Cameron’s response to Isil: Weak abroad, draconian at home

Article updated following statement: See below

The security propaganda machine is spluttering into action. At the end of last week, the terror threat level was raised from 'substantial' to 'severe', the fourth in a five-tier alert system. Was there any evidence an attack was imminent? No, the home secretary admitted.

Then David Cameron announced a press conference on Friday afternoon. "What we're facing in Iraq now with Isil [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is a greater and deeper threat to our security than we have known before," the prime minister said.

This type of hyperbole is typical of the security response to potential terror threats. There is no sense that citizens should be given realistic and accurate appraisals of the actual threat level. Instead, they must be scared into relinquishing rights with Biblical rhetoric of threats to their country and home. Recently senior Pentagon officials describe Isil as an "apocalyptic" group which posed an "imminent threat" to the US. Defence secretary Chuck Hagel said the group was "beyond anything that we've seen". What childish nonsense.

This type of exaggerated language – more suitable for the trailer of Expendables 3 than a security briefing – is intended to soften up public opinion for an assault on civil liberties. It was the tenor used by New Labour throughout the post-September 11th period. But it also has the unfortunate effect of drawing more recruits to terror groups, by magnifying and exaggerating their power and importance.

When those murderers killed James Foley, their intention was to spark fear in the leaders and citizens of the West. Newspaper editors, who plastered the images on the front page while pathetically quoting the wishes of Foley's parents that the video not be shown, played directly into their hands. Now Cameron does the same – legislating in haste when cooler heads should prevail. First he prevaricates on a beach and then he panics. It's hard to find anything to recommend Cameron's response.

Cameron was plainly right to warn of the possibility of a terrorist state in Iraq, potentially stretching out to the shores of the Mediterranean. But that is a foreign policy problem, and one which he has shown no ability to address. It is not primarily a home affairs problem, which is the only measure being addressed today.

The Liberal Democrats are still fighting the measures behind the scenes but at 3:30BST this afternoon, Cameron's statement to the Commons will lay out the new powers he wants to deal with the problem of the Brits who have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight. Reports suggest:

  • There has already been an agreement on requiring airlines travelling to and from the UK to provide advance information about passengers, including their reasons for travelling.
  • A temporary ban will be placed on suspected terrorists coming home to the UK, although they will not be stripped of their citizenship.
  • Legislation will make it easier to seize the passports of potential terrorists to stop them leaving.
  • Terrorism prevention and investigation measures (Tpims), the replacement of control orders, will be toughened up.

The ban on those fighting overseas to return to the UK appears to be a compromise. Downing Street wanted to strip them of their passport and make them stateless. But as Tory MP and former shadow attorney general Edward Garnier said on the Today programme this morning, "the government is already bound by two UN conventions on statelessness". Even the bar on them returning to the UK may be illegal. It may also not be helpful. If we know who they are we would be better off letting them return and keeping them under surveillance and then putting them on trial for aiding terrorism.

Whether Britain will be able to spot these individuals is another matter. Doing so will require considerable cooperation from foreign states. Terrorists do not tend to return directly from Iraq or Syria. They will come back from intermediary countries like Turkey or Germany.

The home secretary could already revoke passports via the archaic legal fiction of the royal prerogative, but now border guards will be able to do the same. It is unclear why this is necessary. After all, the border guards could detain anyone they suspect of a crime until the home secretary passes an order. The move bears the whiff of a 'something must be done' frenzy. Its benefits are not obvious and the policy may in fact be harmful. Border guards often prove over-zealous when granted extra powers or discretions.

When government becomes obsessed with 'doing something' it is distracted from working with the powers it already has. There is also a risk that we are simply not enforcing existing legislation. This is not counter-terrorism. It is public relations.

The danger of replicating existing legislation is also strong, as Garnier observed this morning. The fact Cameron has been hammering out the plans in talks with Nick Clegg over the weekend and this morning suggests he's putting forward policy in haste. As is the case in the unfortunately-named Drip law, which expanded and extended surveillance powers available to the state, we are pursuing policy which goes against the civil liberties and privacy without fully thinking it through.

The most dangerous area is Tpims. Some of the powers the coalition trimmed from the measure during its early civil liberties period will almost certainly be reintroduced, although Clegg's opposition will help define how much. Quite probably this will include the ability of authorities to forcibly relocate the individual, as recommended by the reviewer of terrorism legislation David Anderson. They may also accept his recommendation to force those subject to Tpims to attend probation service meetings.

Possibly, there will be a return of powers to unilaterally ban phone and internet use, prohibitions on association with others and extend house curfews, which are called, with a certain Orwellian panache, "overnight residence requirements". It's possible the two-year limitation on Tpims will be extended, although it can already be extended if new information is found by authorities.

This is not enough for Labour, which is demanding the full return of control orders. The party's commitment to civil liberties, proudly trumpeted by Ed Miliband when he became leader, rarely survives contact with a media panic. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has been on the attack, pushing the government to go further when she should be recommending caution. Labour MP Hazel Blears, who sits on the intelligence committee whose role it is to fawn over security officials, demanded the deputy prime minister "get off this kind of high horse that he's on". That is her assessment of civil liberties. It speaks volumes about how she conducts herself in the behind-closed-doors meetings of her scrutinising committee.

Labour would restore the arbitrary powers handed to the home secretary by the control order legislation, allowing her to have "reasonable grounds to suspect" that a person may pose a terrorist threat, rather than "reasonable grounds to believe".

Tpims are an erosion of the British standard of law. Like control orders, they push aside due process and open justice in favour of rumour, suspicion and security service secret hearings. They are against the magna carta. They take and imprison men without the judgement of their peers, based on information which is not made available to him or the public. They're an abomination.

But if the power is to remain in place, the least the government could do is abide by Lord Macdonald's recommendation that they only be allowed if accompanying an ongoing criminal investigation authorised by the director of public prosecutions. The purpose of the measure must be to monitor and restrict freedom so that someone can be put on trial in open court. There can be no other justification.

We have the laws to pursue people suspected of aiding terrorism or terror groups. That is the appropriate way to pursue Isil fighters who return to the UK. But we should be extremely concerned at the manner the government has pursued the issue so far: negotiating down to the wire, pumping out apocalyptic rhetoric to soften up the public mood and reverting to instinctive authoritarianism. It will do nothing to stop terrorism and plenty to increase its support.

It is possible we will be pleasantly surprised when Cameron makes his statement this afternoon, but given the rhetoric he deployed on Friday it seems unlikely. We are weak and indecisive abroad and draconian at home. It is hard to imagine a more self-defeating strategy.

Update – 16:16 BST: Cameron confirmed that relocation and exclusion zone powers would be applied to Tpims. He also confirmed powers to revoke passports being handed to border guards, statutory requirements on airlines to provide details of passengers coming to the UK, and plans to exclude those going to fight for Isil from returning to the UK, although he could not provide any further details of the plan.