Phhiladelphia Inquirer : Britain's antiterrorism chief resigns

Friday, April 10, 2009

Britain's antiterrorism chief resigns

His security slip forced police to prematurely act against alleged al-Qaeda plotters.

By Henry Chu |
Los Angeles Times | April 10, 2009

LONDON - Britain's top counterterrorism official resigned yesterday after committing an embarrassing breach of security that forced police to prematurely mount raids against suspected al-Qaeda plotters.

Bob Quick, an assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, apologized for having potentially jeopardized "a major counterterrorism operation" when he was photographed and filmed Wednesday carrying top-secret documents in plain view.

Clutched under his right arm as he arrived at No. 10 Downing Street for a prime ministerial briefing was a memo, titled "Operation Pathway," whose contents about an ongoing terrorist investigation were clearly legible on camera.

Hours later, police fanned out across northwest England and arrested a dozen men in armed raids that, in some cases, occurred in public places in daylight, terrifying bystanders.

Police said that 11 of the 12 detainees were Pakistani nationals, some of them in Britain on student visas.

Several past terrorist plots in Britain had Pakistani connections, including the July 7, 2005, London transit attacks by four suicide bombers that killed 52 commuters.

Police have divulged no further details about the suspects or what exactly led to their arrests, although the size and complexity of the operation, which involved hundreds of officers, suggested that the men had been under surveillance for some time.

"We had to act preemptively to ensure the safety of the public," Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the British Broadcasting Corp.

Quick, a 30-year police veteran, acknowledged his blunder in a statement, saying he regretted "the disruption caused to colleagues undertaking the operation" and was "grateful for the way in which they adapted quickly and professionally to a revised time-scale."

Pressure on Quick to atone for his mistake began to build immediately after the photographs of him hit the newscasts Wednesday. In a country where the threat of terrorist attack is a constant worry, politicians and other commentators were aghast over what happened.

Opposition spokesman Chris Grayling of the Conservative Party called it a "quite extraordinary" lapse by Quick that had put a "huge question mark over his judgment."

"If our most senior counterterrorism officer can't be trusted not to expose highly secret information like this in a public place, then who on Earth can be?" Grayling told the BBC.

Boris Johnson, London's mayor, also a Conservative, called Quick an experienced officer whose resignation he accepted with "great reluctance and sadness."

Despite missteps, Quick was widely regarded as a patient and effective officer. He served as counterterrorism chief for slightly more than a year before his resignation.

His successor, John Yates, is also considered an intelligent and able officer but has no counterterrorism experience.

Yates is best-known for leading the "cash-for-honors" inquiry in 2006, an investigation into whether lawmakers promised peerages - knighthood and the like - to big political donors. No charges ever arose from the inquiry.

Wednesday's operation focused mostly on the two large northern cities of Liverpool and Manchester.

One of the suspects was arrested on the campus of a Liverpool university, panicking students inside the library who watched armed police force the man to lie face down on the ground.

Peter Fahy, chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, said yesterday that the raids were planned before Quick's blunder and would have occurred within 24 hours of when police were forced to act.