Servile government ruined liquid bomb case
The US must never be allowed to blow a British terror probe again, says security expert Crispin Black
It's not just counter-terrorism officials who are dismayed at the difficulties in the 'airline bomb plot' trial which resulted in the conviction yesterday of three men for conspiracy to murder persons unknown.
We all should be. What many felt was a 'slam dunk' case has ended raggedly with an English jury unconvinced by much of the evidence.
One of the most complex and well-handled surveillance operations ever mounted by the British security services (codenamed Operation Overt) has failed - so far, at least - to secure the convictions that the Crown Prosecution Service hoped for.
There is broad and noisy agreement in the intelligence community that the evidence, although strong, would have been stronger if MI5 and Special Branch had been allowed to spring the trap later. Because President Bush in Washington insisted that individuals connected to the plot in Pakistan should be arrested, Britain's arrest operations in the UK had to be conducted at very short notice. Not only was all the evidence not quite ready, but we cannot be sure we picked up everyone we should have. Timing is not just about evidence: the intelligence services like to be confident that all the main players are on the scene before the police strike.
As a soldier in Northern Ireland in what was called the Green Army - the bit you could actually see and the bit that got wet, cold, tired and blown up - we were well aware that the checkpoints, sweeps, searches we conducted day in day out provided a 'framework' around which swirled an array of covert intelligence-led operations. We had to trust the RUC Special Branch, MI5 and the SAS above all on timing.
At times it was an uncomfortable feeling. But at least we knew that the difficult decisions would be made in Hereford or on the Albert Embankment or even in Downing Street. If we had suspected that our safety might be put at risk by the reckless actions of a foreigner, let alone a reviled one like George Bush, there would have been a mutiny. (Not that the Americans were ever much interested in rounding up IRA men.)
It is astonishing to think that, in the summer of 2006, the White House effectively hijacked and very nearly 'blew' a security service operation largely based in Britain and that we are now paying the price.
There was a nail-biting thriller published in recent years (I won't give the title; it would be like giving away who did the murder in The Mousetrap) based on the premise that a recent prime minister was in effect an agent of the CIA. It's a good read but ultimately unconvincing. The CIA doesn't have to recruit clever young men at Oxbridge in the hope that they will one day sit at the heart of the British establishment and do Washington's bidding. We just seem to roll over and do what we are told out of deeply ingrained habit.
Our senior politicians and some civil servants simply have no concept of British sovereignty vis a vis the United States, not even in the world of covert security and intelligence where, frankly, we make the Americans look like amateurs.
Tony Blair, who was in charge in the summer of 2006, may have developed abject obedience to the US into an art form, but I doubt if things are much different today and even more whether things would be any different under a different government. At least the 'airline plot' trial has allowed this particular aspect of our national security to be examined.
Sadly, given the slowness of our legal system, the recent difficulties in more than one high-profile terror trial and our strong sub judice rules, the British public will have to wait many more months before it has access to the full picture about the state of jihadist terror in this country and our national security strategy. Let's hope in the meantime our masters are beginning to get it right. ·
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