No 10 resists calls to allow phone-tap terror evidence

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Downing Street appeared to be holding out yesterday against proposals by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, to allow the use of telephone intercept evidence against terrorists in court.

The intelligence services have opposed the use of their phone tap evidence because they fear it could give away their sources and techniques for surveillance to terrorists and organised crime gangs.

But Lord Goldsmith said he believed their anxieties could now be allayed following meetings with his American counterpart, Alberto Gonzales, and senior US prosecutors, judges and the FBI. Lord Goldsmith acknowledged that there were "differences of view" among the intelligence agencies on the issue, but said he believed concerns about the disclosure of covert techniques could be met by giving prosecutors the option not to use intercept evidence if there was a risk that future operations could be compromised.

"Obviously our agencies use these methods and procedures in order to protect the people of our country, and we must ensure they are not put in a position where that ability is prejudiced," he said.

The Tories, Liberal Democrats and civil rights campaigners signalled that they would give a fair wind to such a change in the law. Dominic Grieve, the shadow Attorney General said it was "a far more effective counter-terrorism measure" than control orders.

Shami Chakrabati, the director of Liberty, said allowing phone tap evidence would enable the authorities to put terrorist suspects on trial rather than holding them under house arrest. "Our reluctance to use phone-tap evidence in terror cases like most other countries is frankly mind-boggling," she said.

However, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said that while the issue was the subject of "ongoing active work" they would not put at risk the security services' sources or personnel.

"What we cannot do is jeopardise the work of our security services through a sensible desire to use intercept evidence," he said.