As Britain Ramps up Security Spending, Experts See Progress, but Also Gaps

LONDON (AP) -- Britain wasn't targeted on Sept. 11, 2001, but the attacks on America forced Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to ponder a troubling question: Could terrorists pull off something similar, or even worse, in London or another of the country's big cities?

The answer, they quickly concluded, was yes. The government began a major overhaul of its intelligence and security efforts, promising to double the pre-9/11 counterterrorism budget by 2008.

In the three years since, analysts say, progress has been slow but steady.

There are still big gaps in Britain's defenses, they believe, but overall the country is better-equipped to prevent or respond to a large-scale terror attack than it was before the assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Home Secretary David Blunkett recently announced 90 million pounds (US$160 million, euro130 million) in new funding for security and readiness in 2005, a boost that came on top of a pledge earlier this year to increase the strength of the MI5 domestic spy agency by 50 percent, or 1,000 new intelligence experts.

Still, protesters who've outsmarted defenses at the country's highest profile landmarks have made security flaws painfully public in recent months.

One group sneaked into the House of Commons and threw purple powder at Blair in May, and another climbed Parliament's famous Big Ben clocktower in March.

Last month, five fox-hunting supporters burst into the Commons while lawmakers were debating. Two days earlier, a father protesting custody rules scaled Buckingham Palace dressed as Batman, and perched on a royal balcony for hours.

``There appears to be a fundamental malaise within our security establishment, and it's being revealed again and again with the failures we've seen at sensitive sites,'' said Charles Shoebridge, a security analyst and former counterterrorism officer. ``It's entirely unacceptable in this day and age.''

Blunkett said the money he announced earlier this month would go to boost the number of officers in the main police anti-terrorism unit, Special Branch, and buy more suits to protect police in a chemical, biological or radiological attack. Officials said the money would also buy communications equipment for emergency workers, including a new radio system.

Experts say some of the funds are also likely to go toward biometric technologies to identify people with scans of physical features like eyes.

The Treasury has said counterterrorism spending _ 950 million pounds (US$1.7 billion, euro1.4 billion) before the Sept. 11 attacks _ would reach 1.5 billion pounds (US$2.7 billion, euro2.2 billion) this year and hit 2.1 billion pounds (US$3.7 billion, euro3 billion) in 2007-08.

When it comes to the key area of intelligence, though, analysts say money can't buy quick success.

Britain is still struggling to reorient spy services that until 9/11 had not moved beyond a Cold War focus on the Soviet Union, they believe.

Long experience with Northern Irish terrorism means Britain has strong, well-organized intelligence agencies, but their lack of knowledge about Muslim militants like al-Qaida will take years, if not decades, to remedy, the experts say.

``We are in a period of attempting to catch up with the deficiencies of the system we inherited,'' said Alex Standish, editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest. ``Building an intelligence network with a global reach from scratch is an enormous undertaking. ... It can take decades.''

He said Britain was still short of interpreters and other Arabic-speakers who might be able to infiltrate terrorist cells.

Standish said that's why Britain has failed to infiltrate two al-Qaida cells it believes are based here, one made up of North Africans and the other of people from the Middle East.

Prosecutors have won few convictions despite hundreds of arrests under strict new anti-terror laws, and Standish said that shows intelligence is not yet as sharp as it needs to be.

But some think efforts to improve communication among intelligence agencies are already making a difference.

Arthur Rabjohn, of security consultants SCS Ltd., said he believed Britain had foiled several real terrorist plots.

Among the cases still under investigation are an alleged plot to use the poison ricin and a ring charged with possessing 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of a fertilizer used in bombs. This summer, police arrested a group of men said to be linked to a U.S. alert about possible attacks on financial targets.

Nonetheless, Blair has said an attack in Britain is inevitable, and the government wants to be ready to respond.

Sandy Bell, director of homeland security research at the Royal United Services Institute, said officials were taking the right steps by proposing sweeping new powers for authorities in an emergency, improving communication between businesses and intelligence agencies and publishing a pamphlet on what to do in case of an attack.

Shoebridge said the government's target of training and equipping five percent of police to respond to a chemical or biological attack was ``woefully inadequate'' and showed officials were not taking preparedness seriously enough.

While Bell agreed progress should have been faster, she praised it as carefully thought out.

``You're trying to turn a supertanker on a penny and change an entire culture of a nation, and that takes time,'' she said. ``So to have achieved anything in three years is quite remarkable.''