelligence, I don’t think they need to go into it in quite extensive detail that they are under these current programs exposed by Edward Snowden.

SS: Has time diluted intelligence ethics anyway? Has technology help that happened? Was anything off-limits before that isn’t now – and I mean not technically, but ethically.

MS: Ethically domestic surveillance was completely off limits – it isn’t now. And forgive me if I’m sort of harping on about this but this is to me is a major problem. I remember in my time we were operating obviously against your country, and one of the things that we always said was that Russia and the Eastern Bloc was a surveillance society where people just couldn’t go about their business without government finding all about what they were doing. Now, we find we are stuck in that, and that’s a major difference. I think technologically there is much more capability obviously, but I remember listening in to East-German communications and British army officer said “Don’t you feel that you are snooping on these people” – and that was listening to East Germans, not listening to Brits! So, that’s a major difference here.

SS: Your book is called “The Real James Bonds”. Is there a place for people like James Bond in modern intelligence or is it now a desk job reading emails?

MS: I think its overstated when people say “Oh there’s no role for James Bond” - that’s not the case, there will always be a frontline role for intelligence officers. It’s true that there are an awful lot of intelligence officers working in offices either in London for us, or in foreign capitals. That was always the case, actually. That’s no different from what it was in the past, but there will always be the guys at the frontline.

SS: One minute left – where is the main battlefield between spies now? Has industrial espionage become more important than the military one? I’m going to ask you to answer shortly.

MS: Al-Qaeda terrorism will remain at the frontline, but there will always be intelligence rivalries. Russia, America and Britain will always see each other as threats, Britain and America seeing Russia as a threat and the other way around. Similarly - China and Russia, China and America, China and Britain will be targeting each other. Obviously, other countries get involved, but they use all the main threats still.

SS: Michael, thank you so much for this very interesting insight on intelligence services and how it operates. That's all we have for today, we’ve been talking to Michael Smith, historian and former British intelligence officer. I will see you in the next edition of Sophie&Co.