Wednesday, September 10, 2008 

Crying over spilt liquid part 3.

The Crown Prosecution Service is rather unsurprisingly seeking the retrial of all 7 men in the "liquid bombs" case, on all the charges which the jury couldn't reach a verdict on. While this was always likely, the question has to be asked: what makes the CPS so certain that a second jury won't come to the same verdict if there is no new evidence presented to prove that the plot was to explode liquid bombs on aircraft? As noted ad nauseam already, the actual amount of evidence pointing towards the targeting of transatlantic flights is relatively slight. Originally this was brushed off as being down to how the police and security services had to act quickly due to the arrest of Rashid Rauf, but today a "security source" said this to the Grauniad:

"Even if [the surveillance operation] had gone on for a few more days we would not have found anything better as evidence than what was found in the first 24 hours," the source said.

This is surely either bluster or an attempt to heal the wounds with the Americans, notoriously prickly about their own counter-terror and intelligence efforts. If this plot genuinely was going to target aircraft, surely if the plotters had purchased tickets or had all received their passports that would have made a huge difference to the prosecution case. As it is, one jury has already failed to be convinced by the evidence which this source thinks couldn't have been surpassed.

To go onto more speculative territory, you have to wonder whether this case might help persuade the security services that it's time that intercept evidence was made admissible in court. Considering the breadth of the operation which was undertaken to monitor the suspects, and as yesterday's Panorama showed, this more or less entailed following the main players wherever they went, it would be difficult to believe if they hadn't been bugging their phones or otherwise. While it might not provide the ocular proof if they were as guarded as they may have been, the continuing refusal to admit such evidence becomes more and more untenable as time goes by.

Then, finally, there is Rashid Rauf himself. Does anyone honestly believe the story that he happened to escape whilst being allowed to pray in a roadside mosque, or even that the policemen were bribed into letting him go? His lawyer has suggested that he believes he might have been taken into the black hole which is the ISI's detention, but is it so outlandish to imagine that he might have instead been transferred into US custody and is now languishing in one of their remaining black sites? A few years back that could of easily been dismissed as a fanciful conspiracy theory, but can we completely rule it out now? The lack of condemnation from our side, despite our apparent willingness to arrest two separtists which the Pakistan government requested in return for Rauf might speak volumes. Then again, perhaps Occam's Razor should be applied until there is any compelling evidence to prove otherwise.

We should of course wait and see what this second jury decides. If they do reach the same lack of a verdict which the first did, it will then be highly significant what decision is then taken as to what should be done with them. More compelling evidence could potentially still be revealed. It's hard not to imagine however that if a second jury "fails" in the same way which the first did, that it may well mean the introduction of the very measures which Peter Clarke so boastfully but also sinisterly mentioned we had not yet resorted to yesterday.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008 

Crying over spilt liquid continued.

You'd have to say that the response to the ignominious end of the "liquid bomb" plot trial has been little short of remarkable. I've just finished watching the Panorama special on the plotters, produced with an incredible amount of co-operation with both the police and the security services, which was most likely sitting there waiting to be shown as soon as the jury reached their decision, no doubt hastily re-edited yesterday and today to be in line with the conviction of only three and then not for conspiracy to cause murder through explosions on planes.

It, like almost all the rest of the media, didn't question in any great detail the idea that the plotters could have pulled off the plans that we're told they had in mind, because again, there was little to no evidence presented that they themselves knew what the targets were going to be, and very little dispute that they were almost ready to go. The evidence for the targeting of planes amounts to, as mentioned yesterday, the fact that one of plotters had downloaded information of transatlantic flights to his memory stick, the details from the diary which suggested getting the devices through security, most likely airport security, and that two of the plotters were heard discussing different holiday destinations in line with which were the most popular for British tourists. The questioning of the readiness of the devices themselves amounted to the presenter Peter Taylor asking a government scientist whether what the suspects planned was possible. Mindful of his words and being as non-committal as possible, he said yes, and said that it would have been possible to blow an airplane out of the sky with one of the bombs in a bottle.

Just in case we didn't get that, shown on news bulletins throughout the day on the BBC has been their own experiment using a bomb apparently made to the same specifications being placed inside the hull of an aircraft. It explodes, and punctures the hull successfully, which you can see here. The problem with this is the same as with the other government tests shown to the jury: that these are professionals with experience of what they're doing with the best available materials. It also doesn't take into account the circumstances in which the bombers would be working: the bomb made for the BBC appears to have been put together almost on the spot, something that the bombers would not have done. As Charlieman points out on Liberal Conspiracy, TATP is incredibly volatile and begins to degrade very quickly. This was part of the reason why the 21/7 bombers' devices failed. The liquid bomb plot would have involved even higher dilutions of the hydrogen peroxide, increasing drastically the danger of it going off prematurely while also decreasing its "shelf-life". Additionally, it's by no means certain that such a bomb on board an aircraft would even then have the catastrophic consequences which the police and politicians claimed it would: only recently we saw the consequences of the explosive decompression on the Qantas flight, which managed to land safely. An even worse ED was suffered on Aloha Airlines Flight 243, which also managed to land with the loss of just one person and injuries to 60 others. One of the few other new facts added by the Panorama documentary was that Sarwar, the alleged bomb maker, had successfully boiled down some of the HP to the right dilution. Again though, the programme didn't bother to point that the bombs had still to assembled, that they had not constructed a viable device and that when you consider the difficulty involved in doing so they were still a long way from creating just one, let alone the 7 which the prosecution claimed there would be.

It isn't just however the security services and the police that found the verdict of the jury "astonishing", as spooks' friend Frank Gardner put it, it's also been sections of the media who are incredulous at them not convicting all the men for their obvious murderous ambitions. The Times for one went absolutely overboard, not just enlisting Peter Clarke for an tendentious article on how the "surveillance society" works just wonderfully, but also their lead article, which includes this nugget:

The jury’s indecision in the face of a detailed Crown case raises questions about the public perception of the terror threat that could undermine government attempts to introduce further security legislation.

They just don't seem to get it, do they? You could apply that reasoning to both the hacks and the public. We're told by the Times, Peter Clarke and the security services that this was "strong evidence", "a detailed Crown case" and "the strongest terrorism case ever presented to a court", but they seem to have started believing their own hype. Yes, there was a very strong case here for the men being involved in some sort of terrorist plot, which is why three of them have been convicted of conspiracy to murder, and will likely be sentenced to very long terms of imprisonment, in line with the likes of Dhiren Barot, who had even more laughable plans than those of the non-existent ricin crew. There was however very little hard evidence that planes were the targets, as has been discussed. What seems to have happened is similar to that in cases of miscarriages of justice: the briefers have been out briefing and the journalists' sources have been whispering furiously into ears about the obvious guilt of those on trial, and when it doesn't go according to plan, they respond by blaming everyone other than themselves, with the journalists also flummoxed.

Hence along with the Americans getting the blame for ordering the arrest of Rauf, also being fingered are the jury themselves. The fact that there was a two-week break in proceedings for holidays, that some members of the jury were sick and otherwise is regarded as significant enough to be commented upon, especially by the Daily Mail, referring to it as a "farce". That those involved have given up nearly six months of their lives to hear an incredibly difficult case and then have to come up with a verdict is of no consequence; since they've come to the wrong one they're apparently fair game. They're also hardly likely to be able to defend themselves, as the only jury members I can recall speaking out recently were some of those involved in the ricin case after those acquitted were subjected to control orders, and then some of those involved in the original case involving Barry George, who had changed their minds over time.

It's perhaps a little over-the-top to be concerned immediately about the prospect of jury trials in terrorist cases being curtailed as a result of this verdict, but what if another jury also fails to find the men guilty of conspiring to cause explosions on planes? As the Times also reports, the man completely acquitted of all the charges, Mohammed Gulzar, is now likely to be given a control order. That's justice for you: a jury finds you not guilty but the state with its secret evidence tribunals disregards that entirely. I'm sure I won't be the only one to find potential menace also in the words of Peter Clarke, especially in these two paragraphs:

Take this case. To save the lives of the innocent and convict the would-be killers we used all the tools in the security armoury. Deeply intrusive surveillance, informants, CCTV, DNA, telephone call data and so on. This was not about collecting information for its own sake - it was to secure evidence to put before a court.

Some critics fail to understand that sophisticated, modern evidence gathering has allowed the most complex terrorist conspiracies to be tried in our criminal courts in front of a jury. No need for military commissions or the juryless Diplock courts of Northern Ireland.

And yet despite all of this evidence the jury were still failed to be convinced that planes were the targets. In any event, what Clarke is describing is a false dichotomy between surveillance and security; nothing that the police did broke the current rules as they were, and in fact, in their breaking into the "bomb factory" and planting bugs and live cameras they were using the oldest tricks in the book. It's the implication though in the second paragraph which both needles and worries. To begin with, it's not as if we're some wonderful place where every alleged terrorist is subjected to a court trial: just above we mentioned that Gulzar is likely to be given a control order, where the evidence against him will be heard in secret and not given to his lawyers. It wasn't so long back that we were locking foreign suspects up indefinitely without charge, and Clarke himself was at the forefront of pushing for support for 42 days detention without charge. What though if ever more complex cases keep coming before juries and they keep failing to reach the "correct" result? Are we really so potentially far away from military commissions or Diplock style courts? After all, juries in some fraud trials are already mooted to be abolished. Just how many more cases like yesterday's will it take before populist politicians with an eye on the standard of debate in the tabloids decide that this "farce" should be brought to an end?

Clarke continues:

And what if we had failed? What if the prosecution case was right, and half a dozen American airliners were to be brought down by British terrorists, operating from Britain and in effect using the UK as a launch pad for an attack on the United States? What would have happened to the UK and indeed the global economy? What would the impact have been on UK/US relations? What about the pressure it would have placed on Muslims in the UK? A very senior politician, at the time of the arrests, told me he thought it could have led to a breakdown in the community cohesion that had survived the attacks in 2005.

But these are all suppositions. The security services and police had been aware of these men and were documenting their every movement. There was never the slightest possibility they were going to be allowed to even take the first steps towards actually carrying out an atrocity. The only reason the arrests were brought forward was because of Rauf's arrest, and the possibility of the disruption of the plot. Less plausible is something Clarke says at the beginning of the article:

More worrying still, if they were tipped off to the arrest they might panic and mount a desperate attack.

As we have seen though, the devices simply weren't anywhere near ready, and even if they had the right amounts of diluted HP, there's still no indication that their attempts at constructing the bombs in full would have been any more successful than the government scientists' ones. And please, Clarke really should spare us the spurious concern for community cohesion: he was directly involved in the Forest Gate raid, which did more damage to the rapport with British Muslims and the actions of some in their communities than anything else has.

Should the restrictions now be lifted on liquids then, as Virgin Atlantic has called for? While as I've attempted to document, the dangers are vastly overstated and the problems involved in creating liquid explosives are manifold, I still think it's probably right for the moment for caution to be erred on, although the limit could perhaps be lifted from 100ml bottles to 250ml or above, and the idea that babies' bottles could be used is ridiculous.

Most of all however, the conclusion of this case should not cause panic amongst politicians or security agencies as to whether the public has become blase towards the terrorist threat. They clearly haven't. What is apparent however is that many are increasingly concerned about the febrile exaggeration of such cases, including this one and the claims of mass-murder on an unimaginable scale which simply are not backed up by the facts, and which is often for short-term political gain. The Panorama documentary also completely established that John Reid had long been aware of the "plot", meaning that his speech damning civil libertarians for not getting it just the day before the arrests was cynicism of the absolute worst kind. We don't like it when concerns about terrorism lead jumped-up police officers and community support staff to order people not to take photographs of public buildings, and we also don't like it when the threat of terror is used wholesale to justify the removal of ever more liberties, as the failure to reach a verdict in this trial could yet do. There is a terrorist threat, but it's not going to lead to the demise of this nation, and it doesn't even begin to amount to the that posed either by the Nazis in 1940 or to the Soviet Union during the height of the cold war. The same newspapers and media which want us to be scared are the same ones, ironically, that want us at the same time to have Churchillian resolve in the face of it. We need neither, and that has to be emphasised.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008 

There is a grave exceptional threat from terrorists of mass destruction...

If it wasn't so serious it would almost be funny. The latest safeguard that will stop 42 days detention without charge being used to hold anyone with a beard and funny ideas is that the Home Secretary herself will have to decree that the extension can only be used when there is a "grave exceptional terrorist threat", such as an attack on the level of 7/7 taking place or feared to be about to take place. Like with all the other safeguards, it's both pointless and worthless. We're being constantly reminded that the threat we face from terrorism is, in the words of the ex-head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad Peter Clarke, "deadly and enduring". The brown-trousers-o-meter already declares that the current threat level is "severe", which means an attack is highly likely. How could we possibly tell the difference between a "grave exceptional" threat and the current level?

I mention Clarke because he too has now stepped into the breach with his own article on why 42 days is necessary, while, like Brown yesterday, making no real justification other than that the police have their resources stretched to be able to manage within 28 days. It's not worth fisking in full, but there are some parts that deserve answering:

In August 2004, Scotland Yard Anti-Terrorist Branch officers spent a fortnight sleeping on their office floor. Why? Because they had been given the job of winning the race against time to find evidence of terrorist planning buried in the encrypted files of dozens of computers seized during Operation Rhyme - the investigation into a terrorist network led by Dhiren Barot, the al-Qa'eda planner.

There in a nutshell seems to be the real reason why the police want longer than 28 days. It means they don't have to rush themselves quite as much or sleep on the floor of their offices, and who frankly could disagree with police officers doing such an important job being uncomfortable while protecting the public from evildoers? It's also nice to see that Clarke mentions that Barot's computers were encrypted, meaning that as the law has since changed the police could now charge someone in Barot's position alone for refusing to provide an encryption key to decode the files. Again, whether Barot really did have any genuine links to al-Qaida is unclear - he apparently went to Pakistan to get his plans approved - and returned empty-handed.

Barot was a career terrorist who had been to training camps in Pakistan and the Far East. But we didn't know what stage his plans had reached. We could not be sure that he or other members of his group were not going to launch attacks, even as we watched. The decision was made to arrest them, and they were promptly rounded up in London and Blackburn.

As it turned out, he or his group could not have launched attacks because they didn't have funding, explosives or have even reached the first stages of preparing to launch an attack. All they had was plans, and very asinine plans they were too.

There was not a shred of evidence against them. The intelligence was clear - that he and his gang were planning attacks in this country, but there was no evidence that could be used in court.

At the time, terrorist suspects could be detained for 14 days. In this case, the pieces of the jigsaw fell into place on the morning of the 14th day. It was a very close call. We were minutes away from having to release a group of terrorists. Two years later, they pleaded guilty to plotting to make a dirty bomb and to kill fellow citizens in huge numbers.

Ah yes, either the Coke can dirty bomb or the smoke alarm dirty bomb. It's strange how when discussing these cases that no one, either police or journalists seems prepared to go into the actual details which are nowhere near as frightening or doom-mongering as the popular perception of what a dirty bomb would involve are. Why Clarke is focusing so much on this case is unclear: it shows the system working as it should have done. So does his next example:

This case told us that things had to change. Plots that have been uncovered since Barot, and the attacks on London in 2005, show the terrorist threat is growing in scale and complexity.

Plots where again the system has worked, with three men who were held for 28 days being charged, and another three released after 28 after the "liquid bombs plot". Again, where does this all end? In two years will have the police asking for 60 days because the plots have grown in scale and complexity again, with spurious amounts of data which they've had to go through being used again as the casus belli?

And yet, as Parliament prepares for the debate on the second reading of the Counter Terrorism Bill, we have to brace ourselves for another deluge of politicised comment on the proposal to extend the time terrorist suspects can be held.

The cross-party consensus that, for many years, helped guide the thinking on such issues evaporated in 2005. The parties blame each other for this, but the quality of the public debate has suffered. It is now difficult for counter-terrorist professionals to offer a view without being accused of political partiality.

Could this possibly be because the police in the first case engaged in err, political partiality, supporting the indefensible when it came 90 days? Clarke himself previously why-oh-whyed over the criticism directed the police's way in a speech last year:

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.

If Clarke would like to explain how Andy Hayman being asked by the Home Secretary to comment on why 90 days was needed is not the police making a political case or how the Association of Chief Police Officers' intervention prior to the 90 days debate, with officers phoning up MPs urging them to support the legislation is not the police becoming politicised, then I'm sure it would be gratefully received.

In any case, the political consensus collapsed because 90 days were so clearly beyond the pale, as the government now accepts, although the police themselves apparently don't. It's also because the evidence is simply not there for a further extension: it's been the opposition parties that have been the principled ones, holding the same position from the beginning, that beyond 28 day detention without charge is simply not acceptable.

Clarke continues:

For instance, critics claim that the proposal is a draconian extension of police powers. It is not. Detention would be a judicial discretion, to be exercised following an adversarial hearing with both sides legally represented. This would be no rubber stamp. Indeed, the record of the judiciary in challenging the Government in terrorism cases suggests that any application for extended detention will be subject to the sharpest scrutiny.

This is the exact same argument as Clarke made last year, and it was wanting then. The judiciary have been notably active in terrorism cases, but that's where the detention has been arbitrary, either indefinite or where those accused have been held under control orders. Where they have not been so active or so forceful is where the evidence against the accused has not just been around intelligence, and where they are in police rather than prison custody or under house arrest. The police case is almost always going to be stronger, making clear that the individual is a major potential threat while the defence will have to argue purely on civil liberty grounds; the judiciary, put in such a position, will almost always give the police the benefit of the doubt.

Skipping some of the rest which isn't directly relevant to why 42 days is needed so desperately:

When I was asked, in 2005, by the home affairs select committee how many terrorists I had been obliged to let go through lack of time to investigate, I inwardly despaired. It was the wrong question. We should look forward, not back. The fact that we have been able to convict more than 60 terrorists in the last year or so is irrelevant.

This seems more revealing than Clarke admits. It's because the answer is 0; the only organisations that have let some go through supposed lack of time are the security services. There is nothing to suggest that any "terrorists" will ever have to be let go because lack of time.

The better question would have been: "Is it likely that there will come a time when the present 28-day limit is insufficient?" The answer would have been, "undoubtedly". That is why we should legislate now, and not in panic in an emergency.

Except we wouldn't need to panic in an emergency. If there was some dire, dire need to go beyond 28 days, the Civil Contingencies Act could be invoked; the government could temporarily derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights; or the accused could even be charged with a lesser offence while the investigation continued, something that is apparently too obvious to consider. Doing either of the first two options would be worrying and potentially out of proportion with the actual threat posed, but then so is 42 days itself. The government and the police would however find it far more difficult to justify doing either than it would to invoke 42 days under the laughable "grave exceptional" threat when the only reason for extending the limit is so the police can get a little more sleep.

The details of the 42-day detention plan may not be perfect, but the principle of being able to protect the public in extremis must be right. The checks and balances in our system prevent arbitrary detention. The judiciary have repeatedly shown their vigilance and independence. We should trust the judges and give the public the protection they deserve.

And while we're at it - could we try, just for a moment, to take the politics out of this?

But it isn't the judges who are the ones who are proposing this; they're just the ones who'll get the blame if they get it wrong. It's not those who we have to trust, it's the police and the government, and the fact is that we don't trust either. Nothing Clarke or Labour has said is convincing, and those still on the Labour backbenches who are wavering need to continue refusing to countenance the counting dilution of our hard-won civil liberties.

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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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Thursday, April 26, 2007 

Lives are at risk.

In an age when we have vast amounts of information available at the click of a mouse, the reasons for denying the free flow of potentially sensitive or controversial data have become ever more questionable. Witness the way the government continues to try to cut the Freedom of Information Act it introduced down to size - first by being completely open about it, if arrogant and willfully ignorant, and then by subterfuge, hiding behind a useful idiot Tory MP's attempts to exempt parliament from the act.

The most continually repeated argument behind not releasing information of late though is also one of the most contemptible. Last year, when this blog along with others republished photographs of the News of the World "journalist" Mazher Mahmood after he tried to entrap George Galloway, one of his responses was that the images could lead to him being targeted because of the many "criminals" he had exposed; in essence, his life was at risk because a few websites had published public domain pictures of his ugly mug. As it happened, he was laughed out of court, with both him and his lawyers humiliated, but this seems to be one of the rare cases where the argument wasn't taken seriously.

Take the current trial involving the civil servant David Keogh and MP's researcher Leo O'Connor. The two men are accused of breaking the Official Secrets Act by leaking a memo detailing the discussions of George Bush and Tony Blair, in which it's widely assumed that Bush advocated bombing the headquarters of the television news network Al-Jazeera, due to its coverage of the American assault on the city of Fallujah. Blair is believed to have talked him out of it, although the response from the Americans when the existence of the memo was first discovered was that Bush had been "joking". Yesterday, "Sir" Nigel Sheinwald argued that the open publishing of the memo "could have put lives in danger", with "UK forces at risk". To say this is a despicable argument would be to give too much credit to it: it first assumes that UK forces are not at risk in the first place, when they most certainly are as a direct result of the foreign policy that Sheinwald has advised upon, and secondly it ignores the fact that if the contents of the memo are as they are believed, that the President of the United States was considering launching a military strike that would have broken the Geneva Convention, killed journalists doing their jobs, and put the lives of his own servicemen at risk through his own petulant dismay at a television station daring to report on the brutality of what was happening on the ground. If that's not playing fast and loose with the lives of potentially hundreds, if not thousands of people, then Sheinwald ought to inform us otherwise.

At least with the Al-Jazeera memo trial there are genuine questions over what can and cannot be leaked, especially over whether the public have a right to know about discussions at the very height of government over issues which are highly controversial. The same cannot be said for the MoD, which is appealing against an order for its staff directory of the defence export services organisation (DESO) to be released to the Grauniad. In a similar self-serving style to that taken by Sheinwald, David Wray, the MoD's director of information, an Orwellian job title if there ever was one, claimed that releasing the directory could lead to staff being harassed at home, all the way up to workers in Saudi Arabia possibly being the target of terrorist attacks, even though all those associated with the al-Yamanah arms deal are to be removed for the directory. This was despite the MoD admitting that 2,000 copies of the directory have been distributed, with 3 going to journalists, apparently ones that the MoD can trust not to turn over to the evil terrorists.

Peter Clarke too used "the lives are at risk" gambit in his speech on Tuesday, condemning leaks which may well have come from within his own organisation, as the Grauniad reports today. Clarke of course though doesn't actually care about what the very real consequences of such leaks are on those who are arrested and later released without charge, where their lives may be ruined or put at risk by such briefings, but rather on the sources of the intelligence in the first place, who are highly unlikely to be put at risk by such leaks. In some cases, as we know, the intelligence itself has come from those whose lives certainly are at risk, as it was tortured out of them.

As Craig Murray notes today, the sources of such leaks that are helpful towards the government or the police in their endless fight against terror are hardly ever prosecuted. He uses the example of this weekend's report in the Sunday Times, where if the journalist hasn't made it all up, there has been a potentially major breach of the Official Secrets Act, as JTAC reports are sometimes top secret and always classified.

There is a contradiction within the whole "lives at risk" argument that is a mile wide. No one wants anyone to die as a result of something as potentially inconsequential as the release of a directory of workers within the Ministry of Defence, yet when people do die as a result of the actions of the government or the police, dead men can tell no tales. Jean Charles de Menezes couldn't inform us that he didn't jump that barrier and that he wasn't wearing a heavy coat. The soldiers in Iraq that would have been threatened further by the release of the al-Jazeera memo or, if some right-wing commentators are to be believed, by the broadcasting of dramas such as the Mark of Cain, can tell us what they really feel about their mission on message boards like ARRSE, but their dead comrades killed purely because of Blair's "liberal interventionism" can't tell us what their feelings were about being in Iraq in the first place, or whether they were achieving anything other than simply becoming more hated by the day.

We do everything to protect ourselves from things that we don't want to hear, but to those who have to suffer the consequences either way, we have little to offer other than platitudes. But didn't you hear? If we were to be brutally honest, lives would be at risk.

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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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