What would JFK have made of the Tories’ duplicitous weakness on 28 days detention?

by Tom Watson

Tomorrow marks 50 years since John F Kennedy’s inaugural presidential address. When David Cameron attends the Nordic conference on behalf of the nation later in the week, his handlers will no doubt try to mark the anniversary by enveloping him in Kennedy stardust. My hunch is that he will want to talk tough, as JFK sometimes did: “let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill”.

Cameron is still looking for international recognition equivalent to that of Blair and Brown and Thatcher. Those television images of statesmen shaking hands in exotic places are the particles of political legacies that politicians crave. In all of Cameron’s grasping hunt for glory, he can only dream of a legacy as enduring as JFK’s. Yet there is a grim reality for our prime minister, one that is only now beginning to reveal itself to him. If you want to leave a positive political legacy in the age of the internet, you probably have to be shot or spend 30 years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit.

And if you don’t believe me, think about the nearest thing the Labour party has to JFK, Tony Blair. That man used to walk on water. The day after tomorrow he will be at the Chilcot enquiry for the second time, wading through misery, as the detail of his decision to take us into Iraq is surgically examined. It wasn’t meant to be this way.

It’s probably an understatement to say that I’ve had disagreements with Mr Blair, but his humiliating second appearance before the committee in some way seems an unworthy way to treat a former prime minister.

And the juxtaposition of Tony Blair in the court of public opinion, on the same Friday as the criminal courts are expected to rule on whether terror suspect Abid Naseer is extradited to the USA, should not be lost. Mr Naseer stands accused of being an Al Quaeda operative.

I was at the TUC conference with Tony Blair on the day of 9/11. Al Quaeda operatives flew the planes into the twin towers. For Mr Blair, and for millions of UK citizens, things changed that day. There followed half a decade where the security apparatus of the state was strengthened, where our liberties were eroded to provide greater security to all.

Kennedy said:

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.

Tony Blair, tempered by war, insisted that his people bear the burden of increased state security. Longer queues at airports, more CCTV, an increase in intelligence gathering, greater snooping powers were just part of his plan. No wonder Shami Chakrabarti became a household name.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for good or ill, are cutting back nearly all the measures that Tony Blair consciously introduced.

Their approach to the unravelling of the Blair security legacy is a mix of gusto, despair and shamefaced embarrassment.

They ditched ID cards with a fanfare. Many cheered. Few really cared.

They’re in despair over the ditching of control orders. And they don’t know what to do. And they look weak – are weak – because of it.

And they’re deeply embarrassed that the 28 days detention powers are to expire. I think of all those hours we spent arguing over whether we should support detention powers for 42 days, and how the argument was made that 28 days was an inadequate compromise. And now the Tory-led administration is ditching the measure. You probably didn’t know this. They have tried to sneak it out. But failed.

At 00.01 on Monday 24th January, 28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive.

The home secretary will not be making a statement to the House about this major change to the justice system. Parliament will not be told the views of security and intelligence gathering experts.

Doesn’t that strike you as peculiar? If she wants to change the policy, Theresa May should bring the matter to the House of Commons for debate. For as JFK also said: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”. They’re running scared. They’re embarrassed and ashamed. This moment should not go unmissed.

So, like all things you hear from David Cameron, you have to check the rhetoric against the reality. He’s going to talk tough at his international conference but on security matters, his government is confused and weak. And one day, David Cameron will come to regret it.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich east.


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28 Responses to “What would JFK have made of the Tories’ duplicitous weakness on 28 days detention?”

  1. ajehals says:

    >28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive.

    To be fair 28 days isn’t going to be enough time to “forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive” either.

    It’s strange this swing to the authoritarian that Labour has gone through (although I am now told it was always like that, apparently I was ignorant of it..) and horrifying that the party is resorting to fear to push ideas. I really hoped that with a new leader, a new mandate and a new threat to the country from the Lib-Con coalition that things would get sensible again, Labour would go back to promoting civil liberties, pushing for the common man and so on, not trying to point out that the conservatives are not tough enough on people who haven’t been convicted of anything…

    Still, there is always hope.

  2. zahidf says:

    ‘his humiliating second appearance before the committee in some way seems an unworthy way to treat a former prime minister.’

    I agree. He should be before the Hague instead.

  3. Justin says:

    The fearmongering:

    At 00.01 on Monday 24th January, 28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive

    The reality:

    As Home Office ministers consider proposals to cut the current 28-day limit on detention without charge of terror suspects, the official figures reveal that nobody has been held longer than 14 days for the last two years before being charged or released.

  4. ukliberty says:

    Tom Watson wrote,

    At 00.01 on Monday 24th January, 28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive.

    Er… 14 years might not be enough time to decrypt sophisticated encryption. That’s why the authorities might use Part III RIPA to compel the suspect to give up his encryption key on pain of five years imprisonment.

    By the way, didn’t you vote for 90 days detention without charge?

  5. ukliberty says:

    Sorry for HTML fail.

  6. F0ul says:

    Actually you would not need more than a few days to forensic a hard drive. those damn facts get in the way of a good story every time 😉

  7. Scottspeig says:

    Tom,

    You seem to contradict yourself. You uphold the value of liberty and even suggest that Blair was wrong to introduce all the extra safety measures, and then argue that the 28 day expiry is a bad thing? I say any detention orders are bad regardless of the amount of time in jail.

    Our law has stood for rather a long time on the presumption of innocence yet detention orders presume guilt. It is a poison against the liberty that JFK stood for, and the liberty of society.

  8. Richard says:

    14 days is already too long. If the police have actual evidence of a crime then of course they should be able to hold a suspect. If they’re just fishing for evidence then they should not be allowed to arrest and punish random people. I dread to think what tatters my life would be in if I were detained for an entire month and because of the Labour party that could happen to anyone at any time without any rhyme or reason. Its horrific.

    I turned away from the Labour party once they decided to ignore everyone’s wishes and go to war against Iraq. To some degree you guys have come around on this issue but the real nail in the coffin for this life long Labour voter has been the Labour party’s current complete lack of respect for civil liberties, human rights and just treating people like human beings.

  9. Paul says:

    >28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not
    >nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted
    >hard disk drive.

    Suspected terrorist, Tom. Suspected. Your erosion of the presumption of innocence is worrying, frightening even.

    The Police should not be encouraged to arrest first and then trawl for sufficient evidence for as long as necessary after.

  10. Fubar Saunders says:

    “…think about the nearest thing the Labour party has to JFK, Tony Blair….”

    How apt.

    JFK was an adulterous crook from a family of crooks, bootleggers and political cronies.

    The family used the mob and union vote to get elected then turned on both of them within eighteen months.

    Both a triumph of sleaze, spin, “celebrity” and glamour over substance.

    Both took their countries into wars without the overwhelming support of the populace, from which their international reputations were tarnished for years.

    Both succeeded by divisive megalomaniac deputies who the voting public didn’t want and who were voted out at the first possible opportunity.

    Both looked upon by sections of the media with misplaced misty-eyed nostalgic affection.

    The analogy only breaks down where Oswald, the grassy knoll and Jack Ruby come into the story.

    Mores the pity.

  11. Mo says:

    There isn’t a change in policy. The policy was that the 28-day detention period should remain until 00:01 on Monday 24th January. Everybody in the house knows that they’re going to expire — it’s no surprise to anybody. That’s the whole point of expiring temporary measures.

    Labour may have argued that 28 days is inadequate, but we all know that doesn’t wash, particularly not with the electorate. Labour took an increasingly authoritarian line over three parliamentary terms and in return is no longer responsible for setting the order of business in the house. That’s what happens when you take the piss, frankly.

    Perhaps 14 days isn’t enough to examine the contents of an encrypted hard drive. If that’s the case, there’s an immensely high probability that 28 days, *28 months* even, won’t be enough, either. We’re talking about holding people without the evidence to charge them of a crime, let alone get as far as having a fair trial — two weeks is already enough to severely damage somebody’s career (and so by extension, finances, home and family situation) with after-effects felt for months, if not years, to come. On the basis of an accusation that somebody important enough felt credible. Brilliant.

    So the coalition knew this was coming and would have examined it — it would be foolish to believe they hadn’t, after all — and decided they couldn’t make a strong case for renewal of disturbing powers they knew were very unpopular. These were measures *designed* to run out — at least if you believe what the country was told when they were introduced. Not “be endlessly debated and renewed perpetually”, but actually stop when they weren’t needed. It was barely arguable that they were needed when they were introduced, but somehow Labour managed it; now it’s clear that renewal would be far more trouble (on several levels) than it’d be worth.

    So, on balance, I think it’s a bit rich to attempt to colour expiry of one of the Labour government’s more overtly authoritarian “temporary” measures as a failing on the coalition’s part. In all honesty, if I were a strong Labour supporter or PM, I’d want to keep as much distance as possible between myself and the anti-terror legislation third rail. Far from being embarrassing to the coalition, letting it die quietly is doing Labour a huge favour.

  12. Mo says:

    Er, in the closing paragraph of my comment above, I clearly intended to say “if I were a strong Labour supporter or MP”.

    Mind you, if I were PM, I’d probably want to keep that same distance, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make in that sentence 🙂

  13. Denny says:

    Allowing a temporary power to revert isn’t ‘changing’ the policy… it’s continuing the policy set when that power was created and made temporary, and countering the ratchet effect that we’ve seen with anti-terror legislation over the last ten years. Something I’m pleased to see the current government doing despite their many flaws in other respects, and something I would never have expected to see Labour do.

    As long as Labour retains this authoritarian streak, I hope they stay in the wilderness. A big state can be supportive without being intrusive – if the right people are running it. Labour don’t seem to be those people any more.

  14. MG says:

    “They ditched ID cards with a fanfare. Many cheered. Few really cared”.

    I cared thank you very much. I am very happy that this country did not become Nazi Germany or Aparthied South Africa. Ask anyone with brown skin and they will tell you the same.

    “At 00.01 on Monday 24th January, 28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive”.

    Utter crap. I thought Ed M coming in heralded a new era in the Labour party not the thuggish, gangster macho politics promoted by Brown, Balls, McBride and yes, Watson. I was feeling sorry for you not having got a shadow ministerial role. Am sorry to have to changed my mind on that. You’ve got a little more reflecting to do about why Labour lost the last election.

  15. James says:

    Detention without charge is being reduced? Well thank fuck for that. It’s about time.

  16. Mike Thomas says:

    A legacy as enduring as JFKs?

    Cuba starting from the botched Bay of Pigs sending thousands of Cubans to their death.
    Vietnam?
    Mafia deals to assasinate Castro through to large scale electoral bungs to secure votes.
    Secret deals to resolve Cuban Missile Crisis?
    Tacit approval of the Berlin Wall to de-escalate tension in Europe.

    I hope not.

  17. ukliberty says:

    Incidentally, so anxious are the authorities about encrypted drives that they only served one Part III RIPA notice in relation to terrorism offences in the year 2009/10.

  18. “At 00.01 on Monday 24th January, 28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive.”

    Is Tom trying to imply that 28 days is enough to decrypt where 14 days isn’t? Can I respectfully suggest he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    There are all sorts of encryption, but they pretty much all involve an encryption key, which is like a password. The longer the password, the stronger the encryption, and the longer it takes to decrypt.

    Every ‘bit’ (the smallest unit in a computer) extra in an encryption key doubles the number of possibilities that the key could be. So doubling the detention time from 14 to 28 days allows 1 bit extra encryption to be cracked.

    This is totally trivial, as a freely-available 512 byte encryption has 1.34×10^154 potential values. That’s more than the number of atoms in the universe. The only way to decrypt this would be to torture the encryption key out of the suspect. I guess an extra 14 days could be useful in that regard.

    But of course that’s only if you feel that torture of suspects is a freedom we can do some JFK-style negotiating away from. I politely disagree.

  19. Graeme says:

    Why does someone need to be kept in custody while their property is being investigated?

    The contents of a hard drive alone are rarely going to be sufficient proof to convict, so there is only any point in extended detention if it is going to last for the length of an investigation, which could be months or even years.

  20. john reid says:

    I’ve never read such a stupid articel, JFK did nothing when he was in power, as for comparing a country that was blatantly racist 50 years ago wit teh U.k now

    and for teh Record Even in the U.S now teh pwer to charge someone on very weak evidence is easier and also if they’ve tink yo’ve done it in the U.S and couldn’t prove it they’ll say ou are a material witness and set Bail at 1 million dollars and hold you that way, that excludes the fact that soem southern states never use to follow teh law anyway!

  21. Phil Hunt says:

    They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive.

    Not sure what you’re getting at here — are you saying there is significant amounts of encrypted material that can be brute-forced in 28 days but not in 14? If not, what are you saying?

  22. Stephen says:

    I, for one, agree with you, Mr. Watson. Some say Labour toughness is new, but in truth the conservatives have always been notoriously weak. Take, for example, Winston Churchill. For it was he who said, in the House of Commons in 1943, at a time when strength and toughness might have been considered imperative, “[t]he power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law..is in the highest degree odious, and is the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist”. What he needed was a little spine, don’t you think?

    WARNING: This post may contain traces of irony

  23. BenSix says:

    It’s probably an understatement to say that I’ve had disagreements with Mr Blair, but his humiliating second appearance before the committee in some way seems an unworthy way to treat a former prime minister.

    I think that building a clear picture of what led us into one of the most disastrous wars of the previouscentury is a little more important than a man’s dignity, Monsieur Watson. Even a powerful man. Isn’t Labour supposed to be all for equality?

  24. oliver says:

    In many ways I’m a ‘natural’ Labour supporter. However, the likes of the I.D. card saw me campaigning against this ‘natural’ political home. I’ve never heard a genuinely convincing argument for I.D. cards. The Register used to run regular features/stories/breakdowns on RFID, the kinds of databases involved etc.

    Eventually, I came to the conclusion that New Labour were either lying about their intentions and/or the nature of ID cards etc.; or they didn’t really understood themselves what they were for; or, as with the rest of their mystifying approach to big IT contracts over the years, there was a lot of money changing hands combined with some serious hoodwinking.

    Over the last few months, there’s been times when I’ve been as angry with New Labour as I have the Tory-led government over the election result. I know for a fact that the likes of I.D. cards were an issue for some of the swing voters I know. If that’s the case in my ‘social circle’ then I wonder how often it is for others and how big an impact New Labour’s obsession with Big Brother had on the voting. If New Labour’s I.D. cards have cost this country things such as the NHS, university opportunities, I hope those responsible rot in hell.

  25. Henrik says:

    @oliver: Labour is, of course, historically, *not* the party of individual liberty…. it’s specifically the party of the Big State sticking its clammy fingers into everyone’s pocket, on the assumption that a gang of party hacks and trade unionists know better than anyone else.

    More seriously, I think the ID card bull**** was a clear case of producer capture. the producers felt it could be done and convinced the consumer that it ought to be done. Much like some defence procurement, where a whizzy new piece of kit is first identified and then an operational requirement is drafted to justify its purchase.

  26. Old Slaughter says:

    Tom,

    What exactly is the amount of time required to ‘forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive?’

    In the full knowledge that you won’t reply, I will simply accuse you of being an opportunist bluffer.

  27. oliver says:

    @Henrik: I’ve no problem with “Big State” at all; to me it’s wholly preferable to the Tory alternative. However, there’s a big difference between Big State and Big Brother: the latter doesn’t have to be the inevitable ramification of the former.

    On your second point, I agree completely and suggested as much with my earlier post. Out and out corruption aside – it’s always interesting to see where members of all parties get paid employment as ‘directors’ &c – I think there was some serious hoodwinking going on with private firms and their sales pitches.

    It’s beyond my ken as to why so much of IT under New Labour wasn’t done ‘in-house’. There’s enough IT talent in this country (perhaps a glut of it, if anything) a new Civil Service department could have easily been set-up to create, maintain, and adapt any IT system that was needed. I can’t see how this wouldn’t have been more cost-effective and efficient than the likes of Capita &c.

    For me, part of the worry about New Labour’s take on ‘Big Brother’ was the notion that people’s information was going to be in a third party’s (commercial) hands.

  28. Henrik says:

    @oliver: I think you must have considerably more faith in both the State’s and the political classes’ abilities than I do. I worked for the State for many years and wasn’t ever impressed with either its competence or its integrity. Note that this was consistent across both Tory and Labour governments – if pushed, I’d say that the Tories were somewhat more competent, if somewhat less moral (although the 1997-2010 Labour government managed to be piss poor in each aspect).

    I fear that Big Brother is an inevitable companion to Big Government – it’s only a short intellectual leap from “we must do what is right for those who deserve it and guarantee equality of opportunity” to “we must do what we know to be right in order to ensure equality of outcome” – i.e. from opportunity to the lowest common denominator.

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