William Hague was dispatched into the television studios yesterday to dismiss as "nonsense" claims that GCHQ has been seeking to circumvent the law by using data gathered by foreign intelligence systems, and will make a Commons statement about the matter later today. A central question is whether GCHQ has been making a indiscriminate trawl of information - of the kind that has led critics of the Data Communications Bill to dub it a "snoopers' charter" - or whether it has been carrying out targeted searches for information (an activity which even as dedicated a civil libertarian as David Davis indicates should be permissible).
Today's Times editorial calls on the Foreign Secretary to clarify everything and anything he can - "how concerned the United Kingdom is about the potential of its citizens’ data being scrutinised by another country", what the case is for the Data Communications Bill, whether allegations that GCHQ have circumvented the law are true or false. "The tightrope between public confidence and public safety is one that must be walked," it concludes, and Boris Johnson's message is no different: "There is a trade-off between freedom and security, as Barack Obama rightly says; between the citizen’s right to total internet privacy, and the duty of the state to protect us all from harm."
There is little else to be said once that inevitable conclusion has been reached, but the London Mayor does a marvellously entertaining job of it, as he does each Monday morning. His party trick is to haul an anecdote into each column to illustrate his central contention: today, it is being hacked while in China. "I am afraid I just forged on with whatever I was doing, and it may be that the moles are still there in the innards of my laptop, secretly relaying useless information to their masters". As he says, "I have never trusted the security of the internet, or emails, or indeed texts – because it [is] that any data you sent to some server or database or gizmo [can] no longer be in any sense private." Nothing can change that, whatever Hague says today.
It would be an exaggeration to write that every Conservative born into the world alive is either a Little Authoritarian or a Little Libertarian. But how much of one? The result of our last monthly survey question about the Communications Data Bill (a.k.a the Snooper's Charter) may point towards an answer.
That last fifth of Tory respondents is quite a big slice of the whole, and is a reminder that all Conservatives don't come down on one side of the fence or the other. Since compromise with our Coalition partner isn't always a popular option with party members, the figure indicates that a significant percentage of them find it hard to make their minds up about the bill.
However, the remaining three-quarters or so seem to have made their minds up. And I think the results point towards a general truth - namely, that regardless of whether one agrees with them or not, libertarians make a lot of noise in proportion to their number.
Perhaps the Woolwich horror has had an impact on the figures. However, the proportions certainly wouldn't justify any claim that Conservative members are lined up to support the bill: compromise is perhaps where the Home Office is heading in any event. Over 700 Tory members responded to the survey - as did over 1400 readers in total.
Theresa May has criticised universities for complacency in tackling radicalisation towards extremism on campus. Mustafa Field of the Mosques and Imams Advisory Board has said: "We are...having hate preachers walking into university campuses and there's not enough work being done around that." Boris Johnson wrote in his Daily Telegraph column this morning that "universities need to be much, much tougher in their monitoring of Islamic societies. It is utterly wrong to have segregated meetings in a state-funded centre of learning. If visiting speakers start some Islamist schtick – and seek either to call for or justify violence – then the authorities need to summon the police."
I am not so cynical as to write that much is said about extremism but nothing is done. Theresa May has keep a lot of hate preachers out of the country, starting as she meant to go on with Zakir Naik. The Times suggested behind its paywall on Saturday that counter-terror co-ordinators are already gathering information on radicalisation towards extremism on campus. There is progress. But I am concerned about David Cameron's measured reaction last week degenerating into a "crackdown" (with the attendant risk of the return of the "Snoopers' Charter"). Let me be clear: I'm all for extremist preachers being kept off campus, websites being shut down, extremism being tackled in prisons, Anjem Choudary's benefits being stopped (why is he still getting any?) and so - a real crackdown.
But when one reads of the Prime Minister's new Ministerial task force - TERFOR - producing initiatives on "disrupting extremist activity" and "challenging poisonous activities", it's worth remembering that John Reid set up the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) in to do precisely that under Labour - as long ago as 2007. In short and despite advances, there is a pattern. An outrage happens. Ministers promise action. Memories start fading. Newspapers lose interest. Officials resist action, as in the case of Cameron's Munich speech. So do politicians (in some instances). It's two steps forward and one step back, and that's if we're lucky. If we're unlucky, we have what Andrew Gilligan has called the Government being tough where it should be liberal, and liberal where it should be tough. In other words, questionable groups get favours from Ministers while innocent citizens have their freedoms compromised.
I have a simple test. On the one hand, the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS) has been condemmed by Theresa May and Nick Clegg, two of the most senior Ministers in government, for failing to “fully challenge terrorist and extremist ideology”. (May ordered civil servants to withdraw from a FOSIS graduate recruitment fair.) On the other, Sayeeda Warsi attended a FOSIS event in the House of Lords and, according to Gilligan, "supported claims by FOSIS that extremism was “no more prevalent” in universities than in any other parts of society". Can Ministers please get their ducks in a row? "You say I am repeating/ Something I have said before. I shall say it again./ Shall I say it again?..."
Reflect for a moment on the absurdity of the idea unpacked in that last sentence. The minds of both men were not in healthy condition before the murder. They were made sick long before it by the virus of Islamist ideology. In other words, extremism is the soil from which violent extremism grows, and ideas have consquences. To say that extremism leads to violent extremism ought to be no more controversial than to say that violent storms lead to flooding. But for all its good intentions and despite some solid work, the Government isn't facing up fully to this obvious truth.
Eric Pickles as good as admits it in his article in today's Sunday Telegraph. "As we reflect on the events of this week, there is no doubt that more can and will be done by the Government to challenge radicalisation and extremism," he writes. The Communities Secretary knows well that a counter-extremism strategy has been due from CLG for well over a year. What reference there is in it to his Department's Integration Strategy was inserted at a late stage. I wrote last year that "more details will be published in due course". Over 18 months later, we're still waiting.
Tony Blair responded to 7/7 by rushing out a twelve-point plan which his Home Secretary hadn't had proper sight of, and which the Labour Chairman of the Home Affairs Select committee called "half-baked". Much of it was never implemented, which was just as well, and its most startling feature was immediately dropped - new powers to close mosques (as if that would have helped). One of its main proposals was to hold suspects without charge for up to 90 days. This was red top government: the then Prime Minister was running the country as if he were a tabloid editor.
David Cameron responded to the murder of Lee Rigby by saying that he is "not in favour of knee-jerk responses. The police have responded with heightened security and activity - and that is right. But one of the best ways of defeating terrorism is to go about our normal lives." He also confirmed that the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Intelligence and Security Committee will examine why the suspects weren't fully investigated - despite being known to the police and security services. (The independent coroner's inquiry into 7/7 didn't open until 2010.) This style of government was presumably what Cameron meant - though he cannot have foreseen the terrible circumstances - when he said in opposition that politics shouldn't be a branch of the entertainment industry.
When the first Islamist terror attack in Britain took place - the horror of 7/7 - suicide bombs were the means and training abroad the method, or part of it: mobiles were cruder and Twitter didn't exist. Much has changed since the day when I sat in David Davis's office (he was Shadow Home Secretary at the time, and I was a Conservative MP) scribbling lines for his response to Charles Clarke's Commons statement. Osama Bin Laden is dead, his Al Qaeda network is smashed, and rookie terrorists aren't necessarily put through their paces in Afghanistan or Pakistan: one of the last domestic British victim of an attack was an MP, Stephen Timms.
His attacker, Roshonara Choudhry, was self-radicalised towards extremism and violence: that's to say, she'd been swayed by videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American Al Qaeda terror cleric. Choudhry embodied the danger which the security services had warned about - the "lone wolf" who would strike without a supporting network: the Islamist equivalent of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian fascist terrorist. It is too early to tell if the two terrorists who so foully murdered a soldier yesterday in Woolwich were also isolated and home-grown, or part of a wider network - and recent arrivals in Britain.
It's also unclear whether they were converts to the Salafist-Wahabi strand of Islam - of which Al Qaeda is the one of the most violent manifestations - from a traditional Islamic background or from outside the religion altogether. But what is certain is that beheading British soldiers has been an aim among Al Qaeda-inspired fanatics for some time. For example, Parvix Khan from Birmingham received a life sentence in 2007 for plotting to behead a soldier "like a pig". Today's terrorists were taking a well-trodden path - albeit one with a peculiarly and sickeningly modern or even post-modern end: one was videoed by passers-by mouthing propaganda.
By Mark Wallace
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When Nick Clegg announced that the Communications Data Bill - AKA the Snoopers' Charter - was being dropped, he prompted jubiliation from campaigners for privacy, individual liberty and digital technology.
The past history of the issue, however, suggested this wouldn't be the last we would hear of the proposals to gather data on emails. This idea has come up again and again, under different Governments, suggesting it is the pet project of someone or some group within the Home Office Civil Service.
Indeed, when one campaigner tweeted "What's next?" after the Government backed down, I was cynical enough to reply:
RT @nickpickles What's next? << defeating the Snoopers' Charter again when the civil service bring it back in disguise in 6 months' time?
— Mark Wallace (@wallaceme) April 25, 2013
And lo, it came to pass. Only hours after the Queen's Speech, the BBC is reporting that the Government is looking at "fresh proposals" to pursue the same rotten idea.
By Paul Goodman
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There is a mass of commentary about the Boston atrocity which agrees that it's too early to say very much about the dispositions, motives and connections of those who carried it out - because we know so little.
However, what we do know is extremely suggestive, and to claim that because we don't know everything we must say nothing looks suspiciously, in some cases at least, like an attempt to prevent views being voiced at all, for fear of them being politically incorrrect.
I think we can draw two clear conclusions from what's happened, as nurses in hospital try to save the life of a terrorist who took lives: a reminder, were one needed, of why the country whose virtues they show is better than the ideology whose evil he has spread.
It is certainly too early to claim, by way of a third point, that the terror in Boston proves the danger of the "lone wolf" - or, in this case, a lone wolf and his brother.
The British Security Services, in the wake of the decline of Al Qaeda as an organised force, are preoccupied by this threat - the self-radicalised extremists indoctrinated via the internet who strikes alone, as Roshonara Choudhry struck at the Labour MP Stephen Timms.
As I say, these are early days, and it may be that the Boston terrorists had help and training which we don't know about yet, but the possibility is worth keeping an eye on.
By Paul Goodman
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Almost eight years ago, 52 innocents were murdered and hundreds injured by Islamist terrorists on 7/7. Two years ago, David Cameron made a speech about the causes of that terror in Berlin - his so-called "Munich Speech". In the years between the two events, debate raged both about policy responses to Al Qaeda terror - dividing politicians, civil servants, the security services, the police and academics into two main camps.
The last Government's CONTEST counter-terror strategy was divided into four strands (and remains so under this one) - Prepare, Protect, Pursue and Prevent. It was this last that proved the most contentious.
One school of thought held that government could use the bad against the worst - in other words, non-violent extremists against the violent extremists of Al Qaeda. Individuals and groups aligned with such Islamist movements as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat e-Islami had, it was argued, "credibility" with young British Muslims, and could help turn them against AQ - thus helping to prevent terror attacks.
Others disagreed, arguing that it would be disastrous for the state to fund or patronise movements that were ambiguous, to say the least, about liberal democracy, and held ideas about, for example, the place of women in society that were antithetical to it. In Munich, David Cameron threw his weight decisively on the side of the second school, and against not only those who committed violent acts, but against those who supported the ideology that helped to underpin them.
By Tim Montgomerie
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William Hague and David Cameron are seriously considering sending arms to help the Syrian opposition in their civil war with the Assad regime. Assad's armed forces are being financed and equipped by Russia and are getting a helping hand from Iran's Revolutionary Guard. The combination of Russia and Iran is a particularly horrible one. Moscow's fingerprints are all over the Grozny-style bombing of Syrian cities that means many of them now resemble 1945 Berlin. Tehran's contribution has been to help brutalise the Syrian regime's anti-insurgency operations. Many prisoners of war aren't detained but are mutilated before being killed.
It is no wonder that, in Mr Hague's words, Syria is producing the world's "biggest human catastrophe of recent years". At least 70,000 people have already died. Four million people are in acute need. More than one million refugees have fled Syria and that flow is accelerating rather than declining. Last week, as a guest of the Save the Children charity, I visited the Zaatari refugee camp on Jordan's border with Syria.