Sunday, 10 October 2010

Jonathan Evans #1: 'A Unicorn forcene Argent armed maned tufted and unguled Or the dexter forehoof enfiling the hasp of a Padlock Azure'

A speech is delivered by the latest head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, to something called the Worshipful Company of Security Professionals, an ersatz guild formed in 1999 complete with newfangled heraldry ('A Unicorn forcene Argent armed maned tufted and unguled Or the dexter forehoof enfiling the hasp of a Padlock Azure...'). I assume this organisation is some kind of strange joke on someone's part.

Quoth Evans:

10. It is interesting to note in this context that in the last ten years what might be called a "zero tolerance” attitude to terrorist risk in Great Britain has become more widespread. While it has always been the case that the authorities have made every effort to prevent terrorist attacks, it used to be accepted as part of everyday life that sometimes the terrorists would get lucky and there would be an attack. In recent years we appear increasingly to have imported from the American media the assumption that terrorism is 100% preventable and any incident that is not prevented is seen as a culpable government failure. This is a nonsensical way to consider terrorist risk and only plays into the hands of the terrorists themselves. Risk can be managed and reduced but it cannot realistically be abolished and if we delude ourselves that it can we are setting ourselves up for a nasty disappointment.

This starts promisingly, rejecting a 'zero tolerance' approach to terrorist risk. I take this phrase to mean aiming to reduce such risk as far as possible, regardless of the costs. This kind of approach is seen in comments of the 'I for one would be only too happy to submit to [insert tyrannical and/or ludicrous measure] if it might prevent even one death at the hands of the evil ones' (but not in a traffic accident, NHS ward, or cardboard village).

Of course this is very silly (constructing counterexamples is left as an exercise for the reader), and such an attitude only really exists at the level of rhetoric. Which makes Evans's remark it has always been the case that the authorities have made every effort to prevent terrorist attacks particularly stupid. Of course, we charitably read 'made every effort' as ordinary loose use of language, meaning something like 'made every reasonable effort', which while untrue is not actually absurd. However, in the context of this discussion, which concerns precisely the questions of how much effort should be made and what efforts are reasonable, such looseness is entirely inappropriate. It's almost enough to make you think Evans isn't really very interested in the question he seems to be addressing.

And indeed, instead of going on to discuss matters like civil rights, liberty, and whether we should be searching Tube travellers for containers of liquid, Evans abruptly changes the subject. Instead of pointing out that it would be ridiculous to try and minimise the risk of terrorist attacks regardless of all other considerations, he points out the even more obvious fact that it is not possible to entirely eliminate such a risk.

The change of subject is due to the fact that his concern is not with the civil liberties of those who unlike him don't carry a get-out-of-jail-free card, but with making sure he doesn't get the blame when there is a terrorist event of some sort. This would be a pretty odd concern if genuine, since such criticism doesn't tend to be very pronounced except in cases where there appears to have been a really flagrant - or even suspicious - failure (and even then, criticism tends to be restricted to the usual suspicants).  But then Evans probably doesn't wish to acknowledge the possibility of flagrant failure, preferring to regard all criticism as stemming from unrealistic expectations.

False negatives (for example - according to the official account, not some contested allegation of mine - the not-so-clean skins of 7/7) are not the only possible kind of error. There is also the possibility of false positives, of course (Dhiren Bharot springs to mind here). Evans addresses that in his next paragraph:

11. In the investigations that we are pursuing day to day, sometimes our ability to uncover and disrupt a threat goes right down to the wire, as was the case with the airline liquid bomb plot in 2006. The plotters were only days away from mounting an attack. This is odd, because if you know what they are up to and are in a position to arrest them, you can also arrange to pick them up when they try to get on the plane with their liquid bombs. Can't you. Well, can't you?Sometimes it is possible or necessary [which?] to step in much earlier, though in such cases it can be hard to get enough evidence to bring criminal charges. But I would rather face criticism when there is no prosecution (often accompanied by conspiracy theories about what was supposedly going on) than see a plot come to fruition because we had not acted soon enough.

Again, as well as the preoccupation with whether or not Jonathan Evans will face criticism (he certainly won't face any kind of official censure, of course, nor be deflected from his inevitable elevation to KCB), there is an element of unreality about this concern. In the case of the airline liquid bomb plot, not only charges but also convictions were secured, despite the paucity of evidence. And as regards 'conspiracy theories' about 'what was supposedly going on', I certainly haven't come across any very elaborate ones: I think what is commonly thought to have gone on - by those not inclined to swallow whole anything that smells quite so pungently of bullshit - is that a bunch of people whose bread is buttered very much on the 'finding terrorists' side, and who aren't temperamentally or procedurally constrained to show very great respect for natural justice  have gone out and found some people who appear as near as dammit to fit the bill.(The Colin Stagg affair is a resurgently topical example of this kind of so-called 'noble cause corruption', from the world of ordinary policing.)

Operation Pathway, the disruption of an Al Qaida cell in North West England 18 months ago, is a good example of a necessarily early intervention where criminal charges could not eventually be sustained. The case has subsequently been reviewed by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission and Mr Justice Mitting concluded that the case involved a genuine threat from individuals tasked by Al Qaida. So that's alright then.

Whilst we are committed to prosecutions wherever possible it is a sad fact that for all sorts of good reasons terrorist threats can still exist which the English criminal justice system cannot reach. The government cannot absolve itself of the responsibility to protect its citizens just because the criminal law cannot, in the particular circumstances, serve the purpose.

This appears to be fairly standard 'our hands are tied' argument (well, bald assertion). This can be used as a justification of illegal activity by government agencies (should - per implausibile - such activity ever be unequivocally and universally acknowledged to have happened other than in the perpetually recent 'bad old days'), or as an excuse for having allowed trrr attacks to occur. Which is nice.


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