The curious incident of the dog …

MI5’s culture and the 42-day detention row in Britain.

…. that didn’t bark in the night-time.

A rare insight into just how different MI5’s culture is from the FBI’s (Mark, Amy) came from a rare public statement about the Brown government’s plan to increase the current limit on pre-trial detention for suspects in terrorist crimes from 28 to 42 days. This reads in its entirety:

Since the Security Service is neither a prosecuting authority nor responsible for criminal investigations, we are not, and never have been, the appropriate body to advise the Government on pre-charge detention time limits.

We have not, therefore, sought to comment publicly or privately on the current proposals, except to say that we recognise the challenge posed for the police service by the increasingly complex and international character of some recent terrorist cases.

In other words, they are against it, along with Evans’ predecessor Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller (hire her!), the last Lord Chancellor and Attorney-General, and the serving Director of Public Prosecutions.

So who’s in favour?

The pressure comes from the police, including the discredited head of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair. Policemen want convictions. Spooks want control. MI5’s paradigm victory was the wartime XX Committee, that ran turned German agents to feed Berlin false information about D-Day. Uncooperative German spies were shot – all kosher under wartime law and the Geneva Conventions. Yes, interrogators can generate quite effective threats within the law.

MI5’s priorities are also shown by its opposition to making wiretap evidence admissible in English and Scottish courts, as it is in other common law jurisdictions. Keeping the scale, sophistication and unaccountability of the current surveillance operation secret from targets and the public is much more important than a few extra convictions. I’ll grant Amy that any FISA is better than British law, which offers Brits the privacy enjoyed by Russians.

The 42-day extension is still in the balance. Scenting vulnerability, the Tory shadow Home Secretary, the right-winger David Davis, tried to launch a grand debate by resigning his seat and fighting a by-election on the single issue. The coup didn’t work. He hoped for Gladstone’s Midlothian, but got Mr. Pickwick’s Eatanswill instead. Labour didn’t put up a candidate to defend the measure, and nor did the Lib Dems since they are also opposed, so Davis was left punching air. Instead, the election attracted 25 fringe candidates, running apparently on other issues or none. Here’s the list:

Green, English Democrats, National Front, Miss Great Britain Party, Monster Raving Loony (candidate: Mad Cow-Girl), The New Party, Freedom 4 Choice, Socialist Equality, Christian Party, Church of the Militant Elvis Party, Make Politicians History, 13 Independents, and a purist with no label at all who still got 110 votes.

Mad Cow Girl came up with the best line:

The answer is 42!!! Now we just need to figure out the real question!!!”

Davis won of course with 74% of the vote. In spite of the farce, I think he made his point. There is no popular pressure in Britain for yet another round of symbolic Tough Action by anti-terror legislation, and a strong feeling that the government’s real motive is the Sir Humphrey syllogism:

1. We must do something.

2. This is something.

3. Therefore we must do this.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web