The Scots Law Student

The SLS : Life and trials of learning law in Scotland

Tag: terrorism

Should MI5 etc be proscribed? (Also: You had me at genital mutilation)

The Terrorism Act 2000 allows the government to proscribe groups which:

commits or participates in acts of terrorism, prepares for, promotes or encourages terrorism or is otherwise concerned in terrorism”.

The reason I mention this is that I last heard it being used by Alan Johnson as a nuclear option against Islam4UK, the attention seeking publicity whore of a personal quest for fame that wanted to protest the killing of Muslims by British soldiers by marching with fake coffins through the place where British soldiers were marching with real coffins and so proving that you don’t need to be big, a real group or even serious about doing it to be terrifically inappropriate.

I’ve always regarded the implications of proscribing a group under the 2000 Act as ludicrously excessive – it makes it a custodial, terrorist related offence to not report seeing someone displaying the group’s logo, even if it’s being displayed ironically. It also makes it possible to go to jail for a terrorist offence if you own an ironic t-shirt. It’s just false advertising to me – these are just not what you think of when you hear “terrorist offences” and yet the Terrorism Act is what you’d be charged under.

However, the recent judgement in the trial of R (Binyam Mohammed) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and particularly Lord Neuberger’s comments at paragraph 168, which are currently unpublished, but to quote Jonathan Sumption were something like:

  1. that the Security Service does not in fact operate in a culture that respects human rights or abjures participation in coercive interrogation techniques;
  2. that this was in particular true of Witness B whose conduct was in this respect characteristic of the service as a whole (‘it appears likely that there were others’);
  3. that officials of the Service deliberately misled the Intelligence and Security Committee on this point;
  4. that this reflects a culture of suppression in its dealings with the Committee, the Foreign Secretary and indirectly the Court, which penetrates the service to such a degree as to under any UK government assurances based on the Service’s information and advice; and
  5. that the Service has an interest in suppressing information which is shared, not by the Foreign Secretary himself (whose good faith is accepted), but by the Foreign Office for which he is responsible.

So, bearing in mind point i, are we in a position where the Home Secretary may make it a crime to be a member of our intelligence services? Obviously not, even I’m not serious about the idea and I’m suggesting it on my blog. The thing is, he could.

NB: The inhuman treatment (David Miliband is at pains to point out that “inhuman treatment” isn’t quite as bad as “torture”, which is the sort of statement that makes you want to punch Foreign Secretaries in the face) Binyam Mohammed received includes “genital mutilation” – basically while Mohammed was in Morocco someone, presumably to make him answer questions, took a razor blade to his gentleman area. Speaking as a guy this is never acceptable and means that I, and half of the population of the world, sympathise with him on general principle. Great job, SyS.

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Three police officers punished for NOT stopping photographs being taken

Photographs and police officers world wide have a pretty tortured history, even more so since the rise of anti terrorist legislation. I should declare an interest — I’m one of those amateur photographers you hear complaining that the police have stopped them taking photos for somewhat iffy reasons, in my case it was a potential breach of the peace (“but we’ll let you off with a warning”). The experience has utterly changed how I look at the police ever since.

There’s a rather well reported example of one of the BBC’s press photographers “having his collar felt” as he took photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. You hear stories of people taking photos of the blue light on police stations receiving similar treatment. There’s been motions in Parliament to clarify the lack of powers that the police actually have to stop regular people taking photos. The Home Office has given guidance (sadly in my view leaving it down to the regions rather than actually giving guidance for the whole country). The G20 protests in London are a smörgåsbord of examples which are still only coming to light – the Metropolitan Police Press Office sending out letters demanding that photographs of police officers hiding their badge numbers be destroyed for one. This is the background I read this particular story on — the apparent view that photographers are terrorists planning something.

The basic facts are that four, presumably, drunk young women were involved in an alleged assault in a bar on a Saturday night two weeks ago and were taken to a Staffordshire police station to give statements. That’s perfectly normal and fine. However, something happened and they ran amok as only drunk people can. The end result is that a lot of reasonably salacious images ended up Facebook. Egg was on face and so on. The Tax Payers Alliance absolutely hates the wasted police resources they feel this represents and they’re getting their boot in too.

Assistant Chief Constable Mick Harrison is quoted in today’s Metro (Tuesday, December 15, 2009, pg 7) as saying he was “extremely disappointed” by the event. “Officers made attempts to talk to the women about their behaviour and to stop them taking photographs for security reasons — these were not heeded or firmly enforced.”

This is a relatively innocuous quote but, given that the pictures in question were the result of party goers putting on police hats and taking photos of each other on their phones we should probably assume that there was not exactly an Al Qaeda attack going on. I think the idea that there was a security risk (except, perhaps, to the male officers’ virtue) is actually pretty laughable. I know that there really isn’t the whole story expressed in the dozen or so newspaper reports over the last couple of days so I thought I’d do it properly and do some research. Unfortunately Staffordshire police force doesn’t seem to have any way for members of the public to ring up and ask the police questions, it seems limited to reporting crimes or a press office. I resorted to calling the press office on the off chance but that naturally leads to the ” ‘Hello, I’m hoping you could answer a couple of questions’ ‘Are you press?’ ‘No’ ‘Well no then’ ” conversation that doesn’t really help anyone. In the absence of other information it sounds like it’s just a regular police station where you question witnesses, fill out your reports and hold antisocial drunks overnight as opposed to a nuclear silo.

It’s absolutely, undeniably not what the police should be doing on a Saturday night and it’s very embarrassing for the police but I think we really need to avoid defining everything that embarrasses the police as a security risk.

Plane water bombers jailed, bring on the security measures?

The news coverage of the conviction of the people behind the “water bottle bombing” plot has literally used the words “this has vindicated the heightened security measures” (BBC News 24) which were put in place after the plot was uncovered.

Does it really? I’m going to be pedantic here because vindication is a powerful word, here’s what it means:

vindicate

vin·di·cate / ˈvindəˌkāt/ v. [tr.]

  1. clear (someone) of blame or suspicion: hospital staff were vindicated by the inquest verdict.
  2. show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English, 2009

I do appreciate the job that the security services have done in keeping what turned out to be a fairly clever and probably, had it not been detected and watched by the largest surveillance operation the UK had ever seen from an early stage and then immediately stopped once it moved beyond planning ending in the conviction of all but one of the suspects, damaging attack out of the skies over my head. That’s really, really fantastic news. I’m not pro-terrorist, make no mistake, and I’m very glad that the attack was stopped. This is a post on the use of words.

The security measures

My issue is that I do wonder if it really does “vindicate” the fact you couldn’t take enough baby food (baby food is now excepted from the restrictions, thankfully) on a transatlantic flight to feed a baby. Or how it now means that you can no longer bring water that you didn’t buy from the departure lounge onto a plane. Drinks that you pick up in the airport and quietly bring onto the plane unquestioned are clearly more friendly to allies of America than drinks from home that are subject to an x-ray scanner and security checkpoint, obviously. This isn’t as flippant as it seems because the explosive that the plotters planned to use was basically energy drink mixed with cleaning fluid. You can just buy that in the departure lounge.

You could even bring homemade liquid fiery death entirely legally “so long as the items are carried in a clear plastic food storage type bag with a capacity of no more than one quart” remembering that “each individual container must have a capacity of no greater than three ounces (90 ml)” And your friend could also bring his own clear plastic bag of liquid fiery death to top yours up if you wanted a bigger explosion and so on. Are we really safer with little bottles? Can I go out there and suggest that you could put it into a container of baby food which is exempt from the restrictions?

One of the main tricks of the trade when investigating a terrorist attack, or most crimes in fact, is asking the question “who benefits?” because if you know who had an incentive to commit a crime you narrow down the people who were likely to have committed it. By this metric, “who benefits from banning liquids from being taken through the baggage scanner?”, you end up with WHSmiths and Starbucks who get a legally enforced monopoly in the departure lounge shops because, legally, you haven’t got any other option unless you want to end up becoming a terror suspect. Is one textbook, wonderfully well executed police operation that kept us safe from even the slightest chance of harm to our air traffic at all times[1] a vindication of these measures?

Definition 1: to clear (someone) of blame or suspicion

This is probably not what the reporter meant when they dropped the v word. My comments above aside I don’t actually think WHSmith plotted to blow up planes to create a monopoly for their airport shops so it’s probably just commercially convenient rather than actually a dastardly conspiracy. The measures themselves have viewed with no greater and probably some lesser suspicion (I think everyone’s wondered in their heart of hearts if you actually can blow a plane up with a bottle of Oasis outside of a movie) because of this conviction but it is not “cleared” because of the trial and that’s what the definition of vindication requires.

Definition 2: show or prove to be right, reasonable, or justified: more sober views were vindicated by events.

This seems more sensible and probably what the reporter meant. This is what I’m not convinced about, the main problem is that the instant case just doesn’t seem to have needed the actions that were rolled out to protect anyone. Basically the liquids prohibition (now relaxed to pretty awkward restrictions) was just a belt and braces extra on top on a mind bogglingly thorough UK police operation as far as this case was concerned. This case didn’t actually need the prohibition at all.

The prohibition was for other people.

This case only showed the real and present threat of liquid explosives passing through the baggage checking process at airports disguised as other liquids. The restriction on liquids was levied to stop other attempts. The vindication will come when the measures, not the police and intelligence services, stop an attack using liquid explosives disguised as other liquids to defeat pre-“jet plot” baggage checking procedures against a commercial aeroplane. That is the difference. The success or failure of this conviction does not relates to the restrictions at all – the restrictions were never tested by the plotters.

What the trial is is a vindication of the police surveillance operation, not all of them but this one was certainly justified, and also justifies its snooping on email traffic. Admittedly the sort of snooping on email traffic that is justified in this case is that being sent to or coming from a known terrorist mastermind living in Pakistan so it’s still not reasonable to snoop on just everyone’s email because of this trial.

The problem of security precautions is that it’s next to impossible to tell if security measures have stopped an attack. I suppose if we test every 95ml bottle of baby food that’s left at the baggage check for explosive and find some then we know we’ve dodged a bullet. On the other end of the scale if someone manages to blow up a plane regardless then we’ve bought overpriced airport drinks for nothing and that’s the horrible dilemma. We simply can’t tell if the restrictions are sensible or not from this case. We should all celebrate the successful conclusion of a ground-breaking multi disciplinary police operation which has almost certainly saved thousands of lives but at the same time it’s important not to take lessons from it that it’s just not teaching us. The effect of baggage search on anything is irrelevant unless you actually go through a baggage search. I think the police and security services involved in this investigation have kept us very safe and they are to be applauded but throwing away sealed bottles of water at the scanner is still to prove its worth. It certainly hasn’t in this case.


[1] The arrests were sped up when the well known Pakistan based mastermind of the plot was captured, not because the hitherto unknown plotters were suddenly spotted getting on a plane. The UK plotters were had well in hand and under constant surveillance.

Times Law Student Competition

Every year since 2006 the Times newspaper has sponsored a competition for law students – this is open to all A-level, LLB, LML, LLM and Diploma/LPC students throughout Britain.

Even though the contest is open to older students with more qualifications the contest appears to have been friendly to students at university for the last few years. The idea is to write an academic, engaging essay on a topic of the Times’ choosing. It’s is always a hot button, topical issue – the contention between human rights and counter-terror actions, for example. This year, to commemorate the Mosley v The Sun libel case it is “Should people in the public eye have a right to privacy?”

Presumably, given the fallout which has hit the Express and the Sun this year alone, this is a legal issue which the Times is very interested in itself.

New students shouldn’t be put off by their inexperience – the very first case I and many other student were introduced to on starting law school was the case of Douglas v MGM which is a hugely important privacy case involving the wedding photos of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, you’ve already been exposed to it and remember that the Times site also provides a very useful basic foundation to the subject to build on, your university’s law library will as a matter of course have textbooks on the subject and it is just a case of reading ahead to get the material you need.

The format is a short essay – no more than 1000 words, only about twice as long as this post – which is double spaced and emailed to One Essex Court on the subject of privacy law as it affects public figures. It is to include legal authority, remember that in law it is equally important who said something as it is what the content actually is, and discussion and is written just like any other piece of coursework.

The difference between the Times law student competition and your coursework is that the entrants to the Times competition are competing for up to £3500 for the first prize, £2,500 for the second and a prize of £1,500 for the third. Even after this, three runners-up will still walk away with £1,000 each – a nice wodge of book money. There’s also an awards dinner for the winners which is a highlight of any student’s essay writing career.

Anyway, I once listened to a former director of BBC Scotland describe the job of a lawyer in a media organisation and it sounds like one of the better positions that a practicing lawyer can get a hold of and there’s probably a benefit as far as informing a group of newspaper men dealing with reformed defamation laws, and a highly respected Chambers, that you know your way around both a pen and the law as it relates to privacy, isn’t there?

Law students have until the 28th November 2008 to enter their views on the subject.

Useful links

[TimesOnline Article] http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/law/article4944261.ece
[One Essex Court] http://www.oeclaw.co.uk/