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United Kingdom
Prime Minister's Official Spokesman
Lobby Briefing
September 28, 2001
11:00 A.M. GMT

Phonecalls

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman (PMOS) advised journalists that the Prime Minister had spoken this morning to President Putin. They had had a wide-ranging, constructive discussion, which confirmed the Prime Minister's view that Russia was a fully-fledged partner with the West on issues such as fighting terrorism. The Prime Minister had also had a second conversation with Prime Minister Koizumi of Japan. The discussion had touched, among other issues, on the need to continue to drive forward the humanitarian coalition which the Prime Minister had spoken about yesterday. He had also spoken to Chris Patten, the EU External Affairs Commission, about this matter late last night.

The PMOS said that Clare Short was in the process of talking to her international colleagues. She had already spoken to Paul Nielson, the EU Development Commissioner. She was due to speak to the Pakistani Finance Minister and the head of USAID (Ms Short's counterpart in Washington), in addition to counterparts in Canada and all other EU countries.

The PMOS said that the Prime Minister was working in Chequers today and would continue his preparations for the forthcoming Party Conference over the weekend. As you would expect, he would be keeping in touch with other world leaders throughout this time.

PM's Approach

The PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had stated from the outset, we needed to continue to make our preparations in a calm and measured way. We were working with our allies to build a consensus not only in terms of bringing those responsible to account and tackling mass terrorism, but also in terms of continuing to tackle the existing humanitarian problems in the context of post-11 September. Those preparations would continue at their own pace. We had never given any indication of any timetable - and for obvious reasons we would not be doing so at this point.

Threat to UK/Intelligence Reports

Asked to clarify the comments by Peter Hain and Jack Straw concerning an apparent warning that terror attacks in the UK were imminent, the PMOS underlined that it was inaccurate to say that Peter Hain had asserted that there was a new threat in Britain. He had not said that. We had consistently made clear two points from the outset. First, we believed that there was an ongoing threat from these terrorist organisations internationally. They had shown a pattern of activity over several years which demonstrated that they were willing to make indiscriminate attacks - hence our policy to fight mass terrorism. That was the point Peter Hain had been making last night. Secondly, as we had underlined consistently, there was no evidence of a specific threat to the UK. That remained the position. Put to him that Mr Hain had been speaking in the context of intelligence reports he had apparently seen which would seem to indicate imminent terror attacks on an international scale, the PMOS pointed out that we had consistently underlined that there was evidence of an ongoing threat from these organisations world-wide. We had not said that there was any evidence of a specific threat at this stage to Britain. Obviously we were keeping the situation under close scrutiny and close review. Put to him that if Mr Hain's comments were combined with those of Sir John Stevens it would not be fantasy to presuppose that the UK was near the top of the list of countries to attack, the PMOS emphasised that we were not lightly saying that we had no evidence of a specific threat to this country. That was the reality of the situation.

Asked whether we had evidence of specific threats to other countries, the PMOS repeated that we had evidence of an ongoing threat internationally. Put to him that there was a difference between talking about an 'ongoing threat' and Mr Hain's suggestion that a further attack could happen within the next few weeks, the PMOS pointed out that there was always the possibility of an attack from these kinds of terrorists. What was important was for us to concentrate our efforts on countering them. That was what we were doing at both a national and international level. It was also why we were building the consensus to tackle the problem of mass terrorism. Put to him again that if there was a threat to the US and its allies the UK would clearly be one of the more obvious targets and therefore specific precautions were being taken here, the PMOS said that we had always taken precautions to guard against terrorist attack. We would continue to do so. He repeated that nothing had changed in relation to the evidence that there was no specific threat at this stage to this country.

Asked if the Prime Minister had full confidence in British security and intelligence forces, the PMOS said that went without saying. Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister was concerned that eleven of the hijackers had reportedly passed through the UK, the PMOS said that speculation about UK connections to the attacks in the US were exaggerated. At this stage of the investigation, both the US and UK authorities had no reason to believe that there had been significant British connections to the attacks. That said, we did believe that a number of the hijackers had transited the UK on the way to the US. This allegation was currently being investigated. It went without saying that we were continuing to work closely with our US and European counterparts in supporting the investigation. Questioned further about reports that eleven of the hijackers had passed through Britain, the PMOS advised journalists to treat such reports with caution. He warned that we were entering a period in which claim, counter-claim, scare-mongering and disinformation would be prevalent and it was important for people to be aware of that. For example, the Chief Officer of the Taliban's Intelligence Service had claimed that the CIA had had a hand in organising the attacks in New York in order to get more money. We would continue to be faced with these sorts of wild claims and we therefore needed to act with caution. Put to him that there was a difference between the Taliban claiming that the CIA was linked to the attacks in the US and what appeared to be evidence that eleven of the hijackers had transited the UK on their way to the US - which would have security implications for this country, the PMOS pointed out that the journalist was making an assumption about the accuracy of the report claiming that eleven of the hijackers had passed though Britain. We did not share that assumption. He repeated there was no reason to believe that there was a significant British connection to these attacks, although we did believe that a number of the hijackers had transited the UK on their way to the US. We had been asked to investigate this report and that was what we were doing. We were approaching this issue in the same calm, rational way we were approaching the rest of the matter and would not feed speculation. Asked to explain what he meant by the word 'transited', the PMOS said it would not be helpful to get into detail. An investigation was ongoing and we would await its completion rather than try to pre-empt its outcome.

Security Measures

Asked if the Prime Minister shared Jack Straw's frustration, as demonstrated in his interview on the radio this morning, that 'liberal opinion?' had forced him to back down on some of his proposed measures, such as e-mail encryption, to fight terrorism, the PMOS said that Mr Straw spoke for himself as did the Prime Minister. That said, as we had acknowledged from the outset, we had to look again at a number of areas to help counter any threat. Of course we wanted to preserve civil liberties. However, the circumstances meant we had to balance certain aspects, such as the right to movement, against other aspects, such as the right to live without fear of terrorist attack. That was an ongoing process and would continue at its own pace. Asked repeatedly if that meant we might revisit the Investigatory Powers Bill, the PMOS said we would look at all aspects relating to how we could tackle the problem of terrorism. That process would continue. He was not going to get into specifics at this stage.

Asked why the declaration of a Fatwa was not illegal, the PMOS said that obviously there were a number of questions being posed at this stage. He accepted that people wanted immediate answers. However, it was important to approach the matter in a measured way. We needed to look at the question as a whole, as we were doing, rather than on an issue-by-issue basis. That review process would continue at its own pace. Of course there were issues which needed to be addressed urgently. Over the next few weeks, the outcome of the review process we were undertaking would become clear.

Asked whether the UK would tighten security on airlines following George Bush's announcement yesterday, the PMOS said the level of security at British airports was different to the level of security elsewhere. However, we were currently in discussions with the airlines about improving security. Asked whether the British military had been given powers to shoot down planes if necessary, the PMOS said he had no intention of getting into security issues.

Economy

Asked why The Times had reported today that the Chancellor had warned colleagues that public spending might have to be cut to pay for any war despite the fact that the PMOS had said yesterday that the Government would be sticking to its spending plans, the PMOS said that the position, as spelled out by his colleague yesterday, had not changed.

Berlusconi

Asked if the Prime Minister believed that the Italian Prime Minister's remarks about Islam had been 'injudicious', the PMOS said the Prime Minister had expressed his views yesterday. He believed that it was important to build as wide a consensus as possible. He had set out his views on Islam on a number of occasions and he stood by them. Pressed as to what the Prime Minister's reaction to Mr Berlusconi's remarks had been, the PMOS said the Prime Minister believed that Mr Berlusconi spoke for himself. The Prime Minister had set out his own position a number of times previously.

END


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Crown copyright material reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO.