Hundreds of potential terrorists in Britain are being “closely surveyed” by the security services, part of a battle with no obvious end in sight, the home secretary said Tuesday.
“I would not like to put a time period on it,” the secretary, Charles Clarke, said of how long Britain might remain a possible target of terrorist attacks. “The fact is that we have what I would call a nihilist terrorist threat, something that will only be beaten by demonstrating it cannot succeed.”
Mr. Clarke was testifying before a special parliamentary committee investigating the government’s handling of the July 7 suicide bombings on three subways and a bus in London, which killed 56 people, including the four bombers. But in broad remarks on a wide range of topics, neither he nor Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, offered much in the way of specifics about the actual government response, or about the threats that the country still faces.
Mr. Clarke said he was examining ways that the authorities could do better in the event of another attack. But he praised the response of the emergency services to the July 7 bombings as “absolutely outstanding.”
Asked about reports that the official terrorism threat level had been lowered from “severe general” to “substantial” about two months before the bombings, Mr. Clarke said intelligence was an effort to understand generally a situation, rather than knowing “what was out there.” In contrast to the United States, Britain does not make public its conclusions about the relative threat levels from terrorism. A spokeswoman for the Home Office said she would not reveal what the current level was or comment on whether it had recently changed.
Mr. Clarke said the police had stepped up security considerably since July 7, spending some $110 million extra in overtime and diversion of existing resources into the antiterrorism effort.
In his testimony, Sir Ian reiterated that the police were “extremely sorry” about the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician who on July 22 was shot repeatedly in the head in the London Underground by police officers who had mistaken him for a terror suspect. The shooting took place the day after four more bombs were set but failed to go off in London.
Sir Ian said the police had reviewed their so-called shoot-to-kill policy since the death of Mr. de Menezes, but had not changed it substantially. The incident is still being investigated by an independent panel; leaks of its early findings seem to indicate that the police and the security services made a series of errors that day that led to the death.
“We made a small number of administrative changes,” Sir Ian told the committee, “but the essential thrust of the tactics remains the same.” He added that “we now have to find a process for debating these issues without necessarily revealing the absolute details of the tactics, which would be extremely unhelpful.”
Sir Ian said it was important that police tactics reflect the new reality of Britain since July 7, the first time suicide attacks have been carried out here. “There is no question that a suicide bomber, deadly and determined, who is intent on murder, is perhaps the highest level of threat that we face, and we must have an option to deal with it,” he said.