Blitz Spirit?

Sir_Paul_StephensonThe most senior police officer in the UK, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Paul Stephenson no less, is saying that the British citizens are not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough.  "Al Qaeda" could strike at any minute, the enemy is within etc, etc….

Now, for a man of his seniority, one presumes that he has served as a policeman for a fair few years – possibly in the 1970s, certainly the 80s and 90s.  Which means that he should have a memory of what it means to be under the real, daily threat of bombs exploding that aimed to maim, kill and terrorize the civilian population of London and the rest of the UK.  After all, throughout those decades the Provisional IRA, backed by the fund-raising activities of certain American citizens and Colonel Gaddafi of Libya – that erstwhile patron of freedom fighters everywhere, now a staunch ally of the West in the "war on terror" – was pretty much putting bombs down at will on UK streets.

Bishopsgate_Bombing_1993During these years the UK has endured Lockerbie, Omagh, Bishopsgate, Canary Wharf, and Manchester, to name but a few major atrocities.  A good summary of the terrorist attacks against London alone over the last 150 years can be found here, with the first Tube bombing occurring in 1885.  A pilot, Patrick Smith, also recently wrote a great article about aircraft security and the sheer scale of the terrorist threat to the West in the 1980s – and asks a very pertinent question: just how would we collectively react to such a stream of atrocities now? 

Putting aside my professional life at the time, I have personal memories of what it was like to live and work in London in the 1990s under the shadow of terrorism.  I remember making my way to work when I was a fledging MI5 intelligence officer in 1991 and commuting through Victoria train station in London 10 minutes before a bomb, planted in a rubbish bin, exploded on the station concourse.  One person was killed, and many sustained severe injuries.  One person had their foot blown off – the image haunted me for a long time.

I also vividly remember, two years later, sitting at my desk in MI5's Mayfair office, and hearing a dull thud in the background – this turned out to be a bomb exploding outside Harrods department store in Knightsbridge.  And let's not forget the almost daily disruption to the tube and rail networks during the 90s because of security alerts.  Every Londoner was exhorted to watch out for, and report, any suspicious packages left at stations or on streets.  Yet because of the preceding couple of decades, this was already a normal way of life in the city. 

Keep_Calm_and_Carry_On_PosterLondoners have grown used to inconvenience; they grumble a bit about the disruption and then get on with their lives – echoes of the "keep calm and carry on" mentality that evolved during the Blitz years.  In the 1990s the only noticeable change to London's diurnal rhythm was that there were fewer US tourists clogging up the streets – an early indication of the disproportionate, paranoid US reaction to a perceived terrorist threat.

Separate from the IRA, in 1994 a car bomb exploded outside the Israeli embassy in Kensington, London.  Despite initial reports that Iranian-backed groups were responsible (and, it turns out, MI5 may have dropped the ball), Palestinian activists were blamed and convicted, wrongly it turns out, as MI5 assessed that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, had pulled a dirty trick.

Terrorism on the streets of London was nothing new.  In the early 1980s my father was in London attending an investigative journalism course and narrowly missed two bombings – one in a restaurant at Marble Arch a couple of hours after he and the rest of the course members had been eating there, and another later that night close to the hotel he was staying in at Lancaster Gate. 

Dawson's_Field_VC10My Pa had another near miss in 1970 when he was a young airline pilot flying VC-10s around the world for BOAC. He was supposed to be the pilot of the VC-10 that ended up at Dawson's Field in Jordan – hijacked by members of the PFLP and eventually blown up.  He had been prevented from flying from Bahrain that day as he was suffering a bad dose of the 'flu.

To this day, his view about both these incidents is to shrug and carry on.  Yes, it was a close shave, but if you allow incidents like that to colour the rest of your life, then the concept of terrorism has already won.

The UK and its citizens have had plenty of hands-on experience of living with the reality of war, political violence and terrorism.   As a result, I'm constantly flabbergasted by the global security crackdown since 9/11 and particularly in the UK after 7th July 2005.  It was ghastly, and my heart bleeds for the victims, families, and survivors, but major terrorist atrocities are hardly new to the UK. 

Gerard_Conlan_Guildford_4_releaseThe UK government seems now to have forgotten hard-learned lessons from the 1970s and 80s in the war in Northern Ireland: that draconian measures – torture, shoot to kill, internment, military-style tribunals -  not only don't work, but also are counter-productive and act as recruiting grounds for terrorist groups.  The flagrant miscarriages of justice around cases like the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six reinforced this perspective.  

And the UK has not been alone in Europe when it comes to living with the daily reality of terrorism: the Spanish have endured Basque separatist attacks for four decades, as have the French – in addition to those perpetrated in Paris with devastating results by Algerian Islamic groups in the 1990s.  Germany successfully dealt with the Baader-Meinhof Gang (Red Army Faction), and other European countries, such as Belgium and Italy, have endured Operation Gladio style terrorist attacks over recent decades.

But in all those years, none of our countries gave up on the concept of basic values and freedoms – indeed they seemed to learn useful lessons from the repressive, failed experiment in Northern Ireland.  So why are we now falling in line, unthinkingly, with the hysterical and brutal US response post 9/11? 

Das_leben_der_anderenIn the UK we are effectively living under a Big Brother surveillance state, as I have previously and extensively written.  Other Northern European countries are constantly pressured to fall in line with the US "war on terror" fear mentality.  To its credit Germany is reacting cautiously, even in the face of the current, hyped-up terror threat.  But then we Europeans know the lessons of history – we've lived them, and Germany more than most.  The ghosts of the Gestapo and the Stasi still create a frisson of fear in the collective Germanic memory.

But returning to that doughty crime fighter, Sir Paul Stephenson.  The day after he ticked off the UK public for not taking terrorism seriously enough, he is once again in the media, predicting an era of growing civil unrest in the wake of the student riots in London, and chillingly stating that the rules of the game had changed.  Forget about trying to negotiate with campaigners – now the only way to deal with them is to spy on them, as The Guardian reported:

"We have been going through a period where we have not seen that sort of violent disorder," Stephenson said. "We had dealt with student organisers before and I think we based it too much on history. If we follow an intelligence-based model that stops you doing that. Obviously you realise the game has changed. Regrettably, the game has changed and we must act."

Big_BrotherLast year the same newspaper revealed that ACPO, the senior police officers' private association, was running an illegal unit to spy on "domestic extremists" (read politically active citizens).  In response to the public outcry, the head of ACPO, Sir Hugh Orde, promised to stop this Stasi-like practice.  In the wake of the student protests, Sir Paul will probably see a renewed need for the unit, no doubt under another name.  Big Brother grows apace – because, of course, we all know that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia……

Spy drones coming soon to a place near you.

For a long time now I have been giving speaking out at conferences and in interviews around the world about the encroaching nature of our surveillance states. 

One aspect of this, the endemic CCTV coverage in the UK, is notorious internationally. Not only the estimated 4 million+ public CCTV cameras on British streets, but also all the traffic cameras and private security cameras that sneak a peak onto our public spaces too.  As if that were not enough, earlier this year it was also reported that local councils are investing in mobile CCTV smart spy cars too.

Additionally, of course, we had the issue of Google Street View invading our privacy, and the camera cars also just happened to coincidentally hoover up the private internet traffic of those too trusting to lock their wireless internet access.  Unlike the UK, the Germans have thankfully said a robust "nein" to Google's plan.

All this, as I've previously noted, despite the fact that the head of the Metropolitan Police department responsible for processing all this surveillance information went on the record to say that CCTV evidence is useless in helping to solve all but 3% of crimes, and those merely minor.  In fact, since CCTV has been rolled out nationally, violent crime on the streets of Britain has not noticeably reduced.

But, hey, who cares about facts when security is Big Business?  Someone, somewhere, is getting very rich by rolling out ever more Orwellian surveillance technology. 

Talking_CCTV_CameraOn the streets of Britain, it is getting progressively worse.  Audiences across Europe and North America have responded with shocked laughter when I have mentioned that police trials had been conducted in the UK using talking CCTV cameras that barked orders at apparent transgressors.

In 2007 Middlesbrough, a town in the north east of the UK with a zero-tolerance policy, began a trial using these talking cameras.  In line with a government review of civil liberties this year, it was reported over the summer that the use of these cameras might be phased out.  Needless to say, the council is fighting a fierce rearguard action against the removal of talking CCTV – an obvious example of the inherent difficulty of trying to wrest established power from the authorities.

Then earlier this year it emerged that various British police forces and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA),  have ordered military-style drones to spy on the citizenry from the skies.  One drone manufacturer said that there had been enquiries about the potential for militarisation of these drones: thankfully, his response was reported as follows in The Guardian:

Military_drone"Mark Lawrence, director of Air Robot UK, said: "UAVs will, to an extent, replace helicopters. Our air robots cost £30,000 compared with £10m for a fully equipped modern helicopter. We have even been asked to put weapons on them but I'm not interested in getting involved in that."

However, Wired has reported that "non-lethal" weapons could be installed, to facilitate crowd control.

There is also the other side of the security coin to consider, of course.  If these drones are implemented in the skies of Britain, how soon before some enterprising young "Al Qaeda" cadre cottons on to the idea that this could be an effective way to launch an attack?  So much for all our wonderfully effective airport security measures.

UK_Police_DronePlus, these little airborne pests will prove to be a real hazard for other aircraft, as has already been noted.

Despite all this, no widespread indignation has been voiced by the UK population.  When will the tipping point be reached about this incipient Orwellian nightmare?

But hope may be at hand.  A somewhat frivolous article appeared today, stating that small spy drones will become the new paparazzi: Version 2.0, no doubt.

Perhaps, finally, we shall now see some meaningful opposition to this encroaching Big Brother state. 

Once Bono, Sting, Saint Bob and the assembled celeb corps get on their high horses about their enshrined, fundamental right to privacy, it might finally become fashionable to discuss the very basic principles underpinning our civilisation…..

….you remember, those fuddy-duddy ideas like the right to life, not to be tortured, not to be unlawfully imprisoned or kidnapped, free speech, fair trials, free conscience etc ….. oh, and privacy of course!

Remember, remember the 5th of November….

Annie_on_Conviction_DayNovember 5th has long had many levels of resonance for me: Bonfire Night of course, when I was a child – fireworks in the garden and burnt baked potatoes from the fire; since the age of seven, celebrating the birthday of my oldest friend; and, since 2002, the memory of having to stand up in the witness stand in an Old Bailey court room in London to give a mitigation plea at the trial of my former partner, seeing his sentence reduced from the expected thirteen months to a "mere" six, and then having to deal for weeks with the media fall-out.  A strange mix of memories.

David Shayler endured a "Kafkaesque trial" in 2002 in the sense that he was not allowed to make a defence due to government-imposed gagging orders, despite all the relevant material already having been widely pubished in the media.  The issues were summed up well in this New Statesman article from that time. 

But the current debate about control orders used against so-called terrorist suspects – my emphasis – adds a whole new dimension to the notorious phrase.

This recent, excellent article in The Guardian by lawyer Matthew Ryder about control orders sums it up.  How can you defend a client if you are not even allowed access to the information that has led to the original accusation?

The Liberal Democrats, in the run-up to the General Election earlier this year, pledged to do away with control orders, as they are an affront to the British model of justice.  However, MI5 is putting up a strong defence for their retention, but then they would, wouldn't they? 

Much of the "secret" evidence that leads to a control order appears to come from telephone intercept, but why on earth can this evidence not be revealed in a court of law?  It's not like the notion of telephone bugging is a state secret these days, as I argued in The Guardian way back in 2005.

BirmsixBearing all of the above in mind, do have a read of this interview with Paddy Hill, one of the victims of the notorious wrongful convictions for the IRA Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.  After being arrested, threatened, tortured and traumatised, he was forced to confess to a terrible crime he had not committed. 

As a result, he had to endure sixteen years in prison before his innocence was confirmed.  He is still suffering the consequences, despite having found the strength to set up the "Miscarriages of Justice Organisation" to help other victims.

And then have a think about whether we should blindly trust the word of the security forces and the police when they state that we have to give away yet more of our hard-won freedoms and rights in the name of the ever-shifting, ever-nebulous "war on terror". 

Do we really need to hold terrorist suspects in police cells for 28 days without charge?  Will we really continue to allow the head of MI6 to get away with blithely asserting, unchallenged, that British intelligence does its very best not to "benefit" from information extracted via unthinkable torture, as former UK ambassador Craig Murray so graphically described in his blog on 29th October?

I've said it before, and I shall say it again: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put in place for a reason in 1948.  Let's all draw a breath, and remember, remember…..