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Thursday, March 26, 2015 

Just who are the domestic extremists?

Back in the 70s, Ted Heath was not exactly complimentary about MI5's way of working. "They talked the most ridiculous nonsense, and their whole philosophy was ridiculous nonsense.  If some of them were on the tube and saw someone reading the Daily Mirror they would say - 'Get after him, that man is dangerous, we must find out where he bought it.'"  Predictably, Christopher Andrew in his official history of MI5 claimed the reality was often the government itself asking MI5 to keep tabs on MPs they had suspicions about, rather than MI5 becoming convinced various left-wingers were serving Soviet and not British interests.

By the 1990s the bad old days of MI5 and Special Branch keeping tabs on any vaguely left-wing group were meant to have passed.  When it's subsequently revealed Special Branch apparently left their files open on such notorious subversives as Harriet Harman, Jack Straw and Peter Hain, by this point all ministers in the Labour government, it does make you wonder just who they deemed to not be worthy of monitoring.  Frank Field, maybe? Gerald Kaufman?  Or were they too secretly meeting behind closed doors to plot and sing the Internationale?  Considering that Jenny Jones, the Green member of the London assembly recently discovered she was on the Met's current database of "domestic extremists" perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised.

It also brings into sharper focus the Erol Incedal debacle, the first trial to be heard in such a high degree of secrecy since the war.  Despite being found guilty of possession of a document on bomb-making, the jury at Incedal's retrial (the jury at the original trial failed to reach a verdict) was apparently convinced by his explanation as to why emails the prosecution claimed to refer to the Mumbai attacks and AK-47s were nothing of the kind and so cleared him of plotting some sort of attack.  I say apparently as this was part of the trial held in complete secret, with not even the posse of accredited hacks allowed into some of the behind closed doors sessions ordered out.  Further on the surface incriminating details have emerged as a result of the judge's summing up in the second trial - Incedal apparently met with a British jihadist known only as Ahmed on the Syrian border, who allegedly suggested carrying out an attack.  The bug planted in Incedal's car additionally picked him up praising Islamic State commanders.

Just as intriguing is how Incedal came to the attention of the police in the first place.  Arrested for speeding, the BBC reports he "made demands" the police couldn't accommodate, and they also stopped an interview so they could "digest" a written statement.  Whether it was this which prompted the police to make a thorough search of his car, finding the home address of Tony Blair on a piece of paper hidden in a glasses case we don't know, but it seems to have disquieted them enough to plant the bug in his car.  Incedal maintained at both trials he had a "reasonable excuse" for having the explosives manual, an excuse which caused the jury enough reasonable doubt for them to decide to acquit on the more serious charge.  We can't however know what the excuse was, such is the apparent impact it could have on national security.

Or at least we won't unless the judge decides tomorrow that the reporting restrictions on the sessions when the accredited hacks were allowed in but the public wasn't can now be made public.  Both the Graun and the BBC quote Sean O'Neill, the Times's crime and security editor, known to be the kind of journalist memorably described by EP Thompson as "a kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking", as saying there was a lot heard that should not have been secret.  Surely then we can expect the judge to throw some light on the subject?

Except the fact the security services, ministers, the CPS and the judge himself all initially felt the trial should be held entirely in secret, with Incedal and his co-defendant identified by initials, something only prevented by the media challenging Mr Justice Nicol's ruling at the Court of Appeal, more than suggests that avoiding further embarrassment is likely to be order of the day.  The QC for the media at the Court of Appeal hearing argued that "the orders made involve such a significant departure from the principle of open justice that they are inconsistent with the rule of law and democratic accountability".  As Theresa May reaffirmed on Tuesday, the rule of law is one of those British values that is non-negotiable, and to reject it is one of the definitions of extremism.  The law is though there to be changed, especially if meddling judges decide that letters from a prince preparing to be king to ministers must be revealed, as David Cameron has said.  And when the security services and police are so often a law unto themselves, the rule of law is very much what the government of the day decrees it to be.

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