Intelligence, Pink Panther-style

"Intelligence" is now anything but intelligent. The 2 June Forest Gate raid, which involved 250 officers as well as MI5 and biochemical experts breaking into a terraced house early in the morning to search for "arsenic bombs", is the latest in a long line of intelligence-led débâcles. After a week's intensive search of the premises, they found nothing more hazardous than a bottle of aspirin. Of the 895 "terror arrests" in the UK since the 11 September 2001 attacks, 23 have led to a conviction. That's a failure rate of 97.5 per cent. How can we explain it?

Don't be fooled by the mantra that intelligence is an extremely difficult business, prone to absurdly wide margins of error. If that were so, Britain would have lost the Second World War. The remarkable success of British intelligence, including counter-intelligence, during that war proves that we can produce reasonable - say, 25 or even 50 per cent - rates of success.

Intelligence may be difficult to gather but it is not impossible to get right. It must follow certain simple rules and principles. One has to ask some fundamental questions. Is the source reliable? Clearly a source that has been tortured is going to tell you whatever you want to hear. If you are going to recruit your source from a mosque, you have to make sure he doesn't harbour grudges against certain members of the group that you are targeting - which is probably what happened in the Forest Gate case. Can the source's evidence be corroborated? The official excuse that the police have to act on every single tip-off, however dodgy the source, without bothering to corroborate it, is not only ridiculous, but dangerously so. Intelligence, to be intelligence, has to be based on more than one source. And then, to increase the margin of success, one has to check out the intelligence, using proper surveillance.

This is how we used to gather intelligence before the emergence of "the war on terror". During all the years that we had real IRA terrorists plotting real attacks, that was what intelligence was known to be all about. One IRA tactic was to flood the system with false alarms; it was part of the job of our intelligence experts to sift through it all, using their own counter-intelligence. It was a nasty game, but usually, with a few notable exceptions, it worked. Yet now there seems to be no method in the intelligence madness, and we have huge efforts based on a single informant. Is it simply because the level of threat is much higher - or is there something else at work here?

The Pink Panther-type farce of the past five years is political expediency masquerading as intelligence. How intelligence can degenerate to pettiness and absurdity was revealed by the former assistant director of MI5 Peter Wright in his 1987 book, Spycatcher. How we all laughed when Margaret Thatcher tried to suppress publication of the book in Australia, and he was treated so robustly by the trial judge. Things start to go horribly wrong, Wright showed, when handlers take short cuts by trying to frame suspects or to deliver tailored goods to appease their political masters. He was proved right when the frame-ups of various "IRA terrorists" were revealed.

It is pretty clear that the current, so-called "intelligence-led" operations are based on political expediency. Consider the great ricin cons piracy. In January 2003, anti-terrorist detectives raided a house in London and arrested seven Muslims who were supposed to be manufacturing the deadly poison in their kitchen. It turned out to lack both ricin and conspirators, but it was useful none the less: while the forensic lab sat on the "intelligence" that there was no ricin to be found, for week after week, our politicians could cite ricin as an example of the dangers that lurked in every Muslim household.

That the handlers are trying to gain a few brownie points by taking short cuts is also obvious. In the US there has been a trial of a young man who planned to plant a bomb on the New York subway. It emerged that he was of below-normal intelligence and was being urged on by an "informer", or should we say agent provocateur. Early this month there was a big bust-up in Canada involving a lot of very silly young men with very nasty ideas. Again, an "informer" had known all about it all along. Might he just have been the organiser, egging on the young men?

Let's stop blaming the intelligence. Our security apparatus, which has a record to be proud of, has become a handmaiden to the mendacious policies of our political masters. The end results range from Tony Blair's "45 minutes" speech to the death of David Kelly, and now to Forest Gate. Why should the Met, always in the forefront of policy, be immune?

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