Statewatch News Online: Speech by head of MI5 on international terrorism

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UK: Head of MI5 warns of the need to erode civil liberties in the fight against terrorism

Below is the text of a speech given by the Director-General of MI5 (the UK's Security Service) in the Hague, Netherlands on 1 September 2005. The message, and the language, are very familiar: "the world has changed" (Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister and Charles Clarke, Home Secretary") and the need to protect our "way of life" (Tony Blair, Javier Solana) against terrorist attacks. She argues in favour of mandatory data retention of traffic data on all communications, hints at the need to introduce plea-bargaining (under "intelligence interviews") and that intelligence is often fragile, too "fragile" to bring before a court but that action is required.

"I think that this is a central dilemma, how to protect our citizens within the rule of law when intelligence does not amount to clear cut evidence and when it is fragile. We also, of course, and I repeat in both our countries and within the EU value civil liberties and wish to do nothing to damage these hard-fought for rights. But the world has changed and there needs to be a debate on whether some erosion of what we all value may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives."



"I am delighted to be here to celebrate the 60th Birthday of the AIVD. The friendship between the AIVD and my Service, the British Security Service - commonly known as MI5 - pre-dates even those 60 years.

I quote from a note in our files from 1946: "The friendly relationship, established during the war, with the Dutch Security Service in London continues to operate with very satisfactory results". In celebrating the birthday, I am here, not only to represent the UK, but as a symbol of all the friends of this Service and there are many throughout the world.

Perhaps that is my first message. One of the strengths we have in facing a global, international threat is long-standing intelligence relationships of trust and co-operation in Europe and further afield, created and nurtured in the case of the UK and the Netherlands over 60 years. That relationship has been tested in adversity. It is strongly-forged and, for someone with a career such as mine, a professional intelligence officer for over 30 years, the relationship means a great deal.

One of my first visits overseas as a young officer was to The Hague and, after a fascinating trip to the Mauritshuis, I remember very well meeting a Dutch officer of this Service who had been in the resistance in the Second World War while still a teenager. He had been sent to Buchenwald where he had survived because he worked as a Russian interpreter. His career was focussed first on fighting the threat from fascism then, by the time I met him, on countering terrorism.

Although I was born three years after the war and I do not speak Russian or, indeed, Dutch, and my experience was slight whilst his was extensive, we spoke a common language as we do today. Then and now the AIVD and the British Security Service understand each other and agree on the role of a modern, professional security service in a democracy. That role is to defend that democracy from substantial threats to its security and to protect, as far as possible, the way of life of its people. So, when Sybrand van Hulst invited me to speak on this occasion about the threat of international terrorism and the dilemmas in countering it, I had no hesitation in accepting his invitation.

I accepted the invitation to speak before the terrorist attacks in London in July. It is significant that we received from the AIVD an early message of sympathy and support, followed by constructive help. My Service received many offers of help from our friends around the world and our friends just across the English Channel. That is a second message. Key to countering this problem is international co-operation.

The attacks in London were a shock, and my Service and the police were disappointed that we had not been able to prevent them. But we were not altogether surprised because of our understanding of the threat which is what I wish to discuss next, although in some ways it feels unnecessary to describe it. We have seen so many manifestations of it both before 9/11, for example in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, and since then in Casablanca, Madrid and Bali and many other places as well of course as here in the Netherlands.

Those of us in the intelligence community are also aware of many more attacks thwarted by good intelligence and police work, and through international co-operation. Those successes have usually been quiet ones. But we are judged by what we do not know and did not prevent. I shall come back to that point later when describing the nature of intelligence.

Al Qaida represents the first truly global terrorist threat. The extremist ideology it sponsors has spread round the world and seeped into and infected individuals and groups almost everywhere. The attacks of 9/11 inspired new generations, discontented with Western policies and ways of life, to seek to emulate, so far generally on a more modest scale, those horrendous attacks in New York and Washington we recall so well.

The key components of those attacks were a major loss of life, economic damage across the globe and the preparedness of 19 young men to commit suicide: it was a graphic illustration of what terrorism can achieve. And those inspired by Al Qaida who have formed networks based on terrorist training camps, not only in Afghanistan, and shared experiences in Algeria, Bosnia and Chechnya, but also nearer to home, within our countries, have the capacity, if we allow them, to do real harm to our way of life.

We, the British and the Dutch, and many others in Western Europe and elsewhere judge the threat to be serious and sustained, with a proven lethality and the potential to continue for years to come. The root causes are fuelled by a complex series of intractable issues and while there has been substantial success and a high attrition rate against the core of Al Qaida, there are now many potential terrorists who have no linkage to Al Qaida but are inspired by its ideology and actions. On the Internet such individuals can see images of suffering Muslims in various parts of the world: and they may, from radical preachers, hear an interpretation of Islam which is violent and demands action by the listener.

This process of radicalisation is now better understood: the message has an appeal to small numbers in our communities. Bin Laden's articulation of an extremist ideology has inspired a broad coalition of groups and there is a widespread covert series of networks which supports that ideology, with links round the world and roots almost everywhere.

So how do we respond? Intelligence is key to any successful counter terrorist strategy but it is not enough and I shall explain why not. I want first to say something about the nature of intelligence and its use. What many here will know but is not always well understood is that intelligence rarely tells you all you want to know.

I should like to quote from Lord Butler's report into the "Review of Intelligence on Weapons of Mass Destruction". "The most important limitation on intelligence is its incompleteness. Much ingenuity and effort is spent on making secret intelligence difficult to acquire and hard to analyse... intelligence seldom acquires the full story... it is often... sporadic and patchy and, even after analysis may still be at best inferential".

Often difficult decisions need to be made on the basis of intelligence which is fragmentary and difficult to interpret. In sum, some is gold, some dross and all of it requires validation, analysis and assessment. When it is gold it shines and illuminates, saves lives, protects nations and informs policy. When identified as dross it needs to be rejected: that may take some confidence. At the end of the day it requires people of integrity not only to collect it but also to prioritise, sift, judge and use it.

Intelligence work requires careful training and people who are shrewd, objective and sensible and can manage the uncertainty of intelligence. I have met many people like that in the AIVD.

But intelligence is also fragile. It comes from human sources who risk their lives and whom we have a high moral duty to protect and from technologies whose effectiveness can be countered by skilled opponents. That is why there can be no coercion to share intelligence and why its use in open courts needs to be carefully handled. In principle we both want to share, and want to see successful prosecutions. We do not collect intelligence for its own sake; there is no point. We need to develop and act on it for the safety of all our citizens.

Given the threat is global, protecting our friends is a way also of protecting ourselves. So we have a very strong interest in international co-operation, in all similar services having both the full legal powers to collect intelligence and the skill and experience to handle it carefully but if we splash it around carelessly we shall soon have none of it. So I could never agree to a compulsory exchange of intelligence as that would risk compromising valuable sources of intelligence. There would soon be little to exchange.

To some that presents a real dilemma: to me it's part of the normal conduct of business, making sure intelligence gets to the right places and is used while sources are protected. I would add another dilemma in intelligence work, balancing investigation and monitoring of those whom we know present a threat, with work to discover and nullify previously unknown threats.

In the UK, and certainly here in the Netherlands, intelligence is not only used to help track down and disrupt terrorists. We are trying more widely to reduce the risks of terrorism. Intelligence supports wider policies and action to make it more difficult for terrorists to succeed. That may involve increasing protection at our key sites or on our key systems to reduce their vulnerability to attack. It will involve reviewing laws to check whether they are best-framed to be deployed early on before the terrorist commits his act.

I am sure you agree with me that containing terrorism in a democratic society, governed by the rule of law, where civil rights are of great value, having been acquired with difficulty over many centuries, is not straightforward. Our courts require evidence that meets high standards of proof and strong evidence of a crime having been committed or strong evidence of a conspiracy to commit such a crime.

This is one of the central dilemmas of countering this sort of terrorism. We may be confident that an individual or group is planning an attack but that confidence comes from the sort of intelligence I described earlier, patchy and fragmentary and uncertain, to be interpreted and assessed. All too often it falls short of evidence to support criminal charges to bring an individual before the courts, the best solution if achievable. Moreover, as I said earlier, we need to protect fragile sources of intelligence including human sources.

Being in this position can be uncomfortable for Services such as the AIVD and mine. We can believe, correctly, that a terrorist atrocity is being planned but those arrested by the police have to be released as the plan is too embryonic, too vague to lead to charges and possibly convictions. Furthermore the intelligence may be highly sensitive and its exposure would be very damaging as revealing either the source or our capability.

I think that this is a central dilemma, how to protect our citizens within the rule of law when intelligence does not amount to clear cut evidence and when it is fragile. We also, of course, and I repeat in both our countries and within the EU value civil liberties and wish to do nothing to damage these hard-fought for rights. But the world has changed and there needs to be a debate on whether some erosion of what we all value may be necessary to improve the chances of our citizens not being blown apart as they go about their daily lives. Another dilemma.

That brings me on to the roles of government, the commercial sector and the public. As I said earlier the threat cannot be countered by intelligence alone or by the police and the security and intelligence agencies.

It is the responsibility of governments to address the causes, set the legal frameworks for countering terrorism so that Services can collect intelligence by all means including through the retention of data, and ensure the development and implementation both of pan-government policies and international initiatives to protect ourselves to the best possible level.

It is also important that governments ensure intelligence and security agencies and the police have appropriate and effective legal powers and the resources to maximise the chances of success. My government has given to my Service and the police very public support since the attacks, understanding as it does that there is no such thing as complete security.

The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament has indicated that it will look at the facts and it will no doubt wish to review whether we missed anything and the attacks could have been prevented - but no one in government nor, to be fair, the media, immediately rushed to the presumption that the July attacks were our fault. And the public has bombarded our website with messages of support.

One way of using the intelligence is to develop from it advice to protect ourselves. Across the UK private companies are working with my Service and the police to improve their resilience and strengthen their ability to stay in business in the face of threats or actual attacks. The narrow definition of the threat to corporate security has traditionally been focused on crime and fraud: it needs to be widened to include terrorism, for anticipation of that to become an integral part of business planning.

And the public. Since 7th July I have been proud of the courage of Londoners, refusing to be cowed by the attacks on the underground and buses, resolutely asserting "we are not afraid" even when they are, and showing determination and toughness in the face of terror. People took extraordinary efforts to come to work even when the public transport system was only half-working.

A few days after the first attacks we celebrated in London the sixty years since the end of the Second World War. Veterans from that war came into Central London, all of them octogenarians or more, some proudly wearing their medals, some in wheelchairs, determined not to be stopped by the current manifestation of terror from remembering both their contemporaries who died preventing the terror of fascism from prevailing and from celebrating the democratic values which we share.

And I am proud that most people understood that the attacks were on all our citizens, whatever their ethnic origin, and indeed on 17 citizens of 14 other nations. There has been outspoken condemnation of terrorism from all quarters of society and many people have provided information to us and police.

This brings me to another point, the importance of public communication, of telling the public  in broad terms what the threat is and trusting them to respond sensibly. We all rely upon public support and co-operation. For many years we have relied in the UK on the good will, good sense and above all, the trust of our fellow citizens to cope with the inconvenience of added security measures, checks and disruption to normal life of bomb warnings and other alerts.

I would note here a further dilemma. In a society with 24 hour media and the internet the chances are slight that a pre-emptive security response to a terror threat will go unreported. But it is often simply impossible to explain what lies behind a public alert.

I repeat. We need to protect valuable sources of intelligence without which there would be no warning at all. Compromising them will achieve little in the short term and, to repeat, will damage our ability to collect intelligence. At the same time public safety is the overriding concern and requires the authorities to act quickly when faced with credible intelligence about a threat.

Governments face difficult decisions about how best to protect the public, without preventing normal life going on or damaging the economy. We want people to continue their way of life and have confidence to make their own decisions on risk. Given we in the UK, and I expect the statistics are not so different here, receive over a hundred pieces of threat intelligence a week, i.e. intelligence pointing to a terrorist threat, decisions on what to do are difficult, especially as is so often the case if the intelligence is piecemeal and uncertain. The repercussions, another dilemma, of such decisions can be significant.

As I said earlier, international co-operation in the face of an international threat is essential. The AIVD presidency of the European Counter-Terrorist Group was particularly important, in welcoming the Security Services of the ten EU accession countries into the CTG, and in establishing the link between the CTG and the EU Sitcen. The UK plans for its Presidency were drawn up, in consultation with others, before the attacks: they have not needed to be much amended as, again as I said earlier, we anticipated further attacks and were not surprised when they occurred.

In my area we are working through the CTG and have an extensive range of work in hand. We wish to focus on implementing existing initiatives rather than producing a fresh raft of them. We need to engage more extensively with partners outside the EU in order to put the threat within Europe into a broader context and we need to build both on the links to Europol and the relationship with the EU Sitcen.

I know some believe that international, or in this case EU, work can present a difficult dilemma with regard to national interests but, in my experience, substantial counter-terrorist work on a practical, tactical level works successfully every day on the basis of the relationships of mutual trust to which I referred at the start of my talk. And at the political and strategic level there is further important work in progress.

So, in sum, we, the UK, the Netherlands and beyond face a high level of threat. The scale of the problem we face has become more apparent as the amount of intelligence collected and shared has increased. Responding to it is challenging. Intelligence, the capability to collect it and the competence to handle it are vital but not sufficient.

The response of governments, the commercial sector and the public are also of critical importance. Using intelligence, which may be both fragile and fragmentary, ensuring our legal frameworks are fit to address threats before they materialise fully, not through our own actions destroying what we value in our way of life and what terrorists wish to damage, and balanced public communication, all present real difficulties.

What I am confident about is that the Dutch people are as well-equipped as any to handle these dilemmas, and that in the AIVD you have a highly professional, modern, thoughtful Security Service doing a difficult job. I applaud them and hope you will join me in doing so."

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