Faithful followers of this website may recollect an earlier blog, “Bicycle bombs: a further enquiry and a new theory”, in which I called attention to the fact that, despite the absence of evidence that anyone-anywhere-ever had been killed by a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle, Westminster police were impounding bicycles parked near Whitehall and Parliament Square on the grounds that they could be bombs. I ventured to describe this behaviour as paranoid.
Through the wonderful grapevine that is the Internet I have just learned of the case of a person of some eminence falling victim to this policy, – twice – and twice being compensated by the police for her broken lock.
Completely independent of my inquiries into the justification of such a policy, she inquired under the Freedom of Information Act how many bicycle bombs had been discovered in London since 2002.
She ran into the stonewall known to the cognoscenti as an NCND reply. The relevant authorities Neither Confirm Nor Deny anything: they had determined they said “that in all the circumstances of the case the public interest in maintaining the exclusion of the duty to neither confirm nor deny outweighs the public interest in confirming or denying whether the information is held.” Yes. Read it again. It’s (sic).
The reply goes on: if they were “to confirm or deny whether the information is held we consider that it would demonstrate the level of awareness that the police and other bodies have within this specific area, which we consider would not be in the interests of national security because it would alert terrorists as to whether or not their activities have been detected.”
Let’’s pick this apart. I have broadcast appeals on the BBC Today Programme, the BBC World Service, and various websites for evidence about the number of people killed, worldwide, by pipe bombs disguised as bicycles. So far the number returned is zero. So, if there have been some unsuccessful ones intercepted by the police or intelligence services, the terrorists will know about them. It must be conceded that there might have been some, like the Detroit underpants bomb, that simply failed to detonate. But whenever the police discover what they believe is a real bomb the event is highly public. Neighbourhoods are evacuated and cordoned off and the bomb squad sent for. In the case of “suspected” bicycle bombs in Westminster the police simply take them to the police station.
Given that the worldwide success rate for bicycle/underpants bombs is, so far, zero we must conclude that the authorities’ reluctance to disclose the information requested by the above mentioned persecuted eminent person is being withheld for reasons of embarrassment. The authorities have no justification for confiscating bicycles. They are simply paranoid.
They have one further argument: “to confirm or deny whether the information is held would increase the fear of crime. This in itself is an objective for those committed to facilitating the cause of terrorism.” Duh!? They publicly treat every bicycle in Westminster as a suspect pipe bomb and then say that to confirm that they know anything about what is going on would make us more fearful.
To disclose what is almost certainly the truth (we can but speculate), that bicycles pose no terrorist threat, and are an environmental and public health boon championed by most other branches of government, would briefly embarrass the Westminster police, but would help to inspire public confidence that the terrorist threat is being confronted with a sense of proportion.
 The “person of some eminence”, while happy to have her encounter publicized, declined to be more precisely described because such persons must not be seen to be rocking boats – “not really the done thing”. Such nervousness highlights a limitation of the Freedom of Information Act: despite the Act much “sensitive” information that ought to see the light of day is still protected by bureaucratic boat-stabilizing solidarity. This story represents a nervous exception.