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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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