Undercover police to carry guns in response to terror threat
Police marksmen have also been given the green light to use unmarked cars for firearms operations in another move aimed at better protecting the public from the threat of suicide bombers.
Security experts last night welcomed the development, saying it could help avoid potentially fatal confusion and delay in anti-terror operations where plain-clothes surveillance teams track suspects while uniformed firearms officers wait out of sight.
It is believed that under the Scottish plan – dubbed "covert physical detention" – firearms officers in civilian clothing will be able to keep in very close, constant contact with suspects and, in extreme cases, open fire at a time and place that reduces the risk to innocent civilians.
But critics of the new policy complained that it had been introduced without public consultation and warned it could increase the risk to the public and even result in separate firearms units opening fire on each other.
The revelation follows anti-terror raids across the north-west of England last week, in which a dozen men were rounded up.
Scotland on Sunday can reveal that with the assessment of the terror threat north of the border remaining at "severe", Strathclyde's chief constable, Stephen House, and his force executive recently approved the new policy of plain-clothes firearms officers and their use of unmarked cars.
Tactical firearms and armed response units have been in uniform since their creation in the 1980s and, until now, have always travelled in marked police vehicles. Insiders confirmed the new tactic would allow armed officers, disguised as members of the public, to trail dangerous individuals.
Previously unarmed surveillance officers, should they have needed armed support, would have had to wait for uniformed colleagues to arrive. A former senior firearms officer said: "Basically, we are talking about the boys going into civvies."
One source close to UK special forces said: "This is a considerable departure. Plain-clothes armed officers have previously only been used in extreme circumstances where there is a major threat, such as Northern Ireland or the Middle East. Scotland, until two years ago – at Glasgow Airport – had never really had a terrorist incident and this is a sign that things have changed."
Strathclyde, which covers almost half the population of Scotland, yesterday declined to comment on its tactics.
Some police insiders, however, have long argued for plain-clothes armed officers to return. One advocate is Graeme Pearson, the former director of the Scottish Crime and Drugs Enforcement Agency. Pearson, now a professor at Glasgow University's Institute for the Study of Serious Organised Crime, said: "This seems to me to be a safer option for intervention, which will allow officers to have a greater level of control over a situation and, hopefully, allow them to do so without using violence."
Bill Aitken, the Conservatives' justice spokesman, said: "This is unfortunately a sign of the times."
His Labour counterpart, Richard Baker, said: "I think that people will recognise that sometimes the police have to use covert tactics."
The Liberal Democrats' Robert Brown said: "This is a policy issue on which there should be consultations with the police board and government.
"Politicians, who are answerable to the public, should be able to express views on this."
Patrick Harvie, the Green Glasgow MSP, said: "I think, for the sake of police accountability, they should be consulting on changes like this."
Brown and Harvie were backed by John Scott, a lawyer specialising in civil liberties, who said: "It may well be that covert armed officers need to be available. But let's talk about it. Surely this is something for Parliament to debate?"
One security insider warned the use of plain-clothes firearms teams brought new risks. The source stressed that undercover armed officers would have to work extremely carefully to avoid being mistaken for suspects during any operation involving more than one agency.
Last night, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said: "These are clearly operational matters for individual police forces, however we support them in ensuring they have the appropriate levels of security to respond to any potential threat to the public.
"The Glasgow Airport bombing showed that Scotland needs to be ever vigilant, and the police need to be in a position to protect our communities from such incidents."
Confirmation that the force had adopted two separate but related policies, the introduction of unmarked vehicles and the adoption of "covert physical detention", was inadvertently posted on Strathclyde's website last week.
Yesterday, a judge gave police another week to question 11 of the 12 men seized in Wednesday's terror swoops. The 12th man, an 18-year-old, has been handed over to the UK Border Agency, which will decide whether or not to deport him.