09 December 2020

Journalists on government’s black list

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A Declassified UK foreign policy journalist has obtained information about him being on the black list of the Government Communications Headquarters/GCHQ, after he generated “a long-term negative read”. Matt Kennard, a well-known British investigation journalist thinks there is a connection between the “attention” of the secret service and the journalistic investigation he developed over a controversial education program coordinated by the GCHQ. The Declassified UK journalists were, until recently, on the “black list” of the Minister of Defence (MoD). In September, the Europe’s Council has issued a “freedom of the press warning”, after the press officers of the Defence Ministry have refused to offer information to the Declassified UK journalists.

Image source: Profimedia - secretarul Apărării, Ben Wallace

It is indeed obvious that the Declassified UK has “uncomfortable” concerns, as the website has recently wrote about the Saudis pilots who are trained in the United Kingdom or the “Julian Assagne” case, where one of the key witnesses of the case (who said that the risk of Assagne’s suicide is “manageable” if he is deported to the US) is working for an academic institute founded by the UK’s Defence Ministry.

A May Declassified UK title was suggesting, for example, that the “masters of the British espionage have ignored the biggest threats against the country, like the coronavirus, and have endangered the population”.

However, there is still a question left on whether the Declassified UK journalists have provoked and will provoke something more than just “long-term negative reads”.

Journalistic investigation on a secret governmental program

In June, the Declassified UK, a British investigation journalism organization focused on foreign policy, intelligence and defence, has published many articles on the cooperation, on education programs in some schools in the United Kingdom, between the GCHQ and many defence companies.

The journalistic investigation was conducted by Matt Kennard, a British journalist who wrote articles for New Statesman, The Guardian, Financial Times, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and who is also co-founder of Declassified UK, previously being director of the Center for investigation journalism in London.

The series of Declassified UK articles, a website founded in 2019, approached the Cyber Schools Hub program, also known as CyberFirst, developed by the National Cyber Security Centre/NCSC, a program which quickly expanded, involving around 22.000 children from 40 schools with primary and secondary classes, in Gloucestershire, South-West of England.

The objective of the CSH program is to allow 11-17 years old kids to “experiment new ways of learning in an innovative cyber environment”, close to the GCHQ base in Cheltenham. Also, it wants to recruit kids for jobs in the field, contributing to the “education of the existent opportunities in the IT and security IT industry”.

Even if officially they say that the program which has started in 2018 includes 23 schools, Declassified UK acknowledged that the number is actually two times bigger, as in the program there are included more than 10 primary schools (Kings, Linden and Abbeymead schools, all being near the Cheltenham office of the GCHQ), where students are between 4 and 11 years old.

The Declassified UK investigation led to proofs according to which the employees of a “code club” founded at a primary school are all GCHQ officers. The intelligence agency tried, also, to get access to schools by providing technologies necessary for the local libraries, meanwhile their “recruitment teams” were mobilized in the schools that are part of the program.

The Code Club is a voluntary initiative started in 2012, which wants to offer opportunities related to programming abilities in free after-schools to kids with ages between 9 and 13. In November 2015, there were around 44.000 young people participating to a Code Club in Great Britain. The organization became international and, at the time being, there are 13.000 Code Clubs in the entire world with the voluntary presence of programmers and software developers.

Both GCHQ and the schools involved in the program have called on national security to block the access to information about the CyberFirst work.

Quoted by Declassified UK, Jen Persson thinks that “recruiting in that specific field does not involve only one event, but an infusion developed in years”… and, although there are laws protecting the kids from the “improper adult influence”, it seems that “spies can go to schools as much as they want, lacking transparent or independent surveillance”.

Jen Persson is the director of Defence Digital Me, an organization founded to defend the kids’ rights to privacy in terms of their digital data and rights, as a consequence to the “concerns coming from teachers, parents and companies on the more and more invasive use of kids personal information, collected during their education in England”.

Declassified UK thinks that the CyberFirst program is also a propaganda program, as it tells how the GCHQ “was the center of nation’s security for 100 years and has rescued many lives”, something the parents are not aware of, because they are not informed on the “complete series” of activities the GCHQ are conducting or on the role of the agency in the GCHQ program.

Given that the CSH pilot program proved to be a successful one, locally, the NSCS wishes to “increase the scale of ambition and formally recognize schools” in a new CyberFirst schools programme”, which will include schools in Wales too.

The information requests the Declassified UK sent, based on the law on the freedom of information, about the GCHQ initiatives in schools which are in the pilot-programme from Newent and Cleeve were ignored, and one of the IT teachers, Martin Peake, who runs the program, was said that “the required information are excepted from the law’s provisions”.

Peake, who joined the Cleeve school as IT chief in September 2017 was previously a software developed for “communication projects in the air defence field”, especially in the “Link-16 area” (a tactical military data networks used by NATO countries), being responsible with recruitment and personnel’s verification.

Nor the NCSC requirements, made by Declassified UK on the CSH program were successful.

The Declassified UK investigation also shows that the CyberFirst program includes some of the biggest weapons company in the world: BAE Systems from Great Britain and two American corporations, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. Also, Lockheed Martin is an “associated” in this program and the kids have the possibility to gain work experience from a new cyber security unit of the Gloucester company.

Another element of GCHQ's contribution, highlighted by Declassified UK, is the involvement in the program of the company Cyber ​​Security Associates, founded by David Woodfine and James Griffiths, former members of the Ministry of Defense's Cyber ​​Offensive Unit, housed at GCHQ's headquarters in Cheltenham.

In recent years, GCHQ has launched other programs to create the next "generation of competent cyber spies".

In 2017, the Center created the CyberFirst competition, aimed at girls aged 12-13, with the stated aim of "increasing women's participation in the cyber sector".

“The CyberFirst Girls Competition provides a fun but challenging environment to inspire the next generation of young women to consider a career in cyber security.

Whatever your ability, from beginner to expert, the CyberFirst Girls Competition is an opportunity to learn something new about cyber security.”

Another NCSC project, Cyber ​​Discovery, worth £ 20 million, aims to offer "free online, extracurricular" cyber activities to children aged 13-18:

Discover your hidden talent for cyber security with over 200 free challenges...You might not have considered a career in cyber security before, but you definitely should.

Not only is it one of the most well-paid, in-demand sectors around, but it also offers young people the chance to forge a career doing something that matters.

You will have a go at real-world cyber attacks, learning how cyber security experts play a vital role in protecting our hospitals, banks, army, and police services!”

The Declassified UK investigation has raised suspicions about the legitimacy of the GCHQ-coordinated program, which, while argued for the need to create a national cyber security environment, may affect "the interest of children and adolescents in an area exploited for the benefit of secret interests" and may "facilitate and encourage illegal activities such as hacking ”(Emma Sangster, ForcesWatch). In addition, there is a lack of transparency regarding the activities of the program and the wider involvement of the industrial-military complex in education.

The British intelligence agency has been accused of violating rules of ethics after a series of internal emails showed that GCHQ was consciously ignoring the questions of journalist Matt Kennard from Declassified UK.

In a request for access to the Cyber ​​Schools Hub, Matt Kennard received messages from GCHQ suggesting that the agency had decided that it would "no longer interact" with the investigative journalist following the Declassified UK's promotion of a "negative long term reads” on the subject.

On December 1, Declassified UK staff published material containing GCHQ's internal e-mails stating that the organization had decided to "stop cooperating" with Matt Kennard, head of the Declassified UK on the Cyber ​​First investigation, and " ignore ”his requests for information about the articles he was writing about the controversial program in British schools.

A last request sent by Kennard on September 23 to the GCHQ press office on another subject received no response.

"Careful! Beware of the journalist… ” would be the subject of one of the intelligence agency's emails, “do not interact with… [Matt Kennard]”.

The press release also claims that GCHQ monitored the Twitter account of Declassified UK editor Mark Curtis and launched an internal "media alert" for the journalistic investigation carried out by the site.

The article on the CSH program that causes a "long-term negative read" is presented in the GCHQ emails as follows: "details various alleged suspicions related to the initiative, claiming that it is a vehicle for GCHQ and NCSC to spy and recruit children. It also critically reviews materials relevant to the program, such as lessons presented in courses and newsletters, with a mention of collaboration with law enforcement”.

It would be the second refusal of cooperation received by Declassified UK from state institutions.

In August, Declassified UK discovered that it had been "blacklisted" by the Ministry of Defense, when reporter Phil Miller was informed by a spokesman that the institution "no longer has links to its publication".

Phil Miller had contacted the Defense Ministry's press office to request a comment on the arrest of a soldier, Ahmed al Babati, near Downing Street, accused of protesting against the United Kingdom's involvement in the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia.

Initially, Miller was promised information, but later the press office questioned him about "how to approach the war in Yemen," and was eventually told that the office was no longer affiliated with Declassified UK.

Matt Kennard considers the attitude of the Ministry of Defense comes after the material published by Declassified UK regarding the "royal air force that trains Saudi personnel with fighter jets used to bomb civilians in Yemen" and the one that talks about "British intelligence agencies that train spies from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt”.

The International Press Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting and protecting press freedom, called on the UK Ministry of Defense to clarify the media's selective approach to providing information, and the Council of Europe issued a level 2 "media freedom" alert, a threat "with a major effect on the freedom of the media", the source of the threat being the British state.

Thus, the Defense secretary, Ben Wallace, has cancelled the “black list” and asked for an independent review of the case, and the Defense Ministry apologized for not providing Phil Miller the required response.

Despite the unfriendly attitude from the government, the Declassified UK continues to choose topics that will general “long-term negative reads”.

On December 3, Phil Miller published an article according to which, last year, the British military supplied 2,323 spare parts for Tornado fighter jets to a Saudi arms company, despite the existence of a court order regarding the export of weapons that could be used in the war in Yemen.

Translated by Andreea Soare