The US Government takes the need to protect the US infrastructure against cyber-attacks – do we do likewise?

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal last week (sorry, I’ve only just seen it), the US electricity grid and other key parts of the critical national infrastructure have been the subject of cyber-attacks and there are real concerns about those behind the attacks being able to disrupt or even take control of the systems that have been penetrated as a result of the trojans left behind.  Apparently, many of the attacks were not detected by the infrastructure provider’s own security systems.  So seriously is the threat viewed and so widespread is it, that Congress approved funding for a $17 billion programme to combat it and minimise the risk to the critical national infrastructure.  And in the last couple of weeks, Democratic Senators have introduced a proposal that would require all critical infrastructure companies to meet new cyber-security standards and grant the President emergency powers over the electricity grid and other infrastructure systems.

So if the threat is viewed so seriously in the United States, do we have the same concerns in this country?  The answer is we certainly ought to be as worried.  My understanding is that UK systems have been similarly attacked, but I have real doubts whether our detection systems are as good or as thorough as those deployed in the USA.  Moreover, we do not have sufficient controls over infrastructure providers to require the highest possible standards from them.  We believe in “light-touch regulation” so in many instances all the UK authorities can do is try to use moral persuasion to get infrastructure companies to instal the best systems of security.  What regulatory systems there are are geared to ensuring competition and to the economic regulation of the market, rather than to protecting national security.  So we ought not to be worried, we ought to be very worried.

Ilford North Labour Party discusses counter-terrorism

I have not long been back from speaking at a meeting of Ilford North Labour Party.  They had invited me to talk to them about the dilemmas faced in counter-terrorism policing.  A lively and invigorating discussion followed, covering such issues as the role of faith schools, the problems that may arise in local authorities grant-funding certain groups, the difficulties involved in balancing public safety against the desire to secure convictions for terrorist offences, the responsibility (or lack of it) of the media, and what can be done to prevent individuals being lured down the path to violent extremism.  The debate was mature and thoughtful and – in microcosm – demonstrated why the Government was right to publish such a full exposition of its counter-terrorist strategy in the recent White Paper.  It made the long journey on the Central Line worthwhile.

Nick Cohen makes the arguments for early police intervention in alleged terrorist plots

Nick Cohen in the Evening Standard has made some interesting points about why the police may sometimes have to undertake “muddy and unsatisfying” operations in an effort to combat terrorism. 

The nature of the terrorist threat has altered compared with, say, the IRA attacks in the 1980s.  Modern international terrorism has as its objective mass casualties, there is no “political” objective that may be set back by abhorrence of the deeds committed in its name, and those perpetrating terrorist acts expect or may even wish to die as a result of what they are doing.  This means that the police must intervene earlier to disrupt possible terrorist plots.  If they wait to get more evidence, the consequences of delaying too long and an atrocity being committed are far worse.  To disrupt a terrorist cell by means of deporting individuals who are in this country illegally or by charging individuals with offences other than terrorism where the evidence may be clearer, may well have had the effect of preventing an appalling attack but this is not likely to be apparent to those outside the operation.

The McBride smears were not only wrong but would have been deeply counter-productive

I have been out of the country for a few days (France, since you ask) and following the McBride “smear-gate” story from internet news reports and bloggers’ comments.  With the benefit of that small degree of distance, there seem to be some very simple conclusions to draw.

First, the whole idea was deeply and irredeemably wrong.  It is not acceptable to spread defamatory lies about people – whether you dislike their politics or not.  The Prime Minister and the Labour Party should make it quite clear that the pursuit of such tactics by anyone purporting to act on their behalf or ostensibly in their interests will always be unacceptable and the individuals concerned will be treated as having brought the Party into disrepute.  I trust other Parties (no names, no pack drill) will do the same.

Second, the concept would almost certainly have been utterly counter-productive.  I am not convinced that the electorate think it matters what individuals might have done in their student days nearly twenty years ago and they are unlikely to think it relevant to their current suitability for public office.  Nor are the past (or even current) sexual peccadilloes of public figures that relevant to their ability to be Government ministers.  That doesn’t mean that people won’t take a prurient interest, but I am not convinced it makes much (if any) electoral difference.  (Indeed, I remember talking to one politician who had recently had some particularly lurid stories printed about his sexual habits.  He admitted that he had been worried about how his constituents might react.  In fact, he said that, although he had had to endure some ribald comments, most of the reaction seemed tinged with – if anything – admiration.)

Third, it would appear that the execution of the proposed smear plot was incredibly inept – using an official and traceable email address, for example.

Finally, the net result of what has happened will further demean and degrade the reputation of politicians and – in turn – the democratic process.  If you believe, like I do, that democracy and politics matters, then this may turn out to be the most worrying consequence of the whole sorry business.

Has Mayor Boris Johnson discovered that working together is harder than it looks?

A report in Local Government Chronicle suggests that the much-vaunted “Charter” due to be signed between London Mayor Boris Johnson and London Councils representing the 32 Boroughs (and the Corporation of London) is running into difficulties. 

I remember when I chaired the Association of London Government (as London Councils was then called) in the five years preceding the creation of the London Mayoralty.  It was always clear that the arrival of the Greater London Authority would present challenges for the London Boroughs.  It was almost inevitable that any directly-elected Mayor would start to encroach on the Borough’s statutory and non-statutory responsibilities.  I remember speaking about this on a number of occasions – my theme was that any incoming Mayor would need to keep his or her tanks off the London Boroughs’ lawns.

During the period of Mayor Ken Livingstone, there were indeed tensions over such matters as – for example – his desire for street cleaning in London to be improved and his ambitions for education.

When Mayor Boris Johnson was elected he proclaimed that he was much more ready to work with the London Boroughs (many of which were by then Conservative controlled).  A new concordat or charter was promised, but now – nearly a year on – it looks as though the initiative may dissolve without any real substance into a bath of warm words.

If this happens, it will be unfortunate and I would urge both those in the Mayor’s team and those in London Councils who are trying to finalise the document to redouble their efforts to reach some form of meaningful statement. 

Although the London Mayor is always going to be more visible than London Borough councillors and, of course, is directly accountable to Londoners, he/she cannot run local services and it is the local councils that are accountable for them.  The Mayor of London cannot dictate to the Boroughs, even though he/she has a direct mandate from Londoners and may have a clear vision for the future of London (I am still waiting to be clear about the current Mayor’s vision, although I sense he his groping towards one). 

Working together is harder.  However, it is essential if progress to be made. 

The skill of any London Mayor will be whether or not he/she having articulated a view of how London is to develop can carry not only Londoners, but their elected representatives in the Boroughs (and indeed all the other elements of civil society), along with their vision and inspire them to work with him/her on delivering it.

Bob Quick has done the honourable thing but it is a sad day for the Metropolitan Police

Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick has early this morning tendered his resignation, following yesterday’s incident in which his papers were photographed as he went into Downing Street.  This was an honourable decision on his part, taken promptly and after mature decision overnight.  He was not forced into it by anyone.  Nonetheless, it is a sad day – not only for him, following a very distinguished police career – but also for the Metropolitan Police, who have lost an excellent Assistant Commissioner who has provided high-class leadership of the Specialist Operations Command internally but also nationally of counter-terrorist policing.

Let’s get the Bob Quick security breach in proportion

The media glee about the about the so-called “blunder” by Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, the most senior police counter terrorism officer in the country, has got a little out of proportion. 

What appears to have happened is that as Bob Quick got out of his car in Downing Street for a meeting with the Prime Minister earlier today a press photographer with a powerful camera lense got a shot of a document allegedly showing visible details of the forthcoming counter terrorist raid.  This was embarrassing and shouldn’t have happened.  However, the material was hardly being put on display to all and sundry as Jeremy Paxman  thundered on “Newsnight” tonight.  Downing Street as we know is not a public thoroughfare.

Yes, the arrest operation was brought forward as a result and that undoubtedly will have caused some operational inconvenience.  However, my understanding is that the arrests would otherwise have happened in the middle of the night – tonight.  At most, they were brought forward a few hours.  The by-product is that the news media who are complaining so loudly about the “blunder” will have had much better footage of the arrests themselves and tomorrow’s newspapers will be able to cover the operation more fully.

I am told that all the individuals that the police wished to arrest as part of this operation were detained and all the premises that they wanted to secure were secured.

So let’s get this in proportion and remember no innocent bystander died as a result of this.  A major counter-terrorism operation took place a few hours earlier than otherwise would have been the case.  And as Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said – admittedly through gritted teeth (Bob Quick is not the Conservative Party’s favourite policeman) – the police and the security service are to be congratulated on the diligence of their work in averting terrorist attacks.

The death of Ian Tomlinson – urgent answers needed

The tragic death of Ian Tomlinson in the City of London on 1st April may not have been avoidable .  H might have had a heart attack at any time.  That, of course, does not alter the tragedy for his family and friends.

However, the apparent actions by individual officers in the run up to Mr Tomlinson’s death, the way in which the questions have arisen about any police involvement and the handling of those questions are now threatening to pose as serious a crisis for the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police as the death of Jean-Charles de Menezes did for the Met in 2005.

The initial police statements suggested that police officers helped Mr Tomlinson when he collapsed and that they while they were doing so missiles were thrown at them.  This may well have been the case – certainly, I was told that CCTV footage supported this version of events.

Subsequently, it emerged that a short time before Mr Tomlinson collapsed he appears to have been knocked to the ground by a police officer and The Guardian published video footage of this incident.

There have been many sensible comments about this already from a variety of sources, including Mayor Boris Johnson (who called the video footage disturbing), Vice Chairman of the MPA Kit Malthouse (who is meeting the Independent Police Complaints Commission to urge a speedy and thorough investigation), the GLA Labour Group (calling for full disclosure) and Iain Dale (who has warned that the truth cannot be swept under the carpet).

Apparently, the IPCC has now decided to take over full responsibility for the investigation (previously  they were “supervising” an investigation by the City of London Police).  This is entirely proper and should have been announced as soon as doubts about the initial police version of events emerged.

As far as I know it is not yet clear who the officer is that is shown in the Guardian video apparently knocking Mr Tomlinson to the ground – indeed it is yet to be establihed whether the officer is from the Metropolitan Police or from the City of London Police.

However, the officers shown in the video must know that they were there and – I trust – will be cooperating fully with the investigation.  Given that the scene was not that busy and that they will have known that someone died near where they were, I assume that they will already have been debriefed by their supervisors.  If that did not happen, then that in itself must be a cause for concern.  If it did happen, why was such a complacent initial statement put out by the Police?

The IPCC need to act speedily and effectively to establish the sequence of events and to get statements from all concerned.  How the Police respond to this will be a test for the new Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, and his counter-part in the City of London Police.

Ex-Commissioner Sir Ian Blair seems to have missed the point about the Macpherson inquiry

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, today gave evidence to the MPA’s Race and Faith Inquiry.  He seems not to have lost his knack of saying things in a way which are open to – at best – misinterpretation.  Today, talking about the appallingly mishandled investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he said:

“I don’t necessarily believe that there was anything racist about the activities of the Metropolitan Police in relation to the Lawrences”.

He thereby appeared to be contesting the finding of the Macpherson Inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence case that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist” and entering into the debate that Trevor Phillips, the Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has also blundered into ….

But what he then said was that the Metropolitan Police had been “treating people in a very monochrome way … What the investigators did was  they treated the Lawrences as they treated a whole range of working class people and they just did not understand the expectations and experiences of the black community”. 

And that, of course, was essentially the definition of institutional racism used by Macpherson.

What he probably meant was that the individual officers didn’t realise they were acting in a racist way, but somehow it didn’t come out like that.