On The Fallout From East London’s Olympic Missile Crisis

[First published in The Morning Star, 14/07/2012]

It’s an old edict among journalists that they should never become the story — but when Brian Whelan learned the Ministry of Defence was turning his home in Bow Quarter into a missile base, that rule went understandably out the window.

We at the Star can sympathise: our offices in Hackney Wick are constantly surrounded by low-flying choppers and security checkpoints for the Olympic stadium next door, while I myself live just a few streets away from one of five other missile launch sites, two of which are literally on residents’ rooftops.

So it’s with some trepidation that I covered the tenants at one site – Leytonstone’s Fred Wigg Tower – in the High Court this week and their failed bid for a judicial review.

Basing his decision on eyes-only reports from the ministry’s head of counter-terrorism and the general charged with Olympic deployments, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave said the ministry’s plea of national security trumped all — specifically the residents’ demands for a “fair and proper consultation”. [I've uploaded a copy of his judgement here; bear in mind what follows is honestly held opinion.]

This is not the absurdity the Daily Mail might have you believe: the compulsory quartering of soldiers is an issue of public safety and civil liberties dating all the way back to the English Civil War. Then as now, aiding and abetting could open one up to collateral damage and atrocities from opposing factions that would be considered a war crime today – much as we’ve seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine or any other case of asymmetric warfare you care to name – or, as the people of Fred Wigg have protested, could make their home a target for a retaliatory terrorist attack.

Extraordinarily, Mr Haddon-Cave rejected such fears on the ministry’s own advice as “inconceivable” while at the same time accepting General Sydney Parker’s testimony that the “interference” of a high-velocity missile cache in their neighbourhood “is overwhelmingly necessary in the interests of national security and public safety.”

Of course, it was also the last line of defence: any would-be hijacker would have to first get past air observers and radar watching the restricted airspace over London, armed attack choppers stationed in Ilford and Greenwich and a squadron of equally-lethal Typhoon fighter jets, before even coming within range of the six Rapier missile and two high-velocity missile launchers surrounding the no-fly zone of the Olympic stadium itself.

But far be it for the courts to decide, Mr Haddon-Cave said: “It is for the Crown to determine what steps are justified to secure these objectives. The Court should not attempt to ‘second guess’ such conclusions or be asked to do so.”

But just how necessary is the draconian step of embedding artillery with civilian populations? Well, it’s not just General Parker who says so: the installation sites were personally agreed to by home secretary Theresa May, deputy PM Nick Clegg and the Olympic Cabinet Committee as “essential to public safety, national security and the defence of the realm.”

But here’s the thing – just two days after Mr Haddon-Cave threw out the case, an ever-vigilant Ms May told the House of Commons that “there remains no specific security threat to the games, and the threat level remains unchanged.”

What May didn’t remind her fellow MPs was that the current threat level, ‘substantial’, is the lowest ever rating since the scheme was introduced six years ago. In other words, the international event which warrants an “essential” military takeover of people’s homes has simultaneously not made a lick of difference to the actual security risks as understood by Britain’s intelligence services.

There is a glaring contradiction between what the court was told and what parliament was told. They cannot both be true, and the precedent this ruling sets is obvious.

Beyond the courtroom’s limited scope, we can see a clear parallel between the Olympic missiles crisis and the ongoing judicial review of last year’s pre-emptive arrest of so-called ‘domestic extremists’ over the Royal Wedding – with a repeat performance planned for the Olympics unless the court decides otherwise.

Each represents a War On Terror that is inevitably redefining itself in extra-legal terms that move the state’s security apparatus further and further away from any kind of public accountability, even as its functions intrude more and more into our private lives. Why risk the bad press of political prisoners when you can recast protest as a public order offence? Why bother with martial law when a rough-and-ready claim to national security can circumvent the legal system altogether?

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