Politics of Fear
How Tony Blair Misled Britain Into Terror War
PETER OBORNE/CENTRE FOR POLICY STUDIES, UK
The Independent, February 14, 2006
On 28 February 2005, with the Prevention of Terrorism Bill being discussed in Parliament, Tony Blair made the following comment to listeners to Women's Hour: "What they [the security services] say is that you have got to give us powers in between mere surveillance of these people - there are several hundred of them in this country who we believe are engaged in plotting or trying to commit terrorist acts - you have got to give us power in between just surveying them and being sure enough to prosecute them beyond reasonable doubt. There are people out there who are determined to destroy our way of life and there is no point in us being naïve about it. "
Anyone listening to the Prime Minister's remarks must have felt that, within days of the Prevention of Terrorism Act being passed, the "several hundred" individuals plotting to wreak devastation through Britain would have been under lock and key. And yet that is not the case at all. Nearly a year has gone by and yet no more than 17 individuals have been made subject to control orders. The Prime Minister's suggestion that the security services were demanding new powers in order to deal with a new category of terrorist suspect turns out to have been nonsense. His figure of " several hundred" terrorists plotting mayhem seems to have been plucked out of thin air.
THE POLITICISATION OF TERROR
In the immediate aftermath of the 7 July outrages the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, was swift to make contact with his opposite numbers the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, and the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten. Parallel lines of communication were developed between their staff members and cemented by a regular exchange of letters and e-mails. There seemed to be a real chance that some good could come out of the calamity of the London bombings: politicians of all parties coming together to fight a ruthless common enemy.
By the start of August, there was a general agreement that everything was on course for announcements at the party conference season and the passing of an anti-terrorism Act, with cross-party support, by Christmas. Clarke, Davis and Oaten each set off on holiday. They had taken the precaution of sharing contact numbers in case of an emergency.
On the afternoon of 4 August, both Oaten and Davis were surprised to receive a call from the Home Office minister Hazel Blears. Oaten was in St Tropez when he took his, while Davis was in the north of England. According to both, Blears gave the impression that the call was little more a formality. She told them that there would be an announcement on terrorism by the Prime Minister the following day, but it would not go further than had already been agreed between the three parties.
The following day, in his monthly Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister went far beyond anything agreed, or even discussed with, the opposition parties. He dramatically announced a "12-point plan" which put forward new measures which he surely knew that the opposition parties could not support. This 12-point plan at once shattered the harmonious working relationship between the three main parties.
Charles Clarke, it must be said, rebuts any suggestion that he was put under pressure from Downing Street or kept out of loop, saying: "I was on holiday in America at that time, and I was on the phone to the Prime Minister a great deal during that time, right up to the statements that he actually made. I was fully involved, fully supported it and thought it was the right thing to do." Be that as it may, there are grounds for speculation that 10 Downing Street had seized control of the terrorism agenda from the Home Office.
The context is important: the Prime Minister had been confronted by a concerted campaign in the tabloid press for new anti-terror laws. He may well have concluded that the thoughtful, consensual strategy worked out with the two main opposition parties came at too great a political cost. He may have decided that it was more profitable to give an impression of acting tough. That was the impression gained by many MPs, including his own supporters. John Denham, a former Home Office minister and chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, described the proposals as "half-baked". He told me later: "There must be concern that the Government agenda is sometimes driven by public and media pressure in this area, rather than a concern for what is most effective."
Tony Blair's terror initiative showed numerous signs of having been cobbled together in a hurry. Some of the measures proved ill thought-out and unworkable. However, it may have achieved the result that the Prime Minister, who left the following day for the West Indies to stay at Cliff Richard's holiday home, wanted. For days before the plan was announced, he had been under heavy pressure from a tabloid campaign, led by The Sun, claiming that holidaying politicians were not taking the terror threat seriously enough.
On 3 August, The Sun raged against holidaying MPs: "LET'S HOPE THE BOMBERS ARE ON HOLIDAY TOO". On 5 August an open letter from Trevor Kavanagh, political editor of The Sun, was headlined: "DEAR MPs, SIX WEEKS HOLIDAY IS ENOUGH FOR ANYONE". Then on 6 August, as Tony Blair flew to the West Indies with his family, The Sun headline was much more reassuring: "VICTORY FOR SUN OVER NEW TERROR LAWS."
In early 2003 just as the Government was seeking to persuade the British people to wage war against Saddam Hussein in order to prevent him distributing weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, the police made a significant announcement. They had, they said, foiled a terrorist ring in its attempt to launch a chemical attack in Britain using the deadly poison ricin.
According to a press release from Scotland Yard issued in the names of the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Pat Troop, and Assistant Commissioner David Veness of the Metropolitan Police, ricin had been found in a flat in Wood Green, north London. The Government latched on to the news. On 7 January, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and the Health Secretary, John Reid, issued a joint statement stating that "traces of ricin" had been found. The Prime Minister joined in by warning that the discovery highlighted the dangers from weapons of mass destruction, adding: "The arrests which were made show this danger is present and real and with us now. Its potential is huge."
It is unusual, and potentially prejudicial, for ministers to comment on upcoming court cases. Nevertheless, as the ricin case moved towards trial, ministers continued to regard the ricin trial as an important publicity resource. In due course, the trial judge was provoked into warning the Home Secretary to curb his public remarks for fear of prejudicing the case.
No ricin was ever found in the Wood Green flat - just a small number of ingredients for the manufacture of ricin. The announcement from David Veness and Pat Troop that "a small amount of the material recovered from the Wood Green premises has tested positive for the presence of ricin poison" was misleading: the tests were only capable of indicating that ricin might be present. But they did not establish its presence.
On 7 January, chemical weapons experts at the government research facility at Porton Down carried out more accurate tests into the presence of ricin. These tests established that there was no ricin. Curiously, Porton Down apparently did not pass on this information to the British Government until late March. And apparently the Government never asked for the results of this definitive test. The existence of ricin continued to be proclaimed for over two years.
In April 2004, the British people were alerted to an amazing coup. They learned how the police had seized a terrorist gang just as it prepared to launch an audacious bomb attack on Old Trafford stadium on match day, an attack which could have killed thousands of people. It was a national sensation. And yet there was not a shred of truth in the story. Unlike in the ricin case, the Government cannot be blamed. The police and, to an extent the media, are responsible for the invention.
On the morning of Monday 19 April 2004, more than 400 officers from four police forces, many of them armed, raided half a dozen houses, flats and businesses in and around Manchester. They arrested eight men, one woman and a 16-year-old boy. They were held for several days and intensively interrogated. In due course the suspects were released. No charges were ever laid.
The newspapers, by contrast, had no doubt about what the story was. The front page of The Sun proclaimed: "MAN U SUICIDE BOMB PLOT". On pages four and five the paper claimed: "EXCLUSIVE: MAN UTD SUICIDE BLASTS FOILED".
Once the story had started to run, it was further fuelled by the Manchester police. Rather than issue a cool denial, they played it up by holding a press conference. The accompanying press release read: "We are confident that the steps that we have taken to date have significantly reduced any potential threat in the Greater Manchester area." With the weekend fixtures looming, it went on: "Greater Manchester Police and Manchester United Football Club have put in place extra security measures to reassure the public about the safety of both matches."
The police and security services have, very properly, refused to discuss what intelligence led to the raids of 19 April being made. But the police interrogations of the suspects shed a ray of light. One of the suspects, a Kurd, suffered so badly from having his name linked to a terrorist plot that he wants to remain anonymous.
He told me how Old Trafford had cropped up in his interrogation: "I was in the police station and the interview stopped, like a rest, and somebody, they bring in the coffee and they ask me what you like? I say I like the football. Oh, who do you support? They ask me just like a friendly, who do you support? I say Manchester United. Oh, how long you support Manchester United? I said a long time I support Manchester United, when I was tiny, I was small, you know and all my family supported Manchester United ... they asked me, have you been football ground? I said, of course I've been to the football ground. Two years ago, long time ago, I can't remember."
These questions were surely prompted by the discovery, at the anonymous suspect's flat, of Manchester United paraphernalia: a poster of Old Trafford, and ticket stubs the suspect had kept as souvenirs of his only visit to the ground, when he had gone with a friend to watch United play Arsenal the year before.
The two friends had bought their tickets from touts, which meant that they sat at different parts of the ground. The Sun reported that the bombers planned to sit at different parts of the ground, in order to cause maximum damage with their bombs. This claim can only have been based on the fact that the old ticket stubs found by the police were for seats in different parts of the stadium. This information had not been made public, so The Sun could only have obtained it from the police.
The Kurds I spoke to had come to Britain in order to escape the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. Perhaps their most meaningful emotional connection with Britain was a love for Manchester United, which was why they kept the souvenirs in their flat. The Manchester police discovered nothing else suspicious. Nevertheless the police probably viewed the Manchester United souvenirs as potential evidence of a bomb plot. This evidence was then prematurely leaked, through unofficial police sources, to the press.
Manchester police then encouraged the story to run by issuing public statements that, while falling a long way short of giving outright confirmation, could be read as corroborating the story. Disgracefully, the Greater Manchester Police refused to launch an investigation into the numerous leaks.
The reporting of this incident was inflammatory and misleading. It caused needless alarm among millions of TV viewers and newspaper readers. It stirred up anti-Islamic prejudice. It ruined the lives of several of the suspects. They lost their homes, their jobs and their friends as a result. They have never received a personal apology, either from the police or from the press.
MUSLIM WORKING GROUPS
In the wake of the London bombings, the Prime Minister made a series of announcements aimed at averting another catastrophe. One of the most visible was the setting up of seven task forces to investigate Muslim extremism and to recommend initiatives for tackling it. This was a considerable enterprise by any standards, requiring deep learning and insight, and generous resources.
But Tony Blair's task forces into the roots of Muslim extremism were given six weeks to do their business. They seem to have met just three times before reaching their conclusions. One of the Muslim leaders involved, the Liberal Democrat peer Kishwer Falkner, told us: "When we agreed to be on the working groups and we were told what the deadlines were, we were taken aback. We spoke to one another and queried whether we were just being set up as a tokenistic exercise, because it didn't seem to me, in the middle of August, when half the country is on holiday, that two or three meetings of a couple of hours each would set right a host of intractable and difficult long-term problems to do with how we co-exist, how we integrate with each other.
Falkner feels that the recommendation of her working parties were second-guessed by the Prime Minister's 12-point plan, announced just two weeks after the working parties were set up. She says she was: "... completely dismayed, within days of being set up, to discover in the speech the Prime Minister made on 5 August, that he was proceeding full steam ahead with a raft of measures without waiting for us to come up with our recommendations, or indeed our analysis of the problems. And the raft of measures was completely counter to reducing alienation and extremism. In fact, if anything, it was going to increase alienation in terms of the Muslim community.
Her criticism was echoed by Haras Rafiq, co-founder of Bridges TV (UK), a Muslim television organisation which will start broadcasting later this year. He told us: "The brief was to find ways or find a solution to the problem of extremism and radicalisation within the Muslim community. Now let's just reflect on that. Find a solution for extremism and radicalisation in the Muslim community in the UK, that's a huge piece of work. It isn't something that can be tackled, you know, in the space of a month, two months. The whole process smacked to me a little bit of presentationalism and to be seen to be doing something rather than actually producing an effective and constructive piece of work."
It is hard to regard these task forces as a great deal more than some shallow spin from the Government. In the three years before the London bombings, the Government had commissioned two major enquiries into the problems of Muslim segregation and extremism - Ted Cantle's report in the wake of the Bradford riots and a government report of 2004, Young Muslims and Extremism - and largely dismissed both. The idea that Tony Blair's h urriedly formed and short-lived Muslim working groups could provide a better analysis than either of these two earlier studies was absurd.
The Government has persistently failed to tell the truth either to itself or to the British public about the terror threat in Britain. These failures of diagnosis have led to failures of response. An example is the Prime Minister's denial that there is a connection between the Iraq war and domestic terrorism. That denial is not merely false. It also inhibits the kind of deep understanding of the motives of Muslim terrorists which the Prime Minister presumably wants.
The defeat in the House of Commons of the Government's proposals for 90 days detention without trial for terrorist suspects was represented at the time as an indication of Tony Blair's political weakness. This analysis missed the point. That Commons defeat signalled a national crisis in public trust in politicians, the police and the security services. Consider this: the Prime Minister of the day, fully backed by the police, had thrown his weight behind a measure he described as crucial for national security and the fight against terrorism. And yet it was comfortably rejected by MPs.
This collapse in trust has come about because few people now believe what the Prime Minister, the security services and the police tell us about security matters. This dissonance is a massive problem. Britain today faces a threat from international and domestic terrorism which is far more dangerous and insidious than anything it has confronted before. We need to trust our politicians, our police, and the media. But that trust has been betrayed.
This is an edited extract taken from The Use and Abuse of Terror - The Construction of a False Narrative on the Domestic Terror Threat, published Feb. 14 by Britain's Centre for Policy Studies. The full report, in pdf, is available here.