April 10, 2006


We don't do assassinations. But we need an ethical code: The fight against jihadist terrorism carries real costs - so it needs public legitimacy and support (Martin Kettle, April 8, 2006, The Guardian)

A recent but, until now, unreported public speech at Chatham House by Sir David Omand, the former Cabinet Office security and intelligence coordinator, offers a very different prescription. Omand may not be the leader of the world's only superpower, but until last year he played a key role, with Tony Blair and small number of officials, in shaping Britain's response to 9/11. Like Bush, Omand sees a long-term challenge that requires strategic responses. Like Bush, he acknowledges that jihadist terrorism is something new in type and scale. But that is where the resemblance ends.

Where Bush seeks to redefine the world in the light of the terrorist threat, Omand's concern is to particularise the challenge from terrorism. As he says, he wants counter-terrorist operations - and, crucially, the pre-emptive secret intelligence work that goes with them - to enjoy support and legitimacy without disrupting the normal life of the community. In terms of state action, he says he wants the bludgeon to be replaced by the rapier. And, more challengingly still, he wants the security response to take place "within rights" rather than in opposition to them. In other words, his approach could not be more different from that taken in Washington.

Omand recognises what politicians are often afraid to admit, that the fight against terrorism carries actual, rather than hypothetical, costs - including the compromise of values, and the counter-productive, even radicalising, effect of security measures. He identifies four particular concerns: the use of British intelligence to guide pre-emptive military or covert action by ourselves or others against terrorists; the exchange of intelligence between countries with differing approaches to questioning, or to other forms of state action against, terrorists; the danger of disproportionate legislative responses that risk eroding fundamental aspects of the rule of law; and, finally, the growth of intrusive information technologies which allow access to personal emails and invade privacy.

His answer to these problems is for six explicit ethical guidelines to shape such operations. There must be "sufficient sustainable cause" for them to be needed; there must be "integrity of motive"; the methods used must be "in proportion" to the task; there must a proper authorisation and oversight process; there must be "reasonable prospect of success"; and there must be "no reasonable alternative" to recourse to such methods.

It is not difficult to see an implicit, and even an explicit, challenge to some of the Blair government's methods in parts of this. The emphasis on proportionality directly reflects the principle on which the courts have increasingly drawn lines around the government's anti-terror laws. The stress on integrity of motives is a direct response to the loss of trust following the Iraq dossier.

But this is not some mushy want-it-both-ways prescription for protecting us from terrorism without confronting the terrorists - a too common failing among some liberal critics. The big subtext of Omand is that law is not the sole or even the best guarantee of proper action in this unavoidably delicate area of statecraft. If you are going to protect lives and the nation, then ethos is vital too. As in a real war, the public needs to be able to trust authority to do difficult things as well as they can. That is why the six guidelines makes sense.

It is not possible to make a coherent moral argument that Britain was justified in killing the innocent sailors on board French naval ships in 1940 but would have been unjustified in helping Canaris, von Staufenberg, Bonhoeffer and company to kill Hitler.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2006 9:00 AM

In terms of state action, [Omand] says he wants the bludgeon to be replaced by the rapier.

Well, sure. Whether we're soldiers, intel agents, doctors, politicians writing tax code, etc., we all want laser-like accuracy, to excise the problem with minimal collateral damage.

The reality is that sometimes all we have is a hammer.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 10, 2006 10:18 AM

He is also making the assumption that all we do is bludgeon. Um, not quite so. We will use every tool - military, diplomatic, financial, etc. - in war. There is the place for a rapier, a place for a club, and a place for a knife to the throat.

Of course, this is The Guardian, so a level of cluelessness needs to be understood.

Posted by: Mikey at April 10, 2006 10:48 AM