BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 21.10.01

Interview: JOHN REID MP, Northern Ireland Secretary.

Says there is currently no specified terrorist threat but that the Government is well prepared to respond to any such attack.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: John Reid, clearly a lot of people are very worried indeed, should they be? JOHN REID: Well I think it's worth repeating the health warning you gave at the beginning of that film John is that there is no specific threat according to the intelligence and evidence we have against this country, but obviously any responsible government takes the situation very seriously and I believe that we are vigilant and we are well prepared in terms of our civil contingency planning. HUMPHRYS: The question is whether we're well enough prepared isn't it, and there is the concern that we have put ourselves in the front line for perfectly good reasons, and that's been explained that the long-term aim is to defeat terrorism and who could argue with that, but the short-term risks are great. And we heard Mr. Butler there saying it is inevitable that we will face some sort of terrible attack. REID: Yes, well I think he also said it's inevitable that terrorists would get nuclear weapons. I don't believe in inevitabilities, I think that those who say that certain course of actions will inevitably occur make a miscalculation. But is there a general threat, of course there is. We saw what happened on the eleventh of September, we know that we are Allies in the coalition, we know that we are involved in fighting terrorism, and all of this illustrates the necessity to defeat terrorism incidentally. But if you asked me what the general approach has to be, it is surely to balance the reassurance that we need to give to the public that we are vigilant and well prepared whilst at the same time avoiding the panic that would come unnecessarily if we flooded everyone with immense minutia of detail on every conceivable threat that could possibly arise, and I think on these matters the media obviously has a role to play as well. So we have always had civil contingency planning against potential chemical and biological terrorist attacks, even the last major tome was done on that in March of last year, obviously we've updated that after the eleventh of September. On the eleventh of October, I think it was, we wrote out to all the relevant authorities, we're talking here about Directors of Public Health, we're talking about Local Authorities and so on, with our latest plans in certain areas. We are in touch obviously with plans for people like the London Underground, the Channel Tunnel and we also do publish for the public details, for instance, in the case of Anthrax, because of what's going on at present with the hoax calls that are going on, and the actual calls in the United States, so there is a range of measures that we do, but we also have to, as I said, to get this balance between being prepared, having the planning and informing the appropriate authorities and on the other hand, avoiding unnecessary panic, because as you said in the programme as well, in the film earlier, panic is as large an element, the fear of all this is as large an element of the weapon of terrorism as the actuality. HUMPHRYS: And the trouble is that fear grows in a vacuum, doesn't it, and many people, as our poll showed, many people feel they're simply, in spite of what you've just said, there simply is not enough information out there. We weren't for instance able to talk to the Metropolitan Police. Okay, they might say, well, operational details. Don't want to ask about that. What we want though, is we want more information, and people feel we're not getting enough of it. REID: Well, if that is a true feeling, then I can reassure them that the degrees of information that's being supplied is actually quite fulsome. As I said, we have, from the top, I sit on the Civil Contingencies Committee, sometimes called part of the Cobra Unit which sits on the leadership, brings together all the emergency services, the Police, the Security Forces, leading Ministers, we compile and analyse and correspond with Americans and others and with their own authorities on what sort of measures we would have to take. We give that information out to local authorities, to public authorities, to civil contingency planners local, to directors of health. If people want specific information on say, anthrax, that has already been published by the Home Office, it's also available incidentally on the Home Office web-site. Last week we sent information to GP's, if people feel that in any way they have been in a position, for instance, with the recent spate of warnings, in contact with anthrax, the message is actually very simple, immediately get in touch with emergency services and your GP because the information has been passed out to them. HUMPHRYS: But tell me why you couldn't do this. You might say this is a panic measure. Many people would say it would be very sensible to send out a leaflet, stick a leaflet through everybody's door, saying look, we don't want to panic you, but these are the threats. This is our assessment of those threats and given that x, y or z might happen, here is what you ought to do in those circumstances. Wouldn't that be sensible? REID: Let's ask whether it would be sensible John. Let's say, we take your programme. In eight minutes you've managed to describe a range of threats from nuclear attack, through pneumonic plague, through bubonic plague, anthrax, bombing, we know those threats which could be levelled against the Channel Tunnel, the London Underground, we could have planes flying into buildings - I mean the idea that we should inundate people with sufficient information to enable them to cope with every conceivable threat I think is one that in the balance is more likely to cause panic and fear than it is to elicit ....... Information. HUMPHRYS: Ah but you're not, that's not a fair comparison, is it, because, as you said to me earlier in the programme, you don't think it's at all likely that they will get hold of nuclear weapons. So you dismiss that... REID: ...well let's take anthrax then John... HUMPHRYS: ...fine, okay, but if we were to take... REID: ...should we make information available in what people should do in the case of an anthrax attack? Yes we should. Is it available? Yes it is. HUMPHRYS: Well when you say available, I mean, yes you can go to your doctor, but we don't want to trouble our doctors with things like that... REID:, no, it's also available, it's available in a range of ways through the Home Office, including, for those who have it, their web-site. HUMPHRYS: ...for those who have it... REID: ...not everyone has it. Then they can get the web-site in leaflet form. HUMPHRYS: Well, can they? REID: ...but what you're suggesting is, I think, going a bit too far in the balance, which is to put through everyone's door immediately, every time there is a threat or a hoax threat, or a suspicion of a threat... HUMPHRYS: I wasn't saying that... REID: Well, I mean you would have to do it to meet the question that you ask me. What I am saying is, that we are vigilant, that we are well prepared, that we are informing local contingency planners, that we are informing doctors, that we are giving the information out to the emergency services and that we are making it available in specific cases, where there have been the actuality of threat, but we think the threat is higher for instance on anthrax. The second thing we're doing I think which is worth mentioning... HUMPHRYS: do, sorry can I just stop you there for one second. You think the threat is higher for anthrax. Now that, I may be mistaken, but that's the first time I've heard a minister say that, that you think there is a higher threat from anthrax. REID: Well I'm basing that on the fact that there already been anthrax attacks in the United States. HUMPHRYS: Fine. REID: So it makes sense, I mean, if you ask me, should we put through people's door what they should do in the event of a nuclear attack by terrorists, or an anthrax attack by terrorists, presumably you'd think there would be a higher requirement to publish information on anthrax, which is why, which is why John if you'll let me finish, we have it published. We have it published through the Home Office. However, what it also means, that, that those people when it relates to a slightly different but important issue, that those people who are causing unnecessary threats and unnecessary panics, for instance the hoax... HUMPHRYS: years thing, yes. REID: ...they have to be stopped as well because they are causing panic, misery, fear, wasting thousands of hours of policemen's time, and also taking up the emergency services. HUMPHRYS: Yeah, I'm sure everybody would agree with that, but you mentioned preparation there. Forty per cent of the people we polled were not at all sure that we are sufficiently prepared. Are we? REID: Well I believe that we are both vigilant and well prepared. You know these are a matter of judgement, but I can assure you that an enormous amount of effort has gone in - before incidentally - the Eleventh of September, because as I said, the basic analysis and defensive mechanisms against biological and chemical warfare through terrorism were issued in March Two Thousand, which is some time ago. But obviously after what we saw on the Eleventh of September we have updated that, and indeed we issued further guidance a month later on the Eleventh of October to the relevant authorities, and only last week we issued on specific threats, for instance anthrax, we issued further information to the medical profession, to GPs, but of course, of course we will continue to update it, of course there's a lot going on continually, and of course we're in contact with experts outside of the United Kingdom. For instance, we're in almost constant contact with the appropriate authorities in the United States and with other allies, so yes, people are right to expect us to be vigilant and to be well prepared and we will do that to the best of our ability, and as regards one of your contributors who said, well, look we may need more money for this - if more money is necessary for that then we'll find the resources. HUMPHRYS: You will, Okay, I was going to ask you about that, fine, so you will find that money. Right, let me ask you.... REID: This is the protection of our citizens and the first and primary duty of government is to protect its citizens, this is why we're engaged in the war against terrorism, that's the root cause of that threat. HUMPHRYS: So therefore we ought to be able to assume didn't we, that there will be enough stocks to deal with any potential biological attack. So let's take for instance smallpox. Now, the government's position on this when asked by the media are there enough doses, is to say: we're not going to say because that would help terrorism. Well, that's a bit odd isn't it because it would help them only if we knew there were not enough doses and we have to assume if the minister won't answer the question that maybe there aren't enough doses. REID: Well John we are on over a range of potential threats that we discussed in the programme, and we can run through them all in detail again, but many of them are biological, we believe that we are well prepared and we believe that we've been vigilant. However, what we're not going to do is to go down the line of giving out details of batches and volumes of specific antidotes or specific remedies or specific inoculations, we're not going to say where they are, we're not going to .... Because that information is actually valuable to terrorists. If we were to give a list of on one particular thing, anthrax, or smallpox, or pneumonic plague or anything else, if we were to tell you exactly what was in stock as regards that, that is a prime indicator to the terrorists of where we are well prepared, and perhaps where we are less well prepared than in other instances. HUMPHRYS: Right so you're saying that we may not be well prepared in some cases? REID: No, what I'm saying John is that I'm sure that your viewers will understand exactly why we're not going to say how many we have, where they are situated, how we're developing them, how we've been acquiring them, how long they will last, how often we're updating them, because to give that sort of information out is obviously of assistance to potential terrorists, and that is I think what Alan Milburn has been saying, but he's qualified it by saying that we believe that we are well prepared for the range and the eventuality of potential threats against us, and we also believe that we're putting out sufficient information to allow people in this country to be reassured without causing panic or fear. HUMPHRYS: Right, to be absolutely clear. I was certainly not asking you where they are, that would be a daft thing to do as you say. Northern Ireland - because of course you're Northern Ireland's secretary. Has September the Eleventh and everything that's happened since then changed the IRA's attitude towards decommissioning, to the extent that we might expect decommissioning to happen soon, and I mean perhaps within the next few weeks? REID: I certainly hope it has changed people's attitudes. I think there are people within the Republican movement who have always believed that they should go down an exclusively democratic path. When I say always I mean in the past few years. There may have been others who were convinced that this wasn't necessarily true that somehow they could go back to the bomb and the bullet and Semtex and blowing up Canary Wharf. If they believe that after September the Eleventh, then I think they're living in a totally unreal world. Now, as far as the general question is concerned, everyone knows what we've go to do. It is now time critical in Northern Ireland. There is very little time left, and we have to see the question of arms resolved, and we also want to see the long-term stability of the institutions. If we could get the question of arms resolved, the putting of arms beyond use in the critical time that we have left, then I believe we can see a virtuous circle created, David Trimble has already said that his ministers would go back into government. We have already said as a government that we want to see our adoption in the military presence in Northern Ireland, we want to carry forward reform of policing, we want to do the same in criminal justice, but we need that indispensable part of the Belfast Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement,. and that is arms put beyond use. HUMPHRYS: John Reid, thank you very much indeed for joining us today. REID: Thank you John.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.