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.….