The Beria Principle

Home Secretary, Charles Clarke was arguing this morning, that mobile telephone records be kept for three years as a means of assisting police in future investigations which may or my not include terrorist offences.

In the wake of last week’s events in London, it seems inevitable that government, confronted by a total failure of the intelligence gathering apparatus of the state, will explore every possible opportunity for information and evidence gathering in the future and this may include the resurrection of arguments that once surrounded the original drafting of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) that you may recall gave “snooping rights” - at least in principle - to any “official”, down to the rank of Traffic Warden, as presenter Jeremy Paxman pointed out to a Home Office Minister on a BBC Newsnight programme in 2001.

It was Stalin’s Chief of Police, Lavrenty Beria, who first made the collection of detailed information on citizens into a science but even he might not have been able to imagine the ambition of some of the legislative proposals offered to Parliament by the Home Office in recent years and which fortunately for us, have been diluted or thrown-out by the House of Lords. In retrospect, it’s unlikely that such ideas might have been able to deter last week’s atrocity and while we need to be able offer the police and intelligence services the tools they need to prevent a repeat of the London bombings, technology, used as a blunt instrument of policy, is not the answer.

Unfortunately, I’ve had direct experience of terrorism in the days before the appearance mobile phones and personal computers and today’s terrorists or potential terrorists know only too well, that to use technology is to invite the risk of attention, which may partly explain why the police and intelligence services had no idea that we have a cadre of suicide bombers living among us, a group that is loyal to an ideology of conflict and not an organisation, Al Qaeda which now only exists as a brand of terrorism, a lens which collects and focuses the hatred of a disaffected minority.

Fighting terrorism with technology can only give you an “ah ha” moment if the technology is able to identify a pattern of behaviour. Deprive government of the ability to deploy tanks, aircraft and computers against the threat and we’re back once more to the classic theory of Guerrilla warfare, “The War of the Flea”, articulated by Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara and others. History’s lesson shows that when a government, confronted by the threat of direct action by a minority, dramatically increases its intelligence gathering powers and restricts civil liberties, it simply makes matters worse and not better.

The uneasy truth of London last Thursday is that all the satellites, scanners, ID cards and laws in the world won’t protect the citizens United States and Europe from the determined activities of a group prepared to deploy home-grown, teenage suicide bombers against the society in which they live. Encouraged by the propaganda found on a thousand internet sites and protected by the civil liberties that define our modern society, terrorists have presented us with the stark message that technology is their tool and not our weapon in a conflict of ideologies which may run for decades.

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