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16th October morning Downing St lobby briefing

Wednesday 16th October morning lobby briefing
[16 October 2002]



Asked for a reaction to today's Times report which claimed that the RUC had known that the IRA was training Colombian guerrillas two years before any arrests had been made and whether this might have influenced present circumstances, the PMOS said that he did not recognise today's story. In terms of current events, investigations were continuing. Both the Prime Minister and Secretary of State had made it absolutely clear that the Police Service of Northern Ireland had their full support and that whatever access and support was needed would be given.

Asked to comment on reports that an IRA spy was continuing to operate at the heart of Government, the PMOS said that as John Reid had told the House of Commons yesterday, the Security Services would be investigating the circumstances surrounding the latest allegations. That was the current position.

Asked if he would accept the Times' suggestion that the Government was turning a blind eye to hard evidence showing that the IRA was actively involved in terrorism in other countries and was importing substantial weaponry into Ireland in order to avoid the suggestion that the terms of the Northern Ireland peace process were being broken, the PMOS said he would reject that theory absolutely. Asked how he could be so sure when hard evidence would seem to indicate otherwise, the PMOS said that we had always been totally open about the security situation in Northern Ireland. As we had pointed out consistently, we kept the state of the ceasefires under constant review. Moreover, as both the Prime Minister and John Reid had underlined in recent days, there could be no dual track approach. All the parties had to commit to a one-track process. Put to him that hard evidence existed which showed the IRA had been assisting FARC, Basque and Palestinian terrorists, the PMOS said that the Security Services in Northern Ireland kept paramilitary activity of all kinds under constant review. Ministers' actions were based on the advice they were given.


Asked when a new UN Security Council Resolution on Iraq would be finalised, the PMOS reminded journalists of our warning at the start of the UN process that UN Resolutions tended to take weeks rather than days to put together. Clearly that was the case regarding this particular matter. Discussions were continuing at the UN and were being informed by events such as the Prime Minister's meeting with President Putin. Ultimately, it was important to recognise that this was a UN-based operation and that timescales were a matter for them. Asked why it was taking so long, the PMOS said that these things tended to go through various phases. The only thing we could do was to be patient and wait for the end result. Put to him that the process was at a stalemate, the PMOS said that he had no intention of giving a running commentary on the work going on at the UN. That said, he would disagree with the premise of the question. Journalists should exercise a little patience and await the outcome of the current discussions. Asked about the likelihood of two UN Security Council Resolutions - the second one outlining the possibility of military action against Iraq, the PMOS said it was important to focus on the substance of the process through which the international community was sending a very clear that Saddam had to comply with existing UN Resolutions.

Asked if the Prime Minister was satisfied that any action against Iraq would not hamper any activity on the wider war against terrorism, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had addressed this matter in the House yesterday. It was simplistic to suggest that only one problem could be addressed at a time. Terrorist threats did not come in neat sequential packages. The crude fact was that there were varying kinds of threat to which we had to respond as and when they occurred. It wasn't a question of dealing with just one, like hopping on a number 41 bus. Put to him that our resources were not infinite, the PMOS agreed and pointed out that that was precisely why they needed to be targeted in the most effect way. The criticism that we had neglected the war on terror in favour of action against Iraq was unfair. People should not under-estimate the worldwide counter-terrorism measures we had taken since September 11, including the increase in co-operation between the different intelligence services and the action being taken to choke off the international financing of terrorist groups, in addition to the strengthening of our domestic laws. Of course, that did not mean that we would be able to provide 100% protection worldwide against terrorism, as our experience had demonstrated. Nevertheless, a significant amount was being done to tackle the threat.

Put to him that the current international co-operation to tackle global terrorism could vanish as soon as any action against Iraq was undertaken and that therefore the 'war on two fronts' would not be sustainable, the PMOS said that international co-operation was not being undervalued. It was precisely because of the co-operation that we were pleased the Iraq issue was being looked at under the auspices of the UN. However, it was necessary to recognise that terrorist threats did not line up neatly waiting to be addressed. September 11 and the tragic events in Bali underlined that unless we dealt with them as and when they occurred, there was a danger that they would hit us very hard in the future. Put to him that the Prime Minister of New Zealand had expressed a widely shared view this morning that the twin-track strategy was likely to undermine the wider campaign against global terrorism precisely because military action against Iraq would put Muslim countries on the defensive, the PMOS said that this underlined the need for us to continue to explain that our response to Iraq was not about being anti-Muslim but was about dealing with a very real threat - including to countries in the Middle East.

Asked whether the Prime Minister was continuing to talk to relevant world leaders following the attacks in Bali at the weekend, the PMOS said yes, as and when it was appropriate to so. Questioned as to whether the Prime Minister had spoken to President Megawati, the PMOS said not at this stage. He was hoping to do so as soon as he could. Asked if we were happy with Indonesia's co-operation with the investigation into the Bali attacks, the PMOS said that we had close relations with the Indonesian Government at various levels and were happy with their level of co-operation. Asked if we were 'alive' to the widely held fears that any action taken by President Megawati to close down Muslim terrorist groups could destabilise her Government, the PMOS said that we were of course fully aware of the difficulties relating to the geography of and diversity within Indonesia. We would co-operate with the Indonesian Government in whatever way we could to move against the terrorist threat.

Asked for an update on moves to proscribe the Jemaah Islamiyah in the UK, the PMOS said that the position had not changed since yesterday. We were looking into the question of proscribing Jemaah Islamiyah as a matter of urgency.

Questioned about the investigation into who was responsible for the Bali bombs, the PMOS said that nothing had changed since yesterday. Our suspicions centred on an Al Qaida link. However, experience showed that it was important to wait for the assessment of investigators - including those from Scotland Yard - who were currently working on the case in Bali.

Asked for a reaction to the alleged bin Laden communication to Al Jazeera, the PMOS said that the intelligence agencies had raised serious questions over its authenticity, as should be expected.


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