July 31, 2006
Britain launches new terrorism alert system
By Gideon 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.
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
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
"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
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
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.