Tuesday, December 08, 2009 

The revisionism of Sir Ian Blair.

In general, once our great leaders and other betters resign from their positions of power, a strange thing tends to happen. Stripped of their main claim to fame, as it were, they become once again reasonable, even likeable human beings. This doesn't apply to the most controversial or divisive figures, such as Thatcher or Blair, who will doubtless continue to be either lionised or loathed until the day they die, but Major certainly, Michael Howard more recently and I confidently predict, Gordon Brown, will all eventually become mere mortals again that don't immediately invoke an almost atavistic sense of hatred.

Another person to whom this doesn't apply is Tony's namesake, Sir Ian Blair. At one point in the distant past I wondered whether Blair wasn't actually the best we were likely to get, despite being such an utter scaremongering tit; as it turns out, I was completely wrong, and Sir Paul Stephenson has, despite the G20 police riots, been the archetypal safe pair of hands. Blair though, despite having been forcibly retired, is determined that he shouldn't be remembered as the man in charge when a Brazilian was shot by his officers and who didn't learn of the fact he wasn't the man they thought he was until the following day despite even his secretary knowing, and is instead attempting to put together a revisionist account of his own time as chief commissioner at the Met. Not about Jean Charles de Menezes - he's clearly lost that battle - but rather of his role in cheerleading for up to 90 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects.

First, he attempts to draw a hardly conclusive historical parallel:

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both," said Benjamin Franklin. Nearly a century later, Abraham Lincoln would disagree: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." That essential conflict remains alive today.

This is hardly comparing like with like. Lincoln faced the biggest catastrophe a nation state can - a civil war. In such circumstances, when the life of the nation can be conclusively said to be under threat, emergency procedures and laws which would never otherwise be considered as proportionate may well be vital. We at the moment face a tiny band of extremists who can be more than successfully contained using the normal powers of the criminal justice system, who pose no threat to life as we know it whatsoever. New threats do pose new problems, but while the threat may be new, the actual danger posed is relatively limited compared to those we have come through in the past.

After the fall of communism, the west believed it had won. Despite what we now know to be al-Qaida-inspired attacks in the US, East Africa and the Gulf, many supported Francis Fukuyama's theory that history had ended. The 2001 attacks on the twin towers suddenly revealed it had not. As the Balkan conflict had indicated, older conflicts were resuming, not with the left-right mutually assured destruction of the cold war but an asymmetric struggle in an age of global communication.

It would be unfair to suggest that this is Blair attempting to be the intellectual. When he says "many" supported Fukuyama's much quoted but rarely examined in detail treatise that history had ended, it's unclear whether he realises that Fukuyama was one of the original neo-conservatives who believed that the end of the Soviet Union was the perfect opportunity to massively extend US influence and power without anyone having the temerity or power to interfere. History had only ended, in Fukuyama's view, in that both democracy and neo-liberal economics had triumphed and were now the only realistic options for mankind. That nations which disagreed with this view could then have democracy and neo-liberal economics imposed on them by force already suggested that this was hardly the end of history, but then Fukuyama himself has since changed his mind, and is even now espousing "realistic Wilsonianism" as an alternative to the less benign neo-conservative he once identified with.

What we do not know is what happens next: whether the last decade will prove an aberration; whether or not al-Qaida will be marginalised and fade into history. There is no doubt that the centre of al-Qaida has suffered many setbacks: those of its leaders who survive are in hiding. However, the group's inspiration and its message remain vibrant, resonating across continents and borders. It can reach not only its adherents but also the lonely and the unbalanced, using new methods of communication, trumpeting the many causes of anger and despair in the world, suggesting new dreams of fulfilment, offering new tools of attack and searching for more, including radiological and chemical weaponry.

So the question is whether, echoing Lincoln, "our case is new". If it is, then it may be better to risk being at the mercy of the state than at the mercy of the murderously inclined. At the very least, it would be useful to hear the arguments of those who believe or believed that we must "think anew and act anew".

Except none of what Blair lists is new, nor are we unable to adapt to it. He also presents the classic false dichotomy: we need neither be at the mercy of murderously inclined or at the mercy of the state. The current limits on detention without charge, which is what Blair is leading to discussing, do not put us at the mercy of the murderously inclined, but extending the limit further may well be putting the innocent at the mercy of the state.

By 2006, Britain had twice been attacked by suicide bombers and the plot to blow up airliners had been uncovered – a plot described by the trial judge as "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction". We believed that we could not properly investigate these crimes within the period then available for detention.

Strange that Blair doesn't additionally list the case of Dhiren Barot, which he formerly described as a "true horror". Barot planned to construct a dirty bomb using smoke alarms, a crime so terrible that his handlers decided not to bother funding his fantasies. It's also instructive that Blair uses "believed" rather than "knew" or "expected", as those crimes were indeed investigated within the period then available for detention. The 21/7 attackers were dealt with successfully under the 14 days then available, while the "liquid bombers" were charged on the 28th day. Since then, anything longer than two weeks has not been needed in any terrorist investigation.

We proposed an equivalent of the system of "investigative detention" used in Europe – a rolling series of detention periods of up to seven days at a time, granted by increasingly senior members of the judiciary, with prisoners legally represented at each judicial hearing and throughout police interviews. This was necessary, we said, owing to the growing need to intervene in internationally constructed plots at a very early stage, given the scale of al-Qaida ambitions. At such early stages it was difficult to distinguish main conspirators from lesser players, there were language barriers and problems with encryption. We suggested an outer limit of 90 days.

Now this really is open revisionism - the up to 90 day period was never once described as the equivalent of the system of "investigative detention" used in Europe, probably because it isn't an apposite comparison, as the legal systems in which investigative detention is used differ from our own. The judicial nature was only ever used as a fig leaf - only the boldest judges are ever going to openly disagree with the police when they say they need more time to potentially prevent a terrorist attack. Even with the extra time, the police have still consistently failed to distinguish main conspirators from lesser players, with at least three men involved in the liquid bomb plot released without charge after the full 28 days. One of those tried in that case was cleared of any involvement after the second jury trial. Problems with encryption could have been got round used already applicable laws. Even in retrospect, Blair fails to conjure up anything approaching a convincing case.

It seemed to us that this was like bird flu: when that threatened, the public were entitled to hear from the chief veterinary officer, now they should hear from the police. But no: commentators of all stripes said this was the police being political. It was not. It was the police being the police, talking about policing. We should not be seen as street butlers, silent until spoken to.

Except this doesn't even begin to reflect what Ian Blair was doing when it came to discussion of 90 days. He wasn't just suggesting what was needed, or telling the government what he thought was necessary, leaving it to them to make the case, he himself was actively campaigning for the change, as did other officers. The Tories told at the time of the 90 day vote of MPs being contacted by their local chief constables urging them to rebel against the Tory whip and support the government. Again, it's also not an apposite comparison: the chief veterinary officer acts directly as an adviser; the chief commissioner of the Met is in charge of the police, who uphold the law, not actively attempt to make it up as they go along, a very good reason for them to be directly separate from it. It's also the case that the police will always claim that they need new powers regardless of whether they do or not; anything that makes their job easier and which gives them more authority is to be welcomed. It is the politician's job to resist it. The connect between the two Blairs became so close that the dividing line became indistinct. Neither saw this as a problem, and that in itself was worrying.

Still, much of this now feels like the ghost of Christmas past. Gone is the unrelenting paranoia of the terrorist threat; now we instead have the economic threat, much more real and much more damaging than the terrorist threat ever was. Whether we will feel the same way about our upcoming overlords as we now do about our previous ones may well depend on what happens tomorrow.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008 

No compromise on 42 days.

The issue of extending the detention limit without charge under which terrorist suspects can be held has been with us so long now that the latest supposed developments bring nothing other than a gnawing sense of exasperation at how, despite comprehensively losing the argument over 90 days and now over its successor, 42, that this fundamental issue of just how far down the authoritarian road we go has still not been solved.

Politics is all about compromise, and it's all the better for it. There are however some matters, and this is most certainly one, where there cannot be one. The supporters of a further extension to the time limit, putting us under our common law system into bed with the most vicious autocracies and dictatorships both past and present, can be counted on one hand: they number Gordon Brown, Jacqui Smith, "Sir" Ian Blair, Lord Carlile and the Sun newspaper. None of their arguments are in the slightest bit convincing, especially when the latter hints darkly that those who vote against the measure when it eventually comes before parliament again will have to answer for it when there's next a terrorist attack, somehow implying that they'll be responsible for something that it is most certainly the work of others to prevent, and extending the limit will do nothing whatsoever to improve their chances of doing so.

In this instance compromise in fact potentially provides those proposing such a draconian change with a fig-leaf of respectability. The Guardian yesterday reported that there might be further concessions, bringing down the time when parliament will have to vote on the extension being authorised to 7 days, and further judicial review of the power. Both of are already concessions from the original, even harsher plans, but neither will do anything to alter the fact that there is no evidence to suggest that any extension is necessary. The parliamentary authorisation on its own is problematic because, as the director of public prosecutions has argued, it risks giving parliament's seal of approval to a case before it has even entered the sphere of a trial. Even worse is one of the alternatives being suggested in an amendment by Andrew Dismore, who proposes holding suspects on police bail past the 28-day limit. This is the worst of all worlds, keeping the suspect under perpetual investigation and uncertainty, giving the police carte blanche to obstruct and disrupt the suspects' lives over an even longer period, while also providing the window of opportunity for those who might well be dangerous to go on the run, just as the control order system is both shockingly illiberal and disproportionate whilst also being ineffective.

If the government is not prepared to back down over 42 days, which goes to the very heart of how civil liberties are being almost casually eroded while also disenfranchising and disengaging those in the Muslim community who need to be brought on side rather than belittled and onerously targeted, then it deserves to be defeated with the same, if not more ferocity than it was over 90 days. If that involves a further loss of face for Gordon Brown, who seems to obstinately refusing to back down because of his determination to both buy off the Murdoch press and show the Tories up as "soft" on terror, then so be it.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007 

Great Grauniad articles and yet more on 28/56/58 days.

The Grauniad tends to go in fits and starts. It publishes the barrel-scrapings of Russell Brand, one of the latest wave of comedians that couldn't carry a laugh in a bucket, alongside such titans as Alan Carr and Jimmy Carr (no relation, apart from their inability to be humourous) which are enough to make you want to try and commit suicide using laxatives, then makes up for it by printing two wonderful comment pieces on the same day that follow a similar theme.

Timothy Garton Ash, who can come across as very much the Oxford liberal, but is always brilliantly readable, gets off the fence he often sits on and calls for the rolling back of the surveillance state, while the novelist Hari Kunzru considers the case of the "lyrical terrorist" and wonders if he too could shortly be raided by the police. Rachel also writes a typically lucid piece on how she believes the case for longer than 28-days detention hasn't been made on CiF.

The government can't even make up its mind on the exact time limit; it now appears to be suggesting 58 days, while Lord Carlile, the man picked to review the terror laws, who seems to have gone native after the security services and police have doubtlessly plied him with their most voluminous doom-mongering intelligence on how the sky is dark and we're all going to die believes there will "one or two people" arrested over the next few years for whom longer than 28-days detention will be necessary. His sort of compromise is that there needs to "better judicial scrutiny," which is of little use, as has already been demonstrated. The police can say whatever they like to a judge to justify continuing detention, regardless of the facts, as they seem to have done in the past, having kept two men for 28-days only to then release them without charge. The other latest proposals are that more than 28-days would only be authorised when "multiple plots, or links with multiple countries, or exceptional levels of complexity" are involved." The police already argue that the cases they've had to deal with involved all or one or two of the above; whenever a "new" plot or otherwise is meant to have been foiled, all that would happen would be an instant appeal for the new powers to be implemented, regardless of whether they were really needed or not.

Carlile rightly argues against the use of the Civil Contingencies Act, which can provide another 30-days of detention without charge if invoked, as the equivalent of declaring a national emergency, but both the government's new and old proposals would do exactly the same thing. Putting through legislation that would allow for 56 or 58 days detention without charge would be the final move from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian one. As Timothy Garton Ash argues, we've moved from being the freest society in Europe to being the most watched, and with it, fearful. We may be tolerant, but beneath it we're increasingly anxious, even frightened, especially by the bloodcurdling speeches by the heads of MI5 and the ratcheting up of security which looks increasingly at odds with the actual threat from terrorism that is posed. Blocking and campaigning against any extension to the detention without charge limit ought to be the first move in the fightback.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007 

The illusion of safety.

We're saved!

Gordon Brown needs our help. Writing in today's Scum, the newspaper of choice when you want to reach out to the nation itself (one person in the comments demands the right to beat the **** out of any burglar, another condemns the notion of bringing back of those with British residency from Guantanamo Bay, while yet another has a shopping list which goes from stopping unjust wars, ending immigration, throwing out preachers of death and withdrawing from the EU) he urges commitment from every community and vigilance from every one of us. Just because you live on the island of Skye don't think that they're aren't bearded lunatics ready to blow themselves up at a moment's notice. Loose lips sink ships.

So commences yet another spasm of panic and doom-mongering on the terrorist threat. This one will involve "stepping up security" everywhere you could possibly think of where a suicidal lunatic with a backpack of explosives or patio gas canisters might consider blowing himself up/setting himself on fire. The government will be sending out advice to "to thousands of cinemas, theatres, restaurants, hotels, sporting venues and commercial centres, as well as all hospitals, schools and places of worship to advise them on how to keep visitors safe against terrorism." You might have thought the government would get its priorities right: shouldn't they be sending out advice to hospitals on how to stop patients from contracting infections while residing on the wards, the number of deaths from which each year vastly outnumber even the worst that the terrorists could throw at us? Bags at the most busy rail stations will now be checked, which will undoubtedly mean ethnic minorities getting repeatedly targeted, as it would be impossible to search anywhere near even a tenth of the numbers that flow through the system without causing enormous delays. Restrictions on baggage on flights will be lifted slightly, with passengers allowed to request permission to carry more than one item of hand luggage, while the ludicrous and idiotic bans on liquids and other large items will remain in place.

All these proposals and more are the result of a review by the ex-admiral "Sir" Alan West (Baron West of Spithead, which is what you should do if you come across him), elevated to the Lords so he could become security minister in Brown's government of no obvious talents, West being the response to Cameron giving a similar job to Lord Stevens, who you can expect to come up with suitably inclusive measures, given his past sectarian rants on how it's all the Muslims' faults. West though is nothing if not self-deprecating. Despite drawing up today's security review, he's in actual fact just "a simple sailor," and nothing more. West's contrition was based on how he told the Today programme, when questioned about the government's view on extending pre-charge detention beyond 28 days, that he himself was "not totally convinced" about the need to do so; two hours later, and after a swift Stalinist re-education at a pre-planning meeting with the Dear Leader, West came out and told everyone that an extension was "absolutely needed" and that he was, despite being not convinced before he entered the dacha, now "convinced that's the case."

Brown, remember, wants to reach a consensus decision over pre-charge detention. It's nothing to do with wanting to prove he can force a measure through that Blair couldn't, no way. In reality, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are opposed to an extension, as is the Telegraph, the Independent and the Grauniad; only the tabloids (I'm unsure over the Mirror's views) and the Times, no doubt similarly instructed by Murdoch as West was by Brown, support the measure. This consensus is so important that the home secretary can conveniently forget just how long is really necessary when questioned about it, as long as she supports the measure, while West's views are quickly corrected when he wonders aloud about the implications for civil liberties. "Liberty" Brown can talk a good game, as evidenced by his speech on liberty, yet when it comes to the existential threat to the nation from takfirists, all such concern goes out the window. Less concern about the undermining of liberty as a whole, more armed police and bag searches at railway stations; the head of MI5 can issue his dire warnings about the kids getting brainwashed by Islamists in public to newspaper editors, but when it comes to giving evidence on whether the pre-charge needs to be extended it has to be done behind closed doors. At least that's a step-up from Manningham-Bullshitter's refusal to even go before the parliamentary human rights committee.

No doubt linked to Jonathan Evans's warning over children being radicalised, Brown will also being setting up a headteachers' forum to protect pupils from "extremist propaganda", despite there being no evidence whatsoever that any radicalisation has been taking place in schools. The British National Party have recently been handing out free CDs at the gates of some schools in the north and Midlands, but that probably won't feature on the itinerary of discussions. The problem of religious schools ghettoising pupils will be miraculously solved by the twinning of different faith schools, and there doesn't seem to be any problem that can't be solved a new body or forum; even outdoor activity sports centres and facilities are going to be advised on how to look for suspicious activity, lest any other wannabe mujahideen play paintball jihad on their premises.

Naturally, nowhere in Brown's statement is there the acknowledgment that government policies might well have heightened the terrorist threat we now face, or that it itself might share some of the blame. Why on earth would they do that when they can present plans for how new buildings can be blast resistant? Anywhere could now apparently be a potential target for a suicide car bomber, so such changes are vital. From some of the proposals you'd almost get the impression that we were facing an Iraq-style insurgency, or if not now, then possibly in the future. If you wanted to be kind, you could say that the government's preparing for the worst and that if the worst doesn't happen, well, at least their heart was in the right place and, after all, as Brown writes in the Scum, protecting the public is the government's number one priority. If you wanted to be realistic, you'd say that the government seems intent on causing unnecessary hassle, coming up with unrealistic and alarmist plans, and at the very worst, doing the the terrorists' jobs for them by continually reducing liberty while making traveling around the country even more stressful than it already is. Why target the transport system or public buildings when you can just go down Oxford Street or in the vicinity of any big football stadium at the weekend and blow yourself up in a crowd where no amount of security will ever stop such a thing from happening? To that, the government simply doesn't have an answer, but the illusion of safety is still a powerful thing.

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Monday, November 12, 2007 

Liberty, 56 days and all that.

I've been racking my brains, and the only organisation/group that I can honestly think I'm a member of is Liberty, which I joined prior to Blair's attempt to force through 90 day detention without charge. It gives me something erring on pride to know that I might have in some small way contributed to the research behind the study (PDF, summary PDF here) published today by the organisation, and splashed on the front page by the Grauniad, making clear that despite the differences in legal systems, the current 28 day pre-charge detention limit is already by far the longest in any comparable democracy.

The one thing it makes clear is that to extend the current limit in any way, let alone doubling it, which is what most think the government is likely to attempt, would be the equivalent of declaring a permanent state of emergency. Judicial oversight or not, which itself is little use when the police can convincingly claim that if a suspect were to be released he/she would commit a terrorist act, or cover their tracks, and the Magna Carta is often wrongly and inaccurately invoked, but in this case it's more than valid to suggest that if this gets through parliament, we'd be throwing away nearly 800 years of progress, enlightenment and justice, not to mention the moral high ground.

More shocking is the sheer thinness of the case for further extension. The only real remaining justifications are of the complexity of the plots which the police are having to unravel, involving forces around the world, which in other words means they're having to wait for the lazy foreigners to do some of the leg work for them, and the sheer amount of data they're having to sift through. Douglas Murray was holding this up to the audience on last week's Question Time, attempting to blind the public with talks about thousands of gigabytes of data on hard drives, hundreds of CDs and DVDs and all the other assorted related devices. This is one of those helpfully blinding rhetorical flourishes which depends on most of the public not knowing what you're talking about; even mention gigabytes to half of them and they'll go glassy-eyed. Decoded, it means that some of the officers have the excruciating job of going through the arrested guy's DVD collection lest there be any hidden documents on them. They're tricksy, these al-Qaida folk you see, as they tend to hide the damning evidence where the police can't easily find it. The fact they have the best part of a month to do this means even that doesn't hold up to even a modest amount of scrutiny. The other favoured argument is that when they do find it, it tends to be encrypted, but the police have now long had the power to demand the keys to break in, which if refused is itself a chargeable offence. With the post-charge questioning for terrorist suspects likely to go through much easier than any extension of the limit, this would enable the police to forgo the whole charade entirely if they so wanted, which brings up its own worries about abuse of power and the potential for miscarriages of justice.

Let's not pretend then that the primary argument, deployed by all those lobbying for the extension, is anything other than pure fear. Just think of what
might happen if they get to 28 days and someone has to be released; imagine the horror and outrage if in the aftermath of an attack the police can't round up those connected to it due to the inadequacy of the limit; look at how many of these mouth breathers are involved in this business, and how they're multiplying and brainwashing our kids; etc, etc.

To quote Melanie Phillips might perhaps be similar to breaking Godwin's law, but in her recent piece on the Spectator website justifying up to 90 days' detention, she lets the cat out of the bag. In her view, the current "threat" does indeed constitute a public emergency. Let that sink in for a second. To declare a state of emergency currently, there has to be a serious threat to the life of the nation. Even Melanie would have problems claiming that the current threat posed to this country by jihadists is so severe that it could destroy the country as we know it. Her flourish at the end of the article, claiming that those who oppose an extension are in effect saying they're prepared to the risk the lives of "untold numbers of innocents", apart from being completely spurious, is as far as the level of threat goes. In the worst case scenario, let's say there are multiple suicide bombings in multiple cities on the same day. If 7/7 was repeated across four cities, with the same number of fatalities, 208 people would be dead. Would such an event constitute a direct threat to the life of the nation? An outrageous shedding of innocent blood by those without an ounce of humanity, but the end of Britain? Surely not.

The other argument, made by police and commentators alike, that we're facing a completely different threat where the terrorists give no warning and want to kill as many as possible is also not as clear cut. We're often told of how the IRA gave warnings, but they certainly didn't give one when they almost succeeded in killing Thatcher in Brighton in 1984. The difficulty in arguing against an extension to the limit is because of the way the debate is framed as in traditional values of liberty against the right not to be blown apart; this is a false dichotomy not just because once someone has been blown apart it's already too late, but also because we all knew too well that the police, if pushed right to the limit, could almost certainly if not always manage to press other more minor charges. In that case, which is more unacceptable? The threat of terrorism potentially forever changing our standards of treatment of those accused of a crime, but not yet charged, or that someone might get a lesser sentence than they actually deserve? It's worth pointing out that also put forward now are new measures to monitor those found guilty of terrorism offences once they are released from prison, which further limit the potential for an outrage after imprisonment.

Finally, there's the embarrassment factor. Can we really say the threat we face from terrorism is so severe we need 56 days when Russia, fast becoming an autocracy, gets by on 5 and has dealt with Islamic extremism from Chechnya for the last 14 or so years? Mel dismisses Shami Chakrabati's suggestion that we can hardly condemn Zimbabwe or Burma when we have such a limit, and has a certain amount of merit to her argument, when the idea of sending a message should not in any way impugn on our own security, but then blots her copy book by laughably comparing the situation now to that during the second world war. Oh, and then there's that one other thing: when we need 56 days to question those arrested and unravel a terrorist plot, I'll happily eat my underwear.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007 

Spin? Under Brown? Say it ain't so.

If we were still suffering under the burden of Blairism, you can bet that the Tories and Lib Dems might have made a little more out of the fact that Jonathan Evans, the new head of MI5, not only delivered the latest speech on the "threat" in front of the society of newspaper editors, ensuring that they knew in no uncertain terms the horror that could be unleashed at a moment's notice on our nation, but that it also came the day before the Queen's speech, where the government was preparing to unveil its latest proposals on how to beat back the extremist scourge. As it turns out, the most controversial measure, the extension from 28 days to 56 days pre-charge detention for "terrorist suspects", which has been long trailed, wasn't unambiguously set out by Brenda, the government preferring to still pretend that it's making its mind up while seeking "consensus". It's hard to believe though that the speech was anything other than a warning, from both the security services and the government, for the press which previously and continues to object to what more or less amounts to the reinstatement of internment.

Most of what Evans sets out is of little difference to Eliza Manningham-Buller's speech of last year. He considers the current "threat" to be the most "immediate and acute [in] peacetime" in the 98-year history of MI5. It's unclear whether he counts the cold war as an actual war, as I somehow find the threat of being vaporised by nuclear weapons more menacing than that from terrorists armed with patio gas canisters and cans of petrol, but that like so much else, doesn't really matter. The current day threat, whatever it is, is always the most deadly and insidious which we have ever faced. The National Union of Mineworkers during the strike in 84/85 was opposed to democracy and wanted to overthrow the Thatcher government. Saddam Hussein in the early 90s was the justification, with Russia descending into the chaos of the Yeltsin years to keep defence spending high.

Predictably, what the papers' picked up on was Evans's claim that

As I speak, terrorists are methodically and intentionally targeting young people and children in this country. They are radicalising, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism.

which the Express distorted into suicide bombers in our schools. This isn't a new message either; last year John Reid warned Muslim parents to look out for the "telltale" signs of radicalisation, and even go so far as to spy on them. Evans's evidence that this is happening is the number of young people now being linked into networks, with Abdul Patel, linked to last year's "liquid bombs" plot being the favourite example. He was found to have a manual meant for the use of American bomb disposal units, which the prosecuting counsel said that "in the wrong hands, the information contained in this manual can have catastrophic consequences, including causing explosions of the most terrifying kind in the UK and abroad." The jury agreed that he was guilty of having the document, but the judge in sentencing him to six months said he was not a "radicalised or politicised Islamist" as the prosecution had claimed.

The young are always going to be targeted; but it's also true that the young are also those who are inevitably going to be the most potentially radical anyway. The inexperience and rebelliousness of youth is going to be a motivating factor, but the evidence is not overwhelming that the young are being systematically radicalised or "brainwashed" as Evans appears to be claiming. Those most likely to be involved in radical takfirist Salafism are usually well-educated, from respectable backgrounds and far removed from poverty. Two of the 7/7 bombers were relatively young, but again they don't fit the profile of coming under the wing of any particular radical preacher or influence. Strangely, unlike the news reports covering Evans's speech, he didn't mention the internet in being a major factor in radicalisation, when we know that it plays an incredibly important role. Most of those becoming radicalised don't gain their knowledge through radical preachers, the favoured bogeyman, but from the internet through their own research. While English language jihadi websites are few and far between, the number of Arabic forums dedicated to discussing the conflicts around the world and the posting of videos by the groups fighting is ever growing.

The other major talking point was the numbers game, with Evans now letting us know that there are 2,000 individuals that MI5 consider a "direct threat to national security and public safety, because of their support for terrorism," up 400 from Buller's speech last year. In addition, he estimates there's enough 2,000 that the service doesn't know about of similar thinking. Like with Buller, he doesn't distinguish between those that are prepared to become suicide bombers and those that are likely to have a role in the funding of such attacks, or those who support the insurgency in Iraq say, but not bombings back home. It doesn't really tell us anything except provide us with a number which seems massive in order to cause concern. If there are after all 2,000 individuals actively supporting terrorism, and if even a quarter of that number were willing to launch either suicide attacks or a bombing campaign, why are the number of plots so apparently low? Isn't Evans slightly contradicted by how Sir Ian Blair recently suggested that the number of active investigations into plots is now lower than previously? Is it that the threat, despite what they're saying, is receding somewhat, or that there are plans being made that we don't know about?

Also questionable was this statement:

"And it is important that we recognise an uncomfortable truth: terrorist attacks we have seen against the UK are not simply random plots by disparate and fragmented groups."

Which seems to indulge the myth that the hand of al-Qaida can be found behind nearly every terrorist plot there is. Was al-Qaida really responsible for the laughable "suicide bombing" at Glasgow airport or the bombs which were "potentially viable" in London? If so, their recruits are getting even weaker and more obsessed with plots next to impossible to pull off but look spectacular and terrifying on paper than ever before. Was al-Qaida involved in the alleged beheading of a British soldier back in Febuary?
We know for a fact al-Qaida wasn't involved in the "ricin plot". The danger is that we see al-Qaida as some kind of multi-layered organisation driven from the top down, when the reality is that al-Qaida as it existed in 2001 could collapse entirely tomorrow and we'd still be facing much the same problem of extremist Islamists. The trial of those involved in the Madrid attacks set out where the threat is most likely to come from: those with radical views that need little help from those holed up in Pakistan or wherever but who are influenced by the ideals and ideology behind bin Laden enough to carry out their own attacks in the name of al-Qaida. Evans does sort of recognise this, as he does mention the spread of the al-Qaida brand: the first suicide bombing in Algeria coming after the GSPC pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, changing its name to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. al-Qaida might be conducting a deliberate campaign against us, as Evans says, but those with no real connection to the organisation are doing so also.

Have you noticed however what Evans notably doesn't pay much attention to? Iraq garners just two mentions - to note that al-Qaida in Iraq "aspires to promote terrorist attacks outside Iraq". Nothing about Iraq's undoubted role in helping with the radicalisation process, even if it isn't the only cause, or that the threat is likely to increase once those who've gone to fight in Iraq return, from what the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq has himself described as the "university of terrorism." It's probably true that al-Qaida in Iraq has designs on exporting terrorism, but the state of the insurgency in Iraq has shifted in a remarkably short time. al-Qaida's media wing in Iraq has now not released a new video of its activities for going on a month - an extraordinary length of time signifying how the infighting amongst the insurgency has escalated to such a scale that what happened in Algeria to the Islamic groups there is routinely mentioned. At the moment the emphasis is certainly on what is going on within Iraq itself rather than attacking anywhere else.

One thing Evans certainly does get right is that

"Anything which enables it to claim to be representative of Islam; anything which gives a spurious legitimacy to its twisting of theology will only play into its hands."

As will furthering the victimhood factor by extending the detention without charge period. The one thing this speech seems to have been intended to influence is one of the things that will do most to damage the fight against extremism. How's that for irony?

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007 

Increase the detention without charge limit or we'll have to shoot you.

Yep, that's Ian Blair, speaking at the "Safer London Foundation".

It's a disturbing thought that a man as tainted as Ian Blair is still currently the head of the Metropolitan police. His force and its handling of the day after the attempted suicide attacks of 21/7 is currently being laid bare in the law courts, where it's laughably being tried under health and safety grounds when it should at the very least be in the dock on manslaughter charges. His own ineptitude and lack of leadership within the force itself was exposed in the second IPCC report into the events of that day, which found that although secretaries knew that an innocent man had been shot dead, he still thought it was a failed suicide bomber until the next morning, as no one had bothered to tell him.

With all of the above in mind, we're supposed to take the man seriously when he appears in front of the home affairs select committee and once again calls for the 28 day without charge detention limit for terrorist suspects to be at the very least doubled. He doesn't have a single shred of evidence to support this further extension, but he does have the power of his own argument:

"At some stage 28 days is not going to be sufficient, and the worst time to debate whether an extension is needed would be in the aftermath of an atrocity."

This is a dubious basis for an extension at the very least. Considering the current threat we face is almost entirely from suicidal Islamic takfirists, who tend to take themselves with the others they murder, it's unlikely that we're going to require an extension should they launch an attack. Even if the attacks that take place aren't suicidal, the example of the patio gas canister bombers suggests that terrorist investigations now move incredibly swiftly; even if some of those apparently responsible for the first failed attacks hadn't decided to go kamikaze at Glasgow airport with only some petrol and a lighter, it seems that the police would have been arresting them within a couple of days, if not hours.

We do have to consider that there are those involved in the plotting of such attacks that don't take part in them, but again all the evidence so far suggests that 28 days is currently a more than sufficient time limit. The trial of Dhiren Barot and his co-conspirators showed that you don't even need to have explosives to be put away for a longer period than some murderers, and that was managed without any such drawn-out interrogation or investigation while the accused are in custody.

Ian Blair's argument is that we've got to prepare for the eventuality even if it never comes. This is a reasonably fair point to make, but it ignores the message it sends both to those already alienated and disenfranchised, that sections of the community are being increasingly labeled as the potential enemy within and that laws which were unnecessary during WW2 are now not just inevitable, but eminently acceptable and reasonable during supposed peace time. It also puts further pressure on the fragile state of civil liberties in this country; when we've got a longer potential detention without charge limit than some dictatorships, we really ought to begin to worry.

Blair also contradicts himself:

Sir Ian said terrorist conspiracies and conspirators were increasing, as was the magnitude of their ambition in terms of destruction and loss of life.

Fewer cases were under investigation but each was more complex in terms of documents, telephones and computers

Taking Blair at his word, the very fact that the conspiracies are increasing in magnitude and ambition of destruction and loss of life isn't necessarily a bad thing. It just shows that the those behind such plots are completely unrealistic, incompetent and naive. Dhiren Barot wanted to build a dirty bomb out of smoke alarms, and bring down buildings with limos packed with gas canisters. The first idea was hilarious, the second proved just as laughable by the failure early in the summer. The "liquid bomb" crew wanted to destroy however many airplanes using materials they were going to construct in flight, something that most scientists who commented on it also regarded as highly dubious. These so-called terrorists have big ideas and big egos, but when put into practice they're doomed to failure.

That fewer cases are also under investigation speaks volumes. What happened to those 30 plots, 2000 conspirators and the sky being dark due to the threat? That the cases are increasingly in complexity is no reason to extend the time limit: the police need to extend themselves to deal with complicated plots, not the time limit with which to do it in.

Most of all though, if there really was solid evidence or intelligence that there was an attack brewing that would need longer than 28 days before those in custody could be charged, would Ian Blair have been told about it? Seeing as everyone other than him seems to be in the know, perhaps it ought to have been his secretary or even his wife in front of the committee.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007 

It never rains but it pours.

How else to describe the never-ending spectre of the terror threat and the new legislation need to prevent it than as a constant dripping, echoing not just throughout parliament but the country itself, driving everyone slowly crazy with the demands for ever longer periods of detention without charge, continuing crackdowns and the kicking out of anyone who so much puts a foot out of step?

After all the claims that Brown will be doing things differently, that leaks to the press will be a thing of the past and that cabinet discussion will be central, today's Sun draws a line under all of that hype. Splashing his supposed first interview with a newspaper since his ascension on the front page, we're informed of how 4,000 "foreign convicts" will be deported by Christmas. Making promises you can't necessarily keep with the Sun isn't the greatest idea, so Brown must be somewhat confident it can be achieved, even if it means riding roughshod over the rights of those who have no links with their home countries and nowhere to stay. Previous attempts at being tough with "foreign criminals" led to people who had lived here in some cases for decades being picked up by immigration officers, but frankly who cares as it long it adds one to the figures? Brown at least holds firm over the EU reforming treaty, saying he won't sign it if it does any of the things the Scum claims it does, rather than call a referendum. It's the cynical leaking of the exact extension time the government is aiming for that rankles most, however.

Even that's presented in such a way as to try to absolve the PM from himself informing the Scum of his plans. While it mentions the 56 days that the government wishes to extend the time limit to, it pretends that this information, rather than coming from the Scum's interview, was provided by "police sources", presumably the same ones which a couple of Sundays ago were demanding "as long as it takes", as Brown felt that MPs needed to be informed first. So much for that. Quite why they've now settled on 56 days, having been previously pushing for 90 or 45, is uncertain. Why not any similar random figure? 69 days? 82 days and 12 hours? While I suppose we ought to be grateful that it's not the indefinite figure that some were asking for, the strangeness of such a figure illustrates the general lack of any evidence whatsoever for such a expansion of the time limit. As Tim has already pointed out, Jacqui Smith's convoluted attempt at putting forward such a case seem to be an attempt to confuse rather enlighten:
"This all gives us a strong view that the time is right to reconsider whether we should allow longer than 28 days' pre-charge detention," she said. "There is already evidence of us stepping up to the point of 28 days. All of this creates what I would argue is a trend of analysis towards a position where it is legitimate for us to consider again the case for going beyond the current situation of the maximum 28 days. The document will outline what we know about that trend and will contain a discussion of the alternatives, but it will not plump for one solution."

What then is this evidence that more than 28 days is needed? Err, exactly the same mostly specious rhetoric which has been used almost from time immemorial. Huge amount of data to shift through, links across the globe, 200 mobile phones, 400 computers, blah blah etc. As before, this isn't in any way a good enough excuse or justification for those being held to be held longer, it's an argument for the police to be given more resources, or to actually use those they already have, such as to demand encryption keys. The other eyebrow-raising excuse made by Brown is that the alleged "liquid bombs plot" was so complicated that six men were still in custody on the 28th day - what he doesn't say is that three of those were released without charge, with the BBC reporting that two others were charged, so either Brown or the BBC have their numbers wrong somewhere along the line. If this is the supposed smoking gun on why more than 28 days is needed, why did John Reid not come to that conclusion during his own terrorism review earlier in the year? Why did the police themselves not instantly demand longer because of how close they came? Equally disingenuous was Smith's claim yesterday that the failed car bombs of last month were further evidence that pointed to the need for an extension; to my knowledge, all of those arrested have now either been charged or released, way before the current limit was anywhere near being breached.

While the government is most definitely overstating its case, Liberty and Amnesty are not helping themselves by claiming that an extension will turn out to be a "terrorist recruiter's dream". It will doubtless further help to alienate a community which already feels unwelcome and under siege, as well as adding to the grievances of an significant minority, but it's unlikely to directly lead anyone into the arms of jihadists. Liberty's proposal that a state of emergency could be declared if further time was needed is a decent suggestion, but one that would hand terrorists a victory they don't deserve. The last thing we should be proposing as necessary is an emergency when they can't even succeed in setting themselves on fire properly. We should instead be focusing on why this debate keeps going round and round in a circle. Where will it all end? If the threat keeps getting worse before it gets better, as seems likely, are we going to be having this discussion on doubling the detention limit every year? The limit has already been extended over a matter of years, from three to five to seven to fourteen to twenty-eight days, as David Winnick pointed out. Just who is it that keeps demanding the extensions? We need to point out it's the scaremongering belligerents (The Scum, Melanie Philips et al) and those with potentially ulterior motives (the police, the government) that are driving the debate, while all the moderates are almost uniquely on the other side.

The other proposals put forward by Brown are mostly on the cautious side, with both intercept evidence and potential questioning after charge being put forward for a review. The latter certainly needs careful scrutiny if it's not going to be potentially abused. The border force, a policy nicked from the Tories, seems like a decent step at appeasing the tabloids screeching about "terrorists flooding in". More worrying is how within nine months every visa will need to be a biometric one, almost certainly a move towards ID cards being introduced for those of us lucky enough to live here, despite the murmurings that Brown might be about to ditch them.

At the moment it seems that both the Tories and Lib Dems are inclined to oppose any extension past 28 days, although one has to wonder if someone other than David Davis' was shadow home secretary if the policy would be different. If this stays the same way if legislation is introduced, both parties will be worthy of praise, especially considering the loudness of those in favour of the government's position. Brown and Labour need to be told squarely that 28 days is enough. At the weekend, Lord Puttnam and Jonathan Powell's wife were shouting "Stasi!" and "Gestapo!" at the police for daring to turn up on the front door of the fragrant, blameless Ruth Turner at 6 in the morning. Those who have experienced power don't tend to like it when the boot is on the other foot; they ought to wonder what someone entirely innocent will feel like if they're detained for 56 days only to be released without charge.

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Monday, July 16, 2007 

Is it that time again already?

Yesterday was Sunday, which must mean that it's time once again to examine the clearly overwhelming and by no means wafer-thin argument for up to 90-days detention without charge for "terrorist suspects". Or, as this case now appears to be, with both Lord Carlile and Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers speaking of their support for it, indefinite detention without charge.

Jones himself, having given an interview to the Observer, felt the need to argue with the semantics with which the paper had presented his opinion. It took his use of "as long as it takes" to mean potentially indefinite detention, way past even 90 days, for instance. That was most certainly not what he meant, as he also stated that while the police needed to have as long as it takes, they should also not be held for a day longer than it takes, which is obviously a great comfort. Just to be absolutely sure:

"It needs to be as long as is proportionate and necessary, subjected to sufficient judicial checks and balances," Mr Jones told the BBC. "But I can tell you now, Acpo is not calling for indeterminate detention."

So when does as long as is proportionate and necessary not mean as long as it takes, potentially meaning an indefinite period, if someone is considered that dangerous? No answer was the sad reply.

The whole basis of the argument is fatally flawed. As we have seen when previous alleged plots have been foiled, on most occasions there is at a least one or two who are arrested that are subsequently released without charge, as the wife of one of those still being held over the failed car bomb attacks has been, and two other doctors who were also detained. When we start getting into the potential deprivation of liberty from those who are under suspicion for, as Jones himself stated, as long as it takes, even with the judicial oversight being proposed, there is a great possibility that those who are completely innocent will be held for far greater lengths of time than they are currently. Giving in effect carte blanche to the police, only having to inform a judge once a week of how their case is progressing, as is currently the system, will greatly shift the balance from presumed innocence towards presumed guilt, with the police having inordinate amounts of time not just to question the suspects, raising the spectre of the gradual wearing down of suspects as happened in previous decades, but also to keep searching and searching until they find absolutely anything incriminating, even if there is nothing to find.

This is perhaps the ultimate conclusion to the gradual drift away from the principle of being innocent until proved guilty. Since 9/11 we've seen tougher measures introduced year after year, and still, despite Peter Clarke previously stating that the police were now more or less happy with the new offences introduced and the new powers handed across they're not fully satisfied. Rather than these new laws helping to counter the threat, we're now told that there are up to 2000 individuals actively plotting to bring "mass murder" to the streets, up 400 from when Eliza Manningham-Bullshitter delivered her lecture last November. All those arrested now under the Terrorism Act, whether they have been conclusively linked to an attack or not, are effectively guilty until they're proved innocent, and unless the police really cocked up, as in Forest Gate, those that have their lives either temporarily or permanently destroyed as a result of being detained and subsequently released without charge never get so much as an apology.

It's quite true that we have to balance the liberty of ourselves against collective safety, the right not to be blown apart by religious radicals and their deluded, maniacal lust for the 72 virgins in exchange for their souls and their bit towards moving Sharia, the caliphate and withdrawal from Iraq even further away, but we also have to realise that tearing up our hard-won freedoms is never something we should do lightly. We don't know how long this "threat" is going to be with us; it could be 10 years or 100 years, although a figure in the middle is most likely. Once it has dissipated, will we quickly move to restore those original measures? Or is it easier to believe that by then we will have expanded such a scheme far beyond just the realms of terrorism?

Even if we ignore these theoreticals, the actual case for any longer period than 28 days still seems to remain to be made. It doesn't look as though that length of time is going to be needed to deal with the London/Glasgow bombers; the only case in which the full 28 was needed was for a couple of suspects involved in last year's liquid bomb plot, and many assumed that the police were then making a point after the Commons rightly rejected Blair's efforts to introduce 90 days. Previously we were told that the need for longer was because of the vast use of encryption on the computers used by the suspects; Jones this time only mentioned the "complex, global nature" of terrorist cells, which seems to point towards the involvement of other police forces across the globe who don't have the resources to respond in the way which ours can. This certainly isn't much of a justification, and by no means a convincing argument for indefinite periods of detention without charge. Although the police claim that since the 90 days' defeat the reasons for having such a period of time available to the force has changed, it seems unlikely that the entire proposal, put across then by Andy Hayman in a letter which was up on the Home Office website, will differ that much from the case made then. Spy Blog went through them at the time, and found them mostly wanting. Little is likely to have changed.

While we know only too well of this government's contempt for the Human Rights Act, an indefinite period of detention, even monitored more than once a week by the judiciary is likely to fall foul of Article 5. There has to be some sort of limit, whether it's 45, 60, 90, 120 or even 365 days. It may even be that this new consensus on "as long as it takes" is purely a measure to take away the sting from how long 90 days seems looking at it straight, as although there was apparent public support for up to 90 days without charge, there was also a substantial opposition to such a period, which went far beyond the usual civil liberties circles.

The whole thing then is on unquestionably shaky ground. The police, government and everyone else asking for more time though can always depend on one fair-weather friend that will always support such measures:

The Scum

Back our cops

The PM vowed tough action after his first days in power were marred by bomb attacks — and now he must show he means it.

He can start by giving police power to lock up and question suspects for as long as it takes.

See how one simple intervention can change the language used irrevocably?

The 28-day detention limit has left them working with one hand tied behind their backs, cops’ leader Ken Jones warned yesterday.

The Sun has surely picked the wrong metaphor here. Jones' case is not that they're struggling, but that they're racing against time.

Security chiefs are at full stretch watching 2,000 suspects and their warnings must not go unheeded - as in the past.

Ministers did nothing when told terrorists were flooding in because of poor immigration controls. Now we learn one in four terror suspects arrested in Britain is an asylum-seeker.

Seems odd - previously we were worried because of all the homegrown bombers, now we're scared again because the Glasgow/London attempts at explosions were by foreign born suspects that all the terrorists are immigrants. Not sure what difference the fact one in four terror suspects is an asylum-seeker makes either; are we going to start refusing those fleeing tyranny, war and insurgencies of their own refuge because 20 years down the line they might become terrorists themselves? It's something unfortunately that we're going to have to deal with, and it'd be nice for once to forget about finding someone to blame for it.

Hate preacher Abu Hamza had poisoned hundreds of young Muslim minds before they heeded The Sun’s call to lock him up.

Ah yes, it was the Sun wot did it! If anything, it seems that most of those who went to see Hamza's sermons and speeches were already radicalised in some way, even if they weren't then prepared to act. He's a useful hate figure, but little more.

Mr Brown cannot afford more delays or mistakes. He must raise the limit NOW.

More bitch-slapping. Anyway, he can't raise it NOW, he needs parliament to agree too, something which isn't going to happen until the autumn at the earliest, and that's if it concurs, something currently looking rightly unlikely.

Two weeks ago, he said he would not yield to terrorists. Nor must he yield to the civil liberties brigade.

Except the Sun is urging him yield. More freedom lost, while the "civil liberties brigade" can at least claim to be on the side of innocence until proven guilty, even if the opposition can more emotively depend on the imagery of the blood-splattered streets of July the 7th.

He must show strong leadership by giving police the tools to get on with the job.

Except they have them, they just want more time to be able to use them, the case for which is still far from being proved.

Related post:
Nether-World - Another Step Closer To Internment

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007 

Tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism?

For the second weekend running, the papers were full of just what our glorious government is going to do to tackle the "ever growing" terrorist threat. While a week previously Tony Blair went out of his way to prove just how little he cares or even understands civil liberties, with John Reid continuing to do his "we're all doomed" act, alongside the irredeemable suggestion that the "sus" laws could be reintroduced, Gordon Brown tried his best to position himself both as a defender of our current rights, while still being "tough" on terrorism. You could almost call it his tough on terror, tough on the causes of terror moment.

Regardless of his pledge to defend our ancient liberties, which should be welcomed when Blair, Reid and Blunkett all repeatedly rode roughshod over them in their pusillanimity in the face of the tabloid shrieks, his plans need close analysis.

Top of the list was the Sun-appeasing measure to increase the maximum detention period for "terrorist suspects" to 90 days. This wasn't much of a surprise;
Brown has long supported the idea, mentioning a number of times how he thinks it's needed. The difference is that Brown has promised that he will increase the judicial oversight involved, although how this would work in practice hasn't been set out. The police already have to go to a judge every week and set out where they are in their investigation so that the continued detention of a suspect is rubber stamped, and the concern has to be that although judges have so far held the police to account well, ordering at least one suspect to be released because it was clear they had no evidence which justified his continued incarceration, that they can't always be depended on to do so, increasing the chances that if the legislation was OK'ed that we could have the prospect of innocent men or women being locked up for three months, something guaranteed to breed alienation, cynicism and further mistrust in the police and security services.

It may well be true that a majority of the public supports such a lengthy time period, as polls suggested last time round. Despite the failures of Forest Gate and the ricin plot that never was trial, most are still prepared to give the police and government the benefit of the doubt when they make clear they believe such legislation is needed. 90 days has however rightly became a civil liberties cause célèbre; it's the defining mark of a government that has already treated civil liberties as something to be abandoned rather than strengthened, ridiculed and undermined rather than respected, going too far. The reality is that 28 days has only been needed in its entirety once since it becoming law, and many of us suspected the police may have being doing so only to make a point. The argument is that it's either needed because of the information coming from abroad involved in building a case, or that encrypted documents on hard drives take time to be broken. As Liberty has pointed out, there already exists a law where you can be charged and prosecuted for refusing to disclose a decryption key, something which is yet to be used. As for the abroad argument, this seems more like a delaying tactic for the police's own lack of resources to deal with such cases: that should never be used as an excuse to hold someone for longer than necessary. 90 days needs to vigorously resisted.

Many of us have long been calling for intercept evidence to be made admissible, and Brown does genuinely seems to have listened. While Reid may have been toying with the idea, only to reject it, Brown has at least suggested that the privy council should hold a review into how it could be introduced. While this is an excellent step forward, Craig Murray provides some sobering inside knowledge which might yet spoil the party:
So the proposal being considered by the Home Office is this – that the defence should not be allowed access to all the material from wiretaps of the accused. The prosecution would have to disclose in full only the conversation, or conversations, being directly quoted from. The security services are prepared to go along with that, and the Home Office believe that the public demand for wiretap evidence to be admissible will drown out any protests from lawyers. We will be told the Security Services are not staffed to cope with fuller disclosure.

You read it here first. As my friend put it: "You see, in the minds of the Home Office, justice equals more convictions."

If accurate, this could well be the equivalent of legions of dodgy dossiers being produced in court as evidence against "terrorist suspects". Intelligence is nuanced, frayed and often inaccurate; it's when you start taking out the caveats, Alastair Campbell-style, and present it as definitive that the problems start, as we know all too well. The one benefit, even if such a discriminatory measure went ahead, would be that we'd at least finally find out exactly what those currently held under control orders are accused of, something which even they have never been informed of. Certainly a case of hoping Brown gives the go-ahead for the review, and then waiting to see what they come up with.

The other high-profile proposal is for the police to be given the power to continue to question and interrogate suspects after they have been charged, something which is at the moment strictly verboten. The attraction is that this might well negate the need for a further extension to 28 days detention without charge, but at the moment it seems to be positioned as another addition rather than a substitution. The exact details of what would be permitted, how long a suspect could be additionally questioned, and other relevant safeguards against potential abuse need to clearly defined and set out, as otherwise this could be far more dangerous than even 90 days without charge would be. Brown is again apparently setting out judicial oversight for the measure, which would need to be even more rigorous than that reviewing the continued detention of a suspect. The possibilities of a suspect being browbeaten into confessions by constant questioning and otherwise are stark: without a clear set of guidelines and like the 90 day proposal, a yearly review by an independent parliamentary committee or individual, it should be rejected.

"Lesser" new initiatives announced by Brown were a suggestion to make terrorism an "aggravating" factor in sentencing, like crimes that are racially motivated are. The obvious problem with that is the very definition of "terrorism", and whether legitimate protests could again be stigmatised as result, as they have been under Section 44 and the protection from harassment legislation,
and as Rachel points out, conspiracy should already be able to cover it. It seems more an attempt to lengthen sentences of those who might be prosecuted for being on the outer edges of plots, involved in fraud or funding, when the law should be enough as it is, with judges' being able to use their discretion.

Brown also apparently wants to give MPs and peers greater powers to scrutinise the work of the security services, toughening up the Intelligence and Security Committee by letting MPs rather than the prime minister elect its members and ensuring that the heads of MI5 and 6 have to give evidence in public, ending the disgrace of
Eliza Manningham-Buller refusing to appear before the Human Rights Committee without a reason why, even though its meeting would have been in secret. This is a decent first step, but it really doesn't go far enough: on July the 6th 2005, Manningham-Buller apparently told MPs that the terror threat was under control. Within a year and six months, the threat that had been under control had ballooned into 30 plots, 200 active terrorist groups or networks, and 1600 individuals either plotting or facilitating attacks, here or abroad. The obvious question then is, was MI5 hopeless prior to 7/7, or have they been burnt by downplaying and instead decided to exaggerate as a better option? We'll most likely never know for sure, but this just proves the need for either a watchdog similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for 5 and 6, or for an independent commissioner modeled on something like the information commissioner, whom would have full access to both agencies. This would likely be heavily resisted, but as the poll of 500 Muslims commissioned for Channel 4 demonstrates, we may well need such a measure for trust and faith to be restored.

There's plenty there that's easy to disagree with, but with the exception of the insistence of 90 days needing to be reintroduced, there's nothing that should be rejected out of hand. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats now need to as much as those of us dedicated to defending civil liberties hold Brown to what he says, and thoroughly overview any new anti-terror proposals. We need to hope that Brown is able to resist the worst excesses of the Scum in demanding ever tougher new laws, as it was instrumental in scuppering any chance that Charles Clarke had of reaching a consensus over his original plans in the aftermath of 7/7. Blair then declared that the rules of the game had changed. Brown can prove they have by remembering that it's governments and draconian, illiberal laws that are the real threat to the public, not murdering terrorists who can be effectively contained by the legislation we already have.

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Monday, February 05, 2007 

Scum-watch: Keeping enemies from our streets.

Hard to know whether this is cheerleading of the government's potential new drive towards 70/90 days, or simply a rebuff to a man who the tabloids have been building up, but either way, the Sun's not going to let John Sentamu get away with his criticism of such measures:

THE Sun admires John Sentamu, the first black Church of England Archbishop.

But his claim that holding terror suspects for 90 days without charge will make Britain a tyranny like Idi Amin’s Uganda is ludicrous.

Upping the limit from 28 days wouldn’t turn us into a police state.

It would simply give detectives enough time to amass evidence in cases often more complex than a normal criminal investigation.

Which is exactly why they were given 28 days only just more than a year ago. A "normal" criminal investigation can only be stretched out to 96 hours at most without the suspect being charged. 28 days already gives them up to 672 hours. 90 would give them 2160, or the equivalent of a six-month prison sentence. 90 day detention without charge might not turn us into a police state, but it would be a menacing reminder of the very measures which police states resort to. Besides, there has yet to be any evidence presented that anything more than 28 days is needed, or if even 28 days would be needed if the police had the proper resources available in order to crack encryption on hard drives etc. The police talk of hundreds and hundreds of gigabytes of data is meant to blind people with statistics, especially when it involves burnt cds and dvds which can be checked quickly.

Britain is facing its greatest threat since the Nazis.

Oh, we've reached the point of the Nazi threat now. Previously it was back to the level of threat posed by the Soviet Union, now we're apparently once again stuck in 1940, waiting for the Nazis to invade, except this time the Wehrmacht armies are suicide bombers and the Luftwaffe are terrorists making their explosives in the toilets of planes.

In fact, this comparison is an insult. Sixty million died in WW2, over 400,000 British servicemen among them. To suggest that the Islamic extremist terrorist threat, which has so far resulted in the deaths of 52 people in this country, could conceivably achieve similar casualties is both to give too much credit to a rag-tag band of non-aligned backward fantasists and to belittle the sacrifice made on all sides by ordinary men and women to crush Nazism. (It's best not to even bring the Holocaust into the equation.)

Police should not have to race against the clock to keep enemies off our streets.

That's right. Everyone arrested under the Terrorism Act is a enemy, and the evidence only has to be found for that to be proved. The Sun could not have done more to prove Sentamu right.

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