This debate was the last in a series dealing with issue of trust: ¬in this case, do we trust the security services? The event was chaired by Gavin Esler and involved two speakers, Abdel Bari Atwan and Mark Huband. Atwan is a well-known journalist who often appears on tv, for example on the BBC show Dateline London. In his time he has interviewed Osama bin Laden in his lair in Afghanistan (Tora Bora, second cave on the left). Mark Huband’s most recent book is ‘Trading Secrets: Spies and Intelligence in an Age of Terror’.
Thanks to the efforts of Bradley Manning and Jonathan Snowden, the debate was better informed than the security services would have liked and, life being what it is, the question arose as to whether moles from the CIA, the NSA, GCHQ, MI5 and the Daughters of the American Revolution were among the audience. Since the event was being recorded for later transmission this seemed unlikely.
Main strands of the conversation were as follows. Security services, whether we like it or not, are probably necessary to protect the public from attack. In the United Kingdom this has plainly been the case in Northern Ireland, and is still the case where those who take their lead from Al-Qaeda are concerned.
That being conceded, there are two areas of concern. The first is in the area of civil liberties, where security services may overstep the mark. How can we defend our liberties by riding rough-shod over them? The second is in the area of competence. For example, why did it take the security services of the United States twenty years to track down Osama bin Laden? Given what was known, why was the Boston bombing not prevented?
Abdel Bari Atwan told of a debate between himself and Richard Perle held some years ago in Germany. After the debate, Perle revealed that, privately, he agreed with what Atwan had said concerning the invasion of Iraq. So why wouldn’t he admit it publicly? The reason was interesting. He had not believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, but he did believe that he wanted to acquire them – hence the necessity of invading Iraq.
And it so happened that Mark Huband laid some stress on this too. There was strong evidence that Saddam did not have WMDs but 1) what was his intention going forward and 2) how could the security services go about establishing what his intention was?
Yet Huband had already told us how Saddam’s military/industrial base had been dismantled after the first Gulf War, so I have two problems with this. Why should we care what his intention was if he was no longer capable of carrying it out? And what makes us think that Saddam knew his own mind? Did he have clear intentions or did he make it up as he went along?
We are entering into the area of the pre-emptive strike here – which carries with it the danger that we pre-empt an event which would not have taken place if we had sat by the riverside, dipped our toes in the water and sucked on a straw.
As far as I could see, and following recent revelations, the audience did not trust the security services.