Irresistible: Espionage, dissent and NGOs

(Photo: David von Blohn / Demotix)

(Photo: David von Blohn / Demotix)

Edward Snowden’s revelations on the voracious appetite of spying on all and sundry by the National Security Agency and allied agencies should not give pause for too much comment, other than to affirm a general premise: Activists and non-government groups are to be feared.  Non-profits are seen as potential threats, though what to is sometimes unclear.  Any government worth its salt should be afraid of its citizens – the latter must make the former accountable; the former must hold to the contractual bargain with citizens. 

Last week, Snowden revealed to members of the Council of Europe via videolink from Moscow that such groups as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were high on the list of surveillance targets.  “The NSA has specifically targeted either leaders or staff members in a number of civil and non-governmental organisations… including domestically within the borders of the United States.”  He also delved further into such data mining programs as XKeyscore, a technology representing “the most significant new threat to civil liberties in modern times.”  Analysts, using the program, can select the metadata of an individual, and find content, “without judicial approval or prior review.”

Dinah PoKempner, general counsel at Human Rights Watch, responded that, if true, it was “indicative of the overreach that US law allows to security agencies.”  Such conduct “would again show why the US needs to overhaul its system of indiscriminate surveillance.” Indeed, it would fly in the face of a long held, if somewhat erroneous belief, that the US State Department actually treasures its human rights defenders, seeing them as the vanguard of reform rather than a cabal of troublesome dissent.  Human rights defenders in allied countries, for instance, pose a different set of problems.

A cursory glance at the guidelines of the US State Department on supporting human rights reveals how, “Protecting and supporting human rights defenders is a key priority of US foreign policy…. The Department’s objective is to enable human rights defenders to promote and defend human rights without hindrance or undue restriction and free from fear of retribution against them or their families.”  Stirring stuff.  There is even a reference to US support for the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by consensus of the General Assembly in 1998.  Various strategies and techniques of encouragement are then discussed.

The guidelines even set out who human rights defenders are – those who “working alone or in groups, who non-violently advocate for the promotion and protection of universally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Evidently, these guidelines did not quite cross the tables of those involved in the surveillance complex.  This may well be partly due to bureaucratic bungling – the irresistible growth of the espionage complex, but it may just as well be seen as consistent: after all, the NSA watches, and the State Department disposes.  The two occasionally seem to meet in fumbling circumstances.

The NSA is far from the only organisation engaged in the business of spying on activist groups and NGOs. A November 2013 report by Centre for Corporate Policy, a Washington, D.C. think tank, titled Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations, shows that such a process is addictive and systematic across centres of power.  Aversion to dissent is endemic, and it attracts birds of a feather in both government and corporate circles.  According to the report, the precondition for such espionage is that the non-profit organisation in question “impairs or at least threatens a company’s assets or image sufficiently.”  The targets are varied, including “environmental, antiwar, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups.”

The report looks at the antics of numerous entities hungry for data on their threatening quarry.  It might be the Society of Toxicology and Information Associates against animal rights activists.  It might be Stratfor and Coca-Cola against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  Or BAE against Campaign Against the Arms Trade.

The gold target here seems to be Greenpeace, object of keen interest by the private security firm Beckett Brown International (BBI), retained by Dow Chemical, the world’s largest chlorine producer.  The world’s largest operator of nuclear power plants, Électricité de France, has also hired a set of private intelligence firms to keep an eye on the activities of the organisation, be it through good old hacking or conventional spying.  In November 2011, EDF was actually fined €1.5 million for “industrial espionage”, and two of its executives jailed.

Activities include infiltration, cultivation, deception.  Trash bins are searched.  Offices are cased, phone records of activists collected, confidential meetings breached.  Names are blackened; the severity of disasters – environmental, notably – are minimised.  According to Russell Corn, the managing director of Diligence, a corporate intelligence agency, anywhere up to 25 per cent of an activist camp will be “taking the corporate shilling” (New Statesman, Aug 7, 2008).  An inflated figure, perhaps, but worth keeping in mind.

Such behaviour illustrates all too well that there is a conflict of an international, global dimension between established centres of corporate and government power against those who would reform, or at the very least challenge, them.  When convenient, corporate and government interests will collude and find accord. There is even an argument to be made that their functions and interests have become, at points, indistinguishable.

Nothing illustrates this better than the privatisation phenomenon of intelligence activities, where traditional espionage is outsourced and redeployed with contracting agencies and their employees.  The private investigative firm Hackluyt, retained by BP and Shell, has a direct line to MI6.  Some irony, then, that Snowden was working for one such agency when he acquired his invaluable treasure trove of surveillance activities.

This article was posted on 16 April 2014 at

Putin promises discrimination free Olympics – should you believe him?

Press briefing after the talks between Putin and Merkel - Berlin

The United Nations got together yesterday to adopt a resolution calling for a world truce during the Winter Olympics kicking off in Sochi, Russia in exactly three months. This has become a tradition over the past 20 years — a symbolic gesture in the months leading up to the games. For the first time, however, it called upon the host country to “promote social inclusion without discrimination of any kind.”

Obviously a thinly veiled reference to the overtly anti-LGBT legislation Russia passed back in June. The vaguely worded ban on “gay propaganda” aimed at minors has sparked outrage across the world, with some activists calling for a boycott of the games.

But have no fear — Sochi Games chief Dmitry Chernyshenko, present at the UN, reminded us all that President Putin has repeated “three times” that there will be “no discrimination”.


While you will forgive me for reserving my judgment on that particular guarantee for now, it is worth noting what was not mentioned in the resolution and what we were not given any assurance about. The right to freedom expression — or rather lack thereof — stands at the core of this issue. Since the law came into power, LGBT protesters have been attacked and arrested. Authorities have warned that spectators and athletes can be fined for “gay propaganda”, like displaying rainbow flags.

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems to fly in the face of the the universal human right to freedom of expression and assembly. But maybe it was simply an oversight, and this is next on the agenda. In which case, I’ve got a few suggestions on where to start.

For one, there are currently 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists under arrest in Russia. They were staging a peaceful protest by a Gazprom oil rig on September 18, when their ship was boarded by Russian security forces. They are currently detained in a prison in St Petersburg. Initially held on piracy charges with a potential 15 year sentence, they have now been downgraded to hooliganism. This could still mean up to seven year in jail. Again, that’s for a peaceful protest.

Then there’s the case of the TV crew from the Norway’s Olympic broadcaster TV2. While filming a recent report in Sochi, they were taken into custody, interrogated, harassed and denied contact with the Norwegian embassy. The journalists were also told that they were now ‘blacklisted’. Not very encouraging to hear if you’re a critical foreign reporter heading to Sochi in February, never mind a member Russia’s perpetually repressed independent press.

And of course, you can’t talk about freedom of expression in Russia without mentioning Pussy Riot. Two members of the feminist punk group have been in prison since February 2012. The latest news was the apparent disappearance of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova as she was moved between prisons. This came after the Guardian published an open letter where she detailed the horrible conditions they were being held under. It soon emerged that she might be, like in some sort of Soviet nightmare, sent to Siberia.

One of the fundamental principles of the Olympics deals with “preserving human dignity”, and there is no doubt that freedom of expression is a pretty big part of that. Rather than listening to Putin’s empty promises, we should be measuring up Russia’s commitment to “human dignity” where it counts.

This article was originally posted on 7 Nov 2013 at

Putin’s cold calculation on Arctic drilling

Press briefing after the talks between Putin and Merkel - BerlinThe Arctic Sunrise scandal began on 18 September, when Greenpeace activists reached Russia’s state gas giant Gazprom oil rig Prirazlomnaya. The Arctic Sunrise crew consisted of 28 activists from 18 different countries, including New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Russia, France, Italy, Canada and Argentina, and two journalists – Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov and British videographer Kieron Bryan. Captain Peter Willcox was skipper of Greenpeace’s legendary “Rainbow Warrior” – a ship on which Greenpeace activists protested against testing nuclear weapons in late 1980s.

The activists lowered dinghies trying to disembark to the oil rig to hang out a banner, criticising petroleum production in the Arctic, but were seized by Russian frontier guards, “Arctic Sunrise” towed to Murmansk and its crew members arrested.

All thirty Greenpeace activists from “Arctic Sunrise” ship have face charges of piracy in Russian city of Murmansk – a criminal article which stipulates up to 15 years in jail.

The activists deny the charges and have been refusing to give evidence since their very arrest.

Vladimir Putin commented:

“I do not know the details of what happened, but they are definitely not pirates. But formally they tried to siege the rig, and our law enforcement authorities, our frontier guards  didn’t know, who was trying to seize this rig under the name of Greenpeace – in the context of events in Kenya this could be anything,”

One could not perceive Russian president’s words unambiguously. On the one hand, he made it clear Greenpeace activists were not pirates, and his words have always been an indirect order for Russian courts. On the other hand, he did actually compare Greenpeace with terrorists.

Gennady Lyubin , executive director of Gazprom Schelf Neft – the owner of Prirazlomnaya –insists that Greenpeace members’ actions could have led to “unpredictable and even tragical consequences” and says that Prirazlomnaya is absolutely safe.

Russian journalists have stood up for their colleague Denis Sinyakov and his colleagues from Greenpeace.

They held pickets near Russian Investigative Committee headquarters in Moscow. Leading online media illustrated their articles with black squares instead of photographs.

Greenpeace, famous for its remarkable, yet always peaceful protests against threats to nature, have noted that “Arctic Sunrise” crew didn’t do any harm to anyone, nor did it try to take possessions.

What was happening should have been quite obvious for Russian authorities, including Vladimir Putin; it’s not the first time Greenpeace has protested against Gazprom’s petroleum production in the Arctic.

Early in September 20 Greenpeace activists wearing polar bear costumes blocked the entrance of Gazprom’s headquarters in Moscow. In late August six mountain climbers, including Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo, climbed onto the Prirazlomnaya and managed to stay on its sheer wall for 15 hours. The activists said the rig’s workers poured cold water on them and threw metal objects at them.

That time they managed to avoid criminal prosecution.

Greenpeace activists also disrupted a football game between Swiss club Bazel and Gazprom-sponsored Schalke-04 for about five minutes by unfurling a gigantic banner saying “Gazprom. Don’t foul the Arctic”.

The Greenpeace Save the Arctic campaign was launched in June 2013. According to the the petition against offshore drilling in the has already been signed by almost four million people.

Has “Arctic Sunrise” crew manage to bring more world’s attention to the issue?

It seems Vladimir Putin and his team – intentionally or not – managed to change the subject from the threatened Arctic ecology to Russia’s repressive attitude towards any kinds of civil activism. The paradox is that Greenpeace has became a part of this focus shifting, now having to raise the alarm more as human rights advocates than ecologists.

However, the important question is whether such focus shifting is accidental.

Vladimir Putin is used to his reputation  as someone who doesn’t exactly stick to the letter of the European Convention on Human Rights. But never has he shown the signs of being ready to give up any of his and his fellow oligarchs’ commercial interests. The Arctic Sunrise case is another example.

This article was originally published on 9 Oct 2013 at

Plane evasion

chris_ames_140x140jpgIt’s not just Jack Straw who’s playing fast and loose with freedom of information, says Chris Ames. Heathrow campaigners are finding it impossible to get a straight answer from the Department for Transport (more…)