Countering Counter-Terrorism

August 11th, 2009  |  Published in Journal  |  2 Comments

Kyle McCurdyKyle McCurdy

In this response to British counter-terrorism policy Kyle McCurdy promotes adherence to long term strategies over short term responsive tactics, an approach that would pose less risk of neglecting civil liberties and government accountability. This article is a condensed version of Kyle’s dissertation. Since graduating from Kings College London he has gone on to work with the DSTL.

Nowhere is the lack of trust in the British government more pressing than in the counter-terrorism strategy. The failure to find a successful balance in the ‘trust dilemma’ will result in an increased risk and threat of attack. The populace will be less likely to support genuine counter-terrorism policies after cry-wolf policies have been abused, and important informants to security services may well be more sympathetic to terrorist plots. The long term effects of the cynicism and distrust will become more exacerbated without challenge. The degradation of trust amongst the public and abuse of power by the government become more embedded. This article discusses how the New Generation needs to change the characteristics of British politics from one that reinforces a short term ‘power’ strategy and then explains the subsequent problems of this strategy in the long run, using both theory and practice. Recommendations are also suggested as to how the government should ‘solve’ the ‘problem’ domestically and internationally. The New Generation must seek to redress the existing hierarchy of government priorities, to a strategy where civil liberties and government accountability take precedence over security.

British counter-terrorism, in theory, solely aims to reduce the threat of terrorist attack using the “Contest” strategy. In practice however, counter-terrorism is also used as a wide ranging policy that can help the government achieve many of its disparate objectives. The challenge for leaders is to recognise the threat the government is to itself and the ‘escalation trap’ that constricts them. Similar to the terrorists escalation trap as outlined by Prof. M. Rainsbrough, there comes a time when the government’s own policies cause a reaction within the target population that is detrimental to the initial objective. The escalation of government policies to fight terrorists, such as pre-trail detention, would result in erosion of the public’s civil liberties and long term security; contrary to the aims of the original policy. The focus of this article is on the use or abuse of counter-terrorism legislation for secondary objectives and the problems it causes with government embarrassment, the trust dilemma and the increasing government power.

In practice, counter-terrorism legislation has been used (or abused­) for reasons other than security. One of the most significant consequences of this has been to increase the government’s potential power in response to terrorist attacks. Examples of this behaviour include the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act. ‘The 2004 act swept up and revised existing emergency powers and civil defence legislation, fusing them, in a single statute, with the generic capabilities needed to deal with the consequences of a terrorist assault on people, infrastructure, essential services and systems.’[1] The Government’s attempt to pass increasing lengths of pre-trial detention, further shows the government’s desire for potential power, even if they would not use it, despite the unpopularity of the strategy. It is argued that this desire for expansion is natural for any political organisation in light of the modern political paradigm but this has had an adverse affect on security in the long term because of the perceived abuse of trust. Governments in times of emergencies will try to centralise power to increase control rather than departmentalise it. However, given the nature of government once powers are centralised and granted for legitimate terrorist threats, they are commonly used for other objectives and only increase the power of the state, rather than the security of the state. The New Generation must overcome these ‘natural’ power-expanding processes, and place government accountability and civil liberties before security.

The problems with the short term strategy are the centralisation of power and the ‘escalation trap’, which threaten civil liberties and finally government accountability. A balance needs to be struck between civil liberties, accountability and security. The British Government becoming an oppressive government, that terrorises the population into control and security, is as much a threat to civil liberties as the terrorists. The government’s ‘power’ strategy therefore places security above civil liberties and government accountability. The government says it is their responsibility, ‘above anything else, to protect the security of the British people’[2]. The balance between civil liberties and security, however, is difficult to achieve and becomes more complex over time. After terrorist attacks, the demand by the public and the media for a power based strategy, to quickly ensure security, will increase. It is the Government’s responsibility, alongside the system of checks and regulation, to maintain the  academically popular ‘security’ strategy in the long term; only using the short term reactive ‘power’ strategy when absolutely necessary in a ‘supreme emergency’ situation.

The challenge to the New Generation therefore, is to establish and maintain a longer term ‘security’ strategy which primarily ensures government accountability (that affects the largest number of people), the maintenance of civil liberties and human rights, and finally security from terrorist attacks (which affects the smallest proportion of people): reversing the Government’s current hierarchy. In this respect the government is always accountable for its actions even at times of emergency. Long term strategy therefore suggests that the Government must reset its priorities and establish an independent regulatory system to monitor the counter-terrorism strategy, because the government cannot effectively regulate itself. Similarly, government employees and politicians need to fight this natural trend through honesty, openness and accountability. Citizens themselves must keep the government in check, regulating it via the media and the polling station when it cannot be trusted; but also trust the government (and the system that makes it accountable) in and after states of emergency. By applying the long term security strategy, the British people can, in the long run, trust their government.

[1] Hennessy, (2007) p.13

[2]Foreign Office Minister, Ivan Lewis. Today show. 04/08/2009


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