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A security assessment

Andy Newman


My professional expertise is in security. It is not often that this is useful in my private life. However the infiltration of the SWP for a year by two BNP members (Joe Finnon and Diane Stoker) should give us all cause for self examination. The most important thing to say is that this is an attack on the whole left, and we must stand in solidarity with the SWP comrades. Now is not the time for point scoring. The last thing we need now is for the SWP to feel that this is being used a stick to beat them by the rest of the left. The SWP are our comrades and we must stand together.

I have carried out a limited investigation, by trawling the web and also by e-mail and telephone conversations with some people I know in Manchester. The observations below are I some places critical of the SWP, but only because they were the target of attack. Similar and perhaps worse criticisms could be made of most of us on the left.

For anyone who wants to get to grips with the subject of security I would recommend any book by Bruce Schneier of Counterpane security. For those with a more detailed interest I strongly recommend the book "Security Engineering" by the British academic Ross Anderson.

To subscribe to Schneier's excellent free newsletter, send a blank e-mail to:
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The first rule of security is to carry out a vulnerability analysis, thinking about who your adversaries are, what their capabilities are and what threat it represents to you. In the jargon you need both threat modelling and risk assessment. As Bruce Schneier says, you need to decide whether your opponent is the NSA (American National Security Agency) or your kid sister, and adopt security measures proportionate to the risk. You need a security policy.

Of course once security is breached you need to reappraise the whole situation.

Also in terms of security analysis we need to be dispassionate, and not jumble in political judgements, or questions of face saving or prestige. That is what our adversaries in the state do; that is what we need to do. The most common flaw in security is to look at your organisation and its behaviour from the perspective of an insider, for example believing that the chain of command is actually the way decisions are made and implemented, instead of doing a more nuanced analysis of the real human relationships involved. A skilled adversary will exploit the gap between how you think you do things, and how you actually do things.

There are also different levels of risk. Some threats may expose you to risk that degrades your performance, some threats may expose you to the threat of physical danger, and some threats may be mission critical.

For a revolutionary left organisation it is legitimate that they concentrate most on threats that ultimately compromise their ability to organise a challenge to state power (the mission critical risk). In this regard it is a shame that when comrades discuss security they seem locked in a time warp discussing the capabilities of the Tsar's Okhranka. Trust me, the state has moved on since then! The capabilities of the ECHELON project run out of Cheltenham on behalf of the US and UK governments in terms of communications surveillance is simply awesome. It is best to operate in the assumption that the state knows, or could know if it wanted to do, everything about your organisations, the chain of command (the real one as well as the formal one) and the decisions you are making. The state doesn't need the membership lists anymore: methods of analysis are much more sophisticated now and can automatically trawl networks for patterns of telephone and email exchan ges.

I was however very impressed by the ingenuity of the Taliban on relying upon verbal messages carried by horse riding couriers! I was also impressed by the idea attributed to Al Qaeda of implanting messages in the bit maps of pornographic images on the web, so that when the picture is viewed it looked normal, but when downloaded you could view the bitwise information and decode the message. This allegedly defies chain of command analysis because of the huge dilution effect where innocent porn addicts would swamp the tiny number of hits from Al Qaeda operatives 

 Some of the discussion on the left has been about whether the SWP's policy of open recruitment is to blame. We shouldn't confuse the political issues with the security ones. Candidate membership just means that the infiltrators need to be more patient and learn a little more background. The recent scam where the Ukrainian section of the CWI conned various other left groups around the world out of money and resources shows that this is entirely plausible. Reading the chat room discussions about this attack, (where SWP members who knew the individuals have contributed) it is clear that both of the moles were liked and trusted. The number of letters and articles by the moles in Socialist Worker and Socialist Review shows that they were adept at parodying the politics of the SWP.

The moles did a good enough job, especially as they seem to be individuals of little talent. They became trusted enough for Joe Finnon to became NW regional treasurer for Respect! This was poor judgement even if he hadn't been a mole. He was a young and apparently dippy lad who presumably had the usual money worries of a student. What were the comrades thinking of?

The foolishness of the BNP moles can be seen by the fact that Diane Stoker posted to the chat room Urban75 (and the Mancs SWSS web page) trying to explain herself, and ending "see some of you soon xxxx". The tone was genuine naivety and not taunting. These postings have both now been taken down. The SWP seems to have pushed forward two very untalented individuals, and invested a lot of time trying to develop them.

What this episode reveals is that the SWP have little security awareness. They pay lip service to security, but self delusion about the present political period is clouding their judgement. As John Nicholson has pointed out, these two seemed to be the only notable recruits of Manchester SWP over the last year, but for those of us who have been reading Socialist Worker, and the internal "Party Notes"  during that period will know that the SWP are pumped up about the prospects for growth. I can see that where experience is starkly contradicting the theoretical expectation then a slight desperation could lead them to viewing these infiltrators through rose tinted specs.

I have to say that objectively the SWP is a very secure organisation. If we consider the network of relationships that runs in parallel with the ostensible chain of command, then there is a lot of horizontal networking between trusted comrades who have been in the organisation for donkey's years and who trust each other based upon long personal involvement, and in most cases actual achievement organising in the working class. In most cases the SWP in the provinces behaves relatively autonomously, and many experienced comrades try to minimise their contact with the centre and full timers.

Whatever your political judgement, it is my professional judgement as a security analyst that this is a robust arrangement, and if these comrades communicate face to face then they can maintain confidentiality. Perhaps the state may have an "asset" in this trusted middle cadre of the SWP, but it would have needed to be a very patient mole prepared to work for 20 years for very little reward.  

 If we are being dispassionate in our analysis of the SWP we could observe that the leading comrades of the central committee are politically insulated by full-time organisers who have typically risen through student politics, although some have been trade union activists. State infiltration of the full time organisers would be less effort, but I still think it unlikely they would bother at present, given that they can assess the risk from the SWP from its public press. I have at home some Economic League reports from the 1980s, which was a private espionage organisation that sold details of industrial militants to employers' organisations. Most of the content was simply lifted from Socialist Worker, the Militant and the Morning Star.

Of course any organisation is only a strong as the loyalty of its members. Years ago IS industrial organiser Roger Rosewell left the group and drifted to the right, in the course of which he betrayed information to employers' organisations about trade union militants (not all of them in the IS/SWP) that led to victimisations and sackings. (A more famous defection from the left to the far right is Benito Mussolini, former editor of Socialist Newspaper Avanti). There is not much we can do about personal betrayals.

The Rosewell case is still an important example because it reveals a serious risk. Infiltrators may gain knowledge about trade union activists that could compromise their employment. We all need to be aware of that. The article in the May/June issue of BNP paper "Voice of Freedom" exposes the place of work of well respected Manchester SWP activist, Clive Searle and effectively argues that he should be sacked for bringing his school into disrepute. This story presumably came from the moles.

Clearly, the two BNP infiltrators have gained access to a lot of names and addresses, whatever the SWP say. It is naive to assume that they haven't. There is very worrying complacency from the SWP here. The Morning Star report includes an interview with John Rees and Weyman Bennet that says: "campaigners said that they are not worried about any vital or confidential information being leaked by Mr Finnon and Ms Stoker "because our activities are public knowledge."" Although the Morning Star claims that "The Manchester branches of the Respect coalition, Unite Against Fascism and the Socialist Workers Party ...warned people who had campaigned alongside these infiltrators to be vigilant about security". This is not true, activists in Manchester say the SWP has been completely silent. Postings by SWP member s on the chat room Urban75 and Indymedia reveal that they do not take the issue seriously at all. For example, one SWP student, on the same course as Joe Finnon claims: "As some one named in the [BNP webpage] article perhaps people will listen to me on this one. I'm going to say very little as its our internal issue and frankly none off your business." Another SWP member has posted that they will not advise non-SWP members who went to the Marxism school of the risk. I hope that these are low level members speaking out of turn.

It is excellent that the NW Green Party has taken the matter by the horns and has organised a meeting with the SWP where it wants to discuss in depth what details of Green party members may have been compromised. Labour movement bodies in the NW, including trade unions, should do the same. If the SWP took this as seriously as they should they would organise an independent Labour Movement commission to study what the BNP know. For example they could ask someone like Glyn Ford MEP to participate alongside an independent socialist from Manchester like John Nicholson, and a member of the SWP's own control commission.

Certainly the message does not seem to have got through to the SWP rank and file that this is serious. An SWP member who posts to Indymedia under the name "Sonic" says that the infiltration is of little consequence as the Fascist could have got names and addresses from the phone book, and the worst thing the SWP could do would be change its pattern of activity.

They seem to have forgotten that the BNP have violent fascists within their ranks. For example, BNP member and Liverpool gangster Joey Owens was convicted in 1982 for sending razor blades through the post to Jews in Liverpool. Are the SWP not even going to advise people of this risk to everyone who signed their petitions?

The BNP now know the routine of the SWP and much of the rest of the left. They know which pubs people drink in. they know when and where there may be just one or two individuals on an early morning paper sale. They perhaps know details of individuals' private lives or their finances that could leave people open to blackmail or duress. They may know details about people under threat of deportation by the home office. At the very least the SWP needs to think through all these risks and vary its routine activity.

It also needs to challenge its attitude to other activists. In the Morning Star John Rees said: "that he regretted the incident, but pointed out that, ironically, the infiltrators did "more to help than stop us from fighting fascism." He added: "We got more work out of them than anything else." If you speak to activists in Manchester, not only the socialist left, but also the Manchester Social Forum activists it is clear that the least 12 months have seen a marked deterioration in relationships and trust between the SWP and the rest of the left. This is the political context in which two BNP moles did not strike anyone as out of place.

There are some other important security lessons to learn. I take with a pinch of salt some of the details appearing in the chat-rooms, but they certainly should be considered. According to the Urban75 chat-room, it was detected in May or June that fascist messages were being posted from the same computer (same IP address) used by "Eugin Levine", the pseudonym used by another SWP member on the same chemistry course as Joe Finnon. But once it was revealed that this was a university IP address no further action was taken. This was very complacent, as this pointed the finger at a fascist very close to "Eugin Levine" and Joe Finnon.

We also learn from Urban75 that Diane Stoker rang Workers Power comrades and told them that Tony Wentworth, BNP student organiser, was in a Mancs pub and would they get down there. When they arrived they ended up being questioned by waiting police. Allegedly they smelled a rat at the time but didn't put two and two together. The relationship between the two fascist moles and Workers Power is intriguing, because we know that at the June National Committee meeting of the SWP, Lindsay German accused Manchester SWP of having been infiltrated by WP. I wonder if there is a connection. It is necessary for Manchester SWP and Workers Power comrades to sit down together and exchange information in a spirit of genuine cooperation.

In conclusion.
This is a very sad affair for us all. It will also have given Nick Griffin a boost and will have put a spring in the step of BNP activists. There is a psychological aspect to this that will be understood by the fascists but not by most of the left.

In the world of football hooligans there is great deal of kudos in "taking liberties". That is, drinking and having a fight in a rival "firms" local pub, or in some other way crossing the line in an imagined turf war. As the BNP will see it the SWP have shown themselves to be a soft touch.

Some but not all of the blame lies with the SWP. Most of us on the left have been complacent, and we need to review our behaviour accordingly.

 

August 2004

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