Questions have been raised over whether British authorities were pressured by the United States to make the arrests last week in the alleged terror plot to blow up transatlantic airliners. We speak with former British ambassador Craig Murray who says, "The one thing of which I am certain is that the timing is deeply political. This is more propaganda than plot." [includes rush transcript]
A judge in Britain has ruled police have until next week to continue to hold 23 suspects arrested in the alleged plot to blow up airplanes bound for the United States.
British police arrested 24 people in raids last week. One person has since been released. No one has been charged with a crime.
Questions have been raised over whether British authorities were pressured by the United States to make the arrests. A senior British official told NBC News that British police were planning to continue to run surveillance for at least another week to try to obtain more evidence. The British official suggested the attack was not imminent, saying the suspects had not yet purchased any airline tickets. Some did not even have passports.
Now, a former British ambassador is suggesting that the timing of the arrests has been deeply political and should be viewed with skepticism. Craig Murray is Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan. He was removed from the post two years ago in part because of his outspoken criticism of Uzbekistan’s human rights record.
- Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan.
The British government is reportedly considering an airport screening system that would include identifying passengers by their ethnic or religious background. Security at British airports was radically tightened last week after authorities claimed they foiled the alleged terror plot. Increased passenger searches have caused significant delays at airports in Britain and calls have increased for profiling to select travelers for searching.
- Gareth Crossman, Director of Policy at the British civil rights group Liberty.
AMY GOODMAN: Craig Murray is Britain’s former ambassador to Uzbekistan. He was removed from the post two years ago, in part because of his outspoken criticism of Uzbekistan’s human rights record. He was in the studio with us here in New York City recently. He now joins us on the phone from Britain. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ambassador Murray.
CRAIG MURRAY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the case and what questions you have for the British government?
CRAIG MURRAY: Yes. I think we need to be rather skeptical about this case. It’s being used to cause a tremendous amount of hype, a tremendous amount of disruption at airports, and really put the fear of terror up to levels as high as the government can actually get up again, but it doesn’t seem to be based on a very great deal of evidence. And certainly the claims that this was going to be bigger than 9/11 and that it was an imminent attack appear to be very dubious.
There’s, as you’ve reported, no sign that the people had plane tickets. It’s very difficult to bomb a plane without a plane ticket, no sign that they’d actually made any bombs yet. And the evidence is that these people had been under surveillance for quite a long time by the British Security Services, who hadn’t seen any need of the early arrests. And then a combination of some new intelligence coming out of Pakistan, which it seems very likely was got under torture — it was certainly got by interrogation by Pakistani intelligence services — and pressure from United States officials has led to this, to the arrests, still nobody charged, and the most enormous political propaganda being made of the case.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Ambassador, in an article you’ve written here in the United States for Counterpunch, you raised a track record of the British government, in terms of holding folks under antiterrorism statutes. Could you talk about some of those numbers that are not well known here in the United States?
CRAIG MURRAY: Yes, certainly. The British government has passed, since September the 11th, four new antiterrorist laws, four different tranches of legislation, and under those bills, over one thousand Muslims have been arrested, but very few have been charged. Less than 12% of those arrested are ever charged with anything. And then of those who have been charged, very few are convicted. In fact, just about 2% of all those arrested are ever convicted of anything, and of those convicted, the large majority of those aren’t convicted of anything to do with terrorism. They’re convicted of something else that the police happened upon, while they were taking their houses apart, just the sort of happenstance finding of something else illegal. So, you know, we’ve got very good reason to be very, very skeptical of these continual arrests of Muslims. We’ve had a whole series of so-called plots, which made the front pages at the time but turned out simply to be untrue.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Craig Murray, you talk about President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair having a conversation about these arrests. Can you explain the whole issue of the timing and what you understand they talked about?
CRAIG MURRAY: Yes, they spoke, according to — and I should say, my source of this is the mainstream media. Sky News, which is the Fox News affiliate over here, showed still photographs, which they said were — heard George Bush having this conversation with Tony Blair, in which they discussed the timing of the arrests, and they discussed them on the Sunday before the arrests were made the following Thursday. And that’s very peculiar to me. That immediately rings all kinds of alarm bells. I mean, if this is a genuine potential imminent terrorist operation, it’s strange that all these amazing new hold-ups at airports weren’t introduced for another four days until after the people had been arrested. That seems strange.
But also, what are the Prime Minister and the President doing discussing the details of forthcoming arrests? That should be an operational matter for the experts, for the professionals and the security services and the police who are responsible for this kind of surveillance. They should be acting at the correct moment, when the evidence is in place and when they’re certain that the people are, in their view, definitely involved, and when they can secure their conviction. They shouldn’t be subject to pressure from politicians, as to when they move.
And one of the results of this is, I don’t think we will ever know whether or not there really was this threat that, you know, we’re told was greater than 9/11, and the officials have said it was going to cause murder on an unimaginable scale. Well, we’ll never know, because if you arrest people before they even buy their airplane tickets, even if it does turn out to be true, that these people had, as is alleged, been bragging about what they were going to do in internet chat rooms, how do you know if that was really serious or if it was just talk, if you don’t let the thing develop to a stage where you actually really see what’s happening? But instead, I think we all have to suspect that for political reasons, Blair and Bush had the arrests made early.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Ambassador, you’ve also raised questions about the involvement of Pakistan and some of the arrests occurring there and information gleaned from interrogations of people held by the Pakistanis.
CRAIG MURRAY: Yeah. There are several points here. One point is that allegedly both the Pakistani and the British intelligence services had infiltrated this group. So the question is, was there agent provocateur stuff going on here? You know, were the Pakistani intelligence services themselves egging on people to do some kind of bomb plot? Was there an element of that in the British intelligence services?
The other question is the use of torture. Some of the information came from Pakistan intelligence from alleged militants picked up on the Pakistan-Afghani border. Now, then, you know, Pakistan is a dictatorship, and its security services are pretty brutal, and human rights organizations there have said that almost certainly that would have involved torture. And I know from my experience in Uzbekistan that in such circumstances, under torture or the imminent threat of torture, people will say anything in order to stop the pain, and , you know, they will spill out the names of hundreds of people they know back home in the UK and say, "Yes, he’s a terrorist. He’s a terrorist. He’s a terrorist. Please stop beating me." So, you know, there are all kinds of reasons to be skeptical about this.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ambassador Craig Murray in London, former ambassador to Uzbekistan, who while he was the ambassador there, started to expose the level of human rights abuses that were going on in prisons, where thousands of political prisoners were held. Ambassador, NBC reported a Pakistani intelligence official told them that Rashid Rauf, the main suspect in the London bomb plot, was taken to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to point out al-Qaeda training camps, and AP reported yesterday that Pakistani intelligence officials are discounting the U.S. government’s claim that the plot was the work of al-Qaeda. According to the officials, the suspects were too inexperienced to carry out the plan. Can you comment on this?
CRAIG MURRAY: Yeah, the idea of any serious links to al-Qaeda seems to be imaginary at the moment, on top of which, this gentleman in Pakistan who was providing so much of the information is himself quite an interesting character. He fled the UK to Pakistan several years ago, when he was wanted for questioning by police in connection with the murder of his uncle. Now, there was no indication that that murder was anything to do with al-Qaeda, anything to do with Islam at all, anything to do with terrorism. This is a guy who fled the country, rather than be questioned about the murder of his uncle, and he’s now the valued intelligence asset who’s giving the information on this bomb plot. Now, that surely must raise some additional questions about his credibility, as well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, the British government is reportedly considering an airport screening system that would include identifying passengers by their ethnic or religious background. Security at British airports was radically tightened last week, after authorities claimed they foiled this alleged terror plot, but increased passenger searches have caused significant delays at airports in Britain, and calls have increased for profiling to select passengers for searching. Gareth Crossman also joins us on the line from London. He is a Director of Policy at the British civil rights group Liberty. Welcome to Democracy Now!
GARETH CROSSMAN: Good morning — or afternoon.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Your reaction to these discussions now about possible profiling of passengers?
GARETH CROSSMAN: Yes, I think the initial reports, which seem to be suggesting that there was going to be some sort of two-tiered screening process, which would be one process for basically British Asians or British Muslims and one for everyone else, are extremely worrying. To be fair to the government, they have backed down slightly from that in the last few days, and following discussions with colleagues in the European Union, it seems that the move towards more intelligence-based screening might be what’s actually being proposed, the distinction being that intelligence-based profiling might take race or ethnicity as one factor, amongst several, when considering profiling. The devil is in the detail in this sort of thing, but it does seem that, you know, the initial concerns that we and many others had, that essentially this was going to mean that there were going to be two queues, one of Asians and one of everyone else, is unlikely to happen, at least that’s how it appears at this moment.
AMY GOODMAN: Gareth, your reaction to the judge’s ruling that the suspects continue to be held? The law, what, under the new antiterrorism laws of Britain are that they can be held for a month without a charge, but a judge has to agree to it every week, of them being held without charge within that month.
GARETH CROSSMAN: Yes, I mean, this is actually something that was subject of the most recent — we’ve had so many, but the most recent terrorism act that was passed by the British parliament. Initially the government were actually after 90 days detention — that’s three months, that’s the equivalent of actually a six-month custodial sentence in the UK — before being charged. The previous time limit had been 14 days. It was extended by compromise up to 28 days.
Now, what will be interesting is what happens if these people are still being held around the 28-day mark, because we know, because the government has said, they still really do want to get 90 days detention. And what possibly might be a concern is if there are hints that people might have to be released, because they can’t be detained for long enough. Now, 28 days is a long period of time to hold people in custody. This is prior to any charge being brought.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And if the government appears before a judge to request an extension, do they have to present any reason or just is it a mere formality?
GARETH CROSSMAN: Yeah, what you actually have to do is that you have to satisfy the court that there is an ongoing investigation and that it is necessary for one of several reasons, the essential reason being because you’re still in the process of gathering evidence, that further time is needed. The judge will then weigh the arguments for and against and will make a decision as to whether or not he or she believes that further detention is, in fact, justified. And this process can continue up until the cut-off point of 28 days.
AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Crossman, I want to thank you for being with us, Director of Policy at the British civil rights group Liberty, and also Ambassador Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. Thanks for joining us.