Robert Fisk: Talking terror plots over tea with former Met top cop
Not long after the 34-day Hizbollah-Israel war in 2006 - in which Israel reached its now almost routine scorecard of killing about 1,300 Lebanese, most of them civilians (the Hizbollah killed 130 Israelis, most of them soldiers) - I received a long letter from a man called Blair.
Not Lord Blair of Isfahan (as he now must be called) but Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Britain's top cop who was forced to resign by Boris Johnson.
Blair's letter invited me to drop round to Scotland Yard for "a cup of tea" when I was next in London. This was too good to miss. Blair had been upset by my column of August 12 2006. I had been very unfair, he wrote, to his deputy, Paul Stephenson - today, the commissioner - who had been boasting at a press conference that week about smashing the biggest terrorist ring in the history of terror.
He had stopped multiple bombers from blowing themselves up in airliners over the Atlantic. My problem was that as I watched Stephenson blathering away on the BBC there was some real terror being perpetrated by Israel in Beirut. I would love frankly, I wrote, to have Paul and his lads out in Lebanon to stop some real-life terror - which might, perhaps, be connected to "terror plots" in Europe - if, of course, they had the spittle for it.
Thus came Blair's letter. But what made it even odder was that when I eventually passed by London, there was no mention of Paul Stephenson. It was as if the matter had quite slipped Blair's mind. We agreed to speak off the record, but since Blair has written what his publishers call his "inside story", I see no reason why I shouldn't recall our meeting.
The word torture came up. Blair was chewing over a very serious moral problem. He said he was troubled by acting on intelligence information from Pakistan which may have been obtained by means that the Met would not encourage. The security lads in Lahore, Pindi or Karachi are quite capable of taking out bits of a man's genitals with a razor and this even the Met would not permit. (We shall come to a certain Jean Charles de Menezes later.) "I get information," Blair said to me, "and we find the guns in London exactly where the Pakistanis said they would be. So what am I to do? Ignore what I'm told and place the lives of Londoners in danger? No, I have to act on this information."
But does he give information to the Pakistanis, I asked? Blair said he had absolutely no contact with them. But there was a regular meeting, was there not - a unit called the Joint Terrorist Analysis Centre - at which MI5 and MI6 and the Met and GCHQ and Blair himself took part? Was he not giving information to our security services who then handed it over to the Pakistani boys in blue? Blair muttered: "I'll have to have a think about that one."
Blair had been Commissioner during the 7/7 bombings of 2005 - the inquest, of course, started this week - and he had some concerns about how young Britons whose families originated in Pakistan were behaving.
I could see Blair's problem. He was a diversifier, a liberal - and thus hated by the Daily Mail - and he ended up trying to find out if the diversification of Britain had gone wrong. He got on badly with most newspapers, rowed with his fellow cops and finally got chopped down by Boris.
Maybe it was the de Menezes case that had depressed Blair. De Menezes was an innocent Brazilian who was shot dead on the Tube by police officers on the grounds that he was a suicide bomber. So as I stood up, I asked Blair: De Menezes? "I think your paper got it right at the time," he said. "Your headline was, 'In the wrong place. At the wrong time'. That's it - and it will happen again!"
I won't forget that last remark. As John Gordon used to say in the old, old Sunday Express: makes you sit up a bit, doesn't it?