Sabir on Security | You can spy on me or you can ask for my trust, but not both

In 2007, the police installed a network of cameras around specific Birmingham areas. This was, they claimed, in order to fight against crimes such as drug-dealing. As the publication of a governmental report confirmed yesterday, they lied. The cameras were used to spy on an entire community. In this week's On Security column, Rizwaan Sabir examines an extraordinary story of cynicism and incompetence.

Columns, New in Ceasefire, Sabir on Security - Posted on Friday, October 1, 2010 0:30 - 2 Comments

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By Rizwaan Sabir

In February 2007, the newly formed West Midlands Counter-Terrorism Unit (WMCTU) undertook its first major counter-terrorist operation – codenamed ‘Operation Gamble’. The operation targeted a plot allegedly involving the abduction of a member of the British armed forces, beheading him and posting the video of the crime online.

However, it eventually emerged that this account of the “plot” was highly sensationalised and based on misinformation and leaks attributable only to unidentified ‘Whitehall’ and ‘Security’ sources. Nine men were subsequently arrested in dawn raids across Birmingham in an operation that involved 700 police officers and a cost of £10 million. The outcome – four were released without charge, another four charged and convicted for ‘supplying equipment to terrorists abroad’ and only one of the charged men – Parviz Khan – convicted for ‘intention to kidnap and kill a member of the British armed forces’, the intention to conduct the aforementioned “plot”.

What was unknown to the public at the time was that after the undertaking of Operation Gamble, WMCTU had become so “concerned” with the threat of terrorism within their command area that they bid for £3 million-worth of funding from the ACPO-administered Terrorism and Allied Matters fund for the installation of 150 overt and covert ANPR and CCTV cameras in 81 locations across Birmingham. These cameras would create a ‘ring of steel’, which would allow the police to monitor and track every vehicle that entered the ringed areas – the largely Muslim areas of Washwood Heath and Sparkbrook – whilst enabling the police to collate evidence against suspected terrorists via CCTV cameras without “compromising operational activities”. The project would become known as ‘Project Champion’ and would be tarred, once again, with accusation of being nothing more than a ‘spying’ operation.

After the Guardian ran a story on PC, exposing the funding avenue for the project and its real motives, WMCTU placed bags over the cameras and began ‘consultations with the community’, to whom they promised an independent investigation into the Project. The Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, Sara Thornton QPM, who was allocated the task of conducting this investigation, made her findings public yesterday. Her verdict is damming.

The police, at the time the cameras were being installed, argued that the purpose of the project was to reduce the level of anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing that was taking place within the areas concerned. However, the report cites minutes from police meetings in which Assistant Chief Constables Anil Patani and Stuart Hyde – the coordinators of the project – stated that they “wanted a storyline on which to hang the project” and required a “narrative” that would “support Project Champion”.

Why was a ‘narrative’ or ‘storyline’ required if the purpose of the project, as stated, was to tackle drug dealing and antisocial behaviour? As the report states, because “Project Champion was first and foremost a counter-terrorism initiative. There were no specific plans [for tackling] anti-social behaviour and drug-dealing … or indeed crime prevention”.

Obviously, the ‘narratives’ and ‘storylines’ were merely pretexts that were being used to justify the establishment of a surveillance system reminiscent of an authoritarian state rather than a liberal democracy. The fact there were “no local [police] facilit[ies] to view the camera [feeds] and nobody [was] in place to monitor them” further indicates that tackling non-terrorism related criminality was a red-herring that was being employed to divert attention from the real motives of the project.

In April 2009, ‘consultations’ were undertaken with community representatives and local councillors from the affected areas, but the system of surveillance had already been designed and the team that would be delivering the project was already in place.

It would seem that the consultation was more of an exercise in public relations than a process of increasing transparency and generating trust. It is now clear that the real objectives of the project were actively and cynically concealed during the consultations, and as the report highlights, there is “no indication that the consultation process had any impact. The consultation can be summed up as too little too late”.

Adding salt to the wound, the findings also pointed toward the WMCTU’s failure to comply with laws and protocols that govern surveillance and CCTV cameras. The report categorically states, “there is … little evidence of consideration being given to compliance with the legal or regulatory framework.” At the same time, WMCTU have also been criticised for failing in their duty to obtain the level of clearance that was required of them in the setting up of a permanent counter-terrorism surveillance project.

In yesterday’s press statement by the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police, it was admitted that “serious shortcomings [were] shown by the West Midlands Police management of this project” which allowed the project to move into terrain that was disproportionate to the “community safety risks and counter terrorism threats that it aimed to address”. Mr Sims ended by apologising for getting “such an important issue so wrong” and promised more open and transparent consultations with the members of the affected communities.

However, the next question is: what should be done now and how should those who had purposefully deceived the public and disregarded the wealth of legislation relating to surveillance be held to account?

The following steps would be good starting points towards addressing the mammoth task of ‘trust building’ that West Midlands Police are now faced with.

The first step would be to take down the cameras until they have been publicly scrutinised, analysed and authorised to the fullest extent by the relevant body, with the most stringent checks-and-balances. It should then be decided whether they should remain in existence or not.

During this debate, it is crucial to also discuss and debate the ‘actual severity’ of the threat and the plausibility of plots becoming attacks. Discussing the official status of the terror threat, which currently stands at ‘Severe’, is linked to the work of the security establishment uncovering terror plots, which, as proven in previous high-profile cases, have turned out to be nothing more than a figment of the imagination of the security establishment.

The second step involves directly holding to account those that have been involved in deception. Hitherto, no legal or disciplinary action has been taken against any individual that has been involved in Project Champion. The coordinator of the project, Assistant Chief Constable Anil Patani was indeed relieved from his duties after the fiasco surrounding Project Champion emerged in June/July of this year, but, merely removing one individual from a leadership position is not good enough.

Mr Patani should publicly apologise for the actions that were undertaken under his command and should subsequently resign from his position. For an individual who has failed to uphold the principles of transparency and respect whilst holding the second most senior position in the UK’s second largest police force is astonishing at best and is disastrously alarming at worst.

If the current government is serious about building trust and protecting the population from real threats, the way to do it is clear. Time will tell if genuine efforts will be made to learn from this shambolic fiasco, or whether the long list of cover-ups and blunders will continue to lengthen, at great cost to us all.

Rizwaan Sabir is a human rights activist and doctoral researcher at the University of Strathclyde. He is researching the role of Islam in British and Scottish government policy, with a special focus on counter-terrorism. In May 2008 he was detained for six days as a suspected member of al-Qaida for being in possession of primary research literature. He was released without charge. His column on counter-terrorism and security appears every other Friday.

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Ceasefire Magazine – This week in Ceasefire
Oct 2, 2010 1:40

[…] Sabir on Security: Either spy on me or ask for my trust, not both In 2007, the police installed a network of cameras around specific Birmingham areas. This was, they claimed, in order to fight against crimes such as drug-dealing. As the publication of a governmental report confirmed yesterday, they lied. The cameras were used to spy on an entire community. In this week’s On Security column, Rizwaan Sabir examines an extraordinary story of cynicism and incompetence. Read it at: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/2010/10/sabir-on-security-4 […]

Ceasefire Magazine – This week in Ceasefire
Oct 2, 2010 4:06

[…] Sabir on Security: Either spy on me or ask for my trust, not both […]

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