Another poke in the eye for freedom

I have long held the view that our freedom, our civil liberties and human rights, and indeed our open society, pluralist political system and way of life are endangered more by the response of the UK and US governments to the threat posed by Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, than by the terrorists themselves.

A further reminder of just how assiduously the British government has been chipping away at our freedom is provided by the arrest of the opposition spokesman on immigration, Mr. Damian Green, by counter-terrorism officers, his questioning by these counter-terrorism officers for nine hours and the search of his home and office.  The ‘terrorist conspiracy’ being investigated concerned Home Office leaks.

According to the BBC’s website, among the recent leaks that got Home Office knickers twisted so viciously were the following:

  • The November 2007 revelation that the home secretary knew the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.
  • The February 2008 news that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the House of Commons.
  • A whips’ list of potential Labour rebels in the vote on plans to increase the pre-charge terror detention limit to 42 days.
  • A letter from the home secretary warning that a recession could lead to a rise in crime.
  • Each one of these leaks clearly poses an immediate material terrorist threat to the UK and threatens to rip the heart out of our way of life.

    When challenged on this prima facie inappropriate use of the counter-terrorism command, the London Metropolitan Police confirmed that Mr Green was arrested by members of its counter-terrorism command. It said the investigation was not terrorism-related but did fall within the counter-terror unit’s remit. Mr Green was not charged with any offence but was released on bail until February.

    Well, let me explain something to the Metropolitan Police.  If an investigation is not terrorism-related, it obviously does not fall within the counter-terror unit’s remit.  How hard was that? Using the counter-terror unit to investigate an alleged offence which, even if it had been committed, would not be terrorism-related, is an abuse of power.  These are the methods used commonly in police states.  They have no place in the UK.

    I don’t know whether Mr. Green is guilty of the offence he is suspected of by the police: “conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office” and “aiding and abetting, counselling or procuring misconduct in a public office” .  Apparently there is such an offence under common law, and it does not refer to inappropriate behaviour after the office Christmas party.

    There are three possibilities.

    First, Mr. Green was not in any way involved in these leaks

    Second, Mr Green was involved in (some of) these leaks but acted in the public interest.

    Third, Mr. Green was involved in (some of) these leaks and conspired to commit misconduct in a public office and/or aided and abetted, counselled or procured misconduct in a public office.

    The Policy Authority (no doubt aided and abetted by the government) appears to have a ludicrously encompassing view of what constitutes misconduct in a public office. Even in the UK, leaking information the government wishes to keep secret does not automatically constitute misconduct in a public office.  Employees of the state can have a public interest defense for leaking some kinds of information that the government (or some faction of the government) wishes to keep confidential. Whistle blowers  in the civil service are no longer supposed to be automatically presumed guilty until proven innocent.  The Freedom of Information Act 2000  (a much-diluted version of what Labour promised while in opposition)  introduced a public right to know in relation to public bodies. The long title of the Act is “An Act to make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons providing services for them and to amend the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Public Records Act 1958; and for connected purposes.”

    It is true that the UK state is probably the most secretive of any modern state.  The latest revision of the Official Secrets Act (the Official Secrets Act 1989) even removed the public interest defenceby repealing section 2 of Official Secrets Act 1911.  Every UK government while in oppostion promises a major initiative as regards the public’s right to know and holds out the prospect of a Sunshine Law and open government.

    Soon after gaining office, the joys of secrecy, suppressing information and denying access to information are discovered.  An awareness grows that openness and accountability are nuisances which can be avoided or made more tolerable to government ministers by restricting the public’s information.  It also becomes apparent to government ministers that the defence of the national interest and the safeguarding of national security surprisingly often (and no doubt regrettably!)  require that information be kept secret that would be politically embarrassing to the government or the ruling party or personally embarrassing to individual members of government, were it to come out.  This miraculous congruence of personal, private, party-political, public and national interests becomes a self-evident fact to politicians of any ilk, soon after their party gains office.

    The government have stated that it had nothing to do with the arrest and questioning of Mr. Green, and that both the decision to question him and the decision to use the counter-terrorism command were taken by the Police Authority.  If that is indeed the case, heads should roll in the Police Authority, that is, the responsible parties should be fired for this abuse of power.

    The horrors perpetrated yesterday by murderous and well-organised terrorists in Mumbai remind us that we can afford no distractions or let-up in the long campaign to defeat this evil.  The counter-terrorism command in London clearly is not doing its job – keeping the public safe from the threats posed by terrorism -  if its members can find the time to question the opposition spokesman on immigration about a bunch of irrelevant leaks.  There are people out there wishing us harm and plotting to blow us up or gun us down.  Do something about that, please.  Harassing the opposition is not an appropriate or intelligent use of counter-terrorism resources.  It is also a threat to our democratic institutions.

    Maverecon: Willem Buiter

    Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

    Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

    Willem Buiter's website