Hillsborough: Anatomy of a disaster brought on by a failure in public service

The 1989 tragedy in which 96 Liverpool fans died while attending a football match in the North of England might to some distant observers sound like a local story of concern primarily to the bereaved and their fellow citizens, but what happened in Sheffield that day speaks to the wider issue of state powers and responsibilities as they are exercised in every democracy.

During an era in which politicians never tire of speaking solemnly about their duty for protecting national security against the threat of terrorism, the task of providing public safety now (as in the past) has much less to do with thwarting foreign and domestic threats, than it does with an ongoing commitment to public service. In turn, serving ordinary people hinges on viewing and treating them with respect.

The victims at Hillsborough were betrayed by authorities (and the media) which placed the protection of their own interests above those they were meant to serve.

The events leading up to the disaster are described in this video:

The Guardian reports: It was a year into these inquests, and 26 years since David Duckenfield, as a South Yorkshire police chief superintendent, took command of the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, that he finally, devastatingly, admitted his serious failures directly caused the deaths of 96 people there.

Duckenfield had arrived at the converted courtroom in Warrington with traces of his former authority, but over seven airless, agonisingly tense days in the witness box last March, he was steadily worn down, surrendering slowly into a crumpled heap. From his concession that he had inadequate experience to oversee the safety of 54,000 people, to finally accepting responsibility for the deaths, Duckenfield’s admissions were shockingly complete.

He also admitted at the inquests that even as the event was descending into horror and death, he had infamously lied, telling Graham Kelly, then secretary of the Football Association, that Liverpool fans were to blame, for gaining unauthorised entry through a large exit gate. Duckenfield had in fact himself ordered the gate to be opened, to relieve a crush in the bottleneck approach to the Leppings Lane turnstiles.

The chief constable, Peter Wright, had to state that evening that police had authorised the opening of the gate, but as these inquests, at two years the longest jury case in British history, heard in voluminous detail, Duckenfield’s lie endured. It set the template for the South Yorkshire police stance: to deny any mistakes, and instead to virulently project blame on to the people who had paid to attend a football match and been plunged into hell. [Continue reading…]

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Hillsborough: At last, the shameful truth is out

By Jared Ficklin, University of Liverpool

Following two years of harrowing evidence, the verdicts in the inquest into the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 are a complete vindication of the 27-year campaign for justice for the 96 victims and their families. It is difficult to imagine the fortitude required to continue their fight for justice against the arrayed institutional might of the police, government and even sections of the media for so long.

But this fight for the truth did not take almost three decades, millions of pounds, and the longest court hearing in UK history because of its complexity. It was because within hours, the South Yorkshire police organised a conspiracy to protect themselves by defaming the dead and injured.

It is now clear that the police did not take blood from children to run alcohol tests or send a photographer to find empty beer cans because they wanted to understand what had really happened. It was simply to find any prop that could support the false narrative that the fans were drunk and abusive and were somehow responsible for their own deaths, and that the police had done their best under the circumstances.

We now know, from evidence heard at the inquest and admissions of senior police officers themselves, that this was so far from reality that the police had to collude to invent evidence. But even that wasn’t enough to hide the truth. There were thousands of fans there that day who knew what really happened – even in an age before everyone carried a phone with a camera, images existed that didn’t tally with the police’s claims.

But at the time the police had the most powerful allies there were: South Yorkshire police had been instrumental in breaking the miners’ strikes in 1984-1985, during which then prime minister Margaret Thatcher deployed them like her army in the north of England. The force also had form for blaming victims: we now know that South Yorkshire police had committed perjury during failed prosecutions of miners following the battle between police and strikers at Orgreave in 1984, and that senior officers were well aware of it and said nothing.

In 1989, the police needed support for their cover-up, and the Conservative government was happy to help. Thatcher herself toured the ground the morning after the disaster, and was aware that privately there were serious questions about the police propaganda, but it didn’t stop her government from backing the police. Her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, relied upon what he was told about the disaster by the police and blamed “tanked-up yobs” for the deaths. “Liverpool,” he later said, “should shut up about Hillsborough.”

[Read more…]

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Hillsborough disaster: Those responsible could face criminal charges

The Guardian reports: Officials implicated in the unlawful killing of 96 Liverpool fans in the Hillsborough disaster could face prosecution for criminal negligence and perjury, Theresa May has said.

The home secretary warned of potential criminal proceedings against police officers and other responsible groups over the 1989 tragedy while speaking in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

Reporting to MPs on the damning findings of the Hillsborough inquests, which gave their verdicts on Tuesday, May said the Crown Prosecution Service would decide later this year whether charges should be brought when two criminal investigations into the disaster were complete.

“It was this country’s worst disaster at a sporting event. For the families and survivors, the search to get to the truth of what happened on that day has been long and arduous,” May said. [Continue reading…]

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It took Barack Obama to crush the Brexit fantasy

Jonathan Freedland writes: o wonder they were desperate that he keep his mouth shut. At his podium in Downing Street Barack Obama flattered his hosts, paid lip service to the notion that the referendum on British membership of the European Union on 23 June is a matter for the British people – and then calmly ripped apart the case for Brexit.

It was the Vote Leavers’ worst nightmare. For years – no, decades – the anti-EU camp has suggested that Britain’s natural habitat is not among its continental neighbours but in “the Anglosphere”, that solar system of English-speaking planets which revolves around the United States. Break free from Brussels and we could embrace our kindred spirits in Sydney, Toronto and especially New York, Washington and Los Angeles. The Brexit camp has long been like the man who dreams of leaving his wife for another woman, one who really understands him.

Obama is that other woman. And today he told the outers their fantasies were no more than that. First in print and then, more explicitly, in person he spelled out that America has no intention of forming some new, closer relationship with a Brexited Britain. On the contrary, a post-EU Britain would be at “the back of the queue” if it sought to agree its own, new trade treaty with the US.

America, he told his British audience – hence his use of “queue”, not “line” – likes the fact that Britain is already married: it works out really well for all three parties involved. His message was unambiguous. Don’t rush into a hasty divorce because you think we’re waiting for you with open arms. We’re not. [Continue reading…]

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Barack Obama: As your friend, let me say that the EU makes Britain even greater

Barack Obama writes: As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices – democracy, the rule of law, open markets – across the continent and to its periphery. The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it. A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.

In this complicated, connected world, the challenges facing the EU – migration, economic inequality, the threats of terrorism and climate change – are the same challenges facing the United States and other nations. And in today’s world, even as we all cherish our sovereignty, the nations who wield their influence most effectively are the nations that do it through the collective action that today’s challenges demand. [Continue reading…]

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Obama says loves Churchill in British row over ‘part-Kenyan’ remark

Reuters reports: U.S. President Barack Obama told Britons on Friday he loved Winston Churchill, rebuffing suggestions that he had disrespected the wartime leader because of a grudge against Britain linked to his Kenyan ancestry.

Obama was visiting London to press Britons to vote to stay in the European Union, and the Churchill issue arose after London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is campaigning for an “Out” vote, brought it up in an article criticizing Obama.

“I love Winston Churchill, I love the guy,” Obama said when asked at a news conference about Johnson’s article.

“Right outside the door of the Treaty Room, so that I see it every day, including on weekends when I’m going into that office to watch a basketball game, the primary image I see is a bust of Winston Churchill,” said Obama, referring to his private office on the second floor of the White House.

“It’s there voluntarily because I can do anything on the second floor,” he said, standing alongside Prime Minister David Cameron, who is leading the “In” campaign.

Obama did not name Johnson, but his remarks were a humiliating put-down for a man who is widely touted as a potential successor to Cameron, especially if voters do opt to leave the EU in a June referendum.

Johnson was accused of racist undertones by an opposition Labour politician over the opening paragraphs of an article he wrote in the Sun newspaper criticizing Obama’s stance on the EU.

In the passage, Johnson speculated about the reasons for the removal of a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office in 2009, during the early days of Obama’s presidency.

“Some said it was a snub to Britain. Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire, of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” Johnson wrote in the mass-market Sun tabloid. [Continue reading…]

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‘It seems that no regime is too despotic for Tony Blair to work for – provided the price is right’

The Daily Mail reports: Tony Blair touted his firm’s services to a dictator for £5.3million a year, the Daily Mail can reveal today.

He made the shameless sales pitch to Nursultan Nazarbayev, offering the Kazakh president his ‘unique personal experience and insights’.

Leaked documents lay bare the former prime minister’s dealings with a regime behind appalling human rights abuses.

It is accused of routinely torturing citizens and massacring 15 defenceless protesters in 2011. The dossier reveals that:

  • A key aide offered Mr Blair’s ‘private strategic advice’ to Mr Nazarbayev only a year after he left No 10;
  • Six years on he was still touting for work in Kazakhstan, despite civil rights fears;
  • The pitch promised Mr Blair would be ‘particularly closely involved’ – for a bigger fee;
  • He rewrote a speech for Mr Nazarbayev to fend off criticism over the 2011 massacre;
  • His firm tried to involve an EU crony in lobbying for the Kazakh regime.

The extent of Mr Blair’s dealings with the former Soviet republic in central Asia raises further questions about his apparent willingness to work with unsavoury leaders.

‘It seems that no regime is too despotic for Tony Blair to work for – provided the price is right,’ said Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen.

‘Since leaving office he has become a gun for hire for all manner of dubious regimes, damaging our reputation around the world.’ [Continue reading…]

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Invasion of Iraq ‘undoubtedly increased the threat’ of terrorist attacks in UK, said then-head of MI5

Richard Norton-Taylor writes: We can confidently make some assumptions about the Chilcot inquiry, whose report has just been delivered to the Cabinet Office for “national security checks”. It will strongly criticise Tony Blair for promising George Bush that the UK would join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 but keeping parliament and the public in the dark; attack ministers, mandarins and top brass alike for allowing Blair to delay military preparations; and damn the catastrophic failure to prepare for the subsequent occupation of the country.

What has received far less attention is the devastating evidence Chilcot heard about the invasion making Britain more vulnerable to terrorism. Blair has always dismissed suggestions that his foreign policy decisions were in any way responsible for encouraging terrorist attacks and “radicalising” young British Muslims as a charge perpetuated by “the left”.

The evidence to Chilcot contradicts his assertion. Lady Manningham-Buller, head of MI5 at the time, bluntly told the inquiry the invasion “undoubtedly increased the threat” of terrorist attacks in Britain.

She said she communicated her view to Blair via Whitehall’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). “The number of plots, the number of leads, the number of people identified, and statements of people as to why they were involved,” all pointed to the increased terrorist threat to the UK. [Continue reading…]

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UK spy agencies have collected bulk personal data since 1990s, files show

The Guardian reports: Britain’s intelligence agencies have been secretly collecting bulk personal data since the late 1990s and privately admit they have gathered information on people who are “unlikely to be of intelligence or security interest”.

Disclosure of internal MI5, MI6 and GCHQ documents reveals the agencies’ growing reliance on amassing data as a prime source of intelligence even as they concede that such “intrusive” practices can invade the privacy of individuals.

A cache of more than 100 memorandums, forms and policy papers, obtained by Privacy International during a legal challenge over the lawfulness of surveillance, demonstrates that collection of bulk data has been going on for longer than previously disclosed while public knowledge of the process was suppressed for more than 15 years.

The files show that GCHQ, the government’s electronic eavesdropping centre based in Cheltenham, was collecting and developing bulk data sets as early as 1998 under powers granted by section 94 of the 1984 Telecommunications Act.

The documents offer a unique insight into the way MI5, MI6, and GCHQ go about collecting and storing bulk data on individuals, as well as authorising discovery of journalists’ sources.

Bulk personal data includes information extracted from passports, travel records, financial data, telephone calls, emails and many other open or covert sources. Often they are “fused” together to help pinpoint suspects. [Continue reading…]

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Offshore in central London — the curious case of 29 Harley Street

The Guardian reports: On 10 November, 2003, Gerry Florent, and Ralph Abercia, plus his son, Ralph Jr, left the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, and drove to the Stirling Club, a high-end private venue just off the Strip. They were to attend separate meetings with Sir Richard Benson, but had met each other that morning, when they were collectively coached on the etiquette expected of them: speak only when spoken to, stand when he comes in. They were happy to comply. This was a man who had bailed out the Queen, after all.

Both Florent and the Abercias wanted the same thing from Sir Richard: money, of which he had plenty. Sir Richard, who was portly, balding and elderly, explained to them that he owned a company named Sherwin & Noble, which was worth billions and was prepared to finance their business projects. At their meetings, the prospective investors received a glossy spiral-bound summary of S&N’s balance sheet, which showed it to be a financial firm of significant size.

Florent wanted $55m to buy land on which to build a hotel in Florida; the Abercias needed $105m for an “aquarium/entertainment complex” in Houston. In return for the money, all Sir Richard asked was that they pay advance fees (two payments of $412,250 each from Florent, and two payments of $787,500 each from the Abercias) to signal their commitment to the projects. If S&N decided not to go ahead with the loans, the fees would be repaid.

The investors left Las Vegas, instructed their lawyers to wire the first tranche of the fees over, and settled down to wait for their money. They waited. And they waited. When they rang or faxed the S&N office in London, they were reassured that there was nothing to be concerned about. But, over the next few months, Florent and his business associates became suspicious. They held off wiring the second half of the fee, and brought in a private investigator, who discovered that S&N, far from being worth billions, was an empty shell company. The glossy booklet detailing its assets had been copied from the banking company HBOS, with the names changed.

Thus, the fraud fell apart. The Abercias, who had wired the whole fee asked of them, were devastated. “That was a lot of money,” Ralph Sr told a local journalist. “We’re still paying the damgum thing back.”

The whole saga had been scripted by a conman named Lal Bhatia. Sir Richard Benson was an actor. He had never rescued Buckingham Palace from foreclosure. The billions and the knighthood were fictitious. S&N had no assets, beyond a registered presence at a house in London – 29 Harley Street. [Continue reading…]

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UK firm ’employed former child soldiers’ as mercenaries in Iraq

The Guardian reports: A former senior director at a British firm says that it employed mercenaries from Sierra Leone to work in Iraq because they were cheaper than Europeans and did not check if they were former child soldiers.

James Ellery, who was a director of Aegis Defence Services between 2005 and 2015, said that contractors had a “duty” to recruit from countries such as Sierra Leone, “where there’s high unemployment and a decent workforce”, in order to reduce costs for the US presence in Iraq.

“You probably would have a better force if you recruited entirely from the Midlands of England,” Ellery, a former brigadier in the British army, told the Guardian. “But it can’t be afforded. So you go from the Midlands of England to Nepalese etc etc, Asians, and then at some point you say I’m afraid all we can afford now is Africans.” He said the company had not asked recruits if they were former child soldiers.

Aegis Defence Services, which is chaired by Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP and Winston Churchill’s grandson, had a series of contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to provide guards to protect US military bases in Iraq from 2004 onwards. From 2011 the company broadened its recruitment to take in African countries, having previously employed people from the UK, the US and Nepal.

Contract documents say that the soldiers from Sierra Leone were paid $16 (£11) a day. A documentary, The Child Soldier’s New Job, to be broadcast on Monday in Denmark alleges that the estimated 2,500 Sierra Leonean personnel who were recruited by Aegis and other private security companies to work in Iraq included former child soldiers. [Continue reading…]

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White Europeans have a problem with otherness

Zia Haider Rahman writes: Twenty years ago, when New Yorkers asked me where I was from, all I’d say is that I grew up in Britain. Mentioning that I was born in Bangladesh drew only more questions, and New Yorkers simply wanted confirmation of what was to them the distinctive cultural marker: my British accent.

That accent was learned from imitating BBC News announcers on a cassette recorder. As a boy, I read about the destruction of millions of Jews and was gripped by fear: If white Europeans could do that to people who looked like them, imagine what they could do to me.

So I adapted, hoping to make myself less alien to these people so ill at ease with difference. I grew up not so long ago in a Britain that spat at nonwhites, beat us and daubed swastikas on walls.

Britain frightens its natives with the specter of a fifth column, and exhorts immigrants to integrate better and adopt British values. Do it and you’ll earn your stripes. But the promise is hollow, for Britain has no intention of keeping its side of the bargain. [Continue reading…]

Zia Haider Rahman read a longer version of this piece last month in Amsterdam.

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David Cameron under pressure to come clean over plans to send British troops to Libya

The Guardian reports: The British government is facing new pressure to publish any plans it has for troop deployments to Libya after it was disclosed that five separate international security operations are being considered for the war-torn country.

EU ministers meet on Monday to discuss sending security units to Tripoli. Other missions in the works include bombing Islamic State fighters, training Libyan troops, combating people smugglers and disarming militias. Most are likely to involve British personnel.

Senior MPs are demanding a statement on what part British forces will play, after foreign secretary Philip Hammond insisted last week that no decisions had been made on any operations.

“Clarity is now overdue. We need transparency about the difficulties and the challenges,” Crispin Blunt, chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told the Observer. “Any deployment would need a parliamentary vote, as would airstrikes on Isis.” [Continue reading…]

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Britain’s covert war in Yemen

Vice News reports: In a rural valley in southern Yemen lies Wadi Rafad, a collection of farms 50 miles from the provincial capital of Ataq. Amid an arid landscape dotted with lemon orchards and cornfields, villagers were used to the peace being disturbed by the buzzing of US drones flying overhead. But on the afternoon of May 6, 2012, something changed.

Around 4.30pm an aircraft came into view, its white fuselage clearly visible against the stark blue sky. Rather than overfly the valley, the CIA drone fired Hellfire missiles straight at Fahd al-Quso, who was working his land. He was killed instantly — but shrapnel from the blast also engulfed Nasser Salim Lakdim, a 19-year-old student who had just returned home to tend his family’s plantation. Nasser’s father came rushing back to the farm to find his son in pieces. “It was horrifying, I can barely describe it,” he told VICE News.

The strike was among the foremost successes of the US counterterrorism effort in Yemen. Al-Quso, its target, was a senior field commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He had participated in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and had threatened to attack American embassies.

It was also an example of successful cooperation between British and American intelligence agencies. The US had hunted al-Quso for half a decade, and the intelligence that led to this strike came from a British agent working for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — commonly known as MI6 — who had infiltrated AQAP.

Far from being a one-off tip, a VICE News investigation can exclusively reveal that this was a high point in systemic collaboration between SIS and the CIA to degrade AQAP through a combination of special forces operations and drone strikes.

A former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen told VICE News that “the most important contribution” to the intelligence for the strike came from “a very important British capability.” The UK agent provided the CIA with al-Quso’s position, allowing a drone to track his car. “That was quite unique,” the former official explained, “it was something we didn’t have.”

The use of drones in Yemen has long been characterized as a unilateral US policy. In response to a 2014 parliamentary question on Britain’s role in the US drone program, UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hugh Robertson said: “Drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments.”

However, following interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, VICE News can reveal that the UK played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. The US-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. [Continue reading…]

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Cash, candy, and ‘collateral damage’: An anatomy of a CIA-MI6 drone assassination

Vice News reports: “I was on my way to play football with my friends when the airstrike hit,” Amin Ali al-Wisabi told VICE News, recounting the day when a CIA drone struck his hometown of Azzan in Yemen. “We had stopped to sit down and plan the match when all of a sudden an explosion hit a passing al-Qaeda car.”

Recovering from his shock, 13-year-old Amin realized he had been hit by shrapnel. “Blood was pouring from my leg.”

Next to Amin, his friend Hamza Khaled Baziyad lay unconscious. In total, five children aged between 10 and 14 were injured as they gathered close to the local mosque.

Though the number of people injured in covert US strikes is not officially recorded, they play a crucial role in the struggle for hearts and minds across Yemen’s southern hinterland. Bystanders and family rushed the children to a local clinic, where Hamza awoke while shrapnel was extracted from his chest. All of the children survived. [Continue reading…]

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