Friday, January 25, 2008

What's going on with the ISC?

One of the things I notice in the wake of Peter Hain's resignation to spend more time being interviewed by the police/clearing his name, is that Paul Murphy has been re-appointed to the Cabinet to Hain's old post of Secretary of State for Wales. After being Secretary of State for Wales from 1999-2002, Mr Murphy was made Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from October 2002 to May 2005, whereupon he left Government to become Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee ( ISC), the security services watch dog.

As far as I am aware, serving members of the Cabinet are not allowed to serve on the ISC.
Incidentally, the ISC's 2007 annual report was submitted to Gordon Brown on December 4 2007* but has not yet been published.
*Hmm. I wonder if it will make a strategic appearance at the height of the debate about the Government's new anti-terror laws that are proving so unpopular?

Paul Murphy re-joining the Cabinet presumably means the ISC will have to find a new Chair.
UPDATE: 29th January - I was right. And the new Chair is Margaret Beckett

Why am I following this closely? Well, last year, you may remember a media storm at the end of a big terrorism trial, 'Operation Crevice'. News finally came out that, far from being 'clean skins' as originally described by then-Home Secretary *Charles Clarke (*who was presumably briefed to say this by M15) , two of the 7/7 bombers had been known to the security services and police.

They had been taped, followed, and generally been under surveillance, as part of a big investigation into another plot. This led to a devastating question being asked: could the 7/7 bombers have been arrested, and thus could 7/7 have been prevented?

When the Crevice trial finished and reporting restrictions finally ended, the 7/7 Inquiry group, consisting of bereaved families and survivors of the 7/7 bombings asked the Home Secretary to have an independent inquiry into the 7/7 bombings. We said we were prepared to go to court to try and get a Judicial Review into the decision not to have one if necessary.

Tony Blair predictably once again refused to have an inquiry, but presumably to quell the headlines - the story ran every day for over a week - the ISC were quickly re-tasked by Blair with going back over the matter and making a second report looking at the 7 July bombings in the light of the new evidence which came out during the Crevice trial about the extent to which the police and security services knew about some of the 7/7 bombers.

It was claimed - in fact, John Reid, the Home Secretary at the time told me personally - that the Committee's work would be ''the same as an independent inquiry'' - despite the fact that the Committee is appointed by the Prime Minister, and was effectively being asked to re-investigate its own omissions from the first report in the light of information that had subsequently come out in a public court and caused a scandal in the newspapers.

This is what Paul Murphy said on Newsnight, when interviewed by Jeremy Paxman ( emphases mine) you know, the Prime Minister has asked the Committee to revisit one or two of the issues to see whether it would have made any difference to our conclusions. Personally, I don't think it will...'

(So not-pre-judging the issue at all, there! - RN)

Paxman: But it's clearly not the case, as was alleged, that the perpetrators were so-called ''clean skins''?

Murphy: Well, what was said was that they
[the security services] identified people, um, after they were dead, in the sense that they knew that these two people [7/7 bombers Mohammed Siddique Khan and Shazad Tanweer] have talked to these people who were involved in the Crevice conspiracy, and we knew that, and we were, we reported that in our final report to the, er, Parliament and Prime Minister.

Paxman: But it's not true, is it, I mean, they were known beforehand and identified beforehand a year before the July 7th bombings?

Murphy: No, they weren't identified until after they were dead, they knew that they were two people...

Paxman: Yes, they were, I'm sorry, they were...

Murphy:..who were talking to the Crevice conspirators - but they didn't know their names.

Paxman: It emerged at the trial that Mohammed Siddique Khan's car was traced to him and through that, he was identified.

Murphy: The car was traced after Siddique Khan was killed. It was only then that they [the security services] knew who they were. The issue of course, was whether these people were involved in planning an attack, and they weren't, they were dealing with credit card fraud and relatively less important activity that, they certainly weren't involved in attack planning, but they knew they went to Leeds.

Paxman: Sorry, the evidence that we have is that the car was traced to him [MSK] and that he was therefore identified, over a year before the July 7th bombings.

Murphy: Well, that's not our understanding, but clearly if there is more information that has arisen as a consequence of this trial, the whole purpose of the Prime Minister asking us to have another look at it is to see whether in fact these things are the case or not.

Paxman:Mr Murphy, you've conducted an inquiry. You are the only body to whom these people [the security services] are formally accountable, and you're now being asked by the Prime Minister to carry out another inquiry, because you may have been - what? Misled?

Murphy: No, what he's asked us to do is to have a look at some issues which have arisen from the trial and of course,
to which
we couldn't refer in our report because it was sub judice, and to see whether we can offer some reassurance to people, that at the end of the day our conclusions remain the same as what they were a year ago.

(*cough* So definitely not massively pre-judging the issue at all then! Good grief - RN)

Paxman: Did M15 not tell you that that they had identified Mohammed Siddique Khan, and his car, over a year before the July 7th bombings?

Murphy: We knew that they had, erm, they knew about two people who were doing these things but not their names, and that the identity of these two people were discovered afterwards, but even if they were known, the issue is that, whether they would have been involved in planning a terrorist attack, and the information that they knew at the time was that they were involved in something that was peripheral, for the actual main body of the Crevice trial itself, for the Crevice case. In other words, the attacks which led, or the proposed attacks which these people were dealing with, which eventually led to them being arrested and today, sentenced, they were dealing with attack-planning. The people we were looking at were dealing with something different, although they did have contact with these Crevice planners. Now, what we've got to do is obviously look and see if there was anything further to that, I'm not convinced that there was, but we have an open mind and we have to look at any evidence that might have come from the trial.

Paxman: Well, our information is that they knew a year before the attacks who this man was, who'd been consorting with these Crevice conspirators - but let us leave that to one side. Do you conclude from your experience of your enquiry that you were misled, or should we conclude that you were somehow complicit, or the agents of M15?

Murphy: Well, certainly, neither of those things. Our job is to present an impartial, independent assessment and investigation into, in this case, the events of July 7th. We came up with a number of critical points, we came up with a number of recommendations and conclusions including, for example, the need for better co-operation between Special Branch and the security agencies, we looked at that, but in addition to that, um, we now need to look at some of the issues that arose in the trial, which of course we couldn't use during the course of our reporting. I don't think that we were misled, I, um, have no evidence to suggest that we were lied to, but I do understand the feelings of relatives of the victims of July 7th, and if we can give them any reassurance that by revisiting some areas that we now know arose from this trial, then we'll certainly do that.

Paxman: Mr Murphy, thank you

So - despite the Committee's job being to 'to present an impartial, independent assessment and investigation into, in this case, the events of July 7th' the Chairman made it quite clear before he had even started the second investigation, that the Committee was only going to look at stuff that came up during the trial ( and therefore is public domain and cannot be brushed under the carpet) - and that in any event, he didn't think his Committee's conclusions would be any different to before!

This does not sound very impartial at all to me. Nor is it the same as, or even a substitute for a proper independent inquiry.

The excuse we're given that having such an inquiry will ''divert resources'' is also looking daft given that on the one hand we are being told that the ISC are conducting a second investigation, which will presumably, involve people giving evidence and going through documents and reviewing decisions, ie. diverting resources to do so. Unless you have a tacit admission that they are not going to do a proper, thorough job, in which case, why bother at all?

In any case, why did the Committee not get all the information out of M15 the first time around? That a trial was looming was not an excuse for not mentioning all the facts to the ISC -who are the Security Services watchdog, with wide-ranging powers exceeding that of a select Committee to investigate and review whatever the security services do ( in theory. In practice, the ISC no longer has even a single independent investigator, since John Morrison was sacked for speaking out about [the lack of] WMD intelligence).

If M15 knew the two lead bombers' names because they had bugged, snapped them and traced MSK through his following him in his registered car, then why did they put it about at first that the 7/7 bombers were nameless 'clean skins' - and then later, that they were only peripheral unnamed figures at the edges of another plot, who remained unidentified until after the explosions, when it was later to become clear in public court that this was not the case at all?

Even if the ISC couldn't publish the full details of this until after the Crevice trial ended, it still doesn't excuse the fact that M15 did know this information - and should not have concealed it from the ISC, whose Chairman was still claiming the bombers' names were not known, when confronted by Jeremy Paxman explaining to him that they had been identified.

Interestingly, just before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister he announced his anti- terrorism plans which included making the ISC more accountable, and giving MPs
and peers greater powers to scrutinise the work of the security and intelligence services, allowing them to cross-examine the heads of MI5 and MI6 in public, and placing the ISC on a similar basis as parliamentary select committees, which are accountable to MPs. Nothing more has been heard of these plans so far, but it looks like a tacit admission that there are problems, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, the ISC are still meant to be still working on the second report into 7/7. Their previous report famously found the security services 'not to blame' for failing to prevent the 7/7 bombings. This now looks increasingly shaky. The bombers, not the security services were to blame for the bombs, that is obvious. It is human nature that mistakes get made. It looks like mistakes were made by a harried, over-stretched security services, compounded by a lack of effective communication with Special Branch. The bombers could have been arrested before they set off their bombs, ( for credit card fraud, if nothing else) - but they weren't. Why not? An appalling tragedy then occurred and 52 people died and hundreds were injured in the worst bomb attack on UK soil since the Blitz . Let's learn from it and let's get confidence in the police and security services as high as possible, because they are our best chance of preventing future attacks. Hence the calls for an inquiry.

What is not excusable is trying to cover up mistakes, particularly when you are in a highly sensitive position involving a great deal of public trust. If M15 misled the Committee, or the ISC didn't find out the truth, then the calls for an inquiry will just carry on and on.

With the departure of the ISC Chairman, Paul Murphy, I wonder whether the second ISC report on 7/7 will be any different to the first? And I wonder whether the new Chair will be asked to preside over a different kind of ISC in future- perhaps one with at least one independent investigator? I wonder whether the new ISC Chair will also find him or herself sure of what the Committee will find before it has started investigating?

I hope not. It is crucial for any organisation to be accountable, even spooks, especially spooks - and if the ISC are pre-judging the results of investigations, and not asking the right questions, and having to go back and go through what they have been told all over again, then how are they to have our confidence in ensuring the security services are doing their job and learning from any mistakes made?

We still have many questions and we are still waiting to see if the ISC's next report will answer them. Otherwise, it'll be back to the courts for an Judicial Review to see if we can get the Government to defend why it has still not had an independent inquiry into 7/7 and why so many questions - particularly questions about what was known about the bombers and whether there was reason to arrest them before the 7 July 2005 - remain unanswered.

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have joined our calls for a proper independent inquiry. It's hopeless having things coming out in dribs and drabs like this, it only encourages wild conspiracy theories and adds to the distress of survivors and families. It's not good enough.

The Coroner's inquests into the deaths of July 7th are currently postponed until after the trial of three men on conspiracy charges relating to the planning of the 7th July bombings; their trial is expected to start in April this year.

I don't suppose the ISC will get their report into 7 July out until after the trial, possibly even after the inquests - but you never know. Given the stuff that came out at the Crevice trial, why would they risk looking silly a third time by releasing another bland, incomplete report - and then having a load of potentially embarrassing contradictory stuff come out in court?

Then again, if they are confident of their ability to get the whole truth out of the security services, and fulfil their remit to be independent and investigatory, inquiring AND open-minded, they might well release the report earlier.

After all, as the Government is so fond of telling us, if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

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