The Times March 27, 2006

Britain's FBI casts its net from opium farmer to street dealer
By Sean O’Neill and Frances Gibb

POLICE with wide-ranging powers of search, seizure, arrest and interrogation — described as Britain’s FBI — go into action a week today against international gangsters.

Officers of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca), based at secret locations across the country, will have the combined powers of police, immigration and customs officers and will be able to conduct widespread surveillance and intelligence-gathering, strike Queen’s Evidence deals with informants, seize criminal assets and bar suspects from Britain.

Soca, which comes into being at the weekend when the Serious Organised Crime Act becomes law, will draw up lists of criminal suspects and monitor their movements and associations around the world.

It will be officially inaugurated at 10 Downing Street next Monday by Tony Blair.

The Government has set Soca’s two priority targets as the trafficking of heroin, cocaine and crack, and the smuggling of people for exploitation as cheap labour and in the sex industry.

But Soca’s brief is to clamp down on the full range of organised crime, including fraud and money laundering. It will sweep away the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service and take over key functions of the customs and immigration services.

When fully operational it will have more than 4,000 officers and staff ranging from armed units to electronics surveillance experts and financial analysts based at 46 secret offices around Britain and with a size-able contingent overseas.

The agency’s chairman, Sir Stephen Lander, once head of MI5, and its director-general, Bill Hughes, former head of the National Crime Squad, will work at an unidentified building in Whitehall.

The Crown Prosecution Service has established three teams of prosecutors to work hand-in-hand with Soca from the beginning of each operation to the conclusion of a trial.

One of the most powerful weapons in the Soca armoury will be the authority to make written agreements with suspects who testify against leading figures in crime syndicates. The deals will be made known to judges and juries.

The increased use of Queen’s Evidence powers requires an enhanced witness protection programme to safeguard those who give evidence.

Soca officers will also be given the power to compel witnesses to answer questions, disclose information and hand over documents.

The use of Financial Reporting Orders could require convicted offenders to disclose details of their financial affairs for up to 20 years.

“Organised crime is very difficult to crack but we hope these provisions will keep the criminals looking over their shoulders and increase the sense of insecurity,” said Jenny Hopkins, head of the CPS London organised crime division.

Alison Saunders, national head of the CPS team, said there was no prospect of “grasses” getting off lightly.

She said: “This should not be seen as a ‘free for all’ for criminals, because it isn’t. It’s about tackling crime at the highest level, which is where it is really going to hurt.”

The agency intends to operate in a support role for police forces in major criminal inquiries but a key function in its initial stages will be gathering intelligence.

A senior source said: “Information is the lifeblood of this business. The picture of organised crime in Britain is a bit like a Swiss cheese — full of holes. We need to build up a fuller picture of the whole business, all the way from the opium farmer in Afghanistan to the heroin dealer on the streets of Britain.”

Soca will also adopt disruption tactics to wreck planned criminal operations. This may involve arresting suspects for lesser offences at an early stage of an investigation or acting on intelligence to issue public warnings highlighting the dangers of new types of activity devised by gangs.