Encounters with Steve Wright, mostly at a distance

In: Craig S. Brown (ed.), Steve Wright: A Spy for Peace (Sparsnäs, Sweden, 2022), pp. 17-23

Brian Martin

See also "Resistance to repression the Steve Wright way"

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In February 1981 I read an article titled “New police technologies” and took a page of notes about it. The author’s name was Steve Wright. A few years later I wrote to him, beginning a connection that lasted over 30 years.

A bit of background is useful for understanding why Steve and I shared interests. In 1976 I moved to Canberra and became an active member of the local Friends of the Earth group. Its main issue was uranium mining and nuclear power. Because Australia had no nuclear power plants, one of the main issues in the nuclear debate was the connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Australian uranium, exported to other countries for supposedly peaceful purposes, might end up in nuclear weapons. This focus on nuclear proliferation attuned me to peace issues, and in 1979 I helped set up a peace group, Canberra Peacemakers.

My special interest was in social defence, which is nonviolent community resistance to aggression as an alternative to military defence. I started reading everything I could find about social defence and related issues. In those days, long before the Internet, it was a matter of reading what was available in libraries, subscribing to magazines, checking book reviews, and looking up sources cited in articles and books.

One of the things I read was Militarism and Repression by Michael Randle.[1] I had seen it in the catalogue for Housmans Bookshop in London, and bought a copy. For developing a social defence system, it was important to understand militarism and to be aware of methods of repression, because nonviolent defenders would need to deal with these methods. Among the references in Militarism and Repression was the article by Steve Wright that I read shortly afterwards.[2]

It wasn’t until several years later, in 1985, that I first contacted Steve. That year I came across in my files an old article of his on alternative defence, from a 1981 newsletter. In my initial letter to Steve, I said I remembered his article about new police technologies, which had impressed me. I asked whether he was still working on social defence or alternative defence, and sent some of my publications. It was basically a letter to make a connection.

Before long, Steve wrote back offering ideas and suggestions for connections. At the time he was working for Manchester City Council as head of its Police Monitoring Committee’s Research Unit. Although at this stage Steve was less involved with social defence, nevertheless he pointed me to the US Student Pugwash movement and to the Richardson Institute’s work on alternative defence.

A few years later, in August 1988, I wrote asking Steve about any work he had done on police technologies. He replied saying “The most exhaustive piece I have written is my PhD thesis which is on ‘New Police Technologies & Sub-State Conflict Control.’”[3] He also mentioned several articles he had written.

I had my university library obtain a copy of Steve’s thesis. It was on microfilm. I remember spending several hours one afternoon reading through it on the library’s microfilm reader. It was a massive treatment, with detailed information about technologies of repression. I was in no doubt about Steve’s knowledge in the area.

In April 1990 there was a conference on social defence at Bradford University. I had never before been to Europe. The conference provided the incentive to make the long and exhausting trip. A couple of weeks beforehand, I wrote to Steve saying I’d be staying in Manchester one night and that we could meet at my hotel. And so we did, on Thursday 12 April.

Face to face, Steve was enthusiastic, committed and brimming with ideas. I asked Steve about publications about the technology of repression and for names of people researching in the area. He gave me a series of names of researchers and where each one worked, describing their contributions. Today they read as a who’s who for figures and groups in the field: Richard Falk, Michael Klare, Amnesty International, Phil Scranton, Michael Stohl, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Ian Ross and Ted Gurr. I wrote down the names on a piece of hotel note paper and later wrote to nearly every one of them. Judging by their replies, it was apparent that Steve was the central figure in the field.

In a subsequent letter I told Steve I had written to the people he suggested during our meeting in Manchester, and then written to others they suggested. What I found — no surprise — was that there was virtually nothing being done on nonviolent resistance to the technology of repression. Because Steve was interested in seeing the network in action, I listed the responses I received.

• Richard Falk referred me to some of his work (which he said was “not directly relevant”) and recommended Michael Klare.

• Michael Klare offered some general suggestions for sources, and recommended Bob Irwin.

• Michael Stohl recommended Alex Schmid and Michael Klare.

• Edward Herman offered a long list of books on the CIA, political police, etc.

In addition to Steve’s suggestions, I wrote to two others.

• Peter Klerks was recommended to me by Giliam de Valk, who I met in Bradford. Peter sent highly useful information about Alex Schmid’s operation, PIOOM.

• Bob Irwin, who had been recommended by Michael Klare, sent some extremely helpful comments and references.

These days, with the Internet, it seems quick and easy to find out what work is being done in an area. Before the Internet, the key was finding a nodal figure — like Steve on repression technology — and getting the names of others in the field.

There was an advantage in writing personal letters. Because they took a bit of time and effort to compose and send off, I think people treated them more seriously compared to the onslaught of emails and social media comment that began in the following decade.

In writing to Steve after our meeting, I told him that I was guest-editing some issues of the journal Philosophy and Social Action, including one on the theme of “Resisting state violence.” I offered to publish one of his papers, and ended up using his long paper on the new technologies of political repression. First he sent hard copy, then at my request a disc with the article in Wordperfect. In an aerogramme posted on 6 December 1990, Steve wrote that the file was called Omega, and noted that he’d just set up “a new outfit called the OMEGA Foundation.” Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and in physics it is the symbol for electrical resistance.

The Omega Foundation’s goal was to collect information about the technology of repression — surveillance cameras, electroshock batons, leg irons, and so forth — and use the information to support campaigns against torture and other forms of political repression. It was thus about resistance to state power.

Getting Steve’s article ready for publication in Philosophy and Social Action required checking lots of details, which we managed by post in an efficient manner.[4] Steve continued to send me suggestions for making contacts in the peace-research community. I told him about our small group Schweik Action Wollongong which was running projects about social defence. One of the projects involved interviewing people knowledgeable about telecommunications about how to resist an invasion or coup without violence. This resonated with Steve. We had a common interest in techniques that citizen campaigners could use to resist state power.

I wrote a short article titled “Science and technology for nonviolent struggle” and submitted it to Science and Public Policy.[5] The journal, like many in the social sciences, uses a double-blind refereeing process: submissions are sent to reviewers who write reports for the editor, and neither the author nor the reviewer is informed of the other’s identity. Soon I received the report of an anonymous reviewer, who was very knowledgeable. From the content of the report I guessed that Steve was the reviewer, and also I recognised his typewriter. When I told him this — and thanked him for the review — he said he had recognised me as the author. It was a small world.

Much of our correspondence was about the possibility of finding sources of money to support our activities. I applied for a research grant on “Science and technology for nonviolent struggle” and Steve agreed to be a nominated assessor. My application was successful the second time around. Steve applied for a grant from Rowntrees that was successful, giving him more time to do the work he wanted to. In the following few years we wrote to each other about what we were doing on our projects. In 1994 we first started using email.

Some of Steve’s letters during the 1990s included stories of his adventures in collecting information at so-called “security fairs,” where companies tout their products to enhance “security,” many of which relate to surveillance, crowd control and torture. Steve would figure out how to attend such showcases for the technology of repression, collect information there and use it for campaigning. Sometimes he fed information to Amnesty International; sometimes he wrote articles for the print media under the pseudonym Robin Ballantyne.

A highlight of his efforts was playing a key role in exposing surveillance of global electronic communication by spy agencies. In 1996, New Zealand activist Nicky Hager’s book Secret Power was published.[6] Through a remarkable feat of investigative activism, Hager exposed the Echelon system, a coordinated operation by spy agencies in the Five Eyes group (US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) to suck up all electronic communications around the world — phone and computer traffic — and analyse it to enable tracking of topics and targets. Hager’s book was known to a small number of people interested in government surveillance and spying, but did not reach a wider audience. In 1998 Steve, in a report to the European Parliament, drew on Hager’s findings and exposed the Echelon system.[7] The story was taken up worldwide.[8] Years later, Edward Snowden exposed the latest form of global surveillance of electronic communication.

In 2001, I was studying political jiu-jitsu, the process by which violent attacks on peaceful protesters can trigger greater support for the protesters. Political jiu-jitsu is one of the stages in Gene Sharp’s “dynamics of nonviolent action,” which describes facets of nonviolent campaigns.[9] What puzzled me was that many violent attacks on peaceful protesters did not lead to political jiu-jitsu. With two colleagues, I had been looking at the Indonesian genocide of 1965–1966.[10] Surely mass killing of nonresisting civilians should cause observers to become concerned. My insight was that the perpetrators were doing something to inhibit the jiu-jitsu effect, and I came up with five types of tactics: covering up the action; devaluing the targets; reinterpreting events by lying, minimising, blaming and framing; using official channels to give the appearance of justice; and intimidating or rewarding people involved.

Another insight was that this same process could apply in other domains besides attacks on peaceful protesters. Torture seemed a prime example. Perpetrators carry out torture in secret, denigrate their targets as terrorists or criminals, say the methods used are not all that harmful, blame rogue elements, refer complainants to courts, and threaten targets with further harm.

I invited Steve to collaborate on an article applying this framework to torture technology. He was enthusiastic. Over a period of months, we negotiated the content of the article, wrote and revised it, and saw it published in Medicine, Conflict and Survival.[11]

Collaborating with Steve was worthwhile. He had a wealth of ideas and a giant reservoir of knowledge. Furthermore, he was attracted to the model I had developed and quite used to seeing things using the framework of tactics and counter-tactics. Indeed, thinking this way seemed to stimulate his creativity.

I learned two things about Steve and doing research. The first was that while he had a wealth of ideas, he didn’t always check details. He would include information and references that looked all right, but I learned I needed to check them, because in a few instances corrections were needed. That was fine with me: I was used to such checking.

The second thing that Steve was a procrastinator and binger. Like many writers, he would postpone writing until the pressure became great enough to stimulate a burst of effort. At some point, a friend of Steve’s told me that Steve wouldn’t finish his part of a collaboration unless given a firm deadline. Although our article didn’t have a required completion date, I gave Steve a deadline and he did his bit.

Later, Steve told me about his experience writing his PhD thesis. He knew the material backwards but hadn’t started writing his thesis, and eventually the university gave him a submission date: if his thesis wasn’t submitted by that date, his candidature would be terminated. This turned out to be enough pressure to get him writing, and at a tremendous pace. He wrote his entire thesis in just six weeks. He told me about using the drug guarana, like caffeine but stronger, to keep going through thick and thin during those six weeks, and there was a finale of a storm and some other obstacle that just about derailed submission at the very last day.

Given that background, I should have been grateful that Steve was able to write anything at all in a joint paper, given that we were at opposite ends of the earth and I had only email as leverage to encourage him to finish his part of the paper. But he did.

In the following years, we had several occasions to meet face to face. Twice I visited him in England. In Manchester in April 2003, he showed me around the offices of the Omega Foundation. We talked at length about key people in the field, and where to publish articles. At least these are the main items in my pages of notes from my visit, no doubt taken in between Steve’s stories. On a second visit in Manchester, he drove me to Leeds, where he had become an academic at Leeds Metropolitan University, where there was a conference and later a meeting of Praxis group. He later moved to Leeds and the university was renamed Leeds Beckett.

Steve made three visits to Wollongong. During the first, in June 2004, supported by my research grant, we had plenty of time to discuss a range of issues, and I introduced him to colleagues and activist friends. Steve gave a seminar titled “Mass torture and full spectrum dominance.” It was filled with stories and images of frightful technological-political scenarios, some already realised and some looming in the future. Those who attended were greatly affected. When in 2020 I mentioned Steve’s death to my friend and colleague Chris Barker, he said he remembered Steve’s talk, which had a great impact on him.

Steve’s final visit, in 2010, was for a meeting of nonviolence researchers; the biannual meeting of the International Peace Research Association was held in Sydney that year, and I supported a small group of nonviolence researchers to attend a nonviolence research strategy meeting in Wollongong afterwards. As usual, Steve sparked with lots of ideas, which was useful to challenge the rest of us who thought about nonviolence in more conventional ways.

After one of his visits to Wollongong, Steve’s next stop was China, where he would be attending a security fair. He was well aware of the dangers he faced in some countries, and, before leaving, left me with every item he possessed that might be slightly suspicious.

Steve had an acute sense of the dangers that repression technologies posed in the hands of governments, police and militaries. He did what he could to alert a range of groups, and worked openly and behind the scenes to support laws, regulations and activist campaigns to control and delegitimise these technologies. His best possible legacy is a heightened awareness throughout various networks to carry on with efforts to rid the world of torture and repression.

Thanks to Sharon Callaghan and Zhuqin Feng for useful comments.


1. Michael Randle, Militarism and Repression (South Boston: International Seminars on Training for Nonviolent Action, 1980).

2. Steve Wright, “New police technologies: an exploration of the social implications and unforeseen impacts of some recent developments,” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 15, no. 4, 1978, pp. 305–322.

3. University of Lancaster, 1987

4. Steve Wright, “The new technologies of political repression: a case for arms control?” Philosophy and Social Action, vol. 18, nos. 3–4, July-December 1991, pp. 31–62, https://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/91psa/91psa_Wright.pdf

5. Brian Martin, “Science for non-violent struggle,” Science and Public Policy, vol. 19, no. 1, February 1992, pp. 55–58.

6. Nicky Hager, Secret Power: New Zealand’s Role in the International Spy Network (Nelson, New Zealand: Craig Potten, 1996).

7. Steve Wright, An Appraisal of Technologies of Political Control (Luxembourg: European Parliament, Scientific and Technological Options Assessment, 1998).

8. For Steve’s account, see “The Echelon trail: an illegal vision,” Surveillance & Society, vol. 3, nos. 2/3, 2005, pp. 198–215.

9. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), Part 3.

10. Brian Martin, Wendy Varney and Adrian Vickers, “Political jiu-jitsu against Indonesian repression: studying lower-profile nonviolent resistance,” Pacifica Review, vol. 13, no. 2, June 2001, pp. 143–156.

11. Brian Martin and Steve Wright, “Countershock: mobilizing resistance to electroshock weapons,” Medicine, Conflict and Survival, vol. 19, no. 3, July-September 2003, pp. 205–222.