LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer warned Wednesday that the balance between defending civil liberties and national security was in danger of “getting out of kilter” and could damage efforts to stop future attacks.
“One does wonder when one might have to question whether we are getting that balance right,” John Yates, head of specialist operations at the Metropolitan Police, said.
Britain has brought in a raft of security measures to tackle the threat of al Qaeda and Islamist militants since the September 11, 2001 U.S. attacks and the London suicide bombings in 2005.
However civil rights campaigners have argued that many of these were draconian and impinged on individuals’ freedoms.
Yates said a growing scrutiny of police activities by groups ranging from parliamentary committees to public inquiries posed the danger of “managing the past rather than dealing with the next threat.”
“The scale, the frequency, the cost of meeting these bodies must not get out of kilter,” he told a security conference in London.
His warning echoed comments late last year by Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, who complained that an overbearing emphasis on civil rights would affect his agency’s work.
Evans said there had to be a balance between “onerous and detailed” scrutiny that could harm MI5’s effectiveness and ensuring his officers acted appropriately.
Lord Carlile, independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws in Britain, earlier told the conference that nearly all powers granted to the security services were justified.
Yates also warned that the need to deal with the threat posed by attacks such as that by Islamist militants on hotels in Mumbai in 2008 meant police needed to respond quickly and use more high-powered weapons with heavier ballistic ammunition.
That would not be popular with all his colleagues, he added.
Britain raised its national threat level in January to “severe,” meaning an attack is considered “highly likely,” not long after the Christmas Day attempt to blow up a plane bound for Detroit.
Yates made no comment on whether police feared an attack during campaigning for the elections to be held on May 6.
But a police source told Reuters: “We are prepared for the worst but there is no specific evidence of any threat.”
Editing by William Maclean and Michael Roddy.