TIME : Camera-Ready Secrets: The London Police Chief's Gaffe

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Camera-Ready Secrets: The London Police Chief's Gaffe

By Catherine Mayer / London | April 9, 2009

Technology is generally a friend of law enforcement, but it can also bite back. Scotland Yard's most senior counterterrorism officer, Bob Quick, arrived yesterday morning at 10 Downing Street to brief British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on an investigation into a suspected terrorism plot. As the photographers who routinely snap visitors there discovered when they studied their images of Quick, the assistant commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police had been carrying paperwork. The uppermost sheet, marked "Secret," contained details of the operation, code-named Pathway, listing the names of officers involved and the locations of terrorism suspects.

This breach of security impelled police to accelerate the operation, which had not been due to culminate in arrests until the early hours of this morning. So yesterday afternoon, in a series of dramatic raids, police seized 12 people in seven locations in the northwest of England. Under British terrorism laws, suspects can be held for up to 28 days without charge. Unconfirmed reports of the suspected terrorists' targets include a shopping center and a nightclub. The reports also suggest a connection to Rashid Rauf, the alleged mastermind of the plot to bomb transatlantic aircraft, whose killing by a U.S. drone last year remains unconfirmed. However, a security source stresses that firm conclusions about the nature and seriousness of the threats are premature. "The police and the security services are working together closely," says the source. "We are keeping an open mind."

Nevertheless, Home Secretary Smith immediately congratulated the police on a "successful antiterrorism operation." Her intervention was not enough to save Quick, who lived up to his name by tendering his resignation with an alacrity that startled the British media, who are used to public figures hanging on by their fingernails even when their exits seem inevitable. One such figure was Sir Ian Blair, who finally stepped down as commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in December after weathering storms of criticism from the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian man who was mistaken by officers for a terrorist.

For Blair's successor, Sir Paul Stephenson, who has been in office since the end of January, this has been a testing week. Although public disorder surrounding the April 2 G-20 summit in London was easily contained, one man connected to the protest has since died. News vendor Ian Tomlinson, who found himself inadvertently caught up in a protest in the financial district as he walked home from work, suffered a heart attack and died. A video shot by an onlooker shows what appears to be an unprovoked attack on Tomlinson by a police dog handler — and that footage has been augmented by further digital evidence in the form of photos and videos, all raising questions about the police treatment of Tomlinson. "The images that have now been released raise obvious concerns and it is absolutely right and proper that there is a full investigation into this matter, which the Met will fully support," said Stephenson yesterday.

Less than 24 hours later, Stephenson found himself handling the fallout from another set of images. "I hold [Quick] in the highest regard, as a friend and colleague, and that opinion has not changed. He has accepted that he made a serious error and that has led to his resignation this morning," said Stephenson, who announced as Quick's replacement John Yates, an officer best known for his rigorous investigation of allegations that seats in the House of Lords were being offered in exchange for party donations.

Amid the swirl of events, counterterrorism officers and forensics teams continued what officials call "deep searches" of several properties occupied by the terrorism suspects. Technology may have endangered Operation Pathway, but its careful application remains key to any successful prosecution.