Managing Terrorism, two views reviewed

The one-time head of Downing Street security strategy and an academic expert set out their views on how the authorities should respond to terrorism. One appeals to the 'genius' of the UK's system the other sets out some basic rules.
Stuart Weir
30 August 2010

Securing the State, David Omand, Hurst, hbk £25.0

Terrorism: How to Respond, Richard English, OUP, pbk £8.99

The two titles make the distinction: master spook David Omand’s book is essentially a practical treatise on state security in the UK, historian Richard English’s short book is wide-ranging and largely analytical. But the analytical and practical are of course interwoven and both authors highlight similar issues and mistakes in the response to Al Qaeda and, crucially, Omand’s framework for the state’s response to terrorism and English’s seven key action points coincide (see below), though Omand’s account contains fudges on issues that English doesn’t have to confront.

David Omand was the principal author of CONTEST (COuNter-Terrorism Strategy), the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy that was adopted in 2003 but not published in full until 2006 (an updated version is now in place).  Omand is vastly experienced in intelligence and security work, having been director of GCHQ, permanent secretary of the Home Office and the Cabinet Office, and a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) before assuming the direction of intelligence and security in the Cabinet Office in the early 2000s.  His treatise gives a detailed and not uncritical account of the state’s counter-terrorism apparatus and practice, down to every imaginable -INT, and as I have said above, incorporates English’s key precepts.

So why has the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy been so unsatisfactory? I think there are first of all weaknesses in Omand’s own position on democracy and human rights, magnified by the deficiencies of the British state and political culture in both areas. Moreover, as Omand says, security is an international business nowadays; and the United States is the UK’s principal partner on intelligence and security – as well as foreign policy and war.  So dwarfing the domestic weaknesses, though deriving from them, the UK’s subordination to the leadership of George W Bush and his creatures was a disaster which is not over yet.  Between them, they violated all Richard English’s precepts – including the injunction to avoid an over-militarised response that amplifies the violence, the absence of credible leadership and the refusal to address root causes – as well as his warning that foreign invasion and occupation provoke and are used to justify terrorism.

But back to Omand.  He is not a senior civil servant who is given to mandarin airs.  He is however one of those ‘platonic guardians’ who still inhabit Whitehall and whose attitudes are widely echoed in political and academic circles.  They believe in good government above what one might call ‘good democracy’.  For them it is public consent and trust for their stewardship of the nation’s affairs that matter, not for example a properly representative and strong Parliament.

Thus Omand recognises throughout his book the need to give people sufficient and credible information to secure their consent to counter-terrorism policies.  At the same time, he wants to place the intelligence services in a cocoon, exempt from FOI and also from political interference from government.  He has a case on both counts. It is important to keep information on key aspects of the work of the intelligence services secret to prevent terrorists from gaining insights into their operations. And ministers must not be in a position to misuse domestic intelligence information as Blair and Campbell did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq (though, like Robin Butler before him, Omand subtly avoids forthright judgment).

Here Omand says the ‘genius’ of the UK system comes into play.  First the JIC, the committee charged with strategic appraisal of intelligence, comprises both intelligence chiefs and senior departmental civil servants The civil servants play a ‘non-executive director role’ on JIC: being ‘politically aware but yet politically impartial and not political appointees’, they are able to contribute their outside experience to collective judgments that may be unwelcome to the policy community (i.e., ministers) without pressure being brought to bear upon them. Indeed, its collective judgments are treated by ministers as ‘professional conclusions’.

Then there is the ‘subtlety’ of arrangements for accountability to Parliament. The 1989 Act that finally established MI5 on a statutory footing, explicitly gives the authority to direct the service’s activities to the director-general and not (as would be usual) to the Home Secretary who is however formally accountable to Parliament – ‘a  very  British solution, that rests on restraint and understanding between Home Secretary and Director General of where the boundaries of authority lie’, not to mention on the docility of the House of Commons.

Alas, the subtle genius of the ‘British system’ is not proof against the overweening power of a government that is usually also a single-party minority government – and against which Omand’s model strategy is vulnerable. Describing the need to win community support and information to pre-empt terrorist activity, he says that ‘heavy-handed domestic security responses -  police raids, house-to-house searches, movement restrictions, hasty legislation – can alienate the community and play to the terrorist agenda’.  Well, we have had a surfeit of hasty legislation and heavy-handed policing, made worse by ministers’ belligerent and wrong-headed populist rhetoric aimed at the majority population.

The recent counter-terrorism laws not only encourage and facilitate heavy-handed policing, they have also violated basic human rights. Omand stresses in his book, as he has always done in public, that the intelligence and security services should always act within a human rights framework. But the legislation deliberately weakens that framework; and it is here that Omand’s fudges become apparent on for example ‘intrusive’ surveillance, ‘special evidential rules’ and court-appointed special advocates, control orders.  Omand says, ‘Only the most serious national security threat is likely to justify such departure from the principles of natural justice’, while elsewhere he argues that measures such as control orders ‘are not in themselves incompatible with justice’.

Omand singles out the ‘fundamental right to life’ as the human right that should be given more weight than others, given the ‘legitimate expectation [on the part of the public] of  being protected  by the state from threats to oneself and one’s family’. It is the right to life, and the duty to protect the public, that of course is said to justify the restraints on and violations of other human rights. But British governments have continuously violated that right in the cases of individual men whom they have handed over to US and other foreign authorities for torture and inhumane treatment, colluding in some instances with that ill-treatment. Torture cannot be derogated, but it can be externalised.

The choice between the state’s duty to protect the public and respect for ‘natural justice’ and other human rights, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression, is as Omand says one for society to make when there is a serious terrorist threat. ‘In those circumstances,’ he says, ‘checks and balances of good government should come into play to provide confidence that the balance is a genuine one and that red lines are  not being crossed’ [my italics].

But ‘good government’ depends on a ‘good democracy’ that Britain doesn’t have.

How to Respond to Terrorism: Seven Key Points
Richard English’s final chapter draws on his review of the nature and history of terrorism around the world, and especially Northern Ireland to establish seven key points:

  • Learn to live with it
  • Where possible, address underlying root problems and causes
  • Avoid the over-militarisation of response
  • Remember, intelligence is the most vital element in successful counter-terrorism
  • Respect orthodox legal frameworks and adhere to the democratically established rule of law
  • Co-ordinate security-related, financial and technological preventative measures
  • Maintain strong credibility in counter-terrorist public argument
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