Leading weapons expert Dan Kaszeta reveals how he fell victim to a Soviet-style blacklist after officials discovered he had criticised the Government
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I should be at a conference today. But I am not.
In April, Edward Lucas wrote in the Times about an invidious episode wherein a defence expert was invited, then uninvited from a UK Government-sponsored conference. Yesterday, Mr. Lucas wrote again. With my agreement, he disclosed that the “Richard Hannay” so eloquently described in his earlier column is, in fact, me. I have a story to tell, and if you value freedom or even expect basic competence from the British Government, you need to listen to this story. I went on BBC Newsnight on May 22nd to talk about this, but I think people deserve a more detailed account.
I am, by my own admission, a fish in a small pond. Most of you do not think about chemical, biological, or radiological weapons, warfare, or hazards every day. However, protecting against such threats has been the bread-and-butter of a career that has spanned three decades. I have held roles in the US Army, the Pentagon, and the White House. I protected a US president against chemical and biological threats for years. I relocated to the London in 2008 and continued my career here, first in industry and then as an independent expert and writer. I naturalised. I am a British citizen. People, agencies, and governments seek me out for my expertise. People read my books and articles. Not everyone has a book review in both Nature and the London Review of Books.
So, when I got invited, in January, to speak at the world Chemical Weapons Demilitarisation Conference, I was not surprised. I spoke at this conference in 2021, at the behest of the Royal United Services Institute, where I am an associate fellow. I hemmed and hawed a bit about the invitation. They were charging me a registration fee and I didn’t want to pay for the privilege of talking. Eventually, they offered me “VIP guest” status and waived the fee. Since the conference is literally just down the street from my residence, I agreed.
In early April, I received a stonker of an email from an official at DSTL Porton Down, the UK government agency that is hosting the conference on behalf of the wider Ministry of Defence. Here’s what the official (who I refuse to name) says:
We extended an invitation to you as a guest speaker to the CWD Conference and were glad you accepted. Thank you for your interest in the conference and support.
Rules introduced by the Cabinet Office in 2022 specify that the social media accounts of potential speakers must be vetted before final acceptance to the programme. This is to check whether these people have ever criticsed government officials or government policy. The vetting process is impartial and purely evidence-based. The check on your social media has identified material that criticises government officials and policy.
It is for this reason, and not because we do not value your technical insight, that I am afraid that we have no choice and must cancel your invitation to the CWD conference. I hope that this does not come as too much of a shock and wish you well in your research studies relevant to CB arms control.
It is good that you strive to achieve a world permanently free of such weapons.
Email sent to Dan Kaszeta by DSTL official
All of this is wrong on several levels. First of all, let me dispense with the direct personal stuff. This is not about me having a grievance about the conference. If any of the attendees of the conference want my slides, they can reach out to me and I will be happy to supply them. I actually did not want to go to the conference. I have a lot of other things on the go and when I attended (online then due to COVID) I found it only marginally interesting. It is a conference that sits in a different bit of the pond than I normally do. It is not about the irony of this conference having historically had Chinese government officials speaking at it. This is not about me being jilted by a conference organiser. Nor is it even about the self-evident faux pas of first inviting someone and then indelicately uninviting them with a stinker of an email. I don’t want this to become some dispute between me and DSTL. Bigger issues are at play here.
The biggest of these issues is free speech. I’m a UK citizen. I have rights to freedom of speech under human rights laws. I have protections under the Equality Act, which outlaws discrimination against me on the basis of political belief. I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, which is not a proscribed group. How widespread is this monitoring of social media? Does it constitute directed surveillance? If so, it should be covered by the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act.
Yes. I have criticised the Government. So what? I’m allowed to do so. My Twitter feed is, in fact, lengthy and robust. I tweet a lot about things. I tweet about my church. I tweet about helping homeless people. I tweet about cheese. I tweet about my own area of specialty, a lot. I do confront bigotry. I point out the flaws in immigration and asylum affairs. I am, indeed, critical of many things that the UK Government has done and I have in fact been critical. As have we all. We are allowed to say these things. Who among us has not criticised the Government or a government official at some point in the last five years? Even Conservative MPs are pretty good at criticising each other and the various Conservative governments we’ve had. This correspondence from an arm of the MOD is, in reality, evidence of the Government saying, “no – you are not actually allowed to say things we do not like”. This is chilling.
There are many administrative and procedural problems with this evident policy as well. Where is the law that authorises this “vetting” of my social media? I will give you the answer. Parliament never voted for this. This is a rule, not a law. But I have to follow it, seemingly. I’m told it is retrospective. But retrospective to when? Five years, they say. Is it from five years from the rule, or five years from now? What is the threshold? What actually constitutes an acceptable social media post? In this era of unverified Twitter accounts, there is a lot of impersonation about. How do they even know the account or post they are looking at is actually attributable to someone? What about anonymity? This gives a lot of shielding to people who operate under pseudonyms and punishes people who actually use their real name.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. You know why I don’t know? The Government has not published this rule. It’s seemingly a secret. Correspondence from the Cabinet Office, the apparent instigator of this, claims that they will, someday, place a copy of it in the Library in the Houses of Parliament. Which is really convenient for those of us in Westminster, but not for everyone else. Policymaking in secrecy has its place, but not in things that affect the public like this. We are all now expected to abide by a rule that we cannot see. We cannot appeal. We cannot even know exactly who is making these decisions. This is the sort of thing that Communist governments famously excelled at. Communist governments, by the way, get to send officials to these UK conferences.
Another issue is that the UK Government benefits from outside expertise. I can confidently say that nobody in the UK Government has my exact blend of skills, knowledge, and experience. Robbing the Government of experts is wrong and self-defeating. It is highly possible that, somewhere a very good scientist is not able to present their findings because they liked a tweet comparing Liz Truss to a lettuce. Some have suggested there is a “value for money” argument to the Government’s decision. However, as I was not being paid at all to speak, my value for money was, in fact, infinite.
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Implying that people’s political views must inherently taint their non-political or even technical and scientific knowledge, is an attack on our reputations which suggests that myself and others cannot act professionally in expert capacity. I am, in fact, capable of complex and sometimes controversial opinions. The sad irony is that, on the subject of the conference – ridding the world of chemical weapons – there is not even a wafer-thin gap between my views and His Majesty’s government’s views. Chemical weapons are a bad thing and we need to work to rid the world of them. This blacklisting is akin to throwing me off a cooking show for supporting Tranmere. It’s absurd and it is an insult to my professionalism.
It is also an insult to the professionalism of the Civil Service. Are they such delicate flowers that listening to me say “Well, North Korea might be up to bad things” (that being the extent of the controversy in my now censored presentation) is somehow going to rub off some of my supposed ‘wokeness’ onto the Civil Service? This is a patronising attitude towards loyal servants of the people and Crown. The Civil Service and the taxpayers deserve better.
Finally, there is the hypocrisy aspect of all of this. The so-called “free speech” partisans are suspiciously quiet. This is a Government which claims to support free speech and speaks out against “no-platforming” and “cancel culture”, but also acts in complete contradiction to that rhetoric. To use their own words, I’ve effectively been de-platformed and cancelled. So have others.
I am not alone in being affected by this modern McCarthyism. There are others and only some of us have been fortunate enough to discover that we’ve been blacklisted. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
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