Je suis Charlie.

My deepest sympathies to the friends, families and colleagues of the Charlie Hebdo journalists who were murdered by religious fanatics.

Freedom of speech includes the right to peacefully express views others may find offensive. Mere causation of offence should not be a crime, let alone used as an excuse for murder, riots, violence or intimidation.

If we let the risk of causing offence silence us, we allow those who would react violently to anything they dislike to dictate what we say, and freedom of speech thus dies.

It seems to me that the murdered journalists at Charlie Hebdo bravely understood this and sadly paid with their lives. Let us hope the perpetrators are caught.

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The Stockwell tube shooting (contd)

The maintainers of the Spy.org.uk blog commented on my earlier article about this:

The Times reports that the innocent Brasilian Jean Charles de Menezes waited for, and caught a Number 2 Bus from near his home too Stockwell Tube Station, and was “under surveillance” for more than 20 minutes.

Do the Operation Kratos “rules of engagement” value the lives of Bus passengers less than those of Tibe passengers ?

Why was this alleged suicide bomber allowed to board a Bus ? If he was not considered to be a “threat to life” on the Bus, then why was he considered to be one before he got to a Tube train ?

These are indeed important questions. If the police considered Mr Menezes to be a suicide bomber in the process of carrying out an attack then surely they should have stopped him before he got on the bus, or even as soon as he left his house? It is possible of course that it wasn’t until after he got off the bus that the police thought he might be a suicide bomber, but this is a vital question and demands an answer.

There is also the question of whether the police did enough to identify themselves as police when they challenged Mr Menezes. The eyewitness accounts suggest they did not shout “police” or “armed police”. This might be a factor in explaining why Mr Menezes ran.

There plenty of questions that need answered here. I hope the inquiry will answer them and that if the police are found to be at fault then those responsible face the music and that procedures are altered if necessary.

Nevertheless, I think that shooting to kill someone who is in the process of carrying out a suicide bombing attack is the right policy (if there is no safe alternative). And where possible we should try and stop these people before they set out to blow themselves up in crowded areas.

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The Stockwell tube shooting

After shooting a man dead on Friday, the police have announced that he was not in fact connected to the inquiry over the London bombings:

A Scotland Yard spokesman said last night that there would be an inquiry. “We are satisfied the victim of the Stockwell Tube shooting is not linked to our terrorist inquiry. For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one the Metropolitan police regrets.

“The man emerged from a block of flats in the Stockwell area that were under police surveillance as part of the investigation into the incidents on Thursday, July 21. He was followed by surveillance officers to the Underground station. His clothing and behaviour added to their suspicions. The circumstances that led to the man’s death are being investigated.”

Clearly things went badly wrong here for the police to shoot dead someone who was not carrying out a suicide attack, and one hopes that the investigation will clear up what exactly happened. It is too early to judge what happened here.

However, it seems to me that if the police had good reason to suspect that Mr Menezes was on his way to carrying out a suicide bombing, then they did not have much choice, when confronted with his refusal to obey police instructions to stop and his subsequent fleeing into a tube station including jumping a turnstile and running onto a tube train, but to do what they can to stop him. Had this really been a suicide bomber carrying out an attack, then it seems to me that shooting him dead was the right thing to do, to prevent many more lives being lost.

The sad fact is that since the emergence of suicide bombing in this country, the police face a very difficult situation when faced with someone they believe may be about to carry out such an attack. Failure to act could lead to dozens of people dying. Acting may require shooting the suspect dead. It follows that mistakes will be made.

Of course we should establish what happened to see if anything could have been done to prevent this tragedy, and if it becomes clear that the police had been incompetent then those responsible for the incompetence should face the music. But it is possible that, based on the information they had at the time of the incident, they had no choice but to do what they did. Such is the nature of the situation we face with the arrivial of suicide bombing in Britain.

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"False positives" in the fight against terrorism

Security consultant Bruce Schneier writes regarding the trade offs one has to make in security when dealing with terrorists:

Security systems fail in two different ways. The first is the obvious one: they fail to detect, stop, catch, or whatever, the bad guys. The second is more common, and often more important: they wrongly detect, stop, catch, or whatever, an innocent person. This story is from the New Zealand Herald:

A New Zealand resident who sent $5000 to his ill uncle in India had the money frozen for nearly a month because his name matched that of several men on a terrorist watch list.

Because there are far more innocent people than guilty ones, this second type of error is far more common than the first type. Security is always a trade-off, and when you’re trading off positives and negatives, you have to look at these sorts of things.

It is for reasons such as this that one should be very wary of weakening rules such as the presumption of innocence, the right to silence and the prohibition of double jeopardy in order to make it easier to jail those suspected of crime or terrorism. These rules were put in place for very sound reasons. Get any changes to them wrong and the impact is likely to be felt mostly by the innocent. A safer strategy is to bolster the investigative powers and the resources available to the police and security agencies dealing with these problems.

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Blunkett, ID cards and the Madrid bombings

Big Blunkett reports, citing the Sunday Times, that the Home Secretary wants to fast-track ID cards in the wake of the Madrid bombings.
Spy.org.uk‘s blog also reports on this and on a Sunday Times poll carried out by Experian showing a rise in support for ID cards since the bombings.

It is worth noting however that Spain has a system of ID cards that did nothing to prevent the Madrid bombings. Possessing a legitimate ID card does not mean you’re not a terrorist. Moreover terrorists are able to forge or fraudulently obtain such things if they need them. And no one has ever explained to me precisely how ID cards could be used to stop terrorists. Not Blunkett, not the Home Office, nor have I seen any article from others who support ID cards which spell out how they’re supposed to help.

Finally, as Spy.org.uk notes, Experian have a vested interest in promoting ID cards — they could make money out of them.

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On dealing with terrorism

March 11’s horrific events in Madrid have underlined the seriousness of the threat posed by terrorism in the modern world. Clearly the perpetrators of such acts have no regard for human life and do not care about the suffering they cause. Naturally, we wish to see something done to stop this sort fo thing from ever happening again.

Since Sept 11th 2001, governments across the world have been under considerable pressure to “do something” about terrorism, and to be seen to be doing it. Each new atrocity, whether in Bali, Turkey, or, as now, in Spain, puts further pressure on governments and lends credence to the often repeated assertion that the terrorists can strike anywhere they choose, that no country is safe from such attacks. Indeed, it has been my opinion for some time now that it will only be a matter of time before a terrorist group tries a similar attack on Britain. A rare point of agreement between myself, Tony Blair and a certain Mr Blunkett!

Many governments have responded to the terrorist threat by enacting draconian laws that attack civil liberties. Already, in the aftermath of 11/03/2004, there is talk of yet more draconian measures and finding a new balance between protecting civil liberties and preventing terrorism. Indeed according to the BBC, David Blunkett has stated that the greatest challenge was to protect democratic rights in the face of the threat posed by suicide bombers who had changed all the rule books. Further he said:

With new forms of terrorism, with the suicide bombers, with those who are prepared not only to take the lives of others but their own, there is no prosecution, there is not punishment, there isn’t the usual norms of human and social behaviour.

A leader from today’s edition of the Scotland on Sunday newpaper (you’ll need to register to see the leader itself, I’m quoting from the print edition) states:

The only way to prevent the carnage bombers can wreak is to anticipate their actions and arrest them before they act. It is difficult to see how this can be done without lowering the burden of proof currently required of the police and security forces and this is a debate we must have. It will pitch those on the right who would dilute human rights to save human lives against those on the left who, it seems, would sacrifice lives to preserve liberty.

In this debate it is continually assumed by the government, and many others, that civil liberties stand in opposition to effective action against terrorists, that they prevent the government, police and security forces from doing their job in trying to protect us from terrorists. Whilst there may be specific situations where this might happen, in general I reject this whole way of framing the problem.

Recall the very first sentence in the quotation from Scotland and Sunday; “The only way to prevent the carnage bombers can wreak is to anticipate their acts and arrest them before they act”. I agree! But lowering the burden of proof faced in court will make damn all difference to the ability of the police and security services to arrest those they think may be planning or carrying out an act of terrorism. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, a person can be arrested without a warrant in the police merely suspect them of being a terrorist. They can then be held for up to 2 weeks without charge. The offences available to the police/security services to subsequently charge someone with include:

  • being or claiming to be a member of a proscribed organisation
  • ,

  • possessing information or articles in circumstances which lead to suspicion that their possession is for a purpose related
    to the commission, instigation or preparation of acts of terrorism
  • and,

  • directing the activities of a terrorist organisation at any level
  • ,

These are in addition to offences related to illegal possession of firearms, explosives and other materials, and offences related to murder, assault, kidnapping, etc. My point is that the police and security services already have the legal powers necessary to arrest someone they think might be involved in terrorism. And if those people are genuinely planning a bombing, suicide or otherwise, they most likely have commited some or all of the above offences and can be charged and convicted as a result.

The crucial issue is thus not the powers of arrest and the burden to be satisfied in court, but the intelligence gathering powers the police and security forces have and the resources they have at their disposal to exercise those powers. The govt recently announced a huge increase in manpower for MI5 — this I have no problem with and I consider justified for fighting terrorism. The security services already have considerable legal powers for conducting surveillance too, under RIPA and the Terrrorism Act. IMHO the main thing that needs to be done is for the security services and police to get on with their jobs, and get the resources they need. Further tinkering with the anti-terror laws, especially to weaken civil liberties is simply not justified.

But surely lowering the burden of proof will make it easier to jail terrorists? It is not that simple at all. By lowering the burden of proof you make it easier to jail the accused but the flipside is you make it easier to jail the wrong person. If you jail the wrong people, then not only do innocent people end up in jail but the terrorists are free to continue their mayhem.

If you lower the burden of proof, you will inevitably ensure that poorer quality cases are taken to court. Hard pressed investigators will make the decision to prosecute earlier than they otherwise might have done. THIS MEANS POORER INVESTIGATION which will undermine the effectiveness of the anti-terrorism efforts at the most crucial point, the point of investigation of and intelligence gathering on terrorist suspects.

The burden of proof and other protections in our system of law are not just there to protect the liberty of individuals (important as that is) but also to ensure that when we jail people we jail the right people. Weakening such protections leads all of us exposed to wrongful imprisonment by the government and can be counterproductive to effective crime fighting and the fight against terrorism.

The automatic assumption by many that civil liberties must be weakened in the fight against terrorism is a trap. The crucial issue in the fight against terrorism is, and always has been, the effective gathering of intelligence. If we don’t know who the terrorists are, where they are and what they’re doing, we cannot stop them even if we give the government absolute power to do what it wants in the fight against terrorism. Giving the government such power will make it an even more serious threat to our freedom than the terrorists, as history has shown time and time again with examples such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia as testimony. As Benjamin Franklin famous said:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety

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