Counter-terrorism powers are too vulnerable to abuse

I recall vividly the day when a police officer – not one serving in Wycombe – told me of his disgust at a superior’s easy resort to counter-terrorism powers against people not suspected of terrorism. Now the police have taken that resort against a Guardian journalist’s partner, we have a story.

In a video, the Guardian’s editor Alan Rusbridger explains that the disturbing element of the David Miranda arrest was the use of counter-terrorism powers to suspend the normal rules. He makes the mistake of describing the areas where the Act applies as “stateless” when surely the problem is that the state’s power is less restrained. “Lawless” seems to be going too far but what is certain is that at airports the power of the authorities can escape the usual rules.

Also for the Guardian, Simon Jenkins rages against the machine:

The war between state power and those holding it to account needs constant refreshment. As Snowden shows, the whistleblowers and hacktivists can win the occasional skirmish. But it remains worrying that many otherwise liberal-minded Britons seem reluctant to take seriously the abuses revealed in the nature and growth of state surveillance. The arrogance of this abuse is now widespread. The same police force that harassed Miranda for nine hours at Heathrow is the one recently revealed as using surveillance to blackmail Lawrence family supporters and draw up lists of trouble-makers to hand over to private contractors. We can see where this leads.

Those in authority apparently talk of “total surveillance” and a desire to “master the internet”. I am not surprised. As I have blogged before, Open Europe has set out in a report (PDF) some of the supranational drivers of the surveillance state.

This is the problem: the authorities, charged with keeping us safe, turn to technology to achieve that aim. Having suffered revelations about the extent of their surveillance, the authorities appear now to have stretched their powers in a futile and counterproductive attempt to mitigate the damage.

My colleague Dominc Raab, author of The Assault on Liberty, writes sensibly about it for The Telegraph:

On terrorism, as with so many of Labour’s laws, well-intentioned but overly broad powers have been stretched to cover wider purposes, exposing ordinary people to arbitrary interference. Over the past two years, Schedule 7 has been exercised to stop and question people a staggering 143,018 times – but there were just nine prosecutions and only five convictions. Not only does this suggest the power is being misused, it is a shocking waste of police resources.

Humanity has been down these paths before, albeit with far less capable technology at the disposal of those who would use power for our own good. One of my favourite books traces the origins of tyranny since Plato. After two volumes of hundreds of pages, it concludes by setting out the simple decision before us:

We can return to the beasts. But if we wish to remain human, then there is only one way, the way into the open society. We must go on into the unknown, the uncertain and insecure, using what reason we may have to plan as well as we can for both security and freedom.

I very much wish that those amongst my Parliamentary colleagues and the public who take a more relaxed attitude to the granting of lawful powers to the authorities in the pursuit of security would spend just a little more time mulling over the price which has been paid in the past and the path on which we find ourselves.

Evidently counter-terrorism powers are too vulnerable to abuse. It seems likely that they must be scaled back if we are to preserve our expectations of freedom. That may imply accepting a greater degree of risk to our physical safety. It is something which ought to be discussed.

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Comments & Responses

4 Responses so far.

  1. waramess says:

    No doubt such legislation makes the job of catching terrorists easier however we do not pay government or the police to have an easy job and the price of doing so, when it further impacts adversely on civil liberties, is far too great in my view.

    Clegg, Cameron and the rest would disagree; but they would, wouldn’t they?

  2. Vincent says:

    I’m disappointed that you’ve taken a vague principle of freedom above loyalty to our government, which I had thought you supported, in a case where our security depends on extracting secrets and keeping them secret. One the one hand there are governments protecting the people from terrorism. On the other hand there are leakers acting mischievously and possibly traitorously.

    I’m disappointed that you take the side of the Guardian in this: a newspaper with no responsibility other than to pander to its readers’ tastes.

    • Alex says:


      Show me some tangible evidence that detaining the partners of journalists who reveal the bad behavior of the US and UK governments prevents ‘terrorism’ and you might have a point.

      But for now, there isn’t any, and you don’t, and we’d quite like the right to not be snatched in the night for holding dissenting views thank-you-very-much.

  3. 5566hh says:

    I think that Vincent above takes a very superficial and naive view of this issue. As waramess reminds us, the whole point of a democracy is that that it makes life difficult for the security services, police and indeed the government. Excessive concentration of power in the hands of the government and blind faith in its benevolence is very dangerous. Don’t forget that more people die in their bathtubs than as a result of terrorist attacks. And of course significant numbers of innocent children die in Pakistan and Yemen in the name of ‘fighting against terrorism’.
    Agencies like GCHQ with access to vast amounts of data and very lax oversight regimes represent very real threats to democracy and the Guardian should be praised for holding them to account.