ANALYSIS: COUNTERING TERRORISM: The Fear, the Warnings and How a Nation Was Placed on High Alert ; the Code Is Black Special, the Danger Clear and Present. but How Good Is Our Intelligence Network, and How Much Do We Really Know?

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LAST WEEK, the Home Secretary published what he thought was a carefully worded, sober assessment of the threat posed by the al- Qa'ida network.

Instead, in a classic Westminster gaffe, an earlier - and racier - draft copy was handed over to reporters, only for embarrassed officials to ask for it back 30 minutes later.

The next day, David Blunkett was treated to sensational headlines - based, of course, on the first document - warning that Islamic fanatics could attack using nuclear "dirty bombs" and poisonous gas. The blunder highlighted a dilemma faced by the Government: how much, if any, intelligence should they share with the public on terrorism issues.

It was a theme that Tony Blair spoke about on Monday, saying he wanted to warn people without alarming them.

The Prime Minister argued that if he acted upon every piece of raw intelligence that flowed across the desks of the security services almost daily, he would constantly have to shut roads, railways, airports, shopping centres, factories, and military bases.

In a further example of possible scaremongering, the Government was forced to try to quell fears of an imminent terror attack on cross-Channel ferries after news emerged that Dover and other ports had been warned to be extra vigilant. The Home Office Minister John Denham said there had not been any overall increase in the state of alert and the public did not need to alter travel plans in response to the advice.

The British intelligence business is a vast, complex piece of machinery, which according to some is among the best in the world, while others argue that it is more art than science.

The Security Service, MI5, is the lead agency in providing counter- terrorism threat assessments, and offers a range of intelligence packages from highly sensitive information on national security directly to the Prime Minister to details about organised crime issues to chief constables. Depending on the sensitivity of the information, the assessments are sent either by hand or electronically via secure e-mails.

Within MI5, G branch, the international terrorism section, assesses intelligence coming from abroad. Among the sources of information about al-Qa'ida and possible terrorist targets are MI6 agents and the eavesdropping centre, the Government Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham. GCHQ monitors communications, such as phone calls, between terrorist suspects.

Information also comes from embassies throughout the world, the American National Security Agency, the CIA and European security services.

The most sensitive MI5 reports, known as Security Service Reports, are sent to a limited audience, including Downing Street, cabinet ministers and a select group of permanent secretaries in the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and Home Office.

Whitehall uses a system of colour codes to warn of the level of threat to the nation. The highest level is red, used when there is intelligence of an immediate attack. The second highest level is orange, which is used when there is knowledge of an imminent attack, but the target is unknown. Since 11 September, the country has been placed on orange alert on several occasions. "Black special" - the current level - is when the country is believed to be under threat but there is no intelligence to suggest it is imminent. The lowest stage is black.

Running in parallel with MI5's work, the Cabinet Office's Joint Intelligence Committee makes assessments for the Government. …