A criminal comparison

By Patrick O’Hara, a visiting professor at Bramshill Police College in Hampshire, is the author of ‘Why Law Enforcement Agencies Fai’ (THE GUARDIAN, 12/04/06):

Tony Blair appeared to be heralding the launch of a British FBI when he announced the birth of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) last week. This is not altogether a good idea. In the past 15 years, the FBI has been more iconic for its blunders than its successes.In the early 1990s, the FBI managed two assaults on suspects whose deaths – including those of women and children – made them martyrs to rightwing extremists who shared the victims’ religious and political beliefs. To end one siege, the agency used overblown accusations of child abuse and understated descriptions of the planned assault to get the go-ahead from an attorney general who was new to the job.

The leverage the FBI used in these cases was not unique. Various attorneys general have been little more than nominal bosses of the FBI, a situation that has spawned other policies and operations that have backfired. And while Soca is looking increasingly like the FBI, the home secretary is becoming more like the US attorney general, especially with the demise of the service authorities that oversaw the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service. This development seems more deserving of wariness than celebration.

Also worrisome is the MI5-like tone of Soca pronouncements, citing operational approaches that are yet (perhaps never) to be divulged. Policy makers have found it hard to penetrate some of the FBI’s more mysterious functions. The FBI laboratory, for instance, had no accreditation for a long time, until ex-cathedra testimony and poor practice by analysts was shredded by defendants’ experts to the chagrin of prosecutors and magistrates alike. The more policy makers encourage in Soca a notion of FBI-like expertise and MI5-like secrecy, the more likely they are to find themselves outside Oz’s curtain with the Soca voice booming: “It’s all under control, thank you very much. Go away now.”

The FBI has a long history of battling other intelligence services for control. If this is what UK policy makers want, so that parliament is constantly having to pass laws to clarify the boundaries between Soca, MI5, MI6 and Special Branch, there is a risk that what happened in the US in the run-up to 9/11 could happen in Britain – namely, evidence of a terrorist plot getting lost in a labyrinth of rules and reviews designed to sort out who should run a case.

There is another problem in viewing Soca’s remit for cross-border crime as on a par with the FBI’s on interstate crime. State and local police in the US often feel that the FBI creams the best cases, taking credit for their work. Last week, Soca spokespersons helped fuel speculation that Soca might take over “complex” cases from the Serious Fraud Office. A hint of alienation was in the air when the SFO said that it saw no need to be freed from the alleged burden of its big, complex cases.

Now don’t get me wrong. I deeply respect the professionalism of FBI agents and think that, under Robert Mueller’s direction, great progress has been made. Siege policy now involves patience and negotiation, with multiple reviews and precise rules of engagement necessary for any assault. The FBI lab is now accredited. Partnership working is a high priority, reflected in multi-agency task forces involving state and local police, as well as better working relationships with other national agencies.

Soca will be the biggest national player in UK crime-fighting, operating alongside Special Branch policing, national intelligence and even statecraft. But the last thing it needs is a big head, so policy makers ought to stop saying it looks just like the FBI.