Wednesday, August 22, 2012 

And so the Assange circus continues.

Sigh. This Julian Assange thing's still going on then? Am I really going to have write another post on it? Certainly seems like it.

It's all a bit depressing really, as what everyone's fighting over is so arcane. What's more, two of those I respect and admire have, if not let themselves down, then certainly damaged their reputations. Glenn Greenwald and Craig Murray, both so right on so many other occasions, have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

Let's start with Craig first. On one of the very few evenings I didn't bother to watch Newsnight, he appears, names one of the women who has accused Assange of sexually assaulting her, and a minor shitstorm commences. On this, in my view, Craig is in the clear. It may well be that the UK media hasn't named the woman in question (who I'm also not going to name out of personal preference), but she has spoken to the Swedish media openly herself. I don't think there's any need whatsoever to name her, but if an individual wants to that's up to them.

Where I think Craig has badly erred is in casting doubt on as he puts it, the woman's "behaviour". There are as I noted before anomalies in the ways in which the allegations against Assange were first investigated and have been pursued, but as we've seen, these have not affected the decision of our courts that Assange can be sent back to Sweden. We simply should not be second guessing what either of the women who have made the claims against Assange did either before or after the alleged assaults took place. If the Swedish police believed that there was any possibility that Assange had been "fitted up", as the interviewer in the Australian documentary asked of the Swedish prosecutor, or that the allegations were not in any way credible then they simply would not have pursued him this far. This is not to say that Assange inevitably faces charges, although he does, as David Allen Green says, face arrest and probable indictment. Should he be charged, then the best place for these questions to be raised is in a court. Craig understandably feels that allegations of sexual offences are one of the best ways to smear someone, having faced similar claims against himself when he was ambassador in Uzbekistan, but is it really credible that this is all an American-inspired put up job?

Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, seems to just be striking out at all and sundry in defence of Julian Assange. He starts off badly in his latest piece for the Graun, indulging in hyperbole by all but claiming Assange is the most hated man in the Western world, and only slightly redeems himself by pointing out a few incontestable facts: that the Americans have always loathed Wikileaks, and that indirectly, Assange "has given the public more scoops than most journalists can imagine". The obvious point to make is that we now have to separate Assange from Wikileaks; without those journalists, the war logs and diplomatic cables would never have been written up in the way they have. The Guardian's editorial attitude towards Assange is undoubtedly dictated by the way in which the paper and the man spectacularly fell out. This though is perfectly understandable when you consider the way in which Assange reacted when they ran the last batch of cables without his express permission, threatening to sue the paper. For someone who believes in total freedom of information, and who has distracted attention from the suffering of the man who allegedly provided them to him, this speaks of volumes of the contradictions within Julian Assange.

Pointing out that Assange perhaps isn't the freedom fighter his most devoted supporters make him out to be isn't to smear the man, or to make him out to be Saddam Hussein, although some of the criticism and personal attacks have indeed gone beyond what ought to be acceptable. Equally, Greenwald could at least acknowledge that by signing up to present a show on Russia Today, the English-language news channel directly funded by the Kremlin, some of his loss of credibility is self-inflicted. Where Greenwald really falls down is in his supposed refutation of David Allen Green's post on Monday, where attempted to correct what he regards as the myths surrounding the Assange case. Greenwald, apparently unable to contradict Green, relies instead on a previous post by Green when it's apparent he's since charged his opinion due to court judgements, a transparent conceit. Greenwald then continues to claim that due to Sweden's relatively secret judicial system, he's more likely to be extradited to America from there than from our septic isle; even if true, which is extremely doubtful considering our direct treaty with the US, then Assange would certainly appeal to the ECHR. The chances of his being deported to the US this side of 2015 were he to leave for Sweden tomorrow are almost negligible. Greenwald will just not accept that any guarantee that they would not extradite is not Sweden's to give, and would be worthless in any case.

Saddest of all is that this entire squabble is academic. Julian Assange isn't going anywhere, unless he's somehow spirited out of the Ecuador embassy once public interest dies down. Those of us who'd rather like him to return to Sweden but most certainly not fall into the clutches of the United States, despite being the majority, have been somewhat silenced by this whole affair.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012 


Shall we get an ad hominem out of the way first? That Julian Assange, he's a bit of a tit, isn't he?

Right, down to business. To say there are as many layers to the whole Assange circus as there are in an onion is to probably understate things. Quite clearly, he has a case to answer in Sweden. For this to have all been a set-up or ruse by two women serving US interests, as some of the more ridiculous Assange defenders have claimed, is absurd. Like the claims from Mohamed Fayed and others about the "plot" to kill Princess Diana, which would have been foiled had Di deigned to wear her seat belt, this nefarious scheme would have failed completely had Assange decided to keep Mr Happy in his trousers.

This isn't to say there aren't odd things about the whole Swedish approach which invite suspicion. There has been no unanswerable reason given why the Swedish authorities have repeatedly declined the offer from Assange to interview him here, especially when we're told that is all the Swedes want with him; he has not been charged, and there is no indication that he will be. The expert opinion written by Stockholm's former chief district prosecutor outlines some of the anomalies: the naming of Assange to begin with; the failure to interview Assange while he was still in Sweden, despite the prosecutor taking over the case nearly a month before he left; and the police interviewing the complainants together rather than separately. Nonetheless, the UK courts have all decided that Assange can be deported to Sweden and that these anomalies, such as they are, are irrelevant.

Likewise, despite the United States having not yet begun proceedings against Assange is not to say that they will not, and it's hardly unreasonable that Assange fails to believe that Wikileaks would be treated effectively as a newspaper under US law, as some believe it would be. One only has to look at the treatment of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of supplying the diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, to see that were they to move against Assange he would hardly be handled with kid gloves. Some on the right have openly called for him to face the death penalty, while even the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein has said he should be prosecuted for espionage.

This doesn't however answer the obvious question of why Sweden, rather than any other country, including ourselves, would be most likely to deport Assange to the United States. Indeed, as Karin Olsson points out, if the death penalty were an option should Assange be charged in the US, then any member state of the European Convention on Human Rights would be unable to extradite him. Moreover, it's also likely that Assange would be extradited quicker from this country to the US than from Sweden; while Sweden has an extradition treaty with the US, it's far more complex than our own. In any case, any moves against Assange would undoubtedly be challenged under the ECHR, meaning it would be years rather than months before any deportation could take place.

All the same, you can understand why Assange has sought and acquired diplomatic asylum from Ecuador. To assign him the best possible motives, he's right to fear that he could be extradited on the spurious grounds of either espionage or endangering national security. Despite all the shrieking from the US, not just on the diplomatic cables but also on the files from Afghanistan and Iraq, there is very little to no evidence to suggest anyone has come to harm as a result of the release of the cables, including that of the full unexpurgated cables, although this is obviously difficult to confirm. If anything, there is a case to be made that their release was an important factor in the launching of the Tunisian uprising, and in turn the whole Arab spring. The release of the "Collateral Murder" video exposed the deaths of two Reuters journalists at the hands of the US military in Iraq, while the diplomatic cables to pick just one revelation showed how Saudi Arabia was urging an attack on Iran.

At worst though, Assange's motives are base. If the allegations against him are true, then his image as the foremost freedom fighter of the Anonymous generation is sullied forever. The reality is that Wikileaks is now a busted flush, and it's likely that Assange will have to dine out for the rest of his days on just a frenetic year of activity. Found guilty of rape and he's effectively a goner, as much as you can admire his motives.

And so we come to our own role in all of this. Embarrassing as it is that Assange was able to skip bail and seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, the threats made against the embassy, and they clearly are threats, are outrageous. As Juan Cole points out, it was only last year that William Hague was castigating the Iranians for the state-approved invasion of our embassy in Tehran. Either invoking the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 or, an even more drastic step, derecognising Ecuador in order to invade the embassy and arrest Assange would set an incredibly dangerous precedent, one that would make the occupants of UK embassies worldwide fear that they could be targeted should relations between ourselves and their hosts disintegrate. Craig Murray states he has received information that we intend to arrest Assange in the embassy if necessary, and his sources are usually sound.

Ecuador's own deficiencies in the way of press freedom are irrelevant. Much as we do have an obligation to the Swedes, to violate the Vienna Convention would be a far more dangerous step than failing to extradite a man who has only been accused of rather than charged with rape. It's also highly unlikely this would create a precedent where other alleged offenders would seek shelter in embassies: there simply aren't that many Assanges around, and few states will offer them asylum in any case when there isn't the threat of persecution on political grounds involved. Sweden clearly cannot give any guarantees to Assange when the Americans have not sought to bring charges against him, and it's also apparent that there's almost no way Assange can travel to Ecuador when we're denying him passage. Without arbitration at the International Court of Justice, which is one viable option, then it seems dear old Julian will have to make himself comfortable in the flat at 3 Hans Crescent Knightsbridge. And he could be there for a while: Birhanu Bayeh, who sought refuge at the Italian embassy in Ethiopia in 1991, is still there today.

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Monday, December 06, 2010 

A Russian spy farce.

There is more than something faintly farcical concerning the curious case of the Liberal Democrat MP and the alleged Russian spy he was employing as his research assistant. Of all the MPs' offices the SVR could have attempted to infiltrate, one of the last you would have suspected they'd have been interested in was that of Mike Hancock, the 64-year-old member for Portsmouth South. Even considering his constituency's naval links and his long-standing position on the parliamentary defence committee, he doesn't exactly strike as the person most likely to get his hands on the sort of material the Russians couldn't get elsewhere, and the questions he was asking, which some newspapers have found eminently suspicious, back that up. The idea that our friends from beyond the Vistula don't already know about the "location ... of each Royal Navy submarine operational berth" or don't have something approaching a "full historical inventory of the UK's nuclear arsenal" is fairly small.

The Russians have, it must be said, always had their eye on recruiting some of the less glamorous individuals within what can be at a stretch described as the British establishment, if we are to believe the somewhat dubious claims of the likes of Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB colonel who defected to Britain to 1985 after he was outed as a double agent for MI6. He fingered, amongst others, Michael Foot (who successfully sued the Sunday Times over the allegations), Denis Healey, the trade unionist Jack Jones, the famously promiscuous Tom Driberg and Richard Gott, the Guardian journalist who resigned as literary editor back in 1994 over the claims. Hancock would probably not find it too insulting to be included among such luminaries, although whether he will personally be accused of being a Russian asset remains to be seen.

While the KGB may have targeted distinctly unglamorous males to become spies during the Cold War, it seems that in the current era its successor the FSB and its foreign branch the SVR has no problems whatsoever with sending across "sleeper" agents whom, upon discovery, cause the priapic element among the Western media to all but lose all control of themselves. Earlier in the year Anna Chapman found herself at the centre of global attention mainly on the back of sultry photographs which she'd posted on Facebook, while you can almost guarantee that the shots of Katia Zatuliveter currently gracing British newspapers were raided from the same source. Somehow it's difficult to shake the impression that the story may not have had the same impact if the alleged agent was male. Alongside the allegations of spying are the almost inevitable questions concerning just what a 64-year-old man was doing employing a 25-year-old blonde from Dagestan as his assistant, whom if we're to believe the word of Mátyás Eörsi, was just one of a succession of similar young women accompanying him to the Council of Europe's liberal grouping. Innuendo is almost all we have to go on, if that isn't an innuendo in itself, especially when we also have to consider Hancock is currently on bail following accusations of indecent assault.

The only other thing we really know is that Hancock was so sympathetic towards Putin's Russia that was he ousted as head of the all-party Russian group by Chris Bryant as a result of his stance, something which apparently incensed and upset Zatuliveter. As useful as those with a predilection for suspected kleptocrats can be in the parliaments of the West, it's difficult to disagree with Hancock's own assessment: "[W]ho the hell could be interested in what the Lib Dem delegation was doing and what we were thinking?" Certainly almost no one even in this country was interested in anything the Liberal Democrats were doing until very recently.

The whole debacle reflects the continuing disconnect between security and openness which we've now spent more than a week experiencing following the release of the US cables. No one seems to be seriously suggesting that anything Zatuliveter might have obtained or had access to was so secret or sensitive that she's damaged the security of the country; rather, it's that she's simply meant to be in some way connected to the SVR that makes her continuing presence not "conducive to national security", a catch-all phrasing if there ever was one. In the same way that the Sun seems to imagine that simply knowing the location of our "nuclear bases" is in some way a security threat, like it previously claimed Google Earth to be, it's becoming clear that the current rules on what can and can't be allowed to become public knowledge are in danger of falling into open disrepute. As the head of MI6 argued a few weeks, secrecy doesn't need to be a dirty word. It's that both the previous and current governments, not to mention the intelligence services themselves, rather than having as a rule that everything should be out in the open unless there are incredibly good reasons for such information remaining secret, put into practice the exact opposite philosophy. As Wikileaks has shown, never has this been more dubious and unsustainable than in the current interconnected world.

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Monday, November 29, 2010 

The illusion of secrecy.

Poor Hillary Clinton. It's a hard enough life being married to Bill without having to phone round your supposed foreign allies informing them of how the entire world will shortly know exactly what the US really thinks about their good selves. Just as depressing for her should be the eventual realisation that she - and dozens of other rent-a-mouths - have developed a conditional reflex. Mention Wikileaks and they start foaming at the mouth, spitting flecks of saliva everywhere as they denounce the criminal actions of Julian Assange and friends, putting thousands of lives at risk and jeopardising peaceful relations between nations. According to Clinton, the latest Wikileaks publication, this time of hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables covering a period of 44 years isn't just an attack on the US, it's an unprecedented assault on the international community. The only thing she hasn't done so far is urge NATO to invoke Article 5 of its charter and begin preparations for the invasion of Wikileaksistan.

There really is little other way to describe the response, principally from commentators in the US, than as Pavlovian. We're dealing with the sort of mindset where releasing material which exposes the Yemeni government lying to its citizens over bombing raids conducted by US forces is more of a crime than the deaths of innocent civilians that went along with it. From their point of view, the release of a cable signed off by Clinton which urged diplomats to spy and collect "humint" on their hosts, such as their frequent flyer and credit card numbers, and if possible even their "biometric information", is more unethical than the original order. Assange, according to someone who could conceivably be president in a couple of years, should be pursued with the same urgency as al-Qaida and Taliban leaders.

Not that we should even begin to imagine the response from the related quarters in this country would be any different should Wikileaks at some point get hold of our own dear establishment's communication with embassies across the globe. If anything, our obsession with secrecy has always been even more fanatical than that of the Americans: witness the current obscene farce which is the government trying to ensure that the 7/7 inquiry can't hear the full intelligence behind the decision to discontinue surveillance of two of the bombers. This information wouldn't be heard in open court, only in a closed session where the families of those killed would be able to attend. That's the level of contempt which our security establishment has for the public: not even the bereaved can be allowed to know what they do.

More than anything, that's the real reason why new levels of hyperbole are being reached over a very preventable breach of security. These documents not only show in unforgiving and unstinting detail how the Americans view the world, they also make clear, especially so in the case of the cable signed off by Clinton, just how little difference there sometimes is between diplomacy and spying. For years being a "member of the diplomatic service" has been the euphemism of choice for those who've hidden their real career behind a very thin layer of obfuscation. Diplomats almost always have immunity from prosecution as a result of their status, something which spies notably lack should they find themselves exposed, hence why the revelation that diplomats are being urged to do the job usually expected of spies is so unwelcome. Of course, we shouldn't pretend that all sides aren't involved in exactly the same kind of skulduggery, it's just that usually it's the lesser nations that find their undercover operatives being exposed.

The other thing to bear heavily in mind is that these leaked cables were so sensitive that only over 3 million Americans have daily access to them. An "accident" of these proportions was therefore waiting to happen. Whether Bradley Manning, the 22-year-old army private widely fingered as being responsible not only for this latest leak but also the previous Iraq and Afghanistan war logs tranches is the only source or not is impossible to tell, although unlike Craig Murray I wouldn't dismiss entirely the possibility that there may well be more than meets the eye. Certainly, that Assange is still free and only being pursued currently over what may be malicious rape allegations is intriguing; you can't imagine the previous administration being so relaxed over his organisation's continuing ability to release such treasure troves of ostensibly secret material. True, his turning over of the data to newspapers with an at least sympathetic world view has ensured that the information couldn't possibly be stopped from being released, yet there's still relatively little that's emerged so far from the three sets of logs to trouble the Obama White House.

Indeed, much of it bears their foreign policy objectives out, as you would expect it do. There's no surprise either that the Arab states ruled by Sunni authoritarians would very much like the upstart Shias of Iran to be put back in their place. Equally lacking in shock value is the possibility that both Egypt and Fatah were informed by Israel in advance of the attack on Gaza in December 2008. The cables that do contain revelations are the ones which log meetings with prime ministers or other higher up officials, such as this one, containing the minutes of a meeting between Binyam Netanyahu and some members from Congress. According to Netanyahu the main threats facing Israel were Iran's nuclear program, the build-up of rockets and missiles in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, and the Goldstone Report. That would be the Goldstone report from the UN into the attack on Gaza which found that both sides had committed war crimes. As ridiculous statements from leaders of nations go, it has to rank up there.

Even the insults and the chronicling of the mundane or prurient tell us something about the nature of those doing it. These are the people we should remember who at various points in recent history failed comprehensively to foresee the events that were going right under their noses. They didn't see the invasion of South Korea coming, nor the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11, even if the warning signs were there, but at least they know essential details regarding Alan Duncan's possible relationship with William Hague, Cristina Kirchner's mental health, as queried by Hillary, or whether Gaddafi's going around with a buxom Ukranian nurse (considering he surrounds himself with female bodyguards, it's not exactly a bombshell). And perhaps, despite everything, that's the other key factor behind the furore. The details of confidential meetings they can take being leaked; it's the fact that they look stupid and shallow on so much else that really pisses them off, and as an empire, that simply won't do.

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010 

Liam Fox and a truly appalling leak.

It is remarkable, is it not, just how little comment there's been about the calling in of the police, albeit the Ministry of Defence police, to search for the source of the leak of a letter from Liam Fox to David Cameron which sets out in no uncertain terms just how the Strategic Defence and Strategy Review is going to affect his department? The nearest obvious comparison to make is with the arrest of Damian Green a little less than 2 years ago, having received numerous Home Office documents from Chris Galley, a civil servant who had previously applied to work for none other than Damian Green.

Clearly this isn't anywhere near as serious as this hasn't involved anti-terrorist police entering parliament and actually arresting an MP. Nonetheless, it still seems to be an over-the-top reaction to a leak which many would claim to have been in the public interest, regardless of how it involved private correspondence with the prime minister. The letter, while about national security, does not potentially put anyone in actual danger and should definitely not breach the Official Secrets Act. Things do however seem just as murky as they initially were in the Damian Green case: supposedly the MoD doesn't know who ordered the search, or at least wasn't telling the press.

Murkier still is that most initial suspicions as to who leaked the letter fell on Fox himself. Throughout the summer there's been numerous stories about how Fox has been doing battle against the Treasury, most notably over the potential replacement of Trident, with the MoD arguing for it to be paid for out of a separate fund from the defence budget, with George Osborne apparently refusing to budge. The letter however goes even further, Fox directly spelling exactly what might be lost should the SDSR turn into a more comprehensive spending review. It reads, as Mark Urban just said on Newsnight, like it was made to be leaked, with Fox appealing almost desperately and hinting at the consequences politically for the coalition should things continue as they are going, risking have their words on defence being the government's first priority being thrown back at them, the morale of the armed forces potentially damaged. It in fact surely edges into hyperbole; after all, this was a government which also came to power pledging to cut heavily. Liam Fox knew damn well that there were going to be "draconian" cuts; he himself argued for them, and it's not as if the defence budget isn't ripe for savings.

Special pleading similar to that from Fox is doubtless going on across Whitehall as October the 20th looms ever closer. Would however a minister go so far as to leak a letter himself, or if not, get an aide or sympathiser to do so? Without knowing who called in the MoD police, and on what authority, it's difficult to able to ascertain whether Fox would have taken the risk; did Cameron suggest the inquiry so as to be certain that his defence secretary isn't playing him off against the right-wing press, always sensitive to any sort of defence cuts? As ever, the question primarily has to be who benefits, and it's fairly clear that for the moment at least it's Fox, however much he protests about how appalling it is that such private letters have found their way into the hands of the Telegraph. More than anything, it just proves the point that you can change the government, but you can't change how they react when the press gets hold of "sensitive" information. Should something which benefits Labour and not the defence secretary go missing, one has to wonder what the response will then be.

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Monday, October 26, 2009 

Scum-watch: Yet more lies about "evil terrorists".

Last week the Sun had to apologise to Abdul Muneem Patel for calling him an "evil terrorist" and claiming that he had been involved in the liquid explosives plot. He had in fact been found guilty of having a document which could be useful to terrorists, which the judge accepted he had unknowingly kept for a friend of his father's. The judge also stated specifically that Patel was not a radicalised or politicised Islamist, but this didn't stop the Sun from telling Patel's neighbours a pack of lies about his supposed secret terrorist past.

As could have been expected, the Sun has learnt absolutely nothing from having to print such a humiliating apology. You might have thought they might have waited a little longer though to repeat almost exactly the same exercise, but obviously not. This time the paper is outraged that

THREE convicted terrorists who plotted to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier have been freed early from jail.

Hamid Elasmar, 46, Zahoor Iqbal, 32, and Mohammed Irfan, 33, were all caged less than two years ago.
Except these three weren't convicted of plotting to kidnap and behead a British Muslim soldier, as a few minutes of fact checking would have made clear. All three were in fact involved with the plot's ringleader, Parviz Khan, but in smuggling equipment to fighters in Pakistan. The prosecutors accepted that Iqbal and Irfan had nothing to do with the beheading plot, while Elasmar's house was used for discussing the plot, although whether Elasmar was there at the time or not is unclear; considering he received the most lenient sentence of the three one would suspect he wasn't. The Sun also has it completely wrong on Khan supposedly telling Elasmar that "we'll cut it off like you cut a pig"; Khan was in fact talking to Basiru Gassama, already released and presumably deported.

The Sun being the Sun, it couldn't just leave it at that. No, it had to include a leader comment on its completely wrong article:

HOW is it possible that three terrorists who planned to behead a squaddie have been freed within two years?

Err, because they didn't plan to behead a squaddie?

Simple: They all behaved themselves in prison.

Oh, right, that must be it.

The breathtaking evil of the crime they plotted counted for nothing.

Or it counted for nothing because they weren't involved in the "breathtaking evil" of the crime?

Good behaviour sprung them early from already derisory sentences. One was released in only five months, to a life on housing benefits.

Our justice system is a laughing stock.

Only the Sun could call a sentence of seven years "derisory", which is what Iqbal received. It might be derisory if Iqbal had been convicted of plotting to beheading a soldier, but he wasn't. The real laughing stock here should be a so called newspaper that either can't or won't do the very basics of actual journalism, checking facts. Anyone up for complaining to the Press Complaints Commission?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009 

Damian Green and the state of the nation.

For what was meant to be an apology for the ultimate conclusion of spin, Gordon Brown's mealy-mouthed "sorry" was remarkably like a piece of spin in itself. While the press and the Conservatives have been whipping themselves up into a frenzy over something that Brown almost certainly knew nothing about, the decision not to charge Damian Green has been pushed down the news agenda, helped by Brown's sudden decision to express contrition to a camera.

It's a shame, as the Green case is far more indicative of where the nation is going as opposed to where the state of politics is descending. It's the combination of everything which New Labour has ultimately been building towards, encouraged by the pliant tabloid media which demands ever harsher authoritarian crime polices and by their flexible friends in the police, where national security and anti-terrorism supplant everything else, used opportunistically as the excuse for every little abuse of power and every little act of authorised bullying.

Some might question the link between the arrest of 114 climate change protesters before they had so much as thought of carrying out their plans for peaceful demonstrations, the deletion of a tourist's photographs on the grounds that you can't shoot any building, structure or vehicle involved in London's transportation system, the brutality shown towards some G20 protesters and Damian Green's arrest, but they are all representative of one thing: of an overbearing state which continues to grow in power while the individual continues to be diminished and patronised, with their complaints ignored or whitewashed. The key difference in the latter case was that both the police and government overestimated their power and overstepped themselves in imagining that they could arrest someone who was themselves in a position of power, diminished as it was, and not outrage that person's colleagues and as a result the media. A similar thing almost happened a couple of years earlier, except to the actual party of government with the arrest of Ruth Turner, but that was soon forgotten by those who themselves felt that they were still invulnerable.

Not a single person imagined for a second that Damian Green would be charged with anything. Members of parliament don't get charged when it comes to leaks; their stringers and the other little people involved are the ones that usually have to take one for the team. More surprising was that the Home Affairs Select Committee, especially one chaired by a loyalist like Keith Vaz, noted that despite the claims by the Cabinet Office and Home Office, none of the material leaked even approached breaching national security, something confirmed by the head of the CPS, an organisation which seems to be bucking the trend in remaining fiercely independent, first with Ken Macdonald and now with Kier Starmer at the helm. Notable also was that the police's actions were compared to the Keystone Cops, which isn't quite apposite, for the reason that Keystone Cops were meant to be laughed at. No one is laughing at what the police increasingly seem to be getting up to, as incompetent as their actions at times are.

Whether Jacqui Smith did or did not know that Green was personally going to be arrested, and despite my initial thoughts that I believed it was unlikely, I've now changed my mind somewhat, it's still indicative of how the Home Office has changed under Labour. Undoubtedly the change can be linked right back to the James Bulger murder and the consensus which emerged between the political parties that prison works, but the succession of ridiculously hardline politicians made home secretary began with David Blunkett and has continued since. In turn, each has been more ludicrous and more certain of themselves in succession, and all of them have also shared one political characteristic: they have all been Blairites. All have been dismissive in the traditional Blairite way of established procedure, whether it be populist in nature as it was when John Reid declared that his department was "not fit for purpose" or with Smith not apparently caring one jot that she to all intents and purposes wasted police time, still today defending that calling in Inspector Knacker was the right thing to do. None of her predecessors though were so completely hopeless at their job, so thoroughly discredited and as weak as she has become, thanks both to her expenses claims and other piling up failures. That she is still in her position itself is a miracle, and it is surely one which will not survive any coming reshuffle, although as in the past, she will undoubtedly be replaced by someone just as bad and just as opportunist; the job seems to now require those characteristics.

Few will disagree with Damian Green's statement that he could not think "of a better symbol of an out of touch, authoritarian, failing government that has been in power for too long". The Conservatives however offer no alternative whatsoever on the authoritarian front. If anything, they might well turn out be worse on that score when it comes to crime, and their promise to increase the police's powers of surveillance suggests that despite the clamour which is beginning to build regarding the casual dilution of civil liberties, they still don't understand that there has to be a step change in the relationship between the individual and the state. That it took the arrest of one of their own for them to begin to finally grasp that was an indictment of their own failure to read that mood was changing, and it's even harder to believe that once in power they will be any different to Labour in responding to the anguished cries of the latest tabloid headline. One of the things they could do which might encourage the belief that they will seriously examine just how powerful and unaccountable the police have become is to propose a royal commission into their tactics, as first argued by Martin Kettle. If they seriously want the public to believe they will not be as political as New Labour has been, and the signs from Boris Johnson are that they might even be more so, then it's the absolute least they will have to do.

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Friday, November 28, 2008 

Green and a very suddenly established police state.

The arrest of Damian Green is understandably raising major questions about how much the government knew and when it knew it, but far more pertinent from my perspective is both what it tells us about the power of the police in today's Britain and how some of those who have given the police such power react when they find themselves under scrutiny.

As long as it turns out that both the police and the government are telling the truth, in that ministers were not informed of what was taking place until it was taking place, then this is not something that is yet truly unprecedented. Extraordinary and deeply troubling yes, but not unprecedented. Examples from decades past have already been regurgitated to show that leaks and governments both knowing and not knowing are hardly new: Churchill in the late 30s, Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting in the 80s, right up to Katherine Gun and David Keogh and Leo O'Connor this decade. Keogh and O'Connor's case was especially politically lead, with utterly disgraceful evidence given against them by government officials.

More analogous to Green's arrest though was the 6am raid on the home of the fragrant Ruth Turner, which the Labour party complained bitterly about. Noses were put out of joint throughout Whitehall over the police investigation into cash for honours, which many thought heavy-handed, even while the rest of the country smirked. It's with Turner in mind that we ought to, for now, accept both the accounts of the Metropolitan police and the government that there was no warning given to ministers over what was going to happen until it happened. We have to assume not that just one side is lying, that but both sides are lying, which would in itself suggest open collusion between the two sides. However friendly some of the discussions between government and the police are, for the Met to suddenly start acting as Labour's personal leak stopping organisation takes a lot of swallowing.

The other point that suggests that open governmental knowledge of the arrest is unlikely is that there is absolutely nothing to be politically gained by having a front-bench opposition spokesman subjected to a stay in the cells of Knacker of the Yard. As soon as it became news the fingers were being pointed and the knives were sharpened. The government might be stupid, venal and corrupt, but is it really that stupid, venal and corrupt? I would hazard not. Are, on the other hand, the police either so full of themselves or flushed with power that they now think that arresting MPs for passing on leaked information to the newspapers is something which they can both brazenly do and ultimately get away with? I would hazard yes. Until some substantial evidence emerges of government knowledge, other than that the Speaker of the House knew and that Boris Johnson knew, or that ministers must have known because Diane Abbott/Michael Howard/etc/etc say so, the latter seems the more reasonable assumption to go with.

In actuality, none of the above examples regarding leakers or arrests really fits properly to the arrest of Green. The one case which is very similar was coincidentally settled today: that involving Sally Murrer of the Milton Keynes Citizen and Mark Kearney, a police officer who was a local source of Murrer's, as well as also for a time being her lover. Kearney and Murrer were charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office, the same charge on which Green was arrested on suspicion of. Like Green, the stories which Kearney supplied Murrer with were relatively inconsequential, concerning a drug dealer and a local footballer, as well as one about an inmate at Woodhill prison boasting about becoming a suicide bomber, which was not actually printed. These charges however seemed to be the cover for getting at Kearney over his knowledge of the bugging of the MP Sadiq Khan when he visited an old friend from his school days, Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison, of which there was a highly unsatisfactory government inquiry into. Thankfully for both Murrer and Kearney, the judge has concluded that because of the inanity of the stories which Kearney supplied Murrer with, there was no justification for bugging Kearney or Murrer, which directly breached Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, the right to freedom of expression. Tabloid newspapers condemning the HRA for introducing a privacy law via the back-door should take note.

Similarly then, would the police have acted in such a heavy-handed, arrogant way against Green if this really was just about the leaking to him of documents about illegal immigrants working in the security industry, an illegal immigrant working in the House of Commons, a memo from Jacqui Smith concerning how crime is likely to rise during a recession and a document which speculated on the MPs which would oppose 42 day detention? All we have to go on is that a civil servant was suspended from the Home Office 10 days ago and also arrested, and that a complaint to the police was made by the Cabinet Office. Is it possible that Green has been supplied with something far more explosive, perhaps potentially involving the police, which he was yet to share with the media, hence the heavy-handedness and the involvement of what was Special Branch, even if this was strictly being dealt with under common law? We simply don't know. What we do know is that no one is talking about why the police might have acted as they have, simply how they have acted as they have.

And it has to be admitted, their behaviour in this instance is even by the standards by which we are becoming accustomed little short of extraordinary. Yes, whistleblowers have been arrested and persecuted down the years for supplying us with information most certainly in the public interest, but for police to arrest an actual front bench opposition spokesman, hold him for 9 hours, raid his office in parliament, as well as his home, and take his personal effects is on a whole different level to what has come before. As others have pointed out, despite the involvement of anti-terror officers, this as yet does not have anything to do with actual anti-terrorism laws, but what those anti-terrorism laws, such as Section 44 have done is imbue the police with the confidence they need to be able to act almost with impunity. Even whilst we complain that they often can't seem to be bothered to keep actual small town stations open than more than a few hours at a time, or to attend burglaries, they find the time to monitor political demonstrations while recording footage of all those taking part, just for "their records". They, along with community support officers, have routinely stopped photographers from taking shots of almost anything, on the various grounds that either those doing so could be taking part in reconnaissance missions or that they could be taking pictures of children. When it comes to actual terror raids, such as the Forest Gate fiasco, those who dare to criticise the police, of which politicians themselves very rarely if ever do, find themselves under attack for impugning on those carrying out such a dangerous job. In the name of stopping knife crime, blanket searching of those deemed likely to be carrying one has been authorised, with the forms which officers have to fill in when they stop and search someone likely to be scrapped, with even the innocent who were stopped being photographed. Even the Conservatives, opposed to 42 days, appear to support giving the police other powers of surveillance, also likely to be abused just as every other new power has been and will be abused. It is however far too over the top to suggest that we are living in a police state. We are though an undoubted surveillance society, and New Labour, through both its anti-terror laws and authoritarian crime policies has put into place the building blocks of one.

It therefore takes some chutzpah for David Davis, whose stance I have deeply admired, to say he now believes we are living in a police state because one of his own has been raided. When other individuals have said similar things, such as one of the men wrongly arrested in connection with the Birmingham beheading plot, who said that this country was now a police state for Muslims, they have been shot down, especially by politicians. Politicians themselves after all have no one other than themselves to blame for the power the police now have and routinely wield. Only the Liberal Democrats have anything approaching a decent record on opposing the almost yearly measures brought in in reaction to tabloid demands. Like others, they don't believe that it could happen to them until it does, and when it does, they sure as hell don't like it up 'em. If you dislike it happening to you, then think how others who routinely undergo the same thing feel. Politicians have long imagined that they are above the law, but as today has shown, they clearly are not. It would be nice to think that once we truly get to the bottom of why Green has really been arrested, or why the police thought such a sledgehammer approach was appropriate, that it might make some of them think twice before inflicting yet more legalisation on us that further reduces the police's accountability while at the same time making them ever more powerful.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008 

Not much intelligence from the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Continuing with the security theme, yesterday saw the release of the annual report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. The last report they issued was the gobsmacking whitewash on extraordinary rendition, which decided that MI5's involvement in the CIA kidnapping of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna because they'd changed the definition of what exactly an "extraordinary rendition" is. To quote from the toadying, ridiculously trusting report:

D.Those operations detailed above, involving UK Agencies’ knowledge or involvement, are “Renditions to Justice”, “Military Renditions”and “Renditions to “the Detention”. They are not “Extraordinary Renditions”, which we define as extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system,where there is a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

The security services were therefore cleared of any complicit involvement in extraordinary rendition. Aren't our investigating parliamentary committees wonderful?

Just where do you go from issuing such a laughable written record of sycophancy and admiring disregard for anything other than a clean bill of health for our glorious saviours in MI5 and SIS? To an even more hilariously censored account (PDF) which manages to inform you of almost precisely nothing you didn't already know.

Richard Norton-Taylor on CiF has already said it best, but the whole report has to be read to be believed. There isn't a page that goes by that isn't affected in some way by material it's felt to sensitive for the public to read, and so is instead replaced with asterisks. Predictably, we aren't told how much the security services are either spending or being allocated in funding, but some of the removals just make the whole thing completely impossible to understand or make your marvel at just what the point of even bothering to issue a report was. There's this for example:

We are now engaged in a range of counter-terrorism work; direct pursuit of terrorists, ***, capacity-building with key [countries,] and – this is an absolutely vital point
– ***.
***. So put like that and defined like that, this takes up about 56 per cent of our effort… and it is rising.


SIS has improved its *** and its understanding of the factors that have the potential to affect radicalisation and extremism in the UK.

Its what? Its cookery? Its archery? Its performance? Its dick waving?

The media have focused on the fact that GCHQ suffered from flooding last year and the report's inquest into that, but far more interesting is the report's comments on media relations, the stopping of the SFO inquiry into the BAE slush fund and the possibility of intercept evidence being made admissible. These seem to be Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's comments on the coverage of the Birmingham beheading plot raids:

We were very angry, but it is not clear who we should be angry with, that most of the story of the arrests in Op GAMBLE were in the media very, very fast. Indeed, before the arrests in Birmingham, the press were pre-positioned and before the police had picked up one of the plotters and the surveillance was still out looking for them, the story was in the press.

So the case was potentially jeopardised by the exposure of what the story was. My officers and the police were jeopardised by them being on operations when the story broke. The strategy of the police for interrogating those arrested was blown out of the water, and my staff felt pretty depressed about the fact that this had happened.

We've never got to the bottom of who was behind the leaking, mainly to the Scum, but most of the fingers were being pointed directly at the Home Office. Not that they're the only guilty parties; the Met, the security services themselves and other interested parties have all leaked stories for their own benefit in recent years. The solution to this though doesn't appear to be to ensure that accurate, non-sensationalist information is supplied by the police or others when arrests are made, transparently making the news available to all rather than just a few, but instead to tighten the screw on the media in its entirety, with again predictably the complaint being that "lives are at risk":

The current system for handling national security information through DA-Notices, and the Agencies’ relationships with the media more generally, is not working as effectively as it might and this is putting lives at risk. We recommend that the Government engage with the media to develop a new, effective system, with a view to protecting intelligence work, operations, sources and criminal prosecutions, whilst ensuring that the media continue to report on important matters of public interest.

The government engage with the media? Who is the committee kidding? Either it will put down more chilling legislation which rather than affecting the sensationalism in the aftermath of the foiling of a "plot" will instead stop legitimate reporting and investigation, or it'll do nothing.

The committee's unquestioning approach to the evidence given them by the security services is once again highlighted by their pitiful investigation into whether there really was a threat of the Saudis withdrawing intelligence cooperation if the SFO investigation into corruption continued:

106. We asked the Chief of SIS about the Saudi threat to withdraw co-operation:

There was some suggestion in some of the media coverage that there was no *** threat to our co-operation… that is not true. There were threats made to the existence of the co-operation [and] there was reason to take those threats seriously…

If the committee is well briefed, it would know that the intelligence between all the major western intelligence agencies is now pooled and shared. Even if the Saudis had withdrawn their cooperation with SIS, they would never dare remove their cooperation with the Americans, who in any case would then have submitted the same information to us. If John Scarlett was questioned about that, it sure isn't in the report.

U. The Committee is satisfied that, at the time, there were serious national security considerations which contributed to the Serious Fraud Ofice’s decision to halt the investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Even if there were, it was still the equivalent of giving into blackmail and letting a foreign country dictate to us what we could and could not do in relation to more than substantiated allegations of corruption. We would never give in to such demands from terrorists or the likes of Iran, so why with our supposed friends? The rule of law means nothing when it comes to continuing the arming of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East.

Onto intercept evidence. Surprise, surprise, the agencies are firmly against, and the committee certainly isn't convinced either:

113. The Agencies, however, are adamant that their intercept capabilities must not be disclosed in court. If they were, criminals and terrorists would quickly learn what the Agencies can and cannot do, and would emd means of avoiding detection, which would then damage their capability and coverage. Other countries, however, allow the use of intercept as evidence without any adverse impact on their security and intelligence capability, so what makes the UK different?

GCHQ points to a unique combination of factors in the UK:

The UK is the only country which has all three of the following things: an adversarial legal system, subordination to [the European Convention on Human Rights] and a strategic intercept and SIGINT capacity that is worth protecting.

The tabloids' aversion to the HRA seems to be contagious; even the security agencies are now making spurious allusions to the ECHR somehow making it obvious how intercept evidence can't possibly be made admissible. The next paragraph is completely open about how poor some of the intercept evidence is, rather than "strategic" and "worth protecting":

In practice, because of the UK’s adversarial legal system, the defence would be able to test the validity of evidence and thereby explore how it was obtained. As communications technology evolves (particularly internet protocol), we understand it may be dificult for the Agencies to be able to prove intercept to an evidential standard.

So there you are. Admittance that the evidence which currently means those on control orders can't be prosecuted is so flaky or unable to back-up that it would be unlikely to stand up in court. No wonder that the agencies are against it; the last thing they want to look is either stupid or for it to be shown that men innocent of any crime have been held under the equivalent of house arrest for years on their say so.

117. The Director of GCHQ summarised the test for allowing intercept:

… a change to allow intercept as evidence should be introduced only when doing so would have a net benfeit in securing the safety and the security of the UK. By that I mean not just convicting and imprisoning criminals, but also preventing crimes and terrorist actions.

Which just happens to be a test which you'll never be able to come to a definitive conclusion about. Best not to even try then; after all, who cares about those stuck in the eternal limbo of the control order regime, driven to severe depression like Cerie Bullivant, whose only crime seems to have been to have associated with relatives of the fertiliser bomb plotter Anthony Garcia, who had his order quashed yesterday by a judge who was heavily critical of the Home Office.

Its conclusion then:

V. Intercept is of crucial importance to the capability of the Agencies to protect the UK, its citizens and its interests overseas. Any move to permit the use of intercept evidence in court proceedings must be on a basis that does not jeopardise that capability.

In other words, more blackmail. Introduce this and we won't be able to do our jobs properly. Never mind that numerous other countries in Europe also signed up to the ECHR manage it, and that the security services are more than happy with the results of their bugging, crucial to the Crevice trial and now the beheading plot being made available as evidence, intercept would be a step too far. Just what are they so scared of?

The only real showing of teeth by the committee was being denied access to a document prepared for ministers about "an important matter", apparently related to a foreign operation, which the foreign secretary at the time was happy to be given them. The prime minister didn't agree, and the committee said that doesn't say much about his previous pledge to make the committee more transparent.

Indeed, Brown and this government's intentions of doing just that could not be more summed up than in the choice of who to replace Paul Murphy, previous chairman and now the Welsh secretary after Peter Hain's resignation. Margaret Beckett, whose previous performance in her last two jobs, as head of DEFRA and then foreign secretary were both execrable, could not be either more establishment or less likely to ask the pertinent questions needed of the security services. So much too for the independent investigator that the committee was promised. The only way the security services will ever be held properly to account will be if a watchdog similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission or the Information Commissioner were to be set-up. Why for instance should the head of MI5 be able to make doommongering statements about the terrorist threat in public and then refuse to give evidence to a parliamentary committee under the same scrutiny? Just how far the inroads into everyday life the security services are making were revealed in statistics released this week by Sir Paul Kennedy, which showed that more than 250,000 requests were made to monitor phone-calls, emails and post in just 9 months. The surveillance state is ever growing, yet there is not even the slightest attempt to provide accountability. That simply has to change.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008 

Getting to the bottom of the beheading plot.

The one disadvantage of the four men who formed the alleged "Birmingham beheading plot" being caught so bang to rights that they've pleaded guilty is that it's unlikely we're now going to learn in anywhere near in full just how far their plans went, and what links, if any, they had with other jihadists overseas.

For those who might have forgotten, the very day after the first arrests, the Daily Mail screamed "AL QAEDA WAS BEHIND PLOT TO BEHEAD SOLDIER". The Sun and Times, as per usual, were at the forefront of the speculation, with the Times claiming that the men arrested may have had a list of up to 25 possible targets, and that two of the men had attended a camp "directly linked to al-Qaida". One newspaper even claimed that two Muslim soldiers had been used as "bait", something that the police later made clear was completely untrue. Indeed, West Midlands police were so angered by the leaks to the press that they made it clear they had hampered their investigation, although it took another two months for Peter Clarke to make a speech saying the leaks might have put "lives at risk" for the Tories and Lib Dems to ask any questions whatsoever.

Although it's still very early days, none of the evidence disclosed today has even suggested that the men had found a target. Rather, Parviz Khan, the apparent ringleader, whose house had been bugged by MI5, was recorded talking of using drug dealers to target a soldier by getting them to approach him and offer cocaine, then grab him off the street once they'd piqued his interest. Why drug dealers would have cooperated with Khan isn't explained, or indeed how they would have managed to so successfully follow their target so as to get close enough to grab him also isn't identified. Basiru Gassama, who pleaded guilty to knowing about the plot but not informing the authorities, was according to the prosecution to have provided the details of the target, but never did. The only solid thing appears to be that they planned to behead a soldier, record it, and most likely distribute it through jihadist forums.

As for links to al-Qaida, Khan has also admitted to supplying equipment such as night-vision goggles, sleeping bags, walkie-talkies and waterproof map holders to his "terrorist contacts" in Pakistan. Whether this was intended for use in Afghanistan by the remnants of the Taliban and the others still fighting there is uncertain, although what use some of the material would have for use in the part of Pakistan affected by the earthquake there is certainly unclear.

Rather, what the opening of the trial appears to show is the continuation of a theme: that instead of having cast-iron links with terrorist groups overseas that are controlling the cells, the groups that have had their plots foiled up to now have almost all been acting entirely alone, coming up with their own ideas, often either overblown and too difficult to pull off, or incompetent, in the case of last year's failed attacks on the London nightclub and Glasgow airport. While it's reassuring somewhat that they're either pretentious or immature, what is more troubling is that they're home-grown, autonomous and fully acquainted with classic terror tactics. The beheading plot was nothing more in reality than a murder plot, but its political subtext would have been overwhelming.

Again, it shows the terror threat is real, but that it continues to be exaggerated for short-term political gain. Refusing to give in to demands for extending either the detention limit further or for a return to Musharraf's supposed plan for tackling radicalisation continue to be justified by the failures and weaknesses of the plots foiled, not to mention the civil liberties implications or the chilling effects on the Muslim community itself.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008 

Official secrets and not so official secrets.

It's great to see that Derek Pasquill has been cleared of breaching the draconian Official Secrets Act through his leaking of memos and documents to the Observer and New Statesman. It's thanks to Pasquill that we know just how clueless and mendacious the government was over extraordinary rendition, at turns not knowing how many flights had gone through our airspace while trying to "move the debate on" to get itself out of a sticky patch. The end result was the whitewash produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which altered the definitions of exactly what an "extraordinary rendition" was in order to clear MI5 of being involved in the kidnapping by the CIA of Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, both now back in Britain after being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Why he was ever considered for prosecution itself is a mystery. The Foreign Office quite openly admitted, despite the embarrassment especially over the rendition leaks, that his actions had not materially harmed it and had indeed changed policy for the better, especially over how the government now doesn't treat the Muslim Council of Britain as completely representative of British Muslims or the first port of call in a storm. It was this reluctant admittance by the prosecutors that some of the evidence they were to present in the case in actuality undermined their very argument that led to the prosecution being dropped.

Unlike some others that have quickly heralded this as a great victory for investigative journalism, as encouraging as it is, it doesn't alter the verdict in the far more pernicious prosecution last year of David Keogh and Leo O'Connor. They were the men who attempted to leak the al-Jazeera memo, where it's widely alleged that President Bush advocated the bombing of its headquarters in Qatar, and had to be talked down by Blair. If the public don't have a right to know when their leaders propose carrying out war crimes, ironically in this case in response to al-Jazeera's reporting of the US attack on the city of Fallujah, where alleged war crimes were taking place and where we know that weapons such as white phosphorus were used, then we might as well accept that the government of the day should be allowed to do whatever the hell it likes in secret, with no fear of whistleblowers exposing their actions. Both Nigel Sheinwald and the judge in his sentencing statement laughably claimed that the release of the memo could have "put lives at risk", when the only lives that were at risk were those of the al-Jazeera journalists doing their jobs.

The only real difference was that in the case of Keogh and O'Connor the officials who wanted the prosecution were prepared to testify, as was the prime minister's foreign policy advisor. With Pasquill, the embarrassment and vindictive nature of the trial was simply too much. It's also not the only trial upcoming under the OSA: Thomas Lund-Lack, who leaked a Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre report to the Sunday Times is also facing similar charges. The line between where investigative journalism and the public interest ends and justified government secrecy lies is an incredibly fine one, and it's not going to be decided through cases like this but through a review of the OSA itself, something that is long overdue.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007 

Off the record.

Liberty has published its proposals for a protocol governing so-called "off the record" briefings on terrorist raids that have been given by both the police and Whitehall sources in the past. While commendable and worth supporting, there's absolutely no chance of them being put into practice:
Liberty's conclusions on the protocols are:

• The current situation where no proper guidelines, protocols, guidance or procedures exist regarding off the record briefings to the media by police officers or civil servants during anti-terror operations is unacceptable and potentially disastrous. Such guidelines should be developed as a matter of urgency.

• In developing such guidelines the over riding concern is that nothing should be done to jeopardise any potential trials or ongoing operations.

• The guidelines should be based upon the presumption that the flow of information about anti-terror operations should be as open as possible rather than ‘on a need to know’ basis.

• The guidelines should ensure that information comes from appropriate and readily identifiable sources within the police or civil service to allow for proper accountability. Failure to adhere to the guidelines will be a disciplinary matter.

• A commission should be established as a matter of urgency to draft such guidelines for the police and civil service concerning off the record briefings in line with the above conclusions.
Despite Peter Clarke's attack on those who leaked the alleged background to the Birmingham terror raids before the arrests had even taken place, both the police and government have shown that they have no real interest in stopping such briefings, purely because despite the anger they generate, they serve their own agenda too well. At the same time as they urge the media not to speculate, both the police and John Reid were only too happy to point out that the Birmingham raids proved that the terrorist threat is very real, as the released logs from Liberty's FoI request show (PDF).

If the government really gave a damn about Clarke's allegations, they would have ordered an inquiry, even if it would have meant sacrificing a minor civil servant who was given the task of briefing the tabloids. If Clarke had really meant what he said, he'd have denied the reports in the
Guardian following his speech which suggested that some of the information that he was so angry about had indeed came straight out of Scotland Yard itself. The anger about the briefings didn't come from the Met, who had been only too happy to wildly brief, as Liberty sets out in its case studies on the "ricin" case and Forest Gate (PDF), but from the West Midlands force, who weren't used to such raids and then were left looking foolish after they didn't even question 3 of the men subsequently released about the plot which was being reported in the media.

All of this is down to the politicisation of the terror threat. Clarke spent much of his speech which included the denunciations of the leaks trying his hardest to deny that the police had been involved in either scaremongering or that there was anything wrong in trying to get 90 days detention without charge on the statute book, both issues which are highly contentious. We've had speech after speech and interview after interview with Ian Blair and friends telling us how
"the sky is dark", and how they still consider 90 days as essential, and then they take umbrage when this is pointed out to them. The ricin plot which never was involved crowing on both sides of the Atlantic, opportunistically used by Colin Powell in his now notorious presentation to the UN Security Council. We're meant to believe that it was pure coincidence that the day before last summer's "liquid explosives" raids John Reid made one of his biggest attacks, not on those actively plotting terrorist acts, but on those he said "didn't get it".

This makes for a wonderful Catch-22. For the government and police to inspire confidence that they're not exaggerating the threat, as they supposedly recognise they need to do, they need to introduce the very reforms that they're not going to because they would make it far too difficult to use the intelligence they have for their own ends. In short, nothing's going to change.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007 

We don't want to scaremonger, but there are some really nasty men out there...

It's somewhat odd that it's taken the comments of Peter Clarke, about an incident which took place two months ago, for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to pull their heads out of the sand and start asking pertinent and important questions about where the briefings about the alleged plot to behead a serving British Muslim soldier came from. At the time there were articles in the Guardian, outrage from the West Midlands police themselves and press releases from Liberty, yet little was said. One has to suspect that party political concerns, with the local and regional elections fast approaching, are one aspect behind it.

As seems to happen every so often, and thanks partly to the splitting of the Home Office, we're currently going through another round of being reminded just how deadly, enduring and frightening the "threat" is. Clarke's speech is part of this, and is full of the familiar justifications that the police have come up with for botched raids, leaks of their own and downright lies about some of those who have been arrested, tried and convicted.

He starts off by comparing the threat posed by the IRA to the threat now posed by "al-Qaida and its associated groups", covering the usual territory. It's when he breaks down what's happened during the years past that it starts getting interesting:

During that year, 2002, we focussed on groups of North Africans, mainly Algerians, to find out whether they were engaged solely in support, fund raising and the like, or whether they posed a real threat to the UK itself. We followed a trail of petty fraud and false identity documents across the country. Eventually that trail took us to Thetford, where in the unlikely surroundings of rural Norfolk we found the first real indication since 9/11 of operational terrorist activity here in the UK - recipes for ricin and other poisons. That led us eventually to Wood Green and the chemicals, the Finsbury Park Mosque, and of course the terrible murder of Detective Constable Stephen Oake in Manchester in January 2003.

Chemicals? What chemicals? There were no chemicals found at Wood Green, and there was certainly no ricin either. There were indeed recipes for ricin found, but they were crude forgeries from which ricin could not have been manufactured. Even if the recipes had been legitimate, Kamel Bourgass had planned to smear the poison on car door handles and doorknobs, when ricin has to pierce the skin in order to work. It was an embarrassing cock-up which both the US and UK governments exploited for their own purposes. Bourgass additionally had no links whatsoever to al-Qaida, and the evidence against his co-defendants who were acquitted only to be later re-arrested and detained was acquired through torture in Algeria.

That case taught us many things, not least about our ability to operate across borders, both within the UK and overseas. It showed us the difficulties that international terrorist conspiracies pose for our domestic judicial system. For the police, it also marked the beginning of our understanding of the impact that the emerging distrust of intelligence in early 2003 would have on our relationship with the media and therefore the public. This was the first time, in my experience, that the police service had been accused of exaggerating the threat posed by terrorists in order, it was alleged, to help the government justify its foreign policy.

Why accuse the police service when we can point the finger directly at Peter Clarke himself? After Bourgass was convicted, Clarke had this to say:

"This was a hugely serious plot because what it had the potential to do was to cause real panic, fear, disruption and possibly even death," said Peter Clarke, the head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch. "This was no more, no less than a plot to poison the public."

Except, well, there was no chance of there being any poisoning. The panic, fear and disruption were created by the media who were wrongly briefed that ricin had been found when none existed.

He goes on:

In terms of the broad development of the threat, it is frustrating that I cannot describe in more detail much of what we have discovered during the course of investigations, but suffice it to say that the alleged plot to bring down airliners last year was yet another step in what seems an inexorable trend towards more ambitious and more destructive attack planning.

Quite. It's going to be fascinating to see exactly what was found as a result of the "liquid bomb" plot raids; Craig Murray reported last December that after searching woods in High Wycombe for 5 months, they had found, err, nothing. Clarke's own press conference only mentioned that hydrogen peroxide had been found, which is certainly not a liquid explosive and which could not have been concealed like the bombs partly made of hydrogen peroxide used on 7/7 and 21/7. An article on Raw Story, based on an ex-British Army expert on explosives' testimony, claimed that the whole plot as described in the media was a "fiction".

He then explains how the intelligence services and the police are now working hand in hand as a result of having to intervene earlier. He can't avoid having to mention the Forest Gate fiasco:

Sometimes this inevitably means that there will not be enough evidence to prosecute, and then we face the criticism that we are being indiscriminate in our activities. The operation in Forest Gate in June 2006 is often held up as an example of this. If anyone seriously believes that we, and here I mean the police, would embark on an operation such as that lightly, or not genuinely believing it to be necessary, they are quite simply wrong. Sadly, I can't go into the full background of the case, but if anyone is interested I would refer them to the Independent Police Complaint's Commission Report. The Commission came to the clear conclusion, having seen the intelligence, that the operation was necessary and proportionate.

Which is quite true, they did. The report was however critical of the police's conduct of the raid and of the treatment given to both the families involved. The IPCC were only allowed to see the intelligence on a "confidential" basis, so we still don't exactly what the police were meant to be looking for in the first place, or whether the intelligence was believable. Somehow, the idea of a suicide vest spraying out poison, which was what some papers reported was what the police were looking for, doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

Forest Gate also helps to illustrate the rank hypocrisy of Clarke and the police themselves in denouncing the leaks which occurred during the Birmingham raids in February. The whole Forest Gate operation was punctuated by unsubstantiated leaks to the press which could only have come from the police. The News of the World claimed that one brother had shot the other in trying to grab the gun held by a police officer, later proved to be completely untrue by the IPCC, while the Sun splashed with the story that the home had £38,000 in cash in it, ignoring completely the family's explanation that they didn't use bank accounts because of the Islamic belief in money not accruing interest. Even then they weren't finished with the Koyair brothers; taking the "evidence" that one of them had child pornography straight to the News of the World, only for no charges to be brought.

Clarke goes on:

This is not going to be easy. We must increase the flow of intelligence coming from communities. Almost all of our prosecutions have their origins in intelligence that came from overseas, the intelligence agencies or from technical means. Few have yet originated from what is sometimes called 'community intelligence.' This is something we are working hard to change.

It's widely rumoured that the intelligence about the Forest Gate raid did indeed come from within the community, and we know how wrong it was quickly proved. This doesn't exactly inspire confidence either in the police's contacts, or within communities where grudges and rivalries can play a part in briefings.

We must maintain that trust. But how to do so? I have no doubt that the operational and political independence of the police is the key to this. The communities must believe, and it must be reality, that the police stand aside from politics in the exercise of their powers. That is why the allegations of political partiality that seem to have been made so lightly in recent times are so damaging. They undermine the relationship between police and public.

Surely the solution is simple: stop the briefing before anyone has so much has been in custody for hours, let alone before they are charged. The media do play their part, it's true, but it's the police that seem to be the source for much of the wrong information which has found its way into the papers in the aftermath of raids under the terrorism acts. Either stop the briefing, suggest who it is if it isn't the police, or expect to find yourselves sneered at when arrests are made when so little hard evidence seems to have been collected.

He then goes on about 90 days:

When asked by how much the period of detention should be increased, we suggested a maximum of 90 days, subject to judicial oversight. We were asking not for a police power, but for a power to be vested in the courts on application from the police or the Crown Prosecution Service.

This is an attempt at obfuscation that doesn't work. It's quite true that the police have to put the case for having a further detention period to a judge, but there are few judges who are going to go directly against the wishes of the police or incur the wrath of the tabloids when a deadly terrorist might be released as a result.

As we all know, the ensuing debate, both in Parliament and elsewhere was a little lively. I know there have been concerns expressed about the role of the police service in that debate, and whether we overstepped the mark in terms of political neutrality - but I find this slightly puzzling. If we are asked for our professional opinion, and we express it, and the Government brings forward legislation, are we supposed to be silent the moment a draft Bill is published? We were accused of being politically partial, but I reject that.

It wasn't so much that the police as a whole were openly supporting the bill, it was more that local police officials were being encouraged to ring up their MPs and tell them of their support for it which angered politicians themselves. Clarke seems to be suggesting that the police support for 90 days should be beyond reproach, that they had only good intentions in proposing it, even though they have only had to use the full 28 days so far once, and that seemed to be more aimed at making a point than in having to do so for lack of evidence to charge. Clarke ought to have known that such a lengthy period of detention without charge, in effect a six-month prison sentence, was going to raise passionate opposition and support, and that politically partiality, especially the way in which the police and this government have operated at times almost in tandem, was going to be a factor. To be puzzled by it seems to show a willful naivety.

After all of this (and more) he finally gets to the remarks which have got the political parties off their backsides:

I am not referring to the normal day to day discourse that occurs between journalists and their contacts. What I am talking about is the deliberate leaking of highly sensitive operational intelligence, often classified, and the unauthorised release of which can be a criminal offence. I make no allegations about the source of leaks or about individual cases. What is clear is that there are a number, a small number I am sure, of misguided individuals who betray confidences. Perhaps they look to curry favour with certain journalists, or to squeeze out some short term presentational advantage - I do not know what motivates them. The people who do this either do not know or do not care what damage they do. If they do know, then they are beneath contempt. If they do not know, then let me tell them. They compromise investigations. They reveal sources of life saving intelligence. In the worst cases they put lives at risk. I wonder if they simply do not care.

The recent investigation in Birmingham into an allegation that a British serviceman had been targeted by a terrorist network is but one example of this. On the morning of the arrests, almost before the detainees had arrived at the police stations to which they were being taken for questioning, it was clear that key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked. This damaged the interview strategy of the investigators, and undoubtedly raised community tensions. I have no idea where the leaks came from, but whoever was responsible should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

The implication being from all of this is that the Home Office was responsible, as the Guardian reported at the time. Notice that despite all this, there's still no apology to those who were caught up in the raid and who weren't even questioned about anything to do with the plot which was leaked to the Sun before the police had nearly even so much as acted.

It's worth noting however that nowhere in Clarke's entire speech does he so much as mention the most noteworthy gaping sore which did so much to undermine faith in the police: Jean Charles de Menezes. The police then were either involved in openly smearing him, claiming that he was acting suspiciously, wearing heavy clothes, jumping the barrier, etc, when he did none of those things, or failed to act in dispelling these untruths when it quickly became clear that an innocent man had been shot dead. That he's not worthy of even being discussed as a reason for why the police are little trusted seems to sum up the contempt with which he was treated both on that day and since.

Speaking of summing up, John Reid did his best today to show the very worst of his government. One minute he laughably called for an end to scaremongering over the terrorist threat, something that his government has exploited time and again, then in the next breath he was orgasmic in warning of how al-Qaida intends to "bankrupt" us through attacking financial markets or energy supplies, without explaining how they would manage to do either. He even talked about the long-held myth of al-Qaida somehow being able to bring the internet to its knees, as if they are a whole waiting army of extremist Islamist hackers about to stop the wider public from visiting MurdochSpace and bidding on eBay. Despite their differences over leaking, Clarke and Reid appear to be a match made in heaven.

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