Paris attacks: Intelligence is the best defence

We should not rush into new legislation as a panicked response to the atrocities, neither should we be complacent

Sunday 11 January 2015 01:00

As Cole Moreton says today, writing about the three terrorists who killed 17 people in Paris last week, "they got what they wanted". They wanted to be noticed, and they got that attention. In that sense, journalists become complicit with the terrorist at times like this, but only, we would argue, because people need to know what has happened and why.

We hope that our reporting today of the horror that hit France on Wednesday strikes the right balance, reporting the events and helping to understand them, the better to minimise the threat from similar attacks in Britain. But the scale and the intensity of the reaction does pose the question: what would be an overreaction? What would be a complacent response?

There is a tendency for the debate about the security response to terrorist outrages to follow the media cycle and to swing sharply from one extreme to another. Immediately afterwards, most people readily accept the inconvenience of having to take their shoes off to go through airport security, and some of us positively welcome the reassurance that it provides. But then, as the months turn into years, such precautions start to chafe and, when the restrictions on taking fluids on aeroplanes were lifted, most of us were mightily relieved.

Inevitably, there is already a debate in this country about whether our security services have the resources and powers that they need. That is a debate that swings from strong public support for a higher spending and intrusive measures in the days after a shock, to a more sceptical mood during the longer periods between them.

This is the context for the speech delivered on Thursday by Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, in which he restated his view that his service still needed more powers to monitor internet communications. This is not necessarily a bad time for him to make his argument. It is not necessarily a bad thing to be reminded of the threats from which MI5 exists to protect us. And it is better that Mr Parker himself should make these arguments than a politician. We remember Tony Blair's "rules of the game have changed" news conference a month after the 7 July bombings in 2005, in which several unworkable measures were proposed – apparently to give the impression that the Government had a grip on the situation. David Cameron, to his credit, has been calmer about such things.

Mr Parker's concerns should be considered calmly. We should not rush into new legislation as a panicked response to the horror in Paris, but neither should we relapse into the complacency of the quiet times. We should not dismiss his speech as a power grab by a securocrat. We know that there are problems with the law on what data the internet companies have to keep and under what terms they have to disclose it to the security services.

So far Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has failed to make the case for her proposals, dubbed the Snooper's Charter by the Liberal Democrats and blocked by them. But it would not be an overreaction to the events in Paris to look at them again.

The truth is that a more level response to terrorist attacks is the best policy. We should avoid panic responses in the immediate wake of horrible deaths, but on the other hand we should be more aware of the hidden threat when the surface of the pond seems still.

This newspaper has been consistent about one thing ever since 11 September 2001, which is that the best defence against all kinds of terrorism, including violent jihadism, is intelligent intelligence. That means, above all, human intelligence, understanding the kinds of people – usually young men, as Joan Smith points out today – who feel they have to express themselves by killing others. It means the sustained and balanced application of lessons learned. That is the best way to anticipate threats and to protect ourselves from them.

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