How GCHQ tracks web users’ online identities

The Intercept reports: There was a simple aim at the heart of the top-secret program: Record the website browsing habits of “every visible user on the Internet.”

Before long, billions of digital records about ordinary people’s online activities were being stored every day. Among them were details cataloging visits to porn, social media and news websites, search engines, chat forums, and blogs.

The mass surveillance operation — code-named KARMA POLICE — was launched by British spies about seven years ago without any public debate or scrutiny. It was just one part of a giant global Internet spying apparatus built by the United Kingdom’s electronic eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ.

The revelations about the scope of the British agency’s surveillance are contained in documents obtained by The Intercept from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Previous reports based on the leaked files have exposed how GCHQ taps into Internet cables to monitor communications on a vast scale, but many details about what happens to the data after it has been vacuumed up have remained unclear.[Continue reading…]


Student accused of being a terrorist for reading book on terrorism

The Guardian reports: A postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University had spotted him reading a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in the college library.

Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.

His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it had raised “too many red flags” .

“I could not believe it. I was reading an academic textbook and minding my own business. At first I thought I’d just laugh it off as a joke,” said Farooq, who then instructed a lawyer to help him challenge and rebut the claims. [Continue reading…]


Britain’s thought police

Catherine Bennett writes: From Monday, universities must comply, if necessary subject to a court order, with “Prevent duty guidance” on monitoring extremism. The latter being defined, for anyone unclear on what they should be either exposing, or pre-emptively eradicating, as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”.

One example of extremism, vocalised before he became shadow chancellor, might be John McDonnell’s comment on Margaret Thatcher; that he wished he could go back and kill her. Another might be this, vocalised by a former member of the pan-Islamic Hizb-ut-Tahrir: “We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech.”

For “it is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom”, Mr Cameron promises of his new regulations. “It is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.” Stifle, verb: “to kill by depriving of oxygen”.

The justification for this exercise turns out, on his part, to be about producing a list of troublemakers and institutions and hoping nobody spots a distinct lack of rigour in asserting a causal connection between attending a UK university and going on to threaten, or take lives. Eight named terrorist offenders, we learn, had been to UK universities.

Not a huge body of evidence, you might think, recalling Britain’s estimated 700 jihadist volunteers. [Continue reading…]


This is how easy it is to be suspected of being a radical if you’re Muslim

BuzzFeed reports: British Muslims have detailed the innocent, everyday acts that have led to individuals being suspected as radicals, from holding open doors to writing class projects about foreign policy.

Amid international criticism of the arrest of a Texan schoolboy for building a clock his teacher thought was a hoax bomb, a new report highlights growing concern among UK Muslims that they are being unfairly targeted for being suspected extremists.

The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) submitted the examples to David Anderson QC, the UK’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, who included them in his annual report published on Thursday. In the report, Anderson warned the government’s counter-terrorism legislation risked alienating Muslims and could provoke a backlash in certain communities. [Continue reading…]


After winning a sweeping victory, how unelectable is Jeremy Corbyn?

Andrew McFadyen writes: Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership is like Aberdeen beating Real Madrid in a European final. It really happened, but you have to pinch yourself to believe it is true.

The 66-year-old, bearded left-winger was a 200/1 outsider when the contest began.

He scraped onto the ballot paper with just minutes to spare, only thanks to the charity nominations of MPs who leant him their signatures to “broaden the debate”.

Corbyn is everything that a modern professional politician shouldn’t be: crumpled, scruffy and principled.

He swept to victory promising to end austerity, abolish student tuition fees and scrap nuclear

His first act as leader was to attend a rally in support of refugees, at which he implored the government to support people who are desperate and need somewhere safe to live.

Corbyn’s critics deride him as a Trotskyite tribute act and utterly unelectable.

If this is true, they should be asking why he has just trounced his opponents.

The North London MP ran by far the most effective campaign, combining smart use of social media with old-fashioned public meetings and street-corner politics. [Continue reading…]


Syria rejects British proposal for Assad to lead transitional government

The Guardian reports: Syria has rejected Britain’s proposal that Bashar al-Assad could lead a transitional government for up to six months before stepping down, as part of a political solution to the country’s crisis and to end the wave of refugees heading to Europe to escape the war.

“What gives the British foreign secretary the right to decide for Syrians how long their president should stay in power?” Omran al-Zoubi, the Syrian information minister, told the Guardian in an exclusive interview in his Damascus office.

He said Britain was following “irrational and illogical” policies by attacking the only country seriously fighting Isis and other terrorists and urging its leader to step down. [Continue reading…]


UK backs bid by fossil fuel firms to kill new EU fracking controls, letters reveal

The Guardian reports: The UK government has added its weight to a behind-the-scenes lobbying drive by oil and gas firms including BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil to persuade EU leaders to scrap a series of environmental safety measures for fracking, according to leaked letters seen by the Guardian.

The deregulatory push against safety measures, which could include the monitoring of on-site methane leaks and capture of gases and volatile compounds that might otherwise be vented, appears to go against assurances from David Cameron that fracking would only be safe “if properly regulated”.

In a comment piece in 2013 the prime minister wrote: “We must make the case that fracking is safe … the regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world.”

But UK government sources say that any new form of industry controls would be “an unnecessary restriction on the UK oil and gas industry”. [Continue reading…]


The ‘kill list’: RAF drones have been hunting UK jihadis for months

The Guardian reports: Unmanned RAF aerial drones armed with Hellfire missiles have been patrolling the skies over Syria for months seeking to target British jihadis on a “kill list” drawn up by senior ministers on the UK National Security Council shortly after the election.

As the defence secretary Michael Fallon said ministers would not hesitate to approve further strikes against jihadis who have their own kill list, Jeremy Corbyn led a cross-party group of MPs who raised doubts about the change in strategy.

Corbyn said: “There has to be a legal basis for what’s going on. This is war without parliamentary approval. And in fact parliament specifically said no to this war in September 2013.”

Senior Liberal Democrats suggested that the RAF drone strike, which led to the killing of two British Islamic State members on 21 August, went beyond anything that would have been approved when Nick Clegg sat on the NSC. “The hawks have been let loose and are trying to test the boundaries of what is possible,” one former Lib Dem coalition source said. [Continue reading…]


Cameron’s Syria drone strike ‘revelation’ is a diversion

By Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

Up until mid-afternoon on September 7, it was expected that British prime minister David Cameron would make headlines by announcing that the UK would finally take in a significant number of refugees from Syria’s conflict. What’s more, the chatter in London was that Cameron might try – more than two years after parliament blocked military intervention against the Assad regime – to get authorisation for British air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

However, Cameron had a surprise for MPs, the media, and Syria-watchers alike. While saying that Britain would accept 20,000 refugees over five years, his more dramatic announcement was that the Royal Air Force had carried out its first attack inside Syria – a drone strike on August 21, which killed three Islamic State fighters, including two British nationals.

The prime minister declared this an “act of self-defence” to stop terrorism on British soil. But the announcement raises an array of difficult questions.

[Read more…]


Cameron justifies the drone strike in Syria: Is this his WMD moment?

Simon Jenkins writes: It sounded good, but did it sound right? David Cameron’s Commons explanation of the execution of three Britons in Syria eerily recalled Tony Blair on the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” that posed “an imminent threat” to British national security.

Blair killed stone dead the thesis that such assertions by ministers should be taken on trust. The suspicion has to be that British intelligence had a tag on the suspect Britons for some time and got lucky. British planes had been operating over Syria all summer, with orders to disregard parliament’s veto on military action if targets were of sufficient “value”.

As it stands, the visible evidence against them related to events that had already taken place peacefully. The threats appear mere bravado. If not, the more reason for explaining what exactly was the threat, other than “recruitment”.

Cameron’s lawyers were content that action was essential to prevent what international law recognises as an “occurring or imminent” Article-51 threat, notified to the United Nations. That law envisaged an army moving to cross a frontier, not a 21-year-old Cardiff terrorist. [Continue reading…]


Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train

The Washington Post reports: Of the 4 million Syrians who have fled their country since the war began, including hundreds of thousands who have poured into Europe, the number who have been resettled in Britain could fit on a single London Underground train — with plenty of seats to spare.

Just 216 Syrian refugees have qualified for the government’s official relocation program, according to data released last week. (Tube trains seat about 300.) British Prime Minister David Cameron has reassured his anxious public that the total number won’t rise above 1,000.

As Germany prepares for an expected onslaught of 800,000 asylum applications just this year, the contrast between the two biggest powers in Europe couldn’t be sharper. On a continent that is supposed to be bound together by a common set of rules and values, the impact of this summer’s migrant crisis is being felt disproportionately by a handful of countries while others, such as Britain, have resisted efforts to more equitably share the burden. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: David Miliband has called on the British government to take in its fair share of refugees fleeing the war in Syria and other conflicts, and said continued failure to do so would represent an abandonment of the UK’s legal and humanitarian traditions.

The former foreign secretary, who now heads the International Rescue Committee (IRC) aid agency, has told the Guardian that the strict limits Britain has placed on the acceptance of refugees represented a double standard that would ultimately undermine Britain’s influence abroad.

“When I hear people say we’ve got to firm up our borders, it makes me think of the message we’re sending to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, which is to keep their borders open for Syrians,” Miliband said in an interview in New York.

“People in Britain have got to understand that these countries notice the difference between what we’re saying and what we’re doing.” [Continue reading…]


British embassy in Iran reopens

The Guardian reports: The UK’s foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has reopened the British embassy in Iran, declaring that there was no limit to what the two countries could achieve, as mutual trust is restored.

Hammond watched the union flag being raised in the embassy compound in central Tehran for the first time since it was stormed and ransacked by protesters in 2011.

Reflecting the cautious nature of the relationship with a long, troubled history, the Iranian government sent a relatively junior official, Abolghasem Delphi, the head of the western European department at the foreign ministry. He made no public comments. [Continue reading…]


Duncan Campbell’s career exposing GCHQ’s secrets

Duncan Campbell writes: I stepped from the warmth of our source’s London flat. That February night in 1977, the air was damp and cool, the buzz of traffic muted in this leafy North London suburb, in the shadow of the iconic Alexandra Palace. A fellow journalist and I had just spent three hours inside, drinking Chianti and talking about secret surveillance with our source, and now we stood on the doorstep discussing how to get back to the south coast town where I lived.

Events were about to take me on a different journey. Behind me, sharp footfalls broke the stillness. A squad was running, hard, toward the porch of the house we had left. Suited men surrounded us. A burly middle-aged cop held up his police ID. We had broken “Section 2″ of Britain’s secrecy law, he claimed. These were “Special Branch,” then the elite security division of the British police.

For a split second, I thought this was a hustle. I knew that a parliamentary commission had released a report five years earlier that concluded that the secrecy law, first enacted a century ago, should be changed. I pulled out my journalist identification card, ready to ask them to respect the press.

But they already knew that my companion that evening, Time Out reporter Crispin Aubrey, and I were journalists. And they had been outside, watching our entire meeting with former British Army signals intelligence (Sigint) operator John Berry, who at the time was a social worker.

Aubrey and I were arrested on suspicion of possessing unauthorized information. They said we’d be taken to the local police station. But after being forced into cars, we were driven in the wrong direction, toward the center of London. I became uneasy. [Continue reading…]


Cleric Anjem Choudary charged with encouraging support for ISIS

The Guardian reports: Radical cleric Anjem Choudary has been charged with encouraging support for Islamic State, Scotland Yard has said.

Choudary, 48, of Ilford, faces a charge of inviting support for a proscribed organisation, namely Isis.

It is alleged he committed the offence between 29 June 2014 and 6 March 2015. [Continue reading…]


Stifling freedom of expression in UK schools

Al Jazeera reports: Schoolchildren in the UK who express support for Palestine face being questioned by police and referred to a counter-radicalisation programme for youngsters deemed at risk of being drawn into terrorism under new laws requiring teachers to monitor students for extremism.

One schoolboy told Al Jazeera he was accused of holding “terrorist-like” views by a police officer who questioned him for taking leaflets into school promoting a boycott of Israel.

The case reflects concerns raised about the expansion of the government’s Preventcounter-extremism strategy into schools, with critics complaining that teachers are being expected to act as the “eyes and ears of the state”. [Continue reading…]


UK faces more secret government with clampdown on information

The Guardian reports: Whitehall mandarins – the permanent government – are fighting back, with the enthusiastic support of present and former cabinet ministers.

The 2000 Freedom of Information Act was introduced by a new Blair government despite opposition from senior civil servants. It will now be watered down, making it even more difficult for the public and the media to discover the truth.

From the start, Whitehall managed to introduce a host of exceptions in the act, including the activities of the security and intelligence agencies and anything relating to “national security”, a term I have mentioned before covers a multitude of sins.

To cite one example relating to events many decades ago: in a preface to The Defence of the Realm, his official history of MI5, Christopher Andrew says “one significant excision” demanded by Whitehall was “hard to justify”.

The censored passage relates to a chapter entitled the “Wilson Plot” – a reference to attempts to smear the former Labour prime minister and destablise his government. [Continue reading…]


UK suspends ban on pesticides linked to serious harm in bees

The Guardian reports: Farmers will be able to use blacklisted pesticides linked to serious harm in bees after the UK government temporarily lifted an EU ban.

Opponents called the decision “scandalous” and criticised the government’s secrecy, which has included gagging its own expert advisers.

Bees and other pollinators are essential for many crops but are in decline due to pesticides, loss of habitat and disease. Over 500,000 people signed a petition opposing the suspension of the ban. [Continue reading…]


Quran fragments, dated from time of Muhammad, discovered in Britain

The New York Times reports: Fragments of what researchers say are part of one of the world’s oldest manuscripts of the Quran have been found at the University of Birmingham, the school said on Wednesday.

The global significance of the ancient fragments, which sat in the university’s library for about a century, became apparent after a Ph.D. student noticed their particular calligraphy. The university sent a small piece of the manuscript, written on sheep or goat skin, to Oxford University for radiocarbon dating.

David Thomas, a professor of Christianity and Islam at the University of Birmingham, said that when the results had come back, he and other researchers had been stunned to discover that the manuscript was probably at least 1,370 years old, which would place its writing within a few years of the founding of Islam. He said the author of the text may well have known the Prophet Muhammad.

“We were bowled over, startled indeed,” Professor Thomas said in an interview. The period when the manuscript was produced, he added, “could well take us back to within a few years of the actual founding of Islam.” [Continue reading…]