By Martin Kettle (THE GUARDIAN, 08/04/06):
During the Falklands conflict in April 1982, a call came through to the Whitehall office of John Nott, Margaret Thatcher’s defence secretary. At that time the British military task force was still steaming southwards through the Atlantic and the eventual outcome of the hostilities could not be predicted. But this call came directly from the Argentine-occupied islands themselves, from an SAS unit secretly at work close to Port Stanley. “We are looking straight at General Menendez in the cross hairs of our rifles,” the SAS caller whispered. “Do you want us to take him out?”.
Back in London there was a hasty high-level discussion about what to do with this opportunity to remove the head of the Argentine forces on the Falklands. But the response was unanimous and quick. Don’t kill him, the SAS were told. We don’t do assassination.
Britain’s record, in war and even in peace, does not bear out that claim as neatly as this anecdote might suggest. Remember Death on the Rock? But nor does the record show that, in the name of the security threat, anything goes. We should accept that, faced with real danger, from jihadist terrorism, there is a divergence between the more aggressive and permissive approach of the US and Britain’s more cautious and restrictive one. That does not mean the British approach is perfect or unproblematic – or the US approach unworthy of any defence at all – but it does mean that ours is distinctive, and better.
As a case in point, contrast two recent statements. The first is the 2006 US national security strategy, published last month, which begins with an explicit and uncompromising introduction by George Bush. “My fellow Americans,” it starts, “America is at war.” That sets the tone for a highly aggressive, highly proactive doctrine of systemic global change. The terrorists must be killed or captured. The fight must be taken to the enemy. There is an overriding obligation to pre-empt danger. The war will continue “for generations”. The aggressive and interventionist implications of this are almost limitless. Bush’s approach is all the more disturbing because, post 9/11, so much of his system of government depends on barely constrained executive authority.
A recent but, until now, unreported public speech at Chatham House by Sir David Omand, the former Cabinet Office security and intelligence coordinator, offers a very different prescription. Omand may not be the leader of the world’s only superpower, but until last year he played a key role, with Tony Blair and small number of officials, in shaping Britain’s response to 9/11. Like Bush, Omand sees a long-term challenge that requires strategic responses. Like Bush, he acknowledges that jihadist terrorism is something new in type and scale. But that is where the resemblance ends.
Where Bush seeks to redefine the world in the light of the terrorist threat, Omand’s concern is to particularise the challenge from terrorism. As he says, he wants counter-terrorist operations – and, crucially, the pre-emptive secret intelligence work that goes with them – to enjoy support and legitimacy without disrupting the normal life of the community. In terms of state action, he says he wants the bludgeon to be replaced by the rapier. And, more challengingly still, he wants the security response to take place “within rights” rather than in opposition to them. In other words, his approach could not be more different from that taken in Washington.
Omand recognises what politicians are often afraid to admit, that the fight against terrorism carries actual, rather than hypothetical, costs – including the compromise of values, and the counter-productive, even radicalising, effect of security measures. He identifies four particular concerns: the use of British intelligence to guide pre-emptive military or covert action by ourselves or others against terrorists; the exchange of intelligence between countries with differing approaches to questioning, or to other forms of state action against, terrorists; the danger of disproportionate legislative responses that risk eroding fundamental aspects of the rule of law; and, finally, the growth of intrusive information technologies which allow access to personal emails and invade privacy.
His answer to these problems is for six explicit ethical guidelines to shape such operations. There must be “sufficient sustainable cause” for them to be needed; there must be “integrity of motive”; the methods used must be “in proportion” to the task; there must a proper authorisation and oversight process; there must be “reasonable prospect of success”; and there must be “no reasonable alternative” to recourse to such methods.
It is not difficult to see an implicit, and even an explicit, challenge to some of the Blair government’s methods in parts of this. The emphasis on proportionality directly reflects the principle on which the courts have increasingly drawn lines around the government’s anti-terror laws. The stress on integrity of motives is a direct response to the loss of trust following the Iraq dossier.
But this is not some mushy want-it-both-ways prescription for protecting us from terrorism without confronting the terrorists – a too common failing among some liberal critics. The big subtext of Omand is that law is not the sole or even the best guarantee of proper action in this unavoidably delicate area of statecraft. If you are going to protect lives and the nation, then ethos is vital too. As in a real war, the public needs to be able to trust authority to do difficult things as well as they can. That is why the six guidelines makes sense.
When the call comes through to say that some future Menendez is in the cross hairs, we will need to know that shooting him is not just illegal but wrong and harmful too. And if we grasped that more clearly, we might also understand why we should stand up more confidently for our own distinctive and focused approach to the challenge of terrorism, rather than allow ourselves to travel in the slipstream of America’s misconceived global crusade.