Sunday, August 08, 2004

London Calling

Why must we go to Britain for real criticism?

The Home Secretary has warned that American-style openness over the al-Qaeda threat risked exposing politicians to 'ridicule', and dismissed calls for him to supply more details to the British public as 'arrant nonsense'.

In a startling sideswipe at the White House - which put troops around what it said were new targets in New York last week, only for it to emerge that the intelligence underpinning the supposed threat was years old - David Blunkett says he is not prepared to discuss security operations simply to 'feed the news frenzy' in a slow summer. The Home Secretary, writing in The Observer today, is understood to be furious with David Davis, his Tory shadow, whom he had offered a confidential briefing about the arrests of 13 terror suspects in Britain last week.


Blunkett's words reflect a growing row over political handling of intelligence, with accusations in Washington that George Bush may be overemphasising the threat in order to boost his chances in November's presidential election - and in London, a new willingness by the Tories to make political capital out of the terror issue.

Last night, Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, rose to Blunkett's defence, warning of a 'Faustian bargain' between the media and politicians over terrorism. 'I am acutely aware that there is a Faustian bargain on offer for those who want it: airtime, in exchange for ratcheting the fear factor one notch higher,' he told The Observer.

He said the Bush administration's naming of potential targets in New York was 'of dubious worth', and that information should be published 'only if it would prove useful in preventing injury and loss of life'.

However Oaten said that while he backed a more low-key approach to the threat, it would have been less severe in the first place had the government not invaded Iraq.

His words reflect fears in Whitehall that high-profile American terror warnings have backfired. In his article, Blunkett argues that speculating in the same way about British targets would only cause panic: 'There has been column inch after column inch devoted to the fact that in the United States there is often high-profile commentary, followed - as in the most current case - by detailed scrutiny with the potential risk of inviting ridicule.

'In Britain the accusation is the opposite. It is that we don't say enough... we don't sufficiently raise the profile, and therefore the concern about terrorism.'