Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Google forced to remove pictures of secret military bases from Street View

By Jason Lewis, Mail on Sunday Security Editor

Google was last night forced to remove images of some of Britain’s most sensitive military and security bases from its Street View service.

The website admitted that it had ignored signs warning that photographing the sites breached the Official Secrets Act.

The installations included Special Boat Service and Special Air Service bases, a Government atomic weapons research centre, top-secret Government eavesdropping centres and MI5 headquarters across Britain.

SBS Poole

Secret's out: Google Street View picture of the SBS base in Poole, Dorset, with a sign warning that photography is banned under the Official Secrets Act


MI5's Loughside station, visible through the trees from this Belfast housing estate

Some of the locations could be useful to terrorists or hostile foreign governments – and are so secret we cannot report what they are.

The Google map site previously contained information only on major British cities, but now has images of almost every street.

Among the locations which can be examined is RAF Menwith Hill, near Harrogate.

Also featured is Hanslope Park near Milton Keynes, known as Her Majesty’s Government Communications Centre (HMGCC). It is home to MI6 officers who analyse data from Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham and Menwith Hill.

The vehicle entrance into Thames House, MI5 headquarters in Westminster, is another highlighted location.

And on a quiet Belfast housing estate, a glimpse through the trees highlights the Security Service’s new Loughside headquarters, where MI5 monitors Irish dissident terror groups.

A view of the SAS Counter Terrorism training centre in Pontrilas, Herefordshire, shows an aircraft used for special forces exercises.

The outside of the new ORION Laser Research Facility at Aldermaston, the atomic weapons research centre in Berkshire, is also on display.

Bizarrely, a picture of the SBS depot in Poole, Dorset, includes a warning sign.

Highlighted in red are the words: ‘Prohibited place within the meaning of the Official Secrets Act. Loitering, photography, sketching forbidden.’

Last night a Google spokesman said: ‘If mistakes are made we will remove the images. We’re unaware of any official concerns about security, but are happy to discuss any issues as they arise.’

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

It's terror check chaos as dozens miss US flights

By Jason Lewis
Last updated at 8:28 AM on 07th March 2010

Controversial anti-terrorist restrictions imposed on Britons travelling to the US have led to scores of people missing their flights since they were introduced six weeks ago.

The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) requires all passengers without a visa to complete an online application form before they leave for America.

The form should be completed three days before travelling – but airlines flying to America, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, report that some passengers are still turning up for flights without having filled one in.

A senior BA manager said: ‘Those who “forget” run the risk of not travelling. Staff may be able to help to complete it at the airport, but passengers run the risk of not getting the approval back from the US authorities before the departure.


Controversial anti-terrorist restrictions imposed on Britons travelling to the US have led to scores of people missing their flights

‘If they do not, they will not travel. There have been many cases where this has happened.’ Passengers without the ESTA can attempt to apply at airport internet cafes in the hope that their application will be approved in time to make their flight.

A spokesman for Virgin Atlantic said: ‘We are getting around a dozen of these problems every day. Some people are not aware that completing these forms is a requirement rather than voluntary.’

Most airlines and travel agents alert passengers to the new ESTA requirements when they buy their tickets, but the onus is on the traveller to complete the application on the US Department of Homeland Security’s website.

The process is free but the US will soon begin charging up to $17 (£11.24) per person – adding almost £60 to the cost of a trip to the US for a family of five.

All passengers have to give the authorities their name, address and passport details and reveal if they have had

any sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and syphilis.

They are also asked for details of any serious mental illness they have suffered and about drug abuse and criminal convictions.

But US citizens flying to Britain do not have to complete similar travel documents, apart from filling in a normal landing card, as every non-EU citizen has to do.

A spokesman for ABTA, the travel agents’ association, said: ‘The onus is on passengers to ensure they get this approval.

‘We would also encourage people travelling to the US over the next couple of years to get their ESTA now before they have to start paying.’

Cronyism row as Gordon Brown hands globetrotting role to former Scottish leader Jack McConnell

By Jason Lewis, Mail On Sunday Whitehall Editor
Last updated at 12:44 AM on 07th March 2010

Gordon Brown was facing accusations of cronyism last night after it was revealed that ex-Scottish Labour leader Jack McConnell spent nearly £70,000 of taxpayers’ money travelling the world as a Prime Ministerial envoy.

The little-known role was invented for Mr McConnell – a former maths teacher who has no diplomatic background – after Labour lost the Scottish elections to the SNP.

With the Prime Minister’s backing, he visited 15 countries in his first ten months in the job, travelling business class and staying in top hotels.

Gordon Brown
Jack McConnell

New role: Gordon Brown offered Mr McConnell the job to prevent a by-election that would have weakened Labour in Scotland

Last night, politicians attacked Mr Brown’s ‘judgment’ over the appointment, saying it came as the Government was cutting the number of British embassies.

The former Scottish First Minister is not paid for his role as ‘the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Conflict Resolution Mechanisms’, but he still draws his £57,000 salary as a member of the Scottish Parliament.

Mr McConnell had been due to step down as an MSP after Labour’s defeat in Scotland in 2007 to become Britain’s High Commissioner to Malawi.

But at the last minute Mr Brown offered him the new role to prevent a by-election that would have further weakened Labour in Scotland.

The Foreign Office said Mr McConnell was doing a good job and had helped improve ‘the effectiveness of the United Nations’ peace-building architecture’.

A spokesman added: ‘The role did not exist before Mr McConnell was given it. The role of special envoy tends to be unique to the person appointed, drawing on their experiences and skills.’

But his travels have yet to take him to Iraq and Afghanistan, despite Britain’s lengthy involvement there.

And intriguingly, the UN’s website mentions Mr McConnell only once – when he hosted a dinner for then Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005.

In contrast, the site mentions Mr Brown 841 times and Tony Blair 904 times. No10’s website also has no mention of Mr McConnell’s envoy status.

Despite his low profile, Mr McConnell spent £11,200 on trips to the United States, £8,650 for five nights in Brazil, £4,600 for three nights in Japan, £3,540 for three nights in Chile and £4,000 for two nights in Egypt. He has also visited Belgium, Bosnia and Ethiopia.

Last night the Foreign Office said the total cost of his trips between October 2008 and November 2009 was £69,060. However, it refused to reveal details of where Mr McConnell stayed on security grounds.

David Lidington, Tory foreign affairs spokesman, said: ‘This raises serious questions about Gordon Brown’s judgment. We know this role was a consolation prize when Labour ran scared of a by-election. But it is a very costly consolation prize for the taxpayer.’

Mr McConnell did not respond to requests for a comment last night.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Binyam torture: Now Blunkett and Straw facing questions over role of MI5

By Jason Lewis, Security Editor

THE Government is facing new questions over whether Cabinet Ministers sanctioned MI5's involvement in the alleged torture of former Guantanamo Bay detainee Binyam Mohamed.

MI5 must seek permission from a Secretary of State for involvement in activities abroad which would be illegal in Britain. And now Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne is demanding to know if then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw or Home Secretary David Blunkett gave approval. Writing to current Home Secretary Alan Johnson, he said: 'The implications are most serious. If authorisation was given, then Blunkett or Straw approved criminal activity contrary to our public policy against torture. If it was not, the Security Service has proved to be out of political control. Which is it?' An MI5 officer known as Witness B who interviewed Mr Mohamed, 31, at Guantanamo Bay is facing a criminal investigation into alleged complicity in torture.

Recently released documents show the Ethiopian-born UK resident was subjected to sleep deprivation and other 'torture' techniques, and that MI5 knew of his treatment.

The Intelligence Services Act 1994, which governs MI5's activities, says: 'If a person would be liable in the UK for any act done outside the British Islands, he shall not be so liable if the act is one which is authorised by the Secretary of State.' Last week one of the country's most senior judges, Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger, restored a paragraph he had previously edited from a judgment in order to criticise MI5's role in Mr Mohamed's treatment.

He said the Security Services claimed they 'operated a culture that respected human rights' and 'denied they knew of any ill-treatment of detainees interviewed by them whilst detained by the US Government'.

He added: 'In this case that does not appear to have been true...some officials appear to have a dubious record relating to involvement ... with the mistreatment of Mr Mohamed when he was held at the behest of US officials.' The judge said he particularly had in mind Witness B, who had appeared in the case in which Mr Mohamed's lawyers were trying to get him freed, prior to his eventual release in February last year.

The MI5 officer stopped giving evidence in case he incriminated himself. He is now the subject of a criminal inquiry but Lord Neuberger added: 'The evidence suggests there were other [officers].'

'Implications are serious'

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Detectives trawl DNA database 60 times a year - hunting for criminals' relatives

By Jason Lewis, Mail on Sunday Security Editor

Forensic scientist extracting DNA from crime scene samples

In the system: Police seaches have raised new concerns over database

New concerns have been raised about the use of innocent people's DNA in police investigations.

Figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday show that detectives are ordering weekly searches of the DNA database for people with no immediate connection to any crime.

The searches are used when crime scene DNA samples produce no direct match on the system.

Investigators then trawl millions of other records looking for a partial match, which might indicate that the suspect is related to an innocent person on the system.

The 'familial DNA searches' raise new questions about the increasing number of innocent people's records being held on the DNA register.

This is because a partial match could lead to police launching a background investigation and even a surveillance operation, targeting an innocent person while searching for a family member.

The method has led to the conviction of several criminals but campaign groups and information watchdogs have raised concerns about data protection and human rights.

The genetic profiles of about one million people - including children - who have never been convicted of a crime are still being kept on the National DNA Database despite a European human rights ruling that 'blanket' retention of suspects' data is unlawful.

The samples are taken from witnesses in criminal investigations - to rule them out as suspects - or from people who are arrested but not convicted.

Campaigners argue that only convicted criminals should have their DNA kept on the system, but the Government and police have so far fought all attempts to remove large numbers of innocent people's profiles.

Now figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday show that police have searched the DNA records for innocent people 363 times in the past six years.

Police rules limit the use of this kind of search to the most serious crimes - although full details of the constraints for its use have not been made public.

But an average of 61 searches a year - more than one a week - suggests that the keeping of innocent people's records is seen as essential by police.

It was expected that the profiles of such people - 925,000 at the last count - would be destroyed in response to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. But police are adding more people to the system all the time.

The National Policing Improvement Agency says the figures, which show 73 'familial DNA searches' in the past two years, demonstrate it is not routinely used.

It said that 'familial searches are not a standard procedure' and could only be approved by an officer with at least the rank of Assistant Chief Constable.

'Familial searching of the DNA database will be restricted to the most serious crime investigations only,' it added.

A document released by British Transport Police reveals 'it conducts familial searches...on an intelligence-led basis only for serious crimes'.

This would mean that where a familial search identified an individual on the database who partially matched a crime scene profile, the investigators would launch a full-scale background inquiry into their family.

Several court cases have hinged on this evidence. The first conviction was in 2004 when a Surrey man was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for six years after he was linked to a crime scene via a close relative's DNA profile.

The offender had thrown a brick from a motorway bridge - the object crashed through the windscreen of a lorry and struck the driver, who suffered a heart attack and died.

Last night Helen Wallace, of GeneWatch, urged caution over the searches. She said: 'This should never be used as a routine technique and there should be far more transparency and oversight about when and where the police are ordering these kinds of searches.

'We have no objection to its use in investigating serious unsolved crimes but the guidelines for its use have never been published so we have no idea where the police draw the line.

'There is a real danger of mission creep. We need to know when and where these searches are being used and its use needs to be severely restricted.'

The Home Office has introduced a 'proportionate response' to demands that the DNA profiles of innocent people be removed from the system.

It recommends a six-year limit for retaining the DNA of most unconvicted adults. Unconvicted 16 to 17-year-olds will have samples held for six years over a serious offence and three years in other cases. Unconvicted children under 16 would face a three-year limit.

Repeat offenders or people convicted of serious crimes will have their DNA profiles held indefinitely.

Ring of Steel

Police terror budget cut by millions after Ring of Steel blunder

By Jason Lewis
Police forces across the country have had millions of pounds of counter-terrorism funding cut after a secret audit revealed they were spending the cash on other things.
In one instance, the City of London Police was receiving £3.7million for a so-called ‘ring of steel’ that no longer exists. And Kent Police has also lost a huge sum allocated for anti-terror work that it was using to pay for community support officers.
The disclosures come after The Mail on Sunday revealed how millions of pounds of anti-terrorism cash had been used to pay for luxury London apartments for senior officers. Forces were supposed to be using the funds for equipment and specialist staff to combat the threat of terrorism.
Target: The Baltic Exchange in the City of London after being destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1992
Target: The Baltic Exchange in the City of London after being destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1992
City of London Police has been receiving millions of pounds from the Home Office to fund a ‘ring of steel’ that was introduced to protect key financial institutions in the wake of an IRA bombing campaign in the Nineties.
It consisted of manned sentry boxes, road blocks, concrete barriers and chicanes on roads into the Square Mile.
But the barriers have been largely dismantled during the past ten years and replaced with 190 CCTV and number-plate recognition cameras.
This largely automated system was used to assist the Metropolitan Police investigation into the Islamic terrorist attacks on July 7, 2005.
But the audit of the City of London Police’s terror funding suggested that this system was now a general policing tool rather than a counter-terrorism measure.
The review, by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (Acpo) Terrorism Committee, which distributes £33million of counter-terrorism cash on behalf of the Home Office, has now cut £3.7million – or six per cent – from the City of London force’s budget.

Guard: The ring of steel has been largely dismantled during the past ten years and replaced with 190 CCTV and number-plate recognition cameras
Guard: The ring of steel has been largely dismantled during the past ten years and replaced with 190 CCTV and number-plate recognition cameras
Last month, the City of London Police Committee was told by its officials that the ‘pressures upon resources/funding must be recognised ... [because of] the particular exposure of the City Police to changes in its grant for Dedicated Security Posts (DSPs)’.
When first asked about the cut, City of London Police refused to discuss the issue. But in a statement last night it said: ‘The City has received DSP funding since the 1990s due to its history as a terrorist target.
‘We have been advised we will lose some funding because of a change in funding criteria, but protecting the City from terrorism remains a top priority for the force.’
Meanwhile, Kent Police has had its anti-terror budget slashed after the Acpo audit revealed much of the money was being used to pay part-time community support officers.
Kent Police admitted yesterday that it was losing the funding. This follows a behind-the-scenes row in which the force insisted that it saw the part-time officers as essential for its anti-terrorism strategy.
A spokesman for the force said: ‘Kent Police’s DSP funding covers a range of activities relating to counter-terrorism, including the policing of ports. Kent Police works with its partners to prevent terrorism in addition to fighting serious and organised crime and stopping illegal immigration at our ports.
‘Part of our counter-terrorism strategy involves work within our communities, both to raise awareness of any potential threats and to gain information. We have been advised that our funding will be reduced and this will affect our ability to carry out work in these important areas.’
Last night, an Acpo spokesman confirmed that the review of counter-terrorism funding was continuing.
He said: ‘On behalf of the Home Office, Acpo’s role is to provide these funds to police forces to be spent on counter-terrorism and national security work.
‘Within that area, each force is best placed to decide how these resources should be deployed in the most cost-effective and efficient way.’
The move comes as Acpo faces questions about its own future and whether it is the right body to oversee Britain’s police forces. The organisation is a private company which describes itself as a ‘brand’ and is already under fire for its commercial activities.
Last year, The Mail on Sunday disclosed that it was:
  • Selling information from the Police National Computer for up to £70, even though it pays just 60p to access the details.
  • Marketing ‘police approval’ logos to firms selling anti-theft devices.
  • Operating a separate private firm offering training to speed-camera operators that is run by a senior officer who was banned from driving.
  • Acpo president Sir Hugh Orde has pledged to reform the organisation.

£3m cost of keeping 12 terror suspects on control orders

By Jason Lewis

Abu Qatada was put on a control order in 2005. Last year he was awarded compensation after it was ruled his detention without trial breached his human rights

Abu Qatada was put on a control order in 2005. Last year he was awarded compensation after it was ruled his detention without trial breached his human rights

The cost of keeping 12 terror suspects on controversial control orders has risen to almost £3million a year.

The suspects, who have not been convicted of any crime but are believed to be linked to international terrorism, are living under legal restrictions imposed by the Home Secretary to protect the public.

The order restricts their movements and they are only allowed to use a telephone at their home, from which calls are closely monitored.

They have to give up their passport and can be banned from using any public transport.

Critics say this system is akin to house arrest with no end and punishes the suspects’ families. But security officials believe the orders are effective and prevent suspects meeting other extremists.

New figures obtained by The Mail on Sunday show the average cost of maintaining these orders last year was £225,633 for each suspect – £2,707,600 in total. This is in addition to the £8million in legal fees the Government has paid defending the system.

The Home Office spent an extra £7,856 on line rental and telephone bills for the suspects. Ten of the 12 are also receiving State benefits.

Since the system was created in 2005, 45 people have been subject to the controls.

So far, six foreign nationals held under the restrictions have been deported.

The Law Lords have limited the time that someone can be forced to stay in their own home to 16 hours.

In 2007, they rejected a claim that control orders amounted to a criminal punishment without a fair trial. And last year, the Lords set out rules for the use of intelligence material after a judgment on secret evidence from the European Court of Human Rights.

The judges said that some of those under control orders had been denied a fair hearing because they did not know the gist of the case against them.

The Home Secretary imposes the restrictions on the advice of MI5 but little of the intelligence it gathers can be put in the public domain.

Now in jail, Abu Qatada, accused of being Al Qaeda’s ambassador to Europe, was put on a control order in 2005.

Last year, he was awarded £2,500 by the European Court of Human Rights after judges ruled his detention without trial breached his rights.