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Thursday, February 24, 2011 

A uniquely British security fudge.

The last week has seen another of those uniquely British security fudges played out in the Royal Courts of Justice. Having never managed to obtain the full independent inquiry into the 7/7 bombings long campaigned for and demanded by the majority of the relatives of those killed by the four suicide bombers, the equally long in coming inquest into the 56 deaths that day has had to serve in its place. With the evidence of how the day unfolded now finished, attention has turned to the long crucial questions: just how much did MI5 really know about the four bombers, and was there anything they could have done if not to stop the bombings, then at least to have identified the men beforehand?

As could have been expected from our intelligence services, so utterly wedded to operating in the shadows, they've from the very outset attempted to provide as little actual information and evidence to the coroner as they conceivably could, legally challenging Lady Justice Hallett's every decision, and thankfully have also lost on nearly every attempt. The evidence given this week by someone who can only be identified as Witness G, the chief of staff to Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, is the product of these battles and eventual compromise. From originally having only been prepared to appear in a closed session, where only the coroner, the lawyers and the clerks of the court would be allowed to sit, MI5 was eventually forced into accepting that the families would also be allowed to see Witness G giving evidence, the coroner accepting the validity of what she termed their "whites of their eyes" argument (PDF). The media were however excluded, not apparently to be trusted with seeing a member of the security services and not blabbing about what he looked like. Considering how often they're briefed by "senior intelligence sources", this seems ever so slightly ridiculous.

Then again, much of what the security services have tried to avoid doing has been ridiculous. it hasn't been explained properly for instance why all of the above could not have been avoided entirely, by Jonathan Evans himself giving evidence. He was after all deputy director general of the service at the time of the bombings, and had previously been the most senior officer involved in international counter-terrorism. Him appearing for MI5 would have showed the organisation to be fully accountable, as say the CIA is in America, where George Tenet testified in public before the 9/11 commission, and entirely removed the need for anonymity orders, as well as any additional risk to Witness G, the claimed reason for why he couldn't appear publicly. Presumably one argument being made against would be that it would be obvious as to where such a potentially high profile target for an attack would be for a whole week, although this hardly stops the prime minister for instance from residing in what is hardly the most secure building, or indeed from walking along Whitehall with only a couple of bodyguards. Just like Evans and his predecessor have refused to appear before parliamentary human rights committees, so it seems the only public space they're willing to occupy despite their identities no longer being secret is the lecterns they give the occasional speech from.

If the inquest up till now has provided the opportunity for catharsis for all those involved either directly or indirectly on that terrible day, then it's doubtful whether Witness G's evidence will ultimately provide the closure that the relatives and survivors seek. The expression of regret for not preventing the attack was expected, although whether it really is "nonsensical and offensive" to suggest that they could have prevented an attack they had long warned would eventually come is far more dubious. Very little has been disclosed or explained in more detail than when we first learned that despite originally claiming the bombers were "clean-skins", Mohammad Siddique Khan for one had been on the periphery of counter-terrorism investigations since 2001 without ever being named. Certainly, there hasn't been anything approaching a properly adequate explanation as to why certain leads weren't followed up which can't be simply all put down to lack of resources or because they were deemed to only be involved in funding related fraud: it has long seemed extraordinary that despite MI5 following Khan and Shezhad Tanweer up the M1 after they had met with Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the fertilizer bomb plot, and taking the photograph that would be later appallingly cropped and greyscaled that they were never positively identified.

The clarity of the photograph of the two bombers is one of the few new submissions to come out of the inquest. Back in 2007 MI5 claimed that the quality was "very poor", only for the more than decent colour version to now emerge. Witness G's explanation as to why the copy forwarded to the US for supergrass Mohammed Junaid Babar to peruse was edited was unconvincing to say the least: it could have been altered to conceal the circumstances in which it was taken. To take a wild guess it looks like the product of a concealed pinhole lens, certainly something the FBI will have. In any case, expecting someone to make a identification based on such a poor copy as that sent across was optimism epitomised, or alternatively just going through the motions, which might just explain why such a poor job was made of cropping it. When in doubt, the ultimate excuse has been resorted to: Witness G couldn't provide the full details on why a significant lead in March 2005 wasn't followed up without affecting "national security". Quite how national security would be significantly damaged 6 years on by explaining in full why it wasn't followed up is anyone's guess; surely investigations aren't still continuing with links going back that far, and it seems unlikely the source(s) could be identified by doing so considering the amount of time that has passed.

Whether the families will ultimately be convinced by Witness G's final assertion that even if the leads had been followed up, there was no realistic prospect of the plot being uncovered remains to be seen. Even the most ardent critics of the security services, myself included, accept that it is impossible for every attack to be foiled, and that they are often between the proverbial rock and a hard place: assaulted for scaremongering and then also for failing when they do make mistakes. The ultimate test is whether the equally clich├ęd lessons have been learned, and while MI5's resources, links with police forces and capability to follow up leads have all been improved and upgraded, where they continue to fall down is in accountability and openness, as the inquest has so acutely identified. As they obviously have no interest in reforming themselves in this regard, it has to be up to the government to force them. All the signs are that this will be yet another subject the coalition will flunk.

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