BBC article: could 7/7 have been prevented?

Peter Taylor, a respec­ted journ­al­ist at the BBC, argues that if there had been more coöper­a­tion between MI5 and region­al police Spe­cial Branches, then the 7/7 bomb­ings in Lon­don in 2005 could have been pre­ven­ted.  His thes­is appears to be that MI5 did not work closely enough with the police (the exec­ut­ive branch) of the UK’s intel­li­gence com­munity: the aptly-named Oper­a­tion Crevice has exposed the cracks in the uni­fied pub­lic façade of the UK intel­li­gence com­munity.

How­ever, Taylor assures us that this prob­lem is in the past, with MI5 officers and Spe­cial Branch police now hap­pily work­ing side by side in region­al offices across the UK.  So that’s OK then.

It con­tin­ues to sur­prise me that seasoned Brit­ish journ­al­ists repeatedly fall into the post-9/11 group-think of the USA — that ter­ror­ism is a new phe­nomen­on.  Rather start­lingly, Taylor’s art­icle even asserts that the FBI had the Crevice inform­a­tion in real-time, while the West Yorks SB was left in the dark.

Those in the UK with a memory longer than a mayfly’s will be aware that this coun­try endured 30 years of Irish Repub­lic­an ter­ror­ism, and dur­ing the 1990s MI5 had lead respons­ib­il­ity for invest­ig­at­ing this threat.  So from 1993 the spooks did indeed work side-by-side with their region­al SB counter-parts across the coun­try.  Dur­ing this peri­od the emphas­is was on gath­er­ing both intel­li­gence to pre-empt­ively thwart ter­ror­ist plots and also evid­ence to use in the ensu­ing court cases.  And there were some not­able suc­cesses.

So what changed in the fol­low­ing dec­ade?  Did the spooks retreat back behind the bar­ri­cades of their Lon­don HQ, Thames House, as the ink dried on the Good Fri­day Agree­ment?  Were the hard-won les­sons of the 1990s so quickly for­got­ten?

Well, cer­tainly oth­er les­sons from the civil war in Nort­ern Ire­land appear to have been expunged from the col­lect­ive intel­li­gence memory.  For example, the use of tor­ture, mil­it­ary tribunals, intern­ment and curfews were all used extens­ively in the early years of the NI con­flict and all were spec­tac­u­larly counter-pro­duct­ive, act­ing as a recruit­ing ground for new gen­er­a­tions of ter­ror­ists.  Yet these prac­tices now once again appear to be impli­citly con­doned by MI5 and MI6 in the USA’s bru­tal “war on ter­ror”.

So one would hope that this new BBC pro­gramme calls for a reapprais­al of our intel­li­gence infra­struc­ture.  Why should we mind­lessly con­tin­ue to accept the status quo, when this res­ults in les­sons being for­got­ten and mis­takes being repeated?  How about the BBC call­ing for a root and branch review of the threats the UK real­ist­ic­ally faces, and the most efeect­ive way to guard against them, while work­ing with­in the demo­crat­ic pro­cess?

 

 

Fig Leaf to the Spies

The lack of any mean­ing­ful over­sight of the UK’s intel­li­gence com­munity was high­lighted again last week, when The Daily Mail repor­ted that a cru­cial fax was lost in the run-up to the 7/7 bomb­ings in Lon­don in 2005.

There has yet to be an offi­cial enquiry into the worst ter­ror­ist atro­city on the UK main­land, des­pite the call for one from trau­mat­ised fam­il­ies and sur­viv­ors and the legit­im­ate con­cerns of the Brit­ish pub­lic. To date, we have had to make do with an “offi­cial nar­rat­ive” writ­ten by a face­less bur­eau­crat and pub­lished in May 2006. As soon as it was pub­lished, the then Home Sec­ret­ary, John Reid, had to cor­rect egre­gious fac­tu­al errors when present­ing it to Par­lia­ment.

The Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) also did a shoddy first job, when it cleared the secur­ity forces of all wrong-doing in its ini­tial report pub­lished at the same time. It claimed a lack of resources had hampered MI5’s counter-ter­ror­ism efforts.

How­ever, fol­low­ing a use­ful leak, it emerged that MI5 had not only been aware of at least two of the alleged bombers before the attack, it had been con­cerned enough to send a fax up to West York­shire Police Spe­cial Branch ask­ing them to invest­ig­ate Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shehz­ad Tan­weer. This fax was nev­er acted upon.

So the ISC has been forced to pro­duce anoth­er report, this time appar­ently admit­ting that, yes, there had been intel­li­gence fail­ures, most not­ably the lost fax. West York­shire SB should have acted on it. But the intel­li­gence officer in MI5 respons­ible for this invest­ig­a­tion should have chased it up when no response was forth­com­ing.

This second ISC report, which has been sit­ting on the Prime Minister’s desk for weeks already, is said to be “dev­ast­at­ing”. How­ever, I’m will­ing to bet that if/when it sees the light of day, it will be any­thing but.

The ISC is at best an over­sight fig leaf. It was formed in 1994, when MI6 and GCHQ were put on a stat­utory foot­ing for the first time with the Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act. At the time the press wel­comed this as a great step for­ward towards demo­crat­ic account­ab­il­ity for the intel­li­gence com­munity. Well, it could not have been worse than the pre­vi­ous set-up, when MI5, MI6 and GCHQ did not offi­cially exist. They were not required to obey the laws of the land, and no MP was allowed to ask a ques­tion in Par­lia­ment about their activ­it­ies. As 1980s whis­tleblower Peter Wright so suc­cinctly put it, the spies could bug and burgle their way around with impun­ity.

So the estab­lish­ment of the ISC was a (very) lim­ited step in the right dir­ec­tion. How­ever, it is not a Par­lia­ment­ary Com­mit­tee. Its mem­bers are selec­ted by the Prime Min­is­ter, and it is answer­able only to the PM, who can vet its find­ings. The remit of the ISC only cov­ers mat­ters of spy policy, admin­is­tra­tion and fin­ance. It is not empowered to invest­ig­ate alleg­a­tions of oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence nor crimes com­mit­ted by the spies. And its annu­al report has become a joke with­in the media, as there are usu­ally more redac­tions than coher­ent sen­tences.

The ISC’s first big test came in the 1990s fol­low­ing the Shayler and Tom­lin­son dis­clos­ures. These involved detailed alleg­a­tions of illeg­al invest­ig­a­tions, bungled oper­a­tions and assas­sin­a­tion attempts against for­eign heads of state. It is dif­fi­cult to con­ceive of more hein­ous crimes com­mit­ted by our shad­owy spies.

But how did the ISC react? If one reads the reports from the rel­ev­ant years, the only aspect that exer­cised the ISC was Shayler’s inform­a­tion that MI5 had on many MPs and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters. The ISC was reas­sured by MI5 that would no longer be able to use these files. That’s it.

For­get about files being illeg­ally held on hun­dreds of thou­sands of inno­cent UK cit­izens; for­get about the illeg­al phone taps, the pre­vent­able deaths on UK streets from IRA bombs, inno­cent people being thrown in pris­on, and the assas­sin­a­tion attempt against Col­on­el Gad­dafi of Libya. The fear­less and etern­ally vigil­ant ISC MPs were primar­ily con­cerned about receiv­ing reas­sur­ance that their files would no longer be vet­ted by MI5 officers on the basis of mem­ber­ship to “sub­vers­ive” organ­isa­tions. What were they afraid of – that shame­ful evid­ence of early left-wing activ­ity from their fiery youth might emerge? Heav­en for­bid under New Labour.

Barely a day goes by when news­pa­per head­lines do not remind us of ter­rible threats to our nation­al secur­ity. Only in the last week, the UK media has repor­ted that the threat of espi­on­age from Rus­sia and China is at its highest since the days of the Cold War; that resur­gent Repub­lic­an ter­ror groups in North­ern Ire­land pose a graver danger to us even than Al Qaeda; that rad­ic­al­ised Brit­ish Muslim youth are return­ing from fight­ing with the Taliban to wage war on the streets of the UK. We have to take all this on trust, des­pite the intel­li­gence community’s appalling track record of bend­ing the truth to gain more powers and resources. This is why mean­ing­ful over­sight is so vitally import­ant for the health of our demo­cracy. The ISC is a long way from provid­ing that.