An interesting article appeared in The Sunday Times today, stating that Britain’s top policeman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Ian Blair, had “unwittingly” misled the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee about the need to increase the period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects in the UK from 28 to 42 days. Blair claimed that 12 major terrorist operations had been foiled in Britain since 2005. In fact, the article reports that only 6 plots have been stopped. Blair has had to issue a grovelling apology via the Press Association for this, umm, gaffe.
But the article neglects to tell us how and why this new information came to light. So allow me to speculate.
The Met, along with its shadowy cohorts in MI5, is entrusted with protecting Britain from terrorist threats. Since 9/11 and the all-pervasive war on terror, Britain’s security forces have been granted sweeping new powers, resources and a huge increase in staffing levels to do this job. To ensure this is justified, they are continually telling us of the huge threat we face from terrorism and how successful they are in protecting us. It is in their interests to talk this up.
Meanwhile, over on the south bank of the river, MI6 continues to suffer from the loss of prestige brought about by its mistakes and lack of good intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. There is no love lost between these three agencies, as they compete for power and resources. So, to use a good civil service phrase, I cannot rule out the possibility that someone in MI6 leaked this information to have a pop at the Met and MI5.
However, there is a more serious aspect to this incident. But for this information emerging, MPs and public alike would have had no way of knowing that the perceived threat from terrorism had been grossly inflated in order for the police to gain yet more powers. We would have had to take Sir Ian’s word.
Well, we’ve been here before many, many times, most notoriously when the intelligence agencies would have us believe that Saddam had WMD that could attack British interests with 45 minutes. This, of course, led to the Iraq war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
So how can we ensure we are told the truth by the spies? Well, greater accountability and effective parliamentary oversight would be a step in the right direction. But we don’t just need the correct mechanisms in place in parliament. We also need MPs with the knowledge, intelligence and integrity to ask the difficult questions when faced with bogus assertions.