TOPICS: How to wear down the terrorists

In his response to the attempted terrorist bombings in London and the attack in Glasgow, Gordon Brown may have revealed a change of approach to counterterrorism. There was no overreaction, despite the seriousness of the threat, and no rush to introduce new security measures that flout human rights.

But will this lead to a reversal of government policies that, in the name of national security, are undermining two key pillars of liberty: the absolute prohibition of torture and the fundamental rule against prolonged detention of suspects without charge? After 9/11, Blair sought to justify sending terrorism suspects to governments that routinely torture by securing unenforceable promises that the government would suddenly behave.

As a back-up plan, he pressed the European Court of Human Rights to allow governments to invoke security to override the law against sending suspects to places where they risk mistreatment. Similarly Blair, and even Brown, pushed for the power to detain suspects without charge for 90 days.

The irony is that Blair refused to press for the one law-enforcement tool that could make a difference: the introduction at trial of intercepts of suspects’ criminal communications. So long as a judicial warrant for the intercept was obtained after a showing of reasonable suspicion that criminal activity would be discussed, admitting intercept evidence at trial is entirely consistent with international human rights law. Indeed, such evidence is admissible in every other Western democracy, where most prosecutors would find it inconceivable to try to crack criminal conspiracies without it. But rather than challenge the intelligence services’ opposition to the use of such evidence in court, Blair chose to undermine basic rights instead. The burden should be on the government to show why intercept evidence isn’t enough to convict and imprison suspects instead of sending them off to a foreign torturer, or why it isn’t at least enough to demonstrate the ‘realistic prospect of conviction’ needed to file criminal charges and hold a suspect lawfully pending any additional investigation that might be needed for trial.

Blair’s willingness to dispense with basic rights was not just wrong and unnecessary; it was counterproductive, because fighting terrorism requires not only neutralising the terrorist suspects we know about but also discovering those suspects we don’t know about

and deterring others from joining them. But winning what Brown calls ‘the struggle of ideas and ideals’ are also essential in the struggle with terrorist recruiters.

Brown has already shown himself open to thoughtful reconsideration of the Blair approach. His emphasis on the need to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Muslims offers the hope that with his unemotional, businesslike approach to counterterrorism, Brown means it when he promises ‘change’. Brown should press for the authorised use of intercept evidence in court. — The Guardian The author is executive director, Human Rights Watch