Andrew Vine: Surveillance Bill vital in the fight against terrorists

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SOMEWHERE out there, at this very moment, somebody is planning the mass murder of British citizens.

Any of us could be the potential victims as we travel to work, go shopping, or perhaps attend a major public event. Men, women, children – the nature of the victims does not matter to those who would kill, any more than their race or religion.

All that matters is the slaughter of as many people as possible in one of the hated Western democracies.

This is the shadow that has darkened the first decade-and-a-half of our 21st century, the ever-present threat of terrorism. Vigilance by the authorities has foiled dozens of attacks, but even so we have suffered the horrors of the 2005 London bombings and the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby. And only four months ago, 30 British people were murdered as they holidayed in Tunisia.

The threat cannot be allowed to disrupt the course of everyday life, but this week it will loom larger in the minds of many because of a stark Government assessment of what is necessary to combat it.

The Investigatory Powers Bill is due to be published, setting out the range of surveillance powers available to the intelligence services and the police to fight terrorism.

It is likely to vie with the referendum on EU membership as the most far-reaching act of the Conservative Government, potentially changing fundamentally the scope for the security services to pry into our lives.

For that reason, expect an outcry over civil liberties, personal freedoms, mass surveillance, and the Big Brother state.

And all the while, planning for another atrocity will continue, with the extremists who would do us harm hoping fervently that the civil liberties lobby triumphs and leaves as many chinks in Britain’s armour against attacks as possible, to be exploited with success measured in the number of dead.

It is in the interest of all of us for the Bill to be passed into law as soon as possible, and the security services to be given every means to combat the terrorist threat.

There is no hyperbole in the warnings that have come from the Metropolitan Police and MI5 about the level of danger that we face. Only last week, MI5 director-general Andrew Parker revealed that his agency has foiled six terror plots in the UK in the past 12 months and a further seven abroad. His grim verdict was that the threat to our safety is the gravest he has known in 32 years in intelligence.

This is not politicking or scaremongering in order to accrue power. It is a frank assessment of a threat that grows ever greater as the Middle East descends into anarchy.

The job of the security services was already hard enough, but it has been made even more difficult by the mass leaks of American intelligence by contractor Edward Snowden.

This foolish, misguided man – a traitor to his country, not a whistleblower of wrongdoing – handed extremist groups a prize they could hardly have dared dream of, an insight into how the secret war against them was being fought.

Equally damaging for those whose working lives are devoted to keeping us safe, the Snowden leaks fostered a degree of hysteria about mass surveillance of the population, with wild speculation that every email or phone call is being monitored.

What rubbish.

The idea that intelligence officers waste their time monitoring the mundane and innocent is preposterous. It would simply be impossible to listen in on millions of communications every day.

The clue to what they do lies in the word “intelligence”, which means their efforts are targeted at those who potentially pose a threat.

Yes, there is something unsettling about a vast state apparatus that can reach into the lives of citizens who expect their private communications to remain that way, and the prospect of seeing new legal powers that potentially extends its reach is sobering.

But this secret war must be fought and won. Much of the battleground is in cyberspace, where encryption of information, and the reluctance of American-based internet giants to allow access to communications makes the fight even more difficult.

The security services must constantly stay one jump ahead of terrorists if attacks are to be prevented, because intelligence is the key to thwarting them.

If we needed proof of that, we have only to remember that it was failures of intelligence and surveillance that allowed the suicide bombers from Yorkshire who attacked the London transport network in 2005 to carry out their atrocity.

The innocent have nothing to fear from the new law. The grave reality of the terror threat means that Britain needs it if we are to remain safe. For ultimately, one civil liberty trumps all others – the right to go about our lives peacefully and free from the threat of attack.