UK steps up war on whistleblower journalism with new National Security Act
By News Editors // Feb 14, 2024

Under a repressive new act, British nationals could face prison for undermining London’s national security line. Intended to destroy WikiLeaks and others exposing war crimes, the law is a direct threat to critical national security journalism.

(Article by Kit Klarenberg republished from TheGrayzone.com)

It was the afternoon of May 17 2023 and I had just arrived at London’s Luton Airport. I was on my way to the city of my birth to visit my family. Before landing, the pilot instructed all passengers to have their passports ready for inspection immediately upon disembarking the plane. Just then, I noticed a six-strong squad of stone-faced plainclothes British counter-terror officers waited on the tarmac, intensely studying the identification documents of all travelers.

As soon as the cops identified me, I was ordered to accompany them into the airport terminal without explanation. There, I was introduced to two officials whose names I could not learn, who subsequently referred to each other using nondescript callsigns. I was invited to be digitally strip searched, and subjected to an interrogation in which I had no right to silence, no right to refuse to answer questions, and no right to withhold pin numbers for my digital devices or sim cards. If I asserted any rights to privacy, I faced arrest and up to 48 hours in police custody.

I chose to comply. And so it was that over the next five hours, I sat with a couple of anonymous counter-terror cops in an airless, windowless, excruciatingly hot back room. They fingerprinted me, took invasive DNA swabs, and probed every conceivable aspect of my private and professional life, friend and family connections, and educational background. They wanted to know why I write, say and think the things I do, the specifics of how I’m paid for my investigative journalism, and to which bank account.

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I had been detained under Britain’s 2019 Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act, which the UN has branded draconian and repressive. Under its Schedule 3 powers, anyone entering British territory suspected of “hostile activity” on behalf of a foreign power can be detained, interrogated for six hours, and have the contents of their digital devices seized and stored. “Hostile acts” are defined as any behavior deemed threatening to Britain’s “national security” or its “economic well-being.”

More disturbingly, Schedule 3 is suspicionless. Under its terms, “it is immaterial whether a person is aware that activity in which they are or have been engaged is hostile activity, or whether a state for or on behalf of which, or in the interests of which, a hostile act is carried out has instigated, sanctioned, or is otherwise aware of, the carrying out of the act.” It must be quite an elaborate conspiracy when conspirators do not even know they’re conspiring.

It turns out the British state wrongly believed The Grayzone had a relationship with Russia’s notorious FSB security service. They based their assumption not on any evidence, but on our knack for producing factual investigative journalism based on documents passed to this outlet anonymously, via burner email accounts. Such activity is common practice for Western media outlets, rights groups, and much venerated “open source” investigative outfits like the US-government sponsored Bellingcat. If I and the rest of The Grayzone made any mistake, it was in publishing material the US-UK national security state does not want in the public domain.

Now, the British government is taking its war on investigative journalism to a new level through its little-known National Security Act. Under this law, authorities in London have granted themselves the power to surveil, harass, and ultimately imprison any British citizens they wish on similarly suspicionless grounds. Dissidents of every stripe must now worry that everything they do or say could land them in jail for lengthy terms, simply for failing to toe London’s rigid national security line.

Among the top lobbyists for these authoritarian measures is Paul Mason, the celebrity journalist who posed as a leader of the British left until The Grayzone unmasked him as a security state collaborator hellbent on destroying the antiwar movement from within.

Inspired by the US Espionage Act, designed to criminalize whistleblowing

In December 2023, after processing for 18 months through parliamentary procedures, the British National Security Act came into force. Under the aegis of protecting Britain from the threat of espionage and sabotage by hostile actors at home and abroad, the law introduces a number of completely new criminal offenses with severe penalties — and wide-ranging consequences for freedom of speech. Indeed, the law’s terms are so broad, individuals will almost inevitably break the law without wanting to, intending to, or even knowing they have.

Because no one has been prosecuted under the Act to date, its full ramifications remain unclear. However, London’s security and intelligence apparatus now enjoy far-reaching powers to police what can be said about the British government’s activities abroad.

Given the frightening implications of the Act, UK  journalists, press rights groups, and civil liberties organizations should be up in arms. Yet serious criticism of the law was largely absent from mainstream publications throughout various phases of debate in parliament.

Scrutiny of the anti-free press Act has been left almost entirely to independent journalists like Mohamed Elmaazi. Writing for Consortium News in July 2022, Elmaazi noted that it “shares many elements” with Washington’s “draconian 1917 Espionage Act,” which is currently being used to prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

“Whistleblowers, journalists and publishers focusing on national security related matters may be most at risk of being prosecuted,” Elmaazi warned.

British lawmakers explicitly cited WikiLeaks in multiple parliamentary debates on the Act. The motive behind the law, they insisted, was to prevent and deter “unauthorised disclosures” by any individual or organization ever again. Along the way, they repeatedly libeled Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, parroting the the demonstrably false narrative that WikiLeaks’ exposure of Western war crimes threatened innocent lives.

For example, during a June 2022 House of Commons debate, a Conservative parliamentarian asked Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper if she condemned “the WikiLeaks-type mass dumping of information in the public domain.” They branded such activity “hugely irresponsible,” as it “can put lives at risk.” Cooper responded that she “strongly” condemned such activity:

“Some of the examples of such leaks that we have seen put agents’ lives at risk, put vital parts of our national security and intelligence infrastructure at risk and are highly irresponsible. We need safeguards to protect against that kind of damaging impact on our national security.”

In fact, a leaked 2011 Pentagon report concluded there was “no significant ‘strategic impact’” to WikiLeaks’ release of either the Afghanistan War Diary or Iraq War Logs, provided to Assange by then-US soldier Chelsea Manning. During Manning’s ensuing trial, US government lawyers were forced to admit no one had been harmed in any way as a result of her disclosures. The prosecution conceded this finding during Assange’s initial extradition proceedings in February 2020. A central pillar of the British state’s case for the National Security Act is therefore based on lies.

In reality, the British government developed its vendetta against Wikileaks after being repeatedly exposed for its own human rights abuses and killing of innocent civilians.

An ongoing inquiry has been confirming a BBC investigation which revealed that an “SAS squadron killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances on one six-month tour,” then falsified evidence to frame them as armed insurgents.

In February 2011, following the British special forces’ killing of eight unarmed Afghan civilians in a raid, one officer privately wrote to another, “whilst murder and the [SAS] have oft been regular bed-fellows, this is beginning to look bone!” His colleague replied: “I find it depressing that is [sic] has come to this…Ultimately a massive failure of leadership…and when the next Wikileaks occurs then we will be dragged down with them.”

Act specifically intended to criminalize WikiLeaks threatens whistleblowers

During the 2022 House of Commons debate, knighted Conservative MP Sir Robert Buckland led the charge against WikiLeaks. Buckland, who was responsible in his former role as Secretary of State for Justice for “upholding the rule of law and protecting judicial independence,” argued that the National Security Act was a vital tool to prosecute “those such as Julian Assange who dump data in a way that has no regard for the safety of operatives and other affected people.” He later remarked, “none of us [in Parliament] wants to see Julian Assange and his type carry sway here.”

The UK Supreme Court expressed a very different view when, in 2018, it held in a unanimous decision that cables published by WikiLeaks are admissible as evidence in court proceedings.

Another knighted Conservative lawmaker, Sir John Hayes, dismissed suggestions the National Security Act could impact legitimate journalistic activities, arguing that it would only target “a WikiLeaks-type disclosure dressed up as being by a guardian of liberty or some such other nonsense.” Nonetheless, he conceded that while those primarily threatened by the legislation are those “working directly for a foreign power,” its targets could also include those not “ working directly for a foreign power, but…might [emphasis added] be aiding a foreign power or acting indirectly for such a foreign power.”

Similarly speculative, vague language abounds throughout the Act, which criminalizes anyone who “copies,” “retains,” “discloses,” “distributes” or “provides access to” protected information, if the “foreign power condition” is satisfied. “Protected information” is defined as material which is “restricted in any way” or material which “it is reasonable to expect” would be restricted in any way.

Those found guilty of sharing or publishing such information face penalties ranging from stiff fines to life imprisonment. Whether the protected information was leaked to them directly, or they simply came across it by accident, is irrelevant in the view of the British state.

More troubling is the Act’s denial of any “public interest” defense to those who reveal protected information. A handful of British lawmakers present during the June 2022 parliamentary debate expressed anxiety about this caveat, only to be aggressively rebuffed by Security and Borders minister Damian Hinds. Hinds contended that such a provision “would without doubt lead to more unauthorized disclosures.”

He then insisted, “It is impossible for [a whistleblower] to have the full picture of what harm could come from their disclosure. That point can be exploited by people who have malicious intent.”

Two further criminal offenses created by the Act relate to “obtaining material benefits from a foreign intelligence service.” Thus, if a British citizen inside or outside the country “obtains, accepts or agrees to accept, or retains a material benefit” from an overseas government “in circumstances where there is no legitimate basis for that benefit,” they can expect a maximum prison term of 14 years. If they accept a “material benefit” that does not actually materialize, they could still be jailed for as much as a decade.

In an official fact sheet, the British government admits these offenses expressly penalize citizens when it is “difficult to prove” they have “committed an espionage offence.” The government similarly acknowledges that it is “not possible to prove a link between [a] benefit provided and what the person has done — or is expected to do — in return.”

As the document states, “material benefits may include financial benefits, anything which has the potential to result in a financial benefit, and information.” These benefits “may be provided…directly or indirectly.”

This disturbingly broad definition increases the likelihood that British citizens could break the law without intending to. Would reading a post by an anonymous social media account, managed in secret by a “hostile” state, be classified as receiving “information,” and therefore a “material benefit”?

Now British authorities have more power than ever to detain citizens and visitors alike on the grounds of mere suspicion of their danger to vaguely defined national security imperatives. Under the National Security Act, “it is not necessary to identify a particular foreign intelligence service” in order to prosecute British citizens for receiving “material benefits” from “hostile” states.

In other words, should authorities in London merely suspect someone might in some way benefit from possessing “information” provided to them by an unknown “foreign” power, that they may have stumbled across on the internet or been provided one way or another without their express request or consent, they could be branded as a criminal and locked away.

British journalists more compliant to authoritarian measures than ever

The British state’s campaign to muzzle dissenting voices draws on London’s operation of a little-known but devastatingly effective censorship mechanism known as the Defense and Security Media Advisory (DSMA) Committee.

Comprised of representatives of the security and intelligence services, military veterans, high-ranking government officials, press association chiefs, editors and journalists, the committee determines behind closed doors which national security related-issues can be covered by the press, and in what fashion.

On occasion, the Committee issues what are known as “D-notices.” Theoretically, these are voluntary requests for news outlets to not broadcast particular pieces of information, or to omit details deemed harmful to national security. While recipients are not legally obliged to comply, they are fully aware that a refusal could mean prosecution under the Official Secrets Act 1989, especially if the information in question results from an “unauthorised disclosure.” Alternatively, an offending journalist might simply be blacklisted, losing access to on and off-the-record briefings and privileged information from officials, which would then threaten their employment. As a result, examples of outlets ignoring “D-notices” are few and far between.

The DSMA Committee estimates that journalists voluntarily submit 80 to 90 percent of their stories for review when they suspect the body could consider it objectionable, according to journalist Ian Cobain’s 2016 book The History Thieves. The year before Cobain’s book was published, the Committee’s vice chair boasted that, “on average, a journalist consults the secretariat every working day.”

In 2013, when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents showing the UK secretly monitored the communications of foreign diplomats at G20 meetings in London, the Committee promptly subjected the disclosures to a D-notice. With the unusual exception of The Guardian, British media largely heeded the censorship request.

The once-adversarial Guardian kept silent in October 2023, however, when the DSMA dispatched a D-notice to major publications requesting they not mention “Special Forces and other units engaged in security, intelligence and counter-terrorist operations” in Gaza. Discussion of the matter has since largely vanished from the public discourse, and with it, any consideration of whether the SAS — and by extension British state — is actively involved in Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people.

Publicly-available minutes of the Committee’s June 2023 meeting show attendees discussed the National Security Act. Deputy Director of National Security, Tom Murphy, assured assembled press representatives that the legislation “tended towards protecting journalistic freedoms.” Still, he argued that “a public interest defence” could not be part of the law, as it was “inappropriate.”

Murphy then claimed the Act’s “strong emphasis…on countering espionage and [its] explicit emphasis on foreign states meant it was highly unlikely that a genuine whistleblower would be caught in its net.” But a lawyer with British media trade body News Media Association, who was “extensively involved in discussions around the drafting” of the Act, begged to differ.

The lawyer declared that the legislation’s “chilling effect” was “inevitable,” and warned journalists “to exercise caution” going forward. The Committee’s acting vice chair, BBC Director of Editorial Policy and Standards David Jordan, also expressed his concerns that “there remained the real danger of unintended consequences.”

Evidently, even some members of the Committee acknowledged that the Act’s mere existence serves to further gag British journalists, and that they will decline to pursue stories on the security state out of fear that public interest reporting might land them in jail.

In the same meeting, the DSMA’s Deputy Secretary, retired Navy Captain Jon Perkins, noted that during the period of October 2022 to April 2023, material of “extreme sensitivity (in national security terms)” had been “protected from inadvertent disclosure.” This material was “of the most sensitive nature he had seen” since joining the body.

While the “nature” of that “material” is unstated, it hard not to wonder if Perkins was referring to The Grayzone’s series of investigations during precisely the same period on London’s secret, leading role in the Ukraine proxy war. These groundbreaking exposés received enormous international attention, and were accordingly reported on by major media outlets in every corner of the world — except for Britain.

During my interrogation by British counter-terror police, I was probed intensively on my Ukraine-related investigations for this outlet. It also appears that my reporting on one of the more famed – and apparently compromised – media figures among the British left triggered my detention.

Paul Mason suggests The Grayzone be prosecuted for exposing him

In June 2022, The Grayzone exposed British reporter Paul Mason for his collusion with a senior British Foreign Office intelligence officer in a clandestine campaign to brand the British antiwar left as a vehicle for the Russian and Chinese governments. The publication of the material, which was sent to this outlet via anonymous burner accounts, was clearly in the public interest.

Mason has since claimed his emails had been hacked and disseminated by Russia’s Federal Security Service. In December 2023, he authored an op-ed alleging the leaked emails “may [emphasis added] be a mixture of real, edited, altered and faked,” without specifying whether they were, and if so, how.

Mason claimed he was targeted by “a cyber espionage campaign designed to disrupt the functioning of our democracy” and his “ability to function,” by “destroying” his reputation and “sabotaging” his work. Following the British media’s near-universal refusal to report on The Grayzone’s findings, Mason attributed their silence to journalists upholding “the basic principle of not using material that is unlawfully obtained and unverifiable.”

An alternative explanation could be that journalists were bullied by state entities against reporting on the scandal. Mason appears at the very least to have successfully intimidated independent media outlets into remaining silent, in one instance reportedly using the threat of litigation to force a publication to remove an article from the web entirely. Meanwhile, lawyers for self-styled “disinformation expert” Emma Briant, named in Mason’s leaked emails, dispatched menacing cease and desist letters to The Grayzone, MintPress News, and Novara Media.

Mason concluded his op-ed by noting that, “fortunately, thanks to the National Security Act 2023, whose full provisions come into force this month, the state will have better tools to deal with such attacks in future.” He ended with a veiled threat, arguing that under the Act:

“If you damage someone’s reputation, or threaten them, or deliberately lie about them, and you do so intentionally to support an interference operation by a foreign state, you are looking at up to 10 years in jail…These powers remain untested in the courts. I look forward to them being tested.”

Among the many conditions which must be satisfied, however, include that “misrepresentations” have been made and that the foreign power condition is satisfied.

Perhaps British libel laws, and Mason’s misguided belief he has any credibility left to preserve, deterred him from openly calling for The Grayzone’s staff to be prosecuted for factual reporting. But that was clearly his implication.

Fortunately for us, this would require British authorities to apply the National Security Act retrospectively (ex post facto). Such action is prohibited by Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which Britain remains a signatory – at least for now.

Read more at: TheGrayzone.com



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