What went wrong on 7-7
I’ve been asked to review the latest book by Crispin Black, not the fire-eating musician, but the British “intelligence expert” who has just authored “7-7 The London Bombs – What went wrong?”, published by Gibson Square.
Lt. Col. Crispin Black MBE worked as an intelligence expert for the Ministry of Defence until 2002. His responsibilities included briefing No 10, work for COBRA, the government’s emergency committee, and long-term strategic analysis for the Joint Intelligence Committee. He has written several columns for the Guardian, currently works for a private intelligence company and is intelligence expert for the BBC. You’d expect some sound analysis and decisive pointers from a man like this.
Sadly, authors of political analysis have become a bit like ambulance chasers. There is money to be made from disaster, and quickly publishing a title about a recent major event is one way of doing it. Books on 9/11 already proliferate, and so will books on 7-7.
On 96 pages Black tells us hardly anything we don’t already know. Nonetheless, the book is an interesting insight into the intelligence community in that his analysis is as flawed and shabby as the intelligence strategy he criticises. If people like him are our celebrated experts I hate to think what the competence level of the ordinary government or ministry of defence staff might be like. Or maybe Western society is simply very apt at letting the least profound members rise to the top. Bush,admired by Black, would be a case in point.
This may be due to vanity. Black gives us an example of his own vanity on page 22. A few hours after the London bombings he is travelling on a bus and “An American tourist said rather loudly to me ‘Are you CIA – my father worked for them?’ The smart embossed blue folder which I had been given on a visit to the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, US, was clearly visible in my bag.” If I was to hire an intelligence expert I would immediately disregard someone who feels the need to display his “credentials” so openly and would prefer to opt for someone practicing the good old British understatement.
Black is supportive of the intelligence services and the police as well as of the government in general, but criticises them for their lack of efficiency. He bemoans the rift between MI5 (the domestic secret service) and MI6 (the foreign one), calls for an overhaul of the intelligence setup and lends his voice to the need for a public enquiry into the failings of intelligence on 7-7, which has just been dismissed out of hand once more by home secretary Charles Clarke. His key assumption is that the attacks on London were made possible by “the so-called Covenant of Security”.
Black defines the “Covenant of Security” as “the long standing British habit of providing refuge and welfare to Islamist extremists on the unspoken assumption that if we give them a safe haven they will not attack on these shores. French intelligence call this policy – with contempt – ‘Londonistan’.”
The French, straight after the now disbanded Royal Ulster Constabulary, are his heroes and he has a whole chapter reserved for them entitled “The French Do It Better”. “In France you upset the police and intelligence services at your peril”, he writes and argues “We need to re-establish that kind of respect here for the office of our home secretary”.
The chapter was apparently written before the rioting in Parisian suburbs exposed the French model as woefully inadequate, and Crispin Black might need to eat his words with hindsight when he states that “the French know exactly at any time what is going on in the various arrondissements of Paris, down to the Islamist bookshop that is not paying its full taxes. It is information that may not of itself be immediately useful, but what it allows the French to do is to pick up on the slightest fluctuations in mood and gives early warnings of trouble ahead.”
The grammar of this last sentence is about as unrefined as the suggestions that tax evasion is a common amongst “Islamist” bookshops, but the point here is that the only solution Black has to offer for the reform of the British intelligence services has since proved to be a lot less attractive.
Black is a pragmatist and might have written the chapter differently had the riots preceded the printing stage of his book. His chapter on Iraq bears out the cynical approach probably quite characteristic of today’s politicians and “experts” alike. I was “an enthusiastic supporter of the war” he writes, “and remained so even after it became apparent that the intelligence books hat been ‘cooked’. … The tragedy of the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq is therefore in my view not that it was illegal but that – with more fore-thought and better analysis – it could have worked.” Tony Blair would probably agree as would most petty criminals: There’s nothing wrong with crime if you get away with it, the problem is getting caught.
Black’s analysis in his book is best characterised by what it leaves out. He bemoans that Hussain Osman, one of the alleged 21 July bombers, “was able to escape from the country a few days later on the Eurostar after walking past his own wanted poster in Waterloo Station”, but he makes no mention at all of Haroon Rashid Aswat, a suspected mastermind of the 7 July bombings, who left the UK unhindered and whom the British security services protected from being apprehended by their US counterparts because of his having been an MI6 informant. He resurfaced after being arrested in Zambia, but the trail has since gone cold again. When Black also wonders that “there must, for example, have been something about the profile of Siddique Khan [one of the alleged London bombers] that turned off the natural and often aggressive inquisitiveness of MI5 and Special Branch – despite the fact that his name had emerged out of an investigation into a potential Islamist extremist activity”, maybe he should enquire with MI6 whether this was for the same reasons.
This is precisely why a proper enquiry is needed, however uncomfortable it may prove for the government. We are told that four suicide bombers detonated explosives in London. Because they are all dead nobody has been charged with this crime and there will be no trial. We have to take the word of the intelligence services for it – the same intelligence services who lied to us over Iraq – or the police – the same police who lied to us about the Brazilian they shot on 22 July. Black mentions him briefly, blaming it all on the high stress levels amongst the police at the time but contradicts himself by on the one hand acknowledging that “members of a police firearms unit shot eleven bullets at close range (three missed) while restraining and pushing Mr de Menezes to the ground”, whilst claiming a page later: “You need to kill him so convincingly and quickly so that no twitching
in his body could possibly depress the switch (this is the reason behind what looked like overkill at Stockwell tube station).” The key words are “while restraining and pushing” – you can’t have it both ways.
All in all, Crispin Black’s book is an opportune riding of the waves helping to obscure the facts and muddying the waters. It fails to ask pertinent questions and provides hardly any answers. Let’s hope this expert sells his stock of books quickly as there will no doubt be many
more to follow. The only lesson to be learnt might be that the credentials of our expert commentators in the media are no indicator of their substance. They are, in fact, as useless as a keep-sake folder picked up during a visit to CIA headquarters.