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Aggrandisement of power
12 September 2003
On Monday 8th September two Germans were arrested under provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (2001) – known as TACT for short - inside the perimeter of a weapons exhibition in London, the Defence Systems and Equipment International exhibition and conference. The provision empowers the police to arrest on grounds of suspicion of terrorism and hold a person without trial. An Act that was passed by Parliament for use in cases of national emergency is apparently considered appropriate to quell non-violent protest. A genie has been released, that will be difficult to put back in the bottle.
The incident brings to mind the prescient remarks of Professor Conor Geart of the LSE, made last December: “we were told last year how vital these [anti-terrorism] laws were because we were faced by the terrorist threat. The implication was that if these number of people were taken off the streets or that number of powers given to the security services we would somehow or other be protected from the terrorists. But they seem to be as worrying as ever. So there is a voracious appetite on the part of what one might call the secret state – to aggrandising more and more power and laws – but the more they have, the more they seem to need and the paranoia and our anxiety continues.” (Radio 4, 9 December).
Professor Geart’s ‘secret state’ is relishing its new-found authorities. An example was the bizarre deployment of armoured carriers in Heathrow last December, in a terrain most unsuitable for this type of firing power. A month earlier, two helicopters and 150 men were called out in the dawn raid at Finsbury Park mosque. Commenting on the Heathrow incident, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former head of the joint intelligence committee, has observed " I mean all that stuff... tanks at Heathrow. I mean, I call that overselling." The Met’s senior-most officer with operational responsibility for such actions reacted with indignation when a Muslim delegation - meeting the Met after the Heathrow event - questioned the need to bring out tanks.
The ‘secret state’ now not only operates under cursory oversight but benefits from significant budget increases. Chancellor Gordon Brown in his budget speech earlier this year assigned an extra £330 million for “additional domestic counter-terrorism measures”. The Guardian reports that the size of Special Branch is now two and a half times as big as it was at the height of the cold war or the worst part of the Northern Ireland conflict (2 September 2003): “Before September 11 sine chief constables were reducing the size of their special branches, but since then the numbers have risen to their latest total of 4,247, with an increasing role played by civilian staff and intelligence analysts.”
From reports by Sir Andrew Leggatt, the chief surveillance commissioner, it appears that there have been about 20,000 cases of covert surveillance in the last two years – though this figure includes customs and excise and drugs related operations. There were 2,500 cases of property surveillance in the last reporting year.
The risk of miscarriages of justice are increasing proportionately: Sir Swinton Thomas, Commissioner for the Interceptions of Communications, has found “that police and security services are making an unacceptably high level of mistakes by placing phone taps on the wrong numbers”. The intelligence services commissioner, Lord Justice Simon Brown, has revealed that he had handled six breaches of a security agency's internal authorisation procedures to get warrants. He dismissed five of them as technical offences, though one involved an investigation going ahead without proper authority. The sixth case concerned a security agency searching the dustbins of a suspect without obtaining a warrant or telling the person's employer. He said it was "difficult to imagine...a less serious breach".(The Guardian, 10 September 2003).
Sir Rodric Braithwaite’s comments on Heathrow