Monday, April 09, 2012
An example of secret "justice" in action
The debate over instituting secret trials for "security" reasons in Britain has thrown up under parliamentary privilege an example of the abuses such trials make possible
Despite the years of cruel reality, Margaret Bentham still seemed incredulous as she told her story, a story she once thought she could never share. But with quiet dignity she summed up the ordeal she and her businessman husband Stuart, a former British Army officer, have endured at the hands of the CIA.
‘We were robbed of a business worth millions,’ she said. ‘We were plunged into financial ruin. But the worst thing was, not only were we deprived of justice, we couldn’t tell a soul.’ In an exclusive interview, Mrs Bentham told The Mail on Sunday how the CIA decided a civil court case about the Afghan mobile phone company he had helped to establish was too ‘sensitive’ to air in public.
It used draconian legal powers to shut down the case – so destroying not only the Benthams’ livelihood, but any prospect of redress after Mr Bentham alleged the company had been stolen from him.
The background to the alleged fraud against Mr Bentham, 63, and his business partner Lord Michael Cecil, 52, a brother of the Marquess of Salisbury, goes back to 1998, when they went into business with Ehsanollah Bayat.
Mr Davis described him in the Commons as ‘a Kabul-born American citizen on friendly terms with the highest echelons of the Taliban government and particularly its leader, Mullah Omar’.
Mr Bayat had the connections to acquire the licence to build Afghanistan’s first mobile phone, internet and international call system – Mr Bentham and Lord Michael the business expertise.
But, as Mr Davis said, Mr Bayat had a secret: he was an informant for the FBI, the main US domestic counter- terrorism force. The link made an opening for Operation Foxden, a scheme the FBI planned to run jointly with the National Security Agency (NSA), the US electronic eavesdropping organisation.
The NSA offered $30 million and technical assistance, said Mr Davis. The plan was to build extra circuits into all the equipment installed, enabling the US to ‘record or listen live to every single landline and mobile phone call in Afghanistan’ and ‘monitor the telephone gateways channelling international calls in and out of the country – gateways already being used by Bin Laden, Mullah Omar and their associates, thanks to the satellite phones given by Mr Bayat to Taliban ministers as gifts’.
By the beginning of 2000, after all the main partners had made several visits to Afghanistan, the project was at an advanced stage, and could have been fully functional within months – 18 months or more before 9/11.
Recently, Mr Bayat has claimed he never had connections with US security agencies or the pre-9/11 Taliban government. But Mrs Bentham said that in the Nineties he seemed to make no secret of such links.
‘I remember one time when we flew in to Newark, New Jersey, and Bayat met us off the plane,’ she said. ‘He was with two FBI agents. We went to their office. Then they took me to the station so I could go shopping in New York while they had their meeting.’
But just as the project seemed to be on the brink of coming to fruition, it was wrecked by what Mr Davis termed a ‘turf war’ between the FBI and NSA on one side, and the CIA, which wanted to control it.
The consequence, as the agencies bickered in Washington, was that nothing happened for 20 months. By the time these bureaucratic obstacles had been cleared, it was too late.
A meeting to get the scheme going again, attended by Mr Bentham and Lord Michael, took place in New York in a hotel overlooking the World Trade Centre on September 8, 2001 – three days before the attacks.
Mr Davis commented: ‘Of course, we cannot say for certain that if US intelligence agencies had managed to tap the Afghan phone network sooner, we would have intercepted evidence in time to stop the 9/11 attacks, but it seems quite likely.’
After 9/11, the Taliban were toppled by US-led forces. Very soon after that, Lord Michael, Mr Bentham and their colleagues, working with Mr Bayat’s company Telephone Systems International (TSI), installed the very network that had been planned two years earlier. The Britons ordered and paid for most of the equipment and ran the project out of London.
Once operational in April 2002, the firm became a licence to print money and is now said to be worth about £700 million.
The Mail on Sunday has copies of official US documents, signed by Mr Bayat in May 2002, stating that Mr Bentham and Lord Michael each were entitled to 15 per cent of the shares: their holdings, in other words, should now each be worth more than £100 million.
Instead, said Mrs Bentham, she and her husband are in straitened circumstances, and live in a rented house, dependent for holidays on hospitable friends.
‘We were living a very comfortable life. And then it changed completely. We had no idea what we were dealing with, and the terrifying thing is what happened to us could happen to anyone.’
In the autumn of 2002, having offered to buy out Mr Bentham and Lord Michael for a ‘derisory’ sum that did not even cover the cost of the equipment they bought, Mr Bayat sued them for ‘deceit and conspiracy’, and, simultaneously, simply denied they had any legal entitlement to shares in TSI.
They had copious documentation, and, their lawyers believed, a cast-iron case. But as Mr Davis told MPs, this was no ordinary commercial squabble: ‘The US intelligence agencies feared the consequences if the truth about their infighting emerged and they were determined to stop that truth from emerging.’
First, they offered Bayat $1 million for his legal fight – part of a more general plan to exclude British citizens and British agencies from the ongoing phone intelligence operation. Then, when the Britons’ lawyers refused to back down, ‘CIA officers threatened them, warning the whole case would be shut down if they continued’.
Finally, in November 2004, came the use of the State Secrets Privilege. The effect was not only to close down the case immediately, but to expunge all trace from court records.
Lord Michael and Mr Bentham were subject to a gagging order so severe that when they tried to reopen the case in London, they were forbidden on pain of contempt of court from discussing any aspect of the intelligence background with their own lawyers.
Although there were hearings in London, which the Britons lost for technical legal reasons, the British courts had little idea of what had actually happened. ‘The State Secrets Privilege meant that the US agencies were restricting what could be said in court in England,’ Mrs Bentham said.
‘I couldn’t speak to friends, and I felt pretty sure our phone calls and emails were being monitored. Meanwhile, legal fees meant we were facing a colossal drain on our cash. Imagine: you have to sell your home, but you can’t tell anyone why.
‘So we just stopped going out socially, because people would ask, “How are things?” and we couldn’t even begin to answer. It’s only now, after the parliamentary debate, that at last people know.’
The worst moment, she recalled, was when the State Secrets Privilege was deployed. ‘They showed the judge some kind of statement that we couldn’t see, and he shut down the case next day for reasons we weren’t allowed to read. And that’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen here if the Green Paper becomes law.’
Later, she said, the Benthams’ American lawyers asked a US judge whether their British lawyers could see the secret judgment and gagging order in strict confidentiality, so that at least they could advise them whether they should try to pursue the case in London. The judge refused.
They also tried to get the State Secrets Privilege reversed in a federal US appeals court. They lost again – and the appeal court’s 17-page decision is also strictly secret.
Mrs Bentham said: ‘The lesson is that the US legal system is perfectly willing to condone the theft of our assets. What gets me is that one of the main reasons the British Government has justified the Green Paper is to protect American secrets.’
At the end of the Commons debate, Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne gave the Benthams a glimmer of hope. He said the Prime Minister had been aware of their plight for months and would in due course respond to their representations.
Meanwhile, Mr Davis said the case highlighted a fundamental inequality between Britain and the US: that American agencies could apparently dictate what British citizens could talk about in British courts – even the very use of the State Secrets Privilege which had enabled such secrecy in the first place.
‘It’s just not good enough to say that restricting the Green Paper proposals to national security cases will make them less obnoxious,’ Mr Davis said yesterday. ‘Once you let security trump the rule of law, injustice such as this is inevitable.’
More nastiness from small-time British bureaucrats
When Donna Air made an innocent mistake, she was labelled a Mini-Madoff and carted off to trial. Here she reveals the indignity of standing in the dock - only to be cleared on grounds of being a little bit ditzy.
Sitting in the dock at Isleworth Crown Court last week, the gravity of the situation became all too apparent for television presenter and model Donna Air.
Fortunately for Donna, however, she was not about to feel the full wrath of the law – the jury found her resoundingly innocent, and with astonishing speed, reaching their decision in just three minutes.
Their haste exposed Kensington and Chelsea Council’s pursuit of the Hotel Babylon star over an invalid parking permit to be as ridiculous as it was alarming. The 32-year-old mother of one and her family were put through seven months of worry after they failed to convince authorities that rather than fraud she was, in fact, guilty only of an honest mistake.
Quite simply, the jury found that Donna did not apply for parking permits for two different London boroughs in an attempt to save thousands of pounds in street parking fees. Rather, she had one property in each borough and did not realise that the rules forbid having two permits.
Trifling as it all sounds, the case has attracted attention from television and newspapers around the country. Their interest was stirred not solely by the clumsy way that councils can handle a simple error, but also by a quip made by Donna’s barrister, Benn Maguire. Addressing the bemused court, he said of the presenter: ‘There was not a lot going on in her head.’ Intent on whipping up a dramatic reaction, the affable barrister warned no one that he was planning to make the remark – not even his client.
The quip quickly led to a few predictable headlines about ‘Donna Airhead’, but if she was upset she has done well to hide it. Perhaps that is unsurprising, given it was one of the tactics employed by shrewd Mr Maguire to help secure the not guilty verdict.
‘I was like, thanks for that,’ says Donna with the characteristic jolliness that has helped her forge her successful career. ‘But I’m not offended. I fully understand the point he was making, that there was not a lot going on in my head at that time and certainly not the far-fetched, ludicrous crime I was being accused of.’
Scratch beneath her words, however, and it becomes clear that the months of strain created by a looming court appearance and the threat of a suspended prison sentence have taken their toll on the presenter.
Her experience is all the more shocking as it is a nightmare any one of us could find ourselves in over something as simple as failing to read the small print on an application form.
In her first and only interview about the trial, Donna, who is reluctant to talk about the case and has vowed never to do so again, has spoken exclusively to The Mail on Sunday.
She says: ‘I never lied. I never tried to cover up anything. We couldn’t believe that the council’s own legal team would let it go to trial. ‘I feel there should be steps in place to avoid cases like mine coming to trial at such huge expense to the taxpayer.’
This is a subject particularly close to her heart given that she has, she says, paid tax since she was ten years old and started her career as an actress on children’s television series Byker Grove.
Although it is not known exactly how much the three-day trial cost, as the prosecution was ordered to pay Donna’s defence fees, she is convinced the bill reached six figures. It seems an extraordinary amount for a case that began in January last year when Donna bought a £110 resident’s parking permit.
She had recently moved to an apartment she owns in Holland Park, Kensington and Chelsea.
Previously, she had been living in Pimlico, in the borough of Westminster, but when her tenants in the Holland Park property left in a hurry without paying their rent, she decided to change her main residence. After the move she applied for a second parking permit, which she says she had no idea was against regulations.
‘I displayed both parking permits on my windscreen at the same time, and after I moved to Kensington and Chelsea I didn’t use the Westminster parking permit again,’ says Donna, who still seems stunned at how seriously the council responded to the case.
Power-mad petty bureaucrats in Australia too
The owner and the chef of Cafe Garema just asked for advice. Now they have a large red closure sign on the window of their popular cafe in the heart of the city centre.
The ACT Health Protection Service rang owner Johnny Yang on March 30 at 3pm and told him to close the business after conducting an inspection at lunchtime.
At 4pm, health inspectors, accompanied by two police officers, turned up to the cafe and issued Mr Yang with 12 orders to be carried out before the business could reopen.
Mr Yang and chef Glenn Tranda, who has worked in the restaurant and cafe trade for about two decades, did not expect to be closed, as they had been given no warning at previous inspections.
They believe an inconsistent message from ACT Health Protection Service is partly to blame. "They should have given us a warning, especially given that we asked for their advice," Mr Yang, who took over the cafe in June last year, said.
A health inspector had visited Cafe Garema in December. Mr Tranda said he told the inspector about a rotting floor in the upstairs food preparation and storage area - a result of rival kitchens being located underneath - and advised that it would be fixed by mid-March. "They gave us three months to replace the floor," he said.
Then in mid-March, two weeks before the cafe closed, an inspection was conducted and Mr Yang was issued with a notice about a continued cockroach problem and a stainless steel splashback.
"They didn't find cockroaches," Mr Tranda said. "He asked, 'How's the cockroach situation?' I said, 'Well, all the traps are still in place. I'm changing them every three days. We're spraying every day and I'm still bombing.' "He didn't say anything further.
"Bar maybe a dirty knife on the bench, some breadcrumbs on the floor and something had spilt in the cool room just before lunch … we assumed they were the only problems we were going to have."
Mr Tranda believes the service should have provided more timely advice and given the cafe two weeks to fix many of the "five minute jobs" contained in the orders.
"Why last Friday did they make all of these decisions, when the gentleman had been here two weeks before and it says on [the notice] cockroaches and a stainless steel splashback," he said.
He said the installation of two handbasins - not raised as a problem until the day of the closure - would take a few more days as they were being ordered from Melbourne. A replacement for a broken upstairs ceiling fan would also take several days because local stores did not have the correct size.
Mr Yang and Mr Tranda hope to reopen as early as Wednesday.
Australia's war on drugs has failed too
By Nicholas Cowdery (a former public prosecutor)
Australia 21's report on drug law reform restarts a public conversation that has been dormant for many long years while the problem has persisted. It is not a blueprint (although such blueprints exist), nor a list of recommendations. When we have that conversation, the public will be able to take proposals to the politicians for their responses.
For decades we have pursued a policy of drug prohibition, with the exception of alcohol and tobacco (and caffeine). It really began in 1903. Then the US president Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs" on June 17, 1971 - as an election campaign ploy. In 1985 Australia adopted the National Drug Strategy, built around supply reduction, demand reduction and harm reduction - all worthy pursuits - and we have had real success in reducing some harms from drugs.
But the policy of prohibition has failed. It failed in the US when they tried it for alcohol from 1920 to 1933; all that did was eliminate the beer market in favour of bootleg spirits. It failed when alcohol was prohibited to Aborigines between the 1850s and 1960s. As long as there is a demand for something - as there always has been and will be for mood-altering drugs, including alcohol and nicotine - there will always be a supply.
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Suppliers of prohibited drugs take risks and they charge for that. If they are successful, they make enormous profits. So prices are inflated and consumers often steal to obtain the money with which to pay them. Criminals engage in turf wars and the corruption of law enforcement to protect their markets.
In a black market there are no product standards. Buyers do not know the quality or quantity of the drug they are buying. Because the drugs are illegal, they are consumed clandestinely - underground. The equipment used and conditions of use are often unsanitary. Users do not openly discuss it - children cannot discuss it with their parents. Support is bypassed.
The prohibition of drugs itself breeds disease, death, crime and corruption. No matter how much we have thrown at it over the decades, drugs now are more plentiful, more available, more potent and cheaper than ever before. Every large seizure just opens up a business opportunity for another criminal.
Make no mistake - drugs can be had by anyone with the price. So much for "prohibition".
When a policy is failing to produce its intended effect, what should we do? Change it, of course! But to what? That is the question.
Different drugs have different effects, are consumed in different circumstances and should be treated in different ways. That's the first problem - it is not a case of "one size fits all". We deal with alcohol and nicotine, both very harmful drugs, openly and officially. Only by legalising, regulating, controlling and taxing them can we secure any benefits.
We are having success with nicotine - the death rate has been halved in 25 years and we have yet to go to plain packaging. We have small successes with alcohol by restricting opening hours and consumption - but there are still serious harms. Bringing other drugs out into the open might not eliminate all the harm the drugs can do but it will help to address them and it will eliminate the additional harm caused by prohibition itself.
Heroin could be prescribed in Australia until 1953 - it still can be in Britain and parts of Europe, where it is used for the relief of otherwise intractable pain and for weaning addicts away from it. Better that an addict gets clean, regulated, affordable doses (a dose can be made for about $2 and we grow it in Tasmania) in an environment of support and assistance.
Cannabis also has pain-relieving properties and naturally grown marijuana is less harmful than nicotine. Regulated supplies could avoid the hydroponically enhanced and more dangerous weed - linked with mental disturbance because of its altered chemical balance.
Then it gets tricky. What to do with ecstasy? Cocaine? Amphetamines? That is why we need to have this conversation. Until we do, those drugs will also continue to be used without controls.
No responsible commentator is suggesting that all drugs should be available to everybody at the supermarket (although that would be a safer outlet than the lottery played by buyers at present). But the only way to reduce the harm presently caused by prohibition (on top of the harm of drugs) is to take the profit out of the market. The only effective way to do that is to have the state take it over.
Licences for production and distribution would be difficult to obtain and easy to lose. Control would be stringent. Age limits would apply (yes, minors do get their hands on alcohol and nicotine - no system is foolproof). Quality would be assured. Price would be cost plus marketing plus modest profit and tax (and the tax could be directed at treatment).
There would still be bootleggers, of course - chancers out for a profit. So the criminal law would still have a job to do but it would be much reduced. About 10 per cent of tobacco in Australia is bootlegged and there are laws to deal with that.
So let's get talking about it! Maybe a good starting point is to consider the Portuguese decriminalisation model. It works.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.