Wednesday, July 20, 2005

What the leaked JTAC memo means
London Bombs
Q&A: What the leaked JTAC memo means

Michael Evans, Times Defence Editor, says the leaked memo raises serious questions about the UK's intelligence service

What is the group that drew up this memo?

The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre was set up in May 2003, at first mainly to foster closer co-operation between MI5 and the police. It was considered necessary to have some sort of central analysis centre in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Now JTAC has broadened out and includes representatives from 11 Government departments including Transport, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and so on.

All of its officers are dedicated to gleaning information on international terrorism. They work around the clock, seven days a week. This is now the key analysis centre for all intelligence, covert and overt, foreign and domestic, that arrives in the UK. They compile their reports and that information is passed on to ministers.

Would lowering the threat status have had any practical effect in making us less safe?

If you lower the security level, it means that the intelligence services believe that there is no-one around posing a particular threat. There had been no evidence of any al-Qaeda chatter to indicate that there was a focus on Britain in any specific or even any general way.

Government officials are probably correct in saying that going down from "severe general" to "substantial" would not have any noticeable effect in terms of the number of police on the streets, but I think they are perhaps being a little disingenuous.

After all, if lowering the status makes no difference, why bother lowering it?

It's more likely to be a matter of the mindset of the intelligence officers: if you are poring over material and you believe that the general threat is not that great, maybe that would affect how seriously you treat the intelligence that you come across.

This looks embarrassing, but who is to blame?

If the leak is accurate it is highly embarrassing. This decision was made a month before the attacks took place and the most senior intelligence officers in Britain did not have any evidence.

Nevertheless, the fact is that they didn't know there was a terror attack imminent. There was nothing at all in the intelligence which showed there was a group of people from Leeds plotting to mount two bomb attacks in London.

The failure was not so much that they downgraded the response, but that they didn't have any intelligence at all. Whether that means that they are not doing their job properly is another matter.

Intelligence is not something which is going to land on your plate. It's quite clearly possible for a sophisticated terrorist group to plan something like this without letting on. In a democratic society you have to rely on information - electronic and human intelligence - before you can take any decisions.

So yes, it is a failure, but unless it can be proved that Agent A actually saw this intelligence and failed to act upon it, it's very difficult to say that anyone is to blame.

It's always easier to piece these things together in retrospect. JTAC and the police are now doing everything in hindsight. They are looking at every single intelligence report they received since 2001 to see if there was anything which indicated that July 7 was the day of the attack. The phrase they used to me is that so far they have found "absolutely nothing".

Had Britain become complacent when the long-predicted attack failed to materialise?

I don't think we can accuse the police or the intelligence services of being comeplacent. We know, thanks to Sir John Stevens - the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner - that the police have stopped eight terrorist attacks on this country since 2001. That figure has been disputed by the present Met commissioner, but certainly half a dozen terrorist attacks have been foiled.

By anyone's reckoning, that's an amazing achievement. The fact they failed on this occasion is devastating, but I don't believe they let their guard slip.

So, what can be done to prevent future terrorists slipping beneath the radar?

Other than hugely increasingly the number of people engaged in surveillance - which is what they are trying to do - it's difficult to know. It takes something like eight months to train someone to be a surveillance watcher, and it takes months and months to vet them beforehand. The only other option is to pour a lot of money in and get more people out on the streets.

The Conservatives are already calling for an inquiry. Will heads roll?

The opposition are reducing their demands a lot, and to all intents and purposes an inquiry is already being held. I don't think anyone is looking for heads to roll unless there is evidence that someone was professionally incompetent and totally failed to do his or her job properly. In that case, as in any organisation, that person should get the chop.

But the fact is we probably wouldn't get to hear about it. If they do hold a formal inquiry, I suspect it will be very much an internal investigation. The Home Secretary would have to make a statement in the Commons and that would probably lead to calls from the opposition for resignations, but I don't think that would really help.