Blair in dock over his case for terror laws

By James Kirkup writing in The Scotsman

Key points

‘ Tony Blair is facing questions over MI5’s backing of the Terrorism Bill

‘ The Bill will allow suspects to be detained for up to 90 days without charge

‘ According to one official, MI5 made no request to extent the detention period

Key quote

“Given this government’s record of making claims of this kind about the position of the intelligence and Security Services, I am extremely sceptical that the Security Service has made the recommendation being suggested,” – Dominic Grieve, shadow attorney general

TONY Blair and the minister in charge of counter-terrorism are facing questions about whether they misled the public over MI5’s backing for the government’s controversial new Terrorism Bill.

Opposition MPs have challenged the government to prove claims by the Prime Minister and HazelBlears, the Home Office minister overseeing the bill, that the Security Service has recommended a crucial part of the legislation.

In an echo of previous controversies over the veracity of government statements about the intelligence and Security Services – such as the row over the “sexing- up” of intelligence over Iraqi weapons programmes – Whitehall insiders have cast grave doubt on claims made by Mr Blair and Ms Blears about the Security Service, also known as MI5.

The Terrorism Bill, published last week, would allow police officers to detain suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Under current law, suspects must be charged or released in 14 days.

The proposal has been criticised by opposition parties, civil rights groups and even the government’s own terror law watchdog.

Ministers, led by Mr Blair, say they have been convinced by arguments for the change made by senior police officers. The Association of Chief Police Officers has publicly called for the new rule.

On 5 August, before the bill was published, Mr Blair clearly suggested that MI5 was also backing the move. “We will also examine whether the necessary procedure can be brought about to give us a way of meeting the police and Security Service request that detention, pre-charge of terrorist suspects, be significantly extended,” the Prime Minister said at a Press conference.

And last week, on the day the bill was published, Ms Blears also said that the Security Service, had argued for the 90-day rule.

“The three-month period is what the police and Security Service say is necessary,” Ms Blears said last Wednesday at the Home Office.

In fact, The Scotsman has learned from credible Whitehall sources that MI5 has not given any such advice to ministers.

The police proposal for the 90-day rule was made at a Whitehall meeting of senior security officials in the wake of the 7 July suicide attacks on London.

According to one official who was briefed on the meeting, MI5 made no request for an extension in the detention period. Nor has the Security Service expressed a view on the need for the rule in its informal discussions with ministers since.

“MI5 were present at the conversations, but they made no recommendations on the detention period,” said a Whitehall official involved in the discussions. The 90-day proposal “was police-led. It originated only with the police”.

Security sources say that MI5 chiefs take the view that their service has no role in recommending specific policies to ministers.

The Security Service has not objected to the 90-day proposal, either. “They don’t object to it in any way, but it didn’t come from them and they’re not pushing for it – that’s not what they do,” said a Whitehall official. “It would not be accurate to say they have said it is necessary.”

Mr Blair’s comment remains on the Downing Street website.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman declined to repeat the assertion that the Security Service had recommended the 90-day rule, confirming only that MI5 officials had been present at meetings to draw up the bill.

As for what, if any, advice MI5 had given, the spokesman said only: “We never comment on the advice of the Security Service.”

Ms Blears’ remark, made to a group of journalists at a Home Office briefing, was reported in several national newspapers last Thursday. The Home Office has not challenged the accuracy of those remarks.

Asked by The Scotsman to reiterate Ms Blears’ comments about the Security Service and the Terrorism Bill, the Home Office last night issued a statement that failed to back up the minister’s position.

“This extension is necessary as the police and law enforcement agencies have to take on increasingly complex and international terrorist organisations who make ever-greater use of new technology such as encrypted computers,” the department said.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow attorney general, yesterday said he was “very concerned” that MI5’s position could have been misrepresented.

“Given this government’s record of making claims of this kind about the position of the intelligence and Security Services, I am extremely sceptical that the Security Service has made the recommendation being suggested,” he said.

“If there is any evidence to support this, it must be published, if not in parliament, then to the Intelligence and Security Committee.”

Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, agreed. “If the government is going to say that the Security Service is recommending this power, then they should publish the evidence to support that claim.”

“On something as fundamental and serious as this, the government should make available the advice of the Security Service before MPs debate the bill.”

Since August, Mr Blair has not suggested the new measures were recommended by MI5.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, has been even more reticent. He surprised MPs on the Home Affairs Committee last month when he admitted the Security Service had not actually advised ministers that foreign-born “hate preachers” should be deported to their home countries.