Saturday, February 24, 2007 

Is it April Fools' Day already?

The military has been conducting secret tests to find out if British soldiers can be trained to use psychic powers - possibly to locate hidden weapons stores or discover where Osama bin Laden is based.

The Ministry of Defence study, conducted in 2002, involved blindfolding volunteers and asking them to "see" the contents of sealed brown envelopes.

The MoD said the tests, which cost the taxpayer £18,000, found that "remote viewing theories" had little value and the project was abandoned.

In other news, bears have been found to favour evacuating their bowels in areas containing a large number of trees, while the Pope has given a shock interview in which he's claimed that despite the malicious rumours being spread, he is in fact a Catholic.

Oh, and there was a rather large demonstration in London. I wish I'd gone.

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Scum-watch: Graffiti and straw men.

A 21/7 SUICIDE bomb suspect wrote al-Qaeda graffiti on the walls of his jail cell after his court case started, the trial heard.

Ramzi Mohammed, 25 — accused of trying to kill London Tube passengers — allegedly scrawled: “Al-Qaeda, the book that will guide you to victory.”

It was spotted by a guard at London’s Belmarsh Jail, the court heard.

Mohammed and five others deny the plot at Woolwich Crown Court. The trial continues.

The only problem with this is that unless Mohammed meant base instead of book, the sentence makes little sense. The origins of how bin Laden's organisation came to be called al-Qaida is disputed, as the opening to the Wikipedia entry makes clear. Translated, it simply means "the base". This may have been either down to the first training camp established by bin Laden and his followers, which was simply named the base, or, as Robin Cook wrote in a comment piece the day after the the London bombings and shortly before his death, the name of the computer file held by the CIA on the Afghan mujahideen:

Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west.

If we want to take Mohammed's alleged scrawling even more literally, he may have been referring to Jason Burke's outstanding brief history of al-Qaida, which makes clear that understanding the threat is key to its defeat. More likely is that it was a typical toilet wall inking, the kind that the bored teenager scratches into his desk at school. Not that explaining this to those who have commented on the article would likely do much good.

Bring back hanging for these people! If the UK isn't such a soft touch maybe they would ****** off!

Seeing as the whole basis for the case is that Mohammed was attempting to carry out a suicide bombing but failed, I doubt bringing back hanging is going to do much to deter the average jihadi set on dying for his cause.

A nice public execution. It's time we took the gloves off dealing with these vile individuals. Our liberty, freedom and society as we know it is at grave risk if we don't do something now!

What better way to prove that we're above such barbaric acts of senseless violence than by executing criminals in public? Everyone come and get a nice look, then you can go home and watch al-Zarqawi et al doing the same thing to hostages in Iraq.

Today's Scum leader is even more ignorant and stupid than usual:

Our best hope

THE usual voices of doom claim that siting America’s Star Wars missiles on British soil will make us a target.

What planet are they on? We are already near the top of the list if the madmen of Iran and North Korea press the nuclear button.

The new Star Wars is vital for our defence. We must embrace it.

Only just one slight problem with this. Even if North Korea's missile technology worked, and the last test failed miserably, then the furthest they could hit would be the west coast of America. As for Iran, their longest range missile (they are developing others, but how far along the production stage they are is unknown) could conceivably travel 2200km, meaning it could possibly strike Israel, which would quickly result in Tehran experiencing a nuclear winter. Iran is still years away from actually producing a nuclear weapon capable of being attached as a warhead to a missile. Neither country is a direct threat to the United Kingdom. This leader is in other words, a scaremongering pack of lies. For an opinion not written by deliberately misleading lazy lying journalist scum, try the Grauniad's leader.

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Friday, February 23, 2007 

Hazel Blears, the sensible candidate for the sensible idiot.

Can Hazel Blears really be standing for deputy leader? Does she really think she can get the 44 required nominations, let alone enough votes from the membership to win? Does she not realise she's a handy 5ft walking target for everything that's gone wrong with Labour? Is she insane, deluded or ignorant of how much she's reviled?

In fact, to be fair to Blair and Blairites in general, even they've got more gumption and ideas than this train wreck of a woman, nicknamed the chipmunk by other blogs. In an interview with Tribune, which seems an insult to everything which the weekly has ever stood for, she comes out with the most appallingly vacant statements since George Bush informed us that man and fish could live together in harmony:

"There is a factory in China which makes half the world's microwave ovens," she said. "We simply can't compete in producing white goods like that.

"The development of the next generation of digital and broadband is critical."

Do what? It's quite clear that Blears doesn't have an utter clue what she's talking about, but she seems to think that if she constructs a sentence involving what all the kids are down with the media might not bother to question her on just what the development of the next generation of "digital" and "broadband" involves. Next issue: housing.

On housing, she noted: "Young people want to get a start on the housing ladder but it is really expensive in many areas."

Thanks for that, Hazel. Any ideas on how we might solve the problem? No, thought not.

In a briefing to MPs, Ms Blears said: "I know that [after] 10 years in office some members feel disengaged. That does not mean we should change course or distance ourselves from our own successes. But we should recognise that one product of a lengthy period in office is that some party members feel left out. They don't have a relationship with their Labour government, other than what they read in newspapers."

After 10 years of ignoring them, the Blairites finally realise they're going to have to reach out to the membership if they're going to continue their hegemony over the party, and they're surprised that most of the card-carriers aren't particularly happy with what's gone on. That everyone other than the membership itself has been at some point fawned over by the Blair government seems to have passed them by entirely.

"I am not putting myself forward as the woman candidate - but in a modern 21st-century progressive left-of-centre party, people would love to see a man and a woman," Ms Blears said. "They would like to see men and women working together to solve problems."

Once you've finished smashing your head into the keyboard in complete despair at the ghastly image of Blears and Brown hand in hand, skipping through a green field with rictus grins on their faces, it suddenly hits you that Blears genuinely believes that the party, despite everything, is left-of-centre. She isn't a Blairite anymore though, oh no, she's a centrist who can see just how gorgeous Gord is once he stops scowling:

"People are looking for maturity. It is a pretty scary world out there."

Even more so when you consider that empty-brained non-entities like Blears can somehow rise up the ranks to be party chair. Even a few days ago she was still spouting the same old platitudes that are rightly held in contempt both by the media and anyone who isn't an idiot:

1. Do you regret your support for the Iraq war in the Commons vote in March 2003?

Hazel Blears Labour party chair

No, I don't. Removing Saddam Hussein from power was essential for the peace of the region, for the protection of the Iraqi people, and for our own security.

Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis later, air strikes on Iran looking more likely by the day, and with the threat from terrorism greatly increased, as the security services warned, and Blears still can't even for a moment think that supporting the war was the wrong decision. At least Hilary Benn ties himself in knots while answering.

Speaking of Iran:

3. Would you support a military strike on Iran if the prime minister of the day recommended one?

Hazel Blears

Labour party chair

There's no point speculating about this purely hypothetical question.

Which, as a letter the following day to the Guardian pointed out, is the most pathetic way of not answering a more than reasonable question imaginable. Politics is about asking and attempting to answer hypothetical questions. Her answer though isn't a surprise. It's the answer of someone who has no imagination or ideas of their own, someone who doesn't understand that their very appearance is enough to repel people, and that it's been these two very distinct characteristics that have helped bring Labour to where they are now in 2007. The only positive to be taken from her declaration is that she'll be humiliated, with the message getting through that rise of the robotic, lobotomised apparatchik is finally at an end.

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Scum-watch: Smacking is back in fashion.

Bloggerheads notes that today's page 3 girl, the views of which usually correspond with the editorial opinions of the newspaper itself, is all in favour of bringing back caning. Could this possibly the same newspaper that goes out of its way to find a story about an evil pervert preying on our kids almost every day of the week? The same newspaper that scaremongered about the possibility of "perv sirs" and paedos being in class?

Perhaps Rebekah Wade would like to explain how allowing a teacher to hit a pupil as a punishment isn't either assault or a form of child abuse. If a pupil hit a teacher, he or she would be suspended or expelled, and quite rightly so. "Rhian's" "views" are based on a survey which found that parents believe that discipline in school has declined since the abolition of corporal punishment, which may well be true, but it certainly doesn't mean that bringing back the cane is the way to restore order. The Guardian report on the survey is predictably calmer. The rules on what can be done to restrain violent and unruly pupils have also been made far clearer in recent years.

Still, we all know about Wade's own fondness for smacking her husband (now ex). Could this explain her apparent lust for physical violence?

Elsewhere in today's Scum, they make a big deal out of Ryan Florence pretending to shoot David Cameron with his loaded fingers, who they interview just to make sure that he gets more publicity for being both an idiot and a boastful most likely lying little twerp. Those who are now taking Florence as an example of yob culture Britain would do well to remember the other teenager who heckled Cameron, rightly working out that he doesn't know his arse from his elbow.

The Scum's leader is foaming at the mouth, as per usual:

BRITAIN is in the grip of an ugly gun culture.

No it isn't. Distinct, inner-city parts of Britain may be in the grip of an ugly gun culture, but Britain as a whole is certainly not. America is in the grip of an ugly gun culture, but Murdoch's minions would never dream of suggesting that.

That’s the message to Tony Blair and David Cameron, who got a first-hand taste of the snarling morons who glorify guns yesterday.

Quite right too. I suppose the kids who play with toy guns and water pistols are glorifying them as well. Believe it or not, kids have been pretending to shoot people with their fingers for decades. That someone wet between the ears was trying to impress his dumb friends doesn't mean he was glorifying gun violence.

Kids as young as eight are toting deadly weapons. Others won’t leave home without body armour under their anoraks.

I'd like to see some statistics that back up the first part of this sentence, seeing as the police only spoke of 13-year-olds having guns hidden in their houses. The same age group was spoken of wearing body armour. We're talking about a tiny percentage of people, but from this Sun leader you'd think the whole of the next generation were tooling themselves up ready to massacre each other.

Laws to curb gang membership are vital. Anyone caught carrying a gun must be slung in jail.

The police must be given every power they need — with the orders to use them.

Replica guns should be outlawed.

Maybe I wasn't being too outlandish in suggesting that children with water pistols are glorifying gun crime. We ought to outlaw them too to make sure they aren't converted into lethal weapons. No concern for those who shoot for pleasure in outlawing replicas, but we shouldn't of expected any.

We are at war with gangs — and no measure is too extreme to tackle them.

How about caning them? I hear that works wonders.

But laws are not enough on their own. We all have a duty to clean up our streets.

Governments must send clear messages about right and wrong.

That means backing the family, the teacher and the rule of law.

This is a war we must win.

Seeing as the government and the Sun see no wrong in breaking the rule of law to call off the SFO's investigation into the Saudi Arabian slush fund, not to mention the legality of the Iraq war, they're hardly the ones to start parroting about it. Everything is war, and war is peace.

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Pedants corner.

It's a small thing, but why is it that newspapers often refer to women as girls? The above is typical of the Daily Mail in general, referring in the same sentence to men as men but to ladies' tennis players as girls. It's not even correct technically, as Wimbledon also runs a junior boys and girls tournament, who definitely won't be receiving the same prize money as those who win the adult championship. The Telegraph did the same thing yesterday. Is it too much to ask for sub-editors not to go along with their newspaper's general stance on the sexes?

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Thursday, February 22, 2007 

Troops out, royal family in!

The amount of absolute nonsense surrounding the non-withdrawal of troops from Iraq is nauseating. There's Dick Cheney, Vietnam draft dodger, saying that the withdrawal of a whole 1,600, with the rest maybe being gone by the end of 2008, if all goes to plan, proves that some things are going splendidly well. Quite right too. According to some notoriously unreliable statistics, there were only 29 murders in Basra in December. It's quite true that compared to Baghdad that's a below average daily toll, but it's hardly suggesting all is calm.

The truth of the matter is that the very people who are in power in Basra are the ones who have wanted the troops out from the beginning. The Mahdi army, which has always opposed the occupation, is still in majority control despite Operation Sinbad. The most egregious of the criminal gangs and brutal of the militia commanders may have been cleaned out, but the rest will remain. This is a very different situation to that in Baghdad -- while opinion polls have time and again made clear that ordinary Iraqis wish for foreign troops to leave, the government itself is adamant that the Americans must stay. They know full well that without the protection, inadequate as it is, that they would soon be forced from power, Shia, Sunni or otherwise. While they stay cooped up in the Green Zone, the citizens of Baghdad face the suicide bombers and the sectarian death squads.

Blair's insistence that nothing was his or our fault, that the terrorists are the ones responsible for the mass slaughter perpetuated in close to four years, and that things are actually better now than they were under Saddam are the real conundrum, as still is his support in the first place. We know why the Bush administration wanted to get rid of Saddam, a mixture of reasons involving remaking the Middle East, oil and establishing a new outpost after being forced out of Saudi Arabia, but it's still impossible to figure out just what Blair thought he would get out of joining in with such a war. He can't have imagined just how badly it would go, and how it would personally destroy him, but that doesn't explain why even now he's hanging on desperately, managing to convince only himself that everyone apart from him is responsible. He's had innumerable chances to extricate himself from this mess, yet it's as if he has a masochistic streak that makes him enjoy the political consequences of not doing so. This wouldn't be so bad if it was over a matter such as the Euro, or proportional representation, refusing to accept defeat, but this is literally a matter of life and death, for both the troops who he's sacrificed for his stand and for the Iraqis who have died in their thousands as a result. His gluttony for punishment nurtures his pathological delusions, a vicious circle which this feeble withdrawal will not solve.

You can at least feel some sympathy for Blair's predicament over the withdrawal. The fickleness of some of the media and politicians is stark. The Daily Mail, which was sniffy about the war from the beginning, calls this minute exit plan "cutting and running". Menzies Campbell, who was uncertain about opposing the war, tries to have it both ways by lecturing Blair about the situation in Basra while still talking of his honourable plan for all troops to be out of Iraq by October. The army, which wanted faster and sharper cuts, is left in a country it wants to wash its hands of, believing that they can do no more to help Basra, while Afghanistan is still winnable. They have more than a point, and are right to be increasingly angry about their treatment, feted by Blair for their bravery on one hand and left with poor equipment, housing, benefits and pay back home. Their belief that they've been paying with their lives for an American foreign policy with nothing to show for it in return is one that may yet turn out to be a turning point for our own foreign policy once Blair is finally turned out.

It's utterly bizarre therefore that Prince Harry is so determined to go to Iraq. At a time when the rest of the army is almost unanimous in never wanting to return, he seems to want to sell himself dearly. It could be out of a desire to not let those whom he's trained with down, as they certainly don't have the choice of not going, at least without facing a court martial, or it could be that he's as stupid as it's assumed he is. The talk of him being a target for "insurgents" is utter bilge, however. It's obvious that the majority of them couldn't care less who they kill, and if an IED happened to bump him off, it'd be an added propaganda bonus, but little more.

This is why the sanctimonious outpouring of praise for his "bravery" and the whole media circus surrounding his trip to southern Basra is so insulting and demeaning for the average soldier. Their work has been almost taken for granted, especially by the very politicians who have defended to the last the whole sorry saga. The only really impressive thing about his desire to serve is that he is one of the very few from the corridors of power that is prepared to do so. If he does return home in a body bag, it might finally bring home to those who continue to cheerlead for both this war and the next, if it comes, what the real consequences of their actions are. It has been this disconnect from facing up to death that has been the real scandal of the Iraq war, for both our own and those unfortunate enough to inhabit the land of two rivers.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007 

Scum-watch: Much ado about smoking.

DEBENHAMS IN DRUG SHAME, shrieks the Sun in what is in fact an utterly shameless piece. In a complete non-story, some berk goes to Prague, sees Debenhams are selling hash-pipes and bongs, phones the Sun, and wham, all sense goes out the window.

MAJOR UK department store Debenhams is today exposed by The Sun selling drug paraphernalia in one of their overseas branches.

Hundreds of bongs, pipes, bud cases and water pipes are for sale at their store in Prague alongside clothing and shoes.

Paul Rushden, from Nottingham, was shocked when he spotted the items whilst on holiday in the Czech capital last week.

He said: "I couldn't believe it when I walked past a major British high street retailer and saw bongs and pipes blatantly for sale in their front window.

"I didn't expect Debenhams to be endorsing drug taking.

Err, they're not. What people get up to with what they buy from a department store is their business, much like how sex shops which sell handcuffs and fetish wear aren't endorsing whatever their customers do with the stuff. There's a store in town that sells every skin you could ever want and has a load of bongs on the top shelf and no one bats an eyelid. Why should it make any difference if a store like Debenhams is selling it?

"One wonders how the shareholders of this public company would feel about profiting from the drug trade."

The store is located in the busy King Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague.

A spokeswoman for Debenhams thanked The Sun for bringing the matter to their attention and promised action.

She said: "This Debenhams store is managed by our Franchise Partner in Prague.

"This matter is clearly not acceptable and we have instructed our Partner to remove the items immediately and make clear to the vendor that any repetition will not be tolerated."

No mention then of what the drug laws actually are in the Czech Republic, which might explain why Debenhams would be selling them in the first place.

The Czech Republic's lower house last week approved a penal code revision that will decriminalize simple marijuana possession and allow for growing for personal use. The measure is likely to pass the Senate and be approved by President Vaclav Klaus, reports Czech activist and journalist Bushka Bryndova.

The proposed new law draws a distinction between soft drugs (cannabis and psychedelic mushrooms) and hard drugs. While penalties for hard drugs remain practically unchanged, possession of small amounts of marijuana or a limited (the number is yet to be set) number of plants will no longer merit prosecution.

Which sounds to me like the kind of law which ought to be campaigned for here. Congratulations to the Sun on such a brilliant exclusive!

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In the foreword to the Muslim Council of Britain's report aimed at helping schools in guidance towards meeting the needs of Muslim pupils (PDF), the third paragraph contains the following sentences:

We are convinced that with a reasonable degree of mutual understanding and goodwill, even more progress can be made in responding positively to the educational aspirations and concerns of Muslim pupils and their parents. The current climate, in which there is much negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims requires that this be given greater priority and impetus to ensure that Muslim pupils are appropriately accommodated for and become an integral part of mainstream school life and thereby of society as a whole.

They've clearly then got good intentions, whether you agree with some of their recommendations, which I certainly don't. What they are not doing is suggesting that this is how schools must be run, or as the Express website puts it, MUSLIMS: 'BAN' UN-ISLAMIC SCHOOLS.

Five Chinese Crackers has already gone through the report and destroyed most of the Express's suppositions, so I won't bother doing that. What I will suggest is that having flicked through most of the MCB guidance, it's apparent that they haven't learned to stop addressing Muslims as if they are all one homogeneous block. The MCB's recommendations on modesty in school uniforms, especially when it comes to suggesting that girls should be covered except for their faces and hands, when the concept of "hijab" is one that is a source of much controversy within the community, could well do more harm than good, and cause schools to expect that girls must wear such coverings. The features of good practice summary is a little more lenient in this regard, which says:

Muslim girls who choose to wear the headscarf during all school lessons and activities are permitted to do so, including during physical education.

Making clear the choice factor would have made for a better piece of guidance to begin with.

The section on prayer is similar in this regard. I attended a bog standard middle and secondary school in an area of high diversity, and had a number of good Muslim friends who did and continue to attend mosque. Never once though did I see them perform the Zuhr prayer which the MCB guidance suggests schools should make allowance for. They may well have done this silently to avoid drawing attention to themselves, and without bowing and prostrating, but it wasn't something they ever suggested that they had to instead of anything else. It's quite right that schools should be prepared for students who do wish to pray in this manner, but the MCB could be more nuanced in suggesting that not all Muslims do perform 5 prayers a day. This doesn't make them bad Muslims, simply that they don't feel the need. There's this as well:

After visiting the toilet, Muslims are required to wash their private parts with water to meet cleanliness requirements, hence pupils will need to use water cans or bottles that are easily accessible from a storage space in or near the washing area.

At school everyone's embarrassed enough about their "private parts" without drawing attention to themselves by washing them to meet cleanliness requirements. If the MCB genuinely believes that Muslims do this at all when at school, they need their collective heads testing. Again, the features of good practice section is more nuanced than the advice is:

School makes arrangements for their Muslim pupils who wish to perform daily prayers in school.

School makes arrangements to allow Muslim children who wish to perform their Friday congregational prayer on school site, led by an older pupil, teacher or external visitor.

Why not make it clear that not all Muslim pupils are going to perform the above in the actual advice? It's a simple enough thing, surely?

Amusingly, the report may bring to an end the practice of those of a Muslim background getting out of PE by suggesting that it's Ramadan. Friends of mine did this numerous times, when we all knew it wasn't Ramadan, but the teachers were none the wiser.

Physical Education
The majority of pupils who are fasting are able to take part in most physical activities during Ramadan without putting themselves at risk or in danger. Fasting may make some children feel tired or drowsy, or even develop headaches due to dehydration. This may necessitate some
Muslim pupils having to reduce their physical exercise. Schools may wish to consider and plan less strenuous activities in physical education lessons during Ramadan.

It's probably the guidelines on swimming that will raise the most eyebrows:

Schools should make every effort to provide a single-sex environment for swimming and allow Muslim children to wear swimwear that complies with the requirements of modesty and decency according to the teachings of Islam. Some schools have been able to meet these requirements in providing an appropriate single-gender environment and also allowing girls to wear full leotards and leggings in the pool. Provided these guidelines are adhered to, there should be no reason why Muslim children should be withdrawn from swimming lessons.

If schools are unable to make arrangements for a single-sex environment for swimming, then Muslim pupils should have the option to be excused from swimming on religious grounds. Parents should be encouraged to take advantage of single-sex arrangements that some swimming pools offer outside school hours, where their children can go and learn to swim.

Again, I don't recall any problems in my own experience when it came to swimming classes. They were always mixed-gender, for the simple reason it would be impossible to otherwise fit them into the timetable, and I don't remember any of the Muslim girls wearing anything different from the usual leotards.

On the whole, the MCB and their guidelines are attempting to clear up any misconceptions, and help schools in providing the facilities which are available for other faiths. My problem with the document is more in the way that it isn't acknowledging that the Muslim community is far from a consensus in its attitudes towards religion, especially when it comes to praying and contact between the sexes than the organisation itself is. While the Express article is scaremongering and very near to being Islamophobic, you can see where the belief that "they" are demanding to be treated differently comes from. If the MCB was more honest with itself than it's currently being, this would help stop such greatly inflammatory articles.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007 

Papers, citizen!

We shouldn't be too surprised that the whole truth about the ID cards scheme has finally come out. Blair, clutching at straws in his response to the petition against them on the 10 Downing Street website, has rather let the cat out of the bag:

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

Yep, it's in essence what has long been the preserve of the more reactionary of police officers and the belief of Blair himself: that at birth everyone should be both fingerprinted and have a sample of their DNA taken. The reason why this is only being put forward stealthily is that Blair's savvy enough to know that this is one imposition on the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty and on liberty itself that the public would overwhelmingly reject. This isn't the first time that Blair has actually said something along these lines; he did back in November, but no one seems to have realised exactly what he meant or actually read his nonsense. The other mention was in a long forgotten Home Office document, as the Register notes. Other ministers have preferred to mention the "benefits" the ID cards will bring on fighting terrorism, benefit fraud and immigration rather than on tackling crime itself.

As said, we shouldn't be too shocked by this. Back in 2000, when the DNA database was still in its infancy, it was found that 50,000 DNA samples had been wrongly retained that should have been destroyed. Rather than do just that and tighten the scheme, as you would expect would happen, the government instead legitimised exactly what the police had been doing in secret. Now after another of Labour's crime bills, those arrested have their fingerprints and a DNA sample taken and put on the database regardless of whether they are ever charged with an offence. While it's true that a number of crimes committed decades ago have been solved as a result of this change in policy, the amount of samples on the database has now reached over 3 million, with ethnic minorities, especially black men aged 15 to 34 disproportionately making up a large number of the entries. Even children who have been wrongly arrested have had to campaign hard to have their information removed from the database, with parents only accepting that it genuinely had been destroyed by witnessing it happen, no longer just taking the word of the police.

Even faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Home Office minister responsible for this intrusion could only come up with this pathetic diversion attempt:

But Joan Ryan, the junior Home Office minister, rejected any suggestion of a "fishing expedition" by police.

She said that police would have to check fingerprints against all their databases before requesting assistance from the Identity and Passport Service (IPS).

"They can approach IPS and approved IPS staff will be able to search the national identity register to see if we can achieve a match for that fingerprint," she said.

"So there won't be any fishing expeditions. That's complete nonsense, it's not what can happen."

Oh, so that's all right then. The police will instead be getting the IPS to do the fishing expeditions for them.

This is in effect one of the last nails in the coffin of privacy. We already have the most CCTV cameras in a Western country, if not the world, the largest number of DNA samples on a database in the world, the ID card will contain the most information on the person of any scheme in the West, a network of cameras that can track the movement of vehicles across the country, and unless the opposition against road charging grows further or is substantially changed, a scheme that will be almost an eye in the sky on the movement of every single privately owned motor vehicle. We're not yet a police state, but we're starting to get there.

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Swinton Thomas offers a mixed bag.

The revelations provided by Sir Swinton Thomas, in the latest report (PDF) from the Interceptions of Communications Commissioner are little short of extraordinary. Last year, various state organisations made a stunning 439,000 requests to monitor in some way the activities of citizens of the realm. It's true that some of these are simple requests for phone numbers or e-mail addresses, but even so, this seems to suggest that there is snooping being carried out on a grand scale. Of these 439,000, at least 4,000 mistakes were made, with 66 involving information being wrongly intercepted from those who had nothing to do with whatever investigations were being pursued. Thomas calls these mistakes unacceptable, but due to the level of secrecy involved, those who were wrongly tapped or otherwise are unlikely to find out about the breach of their privacy.

The next target for the Communications Commissioner is the ban on the wire-tapping or spying on members of parliament and the lords. While Thomas has a reasonable case in suggesting that no one should be above the law in this regard, the introduction of the "Wilson doctrine" was because of the unaccountability of the security services, not to mention the motives of those behind the decision to spy on MPs. We're still unclear on just how far, if at all, an MI5 plot went to undermine Harold Wilson. It's quite true that we've moved on from the 70s, MI5 has to an extent been reformed, but as the rendition scandal has made clear, we're still in the dark over how far the security services go, and they're still completely opposed to having any formal watchdog imposed upon them.

This is what has to be kept in mind when considering whether MPs should be "above the law". While Thomas makes clear that he doesn't believe that any MPs are involved in terrorism or serious crime, we also don't know how far in cahoots the government itself is with the security services. Those with the most to fear are those of the more radical bent who manage to make it to parliament: it doesn't take much imagination to know that Sinn Fein MPs, if they took their seats, would probably be the most likely to be under suspicion, even now. If any BNP members were, god forbid, elected, they would also be likely targets. George Galloway could be another possible MP to be bugged, although seeing as he spends little time actually in the house, it might not provide much decent information on what he/Respect are up to. This is without considering whether the government itself could use such taps to spy on the opposition's plans. This might seem laughable now, even under a New Labour government that thinks nothing of stripping civil liberties to the bone, but it's still not conspiratorial to worry than an even worse government may one day be elected.

We therefore have to take a lot on trust if we're going to accept that our representatives should be allowed to be bugged. The Sun, being the Sun, has paedos on the brain and seems to think that the whole matter is about MPs not wanting their computers to be scanned for illegal material:

MPs love laying down the law — as long as they are not on the receiving end.

They fix their own pensions, perks and salaries. They set rules on freedom of information but insist on being exempt.

Now they want immunity from computer checks against paedophiles.

Have they got something to hide?

I don't know Rebekah, but I do know that you're far more obsessed with paedophiles than with anything else. Have you got something to hide?

It's quite true that MPs are just as human as the rest of us, probably even less so, but if this is to be implemented then at the very least the evidence that makes the case for a MP to be tapped should have to be presented to a judge, who could then authorise the operation. The current authorisation has to be given only by a secretary of state. There are so many potential ways that such tapping could be abused, that without a similar process being put in place Thomas's recommendation should be rejected.

Finally, Thomas takes aim at those who have been arguing for years now that intercept evidence should be made admissible in UK courts. His arguments are far from convincing:

If terrorists and criminals, most particularly those high up in the chain of command, know that interception would be used in evidence against them, they will do everything possible to stop providing the material which is so very valuable as intelligence. It is sometimes said: “but surely they know now that their communications will be intercepted?” They may suspect that their communications may be intercepted, but they do not know that they will be. This uncertainty is invaluable and they continue to provide immensely valuable intelligence material which would be lost if they ceased to communicate as they do now. Like everybody else they have to communicate to forward their enterprises, and there is a real danger that they will find means of doing so which are much more difficult or impossible to decipher if they know that the material would be used in evidence, so that valuable intelligence material leading to successful investigation and eventual prosecution will be lost.

This is pitiful on a number of levels. Firstly, it assumes that terrorists don't know that their messages are being intercepted, when those who are committed to the cause would know only too well to expect that their communications are. Secondly, the whole point of having the security services is so they monitor "subversives" and partly keep up with the methods they are using to communicate. This is no more than an handy excuse, which relies on the suspects themselves not changing their methods of communication in the first place.

Successive reviews on this subject over the last decade have been unable to show that the claimed benefits of using intercept product in evidence to secure more prosecutions (or to shorten trials) would be worth the risks that this entails for the operational effectiveness and capabilities of the agencies involved in fighting terrorism and serious crime. The last and most comprehensive review, the conclusions of which were reported in the then Home Secretary’s written Ministerial Statement of 26th January 2005 found that a modest increase in convictions of some serious criminals, but not terrorists, would come with serious risks to the continued effectiveness of the agencies.

The matter here though is that we simply don't know how effective it would be because we haven't tried. It's also worth remembering the judgment last week by Mr Justice Beaton, who made clear that he thought E, a Tunisian wanted in connection with an alleged conspiracy in Belgium, should have been prosecuted on the basis of the evidence in the intercept evidence obtained abroad, rather than put under a control order.

The workload for the intelligence and law enforcement agencies in preserving and presenting intercept product as evidence would be very severe indeed, and very expensive, and would distract them from the work which they should be doing, and also from the work they are actually doing, so greatly reducing as opposed to increasing the value of the intercept. This would be counter-productive. I give one example. In a recent case a Court felt it had to order that 16,000 hours of eavesdropping (not intercept) material must be transcribed at the request of the Defence. I believe that the cost was of the order of £1.9 million. The work and cost in intercept cases would be very great indeed, and quite disproportionate to any perceived advantage. This may explain why some who tend to act on behalf of defendants in terrorist and serious criminal cases appear to be supporting the concept of a change in the law.

This sounds suspiciously like the justification made by the government for not having an independent inquiry into the 7/7 bombings, the specious reasoning being that it would distract or hinder the work being done now. If the problem is a lack of resources, then the resources should be made available. The situation at the moment is that we have men held under control orders which are both illiberal and ineffective, when it's quite possible that they could be prosecuted. The amount of money being spent on keeping them monitored should be compared to the amount spent trying them. Besides, money should not be an issue when we are considering such important rights as both justice and liberty. Additionally, Thomas's remark that this might be the reason why defense lawyers are supporting the introduction of intercept evidence is offensive. Why should they not have the full information available on which to defend their clients? In the cases of those on control orders, the very evidence against their clients is not being presented either to them or those they are representing. They're at a disadvantage when what they are simply trying to do is defend their clients to the best of their ability.

Criminals and terrorists do not speak in a language which is readily comprehensible to juries, even if their native language is English. Many conversations are in foreign languages or slang. In those that are not, they use their own particular language. In every case interpreters and translators would be required. In many languages and dialects there are very few capable of translating and interpreting. I give one example. In an intercept case which I saw recently, the participants were speaking in a tongue which is spoken by significantly less than 1000 people in the world.

In other words, juries are thick. Take that, members of the public performing your duty!

Some of those who favour a change in the law take the view that if the terrorist or criminal makes a clear confession in a telephone conversation, then why should it not be admissible as evidence. That is an understandable point of view and the converse may at first sight seem to be counter-intuitive. However real life is not so simple as that and criminals and terrorists do not behave like that. Apart from the matters that I have already referred to, I know from years of experience, particularly when dealing with foreign languages that interpreters and translators very rarely agree upon the meaning of anything, and there is never any difficulty in finding one interpreter who will disagree with another.

And? Juries should be given the chance to decide for themselves what they believe.

The Communications Service Providers (CSPs) are very important in this process and their staff do essential work. They are very co-operative and dedicated. I talk to them regularly and they are totally opposed to the concept of intercept being admissible in Court. The present regime provides a high degree of protection to the CSPs and particularly to those members of their staff who work in this sensitive field, and their strong co-operation referred to could easily be undermined.

They're very co-operative, except when it comes to their work being made admissible. No one is suggesting making their identities public, or questioning their work. It should be more than possible to make the evidence admissible while keeping both the methods used and those involved in its preparation secret.

The problems with the criminal process. I have made some reference to these, with examples, above. Having looked at this problem with great care, it is abundantly clear to me that it would be exceedingly difficult to prove that a conversation is taking place between A and B. The warrants would have to be proved. How is the material received at source? How is it transferred to the Agencies? How is it transcribed? What does it mean? Lawyers will inevitably challenge every connection and every issue, because that is their job. Admitting intercept evidence would take a very long time, and would greatly increase the length of already over-long trials and the expense involved. These problems are going to increase in the future because of the huge changes taking place in telecommunications technology as CSPs change to internet protocol networks. There is a real danger of criminal trials being aborted. I know that work has been done in an attempt to surmount these problems and the problems relating to European Community and Human Rights law, but I have not seen any system proposed which would successfully overcome these problems.
The problems are very great and should not be understated.

We're going to have to mostly take Thomas at his word here, as I make no claim to know properly how making intercept evidence admissible would affect the length of trials. One thing that is worth mentioning is the evidence presented in the trial of those accused of potentially targeting the Ministry of Sound nightclub, where those involved had their houses bugged. The evidence was reasonably damning, and as far as I'm aware, the defense has made no attempt to question it.

I'm not pretending to know for certain that introducing intercept evidence would do more good than harm, yet the reasons presented so far for not doing so are certainly not a "slam-dunk", to quote George Tenet. Especially considering that foreign agencies have no problems with making intercept evidence admissible, it's worth turning the Sun's question about MPs full-circle and ask what it is that MI5/6 have to hide.

Related post:
Spy Blog - Sir Swinton Thomas on the "Wilson Doctrine"

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Just fancy that!

Isn't it fascinating that our police can say for certain that someone filmed on the 22nd of July wearing a burqa is definitely one of the previous day's alleged bombers, yet when it came to Jean Charles de Menezes, who didn't look anything like any of the suspects, and who could have been stopped and arrested if it had not been for systematic failures that ought to have resulted in resignations, he was instead shot dead? It's another triumph! Will someone be promoted for this excellent work?

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Monday, February 19, 2007 

de Menezes: Ian Blair cleared, but questions remain.

The Grauniad's been leaked a copy of the IPCC report into Sir Ian Blair's conduct over the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, and while it clears Blair of knowingly lying, the picture it paints of the chain in command of the Met isn't very flattering, to say the least.

While we still don't know the full chain of events that took place on July the 22nd 2005, mainly because the initial IPCC report, a version of which was leaked to the News of the Screws last year, is unlikely to be released in full until at least the absurd health 'n' safety prosecution of the Met is concluded, what we do know is reasonably damning. While the police were looking for 4 men of North African origin, all dark-skinned, they instead trailed and shot a Brazilian, light-skinned man. Not only was he never ordered to stop, despite what Sir Ian Blair said that day, but he was shot 7 times in the head (and once in the shoulder) with dum-dum bullets without so much as a warning, even though he was being held to the floor and would have been unable to set off any explosives if he had actually been one of the alleged suicide bombers.

As you might expect, after they had picked up the remaining pieces of de Menezes's head and bothered to check his body, they would have quickly realised they had killed someone entirely innocent. Indeed, the report appears to state that by the afternoon (de Menezes was shot dead around 10am) the Met were starting to work on the assumption that their incompetence had lead to the death of the wrong person. Despite this, no one appears to have informed Blair, who at 3:30pm took part in a press conference where he wrongly claimed that de Menezes had been ordered to stop, and that the death was directly linked to the operation to find the failed suicide bombers.

The IPCC report says that this failure to inform their boss of bad news was "incomprehensible". A better description would be scandalous and potentially slanderous. While officers inside the Met knew full well that de Menezes was innocent, the press were being briefed that he had leaped the barrier, had refused to stop, had been wearing a heavy or bulky jacket, and may well have even had a bomb belt. All of these were lies, or misunderstandings, with some members of the public mistaking the officers who had leapt the barriers themselves with de Menezes. We have never, for example, had an explanation to why Mark Whitby, the most widely quoted witness on the day, said that de Menezes had been wearing a padded jacket when he was in fact wearing a light denim jacket. He was understandably distraught, but whether his mistakes were down to this we simply don't know, as he has refused to comment since. Instead, for a whole day (and then for over a year) de Menezes and his family were at worst smeared and at best treated abysmally.

It seems unlikely, unless the report is a lot harsher in full than it's being made out to be that Blair will be forced out because of this. The News of the Screws last year suggested that Blair may well have not been informed because he took "bad news very badly", which is a risible excuse for him not being informed of what had happened, but it appears that his account that he told the truth as he knew it to be is fundamentally accurate.

The real contempt for de Menezes was more in the promotion of Cressida Dick, the officer in charge of the operation on that morning. She was on our screens last week talking about gun crime, an irony that wouldn't have been lost on the de Menezes family. Justice seems unlikely to be done even when we eventually get the first IPCC report, and the lessons that should of been learned from that day's "complete and utter fuck-up" appear to not have been taken to heart.

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Pseuds corner.

If there ever was a reason for finally going through with that radical new hairstyle, i.e. blowing your head clean off and leaving the mass of your pulverised brain and fragments of skull for that poor sod doing community service to clean up, then the worldwide attention and comment about a young woman going into a hair salon and shaving her hair off is about as good as they come.

Over on Comment is Free, Ben Hammersley not only manages to opine about exactly why this woman, whose name I'm not going to mention, did the deed, but also lets us know about his hideous dragon tattoos. Meanwhile, Zoe Williams, also known as the Guardian's most pretentious and worst columnist, thinks that this is definitely the sign of a nervous breakdown. In the Guardian's own reporting of this world changing event, we're treated to the interpretation of psychoanalyst (the quack section of psychiatry) Bethany Marshall:

"The hair represents the stylists, the handlers, people who are in control of her life and manage her looks. Now she's saying, 'I'm in charge of my looks'. The shaving of her hair is a fresh start, a new beginning, taking matters into her own hands, doing it her own way."

Frank Sinatra has never sounded worse.

The Scum, not being one to over intellectualise when it can instead just scrape the bottom of the barrel, gives us the most naive lines it's probably ever written about anyone.

IF anyone portrays how easy it is for young people to fall down the slippery slope, it is troubled pop princess Britney Spears.

She once attended church, spoke out against drugs and restricted her boyfriend to a kiss and cuddle in the back row of the movies.

Hello? Earth to Rebekah Wade? This is called marketing.

That’s all a distant memory. Only 25, Britney has had two children in a year, is going through her second divorce and is in and out of rehab.

The sight of her shaving her locks was pitifully sad. She needs help.

Get it soon, Britney, love.

Being told to get help by the Sun is like being told you're a cunt by Russell Brand.

Elsewhere in today's Grauniad, Sophie Ellis-Bextor entertains with her brilliant reasoning for getting a "sailor-style" tattoo:

Tell me about your tattoo.

I got it when I got married so that it would go with my wedding dress, though I did understand it was going to be there after the event. My mum got a tattoo when I was about six and I think that probably left an impression on me. I quite like the old sailor-style ones. Mine says "family" because it's something I believe in.

This seems to miss the point that if a sailor had actually ever got one of those tattoos then they would have been thrown overboard, but maybe that's what Sophie's trying to tell us. Is this her cry for help? Perhaps Zoe Williams and Ben Hammersley should let us know.

Will you excuse me? I'm going to look for my noose.

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