We should have more sympathy for our security services—even when terrorists succeed
Blaming them unfairly will make us all less safe
In the twenty-first century, our policing challenges are greater than they were, say, when it came to the IRA in the 1990s. Photo: PA
Few would argue that the police and intelligence agencies should be above criticism. When (not if) bombs go off or people are killed in atrocious ways, it is right that questions are asked about systems and specifics: what was known? What was done? As we all know, in 2001 the United States suffered the worst terrorist attacks in history. The Commission set up to investigate the attacks reported that the US failed, in many different ways and for many different reasons, to respond adequately to the looming threat from Al Qaida, even though clues were there. It is now commonplace for terrorist attacks in the West, whether in France or Britain or the US, to be followed by a blame game in which the most urgent question seems to be: were the perpetrators on the radar? And if so, how did they slip through the net? Who dropped the ball? Did someone fail to join the dots? These simplistic metaphors, however, often reveal a lack of insight into how intelligence works and what it is for.
A monumental challenge
The police and agencies face a monumental challenge in terms of the scale and complexity of the threat, the volumes of data available to them, and the terrorists growing power to conceal their activity. We know that MI5 have 3,000 subjects of interest in terrorist investigations and a further 23,000 on record in terrorist cases. It is great to see that you are enjoying the Prospect website. You have now reached your allowance of 3 free articles in the last 30 days.
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