The Observer: leaked Foreign office memos "Hearts and Minds and Muslims"

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The Observer has, mysteriously, gained access to a Confidential letter from William Ehrman, the Director General (Defence & Intelligence) at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He was also the temporary Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and will soon be taking up his post as the United Kingdom's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China in Beijing (currently Sir Christopher Hurn).

"Revealed: MI6 plan to infiltrate extremists


Read the letter from the head of the intelligence arm of the Foreign Office here (pdf)

Read the memo from the FCO's Islamic issues adviser here (pdf)

Martin Bright, home affairs editor
Sunday September 4, 2005
The Observer

British intelligence officers planned a 'black propaganda' campaign against Islamic extremists, infiltrating their groups through the internet, documents leaked to The Observer reveal."

The leaked/briefed letter, entiled "Hearts and Minds and Muslims", isdated 23 April 2004, is addressed to Sir David Omand, the then Security & Intelligence Co-ordinator at the Cabinet office, whose successor is now Bill Jeffrey, the former director general of the controversial Home Office Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), at the time of the resignations of Beverly Hughes and the disgrace of ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett, both over Immigration department related scandals.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald was the United Kingdom Permaanent Representative to the European Union, and is now the Head of the Overseas and Defence Secretariatat the Cabinet Office, and is also the Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister.

"Hearts and Minds and Muslims" of course has resonances of the anti-communist insurgency policies in Malaya or Vietnam, where "If you've got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." seemed to be the mindset.

William Ehrman's "Hearts and Minds and Muslims" (.pdf) letter, assuming that it is genuine, also includes this interesting paragraph:

"6. The McColl paper also mentions Cyberspace. I presume there are opportunities for engaging in the debate on Islamist websites, unattributably. But whoever was doing this would need a carefully worked-out script. There may also be ways to disrupt or impede extremist websites. I hope some proposals on all this will emerge from the ongoing cross-government work on setting up better systems for monitoring websites."

Who is "McColl" ? Presumably not Bill McColl, Professor of Computing Science, Fellow of Wadham College, at Oxford University ?

Does this letter explain the basis for the dubious tactics of infiltration, agent provocateurs, and attempts at website hacking and disruption which the recent Sunday Times "climate of fear" article on alleged MI5 tactics, seemed to be trying to promote ? Or does it the fact that it does not mention MI5, the Security Service at all, but does mention FCO (Foreign & Commonwealth Office), SIS (MI6), the Secret Intelligence Service and MOD (Ministry of Defence) and USA, Egyptian and Saudi agencies, cast even more doubt on that Sunday Times article ?

"ways to disrupt or impede extremist websites" is entirely the wrong strategy, The advantage will always be with the extremists if there are crude attempts at banning, hacking, denial of service attacks, legal requests to ISPs to shut down websites etc. All such extremist websites are physically hosted outside of the United Kingdom, therefore any such "disruption" activities involves "cyber warfare" attacks on foreign countries, which may well inspire Governmental or amateur cyberspace retaliation against the UK.

After all "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush", and communications traffic analysis of such extremist websites must surely be far more valuable than any minor propaganda value in "disruption", only for new mirror sites to spring up elsewhere ?

Whose political or bureaucratic empire building agenda is served by this "leak" of a letter from someone with the very highest security clearance in the UK ?

9 Comments

Could you please clarify the origin of the text in the second blue box?

@ Simon - It should now be clearer, that the paragraph 6 quotation is from the alleged William Ehrman letter .pdf file, published by The Observer newspaper.

only a single sentence in these 2 documents mentions the possibility of disrupting websites (viz. "There may also be ways to disrupt or impede extremist websites.") -- mostly they are about the british authorities communicating with the islamic world via 2 channels, normal diplomacy and anonymous speech --; and we don't have enough information to know what that sentence implies.

encouragingly, the next sentence mentions monitoring websites, and, as you point out, one disadvantage of disruption is that it can interfere with monitoring.

disruption can take many forms. it can be with the co-operation of the government of the country where a website is hosted. it can even be legal :-). the people whose site is being disrupted may not know that it's happening. so we really need more details.

IMO, a clear line should be drawn between websites (or any other forms of communication) which are actually aiding in preparation, planning, training, and so forth, for terrorist attacks, and websites which are merely expressing opinions. in the former case, disruption can be justified when it's the best way to prevent future atrocities; at other times, it would be foolish because it would just tip people off that they're under suspicion: IOW, this is about normal police work. in the latter case, disruption is never justifiable, both as a matter of principle -- supporting free speech means supporting free speech for the opinions you despise; *everybody* supports free speech for the opinions they favour -- and for practical reasons: if people appear to be unfairly suppressed, they will gain new supporters. unfortunately, the british authorities have shown little respect for this line in recent years, from deliberately bombing a TV station in belgrade, to shooting al jazeera journalists in iraq in questionable circumstances.

anyway, we need more information. how about putting in FOIA requests for the "McColl paper", and for the letter from david ormand which william ehrman was replying to? :-)

@ Phil - Do not forget the recent Association of Chief Police Officers "shopping list" of extra anti-terrorist powers that Government and even the Opposition politicians, seem to be willing to allow to go through on the nod:

http://www.spy.org.uk/spyblog/archives/2005/07/association_of.html

This list includes:

"Indirect Incitement to Commit Terrorist Acts"

"Use of the internet to prepare, encourage, facilitate acts of terrorism"

"Powers to attack identified websites"

You suggested:

"how about putting in FOIA requests for the "McColl paper", and for the letter from david ormand which william ehrman was replying to? :-)"

There are a wide range of Exemptions built into the Freedom of Information Act 2000 any one of which would be enough to block any FOIA request for these documents:

http://www.dca.gov.uk/foi/guidance/exsumm/index.htm

Section 23: Information Supplied by, or Related to, Bodies Dealing with Security Matters

Section 24: National Security

Section 26: Defence

Section 27: International Relations

Section 30: Investigations And Proceedings Conducted By Public Authorities

Section 31: Law Enforcement

Section 35: Formulation Of Government Policy

Section 36: Prejudice To Effective Conduct Of Public Affairs

"disruption can take many forms. it can be with the co-operation of the government of the country where a website is hosted. it can even be legal :-). the people whose site is being disrupted may not know that it's happening. so we really need more details."

Even legal "disruption" can cause "collateral damage" to innocent users of a shared server, only a fraction of which, might be used by an allegedly extremist organisation e.g. the Indymedia server seizure scandal last October here in the UK.

Are the publishers of discussion forums, bulletin boards or blogs to be held liable for any "extremist" opinions or calls to arms etc. which may be posted by their readers or contributors ?

Do the Whitehall mandarins and the senior Politicians, understand that "Cyberspace" is not just about "websites" ?

Does this UK Government policy leave, say Instant Messenger or IRC channels or Peer to Peer file transfers, or FTP sites, or SMS text and MMS video clip messsage trees etc. outside the remit of the "cross-government" monitoring scheme and/or outside the proposed legal authorisation for "disruption" of "websites" ?

This brings up some points I'm going to cover at more length on my blog.

wtwu, thanks for the reminder: the ACPO's outrageous "shopping list" is indeed a bit more informative.

the ACPO's comment (in "4. Powers to attack identified websites") that the issue "requires significant international cooperation" may imply that they want to avoid starting "cyberwars".

OTOH, i see no sign that they're concerned about "collateral damage". or any recognition that they may end up reducing freedom of speech. in fact, that seems to be 1 of their aims: i don't see how else to interpret their proposal for a new offence "intended to capture the expression of sentiments which do not amount to direct incitement to commit terrorist acts but which are made with the intent to encourage others to commit terrorist acts".

it's a good question to what extent thess policies are driven by ignorance about the internet. presumably a "daily mail" attitude that Something Must Be Done about islamist websites plays a role; since the home office has admitted that policy is partly driven by newspaper coverage. even if they hand "daily mail" ideas over to smart, knowledgeable people -- and i believe the government *does* have some such people --, they will struggle to come up with sensible policies.

about FOIA requests: i was kidding in that i realize there are many broad exemptions in the act; but perfectly serious in that documents discussing policy formation are among the most vital that we should have the right to see. elections are mainly about voting for or against policies, which doesn't work well unless we know the rationale for a policy, and doesn't work at all if we don't even know what the policy is. the blanket secrecy about the security services is the main reason that they're dangerously out of democratic control.

@ Phil - "since the home office has admitted that policy is partly driven by newspaper coverage" ,

Which is, according to our friend Sir Stephen Lander's interview in the Independent

http://www.spy.org.uk/spyblog/archives/2005/01/sir_stephen_lan.html

is in turn whipped into a vicous circle feedback loop created by leaks, media spin and is information from the Home Office and its NuLabour political commissars.

Regarding Freedom of Information Act requests, you can see the depressing catalogue of delays, prevarication and "Sir Humphrey Appleby" type obfuscation which the Home Office and the Treasury have employed against our modest FOIA requests, for, say the Office of Government Commerce Gateway Reviews of the Home Office Identity Cards Progrramme, and for the official meeting diaries, agendas etc. of the senior members of the Home Office Identity Cards Programme team:

http://www.spy.org.uk/foia

The Observer has, mysteriously, gained access to a Confidential letter from William Ehrman...

According to Postman Patel, it was Derek Pasquill who leaked this letter.

If the case had gone to court, perhaps the meaning behind this statement may have been revealed:

"Dealing with Islamist extremism, the messages are more complex, the constituencies we would aim at are more difficult to identify, and greater damage could be done to the overall effort if links back to UK or US sources were revealed."

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Recent Comments

  • Tom: The Observer has, mysteriously, gained access to a Confidential letter read more
  • wtwu: @ Phil - "since the home office has admitted that read more
  • Phil Lanch: wtwu, thanks for the reminder: the ACPO's outrageous "shopping list" read more
  • Alex: This brings up some points I'm going to cover at read more
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  • Phil Lanch: only a single sentence in these 2 documents mentions the read more
  • wtwu: @ Simon - It should now be clearer, that the read more
  • Simon GIbbs: Could you please clarify the origin of the text in read more

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UK Legislation

The United Kingdom suffers from tens of thousands of pages of complicated criminal laws, and thousands of new, often unenforceable criminal offences, which have been created as a "Pretend to be Seen to Be Doing Something" response to tabloid media hype and hysteria, and political social engineering dogmas. These overbroad, catch-all laws, which remove the scope for any judicial appeals process, have been rubber stamped, often without being read, let alone properly understood, by Members of Parliament.

The text of many of these Acts of Parliament are now online, but it is still too difficult for most people, including the police and criminal justice system, to work out the cumulative effect of all the amendments, even for the most serious offences involving national security or terrorism or serious crime.

Many MPs do not seem to bother to even to actually read the details of the legislation which they vote to inflict on us.

UK Legislation Links

UK Statute Law Database - is the official revised edition of the primary legislation of the United Kingdom made available online, but it is not yet up to date.

UK Commissioners

UK Commissioners some of whom are meant to protect your privacy and investigate abuses by the bureaucrats.

UK Intelligence Agencies

Intelligence and Security Committee - the supposedly independent Parliamentary watchdog which issues an annual, heavily censored Report every year or so. Currently chaired by the Conservative Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Why should either the intelligence agencies or the public trust this committee, when the untrustworthy ex-Labour Minister Hazel Blears is a member ?

Anti-terrorism hotline - links removed in protest at the Climate of Fear propaganda posters

MI5 Security Service
MI5 Security Service - links to encrypted reporting form removed in protest at the Climate of Fear propaganda posters

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Secure Your Fertiliser - advice on ammonium nitrate and urea fertiliser security

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Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure - "CPNI provides expert advice to the critical national infrastructure on physical, personnel and information security, to protect against terrorism and other threats."

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Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) recruitment.

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Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ

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National Crime Agency - the replacement for the Serious Organised Crime Agency

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Defence Advisory (DA) Notice system - voluntary self censorship by the established UK press and broadcast media regarding defence and intelligence topics via the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee.

Foreign Spies / Intelliegence Agencies in the UK

It is not just the UK government which tries to snoop on British companies, organisations and individuals, the rest of the world is constantly trying to do the same, regardless of the mixed efforts of our own UK Intelligence Agencies who are paid to supposedly protect us from them.

For no good reason, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office only keeps the current version of the London Diplomatic List of accredited Diplomats (including some Foreign Intelligence Agency operatives) online.

Presumably every mainstream media organisation, intelligence agency, serious organised crime or terrorist gang keeps historical copies, so here are some older versions of the London Diplomatic List, for the benefit of web search engine queries, for those people who do not want their visits to appear in the FCO web server logfiles or those whose censored internet feeds block access to UK Government websites.

Campaign Button Links

Watching Them, Watching Us - UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign
UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign

NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card
NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card and National Identity Register centralised database.

Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.
Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.

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FreeFarid.com - Kafkaesque extradition of Farid Hilali under the European Arrest Warrant to Spain

Peaceful resistance to the curtailment of our rights to Free Assembly and Free Speech in the SOCPA Designated Area around Parliament Square and beyond
Parliament Protest blog - resistance to the Designated Area restricting peaceful demonstrations or lobbying in the vicinity of Parliament.

Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans
Data Retention is No Solution - Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans.

Save Parliament: Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)
Save Parliament - Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)

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Open Rights Group

The Big Opt Out Campaign - opt out of having your NHS Care Record medical records and personal details stored insecurely on a massive national centralised database.

Tor - the onion routing network
Tor - the onion routing network - "Tor aims to defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers called onion routers, protecting you from websites that build profiles of your interests, local eavesdroppers that read your data or learn what sites you visit, and even the onion routers themselves."

Tor - the onion routing network
Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress and Tor - useful Guide published by Global Voices Advocacy with step by step software configuration screenshots (updated March 10th 2009).

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Amnesty International's irrepressible.info campaign

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BlogSafer - wiki with multilingual guides to anonymous blogging

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NGO in a box - Security Edition privacy and security software tools

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Home Office Watch blog, "a single repository of all the shambolic errors and mistakes made by the British Home Office compiled from Parliamentary Questions, news reports, and tip-offs by the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs team."

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Reporters Without Borders - Reporters Sans Frontières - campaign for journalists 'and bloggers' freedom in repressive countries and war zones.

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Committee to Protect Bloggers - "devoted to the protection of bloggers worldwide with a focus on highlighting the plight of bloggers threatened and imprisoned by their government."

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Icelanders are NOT terrorists ! - despite Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling's use of anti-terrorism legislation to seize the assets of Icelandic banks.

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No CCTV - The Campaign Against CCTV

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I'm a Photographer Not a Terrorist !

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Power 2010 cross party, political reform campaign

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Cracking the Black Box - "aims to expose technology that is being used in inappropriate ways. We hope to bring together the insights of experts and whistleblowers to shine a light into the dark recesses of systems that are responsible for causing many of the privacy problems faced by millions of people."

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Open Rights Group - Petition against the renewal of the Interception Modernisation Programme

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WhistleblowersUK.org - Fighting for justice for whistleblowers