Sunday, May 11, 2008

UK: A Terror Trial Not Worth Reporting

" ... It is fitted out with 70 seats; on the day I visited, only one of them was occupied, by the laptop of a journalist who spent part of the morning session out looking for a sandwich ... Questions about the immediacy and difficulty of the suspected bombing plot cast doubt on the accuracy of some of the public statements made at the time. ... ‘In retrospect,’ said Michael A. Sheehan, the former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism in the New York Police Department, ‘there may have been too much hyperventilating going on.’ ... "

Daniel Soar
London Review of Books

The trial of eight men charged with conspiracy to murder and ‘conspiracy to commit an act of violence likely to endanger the safety of an aircraft’ is underway at Woolwich Crown Court, an enclave of Belmarsh prison in South-East London. You remember the scenario: the components of liquid bombs to be carried in shampoo containers or contact lens solution or drinks cans or bottles of baby milk, to be assembled onboard in the loos and detonated with laptops, mobiles, camera flashes, iPods; there would be three exploding airliners, or six, or nine, or 12; they would be blown up mid-Atlantic, or over Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, New York. On successive days in the summer of 2006 newspaper billboards blared out how close we were to disaster: the attacks were set for 16 August; no, 22 August; no, the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Back then, you could take your pick.

But there was no question about the consequences. Flights were cancelled, carry-on allowances restricted and liquids banned; British Airways claimed they had lost £100 million in revenue; Ryanair threatened to sue the government over the security measures it was forced to put in place. The police operation that culminated in the arrest of 24 people, mostly Pakistani Muslims, on the night of 9 August – in Walthamstow in East London, Birmingham and High Wycombe – cost the Met alone more than £23 million. It was called Operation Overt. Although they made rather less noise about it in public than the feisty Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, the Met too tried to get the government to compensate them for some of the money they had spent. Their complaints are available online.

Apart from the first few days – in which the prosecution laid out its most incendiary evidence – the trial hasn’t been much reported in the press. This is normal, of course, for a long and detailed trial; and R. v. Abdulla Ahmed Ali et al is expected to last eight months. The pace of revelations can be nail-gnawingly slow, as members of the jury are asked to reinsert pages 140a and 140b behind Tab 4 of Volume 3 of their box files, but only – mark you – ‘once the staples have been removed’. A Portakabin has been laid on as a media annexe: no mobile phones, no cameras. It is fitted out with 70 seats; on the day I visited, only one of them was occupied, by the laptop of a journalist who spent part of the morning session out looking for a sandwich, a thing not easy to find in the wastelands near Belmarsh. But the press gallery will never be entirely empty. At least one person has to be there, a reporter from the Press Association, since the stories that appear in the papers under various bylines are mildly reorganised versions of PA releases.

Sometimes this is acknowledged; often it isn’t.

On the day in question, the key witness was a shop assistant from a pharmacy near Harley Street where one of the accused, Arafat Waheed Khan, had been caught shopping on CCTV. He appeared to have bought four 500 ml glass jars at £38 a piece. That this wasn’t big news, or particularly illegal, explains why on this occasion the daily PA report made only a handful of papers, among them the Worthing Herald.

The national press is above printing trivia, which is why no mention was made, in the Worthing Herald or anywhere else, of the uncertainty during cross-examination as to whether Khan, hesitating over his purchases and apparently wanting plastic jars rather than glass, had said ‘I’m not sure he wants that’ or – more mysteriously, and as the witness maintained – ‘I’m not sure she wants that.’

Who was he or she? Maybe the journalists will return to the court when the defendants start taking the stand; but since that isn’t expected to happen until the summer they may well – who knows? – be on holiday by then.

But the particular reason this trial hasn’t been worth reporting is that all the main elements of the prosecution’s case were widely known long before it began, were known, in fact, before the suspects were even charged. Despite the contradictory and lurid claims that ran in British papers under the banner ‘terror in the skies’, US media and officials seem in retrospect to have had an uncanny insight into what the case against these men would be. On 10 August 2006, the day after the arrests, while the Home Office continued to play its cards close to its chest, Michael Chertoff, the US secretary of homeland security, told PBS News that the explosives would be hidden ‘in ordinary-looking things like beverage containers’ – the prosecution now alleges that the accused were experimenting with injecting explosives into bottles of Lucozade and Oasis – and that the plan ‘could have, in fact, been executed within a matter of a week or two’: there was no mention of precisely when, and the prosecution at Woolwich Crown Court doesn’t contend that the plotters had selected a date, however imminent it could in theory have been. By the standards of the British papers and the BBC, Chertoff was positively sober.

Much more detail was given in a piece published a couple of weeks later in the New York Times, a piece that was immediately subject to a special order that prohibited its publication in Britain. It was deemed prejudicial to any subsequent trial and the NYT responded by blocking internet access to it from UK computers. The authors cited ‘five senior British officials’ and a ‘person briefed about the case’ and claimed that ‘several suspects were doing chemical experiments with a sports drink named Lucozade and syringes’; they also gave details of MI5 surveillance of the top-floor flat on Forest Road in Walthamstow that the security services called the ‘bomb factory’. They mentioned the handwritten diary, apparently containing wiring diagrams, that is alleged to have been found in Abdulla Ahmed Ali’s jacket pocket when he was arrested outside Waltham Forest Town Hall at 21.43 on 9 August; they mentioned the USB memory stick onto which he is said to have downloaded UK-US flight schedules three days before his arrest.

These last findings now have the status of ‘agreed facts’ in the trial, meaning that they are protested by neither prosecution nor defence, but it’s a mystery how American journalists came to be equally agreed 18 months before the event.

Most remarkably, the NYT’s reporters quoted from the ‘seven martyrdom videos’ that were found in police searches of cars, garages and flats in Walthamstow. Their article was published on 28 August 2006. The transcripts that are now being presented in evidence in South-East London were written up by a police interpreter early in October 2006. Could the Met have saved themselves some money by flying over a few hacks from New York, who managed to glean the contents of the videos before they were transcribed? One thing the hacks also said, which the prosecution hasn’t, was that while officials and experts familiar with the case say the investigation points to a serious and determined group of plotters, they add that questions about the immediacy and difficulty of the suspected bombing plot cast doubt on the accuracy of some of the public statements made at the time.

‘In retrospect,’ said Michael A. Sheehan, the former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism in the New York Police Department, ‘there may have been too much hyperventilating going on.’

A fair amount of hyperventilating is still being encouraged outside the courtroom. An excerpt from one of the ‘martyrdom videos’, made by Umar Islam, was released last week to Sky News, which has also made it available on its website. In February, Andrew Gilligan – veteran of the sexy dossier and scourge of Red Ken – was dispatched by Channel 4 to an airfield near Basingstoke where he detonated an undisclosed liquid explosive inside the fuselage of a decommissioned passenger jet. It ‘caused a large fireball, a massive hole in the side of the aircraft and blew seats out of the cabin’. Best of all (though this wasn’t mentioned in Gilligan’s dispatch: the trial had after all yet to start), the explosive had been carried in the same sort of container – a 500 ml plastic bottle – that the prosecution, as of April, alleges the men in the dock used for their experiments. What the prosecution doesn’t so far allege is that the plotters tested their bombs; but then they didn’t have a TV-size budget.

The government’s determination to extend again the period for which ‘terror suspects’ may be held without charge has as much to do with the desire to placate what it sees as Middle England – a desire that has been at the core of its philosophy since 1997 – as any imperative of national security. The eight men now in court were charged on 20 August 2006, ten days after their arrest. The police have cited the vast amount of material that has to be sifted through in cases like this – four hundred computers, two hundred mobile phones and eight thousand memory sticks, CDs and DVDs were seized – as a reason for the time needed before a charge can be made. But high-tech forensics are only a small part of the evidence being presented in R. v. Abdulla Ahmed Ali et al. Much of the evidence was gathered well before the arrests through old-school surveillance: subject was seen entering T&I Communications in Wood Street, Walthamstow, and speaking on a mobile phone ‘in hushed tones in a foreign language’. Perhaps when wiretap evidence is made fully admissible in court – it isn’t yet – surveillance reports will sound less like the work of PC Plod, who loiters on street corners with his pencil stub. But whatever the result of this particular case, even the current provision for 28 days’ detention is unnecessary, given the breadth of new legislation. A suspect can in theory be charged under the 2006 Terrorism Act if evidence suggests that he was associating with the wrong kind of people and having the wrong conversations. It’s nearly thought-crime. Talking in ‘hushed tones in a foreign language’ is a very bad thing to do.

Daniel Soar is an editor at the London Review.

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