Getting your excuses in early

The great Irish second-row forward, Willie John McBride, was famous for his strategy of “getting your retaliation in first”. Now the head of one of Britain’s security agencies has adapted the idea for modern circumstances: get your excuses in early.

The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has called for new powers to help fight Islamist extremism, warning of a dangerous imbalance between increasing numbers of terrorist plots against the UK and a drop in the capabilities of intelligence services to snoop on communications.

Parker described the Paris attack as “a terrible reminder of the intentions of those who wish us harm” and said he had spoken to his French counterparts to offer help.

Speaking to an invited audience at MI5 headquarters, he said the threat level to Britain had worsened and Islamist extremist groups in Syria and Iraq were directly trying to orchestrate attacks on the UK. An attack on the UK was “highly likely” and MI5 could not give a guarantee it would be able to stop it, he said.

“Strikingly, working with our partners, we have stopped three UK terrorist plots in recent months alone,” he said. “Deaths would certainly have resulted otherwise. Although we and our partners try our utmost, we know that we cannot hope to stop everything.”

The hidden agenda of the speech is, of course, to ensure that surveillance capabilities of the security and intelligence agencies are not constrained by any namby-pamby concerns about privacy and civil liberties. (The Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is currently completing an investigation following the Snowden revelations. Having given evidence to the inquiry, I do not expect much change, but senior securocrats never leave anything to chance.)

Parker’s speech has had the desired impact on UK media — respectful, overly-credulous media coverage, with the BBC Today Programme asserting that we are all “nervous” as a result of what’s happened in Paris. Sir Malcolm Rifkind — the Chairman of the ISC Committee and Parker’s ostensible overseer — added his voice to the chorus, asserting that the two Paris attackers must have been communicating with Yemen; the implication was that these communications ought to have been monitored and intercepted. Which led one to wonder how Rifkind knew this. But his message was clear: don’t mess with our surveillance capabilities.

So far, the fallout from the Charlie Hebdo massacre has followed the standard pattern: terrorist atrocity –> outrage –> massive publicity –> calls for more surveillance and more resources for intelligence agencies. One wonders when it will occur to people that this is a positive feedback loop (aka a vicious circle). Given the statistical probability that there will be more atrocities, and that the security services will miss some of them (as the MI5 chief predicts), we’re heading for a full-blown national security state. In which case Bin Laden will have won, hands down.

Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”. Maybe it’d be worth trying a different approach to these terrorist threats. As Paul Bernal puts it:

If the resources – time, money, energy, intelligence – currently put into mass surveillance systems that are unproven, have huge and damaging side-effect, and are even potentially counterproductive, were, instead, devoted to a more intelligent, targeted approach, it might even be that counterterrorism is more effective. We should be looking for new ways, not going down paths that are costly in both financial and human terms.

The fundamental problem is that terrorism, by its very nature, is hard to deal with. That’s something we have to face up to – and not try to look for silver bullets. No amount of technology, no level of surveillance, will solve that fundamental problem. We shouldn’t pretend that it can.