Red tape stops checks on nine out of 10 terror suspects

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SUSPECTED terrorists are slipping through the net because security services and police are so badly bogged down by bureaucracy, intelligence sources have claimed.

Special Branch and MI5 officers are forced under human rights laws to spend hours form-filling before carrying out the most basic surveillance tasks.

The problems are made worse by undermanning and mean that only a handful of the estimated 150 Islamic extremist suspects in Scotland are under constant surveillance.

We have discovered serious misgivings among officers about manning levels and the law under which they operate, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

We can reveal that:

• Getting permission for the most basic surveillance operation, such as observing a building, takes up to half a day of paperwork and referrals to senior officers;

• Authorisation for a full-scale surveillance operation, such as following a suspect, can require up to three days of bureaucracy;

• If requests are rejected, officers have to spend around three or four hours filling in forms to explain why;

• Keeping one suspect under 24-hour surveillance takes between 24 and 36 highly trained staff, but there are thought to be just 250 Special Branch officers in Scotland;

• Health and safety regulations mean officers are generally restricted to working maximum shifts of eight hours;

• Most operations have to be justified at monthly and three-monthly intervals, requiring many hours of preparation.

Insiders have told Scotland on Sunday they believe that, largely as a result of these and other rules and regulations, as few as 10% of suspected extremists are under high levels of surveillance.

One source claimed that the combination of tight rules and inadequate manpower could have a drastic effect. On one occasion it proved impossible to get enough officers together to mount surveillance on a single individual.

But John Scott, director of the Scottish Human Rights Centre, claimed complaints about the law were being used as a smokescreen to hide mistakes.

He said: "It seems like something of an excuse to me. I do not think it [RIPA] is a block to the police doing their job, and in some ways, to be quite frank, the RIPA regulations could be increased."

Yesterday, Sabeel Ahmed, 26, became the third suspect - all doctors - to be charged in connection with the terror attacks in London and Glasgow.

Hours before, in Brisbane, Australia, Ahmed's cousin, Mohammed Haneef, was charged with "reckless support" of a terror organisation.

Red tape haunts real-life 'spooks'

BEING a TV spook is so simple. You identify the baddies, watch them for a bit, and then bang them up. There's even time to shop for cool clothes and a bit of romance.

But what Spooks characters such as Harry Pearce, Adam Carter and Ros Myers never have to deal with is paperwork - mountains of mind-boggling paperwork.

That is the depressing reality of working life for the genuine officers of the security services and Special Branch. The simplest of anti-terror operations require hours if not days of form-filling, followed by similar amounts of time spent in meetings justifying why you wanted to fill the forms in the first place.

Police and MI5 personnel warn that red tape is seriously hampering their battle against terrorism. And the requirements of bureaucracy could help explain why, time and again, terror suspects are flagged up but remain free to attack.

Investigators agree that strong rules and regulations are needed to maintain human rights in the UK.

Their concern is that the rules under which they operate were introduced in 2000, the year before Islamic extremists changed the rules of terrorism forever by slamming aircraft packed with passengers into buildings full of workers.

The problems centre on the legislation which covers all surveillance work in the UK. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIPA) was brought in during 2000 to replace the existing Interception of Communication Act (IOCA), which was deemed out-of-date.

Another reason for RIPA was the introduction into Britain the same year of the Human Rights Act. This altered forever the way the police operated and how they dealt with all aspects of their work, including evidence and informants as well as surveillance.

But seven years on, those who use RIPA daily believe it, too, is now in serious need of overhaul in order to make it a viable law enforcement tool. One anti-terrorism officer with great experience of the Act was blunt in his observations, saying: "RIPA is a pain in the arse. It is a complete nightmare.

"Everyone in the job understands that we need regulations and that you simply cannot go listening in to people willy-nilly but the current situation is madness."

He added: "This was all brought about as a knee-jerk reaction to the human rights debate but it is not workable.

"And it has led to people slipping through the net not because of police inadequacies but because of red tape."

Only officers who are level 1 trained - undergoing a four-week, highly intensive course, the failure rate for which is very high - can be used for RIPA operations.

This greatly limits the number of officers who can be deployed on such cases. If the target requires 24-hour surveillance this can mean anything up to 36 officers working in three shifts being deployed.

However, it is estimated that just 10% of the 150 viable terror targets at large in Scotland require this scrutiny and yet the country only has around 250 Special Branch officers instead of the required 540.

The source continued: "You need different personnel, different types of vehicles so you do not get spotted. To me, for around-the-clock watching, it would take a minimum of eight officers, working each shift and that's at a push."

Before a RIPA application gets the go-ahead, it has to be proved that everything has been done through normal policing methods to obtain the information now being sought.

Only once these paths have been exhausted can permission be given to go ahead with the surveillance.

The source continued: "You cannot just go out and say: 'Hey, there's Joe Smith. We know he is already up to something, so we will just sit outside his flat and see what happens.' You have to have some sort of previous intelligence on the individual to say why he is going to be your target. Then after you identify him, the first question is: 'Can it be done?'

"If it can, then comes the fun bit. You fill out a form, usually around seven pages with about 15 different points on it explaining who the person is you want to survey, why and what steps you have taken previously to obtain this information and why they have failed.

"At the very basic end of the scale, say, wanting to put a van outside someone's house, this will take you about half a day because, unfortunately, the days of turning up with a flask, a packet of biscuits, a newspaper and waiting are long gone."

He continued: "Applications for telephone intercepts are even worse. If you want to do this, then it will take you a day to fill in the form, at least.

"However, if you are thinking about getting permission to install a listening device or intercepting someone's mail then, being honest, you actually need a letter from God."

As well as all these explanations for any RIPA application, an exit strategy and threat assessment for the police personnel involved has to be submitted. Officers are also forced to adhere to strict shift patterns due to Health and Safety regulations, and if something goes wrong and an individual is found to be over his time, the official fall-out can be catastrophic.

Each application is reviewed every month by a senior officer, and then every three months by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners, a government panel of retired judges.

At any stage the application can be cancelled. This, however, entails another form to be filled in, explaining precisely why things went awry.

Said the source: "If it was as easy as it is on the TV then I don't think we would have anywhere near the problem we do today. However, we operate in the real world and that means RIPA - every bloody time."

Tale of a tail: 36 officers for one suspect

Around-the-clock surveillance of a terror suspect can involve up to 36 highly-trained officers depending on the circumstances.

Usually, the group will be broken down into three teams of 12, each working an eight-hour shift.

On top of the personnel, a fleet of up to half a dozen cars will be required as well as the setting up of a central observation post to co-ordinate the officers' movements.

Working in pairs, their role is simply to observe the subject and make he or she does not realise that they are being watched.

Having a large number of officers and vehicles means individuals can be chopped and changed at regular intervals in order not to arouse suspicion.

One police source said: "Just as important is that you want your officers to blend into an environment. The last thing you need is a 6'4"-tall bodybuilding type with a crew-cut. That clearly is a bit of a giveaway."