Archive for the ‘Articles’ Category

Article: Wikileaks cables expose Saudi sex parties

Friday, December 10th, 2010

WikiLeaks cables: Saudi princes throw parties boasting drink, drugs and sex
Guardian, Tuesday 7 December 2010
By Heather Brooke

Royals flout puritanical laws to throw parties for young elite while religious police are forced to turn a blind eye

In what may prove a particularly incendiary cable, US diplomats describe a world of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll behind the official pieties of Saudi Arabian royalty.

Jeddah consulate officials described an underground Halloween party, thrown last year by a member of the royal family, which broke all the country’s Islamic taboos. Liquor and prostitutes were present in abundance, according to leaked dispatches, behind the heavily-guarded villa gates.

The party was thrown by a wealthy prince from the large Al-Thunayan family. The diplomats said his identity should be kept secret. A US energy drinks company also put up some of the finance.

“Alcohol, though strictly prohibited by Saudi law and custom, was plentiful at the party’s well-stocked bar. The hired Filipino bartenders served a cocktail punch using sadiqi, a locally-made moonshine,” the cable said. “It was also learned through word-of-mouth that a number of the guests were in fact ‘working girls’, not uncommon for such parties.”

The dispatch from the US partygoers, signed off by the consul in Jeddah, Martin Quinn, added: “Though not witnessed directly at this event, cocaine and hashish use is common in these social circles.”

Article: Profile on Wikileaks suspect Bradley Manning

Friday, December 10th, 2010

WikiLeaks cables: Bradley Manning faces 52 years in jail
Guardian, 30 November 2010
By Robert Booth, Heather Brooke and Steven Morris

Bradley Manning, a US army intelligence analyst, is suspected of leaking more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.

Bradley Manning will wake up tomorrow, at a military base in Virginia, to his 189th day in custody for the alleged leak of more than 250,000 diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks.

Manning, 23, a US army intelligence analyst brought up in the Oklahoma Bible belt and west Wales, is locked up with about half a dozen others in the marine-run facility in Quantico. He has had access to TV news and briefings from his lawyer, but little can have prepared him for the fury of the government he served about the impact of the cables leak.

Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said it “tore at the fabric of government” and pledged “aggressive steps to hold responsible those who stole this information”. Republicans branded it terrorism.


Article: Prince Andrew – the ‘rude’ Brit abroad

Friday, December 10th, 2010

WikiLeaks cables: ‘Rude’ Prince Andrew shocks US ambassador
Guardian, 29 November 2010
By David Leigh, Heather Brooke and Rob Evans

Duke railed against France, British anti-corruption investigations into BAE and American ignorance, leaked dispatches reveal.

Prince Andrew launched a scathing attack on British anticorruption investigators, journalists and the French during an “astonishingly candid” performance at an official engagement that shocked a US diplomat.

Tatiana Gfoeller, Washington’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, recorded in a secret cable that Andrew spoke “cockily” at the brunch with British and Canadian business people, leading a discussion that “verged on the rude”.

During the two-hour engagement in 2008 at a hotel in the capital, Bishkek, Andrew, who travels the globe as a special UK trade representative, attacked Britain’s corruption investigators in the Serious Fraud Office for what he called “idiocy”.

He went on to denounce Guardian reporters investigating bribery as “those (expletive) journalists … who poke their noses everywhere”.


Article: The Revolution will be Digitised

Friday, December 10th, 2010

WikiLeaks: The revolution has begun – and it will be digitised
Guardian, 29 November 2010
By Heather Brooke

The web is changing the way in which people relate to power, and politics will have no choice but to adapt too.

Diplomacy has always involved dinners with ruling elites, backroom deals and clandestine meetings. Now, in the digital age, the reports of all those parties and patrician chats can be collected in one enormous database. And once collected in digital form, it becomes very easy for them to be shared.

Indeed, that is why the Siprnet database – from which these US embassy cables are drawn – was created in the first place. The 9/11 commission had made the remarkable discovery that it wasn’t sharing information that had put the nation’s security at risk; it was not sharing information that was the problem. The lack of co-operation between government agencies, and the hoarding of information by bureaucrats, led to numerous “lost opportunities” to stop the 9/11 attacks. As a result, the commission ordered a restructuring of government and intelligence services to better mimic the web itself. Collaboration and information-sharing was the new ethos. But while millions of government officials and contractors had access to Siprnet, the public did not.

But data has a habit of spreading. It slips past military security and it can also leak from WikiLeaks, which is how I came to obtain the data. It even slipped past the embargoes of the Guardian and other media organisations involved in this story when a rogue copy of Der Spiegel accidentally went on sale in Basle, Switzerland, on Sunday. Someone bought it, realised what they had, and began scanning the pages, translating them from German to English and posting updates on Twitter. It would seem digital data respects no authority, be it the Pentagon, WikiLeaks or a newspaper editor.


Article: The courts are open but justice is a closed book

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

The courts are open but justice is a closed book
The Times, 28 July 2010

By Heather Brooke

We are denied even the barest details of what goes on in supposedly public legal proceedings

Last week I had an encounter with open justice. I was attending the Information Tribunal hearing of a friend who is trying to peel back layers of secrecy surrounding allegations that the Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust had a history of silencing whistleblowing staff by offering them public money to sign confidentiality or ‘gagging’ contracts.

I’ve been to the Tribunal before when I was fighting for the release of MPs’ expenses and that’s when I discovered the only record of proceedings of this so-called “open” people’s court (the Tribunals are meant to be a less formal, more accessible form of justice) were my scribbled notes. When it came time to write a script for a dramatised version of the hearing my notes and those of other reporters were all we had to go on. I’d asked at the time if I could tape record the hearing and was told “no”.

This time I decided to press harder. The rhetoric of the English legal system is that justice must be seen to be done so why are the public forbidden – under threat of jail – from recording a verbatim account of proceedings? Not only that, rules are so opaque and obscure that court reporters struggle to report cases with any degree of accuracy or depth. And that is when there is a reporter in court, which these days is a rarity – there used to be 25 reporters covering national courts for the Press Association; by 2009 there were only four.

We are paying nearly £1.5 billion for the court service plus £2.1billion for legal aid and the salaries of nearly 1000 senior judicial officers. It’s a high price, but to be honest not enough to adequately fund the system. However, if we’re going to invest in the judiciary it’s vital we understand where our money is going and receive some benefit for our considerable contribution. The least we might have is an account of proceedings held in open court.

Anisa Dhanji, the judge, said she was concerned with the hearing being recorded. ‘Usually such requests are made in advance so the tribunal can maintain the necessary degree of control over the transcript.’

“Control” is exactly what a court shouldn’t be exerting. Once it is decided that it is open, there should be no restriction on how that open hearing is processed. She went on to say that she’d allow me to record now but I’d have to wait for a future ruling before I could “use” the recording.

The next day in court the Judge announced she’d made her ruling.
“Please turn your tape recorder off,” she said, looking sternly at me over her glasses. I did so.

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Royal appetite for secrecy can only invite scandal
By Heather Brooke
Guardian, 25 May 2010

The exemption from scrutiny under Freedom of Information shows the status gap between crown and public interest

Where there’s secrecy, there’s scandal. The two certainly go hand in hand in the picture painted by the weekend’s News of the World video that shows Sarah Ferguson accepting a $40,000 briefcase of cash while promising that, for a £500,000 backhander, she would provide an introduction to trade envoy Prince Andrew.

Any claims by the royal family to distance themselves from these shady dealings are undermined by their aversion to transparency. Among the laws rushed through in the “wash-up” of the last government was a change to the Freedom of Information Act granting an absolute ban on all communications with the royal family and royal household. Prior to this such information was still exempt but if there was a public interest in the material, it had to be disclosed.

That exemption meant, for example, one could argue that, as the billpayer, the public has a right to know the detail of how the £7.9m from the civil list is spent, about the additional £15m spent to maintain the royal palaces, and the estimated £50m spent on royal security.

July will see the announcement of a new civil list settlement. There are rumours the royals are asking to double the amount to more than £15m. In the information blackout, facts are few and far between. We will only know the deal when it is done. As Graham Smith, campaign manager of the pressure group Republic, says: “We have no idea if these rumours are true. We aren’t allowed any information about what the palace is lobbying for, or on what grounds.”

A sharp focus on CCTV

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I wrote an investigative piece about the actual effectiveness of CCTV for the May issue of Wired Magazine (published in April). I have reprinted it below or you can see it in its full glory on the Wired website.

Investigation: A sharp focus on CCTV
By Heather Brooke|01 April 2010

As the major political parties jostle for position in the run-up to the general election, it’s clear that the way the next government monitors and controls information about us will fundamentally shape British society in the next decades.

Both the Blair and Brown administrations have pursued policies of setting up giant, centralised databases, such as the national Automatic Number plate Recognition (ANPR) system, which tracks vehicles through an expanding network of cameras across Britain’s roads, and the massive communications register behind the Interception Modernisation Programme, intended to log all UK telephone and internet traffic.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, have pledged to scrap the National Identity Register — a database that underlies the proposed ID card, which will store 50 items of personal information about every citizen — along with the children’s database, ContactPoint. (This extensive datastore, which was introduced after the Victoria Climbié inquiry in 2005, records every child’s name, gender, date of birth, address and parental contacts, along with educational and health details.) The Tories have also announced a scaling-back of the DNA database, in order to remove individuals who have never been convicted of a crime. Yet for all this maneuvering, the major parties have been uncharacteristically quiet on the most controversial of all the invasions of UK citizens’ privacy — CCTV.

Although it’s widely supposed that over the past decade there has been a significant increase in the number of surveillance cameras in the UK, it wasn’t until last year that hard numbers emerged via a Freedom of Information request. Big Brother Watch (, an anti-surveillance campaign group, found that the number of council-owned cameras had risen from 21,000 to 60,000 in less than ten years — equal to one CCTV camera for every 1,000 people in the country. Its report demonstrated a trebling of investment in local CCTV — even though Home Office research published in 2002 suggested that CCTV has a negligible impact on reducing crime.

Nevertheless, as public perception equates CCTV to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour, most MPs are happy to show up to the unveiling of a new surveillance system in their constituencies. The UK has more CCTV cameras per capita than any European country, yet figures released in July 2009 by the European Commission and United Nations showed Britain’s recorded rate of violent crime surpassed any other country in Europe. Does CCTV do anything to make us safer? If so, at what cost?

Electoral Secrecy

Monday, May 10th, 2010

I wrote a piece in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday about the secrecy and utter lack of accountability surrounding those public officials charged with overseeing UK elections.

Why election officials are a law unto themselves
Mail on Sunday, 9 May 2010

Anyone trying to find out what preparations were made for Thursday’s General Election would have encountered a wall of silence from the public officials in charge.

I know because I made these enquiries last year. I wanted to know how local councils were registering people to vote and whether the number was going up or down and why.
I wanted to know if there was any truth to a Data Sharing Review instigated by the Cabinet Office that stated voter registration was down due to worries that marketing companies would get voters’ names from the electoral role and send junk mail.

The review recommended scrapping the publicly available electoral roll so only state officials and some private companies could access it. The Government took up this recommendation and there is a consultation in place to abolish it.

This is of great concern. In a democracy it is essential that people can see who is registered to vote and where. Why? Well for a start, officials rarely expose voter fraud, it is normally ordinary people or the Press – it was a reporter who found there was only one occupant at a Tower Hamlets address where eight Bengalis were registered to vote.

If the public are going to be denied ready access to the public electoral roll then there ought to be very good reason. Instead I found the ‘evidence’ used in the report was non-existent. From my queries to local councils I discovered the recommendation to abolish the roll was based on fiction. Voter registration was not going down. This was made clear by the turnout at Thursday’s Election, up from 61.4 per cent in 2005 to 65.2 per cent.

But I discovered something more disturbing. The officials charged with compiling electoral registers and running elections were accountable to no one.

Article: Top cops’ pay should not be top secret

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Top cops, come clean
The Guardian, 10 August 2009
By Heather Brooke

Secrecy feeds suspicion of a boys’ club stitch-up. Chief constables need to be open on pay and perks

Secrecy can be sexy. It’s essential to any good mystery novel. But there should be no mystery surrounding the pay of top public officials. In October 2008 I made freedom of information requests to every police force in the country seeking the full extent of chief constables’ perks and pay. I’d heard rumours top cops weren’t just getting top salaries but all sorts of other benefits, from grace and favour homes to chauffeur-driven SUVs and private health insurance.

These perks may be perfectly acceptable – after all, it’s a tough job. What is not acceptable is the vault-like secrecy in which they are awarded. Several forces told me their chiefs refused bonuses out of principle. But of all those who accepted them only one force, North Wales, fully disclosed the amount.

Why the secrecy? The official reason is that disclosure would be an invasion of chiefs’ privacy. Here’s the response given by City of London police: “We do not believe that disclosing the exact value of the commissioner’s bonus will add significantly to the public interest. By contrast, given that the commissioner has refused consent to disclose and has a reasonable expectation that the exact value of his performance-related payment will remain confidential, we believe that disclosure would be prejudicial to the commissioner’s rights and freedoms or legitimate interests.”

What about the rights and freedoms of taxpayers to know how their money is spent? What about knowing the criteria on which these bonuses are awarded? Are chiefs paid for achieving political goals? For decreasing crime statistics? For increasing the number of ethnic minority officers? We just don’t know.

We saw what lay behind MPs’ cries of invasion of privacy. What might we find hidden behind police chiefs’ resistance? On Thursday we got a glimpse: the Belfast Telegraph published the results of a freedom of information request made by a former Police Federation chairman and member of the Northern Ireland policing board, Jimmy Spratt.

Spratt sought the compensation package of Northern Ireland’s outgoing chief constable Hugh Orde, who is now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He managed to unearth a compensation package that included rent-free living in a £600,000 luxury home (purchased at taxpayer expense) along with the payment of all utility bills, including phone bills, electricity, rates, heating and property maintenance. This is in addition to a salary of £183,954 plus an annual bonus of up to 15% of salary. Other extras included £360 a year for broadband, £600 for private healthcare, and membership fees for Acpo and the Chief Police Officers’ Staff Association, estimated to be £1,000 annually. Another £8,294 was claimed for oil and £13,413 for rates, while £33,904 was spent to repair “defective combined drainage system” and to replace the kitchen.

Now you might think that a member of the police board (the Northern Irish equivalent of a police authority) would know exactly what comprises a top cop’s compensation package, as the board approves it. Not so. Spratt tells me that when you have a £1.2bn budget “you can’t really keep track”.

It’s our data, make it accessible

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

It’s our data, make it accessible
The Guardian, Friday 19 June 2009
By Heather Brooke

It was rather like trying to do a Google search and getting your answers delivered as a truckload of blacked-out telephone directories. The information age may have arrived some decades ago but from the format of yesterday’s publication of MPs’ expenses, Parliament is so last century.

The 700,000 pages of scanned images put online in pdf were described by Sir Stuart Bell as a ‘great achievement’ for Parliament. And I suppose it is if you’re used to inscribing your words on animal skins.

If we truly aim to be an informed electorate then we need quick, direct access to the vast troves of information held not just within Parliament but all other public bodies.

We have moved on from static documents. For information to be useful it should be dynamic, searchable, and accessible. We book our own holidays not through a travel agent but though search engines where we can compare and find the best value flights, hotels and car rentals. We no longer call up librarians with our questions but type them into Google or post them on Twitter. We can compare prices between shops and even between countries. We no longer have to rely on traditional media for our news but can graze for it across the entire globe via the internet and the postings of millions of citizen journalists.

People are used to having great swathes of information at their fingertips, yet parliament still believes it can control both the collection of information and its presentation. Officials want to lock-down documents so they can never be altered without specific written consent. You look at most government websites and the information is micro-managed to an appalling degree. There are a few exceptions – the Electoral Commission website springs to mind – but for the most part, bureaucrats and politicians are loath to allow people direct access to the raw data.

It is this loathing that lies behind officials’ reliance on the pdf document. It is a format that is fixed and static. It cannot be analysed. So we cannot, without a great deal of effort, see how many MPs are funnelling expenses into certain companies or overall food bill. This is why the Guardian set up its own crowd-sourced spreadsheet so the data could be unlocked and made useful. What that means is more taxpayers spending more of their own time and money to fix a system built badly under the instruction of the Commons officials. A better solution would have been to throw open the data from the very beginning and elicit volunteers to help in the publication.

There are no shortage of interested and skilled volunteers. Just look at the number who have helped on the Guardian’s expense website and Tom Steinberg and the developers at MySociety have been banging on Parliament’s door for a long time. They built the websites TheyWorkForYou and PublicWhip among others. But it’s always a struggle to get the public sector to release information. I can vouch for that.

It shouldn’t be like this. This is our data. It belongs to us. We paid for it and it was collected in our name. Isn’t it time we had access to it?