Feature: Editor of Eye Spy magazine on the current state of espionage, intelligence, security in the UK

An interview with Mark Birdsall - editor of the only independent publication dedicated to espionage and intelligence shares the story behind the magazine, his take on the current state of espionage and security, and on global security issues - concluding that the probability of an attack or disruption at the 2012 Olympic Games is high.

Eye Spy Magazine

We interviewed Mark Birdsall – editor of Eye Spy magazine, on how the magazine came about, what his background is – and we asked him for his take on the biggest issues facing espionage, intelligence, and security right in 2012 – and about where the industry is heading.

How did Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine come about?

The idea of a magazine containing intelligence-only content came about from my previous newsstand title – The Unopened Files. This popular magazine carried features on intelligence and espionage, but also other content on incidents such as the shooting of John F. Kennedy, government issues and airline mysteries ect. I was an “intelligence enthusiast” and thought there might be a public market for a magazine which was devoted to the subject matter. However, for it to work in an open-source arena, I had the challenging task of “demystifying” the work of the intelligence services; in other words explaining many parts and components in simple terminology which were most complex. I also understood there was (and would always be) a constant flow of material – a crucial issue in terms of providing new stories for readers. Launching a newsstand publication that can function properly is not easy, so there was a definite requirement that its copy was both factual and interesting. Yes, it was a massive gamble that required a six figure sum, but since its conception in 2000, Eye Spy has become not only popular with the public, but with those who work in the intelligence industry. However, it was a decision that received terrific public backing in terms of its agenda. I was determined to keep politics, religion and other “managerial factors” from its editorial. And I would like to think we have at least managed to open the door, so to speak, in terms of allowing ordinary people a fleeting glimpse of a very secretive world.

The magazine’s sources are exceptional and in most cases, very, very accurate.

What is your experience in the industry?

I have worked in publishing, printing and investigative journalism for the best part of 35 years, thus I had a good idea of the industry in terms of its business potential. As for my background, I have no connections with intelligence (official level) whatsoever. However, I am a researcher and investigative author with experience in analysis. My interest in intelligence, espionage, its associated “tradecraft” and how it affects so many world (political/military/commerce and human) decisions was really the driving force in the creation of Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Now of course, I am surrounded by colleagues who work in the industry and can afford even more guidance. The magazine’s sources are exceptional and in most cases, very, very accurate. But securing these valuable “resources” has been tough and it has taken a decade of hard work for the title to get recognition in some intelligence circles.

Eye Spy Magazine: Some claimed it was a government organ, others an attempt to glean information that should not be published.

To what extent does your readership consist of intelligence industry professionals?

There was much suspicion when Eye Spy was launched – both from the public and the intelligence world in general. Some claimed it was a government organ, others an attempt to glean information that should not be published. There is no conspiracy, only an effort to publish material that is often not shared or understood by the wider media. I well remember a BBC documentary (post 9/11), for example, saying al-Qaida “did not exist.” Eye Spy analysts were furious, and we published various in-depth features that showed otherwise. I’m still annoyed that the BBC often refer to the terrorist outfit as “militants,” but I suppose the corporation has its reasons for doing so (don’t ask me why). We received widespread support over our stance from many intelligence workers, and indeed, the public in general. As for data in terms of circulation, around 25% of Eye Spy’s worldwide readership can be described as “official” or “government.” Some 500 official offices subscribe to the magazine (from USA-based organisations to offices in Nigeria). I think it is popular with “industry departments” because it carries stories relevant to their work, and also “horizon threats.” This figure represents about 17% of the magazine’s subscription base (obviously not including data from newsstand sales).

In terms of the Eye Spy Shop, and the training services you advertise, do you cater more for the novelty/enthusiast market, or is there a serious side to this?

Equipment relevant to intelligence gathering is another area that interests me. As the magazine does not rely on advertising, it’s essential we do have a separate source of income. Most of the shop products are within the range of the public, though I can say that we often provide services and guidance on other equipment – and this falls within the government arena. Deciding what can be sold to the public and what should not is a responsible business. All of our products are absolutely legal, and I often reject items, which have been sent for review or sale on the premise that they may be problematic and are illegal in various countries.

MI6 Building

Many books documenting London’s rich association with intelligence and espionage have been published

I can reveal that later in 2012, we will be publishing an updated version of our “spy tourist” book – ‘An Insider’s Guide to 200+ Spy Sites in London’

How was ‘An Insider’s Guide to 150 Spy Sites in London’ collated?

This was a very interesting project and one that is far from finished. Other great books identifying London’s rich association with intelligence and espionage have been published, some offering “spy walks” etc. These are historical gems, but many people requested an updated listing. After a little thought, I decided to do this to mark the 100-year anniversary of the creation of British Intelligence (Secret Service Bureau), which eventually evolved into MI6, MI5 and GCHQ; a time-line if you like. The book focuses on known and some unknown locations – all have a “spy story” within them. Sadly, many London “spy locations” have disappeared, and I thought it important from an historical perspective, to mark these, less in time they vanish altogether. New buildings and locations appear every year. For example, addresses in Pimlico can now be added, this in connection to the strange death of MI6 man Gareth Williams. His body was discovered in his apartment in a sports bag. Also, the sad and decidedly bizarre events surrounding former KGB officer Alaxsander Litvinenko who was assassinated a few years ago. He frequented various London locations – shadowy meetings before falling victim to Polonium 210 poisoning. I can reveal that later in 2012, we will be publishing an updated version of our “spy tourist” book – ‘An Insider’s Guide to 200+ Spy Sites in London’. This will contain a number of previously unknown buildings linked to intelligence and espionage events that have come to light during the course of our researches (some coming from the intelligence world itself following our earlier book).

Differentiating between information and intelligence

For those interested – where on-line do those in the intelligence community frequent? What on-line forums/communities do they use, what publications do they read,  and what websites do they use as resources?

There are several professional intelligence sites that are used by many researchers (government and specialist), Stratfor is one that comes to mind, Global Security another. But it is important to remember that intelligence is gleaned from many sources – there are no “one-stop shops,” so to speak – the subject is simply too big, too complex and evolving too fast. And it’s worth at this point differentiating between information and intelligence. Information is all about data – stories and materials held in thousands of sites and areas. It is published in newspapers, in various electronic media and stored in books, research reports and libraries. It is when information is secured (by various methods including espionage), analysed, processed etc., and used thereafter, for decision making as an example, that the word “intelligence” can be attached. Known in the intelligence world as “The Product” it can fall into a security classification system at any stage of its journey, usually ending up in the secret category. Personnel in the industry will secure information from many on-line sites, as they will from physical areas (including humans – known as HUMINT). Public forums, discussion boards, chat sites and popular media networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter etc., are all areas which are monitored – they can be a useful source of information. Where intelligence personnel choose to visit (Internet) or which media they will focus on depends entirely on their assessment or specialist area.

ECHELON RAF Menwith Hill

Much of the work related to the ECHELON programme is performed by RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire

Modern computers with huge capacities have dramatically increased ECHELON’s power

Can GCHQ really monitor (and does it have the computing power to), all of our communications (electronic and telephone) for ‘key words’?

I take it from this you are referring to the ECHELON programme run by NSA and GCHQ. As far as I am aware, much work on this listening programme is performed by RAF Menwith Hill in North Yorkshire. I understand that several hundred thousand calls can be “monitored” every second. Key words can trigger an interception or better phrased as “recording,” but the calls in themselves are not important – other aspects affect what happens next. For example, if the caller is a known target or someone who is under observation, then the call might be of more interest. Modern computers with huge capacities have dramatically increased ECHELON’s power, but GCHQ and NSA don’t “sweep” all calls – and 99.99% certainly are not recorded… perhaps “special attention paid to a number of interest” is a more appropriate phrase. Few would argue that interception of a call that contains data of a terror plot (that could result in harming of ordinary members of the public in any country) should not be of interest to the security services. Twenty years ago a list of around 100 ‘key’ trigger words found its way into the media – everything from drugs to terrorism supposedly triggered interception. I don’t know how big the list is today, but those in the industry and terrorists also, have a tendency to switch words (coded words), thus making ECHELON and its off-shoots an analyst’s playground. The programme today operates in similar secrecy, though there are numerous other ways to secure “directed intelligence enquiries.” And for the record, the NSA does not operate the programme in America.

Without doubt the Internet provides an extraordinarily easy platform to gather information on individuals, businesses and competitors.

Is Facebook and social media making life easier for investigators (private, and otherwise)?

Without doubt the Internet provides an extraordinarily easy platform to gather information on individuals, businesses and competitors. Securing personal details, addresses, the name of spouses etc., this used to take time and involved delving through records and making personal visits to the library or government offices. Now it can take but a few seconds. Keeping personal information safe is something I would always recommend.

Olympic Park

The London 2012 Olympics is a massive headache, and some 40,000 people will be deployed to protect the Games.

Many people will be unaware that the Government has purchased huge amounts of vaccine to counter the possibility of an anthrax attack in London during the Olympics

What is the state of the security industry right now – what are the biggest issues facing it in 2012?

Obviously terrorism is the biggest worry for the intelligence services. The London 2012 Olympics is a massive headache, and some 40,000 people will be deployed to protect the Games. There are deep concerns that terrorists will try to disrupt the event. Many people will be unaware that the Government has purchased huge amounts of vaccine to counter the possibility of an anthrax attack in London, or that at least two Rapier surface-to-air missile batteries will be deployed to protect the stadium from an airborne attack.

Rapier surface-to-air missiles

Air defence missile systems have been deployed at six sites in London during operation "Exercise Olympic Guardian", aimed at testing security for the London 2012 Olympics.

Rapier surface-to-air missile batteries will be deployed to protect the stadium from an airborne attack

The intelligence world has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. MI5 used to employ half its resources in engaging foreign spies. Now 90% of all its work and staff focus on counter-terrorism. It’s a staggering fact that since 9/11, over 120,000 people worldwide have been arrested on terrorism charges, of which 35,000 have gone to prison. Terrorism and its “employees” has the attention of the intelligence world at the moment.

The probability of an attack or disruption at the London 2012 Olympic Games is high - pictured above - a security exercise takes place along the River Thames, conducted by both the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Marines and designed to test their joint capability ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The probability of an attack or disruption at the London 2012 Olympic Games is high

What are the biggest threats to security in the UK now?

I have to say the probability of an attack or disruption at the London 2012 Olympic Games is high. Those planning an attack will probably have ties to or be sympathetic to al-Qaida or an offshoot of the IRA.

A secret war has been at play for years in Iran – but it could go public this year. There have been several strange events which seem to have been actioned to slow Tehran down: a Stuxnet cyber attack, scientists disappearing, assassinations, explosions at key military sites

What implications does the escalating situation in Iran have on intelligence?

Iran is the single most important topic besides cyber on everyone’s minds. This of course relates to the country’s supposed nuclear bomb programme. Three years ago the CIA dismissed the possibility that Tehran was even 10 years from being able to manufacture such a device. Now Langley chiefs have admitted that if work started today, by Christmas 2012, Iran would have the bomb. The fear is Israel will attack several nuclear sites to try and slow down or even totally destroy those facilities known to be working on the bomb. If this happens there will be incredible turmoil in the Middle East that will affect everyone and probably lead to a counter-attack by Iran. Terrorism too, will almost certainly increase. Of course, short of an attack, there have been several strange events which seem to have been actioned to slow Tehran down: a Stuxnet cyber attack, scientists disappearing, assassinations, explosions at key military sites etc. A secret war has been in play for several years, but it could go public this year.

Tehran

Three years ago the CIA dismissed the possibility that Tehran was even 10 years from being able to manufacture such a device. Now Langley chiefs have admitted that if work started today, by Christmas 2012, Iran would have the bomb.

One of the biggest cyber fears that the authorities are keen to protect from the public, is the hacking of air and train transport control. If this ever happens then there could be significant casualties.

How big is the threat from cyber warfare in 2012, and from where?

The US Senate Intelligence Committee debated cyber warfare in January. Officials have been told that cyber warfare is now regarded as a bigger threat to Washington than terrorism. It’s no longer just about stealing e-mail data or securing passwords or even cyber espionage. Many companies use the Internet to control systems that in turn channel our electricity, keep nuclear plants at the correct temperature etc. There exists the very real possibility that hackers already have shut down dams, switched off lighting and in one case altered the dose of a medicine that was being injected into a hospital patient. That person died and as far as I am aware, became the world’s first cyber assassination victim. One of the biggest cyber fears that the authorities are keen to protect from the public, is the hacking of air and train transport control. If this ever happens then there could be significant casualties.

GCHQ Cheltenham

The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is a British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) and information assurance to the UK government and armed forces. Based in Cheltenham, it operates under the guidance of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

GCHQ has increased the wages of its cyber force to try and dissuade them from joining the private sector

During your time in the industry, what are the biggest changes in intelligence and espionage that you have seen over time? 

Espionage over the Internet was almost unheard of two decades ago. Now it is a fast track to easy information and state secrets. The problem is, all major companies, including military technology houses, government branches and advanced design wings, rushed to upload huge amounts of information onto computers. This was a reasonable thing to do, especially so if data needed to be transferred or accessed quickly from anywhere in the world. The flip-side is your opponent (with not too much effort), now has the opportunity to gain control of the data, or at the very least read it. I understand 700,000 new jobs in cyber defence and related to intelligence will be created or are needed by 2016 in the United States alone. Even our own GCHQ has increased the wages of its cyber force to try and dissuade them from joining the private sector. Around the world and across many intelligence (including military and government) sectors hundreds of new cyber elements, divisions, units and organisations have been established to help counter cyber threats. Cyber warfare and its many threads have resulted in huge changes within the intelligence services of the world.

Harry Palmer

I was introduced to Harry Palmer played by Michael Caine in John Le Carre’s terrific movies

Working for the security services: Most of the big intelligence organisations now tend to play down the “excitement” factor, and have replaced this with the “importance” factor.

What is it about the security services that make them seem ‘less glamorous’ in popular culture, (spending more time out of the limelight) and perhaps ‘more secret’ than the American security services including the CIA?

As a youngster I was always keen to meet who I considered a “real spy.” Obviously I imagined them to be suave, glamorous, dress with razor-sharp suits purchased from Savile Row, collars up, and carrying an array of items and gadgets often associated with the spies portrayed on the silver screen. But then I was introduced to Harry Palmer played by Michael Caine in John Le Carre’s terrific movies and the hard drinking MI6 officer played by Richard Burton in the great film – Funeral in Berlin! The truth is, most people I have met, some from 5 and 6, others from Langley (CIA), the FBI and NSA, would not stand out from the crowd. They are very ordinary people who outside of their work area all have families, girl and boyfriends and socialise just like everyone else. Obviously they don’t speak about their work and when they do converse, the topic is rarely discussed and many in the industry tend to choose their words with caution. I do know some employees who have left MI5, for example, because the job was not to their liking or “what they expected” when they joined. Intelligence work is usually intense and methodical, engaging yes, but methodical. Occasionally, however, some in the business do get an opportunity to work on an exciting case. I would advise any youngster interested in joining the Services to spend a little time on the three main UK intelligence web sites of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, especially the job sections. Here real-life officers talk about what it’s like to work for British Intelligence. The same applies to Americans. Most of the big organisations now tend to play down the “excitement” factor, and have replaced this with the “importance” factor. I support this view. As for why America’s intelligence services are discussed more, perhaps more open and known to a wider public; this may have something to do with the country’s Constitution. However, 20 years ago if you had told me MI6 will one day have its own web site, I would not have believed you. The UK intelligence services have tried to adopt a public face by publication of little or well known operations.

MI6 Website

20 years ago if you had told me MI6 will one day have its own web site, I would not have believed you. The UK intelligence services have tried to adopt a public face by publication of little or well known operations.

The account of UK civil defence back in the 1980s, War Plan UK: the Truth about Civil Defence in Britain, was, to many very shocking. It documented much of the intelligence/national security measures that existed around this period of time. What (given huge developments in technology) are the equivalents now – and do you think it’s on a similar scale?

As far as I am aware there were a number of secret black programmes that existed back then, any one of which could have been implemented in the UK, depending on what happened next. I presume you are making reference here to Duncan Campbell’s work. I know several potential issues were discussed regarding security, many had deep threads to the implications of a “warming” or “freezing” Cold War and focused on public reaction and action. If we are talking specifically of locations, there are numerous facilities, which probably still exist, though are not operational (these once tied-in with protective shelters and communication hubs). If we are talking about casualties, I am aware of a few undisclosed locations that were examined for people protection – I am talking here of course about government employees. A key plan[s] does exist today like yesteryear, though I have no idea of its codename or various underground or overground centres.

War Plan UK

The account of UK civil defence back in the 1980s, War Plan UK: the Truth about Civil Defence in Britain, was, to many very shocking.

What do you make of the recent leak of the Stratfor database – and what is its impact? 

I was a little surprised at events surrounding Stratfor, though not that it was targeted in the first place. Unfortunately keeping valuable data of any sort on computers linked to the Internet does make for an “interesting target” even more so if the information is of a government and intelligence nature. Intelligence breaches do happen and some are even performed by government contract firms. Just how valuable would a list of Iranian nuclear scientist names be – just like the identities of the drug couriers working for the Cartels of Mexico? I would certainly expect the US DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) to take an interest here. These examples reflect a more worrying situation in that everyone believes the Stratfor incident was linked to its intelligence base, but who knows, it could be monetary or worse.

Alan Turnbull of SecretBases.co.uk – ‘he has the ability unlike many people, to find these locations and publish electronically’

What do you make of the work Alan Turnbull at secret-bases.co.uk?

I know Alan very well and first met him at a D-Notice gathering in London. He certainly uses the Internet in a very unusual manner, but his web site reflects more than just satellite photographs of government locations and military bases. There is a fantastic amount of background information. I’m not sure if I would publish all the sites, but the fact is, that nearly everything is open source and attainable by simple research. He has the ability unlike many people, to find these locations and publish electronically. As for Eye Spy, if someone presents what I consider a sensitive story or report, one that I thought was suitable for the magazine, I think I would probably submit this to the relevant authority for consideration. Not because I must, but because we are living in difficult times. Since 9/11, the world of intelligence and security has changed. However, as a publisher and journalist, I always attempt to find the unusual. It’s a balancing act and one that is affected by responsibility to the public. It was an issue in respect of our Spy Sites of London book. An official called me regarding sensitivity of some of the locations. However, nothing was removed and everyone seemed happy with the final outcome. This didn’t stop me insisting some sites be included based on the fact that they were no longer attached to the intelligence world!

Alan Turnbull SecretBases.co.uk

SecretBases.co.uk: 'UK Government's MoD facilities and military establishments revealed using maps, aerial photos, Google Earth and Street View'

Invisibility programmes

What do you make of the ‘US military wish list of real and conceptual non-lethal weapons’ that has been published online? Are we developing similar technology here?

I am aware that the US has an impressive number of specialist contract companies working on many advanced military weapons and technologies. Strange as it seems, several involve invisibility programmes that could be applied to various theatres. As for the UK, just like our American cousins, we too have some on-going programmes that are being researched by high-end government-linked R&D companies.

Taking the human element out of detection will never happen.

..and what of the future? (will, with the developments in technology, we see the demise of the traditional investigator on foot?

I don’t think you will ever see the end of personal interaction. Taking the human element out of detection will never happen.

Corporate espionage has increased, society and culture has changed and there is more suspicion.

The market for private investigators seems to be  growing – what are the reasons in your opinion for this?

A great deal of information previously only available to government agencies has gone “mainstream” on the Internet. This has opened up an entire industry which many people now see as an opportunity to glean information. Corporate espionage has increased, society and culture has changed and there is more suspicion. These are just some factors, no doubt the list could be enlarged. While there will always be private investigators, the Internet has opened up channels of investigation which can be used by everyone. Many ordinary people are beginning to use the Internet more and more to gather their own information. And it is very often free.

Do you think a spy reading a copy of your magazine in public would blow their cover?

Not unless they insist on wearing sunglasses.