Britain launches new terrorism alert system
31 July 2006
By Giddeon Long
LONDON (Reuters) - The British government will launch a new security alert system on Tuesday which it says will keep the public better informed about the threat of terrorist attack.
Analysts say the move is part of a concerted effort -- not only by the government but also by the two security services MI5 and MI6 -- to be seen as more accountable.
The new system is similar to the one used in the United States for the past four years, with five levels ranging from 'low' (attack unlikely) up to 'critical' (attack expected imminently).
The system is expected to start at 'severe', the second-highest level, indicating the government believes an attack is highly likely.
Until now, the government has kept such information secret, arguing that it might cause the public unnecessary alarm.
"I don't think it'll have a massive impact on the public but I do think it might help government, the security services and the police have a clearer idea of where they all stand in their assessment of the threat faced," said Chris Pope, intelligence analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
"It might also mean the authorities are less likely to be criticized when things go wrong."
For decades, MI5 and MI6 have enjoyed -- many would say have actively nurtured -- a reputation for extreme secrecy. Countless James Bond movies and spy novels have helped cement that reputation in the popular imagination.
But in recent years, both services have started to emerge from the shadows. First MI5, the domestic intelligence agency, launched its own Web site giving security advice, information about careers and an e-mail function allowing the public to contact the agency with information.
"It has proved an invaluable tool in making the security service more transparent," a security service spokesman said.
The Web site receives around 500 e-mails a month from people offering information they think could help MI5 with its work.
In July 2005, following the deadly suicide bombings on the London transport network, that number shot up to 2,500.
It was partly due to the success of the site that MI5's sister agency MI6 followed suit last year with a Web site of its own.
Traditionally MI6, the espionage agency officially known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and immortalized in the Bond movies, has been even more secretive than MI5.
On its site, MI6 tells potential recruits they should not expect to become the next Bond -- the dashing, fictional secret agent created by author Ian Fleming.
"Nevertheless, staff who join SIS can look forward to ... a stimulating and rewarding career which, like Bond's, will be in the service of their country," it says.
In April this year, the SIS went a step further by advertising for recruits in the newspapers.
"We operate around the world to make this country safer and more prosperous," read the advert, under a montage of photographs of exotic locations, an aeroplane and a man wearing a balaclava holding a machinegun.
Britain's security services will, of course, continue to operate in secret, and will tell the public what they are doing only when they deem it appropriate.
But the introduction of the new alert system may go some way toward reassuring people the government is trying to keep them informed about the gravity of the threat they face.
"It's one more gentle step into the opening up of their world," Pope said.
© Reuters 2006.