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by John Helmer, Moscow 

Even as the British Empire was collapsing, and its army was defeated by the Germans,  Japanese, Israelis, Egyptians, Indians, Cypriots, and the Kenyan Mau Mau, British intelligence officers were unshaken in their confidence that they were cleverer than their adversaries;   their espionage and deception operations an uninterrupted success  despite the loss of men, materiel, territory, terms of trade, and the pound.  

“We have the brains. [The Americans] have the money,” remarks one of these officers, Sir David Omand (lead image).

A former head of the signals intelligence agency GCHQ, then coordinator of the intelligence and security services for the prime  minister, Omand has just published a book  with the aim of converting some of the brains into more of the money. More, that is, than Omand already draws from his seat   on the board of Babcock International, a maker of warships, submarines, air force trainers,  helicopters, plus a division Omand and Babcock call cyber intelligence and security.  

It’s natural, therefore, that Omand is talking his own book — in the sales department sense of the term. Natch too, the book, entitled “How Spies Think, Ten Lessons in Intelligence”, is a success story. All that’s missing is the eleventh lesson Omand leaves out.  That’s the one about how the principal enemies in Omand’s world, the Russians, keep managing to succeed in their operations – invasions, assassinations, deceptions, hacking, phishing, spoofing, and faking — despite all the defeats Omand and his colleagues have been inflicting on them, year in, year out.

Omand’s twelfth lesson is to keep trying to beat the Russians. That, he concludes, requires giving GCHQ and the rest of the British intelligence establishment — not to mention Babcock International — new powers, new money from the state treasury, and relief from the law.  “The surveillance that is needed to uncover those responsible and to detect malware… can appear highly invasive of personal privacy. I do not believe we have any alternative for the protection of society from those who mean us harm other than to allow our intelligence and security agencies to use such powerful tools.”

Cyber-attack against Russia is Omand’s thirteenth lesson — with enough extra power, money,  and  exemptions from the criminal code he promises that victory over the Russians is just around the corner.  Omand projects this into the pages of the Economist seven years into the future,  when he and his colleagues imagine they will be counting “the cumulative gains in cybersecurity following the top priority given to countering subversion as an intelligence requirement. There had been corresponding additional investment in the UK National Cyber Security Centre, working in partnership with the private sector and in close cooperation with its counterparts overseas. The public was much more security-savvy. The critical infrastructure was now [2028] much more resilient to any attempts to disrupt it. A small number of highly targeted offensive cyber-operations…had demonstrated that the UK and US were prepared to defend themselves from cyber-coercion. The UK cyber-domain (.uk) was now protected by active cyber defences that identified malware in bulk traffic, and removed bad websites and fake internet addresses…”

This wishful thinking Omand is trying to sell at £21 per copy.

So far, wishful thinking is paying off for the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) which was created in 2017 as a new section of GCHQ with a budget of £1.9 billion. Before that, it was a group of smaller, cheaper, competitive organisations operating inside other ministries and the Bank of England, with a great many more targets than Russians, including each other.  But the NCSC is facing a budget review in March 2021. In a recent report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee there was considerable skepticism about the Centre’s performance. The MPs didn’t believe what the intelligence officers told them. “The weak evidence base and the lack of a business case for the National Cyber Security Programme that helps to deliver the Strategy make it difficult for the Department to assess whether it will meet all its objectives by 2021. A lack of a business case also means it is unclear whether the money allocated at the start of the Programme was the right amount, making it more difficult to judge value for money.”

For Omand, the Centre and the GCHQ, the Russian enemy remains the big money shot.

 “There are important life lessons in seeing how intelligence analysts reason,” Omand promises at the start of his primer. “By learning what intelligence analysts do when they tackle problems, by observing them in real cases from recent history, we will learn how they order their thoughts and how they distinguish the likely from the unlikely and thus make better judgements. We will learn how to test alternative explanations methodically and judge how far we need to change our minds as new information arrives.”

Omand’s book was issued by Penguin, a German owned publisher,  on October 29.   Babcock’s annual report and accounts for 2020 can be read here.

In Omand’s corner of the market, though, he’s been taught a different lesson from the ones he and his government-paid analysts preach. It’s the lesson of value for money.

Omand had been appointed to the Babcock board of directors on April Fool’s Day, 2009. Four years later, he had persuaded Babcock to spend £32 million buying Context Information Security (ContextIS), a consulting firm selling the type of advice Omand has just persuaded Penguin to publish.  

In 2013, when Babcock took over, Babcock was generating $2 billion in annual revenues; ContextIS was reporting revenue of just £10 million. According to the Babcock company website, “we work with organisations to best defend their people, property and data against cybersecurity threats – not simply by blocking them, but by delivering a greater understanding of who and what the threats are targeting, and where they are going next.”  

Seven years later, in March 2020, Babcock announced  it was getting rid of ContextIS by selling it to Accenture.  The reason, said Babcock’s chief executive, was that it was one of “Babcock’s businesses outside our core strategy”. Omand had failed; ContextIS’s staff had multiplied, but its revenue and profit had stuck in the single digits. On the deal news,  Accenture’s share price dropped 2%, while Babcock’s stock fell by 2.3%.   Still, Babcock had more than tripled its outlay – the sale price was £107 million.  

The stock market and the counting house teach lessons which are quite different from Omand’s in his book. That makes the book, even at £9 for the e-book edition, an expensive proposition. As Babcock learned from its ContextIS lesson, unless large government project contracts are paid for out of public budgets, authorised by parliament, the commercial demand for Omand’s intelligence is too small to make it profitable.

What this means, though Omand dare not admit it, is that his lessons are really attempts to persuade the British government, its NATO allies, plus Australia and New Zealand  to increase public spending on war against Russia.

Everything which follows over 352 pages serves this end. “Reality is what it is,” Omand begins with one of the many tautologies he propounds at three pence per page. “We cannot go back in time to change what we have observed. More correctly, then, for our purposes reality is what it was when we made our observations. Reality will have changed in the time it has taken us to process what we saw. And we can only perceive some of what is out there. But we can make a mental map of reality on which we locate the facts that we think we know, and when we got to know them.”

Omand then pretends that this business can be effective at even lower cost with private “ingenuity and experience [to] generate situational awareness to rival that of intelligence agencies and major broadcasting corporations. The not-for-profit organization Bellingcat is named after Aesop’s fable in which the mice propose placing a bell around the neck of the cat so that they are warned in good time of its approach but none will volunteer to put the bell on it. Bellingcat publishes the results of non-official investigations by private citizens and journalists into war crimes, conditions in war zones and the activities of serious criminals. Its most recent high-profile achievement was to publish the real identities of the two GRU officers responsible for the attempted murder of the former MI6 agent and GRU officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury and the death of an innocent citizen.”

This is one of Omand’s deception operations. He knows but doesn’t say that Bellingcat is paid  by the British and other NATO governments to supply a combination of their fabricated materials with open-source internet records to advance narratives the governments know to be false, but which they aim at persuading their media and voters to believe to be true.

For the truth of the Skripal case, click ; for the MH17 story, read this.

Omand calls this process a blend of malinformation (true), misinformation (false), and disinformation (true and false). “Weaponizing such genuine but embarrassing or compromising material by revealing it publicly so as to influence a selected audience is an increasingly common tactic of covert operations, not to mention a form of political dynamiting. Recent examples include the Russian hacking of the emails of the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and their release via Wikileaks during the 2016 US Presidential campaign. A similar operation against the En Marche party of President Emmanuel Macron occurred during the 2017 French Presidential election. Sites run by organizations such as Wikileaks (set up in 2006 by Julian Assange) act as portals for those who want to leak classified or sensitive information anonymously. Wikileaks came to prominence in 2010 and 2011 by making available the trove of classified information on US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that had been passed to Wikileaks by Chelsea (previously Bradley) Manning, who was working with the US Army in Iraq as an intelligence analyst.”

Omand’s book is a repeat catalogue of all the well-known deception operations his side has been producing to identify the deception operations they claim to originate on the Russian side. Our side, according to Omand,  also includes “reputable media outlets [which]   have columns or web pages where corrections can be issued when misinformation is recognized”; not to mention government officials like Robert Mueller, the former Director of the FBI who conducted an investigation as a Special Counsel for the Justice Department that reported on Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential campaign. “As I know personally from my time as UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator after 9/11, he is a man of complete integrity. What he uncovered is deeply disturbing about the Russian actions but also about the potential for such activity on the part of others in the future. It comprised hostile action on several fronts: a social media campaign against Hillary Clinton.”

Left and centre: Rupert Murdoch, owner of “reputable media outlets”, including The Times, which began its promotion of Omand’s book with a picture of the last James Bond.  Right: US Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, “a man of complete integrity”.

Omand adds that between truth and falsehood there is “the better class of politician will also inform Congress or Parliament when they have inadvertently misinformed their colleagues and thus the public, and they will place the corrected information on the record as soon as they are able.” Omand’s book isn’t long enough to include a single example of this.

There are surprises in Omand’s tale, but they come from Omand’s “I told you so” files. “Today we have seen Moscow using all these tactics from the Soviet playbook to prevent Ukraine orientating itself towards the EU. Yet, despite their understanding of Soviet history, Western analysts failed to predict the Russian seizure of Crimea and their armed intervention in eastern Ukraine. Analysts knew of past Soviet use of methods involving intimidation, propaganda and dirty tricks including the use of the little grey men of the KGB infiltrated into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Yet the appearance of ‘little green men’ in Ukraine, as the Russian special forces were dubbed by the media, came as a surprise.”

Omand hasn’t spotted a criticism of the Anglo-American narrative of Russian misdeeds which  he, his GCHQ and Bellingcat co-workers haven’t already tagged as disinformation. “This disinformation activity include the allegation that Ukraine is to be invited to join the EU and NATO, that Ukraine was responsible for downing the Malaysian airliner MH17, that there are fascist roots to the government in Kiev, that COVID-19 was covert bio-warfare by the US against China, and that NATO is planning aggression against Russia. Germany has also been the target of continuous Russian disinformation operations – for example, presenting distorted reports of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s policies to fan conspiracy thinking about the impact of Muslim immigration on traditional German society. As we saw in Chapter 6, such stories even when debunked are hard to kill off.”

Naturally, the commercial opportunities for Omand, Babcock, GCHQ,  and the National Cyber Security Centre expand exponentially and expensively if every truth printed in Russia requires costly decoding for its perfidy. There are also several other state budgets which can be opened for Omand et al.  “There is an example in the secret intelligence world that has much to teach us all about how to go about building partnerships in conditions that might at first sight suggest that levels of trust would be too low to make this possible. That is the so-called ‘5-eyes’ signals intelligence partnership between the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand with at its heart the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. For over seventy years the security of each of those nations has benefited during peace and war, and continues to benefit, from that cooperation.In different posts during my career I have seen in particular the mutual value of the exceptional US–UK relationship, working together in signals and other intelligence, in defence technology, on nuclear deterrence as NATO nuclear partners, and after 9/11 in counter-terrorism and constructing modern homeland security. I know from personal experience that there are principles of sound cooperation that are essential for sustaining such relationships.”

Four of the Five-Eye alliance meeting at the National Cyber Security Centre, London, on April 18, 2018. Left to right: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; the US did not attend.

These “five eyes” turn out to be more than an alliance of English-speaking former British colonies. They are the future bulwark, not only of truth spelled in English*, but of nothing less than rational thought in all of modern civilization. “The subversion of rationality as a guiding principle of statecraft and domestic policy will have come largely from atrophy inside our body politic. That deplorable development has been cynically encouraged and taken advantage of recently by Russian propaganda and disinformation activities. Making ourselves more resilient in the face of these threats is the call to arms that animated me to write this book.”

If you are an intelligence agent reading this in Ottawa, Wellington, or Washington, DC, and you are preparing your own application for more money in next year’s budget, you’ll be putting more than a smile on Omand’s face as you all make your way to the bank.

[*] Omand was at Cambridge for his first university degree; he’s now a professor at King’s College at the University of London. His spelling hasn’t improved when he writes of the trading of captured agents between the British and the Russians as a “spy swop”. The Cambridge English Dictionary records this spelling as the British alternative to the American “swap”. The Oxford English Dictionary says “swop” became obsolete in England four hundred years ago.

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