British Spies and Torture

On 30th April, The Guardian newspaper reported that yet another man, picked up in a British counter-terrorism operation in Pakistan, has come forward claiming that he was tortured by the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, with the collusion of British spooks

This is part of a growing body of evidence indicating that British intelligence officers are continuing to flout the law in one of the most heinous ways possible, the prolonged torture of another human being. Allegations have been emerging for years that detainees of notorious camps such as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have heard British voices either during the interrogation sessions or directing the line of questioning. Many of these detainees are also the victims of “extraordinary rendition”, in itself an extraordinarily euphemistic phrase for the kidnapping and transportation of terrorist suspects to Third World countries where they can be held indefinitely and tortured with impunity.

This is a situation that haunts me. I worked as an intelligence officer for MI5 in the 1990s, before leaving to blow the whistle. Perhaps I worked with some of the people now directly involved in torture? Perhaps I was even friends with some of them, met them for drinks, had them round for dinner? How could young, idealistic officers, committed to protecting their country by legal means, make that personal moral journey and participate in such barbaric acts?

These questions ran through my head when, in 2007, I had the honour to meet a gentle, spiritual man called Moazzam Begg. He is a British citizen who went to Pakistan with his family to help build a school. One night, his door was broken down, and he was hooded, cuffed and bundled out of his home by Americans, in front of his hysterical wife and young children. That was the last they saw of him for over 3 years. Initially he was tortured in the notorious Bagram airbase, before ending up in Guantanamo, which he said was a relief to reach as the conditions were so much better. Needless to say, he was released with out charge, and is now suing MI5 and MI6 for compensation. He has also written a book about his experiences and now spends his time helping the campaign, Cage Prisoners.

Britain was the first state to ratify the European Convention of Human Rights, which includes Article 3 – no one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It is impossible for a state to derogate from this article. So how and why has Britain stooped to the level that it will apparently participate in such activity? The “apocalyptic scenario” much loved by apologists of torture, where a terrorist has to be broken to reveal the location of the ticking bomb, occurs only in fantastical TV dramas like “24”, never in real life.

In the 1990s the accepted MI5 position was that torture doesn’t work. This was a lesson the UK security forces had learned the hard way in 1970s Northern Ireland. Then, IRA suspects had been rounded up, interned without trial and subjected to what the Americans would no doubt nowadays call “enhanced interrogation techniques”. But the security forces got it wrong. The vast majority of internees were arrested on the basis of the flimsiest intelligence and had no links whatsoever with the IRA. Well, at least when they entered prison. Internment proved to be the best possible recruiting drive for the IRA.

So why has this thinking changed? I would suggest this is part of a core problem for MI5 – the shroud of secrecy within which it continues to operate and the complete lack of accountability and oversight for the organisation. There is no ventilation, no constructive criticism, no debate. Once a new doctrine has been adopted by the leadership, in slavish imitation of US policy, it rapidly spreads throughout the organisation as officers are told to “just follow orders”. To do anything else is career suicide. This leads to a self-perpetuating oligarchy where illegal or unethical behaviour is accepted as the norm.

Of course, you may well argue that a spy organisation has to operate in secret. Well, yes and no. Of course it needs to protect sensitive operational techniques, ongoing operations and the identities of agents. However, beyond that it should be open to scrutiny and democratic accountability, just as the police anti-terrorism branch is. After all, they do virtually the same work, so why should they be any less accountable?

The tradition of UK spies operating in absolute secrecy is a hangover from the bad old days of the cold war, and is utterly inappropriate to a modern counter-terrorist organisation. Increased openness and accountability is not only essential in a modern democracy, it also ensures that the spies cannot continue to brush their mistakes and criminality under the carpet. Britain deserves better from those charged with protecting its national security.


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