Cold (war) comfort

April 27, 2007

The release of Cold War archives offers little insight into the fight against al-Qaeda, writes Peter Hennessy, but it does focus attention on the current parlous state of civil liberties in the UK (below)

Since the atrocity of September 11, 2001, the British state, including its most secret parts, has remade itself to a remarkable degree.

The latest and most visible mutation, the splitting of the Home Office, was announced at the end of March and will take place next month. The Home Secretary, John Reid, will preside over an Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism within the Home Office and will chair a weekly operational meeting of a new national security board. The Cabinet Office will lose its co-ordinating function over the UK counterterrorism strategy, and the responsibility for prisons, probation and the criminal law will shift from the Foreign Office to the Department of Constitutional Affairs (to be renamed the Ministry of Justice) to free up the time Reid wishes to deploy on what he sees as a decades-long struggle against international terrorism and its UK manifestations.

It is another decades-long struggle - the Cold War - that has provided both people and comparisons during the construction of this new protective state. The clearest example of this happened in the hours after 9/11 when Sir Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary at that time, sent for the Cold War files on UK nuclear retaliation drills. From the early 1960s to the early 1990s, successive prime ministers had appointed two ministerial deputies to decide upon retaliation (or not) if the PM was wiped out by a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack. On Sir Richard's advice, Tony Blair restored the practice.

The building of new state capacities for what in the Cold War we called civil defence (now branded as "resilience"), and the remaking of UK intelligence structures has also coincided with a burst of scholarship in British universities on the Cold War secret state. This has been made possible since the Waldegrave Initiative, named after William, now Lord, Waldegrave, the Minister for Open Government in the Major Administration, who initiated and encouraged the re-reviewing and release of once enormously sensitive files that had been withheld beyond the normal 30 years.

As a result of the papers being made available at the National Archives, the history of the British intelligence community is flourishing as never before in universities including Cambridge, Nottingham, Aberystwyth, Brunel, King's College London and my own base at Queen Mary, University of London. The Cabinet Office has set up an Advisory Group on Security and Intelligence Records as a bridge between the scholarly and intelligence communities. And an intriguing rolling conversation has been under way between the makers of the new protective state (all of whom came to their professional formation during the Cold War years) and the scholars, including PhD students, who have been energetically filling the "secret state" gap in our knowledge of how post-1945 government worked.

The latest fruit of this is The New Protective State: Government, Intelligence and Terrorism , which I have edited. It includes chapters by Sir Richard Mottram, Co-ordinator of Security and Intelligence in the Cabinet Office, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the recently retired Director-General of the Security Service, Sir David Omand, who headed the Government Communications Headquarters then the Home Office, and a pair of former permanent secretaries at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Michael Quinlan and Sir Kevin Tebbit. All of them believe in the concept of a usable past as a means of explaining current developments and anxieties and of bringing perspective to the changes since 2001 - and all delivered papers to the Mile End Group, run by my research students at Queen Mary, during the course of 2006.

But while the Cold War efforts to counter the Provisional IRA during its 30-year campaign and the struggle against al-Qaeda, its associates and its imitators, were - or are - all intelligence-driven, there is a key difference between such activities during the Cold War and post-9/11. This is the reversal of what the old intelligence pros call the "secrets and mysteries" problem. "Secrets" are facts that intelligence can acquire; "mysteries" are things the secret services normally cannot.

In the Cold War, the secrets were the order of battle of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact and the capabilities of their weaponry; the mysteries were the intentions of the Soviet leadership. Now, there is no mystery about the intentions of al-Qaeda. The mystery is where the terrorist operative is, in which European hotel room, with what equipment in suitcase or rucksack - or the magnitude of the home-grown jihadist threat in the UK, split between overlapping networks and individual cells, and how far these networks are linked to groups and individuals outside the UK who might provide training, funds or inspiration. The security service has also devoted great efforts to trying to understand the ingredients of radicalisation that can, sometimes very rapidly, turn a young UK citizen from someone who feels outrage at the treatment of Muslims worldwide and raises charitable funds to help them into someone who supports, then commits, terrorist acts.

Here, experience of the Cold War or Irish terrorism offers little guidance in terms of domestic threat. The Communist Party of Great Britain was a legitimate political party, not a terrorist organisation. The worst to be feared, apart from KGB agents inside Whitehall, were acts of sabotage in the transition to an East-West war. The Provisional IRA was a very hierarchical organisation, which made it relatively easy to penetrate. Its active operators had no intention of going up with their bombs - they did not regard martyrdom as a step towards paradise. We are in a new and vexing world for UK intelligence, which is why, by next year, MI5 will be twice the size it was in 2001, and the UK's intelligence and security budget will have doubled.

The magnitude of the threat is also different. In 1955, Whitehall estimated that ten 10-megaton Russian hydrogen bombs dropped on the UK would instantly kill 12 million people and seriously injure 4 million others (out of a population of 46 million) with more millions later poisoned by radiation. It was, as the top-secret Strath report (a copy of which went to every Cabinet minister) stated, "beyond the imagination". Al-Qaeda can do nothing like that damage. A Soviet nuclear attack was highly unlikely.

Jihadist-related terrorism, by contrast, has happened in the UK and more attacks are very likely.

There is at least one clear lesson to be learnt from both the Cold War and the IRA experiences, however. Open societies must strive to give up the minimum of liberty to Cold War or protective states. For as the incomparable Karl Popper put it when the Second World War was about to morph into Cold War as Hitler's defeat neared: "We must plan for freedom and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure."

Peter Hennessy is Attlee professor of contemporary British history and director of the Mile End Institute, Queen Mary, University of London. The New Protective State will be published by Continuum on May 3, £16.99.

TERRORISM LEGISLATION IN THE 21ST CENTURY

2000

Terrorism Act

* Made it illegal for certain terrorist groups to operate in the UK, including international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda

* Gave police the power to detain suspects after arrest for up to 14 days

* Introduced new criminal offences including inciting terrorist acts, seeking or providing training for terrorist purposes at home or overseas, providing instruction or training in the use of firearms, explosives or chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

2001

Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act

* Froze assets belonging to terrorist organisations

* Allowed for indefinite detention of foreign terrorist suspects certified by the Secretary of State as a threat to security (overturned by the House of Lords in December 2004 as incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights).

2005

Prevention of Terrorism Act  

* Allowed for control orders to be made against any suspected terrorist, whether a UK national or a non-UK national, or whether the terrorist activity is international or domestic.

2006

Terrorism Act

* Introduced new offences including committing acts preparatory to terrorism, encouraging terrorism, disseminating terrorist publications, giving or receiving training in terrorist techniques

* Introduced warrants to let police search property owned or controlled by terrorist suspects

* Extended period for which a suspect can be held without charge from 14 to 28 days

* Increased the flexibility of the proscription regime, including the power to proscribe groups that glorify terrorism.

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