Was 7/7 an intelligence failure? We need a public inquiry, as in the USby Peter R Neumann / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Britain has a proud tradition of public inquiries. Whether it is about food safety, childcare or institutional racism, whenever something goes wrong in government or society, the great and the good are summoned to investigate. True, commissions are sometimes ignored or swiftly forgotten, but on other occasions they have produced substantial change and uncovered many ill-practices that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. They are, in other words, part of the British system of checks and balances that holds bureaucrats accountable and improves the way government works.
It seems odd, therefore, that following the greatest terrorist atrocity in British history, calls for a public inquiry into the intelligence failure that led to the 7th July bombings have been virtually non-existent. Indeed, until recently, there seemed to be a consensus that there hadn’t been any intelligence failure at all. According to the intelligence services, the members of the Leeds terror cell had had no previous involvement with Islamic extremism: there was no reason to know anything about them, and—short of targeting the entire Muslim community—nothing could have been done to prevent the attacks.
We now know that this is not true. BBC Newsnight revealed that the leader of the 7th July terror cell, Mohammed Khan, had travelled to Malaysia and the Philippines to receive terrorist training as early as 2001. He had meetings with an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan in 2003. And only last year, he was filmed by British intelligence in a surveillance operation. If this isn’t enough to be on the intelligence services’ radar screen, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves if we are still using the right equipment?
Had such a blunder happened in any other part of government, a public inquiry would be automatic. Intelligence, though, is different. It is secret, and it deals with matters of national security. Arguably, it is precisely because the proper functioning of intelligence is essential to national security that its procedures ought to be subject to systematic evaluation, and that people with no vested interest in maintaining the status quo should be part of that process. In related policy areas— defence, for example—public inquiries and strategic reviews have long been common practice. Why should intelligence be any different?
Indeed, there are broader questions to ask. Does it make sense to divide intelligence into “domestic” and “foreign” when we deal with terrorists who recognise no national borders? As we no longer confront…