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Archive for the ‘Security and counter-terrorism’ Category

Thursday
Dec 4,2008

When I was on the London Assembly between 2000 and 2004, most meetings of the Assembly itself were pretty dull with the only excitement (and that only counted as excitement if you were a pretty sad individual) being some fairly petty inter-Party bickering.  However, maybe things have changed.  Earlier today, I finally caught up with the webcast of yesterday’s meeting of the Assembly (I know I’ve been a bit slow but I have had quite a number of other things on in the last couple of days).  This was the meeting where the Assembly was questioning Mayor Boris Johnson (in his capacity as Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA)) along with Sir Paul Stephenson, Acting Commissioner.

Len Duvall‘s questioning of the Mayor was scrutiny at its best and has been described to me as “forensic” by a number of people who were there.  Len, of course, is Leader of the Labour Group and followed me as Chair of MPA until Boris Johnson took over at the beginning of October.

Len first of all asked the Mayor about the comments attributed to him that the arrest of Damian Green  was unlikely to lead to a charge or a prosecution.  The Mayor then repeated the comments and didn’t seem to see any incongruity in statements like that being made by a Chair of a Police Authority, who has just been briefed in confidence by senior police officers on a continuing police operation.

Len then asked another series of questions about who the Mayor had subsequently talked to about the police operation.  Initially, the Mayor was reluctant to say, muttering something about his wife, but then blurted out that he had telephoned Damian Green himself.  This is frankly an extraordinary admission.

As Len commented subsequently:

“It is astonishing that the Mayor, following a briefing from senior police officers, has been speaking to a suspect under police investigation. He received information as chair of the MPA, then went to his political ally and old friend, who is now under criminal investigation. This is not appropriate behaviour for a chair of the police authority.

“Whether he likes it or not, the public perception will be that he his too involved in this investigation and is looking after his mates. Regardless of the merits of this particular case, should the chair of the police authority be speaking to a suspect in a criminal investigation? Should he then pre-judge the outcome of that investigation? The answer to both those questions is ‘no’. Boris should reflect on how he and his officials have behaved from the start of this affair and re-consider whether, if he is going to use sensitive information for political capital, he is an appropriate person to chair the authority.

“The appropriate time to raise issues around police action is once an investigation, and in this case the review announced today, is completed.”

A police officer who did something similar and spoke without authorisation to a person who had been arrested and released on police bail would be liable to disciplinary action.

An ordinary member of a police authority who did something like this might well be reported to the Standards Board for breaching the Code of Conduct governing members of public bodies and could, in principle, end up by being suspended from office.

So what will happen to the Mayor?  No doubt, he assumes that his charm, coupled with a bumbling mea culpa and an admission that he is new to this sort of public accountability will get him through. But Len gave him a lifeline and asked whether he would go away and reflect on whether his conduct was appropriate as Chair of the Police Authority.  However, the Mayor wasn’t having it – instead, he effectively said he would do the same thing again.

If the Mayor continues as Chair of the Police Authority, some interesting issues are raised.  Will the police ever trust him enough after this to brief him about confidential matters and on operational issues?  They will certainly think twice in the future about talking to the Mayor in his capacity as Chair of the MPA about an ongoing investigation if they run the risk of the Mayor’s next act being to ring a suspect in that investigation for a cosy chat and to publicly announce his views on the likely outcome of that investigation.  

However, if there isn’t a relationship of trust on such matters between the Mayor and senior police officers, London will lose out because everywhere else in the country one of the roles of a police authority chair is to be briefed and, on occasions, to give advice or to warn, whilst respecting the operational independence and decision-making of the police command structure.  The Mayor was quite within his rights to urge caution on the police in the matter of the alleged Home Office leaker and Damian Green, but that should have been a caution urged privately (at least, whilst the investigation is in progress – and, of course, it is still continuing) and not then briefed out to the media and repeated to the London Assembly.

Friday
Nov 28,2008

Damian Green’s arrest yesterday has predictably sparked controversy.  However, let’s get the facts in proportion.

Fact One: Why were the police officers concerned from the Counter-Terrorist Command?  The Metropolitan Police Special Branch was set up in 1883 and amongst its many other duties it had responsibility for investigating security breaches in Government departments, including leaks of confidential material (they also investigate allegations of breaches of electoral law).  Two years ago, the Metropolitan Police merged Special Branch with the Anti-Terrorist Branch to form a new Counter-Terrorist Command and, although the majority of the new Command’s work relates to terrorism, it still retains the wider remit of the former Special Branch.  So if there was an allegation about a leak from a Whitehall Department to be investigated by the police, it would fall to the Counter-Terrorist Command to do the work.

Fact Two: In any investigation, the police have got to follow the evidence. Even if the evidence leads into sensitive areas.  I backed the police in pursuing the so-called “cash for honours” inquiry, as did many in the Conservative Party who are now saying that the police action in this particular case is inappropriate.  In such highly sensitive cases, it would be unthinkable for the police not to consult the Crown Prosecution Service about whether each significiant step was proportionate in the context of the alleged offence and the material already gathered.  I cannot believe that this did not happen in this particular case.

Fact Three: Why were so many police officers involved?  In any operation involving a search and, in particular, examination and possible removal of computer equipment a number of police officers would necessarily have to attend.  The nine described in this particular instance sounds about right.

Fact Four:  Why was an “arrest” necessary?  If a search is to take place and if someone is to be interviewed at a police station, an arrest (which also gives the person arrested specific rights) is normally required.

I hope the controversy and fuss is not an attempt to prevent the police properly concluding their investigations.  Those who attempted to do so in “cash for honours” case were wrong and it would be equally wrong to try and derail the process in this case.  To do so, would be inappropriate political interference in policing.

And just for the record: I was not informed about the arrest until several hours after it happened.

Sunday
Nov 23,2008

The reported death of Rashid Rauf raises some important questions and highlights the dilemmas being faced constantly by those who are trying to protect their country’s citizens from terrorism.  Rashid Rauf has been described by many media reports as the person believed to be the mastermind behind the alleged plot to use liquid bombs to blow up airliners flying from the UK to the United States.  His arrest in Pakistan triggered the raids in August 2006 that led to a significant number of people being arrested in Britain and three people being convicted of conspiracy to murder this September with a further trial pending.  Subsequently, Rauf escaped from custody in Pakistan under strange circumstances while on his way to an extradition hearing.  He has now apparently been killed by an American airstrike in Waziristan part of Pakistan’s FATA  (Federally Administered Tribal Areas).

In an ideal world, he would have been extradited from Pakistan to the UK (he was a British citizen) and his guilt or innocence would have been determined in a court of law.  If the suggestions that he was the mastermind of the 2006 plot are correct, then there would have been every reason to suppose (and no doubt the US would also have been acting on current intelligence reports) that his recent activities might have been directed towards masterminding some further attack.  If that were true, the US would no doubt argue that their airstrike has prevented the deaths of hundreds or maybe thousands.  So the question we all have to ask ourselves is: have the ends justified the means?

There are plenty of other questions, although it is not clear whether knowing the answers is necessarily helpful.  Were the Pakistani authorities complicit in Rauf’s escape from custody and were they complicit in the air strike that appears to have killed him?  Or were different elements within the Pakistani state complicit in the escape and the air strike?  The Pakistani government, both under Zardari and under Musharraf, treads a complicated path in trying both to be supportive of Western attempts to clamp down on terrorism and at the same time not to alienate elements of popular opinion in Pakistan that are sympathetic to Taleban or al-Qaeda rhetoric.

American airstrikes (often using remotely-controlled unmanned drone missiles) into the FATA are inevitably wounding to national pride in Pakistan.  The Government both protests against these strikes but is at the same time accused of having secretly agreed to them.  The more such strikes there are the more vulnerable will the Government become and, if the Government were to fall, it is not clear what the stance of any successor might be. 

The airstrikes are also no doubt feeding the “single narrative” used to persuade people down the path towards violent radical extremism and the flow increases every time an airstrike goes wrong and kills “innocent” people.

On the other hand, there is also no question that the removal of key people in the al-Qaeda hierarchy does reduce that organisation’s effectiveness and ability to plan and coordinate terrorist activity around the world.

The other certainty is that the frequency of the airstrikes will continue to increase over the next few weeks as the Bush administration desperately tries to be able to declare “mission accomplished” and announce the death of Osama Bin Laden before it leaves office.

Friday
Nov 14,2008

Let nobody say that House of Lords Select Committee reports are without influence!  It seems that one of the recommendations of the House of Lords Committee inquiry into “Personal Internet Security” has been taken on board by Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari.  The Committee, of which I was a member, recommended stiffer penalties for those convicted of cyber-crimes.  However, Zardari’s response has probably gone just a bit further than we had in mind.  He has now issued a decree backdated to the end of September that sets the maximum penalties for internet crime as death or life imprisonment.

Those people who felt I had gone too far when I called for a Sarblanes-Oxley type approach to company directors who fail to take information security seriously enough might care to note what the Zardari solution might be!

Thursday
Nov 13,2008

I keep hearing that one of the first acts of President Obama when he takes office in January will be to announce the closure of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.  Symbolically this will have a significant impact on the world image of the United States.  Guantanamo Bay has become synonymous with human righs abuses and the role of the camp itself is, of course, extremely dubious in terms of international law.  It will remove one thread of the single narrative used to lure individuals down the path to violent extremism (not in itself enough to stop violent extremism, but helpful nonetheless).

The question now being posed is what will happen to the detainees.  Only a tiny number have ever been fed into a proper judicial process for trial.  Some of them if returned to their former countries of origin are likely to face torture or the death penalty.  Moreover, as one sage counter-terrorist expert pointed out to me the other evening, if a detainee wasn’t a terrorist or a violent extremist when he was sent to Guantanamo Bay, the experience there may well have turned him into one.  No easy challenge for the incoming Obama administration.

Another early decision of the Obama administration will also probably be to merge the Homeland Security Council with the National Security Council.  This too looks like a wise decision – having a dual leadership function for something like security, as has existed in the US since 2002, is a recipe for duplication, unclear accountability, and muddle.

Thursday
Nov 6,2008

The Government has tabled some new amendments to the Counter Terrorism Bill to be discussed next Tuesday.  This is at about as late a stage as it is possible to do so: the Bill is nearly at the end of its Report Stage with Third Reading scheduled for 17th November.  This in itself is considered bad practice and the Opposition Parties can be expected to kick up a fuss.

The amendments themselves are complicated and (in so far as I understand them) will enable the Treasury to give directions requiring UK businesses to exercise greater degrees of due diligence and in certain circumstances to limit or cease doing business with certain companies or organisations based in particular countries.

The Home Office is not at fault on this – the amendments emanate from the Treasury.  Inevitably, they will be difficult to handle (given that they are so late, so complicated, appear to widen the scope of the Bill, and are potentially controversial).  The lucky minister who will have to introduce them in the Lords is Paul Myners.  Paul Myners is one of the newest Ministers.  He was appointed as Financial Services Secretary to the Treasury and Minister for the City in last month’s reshuffle (having previously been Chair of the Guardian Media Group) and only took his seat in the Lords a week or two ago. 

Quite properly Paul Myners arranged a briefing session for all Peers this afternoon and arrived with a team of four or five Treaury civil servants to explain detailed points.  This would all have been fine and dandy, but when I posed the question whether these provisions were intended for circumstances that might not relate to combatting terrorism the civil servants appeared to offer conflicting views.  Eventually after four of the five had spoken, they agreed on a line (yes, the provisions could relate to money laundering by organised crime or to nation states raising money to finance weapons of mass destruction).  Not exactly an impressive performance from Treasury officials.

In my view the provisions are sensible, but in an ideal world should not have been included in a Bill all about terrorism and indeed the “long title” of the Bill will have to be amended to permit the amendments.

So why is it being included in this Bill?  It turns out that there is a need to comply with international requirements on this point by February 2009 and this is the only way that the provisions can be enacted in primary legislation in time.  That might be fair enough, but the need for these changes has been apparent for some time and it turns out that the Conservatives called for them four months ago. 

This is hardly going to make it easy for Paul Myners.  The only good news for him is that the Conservatives are unlikely  to vote against the amendments as they have been calling for them.  Yet, I can hear the we-told-you-so cries already and the question still has to be answered as to why the amendments weren’t put forward earlier.  Hardly the best way to support a new Minister.

Wednesday
Nov 5,2008

Last night saw that rare event a tied vote in the House of Lords.  The occasion was an amendment moved to the Counter-Terrorism Bill on the minutiae of the authorisations required by the police before they can question someone after they have been charged.  The vote was 130 in favour to 130 against and the amendment therefore fell (in accordance with Lords’ Standing Orders or for that matter Citrine’s “ABC of Chairmanship”).  After this period of high drama, the opposition parties clearly decided to take away their ball (there clearly were not quite enough of them about to defeat the Government) and said that it would not be possible to carry on and debate the final three amendments on the Bill as they had not had time to be briefed properly, so discussion had to stop at 7.30pm even though it had been scheduled to continue till 10,00pm.  It later transpired that the real reason is that they want to vote on one of the three amendments left over and would rather do so “in prime time” next Tuesday ….

There were probably rather too many Labour colleagues around last night for the Opposition’s taste – certainly too many to risk a vote at 8.00 or 9.00pm.  However, this was not just because there was a three-line whip, there were also the added attractions of drinks, peanuts and pretzels in the office of the Leader of the House of Lords with the television tuned to CNN for the American election results.  We were all set for the long haul – apparently the Opposition weren’t!

Sunday
Oct 19,2008

The Sunday newspaper pundits have been working themselves up into an indignant froth about the Government starting to consult about its Interception Modernisation Programme.  Henry Porter in The Observer, for example, regaled his readers with his fantasies about Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, as a “comic-strip super-villain dominatrix” and describing the proposal as “a very great threat to individual privacy”  It may be that Henry Porter needs a cold bath, but he certainly needs to focus on some facts.

At present, telephone companies keep data on their subscribers who make telephone calls, who they connect to and for how long.  They do this, so that they can bill people.  For many years, it has been possible for the police to access this data as part of their investigations into crime.  To do so, they have to get proper authorisation, certifying that accessing the data is proportionate to the crime being investigated and each case has to be considered individually.  The data can be used as evidence in Court and does not involve tapping the call and listening to the content.  Many trials rely on this evidence for criminals to be convicted – there is a murder trial under way at the moment where the crucial evidence is which mobile phones contacted each other just prior to and immediately after the murder took place.

But – and this seems to have passed the pundits by – technology is changing.  Telecoms companies (both fixed line and mobile operators) are building new networks based on VoIP technology.  This is cheaper and more flexible and – critically – does not require detailed call-by-call billing.  The data on which so many trials now rely will soon cease to exist.  The Government is therefore quite rightly going to consult on what can be done to capture this information and allow it to be used in criminal investigations where necessary.

It is not about giving the police more powers to pry into people’s personal lives.  It is about not losing vital material that is currently used to catch criminals.

And, of course, new forms of communication are being created all the time (eg. on social networking sites and chat facilities built into on-line gaming).  Should the police have powers to find out who is communicating with who in these new ways?  That’s what the consultation is about.  It is not some monstrous new assault on civil liberties.  It is allowing a sensible debate about how existing powers should be modified to reflect the changes in technology.

Monday
Oct 13,2008

No-one really expected the Government’s proposals for reserve powers to detain terrorists suspects for up to 42 days to pass through the House of Lords.  Even with all the safeguards – judicial oversight of each individual case, the proposals only triggered after a tortuous process to confirm the circumstances ware really extreme, and even then the longer detention period automatically lapsing after two months – heavy opposition was inevitable.

The majority against was larger than expected – I had guessed 170 (and been told I was pessimistic) – but in the end the Government lost the vote by 191 votes.  Having been part of the Light Brigade arguing in support of the proposals (Radio 4’s Today programme, Radio 5 and the debate itself), I was however taken aback by the speed with which the climbdown was announced – less than two hours after the vote.  It did feel like  the Grand Old Duke of York was settling the Parliamentary tactics …..

Thursday
Oct 9,2008

Today’s first day of the Committee Stage of the Counter-Terrorism Bill has already produced a spate of woolly thinking from both the Conservatives and the LibDems. 

Less than twenty lines into the Bill, Baroness Hanham, the Tory spokeswoman, proposed that the decision on whether to remove a document for further examination from the premises of a suspected terrorist during a search would have to be taken by a police officer of at least the rank of Inspector.  The idea presumably was that in the height of a counter-terrorist operation with possibly many properties being searched police officers would have to be queuing up to wait an Inspector’s decision on what could be taken away.  Anyway, the Tories saw this as putting themselves at the vanguard of the civil liberties movement.  The effect was rather weakened by another amendment they moved slightly later that would have removed the requirement to return documents removed that turn out not to be relevant within 48 hours.  I rather think that anyone whose house is raided and searched would rather have a legal guarantee that any papers removed will be returned within 48 hours than the knowledge that someone with two pips on their shoulder had authorised the removal.

Shortly afterwards, Baroness Miller for the LibDems offered their version of insightful thinking: an amendment to provide every suspected terrorist with a document setting out how any papers seized might fit into the investigation against them.  Hardly practical policing!

Still today was just the warm-up – Monday will bring the debate on 42 days and all that.