MPs condemn slow response to challenge of al-Qa'ida

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Glaring errors of judgement by Britain's secret service chiefs about the threat posed by the al-Qa'ida network were laid bare last night in a report to Tony Blair by the parliamentary watchdog on the intelligence and security services.

Glaring errors of judgement by Britain's secret service chiefs about the threat posed by the al-Qa'ida network were laid bare last night in a report to Tony Blair by the parliamentary watchdog on the intelligence and security services.

The MPs criticised intelligence chiefs, who include John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, for being too slow to react to the threat which first became apparent in 1998 when al-Qa'ida blew up an embassy in east Africa. The MPs said that it was only in 2003 - more than a year after the September 11 attacks in the United States - that Britain's secret service agencies ordered a massive increase in their numbers. They said: "This was too late and it is why they do not have the level of resources they need for all their priority requirements."

The report revealed that British intelligence officers breached the Geneva Conventions during the interrogation of a British detainee in an American military camp.

The MPs warned of glaring gaps in Britain's defences that have not been plugged in spite of earlier warnings by the committee. They complained that they warned two years ago that dangerous goods could be shipped to Britain by post by terrorists, but the checks on the mail were still inadequate.

They revealed that ministers do not have proper secure lines to talk to each other when they are away from London. And Britain is still vulnerable to electronic attack against its infrastructure, including water supplies.

The report will fuel criticism of the secret services for the intelligence failures which led to Britain going to war against Iraq on false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of being used in 45 minutes.

The report also shows that the Intelligence and Security Committee - which was set up by Mr Blair as a parliamentary watchdog for the security and intelligence services - lacks teeth and has been treated with disregard bordering on contempt by the Government.

The MPs - who include some of Mr Blair's most trusted senior backbenchers - complain that Mr Blair ignored their earlier criticism about Downing Street's "unhelpful'' use of the claim that Saddam could use WMD in 45 minutes.

The committee said the Government failed to show eight reports by the Joint Intelligence Committee which it says were "relevant'' for its report on Saddam's WMD. The Government apologised and the committee said the reports would not have made any difference to its findings, but they added: "The committee is not satisfied with the Government's response."

But the most worrying finding will be the failure of the security and intelligence services properly to assess the threat from al-Qa'ida for five years. The MPs reveal that in October 2003, the Government reacted to a reassessment of the threat by providing significant additional funds.

Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, which protects Britain against terrorism, is increasing its strength by 50 per cent over the next four years.

The MPs said that the public spending review, which will be published by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, on 12 July must include a substantial rise in the budget for Britain's spy network.

The report contains details of how a British detainee was interrogated wearing manacles and a hood in breach of the Geneva Conventions by British intelligence officers a year ago. Tony Blair confirmed the incident in a letter to the MPs which they received shortly before finalising their report in May. He said: "The detainee was brought in hooded and shackled by the US military and remained so during the one-hour interview."

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