Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1180 - 1199)



  1180. The whole system degradates. How are you going to guard against that?
  (Mr Veness) I think that is a bigger issue. It is an enormously important issue around how people retain the reality in respect of what has occurred on 11 September. We describe it as the management of complacency because I think there is a very real danger, which I think is based upon a lack of understanding of the scale and the long term impact of what occurred last autumn. It is a fact that we now have a global threat of an enduring nature which has fundamentally changed the nature of certainly counter-terrorism because terrorism in this international dimension has changed. I do not think that understanding is totally widespread, neither do I think there is an understanding that it is an enduring phenomenon that we have not got live with for weeks and months but I am afraid for years in terms of the resolution of that issue. I think the challenge for us all against that background is to find a way of having a broader debate which does not generate needless paranoia or public concern but nevertheless ensures that there is commensurate and measured vigilance and indeed within that, that all parts of the machinery themselves maintain their cutting edge and do not lose an understanding of what has happened. One could almost sense it around Christmas time, which to me was the time when that impacted, a sense of "Well, there has not been another attack has there. The military are doing very well, we are very grateful for that. This means that al-Qaeda will no longer be able to impact". Well, there are 2,000 kilometre porous borders into Pakistan and Iran and we know the reality of ex-filtration, let alone all of those other groups which never were in Afghanistan. I think there is a very real issue of finding a way ahead with a measured public debate which gets the best of all of the wonderful way in which the public have been supportive of their own safety and supportive of security endeavour in the many years that we have had this problem on a lesser scale but which does not do that in a way which causes public concern.

  1181. Just so that I can understand what you have said simply. Would you say to me that between 11 September and now there has been no diminution of vigilance by those who work for you vigilance in terms of doing the job that they are meant to do? I worry that the reality is different.
  (Mr Veness) I think the closer the individuals are to working the cases and seeing the reality of the intelligence then their sense of foreboding is the most acute. As soon as you move away from that to duties that are not so engaged with that day to day, and then when I look at my friends and those I know and move around with in London, one sees a distance away from the problem. I think it is an issue of how close and how often one is being reminded of the reality.

  1182. Okay. Again thinking about intelligence gathering and the dissemination of the information, are you absolutely clear in your mind that the information once collected, digested, analysed and so on is being distributed to whom it should be distributed? I am thinking again about a quote I read out to you from Sir John Stevens where he was saying that he did not know about Mr Reid's terrorist propensity.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  1183. Again, it is going to be clearly crucial in the future that everybody who should know must know about that sort of information.
  (Mr Veness) I think there are two important points in there, if I may, Sir. One is in relation to what is the scoping of our intelligence. I think it is undeniably true that one of the impacts in the intelligence world post 11 September has been a probing down into areas which would not otherwise perhaps have had the same systematic review. I think it is within that territory that the Commissioner's remarks are so appropriate because we are looking there at an individual, clearly his case has yet to be adjudged by the United States' courts, all of this is allegation. If those allegations are correct here was an individual who had contact with other groupings but who to a degree was operating at a lower tier, conscious of course, it is alleged, that he came very close to murdering 200 people in cold blood. That is the danger of that scale of activity. I think to sum that up: the probing and the scale of intelligence gathering has increased. On your first point, I would be absolutely confident that if an item of intelligence arose which could save a life in the United Kingdom then it would be actioned and it would be passed on. We must remember the United Kingdom has gone through some of those episodes in the past, for example the death of WPC Yvonne Fletcher in April 1984 in an international context where there was a debate and an improvement in relations and the passage of intelligence and similar experience in relation to Irish terrorism. I think it does come back to the school of hard knocks. There would be no forgiveness whatsoever in obscuring an item of intelligence which could lead to the saving of life or reduction of harm.

  1184. As we sit here now you are absolutely confident that a Richard Reid type situation would not occur?
  (Mr Veness) No, I did not say that, Sir.

  1185. That is why I just want to know in the scale of these things where we are. I have not got there yet.
  (Mr Veness) What I am saying is I am confident if there is intelligence in the system then it will be passed through the system to where it can be acted upon in order to reduce public harm. That is what I was referring to by way of the historic examples. Where I do not think we can yet be confident, and much hard work needs to be done, is in driving down our intelligence coverage so that it picks up individuals, small groups or people who may be moving in a way that has not hitherto been anticipated, of which Richard Colvin Reid would be an example. There is more work to be done in relation to that category of terrorism.

  1186. How long is this work going to take?
  (Mr Veness) I fear it is going to be with us for years to come. What we are talking about on a tier of threats is al-Qaeda at the top of the pyramid, and clearly an enormous investment in their activity, military action as we speak. Then a second tier of groups who are linked by a dotted line but enormously spread in figurative terms from Marrakech to Manila with an axis through the middle from the Central Asian states through to Central and Eastern Africa, so a very large slice of the world. Our coverage of those is going to be an enduring activity. Then in the category that I am describing at the bottom of the pyramid are groups of individuals who may be small in number and picking those up, to be frank, is going to be a Herculean and enduring task. That was the reservation that I was seeking to express. To me the lesson is that even the people at the bottom of that particular pyramid can nevertheless prove to be potential mass murderers. Moving from where we are at the moment to achieving that degree of almost global intelligence coverage with what may be a lone individual, I describe the scale of the problem, Sir.

  1187. I am grateful for the clarification. The Committee would be interested to know how the various Special Branch organisations fit in to the relationship we have just been talking about?
  (Mr Veness) Yes. Special Branch is an essential concept of British policing which moves between a security and intelligence world which does not have executive powers, which I suppose is policeman speak for a power of arrest. The intelligence world operates in order to produce analysis. We need a mechanism by which that can then move to a world of arrest, operations and prosecution and the vehicle by which the United Kingdom does that is through the Special Branch system which effectively provides a means of moving intelligence in a way which preserves the intelligence for its use next week but nevertheless allows the essential assessment or broad threat, or indeed in some cases very specific threat, to be passed on in a way that it can be the basis of an operation and ideally the basis of a prosecution. If we did not have that mechanism somehow we would have to invent it. It does mean we are able to preserve the operational focus of the general police service and indeed the advantages of an intelligence focus community of agencies.

  1188. My last question is simply this. On this sort of mosaic of bodies that are involved in the whole anti-terrorism activity, the Committee would be interested to know what your view is of the lines of demarcation between Security Service, Special Branch and the various police forces. I am slightly unclear, could you just elaborate?
  (Mr Veness) Yes, indeed. I think the job that we are seeking to have done as a country by the intelligence agencies collectively is to provide the intelligence picture of the menace that is potentially going to afflict and cause public harm primarily here within the United Kingdom. We are looking for a degree of breadth of thought, breadth of method, global linkages through liaison agencies around the world which is able to operate in a way that is not constrained by the necessary accountability of law enforcement, not that there are not accountabilities but they are different accountabilities. I think it is essential that any country enjoys that window on the world. Then there is the mechanism that I seek to describe by which a country needs to move that into a process where executive action, arrest, the search for evidence can be conducted in a way that does not prevent us losing the benefits of intelligence, our look over the horizon that we will need tomorrow and the week after. So Special Branch provides us with that bridge between those two worlds. Then the role of the police service is unequivocally focused on preserving life and preventing people becoming victims. In order to do that it seeks to prevent crime ideally informed by the intelligence which I referred to and with an additional duty of investigation of presenting the best possible evidence, if that is feasible, to the criminal justice system. The police service has the additional responsibility of providing evidence before the courts. That is the continuum that I would seek.

Jim Knight

  1189. You have described the golden thread, the link from PM to the PC and James described it as a mosaic, and you have put a convincing argument that it is coherent and very clear in your mind, and it becomes clearer in my mind. With the danger that thread could get knotted, given the global context as well as the local context, do you think a National Counter Terrorism Service along the lines of the National Crime Squad or the National Criminal Intelligence Service would be a useful development?
  (Mr Veness) I think it is a very interesting proposition and I think it is one which requires further thought and consideration. I refer to where we came to, to be here this afternoon. The National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service—I was a fervent supporter and I have been on their service authorities since inception—were very clear national needs because of the way the United Kingdom in my judgment as an individual was not addressing trans-national crime. We need to have a means of impacting upon trans-national crime. That work is progressing effectively through the creation of those two new national bodies. I know the experiences are not directly capable of being read across. By dint of the regret that we have experienced 30 years of relatively regular Irish activity, Republican activity, and that we still have got the recurring dissident threat and in the midst of that we have had intermittent international terrorism, back at the end of the 1960s, early 1970s through the early 1980s there was a great deal of Middle Eastern terrorism occurring in London, that led to relatively refined structures, all of which of course are capable of improvement. I think the crying need which was there for NCS and NCIS was slightly different in terms of a national counter-terrorist force. That does not mean that we can be in any way complacent around that. My own personal view is that we have come to a stage where the role of the National Co-ordinator, for example, perhaps should no longer be regarded as an issue of invitation by the police service within the United Kingdom but should rather more be the way that we conduct our business. In fact there is no practical difference between those two positions because chief constables do invite in. I would see that as a potential development. I would also see the need to ensure that the Special Branches which are an integral part of this structure should be fully manned at all stages and in my view significantly enhanced, as has been the case. It may be that those developments in terms of operating by right and by reinforcement of resources are capable of being achieved by dint of the organisation you describe. I do not think we are too far off it now in relation to the structures which are in place today but, for example, if there was a further dramatic terrorist development this would become a very real debate indeed. I think there are identifiable areas where we could make progress.

  1190. On a similar vein, at the beginning of your comments you were an advocate for the Civil Contingency Secretariat.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  1191. Which does not always happen here. Do you think we should have a UK co-ordinator for homeland defence?
  (Mr Veness) I think we need to look at what the Americans are doing with very keen interest. Again, I think there is a difference in how the Americans came to have this particular office and small staff and where the United Kingdom is in terms of its development of counter-terrorism. I can look at it in two halves, both in terms of what the homeland security director is able to do in terms of public warning and what it is addressing in terms of preparation for after the event activity. I think if you look at the way public warnings have been handled within the UK and US in recent months, there may be some lessons to be drawn. Again, I think it is one of the by-products of what has gone on in recent years that there is now a relatively sophisticated process by which intelligence from the agencies can be assessed, put in a form on a scale, for example, of one to six in a way that every law enforcement agency in this country understands, not only that but a broad range of other players in counter-terrorism, in a way that can be translated then. The operation within London which deals with counter-terrorism is known as Rainbow and according to the threat level we can then implement a whole range of different actions as a result of where we are. That is all widely understood in British law enforcement and there is a Rainbow or its equivalent in pretty well every police force in the United Kingdom. That leads on then to useful activity. Then, for example, if we use the media or make a TV appeal for people to have greater care, we know we will get a great many useful calls on the terrorist hotline and we will get some very useful activity by members of the public who will spot a bag and draw attention to it. You get this degree of understanding already and useful activity which occurs because of the experience that Britain has been through. Again, we should not in any way disregard what benefits America brings to that but at the moment I think in terms of what we are doing around public warning, we have a reasonably credible system, of course it needs improving. In terms of building up for consequence management, again the disparate nature of American agencies, the sheer number of American law enforcement agencies, compared with here is of a different order of events, and thus the nature of the challenge of cohesion and direction is different. But, all that being said, we are keeping very, very closely in touch. We have been privileged to contribute to the debates around homeland security, particularly on the subject that the industry have just mentioned in respect of public warning, and we will keep in very close contact to see whether there are compelling lessons which are coming out of their arrangements that we can steal with pride in relation to our system.

  1192. I will happily move on from the co-ordination of things to the current level of security in the UK. It is clear from the comments you have made already post 11 September your assessment of the scale of threat facing the UK has changed significantly.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  1193. Can you just talk us through the qualitative change in the threat? Has there been one? It is about predicting the unpredictable now which seems to be the game.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  1194. Has there been a qualitative change?
  (Mr Veness) You are absolutely right, Sir, we must move to a position whereby, for example, compared with what has been our major threat these last 30 years—which has been Republican extremism—the degree of precision that the United Kingdom may have been able to obtain in relation to the public danger which confronted both the mainland and Northern Ireland is bound to be different if we are talking about a threat which is truly global. If I had to choose one word in what the qualitative difference is it is the global nature of the threat. Not only have we got the impact in terms of the venues that have been attacked already, ranging from the Middle East, East Africa into the Eastern Seaboard, the scale of what has been achieved there, but what we know are the intentions across an even broader geographic span, then in terms of quality I think one has got the frustration of global intractability. One of the ways in which terrorism can be addressed is to move to the root cause and seek to eliminate the grievance that brought that about. Well, nothing can justify murder and this degree of harm but nevertheless may be at the heart of what has caused that. When one looks at the global span, for example, of the al-Qaeda agenda and the groups which are associated with it, the United States to abandon its support for Israel, a resolution of the Palestinian issue, the bombed minority of Iraq, oppressed regimes across the whole span of Islamic nations on a very broad geographic issue, and then America to quit the Arabian Peninsula, put all together, together with the other agendas—Algerian, Egyptian, Indonesian, Philippine, Kashmir—that does not appear to be the most soluble agenda in terms of resolution. I think again that is another one of the issues that has moved this in qualitative terms to the truly global dimension that I am referring to. Then I would add in all those other issues, what I would describe as the lines which were crossed on 11 September which is a short but sobering list of suicide terrorism, by definition no notice, macro casualty and simultaneous events which are long planned and meticulously referred. That is the group of factors which has changed the nature of the threat.

  1195. The macro casualties, the simultaneous co-ordination that made 11 September so extraordinary, would that be difficult to replicate? Is that a one-off spectacular? How can you assess the possibility of that threat happening again?
  (Mr Veness) I think one needs to avoid any sense that this was a one-off. If one looks at the period of preparation for these events over the last five, six, seven years, if you look at the attacks in East Africa, we know they occurred in 1998, they were planned in 1993/1994, then you have got Yeman, the attack on the USS Cole in October 2000, we know there was an attempt upon another USS warship earlier that year, we know that was years in the preparation, and if you look at 11 September we know, it is not entirely precise, it is around there at least. One almost has interleaved attacks where the preparation of at least one attack is occurring whilst another has taken place. I think we would be foolish indeed not to be alert to the possibility that there was another leaf or two to that possibility. Now one hopes, of course, that the denial and the impact of the logistic base in Afghanistan has caused an adverse impact on that planning, not least other activities globally, but I think it would be wrong and we would be sending the wrong message to say that 11 September was a one-off. Put in a nutshell it is when and not if a further attack will occur and we just hope that is less draconian than the events of 11 September.

  1196. We have seen in Israel and Palestine the repeated use of suicide bombers.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  1197. Israel is a state clearly determined to do everything it can to stop that.
  (Mr Veness) Yes.

  1198. Yet it continues. In defence terms we are taught that threat is the balance of capability and intent. How do you assess the threat over here given that it seems impossible to stop it if someone really wants to go out taking lives?
  (Mr Veness) We have sought to advance our knowledge as quickly as we can, not only with Israeli colleagues but also in Sri Lanka which is similarly afflicted. I am afraid repeated contact with both those nations does not produce easy solutions. This is the intelligent bomb which is capable of being delivered and none of the compensating defences that have supported British counter-terrorism in the past, which to a degree have involved the fact that someone wanted to escape afterwards, are present. We do not under-estimate the scale of the problem. We are looking very, very hard at a range of tactics, techniques and technologies which might assist us. Could this happen here? Certainly it could. It has happened to our east repeatedly in the Middle East. It has happened to our west in the United States. Will it occur in Europe? Again I think the only prudent comment would be we are into when, not if.

  1199. I will not ask you how significant the danger of complacency is because I think the tone of your answers throughout has given us a flavour of that. In the event of a large emergency moving to a catastrophe, do you simply ramp up the existing structures that we have or are there new assets that you can bring into play?
  (Mr Veness) I think it would be wrong to regard all of the achievements of integrated emergency management, in which Britain has not a bad record in comparative terms, to regard that as the answer to this problem is to miss the scale of the challenge. It is utterly around scalability and it is around the resources that we would need to bring to bear and I think some new thinking around how we would coalesce our resources. This is Alan's side of the house.
  (Mr Goldsmith) Yes. The issues which emerged from 11 September were in terms of scalability and in terms of contamination which took us to a different level than we had planned for in the past. There are some issues which arise which are not just about doing the same but doing more of it. There are issues about mutual aid. The police service has existing mutual aid arrangements. The other emergency services tend to have them on a regional rather than a national basis and they are now looking at those, and they might well have given evidence. There are issues about mass evacuation which again we have not addressed. Unlike some parts of the world, perhaps the southern states of America where tornadoes are going to happen every September time, then they have evacuation plans in place because the threat will always be the same from the same direction and the movements required will always be the same, we have great difficulty if we are looking at a suicide or other terrorist attempt in terms of evacuation of large parts of any city or town. Therefore, what we have done is to prepare some guidelines so that those who are making a decision about evacuation have got some thoughts ready prepared for them to follow. That is an example of where we try to look at if this were to happen on this scale anywhere in the UK how would we respond. There is an issue also about communications, how the emergency services communicate with each other but above all there is the issue of how national government then fits in to what is essentially a local response. The basis of Dealing with Disaster is that responding to a major incident is dealt with locally with the emergency services' local authorities on that level. There is mention in Dealing with Disaster of the concept of lead Government department. I think the role of CCS now means that has to be re-examined and in terms of how national Government responds to a large scale even multi-site event then needs working through, thinking through, exercising.

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