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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 

The government should be in terror, not the people.

3 years ago, after the police had conspicuously failed to find anything more dangerous in the Kamal family's house in Forest Gate than a bottle of aspirin, a "senior police source" told the Graun that "[T]he public may have to get used to this sort of incident, with the police having to be safe rather than sorry." For the most part since then, most of the major anti-terrorist raids, while scooping up some innocents along the way, have resulted in prosecutions rather than the authorities emerging with egg on their faces. Instead, the most objectionable thing that has characterised the arrests has been the febrile briefing of the media with the most outlandish and potentially prejudicial, as well as exaggerated, accounts of the carnage which would have taken place had the attacks not been foiled. These leaks, despite the self-righteousness of former Met chief anti-terror officer Peter Clarke over the stories which appeared in the press concerning the plot to behead a Muslim soldier, appear to have came from all sides, with the police, security services and the government all involved.

Along with the leaks, we have become wearily accustomed to politicians commenting on what are after all, criminal operations, with no apparent concern for whether their remarks might subsequently influence a jury. The apogee was reached when John Reid famously said that the disruption of the "liquid bomb" plot had prevented "loss of life on an unprecendented scale", something that the jury in the first trial decided not to agree with. Their second trial is still on-going. I can't recall however any politician making similar comments to that which both Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith did about the raids in Manchester and the north-west two weeks ago where those arrested were subsequently released without charge. Politicians may have defended the police after the Forest Gate raids, but at no point did they appear to specifically say that a "very big plot" had been disrupted as the result of the police's actions. In the case of the ricin plot where there was no ricin, much which was inflammatory was spoken by politicians and the police, but in that instance Kamel Bourgass was at least guilty of murder, as well as stupidity in that his ideas for using the ricin that he wouldn't have been able to produce would have failed to poison anyone.

The only reason why there doesn't seem to far more deserved criticism of this latest fiasco is that it's been overshadowed completely by the budget. From getting off to one of the most inauspicious starts imaginable, things have in actuality got worse. If we were to believe the media's initial reports, if the men arrested had not been taken off the streets, there would now presumably be hundreds if not thousands dead, up to six places of varying interest and importance would have been badly damaged if not destroyed, and new anti-terrorist legislation would almost certainly be back on the agenda. Instead, 11 Pakistani students are going home far sooner than they would have anticipated, and no one can explain adequately how the position changed from there being an attack imminently prepared to there being not even the slightest evidence that there was anything beyond the murmurings of one.

Not that anyone from the very beginning even managed to get the facts straight. Variously the targets were meant to be two shopping centres, a nightclub and St Ann's Square, or Liverpool and Manchester United's stadiums. Then there were no targets, as the planning had not reached that stage, then they were photographs found of the places previously briefed, the only real piece of circumstantial evidence which seems to have been recovered and then finally there was no plot at all. Depending on who you believe, the men had either been under surveillance for some time, or the intelligence had only came in very recently. Like with the claims that the men arrested at Forest Gate had been under surveillance for up to two months, it reflects rather badly on the police/security services if the case is the former. Having hoped to find something more explosive than bags of table sugar, the police turned to desperately searching the suspects' computers and mobile phones. After nothing incriminating enough to bring any sort of charge was found on those, they seem to have declared defeat. We should be glad for the small mercy that the police seem not to have tried to string out their detention for the full 28 days allowed.

That will of course not be any sort of comfort for those who now find themselves in the custody of the Borders Agency, their studies disrupted for no good apparent reason. The BBC is suggesting that their cases will be considered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, which meets in secret and hears evidence which is inadmissible in the normal court system. Presumably this means that the very intelligence which resulted in their arrests, despite being proved either downright wrong or speculatory at the least, will be used against them. It also happily means that none of the men can talk directly to the media about their experience, something which in the past has led to embarrassment all round, whether it was the person released without charge who described this country as a "police state for Muslims", or Hicham Yezza and Rizwaan Sabir, both arrested after Yezza had printed out an al-Qaida manual for his student, which he had downloaded from a US government website, with the intention that Sabir was to use it to write his MA dissertation. In a bizarre reversal of fortune, after Gordon Brown had lectured Pakistan on how it had to do more to combat the terrorist threat, it's now the Pakistan High Commissioner who's doing the honourable thing, offering legal assistance to the men so they can continue with their studies. As Jamie says, it takes some nerve to call Pakistan the failed state in all this.

As previously noted, it was from the outset strange that such a imminent threat should emerge considering the way that the head of MI5 and the government had begun to downplay the threat for the first time since 9/11. When you bear in mind how the previous head of MI5 scaremongered about "the evil in our midst" just three years ago, it instantly suggested that something substantial had changed. It's not unknown for surprises to be sprung, but this one seemed to be too outlandish to be accurate. That within 48 hours it was already becoming clear that no attack had genuinely been disrupted should have rung alarm bells then in the minds of the media, but still they kept with the fallacy for the most part that something would turn up. Only now that it hasn't will questions be asked.

It has to be kept in mind that intelligence work is not an exact science. It often turns out to be wrong, or just too unreliable to be used to carry out the sort of arrests which we saw two weeks ago. As the senior police source didn't quite say, it is better to be safe than sorry, but this is beginning to become a habit. At the very least, if such raids are to be carried out, then politicians should keep their mouths closed and the media should not be used to put completely unsubstantiated rumours into circulation which then can colour a person for the rest of their life. We have however said these things before, and no notice whatsoever has been taken. After the incompetence of the patio gas canister attacks, both Smith and Brown seemed to be keeping to their word not to exaggerate things in the same way as their predecessors so copiously did. The irony of this is that as politicians continue to use security threats as a way to justify their serial dilutions of civil liberties and the imposition of ID cards and databases, the public themselves become ever more cynical when these threats turn out to be nothing more than hyperbole with a motive. It also surely isn't coincidence that today of all days MI5 shows the Sun their brilliant invention that can stop a "suicide truck bomb" in its tracks, as long as the driver keeps the speed below 40. That terrorists have shown no inclination whatsoever to use such bombs in this country, when explosives are incredibly difficult to obtain and where the next best thing, such as TATP, is even more difficult to produce in such quantities is neither here nor there. This we are advised will be part of the government's "Fortress Great Britain" counter-terrorism strategy, where more or less every public building may well be reinforced in case it becomes a target. This is not just a colossal waste of time and money, it's a colossal waste of time and money with the intention of scaring people. The quote goes that governments should be scared of the people, not people of the government. Despite its almost certain imminent electoral demise, this one doesn't seem to be. That may be what needs to change the most.

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Fear, fear, fear!

Keep us scared, keep us down, especially as the political landscape gets more brutal.

"The only reason why there doesn't seem to far more deserved criticism of this latest fiasco is that it's been overshadowed completely by the budget."

Do you not think the timing may have been deliberate?

Possibly, but it seems more likely that they simply couldn't hold them any longer as they didn't have the evidence to persuade a judge to do so. Quick as I usually am to ascribe things to ulterior motives, I think it might just be a coincidence this time.

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