Britain to Probe Alleged Bugging of Lawmaker

British Justice Secretary Jack Straw will investigate allegations that officials eavesdropped on a conversation between a Muslim member of Parliament and a man imprisoned while awaiting extradition to the U.S. to face terrorism charges.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's report next on an investigation in Britain that highlights that old balancing act between security and civil liberties. It turns on two friends. One is a man wanted in the U.S. on terrorism charges. The other is a British member of Parliament. And it's come out that British officials may have bugged a conversation between the two men. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: Sadiz Khan and Babar Ahmad were childhood friends who grew up together in South London the sons of Pakistani immigrants. But their lives took very different paths. Khan became a leading human rights lawyer and then a member of Parliament; Ahmad became an IT specialist, but he was arrested in 2004 on a U.S. extradition warrant that charged him with running several Web sites used to recruit members for al-Qaida and the Taliban. Khan visited Ahmad in prison before Khan was elected to Parliament, when bugging might have been acceptable. But he also visited Ahmad after he became an MP, in which case bugging would not have been allowed. Former Chief of Defense Intelligence Sir John Walker say sometimes such bugging is necessary.

Sir JOHN WALKER (Former British Chief of Defense Intelligence): We're living in a democracy that is under threat, and democracy gives us many freedoms - freedom of movement, speech and privacy and so forth. But what it also does, it gives those advantages equally to the terrorists. And if you're going to beat a terrorist threat of the nature of al-Qaida, your primary weapon system against that terrorism is intelligence. And you cannot do intelligence with one hand tied behind your back.

GIFFORD: Many Britons have been shocked by revelations of exactly how many people are now monitored by the state. Police and other authorities made more than 250,000 requests to undertake surveillance in 2006, of which most were approved. But Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil rights group Liberty, says the actions present a serious threat to the whole concept of justice in Britain.

Ms. SHAMI CHAKRABARTI (Director, Liberty): Now, if people no longer trust conversations with their lawyer because they think they're not safe, because they think they're being listened to or they think that their lawyer won't generally respect the confidence, then it really does put their ability to mount their defense into serious question. Of course, if you can't have fair trials, you know, the whole system of justice really begins to fall away.

GIFFORD: Today, a London lawyer has come forward and said that he has seen a police transcript of a phone conversation he had with a client in prison two years ago. The client was not linked to any charges of terrorism. It shows, says the lawyer, that bugging is not just of MPs but is much more widespread than the government has admitted.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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