Police scoring own goals with raids that fail to bring results




By Mark Huband, Security Correspondent

Financial Times, 31 May 2005

When 400 police officers swooped on homes in Manchester and north-west England last month, their arrest of several Iraqi Kurds unleashed frenzied media claims that a plot to bomb Manchester United football ground had been foiled.

Within a week, the 10 people arrested under the Terrorism Act had been released.

Greater Manchester Police was forced to issue an apology for having identified the detainees’ nationalities, and for the damage this had caused to the reputation of Iraqi Kurds in Britain.

But as well as damaging community relations, the arrests, releases and media coverage intensified concerns that counter-terrorism efforts are also doing lasting damage to the legal and law enforcement processes.

Even before the raids, the intelligence information that led to the Manchester arrests was regarded by some senior officials as unlikely to lead to any prosecutions. The decision to launch the operation was taken by senior police officers, who preferred to act even though there was a large measure of doubt about the credibility of the evidence against those who were arrested. But the public anxiety and political pressure that have catapulted counter-terrorism to centre-stage is acknowledged by law enforcement officials and legal experts as having encouraged such actions.

Bill Durodie, a security expert at Kings College, London, said: “Maybe it reflects a great aversion to risk. Perhaps it’s inevitable that the police reflect that when they do these arrests.

“The law is shifting in many areas from ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ to the ‘balance of probabilities’. I don’t think the police and government have a conscious agenda. But the cultural presumptions that underlie their activities are forcing them into certain ways of doing things.”

It is becoming clear that while public opinion may favour drastic steps, the failure to follow up with successful prosecutions in all but a handful of terrorism cases since the September 11 attacks in the US, has exposed the gulf between what appears to be achieved when police swoop on a group of alleged terrorists, and what is actually achieved when the legal system gives its verdict on the credibility of the evidence.

MI5, which leads the intelligence-gathering effort within Britain that the police then act upon, has a large team of lawyers that examine the process of gathering intelligence to ensure its permissibility as evidence if a case reaches court. They also advise on how cases can be built up.

A senior Whitehall official said: “MI5 works to evidential standards. All of its surveillance operations are done on the basis that should the case go to court the jury can be satisfied that the evidence was collected in accordance with the rules.

“There is a limit to what a covert investigation will achieve. A conspiracy isn’t a very tangible thing. At some stage a decision has to be taken as to when action has to be taken.”

But a key part of the intelligence-gathering process that is seen by legal experts as having complicated the decision over when to carry out arrests, is the inadmissibility of evidence gathered from telephone taps. A review of the criminal justice system may change this, however.

Equally, the reluctance of police or MI5 informers to provide evidence in open court, and the view of the courts that intelligence provided by informants that is read out by security officials may amount only to “hearsay”, has also made prosecutions difficult.

Both issues have led critics of police and government actions to call for changes that may lead to better intelligence gathering and fewer wrongful arrests.

“If there was a lessening in the controls on the use of material from telephone taps, then we might find that many of these people would be prosecuted,” said a legal expert with detailed knowledge of national security issues. “The problem of detention without trial would also very possibly be removed in a lot of cases if there were telephone tap evidence being used in court.”



© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.