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 hierarchical, highly structured foes, what can be done to make the intelligence apparatus more dynamic? Is it necessary for the intelligence services to develop a public communication strategy? Is co-operation between the various branches of intelligence working as well as it could? Are border security, law enforcement and intelligence properly integrated? None of these questions have yet been addressed, but they are critical to preventing another terrorist atrocity.
The 9/11 commission in the US is a good example of how it can be done. Despite all its limitations and the subsequent criticism that its remit was too narrow, even the sceptics now agree that having a public inquiry into the working of the intelligence machinery was a useful exercise. It laid bare many of the rivalries that had blocked effective co-operation among the different agencies. It challenged received wisdom about the ways in which intelligence is supposed to operate, and brought a new sense of urgency to intelligence reform. Perhaps most importantly, it educated the public about the intelligence process, stripping away some of the mystique with which intelligence services like to surround themselves.
The 9/11 commission also demonstrated that a public inquiry into intelligence doesn’t need to compromise public safety. While most of the meetings were held in public, not even the staunchest critics believed that this was detrimental to national security.
None of this has persuaded the Blair government to launch a similar investigation. In fact, there seems to be a pact between the intelligence community and the government not even to raise the possibility. The services, while complaining that they don’t get enough recognition for their successes, have resisted any attempt to make their work more transparent or accountable. The government, on the other hand, appears to be worried that a public inquiry will set a precedent, with the same standards of public accountability applying to all future cases of intelligence failure—including instances of government abuse. None of this has anything to do with national security: it’s about vested interests.
No doubt the government and the intelligence services will try to play the secrecy card as long as they can. If, however, further attacks are as inevitable as we are told, both should recognise that it is in their own best interests to embark on a systematic process of reform while the public still gives them the benefit of the doubt.