Saturday, March 18, 2006 

Sun-watch: A non-existent scandal over "al-Qaida man" in parliament.

The Sun is predictably outraged today that a man under a control order was allowed to visit the Houses of Parliament. Invited by a Labour peer, Lord Ahmed, he apparently discussed his case with him before sitting in the public gallery during a commons debate. The supposed al-Qaida suspect is the Mahmoud Suliman Ahmed Abu Rideh, a Jordanian who was previously held in Broadmoor as he is suspected of having links to international terrorism.

That's about as far as the story in the Sun goes, which unsurprisingly doesn't give you much of the man's background, and also contains at least one mistake. The Sun says:
The SIAC bailed him in 2003 and gave him a Control Order, which places restrictions on his freedom outside.

Except that control orders didn't come in until 2005, which was when he was bailed. A better summary of Abu Rideh's background is this Guardian article:
Mahmoud Abu Rideh came to Britain as an asylum seeker in 1995 and was treated for severe post-traumatic stress disorder following his alleged torture at the hands of the Israelis as a teenager living in Gaza.

He was arrested at his home in Surrey on December 17 2001 and has been in detention, first at Belmarsh and now in Broadmoor high security psychiatric hospital, ever since.

The home secretary accuses Mr Abu Rideh of being "an active supporter of various international terrorist groups, including those with links to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network", with activities including fundraising.

Yesterday, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission said that Mr Abu Nideh "was and remains in our view committed to the extremist views, delusions even, which motivated at least some of what he did before detention".

However, it went on to express compassion for the man and the state of his mental health which went into freefall following his detention at Belmarsh.

The judgment says he "genuinely feels a sense of hopelessness and that he is in a growing state of dependency and institutionalisation which is likely to make him rather less able to cope with life outside when he is released, the later that is".

The commission had previously agreed with doctors at Broadmoor who argued that the high security hospital was not the place for Mr Abu Rideh. But the then home secretary, David Blunkett, refused to move him to a lower grade psychiatric hospital.

Last year, Mr Abu Rideh gave an interview to the Guardian at Broadmoor. He pulled up his shirtsleeves, revealing dozens of scars up and down his arms, inflicted using pens, plastic and anything else he can find.

He said that since his detention, he had been repeatedly harming himself, including drinking toilet cleaner and setting himself on fire.

The home secretary justifies the detentions of foreign terror suspects by pointing out that each of the men held is free to leave the UK and return home.

But as a Palestinian refugee Mr Abu Rideh is stateless. "Where can I go, please?"

He said his state of mind had deteriorated to the point where he would prefer to be executed.

"The hospital don't want me here. The Home Office don't want me to go back to prison. Give me an injection and I will be dead and they won't need to spend £140,000 a year on me being in this hospital."

Not only that, but his lawyers were told by police that:

Lawyers acting for Abu Rideh, a Palestinian also held at Broadmoor said police had told him that they knew he was no danger to the public.

And Abu Rideh is such a threat to the public that the police allow him to do the following:

The bizarre world of the government's controversial anti-terrorist control orders was yesterday revealed when one of the 10 men who had been detained in high-security institutions for more than three years walked into the Guardian offices without any security escort.

Highlighting the stark contradictions in the control orders, Mahmoud Abu Rideh, who had been detained without charge and trial in Belmarsh prison and Broadmoor psychiatric hospital, is kept under house arrest at night, but is able to roam freely under tagging during the day.

The Palestinian refugee, who was held for three-and-a-half years, says he cannot understand the double standards of the order, and said it was further exacerbating his psychiatric difficulties. He has been diagnosed as mentally ill.

In the first interview from any of the 10 detainees placed under control orders, he said: "I go everywhere now - on the underground, buses, the mosque. But I must be home by 7pm. People think I am dangerous, but I am not dangerous. The government is playing games. If I am a risk to security, why are they letting me out to be with people? I wouldn't do anything silly. I am not a dangerous man."

Mr Abu Rideh's control order says he is a key UK-based contact and provider of financial and logistical support to extreme Islamists with connections to al-Qaida. It says: "You belonged to and have provided support for a network of north African extremists directly involved in terrorist planning in the UK, including the use of toxic chemicals."

Mr Abu Rideh denies this is the case.

The control orders were rushed through parliament earlier this month in the face of widespread opposition. The contradictions inherent in them are clear from Mr Abu Rideh's experiences since being released on bail almost two weeks ago:

· He is not allowed to make arrangements to meet anybody, but he can drop in to see anyone if he does so unannounced;

· He cannot attend any pre-arranged meetings or gatherings, but was present at the anti-war demonstration at Hyde Park last Saturday. He says he stumbled across it while playing football in the park with his children;

· He is banned from having visitors to his home unless they are vetted in advance, but he is allowed to arrange to attend group prayers at a mosque;

· He thinks he is being followed on the tube, but if he calls a taxi, no one tails him.

Mr Abu Rideh told the Guardian that his confusion over how the control orders work, and his lack of support, led him to take a drug overdose last weekend. He was taken to Charing Cross hospital after he swallowed 35 tablets and was not released until Monday evening. He says he cannot bear to live under the conditions imposed by the home secretary.

He said: "I only want to kill myself. I don't want to kill anybody else. I am not a danger to anybody else, but this government has made me a danger to myself. It is just as bad to be free with a control order as it is in Belmarsh prison or Broadmoor hospital."

and also since then:

The vagaries of the government's controversial control orders were highlighted yesterday when a judge was forced to send an alleged international terrorist back to jail in spite of fears that the man would take his own life.

Mahmoud Abu Rideh, who suffers from a severe personality disorder, was sent to Brixton prison last week after he handed himself in at a police station in Fulham, west London, saying he did not want to wear the electronic tag his order stipulated should be round his leg from 7am to 7pm.

Yesterday he pleaded not guilty to breaching his restrictive order. Since he has been in Brixton he has twice tried to kill himself.

He has apparently been released again since then, but is still under a control order. The Sun appears to only have Rideh himself's word that he got into the public gallery, and seeing as it is apparent that he is either mentally ill or has a severe personality disorder, such statements should not be taken uncritically. As the Guardian articles make clear, the only person who this man is a threat to is himself. He is also under near permanent surveillance.

How convenient that this should come to light just as the Labour peerages for loans scandal is reaching its height, with the true amount of money lent them which was not declared being close to £14 million, and with John Prescott and Gordon Brown also not being informed of the loans. Isn't it strange that the Sun nearly always comes up with a "scandal" just as the government faces real trouble? It almost makes you wonder if they are being fed these stories from within Downing Street, just as it was strange how the Sun managed to gain a copy of the Hutton report the night before its findings were published. The Downing Street Echo, even in these days of Tory challenge, still seems to be staying loyal to the Blairs. For how much longer is anyone's guess.

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Friday, March 17, 2006 

Rendition: Government finally admits to widespread use of UK airports by CIA jets.

It's taken months, but Alistair Darling today finally admitted that CIA jets have landed at UK airports much more frequently than the government has previously admitted to, and that one of the planes which landed here was the jet linked to the rendition of Abu Omar.

Six US planes linked by campaigners to "extraordinary rendition" used UK airports 73 times since 2001, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling has said.

The National Air Traffic Service has previously said there were 200 flights through British airspace in the past five years by the CIA planes associated by campaigners with rendition.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Michael Moore asked Mr Darling for details of landings by six jets with the registration numbers N2189M, N8183J, N970SJ, N129QS, N368CE and N85VM.

In a written Parliamentary answer, Mr Darling confirmed the planes had landed respectively 10, 12, two, five, 20 and 24 times at UK airports since January 1 2001.

But he added: "None of the information held by my department provides evidence that these flights were involved in rendition.

"The British government is not aware of any cases of rendition through the UK since May 1997, apart from the two cases in 1998 about which the foreign secretary has informed Parliament."

The flights revealed by Mr Darling included one stopover on the way between the Afghan capital Kabul and Washington and others stopping on their way to destinations in the Middle East such as Amman in Jordan and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this week, Mr Straw said claims the US has secretly flown terror suspects through the UK would eventually "fall away" due to lack of evidence.

The first thing worth noting is that this answer has been given on a day when the loans for peerages scandal is dominating the news. The second thing is that today is Friday, the end of the week and an excellent time to bury some news which exposes the government for not giving the full truth straight away when questioned. Parliament also isn't open for business on a Friday, as it's the day on which most MPs' hold their constituency surgeries.

Third then is the figures which Alistair Darling has given for the number of times the named jets have landed at UK airports. All the flights given as landing were published in the Guardian back in December, with figures given then for how many times they had landed, and at which airport. They are worth comparing. (click for larger versions.)

There's a huge discrepancy between the figures for N970SJ and N129QS, which can either be explained by mistakes by the Grauniad, the government not having the full figures or simply not knowing how many times in full the jets have visited UK airports. The Guardian seems to have under-estimated some of the figures, so their data is not complete either.
As Darling says, there is as of yet no proof that the flights which landed here actually contained prisoners being rendered, or to not use the jargon, kidnapped. What it does show is that the government or departments within the government could have been contacted a lot earlier as soon as these allegations arose to determine exactly how many CIA jets have passed through this country. Instead it has taken the government months, with frequent denials from both Jack Straw and Tony Blair that any flights have passed through UK airspace. It's quite possible that all the jets which have landed were here simply to refuel before going on to another country, without containing any prisoners or being involved in rendition full stop. What makes this seem highly unlikely is the way in which the information has not been forthcoming. Campaigners have had to shout and shout to get this data. Previous requests resulted in fob offs, saying that the information could only be provided at disproportionate cost. Condoleezza Rice has also more or less admitted to rendition flights taking place, while denying that the US uses torture.

The real questions now concern whether our security services have been complicit in these flights, and whether they have known about them from the beginning. I find it highly questionable that MI5 and 6 were not involved when nearly all intelligence is now pooled between the CIA and the European intelligence agencies. If they were not involved, did they know what was happening, and if so, were ministers informed? If not, why not? If they were, why has it taken so long for the government to admit to CIA jets using UK airports? Have they simply turned a blind eye, knowing full well that the US no longer asks anyone's permission to use their airspace? The Abu Omar rendition, which involved him being snatched from an Italian street, was carried out without informing the local government agencies. If they can kidnap foreign citizens without bothering to inform the local police, what hope is there that they would inform the UK government when they use our airspace and airports simply to refuel?

Once again, Labour has done the the tiniest amount of work which it has had had to in order to deflect criticism. While Jack Straw has time and again seemingly denied that rendition has occurred here, it seems they knew full well that jets suspected of being used in rendition have used UK airspace. What now needs to be answered is why they seem to be covering up for the US government when it may well be in breach of numerous sections of international law. If Jack Straw cannot, then he must resign.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006 

Does Blair really think anyone believes him anymore?

Another day, another lie by the Dear Leader. At his monthly press conference he said the following:
At his monthly press conference this lunchtime the prime minister, Tony Blair, said he knew about undeclared loans to the Labour party made by individuals who were nominated for peerages but denied they were linked.

"It shouldn't be one in exchange for the other, and it wasn't," he said. He said he took "full responsibility" for a situation in which Labour accepted three loans understood to have totalled £3.5m to help fund the 2005 general election.

No, of course not. In the same way that Lord Drayson, now a junior defence minister, won not only a government contract to provide a smallpox vaccine, but was also ennobled. Guess what he did? Yep, you've got it, he made a large donation to the Labour party. It's really rather strange that all 3 of the men that gave undisclosed loans to the party just happened by coincidence to be nominated to the House of Lords after the election.

To add insult to injury, the Blairites have been briefing against Jack Dromey, who dropped a bombshell last night when he went on both Channel 4 News and Newsnight to say that he had only found out about the loans at the weekend. Dromey is the party's treasurer, and the one that stands up at conference to explain the finances. The Blairites felt that it was a timed attack due to it coming just as Blair had the humiliating experience of seeing his school reforms passed thanks to the support of the Tories. This is despite Dromey's partner Harriet Harman being a cabinet minister, although she is acknowledged as being something of a Brownite. (Her notorious Freudian slip on Question Time, when she said "since Gordon Brown's been prime minister" hasn't helped matters.) Dromey was not only fuming, he was also incredibly honest when questioned at length by Jeremy Paxman. His answer to a lot of them was simply "I don't know."

The loans to Labour seem to have been arranged by Lord Levy (chief fundraiser and Blair's tennis partner) and former general secretary Matt Carter. Downing Street was kept informed, but no one seemingly bothered to tell Dromey, despite the finances being his responsibility, even if he isn't the main one in charge.
The main riposte to the criticism directed was up until today that Labour believes the Conservatives have had up to £25m loaned to them. The Liberal Democrats have declined to state whether they have had any undisclosed loans, which mostly means yes. With the shit finally sticking to Blair, and with the Tessa Jowell affair hardly having faded away, sleaze is back in fashion again.
"I am prepared to have the rules changed but they have to be changed for everyone and not just the Labour party."

"It's clear it would have been more sensible if loans were treated in the same way as donations," he said, adding that no rules on party funding had been breached.

He said he had spent "some time reflecting" on the rules surrounding the funding of political parties and announced plans to "move very quickly" to a situation where "the right of the prime minister to nominate directly for honours", is removed, and the cabinet secretary proposes the honours direct.

"We will look at taking the politics out of the honours system," Blair said.

"There is not a single party leader I have come across that doesn't dislike the fact that you have to raise money for our party, but you do," he said.

He later said a reform of the nominations for working peers would not be complete until the reforms of the House of Lords were concluded.
So in other words it could yet be years, as Labour promised to reform the House of Lords back in 1997, only to have so far managed to remove around three-quarters of the hereditary peers. I imagine that Blair will at least keep the power until he decides to bugger off to write his memoirs and do the speech circuit in America.

Blair then has yet again promised to do the least he has to to get himself out of trouble. It's becoming a habit, as he blindly believes Tessa Jowell's story that she knew nothing about anything of her husband's dealings, despite signing the mortgage deals. Still, how can you force a minister to resign over it when you personally have sold peerages for loans? The longer Blair stays, the more people will abandon Labour.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 

Jericho attack: The reality of election politics and UK government mendacity.

Jack Straw and Tony Blair really are stretching the credulity of many people when they claim that the UK and Israel did not collude in any way in yesterday's attack on the prison in Jericho which contained Ahmed Saadat. The Israeli army seemed very conveniently placed and informed about the movements of the British monitors of the prison, as they moved in minutes after they had headed away from the jail. Both the US and UK, which were meant to be sharing monitoring duties, are hiding behind a letter that was sent on March the 8th that said monitors would be pulled out if their safety was not secured. In reality it was an empty threat, and probably one which was informed by Israeli plans to storm the jail at the earliest opportunity. The Jerusalem Post has reported that the US was kept updated and knew that Jericho jail was to be raided.

It seems that the real security threat was not from the Palestinian prisoners, but rather from the IDF, who killed 3 in their raid. The justification from the Israelis and from the UK and US government has been that both Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas had talked of releasing the prisoners, who had been held without trial since 2002. They had originally seeked refuge in Yasser Arafat's compound, which resulted in the IDF surrounding it. In order to defuse the situation, the US and UK offered to monitor the prisoners in a Palestinian jail, as the Israelis allege that the Palestinians authorities often just let suspects go after a certain length of time. Not that the siege of Yassar Arafat was lifted for long as a result. The politician who was assassinated, allegedly ordered by Ahmed Saadat, Rehavam Zeevi, was a notorious racist. He described Palestinians as a cancer and as lice. His platform was for the Palestinians to be ethnically cleansed from the West Bank and Gaza, for them to pushed into the surrounding Arab countries. He also at one point laid claim to Jordan. This doesn't in any way justify his violent death, but it should be noted that he was much more belligerent than even Ariel Sharon. The assassination was also apparently in response to the assassination by Israel of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's former leader, Abu Ali Mustafa.

The operation will no doubt enhance Ehud Olmert's otherwise shaky security pledges. Unlike Sharon, he does not have a background in the army, and was relatively unknown outside Israel until he became the acting prime minister following Sharon's stroke. The Kadima party established by Sharon already has an authoratitive lead in the polls, and it seems highly unlikely that yesterday's unprovoked attack will damage that in any way. Brian Whitaker speculates about Israeli election politics on the Grauniad blog, and notes that the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor took place close to the 1981 election. What he doesn't note is that Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the al-Aqsa mosque in 2000 which started the second initfada came only a few months before he ran against Ehud Barak for prime minister. The resulting riots enabled the crackdown which helped establish Sharon in politics with much the same persona as he had in the military. Ehud Olmert may well have decided to copy such previous tactics.

While the response of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank in burning buildings and kidnapping foreigners is incredibly unhelpful and counter-productive, it's a sign of the anger which is being felt not only on the streets of Ramallah and Rafah, but all over the Arab world. After doing nothing to help Mahmoud Abbas consolidate power after the death of Arafat, Israel has done everything possible to help Hamas become the main Palestinian party. It has refused to come back to the negotiation table, and continues to demand that Abbas disarm the terrorists and militants, knowing full well that any such move by him would have led to civil war. Now that Hamas has been elected, perhaps the only force in Palestinian politics which could force such a disarmament, it refuses to recognize the democratic choice of the Palestinian people.

Why should Hamas instantly have to change what it stands for when it has already seemingly renounced violence, having not been involved in any attacks for over a year? Why should it recognise a country which refuses to recognise it politically? While such moves would be incredibly helpful, why should it have to prove itself to anyone other than its electorate while Israel continues its occupation? Hamas has constantly hinted that it would accept any current settlement over the whole of the West Bank and the return of refugees, leaving it to the next generation to decide over whether to accept it in the long-term, in other words, a negotiated peace. Instead Israel has cut off aid and demanded the America and Europe do the same. What this is all leading to is the piecemeal withdrawal from some settlements in the West Bank which cannot be defended realistically by the IDF, the annexation of the main settlements and East Jerusalem, while re-drawing the 1967 agreed borders to that of the security wall. Such an unilateral move will not bring peace, although it may solve the ticking demographic timebomb. The international community has to step in now to stop this from happening, unless it wants to witness ever continuing bloodshed and disorder in the wider Middle East.

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Ashley Cole libel: Daily Star apologises.

Elsewhere in the Street of Shame, the Daily Star has done what both the newspapers being sued by Ashley Cole and Masterstepz have refused to do; "Dirty" Desmond's celebrity rag has made a grovelling apology.

The Daily Star has today printed a grovelling apology to the Arsenal and England footballer Ashley Cole following a story last month in which it named him as one of three men allegedly involved in a homosexual orgy.

In its apology, the paper admitted it "got it wrong" with its story of February 21, which was headlined "Gay footie stars named on the net" and identified Cole as the footballer at the centre of claims about a homosexual threesome.

"The Daily Star entirely accepts that Ashley Cole was not involved in any way in this kind of conduct," the apology read. "The stories about him were entirely without foundation. We sincerely apologise to Ashley for the distress which he suffered."

The paper finished its apology by wishing the footballer a speedy recovery from his current injury and extending "best wishes" to him and his fiancee, Cheryl Tweedy, for their wedding later this year.

It seems that the Daily Star was probably about to become the latest newspaper to be issued with a writ courtesy of Cole's solicitors, and instead have printed the correction to head it off. Meanwhile though, News International seems to be indulging in what can only be described as despicable grandstanding against the website which revealed what Murdoch's rags only alluded to:

The paper's apology comes on the heels of warnings against the gay news website from the News of the World that it could be sued over its part in the legal wrangle.

The News of the World this week warned PinkNews that the newspaper and its stablemate the Sun were reserving their rights to issue proceedings against it under the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978.

The gay news website suggested the footballer Ashley Cole was the alleged subject of a News of the World story.

Cole has taken action over a series of stories in the two papers between February 12 and 19 claiming two unnamed Premiership footballers had taken part in "perverted" and "debauched romps" with a "well known DJ" after internet sites and chat rooms named him as one of the footballers in the story. discussed the News of the World story and internet rumours, speculating on the identity of the individuals concerned.

It reproduced a pixelated version of a photograph used by the News of the World that claimed to be of a Premiership footballer and a well-known music industry figure, comparing it with a photograph showing Cole and Ian Thompson, better known as the Choice FM DJ Masterstepz, at a party.

Thompson has since joined Cole in taking legal action against the Sun and the News of the World.

The case is distinctive because neither man has been named by the newspapers, but their lawyers claim the way the stories were written led to their identification.

The managing editor of the Daily Star, Paul Ashford, had declined to comment about his newspaper's apology at the time of publication.

The News International position is disgraceful because it knew full well that such stories which were advertised on national television before publication would result in widespread speculation. Indeed, why else would they publish such lurid tales if they thought no one would be interested? It seems to consider that its stories and journalists are blameless when they didn't actually name the participators in what they called "perverted" and "debauched" acts, despite including a badly censored picture of the two that it cowardly didn't name. Private Eye today seems to think it unlikely that the case will reach court, especially seeing as there are a number of other cases pending against News International involving England footballers, and in the News of the Screws case, the manager. Perhaps the Sun and NotW are preparing to pay damages, and are threatening PinkNews in order to recoup some of their loses.

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Baa Baa Rainbow Bollocks.

You may last week have come across the story about the kids at a nursery that sing "baa baa rainbow sheep" instead of "baa baa black sheep". The Sexpress ran the story on their front page:

The Diana Express wasn't the only paper to report it though. Both of Murdoch's daily rags also did, as well as Daisy McAndrew's fantastic newspaper, the Mail, and the Daily Moron, sorry, Mirror.

Just one problem: the reasons for the singing of words other than black is nothing to do with "political correctness". Today's Private Eye reports that it also isn't a new story. The Daily Star and Sun both first ran it back in February 1986, followed by the Daily Mail in October of the same year. The following year Islington council took the SDP to court to stop them alleging they had removed the word black from the nursery rhyme in a party political broadcast, when they had done no such thing. According to the Eye the story came round again in 2000, this time in Birmingham, and as recently as last year, when the Mail on Sunday alleged it had happened in Aberdeen. Not a single one of the reports were based on the facts.

Here's the last paragraph in full from the Eye:
For the record, the charity Parents and Children Together, which runs the two play groups at the centre of last week's outbreak, told the Press Association that "children at the two family centres sing a variety of descriptive words in the nursery rhyme to turn the song into an action rhyme. They sing happy, sad, bouncing, hopping, pink, blue, black and white sheep etc. This encourages the children to extend their vocabulary." Curiously, this explanation went unreported by any of the national papers.
The newspaper which stands for "real values" and "real value for money" seemingly doesn't consider facts or the truth to be among those values.

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Tuesday, March 14, 2006 

"Sir" Ian Blair: Better the devil you know?

The revelations yesterday that "Sir" Ian Blair had recorded phone conversations with, among others, the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, isn't much of a surprise and seems rather hypocritical of the journalists who have since said that he should either quit or be "carefully considering his position". All journalists record conversations - often without bothering to tell the person that they're recording. That was Blair's mistake - he didn't tell them that he had done so, otherwise it seems unlikely that they would have objected. After all, most ministers have civil servants listening into their phone conversations.

What it does seem to highlight is that there are those within the Met and the media are out to get Blair. He hasn't helped himself, it has to be said. His remarks on the Soham girls were daft in the way he explained them. If what he meant was that some cases end up being much more of a story than others, which anyone looking at the Grauniad's special on missing people last week would have realised, which featured a few teenage girls who have disappeared of which has elicited no nationwide attention - then he was absolutely right. He was also right to highlight that he thinks racism is endemic in the media - certainly in the tabloids, for an example. Such statements make him an enemy of the anti-political correctness brigade. Then there are his mistakes over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, his scaremongering over the terrorist threat and his part in the case for 90 days detention without trial for terrorist suspects - all of which are much more serious than the issues highlighted by the likes of the Daily Mail.

It feels odd to be becoming something of an apologist for "Sir" Ian Blair, but if he does go it seems likely that his replacement may well be a lot worse. Blair is serious about making sure the police reflect the society they secure - something which others in the Met utterly reject. In this case it may well be better with the devil we currently know and dislike - rather than have an autocrat or political appointee who will be even more craven in their support for this government's attacks on civil liberties.

(Sorry about the lack of images the last couple of days - blogger as usual seems to be undergoing problems. The one at the top has been copied from an earlier post.)

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Comment is Free - apparently.

The Guardian's rolling comment blog is up and running - although it seems fairly chaotic right now, with if anything, too many postings. Also of concern is that the commenters have their "location" underneath their name, which means that those of us who'd like to stay anonymous are at the least having our location linked to our ISP's server. Not that I'd be able to comment if I wanted to; my Grauniad account seems to have been silenced, which seems odd seeing as I haven't posted there in weeks.

Let's also hope that they stop using the horrific neologism "blogosphere". Blog is fine, blogosphere is terrible, as are podcasts. It also doesn't appear at the minute to be turning into what the self-regarding Huffington Post is - a liberal circle jerk, which is the last thing it should be. Then again, reading the first post on the George Galloway article, with its hilarious reference to cats whiskers, maybe that wouldn't be so bad. Hopefully they'll be more articles by normal bloggers as well, alongside the more famous and well-established "commentariat".

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Monday, March 13, 2006 

"I didn't join the British Army to conduct American foreign policy."

You know that things have to be bad when an SAS soldier of all people decides that he cannot serve in Iraq because of the policies of the American troops and issues over the legality of the war. Ben Griffin had already served in Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan. None of that apparently prepared him for what he experienced in Iraq.

He said: "I saw a lot of things in Baghdad that were illegal or just wrong. I knew, so others must have known, that this was not the way to conduct operations if you wanted to win the hearts and minds of the local population. And if you don't win the hearts and minds of the people, you can't win the war.

"If we were on a joint counter-terrorist operation, for example, we would radio back to our headquarters that we were not going to detain certain people because, as far as we were concerned, they were not a threat because they were old men or obviously farmers, but the Americans would say 'no, bring them back'.

"The Americans had this catch-all approach to lifting suspects. The tactics were draconian and completely ineffective. The Americans were doing things like chucking farmers into Abu Ghraib [the notorious prison in Baghdad where US troops abused and tortured Iraqi detainees] or handing them over to the Iraqi authorities, knowing full well they were going to be tortured.

"The Americans had a well-deserved reputation for being trigger happy. In the three months that I was in Iraq, the soldiers I served with never shot anybody. When you asked the Americans why they killed people, they would say 'we were up against the tough foreign fighters'. I didn't see any foreign fighters in the time I was over there.

"I can remember coming in off one operation which took place outside Baghdad, where we had detained some civilians who were clearly not insurgents, they were innocent people. I couldn't understand why we had done this, so I said to my troop commander 'would we have behaved in the same way in the Balkans or Northern Ireland?' He shrugged his shoulders and said 'this is Iraq', and I thought 'and that makes it all right?'

"As far as I was concerned that meant that because these people were a different colour or a different religion, they didn't count as much. You can not invade a country pretending to promote democracy and behave like that."

On another operation, Mr Griffin recalls his and other soldiers' frustration at being ordered to detain a group of men living on a farm.

He said: "After you have been on a few operations, experience tells you when you are dealing with insurgents or just civilians and we knew the people we had detained were not a threat.

"One of them was a disabled man who had a leg missing but the Americans still ordered us to load them on the helicopters and bring them back to their base. A few hours later we were told to return half of them and fly back to the farm in daylight. It was a ridiculous order and we ran the risk of being shot down or ambushed, but we still had to do it. The Americans were risking our lives because they refused to listen to our advice the night before. It was typical of their behaviour."

Mr Griffin said he believed that the Americans soldiers viewed the Iraqis in the same way as the Nazis viewed Russians, Jews and eastern Europeans in the Second World War, when they labelled them "untermenschen".

"As far as the Americans were concerned, the Iraqi people were sub-human, untermenschen. You could almost split the Americans into two groups: ones who were complete crusaders, intent on killing Iraqis, and the others who were in Iraq because the Army was going to pay their college fees. They had no understanding or interest in the Arab culture. The Americans would talk to the Iraqis as if they were stupid and these weren't isolated cases, this was from the top down. There might be one or two enlightened officers who understood the situation a bit better but on the whole that was their general attitude. Their attitude fuelled the insurgency. I think the Iraqis detested them."

Perhaps even more damning for the army, as they bring a court-martial against an RAF doctor who is refusing to return to Iraq as he views the war illegal, is what happened when Ben Griffin made his feelings known:

During a week's leave in March 2005 he told his commanding officer in a formal interview that he had no intention of returning to Iraq because he believed that the war was morally wrong. Moreover, he said he believed that Tony Blair and the Government had lied to the country and had deceived every British serviceman and woman serving in Iraq.

Mr Griffin expected to be placed under arrest, labelled a coward, court-martialed and imprisoned for daring to air such views.

Instead, however, he was allowed to leave the Army with his exemplary military record intact and with a glowing testimonial from his commanding officer, who described him as a "balanced and honest soldier who possesses the strength and character to genuinely have the courage of his convictions".

If only those in charge of the army had put their foot down before the war, when they themselves were highly suspicious of the claims made about Saddam and his non-existent WMD programmes, and when they demanded clarification that the war would be legal, which they got when Blair told the Attorney General to change his previous opinion that without a second UN resolution it would be illegal. There was no need for Britain to be involved in the war. We were there purely because of Blair's insistence that we would "stand shoulder to shoulder with America", and to provide the political dimension which helped convince American public opinion. After all, if the Brits support it, it must be a slam-dunk case. Ben Griffin ends his interview with:

"I do believe passionately in democracy and I will speak out about things which I think are morally wrong. I think the war in Iraq is a war of aggression and is morally wrong and, more importantly, we are making the situation in the Middle East more unstable. It's not just wrong, it's a major military disaster. There was no plan for what was to happen after Saddam went, no end-game."

It seems that the chickenhawks over Iraq are outprincipled by the soldiers themselves.

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Blunkett: A victim, but one who can't face up to reality.

It seems almost too much of a coincidence that only two days after John Profumo died that David Blunkett won a massive libel victory against the People newspaper. The People, while seemingly not actually involved in the honeypot sting which targeted David Blunkett, instead made the most offensive and damning allegations: namely that Sally Anderson had been pregnant with his child and miscarried, after which he deserted her.

The People yesterday printed an apology, and has paid Blunkett a considerable amount of damages, which will no doubt help with the court costs over his paternity battle with Kimberley Quinn. That doesn't acquit them for their despicable story which they must have known was untrue. Even more despicable were the the setters up of the plot against Blunkett, the Daily Mail and the News of the World, likely in league with Max Clifford. Then there is Sally Anderson herself, who was probably out to grab a huge amount of money for her role in entrapping a vulnerable, depressed and lonely blind man.

That however is as far as the sympathy for David Blunkett should go. As the interview with him in the Guardian today makes clear, he is still in no way apologetic or willing to face up to the fact that he was wrong and needed to resign from parliament twice.

Mr Blunkett resigned from the cabinet in November over a separate story, that he had broken the ministerial code by taking up a business directorship and failing to seek the permission of the advisory committee on business interests. "I have made mistakes in the past, but when I have, I have always said so," he says.

But he says he was forced to quit because stories about his private life seemed never-ending. "A whole range of different elements came together to make a frenzy. "It contributed to the feeling that my personal life was clouding my political position and judgment," he says.

Not true. Only the tabloids were indulging in their own plots. The broadsheets were focusing on the fact that dear old David Blunkett had broken the ministerial code. It was likely Tony Blair that either finally got fed up with all the adverse publicity that was affecting the government, whether he said so to Blunkett in so many words or not. If we believe Blunkett's story at the time, he decided to resign in an apparent epiphany he had on leaving a meeting with Blair where he supposedly said he didn't have to resign.

"My integrity had been called into question, I was being called a liar, and I am not a liar. And I just think it is time that we stop viewing public figures as fair game. Throughout the autumn all I could hear was cash registers clinking as people made money out of me one way or another," he says.

He claims not to be a liar, but for someone who supposedly had a such a great memory that he remembered meetings in the 70s with residents he had while head of Sheffield council, it seems mightily strange that he forgot two things that in both cases led to his resignation. Blunkett himself isn't adverse to making money out of things, as shown by his decision to jump on the board of DNA Bioscience and buy a large amount of shares. He also had other directorships during his short hiatus from the cabinet. And now he's the Sun's replacement for Richard Littlejohn, working for the same people who turned on him when he was vulnerable.

Looking back on his return to the cabinet last May, Mr Blunkett says: "I should have been a Trappist monk. I should have seen that people were deeply resentful that I had come back so quickly ... I should have had a double lock on myself and realised that it was necessary to close everything down except the work ethic."

No one was resentful that he personally had come back so quickly. More were actually concerned that Blair should bring back someone who had used his position, directly or not, to help his lover's nanny gain a visa, at a time when the system was in chaos. Also of concern was his mental state, having been deeply affected by the way in which Kimberley Quinn had treated him. Their concerns were vindicated when it turned out that he had broken the ministerial code.

Blunkett needs to face up to the truth of the matter. He is little better than those who conspired against him, sucking a poisoned teat which can be removed as soon as its owner feels like it. He twice made mistakes which neither he nor his hero Blair have owned up to. It just seems odd that someone who has overcame so much difficulty and hardship should instead of helping others do the same has instead decided to indulge those that only want to weaken the downcast.

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