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Archive for August, 2010

Monday
Aug 30,2010

The latest journal from the Royal United Services Institute contains a perceptive article, entitled “Terrorism: The New Wave“, which was widely reported last Friday.

It follows concerns I raised in the House of Lords last month:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, what is the rate of conversion to Islam within prisons and what steps are the Prison Service taking in terms of monitoring radicalisation and external speakers who come into prisons?

Lord McNally: I do not have precise figures on conversions, but I know the background to this question of whether or not there is radical Islamisation in prisons. The studies that I have been shown reveal no conclusive evidence of this, although there are examples which give rise to concern. The staff and the wider Prison Service keep a close eye on imams in prisons. Bringing them in to lecture, preach and minister within prisons has been one of the benefits, but we must make sure that it is a positive influence, as the noble Lord suggested.”

The RUSI study warns that one of the key threats from this next generation of terrorists comes from within the ranks of the 8,000 Muslims currently serving prison terms who are at risk of being converted to extremism by hardcore inmates jailed for terrorist offences.

The report cites estimates by prison probation officers that up to one in 10 Muslim inmates are being successfully targeted while inside jail, leading to the creation of a new generation of potential attackers who are due for release in the next decade and whose previous convictions do not relate to terrorism.

The report suggests that radicalisation is taking place in British prisons at a rapid rate, especially in the eight high-security establishments where most terrorism offenders are detained.

However, newspaper reports the study’s findings as being dismissed by the Coalition Government:

“The Ministry of Justice said it did not agree that radicalisation was widespread within the prison system. A spokesman said: “We run a dedicated expert unit to tackle the risk posed by those offenders with violent extremist views and those who may attempt to improperly influence others.”"

The response smacks of complacency.  I trust the complacency does not extend to one of the other major findings that large-scale and co-ordinated attacks such as the 7 July bombings are likely to be replaced with terrorist assaults by highly motivated but poorly trained lone individuals whose lack of connection with any major terrorist organisation will make them more difficult for police or MI5 to detect.

RUSI, which is very well-connected and whose reports are normally highly respected, has produced a timely and important contribution to the discussion of the terrorist threat faced by the UK.  Its conclusions should be taken seriously and not brushed aside by the Government.

Sunday
Aug 29,2010

Yesterday’s Radio 4 “Beyond Westminster” programme, “A Touch of Ermine” contained an interesting discussion featuring Mehdi Hasan and Meg Russell debating the role of patronage in British politics and the future of the House of Lords.

I provide some local colour being interviewed by Michael Dobbs (author of “House of Cards”) recorded over coffee on the Lords Terrace last month (with the extraneous noises of the police helicopter and motor launches edited out, along with my response to one question “As somebody once said, you might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”).

I thought two important points emerged.  The first was (I said it, so it must be important) that we have not yet had the debate about what we want the Second Chamber of Parliament to do – and that really needs to take place before we embark on the next round of reform.  The second came from Meg Russell who pointed out that electing the Second Chamber would not necessarily remove the element of patronage from who become members of the new Chamber.

Sunday
Aug 29,2010

The Sunday Times (behind its paywall) had a story on its front-page this morning, saying that Mayor Boris Johnson had threatened to resign unless London projects are protected in George Osborne’s comprehensive spending review next month.  So sensitive is the topic that Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome was scrambled to rubbish Isabel Oakeshott’s story.

However, the story itself and Tim Montgomerie’s response underline the fundamental truth: Mayor Boris Johnson is in a dither – he doesn’t really want to stand for London Mayor again; he’s frightened that he will lose; but he doesn’t yet know how to escape with dignity.

As Tim Montgomerie puts it:

“Boris winning again won’t be easy.”

and

“London isn’t the most hospitable territory for the Tories.”

He acknowledges the tensions between David Cameron and Boris Johnson saying:

“Conservatives at every level need to understand that some tension between the Mayor of London and the government isn’t just inevitable but politically healthy”

and he even concedes that:

“Boris hasn’t got a transformational record”.

So if that’s ConservativeHome riding to Mayor Johnson’s support, he really will need rather more cavalry if he is to stand any chance in 2012.

Thursday
Aug 26,2010

The Washington Post reports that the US Deputy Defense Secretary has publicly acknowledged what is being described as the most significant breach of U.S. military computers.

The cause was a flash drive inserted into a U.S. military laptop in the Middle East in 2008.

And the consequence was that the malicious code, which had been placed on the drive by a foreign intelligence agency, uploaded itself onto the network run by the U.S. military’s Central Command. Apparently, the code spread undetected on both classified and unclassified systems, establishing what amounted to a digital beachhead, from which data could be transferred to servers under foreign control.

This disclosure was apparently part of a deliberate strategy to raise the awareness of the US Congress and the American people of the cyber-threat being faced by the USA.  Apparently, the Pentagon’s 15,000 networks and 7 million computing devices are being probed thousands of times daily and the US Government’s concern is that cyberwar is asymmetric and that traditional Cold War deterrence models of assured retaliation do not apply to cyberspace, where it is difficult to identify the instigator of an attack.

The problems faced by the Pentagon are no doubt faced – on a smaller scale – by the UK Ministry of Defence and the British armed services.  I do not, however, detect a similar openness about the threat by the UK’s Coalition Government – perhaps because the strategy to address the problem is nothing like as well-developed as it should be.

Thursday
Aug 26,2010

One of the disturbing features of the last few years has been the way in which terrorist techniques honed in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan have subsequently been used elsewhere in the world.

So a news article in Homeland Security Newswire should be considered not only for the horror of what it describes, but as a warning of a tactic that might be used by terrorists thousands of miles away.  The article reports that:

“The Taliban continues its violent campaign to push Muslim women back into Medieval times; in Afghanistan, the Taliban is pursuing a campaign against girls’ education; the organization’s latest tactics: poisonous gas attacks on girls’ schools, aiming to scare students and teachers; Taliban operatives launched eight poisonous gas attacks on girls schools since April, and earlier today it launched the ninth attack, this time against a girls high school.

Dozens of school girls and teachers were sickened today (Wednesday) by poison gas in Afghanistan, medical and government officials said. The latest incident, this one at a high school, is the ninth such case involving the poisoning of school girls, said Asif Nang, spokesman for the nation’s education ministry (“Taliban uses poisonous gas in attack on Kabul girls school,” 5 May 2010 HSNW).”

Wednesday
Aug 25,2010

Oona King exudes niceness.  She wants a London where everything is nice.  The problem with that approach is that it is not really rooted in the real world.

Being Mayor of London is rather more complicated than sitting on the seventh floor of City Hall and saying “Wouldn’t it be nice, if …..”

According to Ross Lydall at the Evening Standard, Oona King (or her campaign team) has decided that it would be really, really nice if  people could take their bikes onto buses.

Which prompts the question, does Oona King (or her campaign team) ever use London’s buses?

Most buses are now quite full.  And they are getting fuller as routes become de-bendified (the replacements cannot carry as many passengers – even when the frequency has been increased – as the original bendie buses did – despite the  substantial extra costs being incurred to fulfil Mayor Boris Johnson’s campaign whim).

Frequently, mothers with children in buggies are not allowed to board because there are already two buggies on the bus and it is not safe to have more.

So where are all these bikes going to go?  The whole point of using a bike is that the rider does not need to use a car or a bus.  Allowing bikes on buses is likely to mean that those with young children will not be able to board and other passengers will be squeezed even more.

I repeat the question: does Oona King (or her campaign team) ever use London’s buses?

Wednesday
Aug 25,2010

Regular readers (you both know who you are) will be aware that I have from time to time been somewhat flippant about Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse AM, Chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority (aka the Dog-Catcher-in -Chief). 

However, I am with him – and on occasions ahead of him – in the belief that more needs to be done about the growing problem of dangerous  bred/trained-for-attack dogs in London.  I therefore support the initiative that he is taking today petitioning the Government to take action to resolve the problem.

The GLA is calling for:

  • an increase in the penalty for owning a banned breed, to bring it more inline with carrying an offensive weapon
  • the extension of the law to include private land, particularly to protect people who have to visit other peoples homes as part of the work
  • changes to the part of the law that allows well behaved banned breeds to remain with their owners, so that the process is much quicker, making it better for the dog and saving the police money.

Last time I asked there was little sign that the Coalition Government was planning to move on any of these points.  However, Kit Malthouse has (or at least he would like us to believe that he has) the ear of the Coalition Government.  No doubt, therefore, this initiative will  produce speedy action.  We’ll be waiting……

Wednesday
Aug 25,2010

I’ve commented before on the market that has developed for hackers and malware writers to sell on their “products” to other criminals – even promoting their activities via Twitter.

This concern has now been repeated by the Canadian Criminal Intelligence Service in its 25th Annual Report on Organised Crime.  According to the Montreal Gazette:

“The report, released Friday, focuses on securities fraud, and states the size and complexity of schemes help conceal criminal activity, generate ample profits and facilitate tax evasion.

It said social-networking websites are allowing criminals to efficiently and anonymously issue fake news releases and promotional material to potential victims.

Aside from the use of Facebook and Twitter, criminal organizations are taking advantage of the hacker-for-hire black market, it said.

The report offered few further details. However, it did say that because of the availability of these services, fraudsters don’t need to acquire the necessary technical expertise to hijack computer accounts on their own.”

You read it here first.
Monday
Aug 23,2010

I have been hearing increasingly lurid stories about the incompetence and insensitivity of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in the way in which they “administer” MPs’ expenses.

However, I have now heard from two sources a story so outlandish that I felt I should investigate further.

IPSA Bulletin No6 explains helpfully:

“We have received a number of queries about maternity pay and other similar costs, therefore we wish to make it clear that IPSA will pay any necessary expenditure on maternity, paternity or adoptive leave for MPs’ staff. We will also pay for the cost of cover to replace the staff member on leave, provided the cover meets the normal Scheme rules. This is paid from the contingency fund – not because we are exercising discretion on whether to make these payments, but so that these payments do not impact on your capped staffing budget.”

The issue is what constitutes “necessary” expenditure.

This is “helpfully” clarified in the Expenses Rules, specifically rule 12.14 on contingency payments.  This requires that IPSA will only provide such payments for luxuries like maternity cover if they (IPSA) are satisfied that the MP could not:

“reasonably have been expected to take any action to avoid the circumstances which gave rise to the expenditure or liability”.

MPs are being faced with a form which in essence asks them to clarify what steps they took to prevent a staff member’s pregnancy.

Will relationship counselling be sufficient?  Or should the counselling extend to contraceptive advice?  Or even the provision of condoms for the MPs’ staff?

No wonder that so many staff who work for MPs are enraged and affronted.

Saturday
Aug 21,2010

The BBC reports today on the loading of the first nuclear fuel at the Bushehr reactor in Iran tell us that the international community can be reassured on the basis that (1) the nuclear fuel rods are all being supplied by Russia and (2) the spent rods and waste will go back to Russia.

At the risk of sounding like an unreconstructed cold warrior, I have to confess to not finding this at all reassuring.

Why does Russia want to do this and what do they expect to get out of it?

And as for the waste, the work I have been doing in recent months on the safeguards (or lack of them) at reprocessing plants hardly makes any of this sound any better.

Please somebody persuade me that this is good news ….