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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 17:42 GMT
Pienaar's view: Terror issue not plain sailing
By John Pienaar
BBC Radio 5 live chief political correspondent

The spectacle of politicians bandying numbers around - trying to set a time limit for the detention of terror suspects - is starting to sound a bit like a seminar for eccentric mathematicians.

Admiral Sir Alan West
Admiral Sir Alan West: a 'simple sailor'
" Fifty-six!," says one.

" No," says another.


"What happened to ninety?"

"I like's a centred nonagonal number! A harmonic divisor number! A happy number!"

OK, the arguments are a bit more grounded than that.

They are certainly more serious.

But you see my point.

Whatever the final answer - if there is one - it will unavoidably be a figure plucked out of the air, for the purpose of allowing the police enough time to investigate a complex terror plot, without amounting to internment without trial.

It would obviously help the government's argument if ministers could prove the present limit of 28 days detention without charge had hindered police investigations.

No such evidence exists.

Or if it does, it has never been produced.


The government's determination to set a higher figure is driven by the belief that some future investigation might depend on keeping a terror suspect locked up for longer.

Confused? Well, Admiral Lord West, the security minister, sounded as if he was.

At 0820 on the Today Programme, he said he wanted to be convinced.

Public opinion is probably on the side of a tough line on terrorism

Forty five minutes later, he said he was.

It was not clear why he had changed course, or appeared to, from a position of apparent scepticism to one of utter support for the official line.

Perhaps his conversation over breakfast with the prime minister had something to do with it.

Face value

Either way, a little later, the man who'd once been head of the Navy and chief of naval intelligence sounded as if his own head had malfunctioned, and his intelligence gone absent without leave.

He was, apparently, just a "simple sailor".

Now maybe the admiral's words can be taken at face value.

After, all he's not a politician. Admirals don't give that many interviews.

He may simply have said the opposite of what he meant to say.

According to one report, he heard the radio headlines immediately after his morning interview reporting his doubts about government policy.

"Why are they saying that," he asked an official.

"Because that's what you said, minister" came back the reply.

Expiry date

I asked a senior Labour MP why he thought the minister had seemed so confused, and confusing.

"That's the government's position," he said.

The whole tone of this argument's changed.

MI5 building
The home affairs committee is to pay a discreet visit to MI5

In the Commons, Gordon Brown delivered an exhaustingly long statement on national security, without once accusing his opponents of being soft on terror, or even hinting as much.

Instead, there was a brief - and frankly, optimistic - mention of his desire for agreement across party lines.

We now know, of course, that the government is looking at extra safeguards to go with extra detention - weekly review by a high court judge once the 28 day deadline passed, the Home Secretary would have to give her approval, there would be a report to MPs and the new law would come with an expiry date.

Rebel MPs

So far, there's no sign of the cross party consensus Gordon Brown says he wants.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis says he will not budge until he sees evidence the law is inadequate as it stands, and he has not.

It is a safe bet the Liberal Democrats will hold firm too.

That means Downing Street may end up gambling everything on the chances of winning over the rebel Labour MPs who helped inflict Tony Blair's first and only defeat the last time this issue came up in the Commons.

Some of the rebels will certainly cave in, but not all.

The government whips have started gauging the strength of the likely rebellion. They still have a lot of work to do.

The cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee is investigating the case for tougher police powers.

Test of conviction

Next week, I understand, they will pay a discreet visit to the headquarters of MI5.

Their final report will attract a great deal of attention.

So far, I am told, supporters of the government's position are in a minority.

If the rebellion holds firm, the prime minister may even choose to avoid an embarrassing defeat, and back away.

There will be many tense private meetings.

Public opinion is probably on the side of a tough line on terrorism.

It may come down to a simple test of conviction, and nerve.

The following comments reflect a balance of the views received.

John, I think your line, "Public opinion is probably on the side of a tough line on terrorism." should have the caveat "Provided it didn't infringe further into additional breaches of civil liberties." Most people are fervently opposed to everything the government is proposing.
Tim Pilcher, Brighton

The perfect length that someone can be held without trial is 7 days. The continual erosion of Habeus Corpus is doing the terrorists job for them. If there is sufficient evidence to hold someone then there should be sufficient evidence to put it in front of a court.
Paul, London, UK

There is something deeply worrying about the desire on the part of the government to have detention without trial. This would be a worrying development in itself, however, to get the true picture we need to consider the other restrictions on our freedoms also being imposed upon us (new powers on leaving the country being the most recent example). No doubt there will be the usual suspects lining up to suggest that I must have something to hide, or that they need the government to behave like this to make them feel safe. However, I do not wish to live in a country where the PM (or President) can simply take powers unto themselves in the interests of national security which may mean that my neighbour is locked up without their knowing what they are being held in connection with. Likewise, what is so great about having a government issuing threats to the public to the effect that 'we know your spending patterns - we know your monthly outgoings'. Big brother or what. Get us back to the days when we respected each other, not suspected each other. Needless to say, this won't happen under this particular government or PM.
Stephen, Paisley, UK

If there is insufficient evidence available to have someone charged, brought before a court and remanded after 28 days, then it is highly unlikely that such evidence will exist at 56 days, 58 days, or any other term that the politician grab out of the air. This is a gross violation of liberty under the guise of fighting terrorism and will allow the authorities to effectively remove anyone simply because it suits them too. Another nail in the coffin of democracy.
Phil, London

You cannot formulate such draconian policies on the basis of a series of "Perhaps", "maybe" and "possibly". Where would it end? "There is the possibility that perhaps one day hostile alien ships might arrive in orbit and maybe they would want to wipe us out.... so we need plenty of nukes, and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum on permanent retainer!" We have to deal with what we *know*, not some deranged fantasy of what *might be* in a politician's imagination. 28 days is already too long.

"Public opinion is probably on the side of a tough line on terrorism..." Hmm. It all depends on the question you ask doesn't it. "do you support tough measures to catch terrorists?" and everyone probably says yes. Do you support 8 weeks detention without charge (with no knowledge of what you are being held for or why you are being held)? I suspect the answer will be rather different. If you haven't found sufficient evidence to charge a person within a few weeks (after presumably having enough evidence to decide that the person is a suspect) then you probably are not going to. If a computer is encrypted such that a brute force attack doesn't gain you entry within a few days, then you probably are not going to get info of that computer within a few weeks. If the problems are time frames of international communication between authorities, then perhaps that is where we might look for improvements rather than throwing out one of the core principles of our supposedly democratic and free society. I'm not a bleeding heart liberal - I want the criminals caught just as much as the next person does, it just that this approach is not evidence based and given the magnitude of what is proposed, I think we have a right to see some REAL strong evidence to support it.
David, Oxford, UK

28 days is as you say a figure just plucked out of the air. Surely a magistrate can allow extra time to hold a suspect as would be necessary on a case by case basis. To give the police the power to inflict what amounts to a six month prison sentence on anyone they damn well please is a system open to abuse. Remember the eighty year old concentration camp survivor who had the audacity to heckle jack Straw was held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act! You can also bet your last penny that this law, brought in under exceptional, temporary circumstances will still be with us in a hundred years from now. It took that long to get rid of the Defence of the Realm Act which was enacted to stop us losing the First World War!! Hard cases make bad laws.
Bernard Coughlin, bath

What a relief to read all these comments fighting against the constant erosion of liberty by the state over recent years. Some newspapers would have us believe that all members of the public accept that Big Brother is a necessary means to stamp out terrorism. In fact, all the evidence suggests that (a) no amount of interference with personal freedoms can guarantee that criminal activity of any kind is permanently thwarted, and (b) the huge amount of data now being gathered about all of us, and the draconian powers being taken by the government, police, and other bodies, can all too easily be abused in the future. All systems can be bypassed and computer codes cracked by those determined and clever enough to make the effort, whilst the rest of us "normal" people are increasingly harassed and tracked and disadvantaged. As someone says above, once the powers are in place we will NEVER get rid of them - and just who will be exercising them, and with what motive, in years to come?
Kay, London

Obviously the emphasis should be on the "simple" adjective of Sir Adam's self-description. The phrase naval intelligence itself is an oxymoron. Navel intelligence is probably closer to the truth. Why should govts be permitted to impose ever more severe limits on freedoms without offering some proof as to their need? Is there any proof that all the money being spent on anti-terrorism has substantially decreased the number and severity of incidents? The apparent acceptance by the public of draconian restrictions of personal freedoms in the name of anti-terrorism can most likely be traced to the ceaseless propaganda by the govt that terrorism can be stopped but only by severe sacrifice on the part of the public. Terrorism has proved to be marvellous excuse for governments to exceed its authority in all sorts or areas. It is time for the public to question the veracity of government claims regarding anti-terrorist measures.
cavlosnap, ontario canada

Public opinion is probably on the side of a tough line on terrorism - yes, when it involves catching them. But if there is no evidence to support any extension in detention without trial they why are asking for it? And the fact they cannot or will not put a figure on it makes it seem like just another knee-jerk reaction. Some vision eh?
Tony, Cardiff

Of course no one wants the "terrorists" we have spawned to succeed in their diabolical plans, but to constantly use it as an excuse to pass more draconian laws is tantamount to scaremongering and only elevates the conspiracy theorists case that the whole issue is nothing other than the government wanting to control us further by ever so slowly bringing totalitarianism in, bit by bit, law by law. The suggestion in your article that the public somehow want this in some twisted submissive way; is just more evidence of the mass media trying to shape public opinion for the establishment's malicious goals. But no problem, the public will fall for it with a helpful (for the government) terrorist attack in the future, just like they fell for Iraq and now they're falling for Iran. One has to laugh at the tragic cycle we're in of endless "terror" and subsequent "terror" laws (and let's not forget the odd 100% necessary wars in between). Throughout history dictators (or dictatorial systems) have invented shadowy enemies that live among us but cannot be recognised in order to bring in totalitarianism. Why do we never learn from history!?
Ben, London

If the Government is going to see M15 does this mean we are going to get another 'dodgy dossier'?
Ann Woodward, Southport, England

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