TCS Daily

Triumphalist and Disgraceful

By Val MacQueen - November 16, 2005 12:00 AM

British Labour Members of Parliament, who, throughout Tony Blair's administration, have merrily whistled through a vote to limit the right to trial by jury and just last week voted to remove our ancient right of double jeopardy, suddenly suffered a dainty fit of doubt when asked to approve an extension of the length of time police can hold a terrorist suspect without charge to 90 days. In what British conservative/libertarian commentator Melanie Phillips calls "an act of moral imbecility", they voted overwhelmingly against it. It is the first vote Blair has lost since he assumed the premiership.

Given the nature of the bill, the refusal to pass it speaks more of the predatory nature of Labour politicians than of commitment of lawmakers to the well-being of their country. Labour MPs, after being his willing slaves for eight years, have now scented political weakness around Blair and they want to be in at the kill. They are also not averse to having Blair's likely successor take note of their disenchantment.  

In the eight years he has been in office, Blair, whose government has created an eye-popping 700 new criminal offences, has done exactly two things right. He took Britain into Iraq with the United States. And he proposed the 90-day extension to the time a suspected terrorist could be held without charge.  

Opposition to the bill has been overwhelming from all sectors of the British political spectrum and all over the media. Blair has displayed an appetite for power hitherto unseen in Britain (at least not for several centuries) and the public and the media commentariat feared that this would be a step towards taking us into a police state by stealth.  

They are assuredly right to guard against the imposition of a police state, but in this instance, it had been asked for by the terrorist police and the promise was that it would be used only against terrorists who posed an immediate danger to Britain or our allies. No government should ever accord the police added powers just because they ask for them, but given the extraordinary, unprecedented circumstances of terrorism, I believe they were justified.  

Britain's most senior police chief, Sir Ian Blair, says there is "chilling evidence of new terrorist plots". Recently, on advice from Israeli security officials, orders to "shoot to stop" suspected terrorists have been revised to "shoot to kill". The Israeli experience is that even after being shot in the chest, a suicide bomber can still detonate his bomb, murdering everyone in the vicinity. New orders are to shoot in the head.  

The assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Andy Hayman, said in his memo justifying the Met's request for the extension that the nature of terrorism had changed, not only with the advent of terrorists using suicide as a weapon -- but with the threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.  

Also, there are a number of specific features of modern terrorism that are no longer local. "The networks are inevitably international ... in their origins and span of operations. Enquiries have to be undertaken in many different [overseas] jurisdictions, many of which are not able to operate to tight timescales.  

"Establishing the identity of suspects often takes a considerable amount of time. The use of forged, or stolen, identity documents compounds this problem." Hayman goes on to note that it is often necessary to employ interpreters for the interview process, and there have been recent instances where the Met has had to find interpreters who can work in dialects from remote corners of the world. Tracking down such people can take a long time. As he says, "This slows down the proceedings and reduces the time we have left for the interview" (under the current law).  

In recent instances, hundreds of computers have been seized. Much of the data were encrypted. Not only does the examination and decryption take vast amounts of man hours, but it needs to be studied by analysts and then incorporated into the interview strategy. He adds that the al-Qaeda method of mounting simultaneous attacks adds to the complexity of the analysis.  

The behavior of the House of Commons has been triumphalist and disgraceful. There was no danger that the police would seize the 90-day extension to imprison ordinary British citizens the government found inconvenient -- as many MPS said in grandstanding contributions. The bill had the built-in safeguard of the Met being required to go before a High Court judge every seven days, and justify being allowed to detain the suspect for a further seven days. To further their political futures, British MPs voted down a bill that would have provided the police with the tools to do their complex task of protecting the British public from Muslim terrorists in the pointless cause of protecting the British people from the British police.  

Val MacQueen is a TCS contributing writer.

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