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U.K.: Government Proposes Civil Defense Reforms To Warning-Weary Public

  • Jan Jun

Police forces and civil defense units have been on heightened alert in many countries of the world, including Britain, since the attacks of 11 September 2001. But the police, as well as the general public, appear to be growing tired of this constant vigilance, just as the British government has proposed major reforms in civil defense.

London, 24 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The latest warning about the possibility of a terrorist attack in Britain came from the head of the U.K.'s Intelligence Service MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller.

Speaking last week at a conference on terrorism, she warned that a terrorist attack is a "realistic possibility" because "renegade scientists" have supplied terrorists with intelligence on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

She added: "It is only a matter of time before a crude version of such an attack is launched at a major Western city." And she said such threats will be "with us for a good long time" because the war against terrorism "is not going to be won soon."

Some commentators suggest, however, that both the police and the general public cannot remain vigilant forever and that disinterest and fatigue will inevitably creep in.

Paul Wilkinson, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told RFE/RL he believes the threat of a major terrorist attack is real.

"The head of MI5 made a very clear and realistic assessment of the threat that would be shared by most specialists in the study of terrorism in academic circles, and I would certainly be very surprised if anybody with the knowledge of the field really views this as an exaggeration," Wilkinson said. "On the contrary, we have been rather belated in recognizing the seriousness of the threat. She is not creating alarm. She is creating a climate in which we have greater vigilance and a greater understanding on the part of the public."

Wilkinson emphasizes that the possibility of an unconventional chemical, biological, or radiological attack -- even by the much-weakened Al-Qaeda network -- should not be dismissed.

"I do not think that we should in some way mistrust the intelligence services," Wilkinson says. "They have been doing a very thorough job in a difficult area of counterterrorism, and I do not think we should assume that mistakes that have been made in regard to Iraq [and its weapons of mass destruction] are the fault of the intelligence services. The people who made the key decisions about Iraq are politicians."

Another expert, Garth Whitty from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, agrees that the police, the general public, and the media are becoming more skeptical and are growing weary of constant vigilance.

"In terms of public perception, I can understand why they are beginning to feel that," Whitty says. "But the reality is [that] there is a known and significant threat. The problem is that no one knows when the threat might materialize into another major attack. And I think it is also important that we recognize there have been a number of major attacks in other parts of the world. So, there is certainly a major threat, an organization with a significant capability and a vile intent to carry out attacks in the West and elsewhere at will."

These worries appear to be shared by the British government. On 19 June, it announced a major civil defense reform. The new Civil Contingencies Bill radically modernizes the way terrorist emergencies are dealt with, since some of the existing laws date back to the 1920s and the post-World War II era.

The new proposals enable the government to make decisions based on temporary emergency laws without parliament's immediate approval, and also empower it to declare local states of emergency. The bill also proposes that the most important companies -- in areas such as power generating, telecommunications, public transport, and water -- "have a duty to cooperate and share information" in emergency situations.

The bill aims to create a single framework for civil emergencies for the whole of the U.K. and is expected to be passed by parliament after a 12-week consultation period.

The opposition believes the reforms are long overdue. Wilkinson also supports the measures.

"I think that a lot is being done, but my own judgment is that we were rather slow in responding to the threat and that there is still a great deal more to be done," he says. "I welcome the Civil Contingencies Bill, which is, of course, only a draft, so it can be changed if, in the period of consultation and parliamentary debate, ideas are brought into the debate which can be included in the bill. But I think the bill itself is a sensible start."

Whitty points out that the government has to plan for worst-case scenarios. It has postponed until September a major civil emergency exercise in London -- with actors playing the victims of a chemical attack and the government moving into the countryside. He says it should be useful to see how the current emergency services organization cope.

He emphasizes that -- based on recent terrorist attacks -- Al-Qaeda appears now to have regrouped, and he warns that the problem is that "no one can specify when an attack is likely to take place, but all the indications are Al-Qaeda, in particular, is still an organization with global reach and the ability to carry out attacks at the time of its choosing."