Be careful: too safe can too easily end up sorry

I am not paranoid. It is just that people out there are trying to scare me and I am not sure who they are. Some have Semtex and ricin, dirty bombs and dirtier intentions. Others have fragile budgets, turf wars and blame-aversion. I know that one is foe and the other friend, but their impact on my daily life is increasingly hard to distinguish.

Britain is on a "high" state of alert against an attack from Muslim terrorists. The threat is only one step below "imminent". The security services claim to be deluged with material from agents and intercepts, suggesting that Britain is a leading target for an al-Qaeda set on death and destruction. This group was neither suppressed nor deterred, as some promised, by the Afghan and Iraq wars. As others feared, they appear no less dangerous.

Like many journalists, I am given occasional tastes of these threats. But neither I, nor any member of the public, has a way of giving them weight. We know that a rudimentary ricin plant has been discovered and a shoe-bomber caught on a plane out of London. We know that bombers attacked Western targets in Bali, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. There must be some danger of a repetition in London.

There is no science of risk assessment. We must rely on those we trust, but that depends on trust being plausible. Yesterday the Government published its Civil Contingencies Bill. It aims to update Britain's emergency responses from a time when civil defence was on a par with Boy Scouts, Women's Institutes and Dad's Army. This makes sense. Yet if the al-Qaeda threat was as serious as is now implied, surely the Bill should have been raced through Parliament a year ago.

Tony Blair remarked in a grim Guildhall speech last year that government must beware of doing the terrorist's job for him. One night last February I gather he was warned that next morning he would find a massive two-storey concrete barrier round the entire Palace of Westminster, protecting it from a car bomb. Nobody had dared countermand such a blatant publicity coup for al-Qaeda. Mr Blair had to countermand it himself.

The same week the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, was summoned to a ministerial meeting and told that ministers wanted to stop a Tube train in rush hour under the Bank of England with 400 army cadets aboard playing dead, to see how long it would take to evacuate them. Incredulous transport staff said the answer was easy, it would take most of the day and create millions of pounds worth of chaos. Talk about doing the terrorist's job for him. Yesterday Whitehall floated the madcap idea again, to show "something being done".

When President Eisenhower left office in 1960 at the height of the Cold War, he gave the Western world a remarkable warning. It was not against the might of the Soviet Union but against the "unwarranted influence . . . of a military-industrial complex" which he had watched emerge during his time as soldier and President. With access to the vast resources of the State, that complex could lead to "a disastrous rise of misplaced power". The warning has echoed down the ages.

A similar power is emerging today. It is of the "terrorist-security complex". It smothers public life in risk-aversion and spends hundreds of millions of pounds on buildings, consultants and human protection. Downing Street has become a concrete bunker. The entire current increase in London police, 1,000 officers, has been diverted to counter terrorism.

Now the complex is acquiring its own political dimension. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, demands new powers by the month. The security agencies are being drawn into the open. On Monday the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, made an astonishing speech for a body whose essence used to be discretion and the nuancing of judgment. She warned the public that it was "only a matter of time" before al-Qaeda launched an attack, which "could be" chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear.

Bizarrely denying "undue alarmism", Ms Manningham-Buller declared with all the pomp of her office that al-Qaeda "poses significant new challenges for government and society in general". It was capable of doing "real harm to our way of life".

At this point I long for a Joint Intelligence Committee of my own, to assess the jumbled signals and other espionage emanating from Whitehall. The murmur is that all hell is going to break loose when Parliament's two committees on Iraq intelligence complete their reports, cross-checked with their US counterparts. It is abundantly clear that someone sold Downing Street duff goods about Iraq's weapons programme last year. Whatever the conduit, this probably originated in highly suspect imigri sources linked to the Iraqi National Congress. No 10 may have "cherry-picked" the intelligence - Robin Cook's colourful phrase - but there had to be cherries for the picking. Who grew them?

Whitehall agencies are instinctively drawing their wagons into a circle. Friendly journalists are briefed. Alarmist speeches are given. Up goes the hysteria meter. Hence the concrete barriers creeping across London. Hence the ubiquity of police with machineguns. Mr Blair is about to win his presidential jet. The terrorist-security complex goes where even egotism fears to tread.

The British citizen is left completely in the dark. The threat may be real, but the jockeying for position yields no "news you can use". Does Ms Manningham-Buller want me to go to work in a decontamination suit or with syringes in my bag? I do not know. Do the past six months of stories amount to agencies crying wolf, or should I really avoid Heathrow and the Tube and advise all tourists to head home? Of course, I want to be safe rather than sorry, but how safe is sensible and how sorry is stupid?

Last week, while No 10 and its feuding agencies were hogging the headlines, a 1,600lb car bomb was seized outside Londonderry. It probably belonged to the Real IRA and was destined for London, where its impact would have been catastrophic. The seizure was the outcome of good policing and intelligence. The IRA threat remains real and the forces of law and order coped with it: no fuss, no alarmism. That is what I call security.

I have no doubt that the al-Qaeda threat is also real. Muslim extremism is ruthless, gives no warning and uses suicide as a means of delivery. I expect the Government to protect me from this, as it protects me from the all too evident Real IRA. So far I have been protected. But that cannot have derived from the relentless scaremongering, which rather boosts my sense of insecurity. As Mr Blair himself suggests, such scares merely give terrorists the running bonus of publicity. They are products of the terrorist-security complex.

Ms Manningham-Buller claims to know of a threat that "challenges government and society in general" and would do "real harm to our way of life". I do not believe her. AlQaeda commits acts of violence, sets off bombs and kills people. But this is not the Cold War. It is not an enemy that had enslaved half Europe and threatened the West with nuclear winter. Even Whitehall's latest "threat of the week", a radiological caesium chloride bomb in Bishopsgate, would kill only those next to it and cause a one-in-seven "increased risk of cancer" at 200 yards downwind. This is nasty but hardly "massive destruction".

The weapons at present marshalled against us do not conceivably "challenge British government or society" let alone threaten "the British way of life". What a miserable view Ms Manningham-Buller and her colleagues must have of British democracy and society to think so. I have more faith in their resilience, and suspect the motives of those who publicly doubt it.

What threatens the British way of life at present is not terrorism but the public response to it. The terrorist-security complex is driving forward a hyperbolic, risk-averse, "health-and-safety" culture that infuses every British home and workplace, every enterprise and relationship. It is dangerous. According to the police, street crime in London is now rising again because so much police time and effort are being diverted from normal duties. Hyper-safe is unsafe. It distorts priorities and confuses leadership.

I pay my taxes to be kept secure, not to get a lecture on insecurity. Last week in Londonderry I got value for money. This week in London I am not so sure.