In February 2010 The Guardian’s resident spook watcher, Richard Norton-Taylor, reported that the serving head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, had been forced in 2008 to confess to the credulous and compliant Intelligence and Security Committee in Parliament that the spies had lied, yet again, about their complicity in torture.
This confession came shortly after the ISC had released its “authoritative” report about rendition and torture, asserting that there had been no such complicity. How did the ISC get this so utterly wrong?
It turns out that in 2006 Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller, Evans’s predecessor in the MI5 hot-seat, had misled the ISC about MI5’s awareness of the use of torture against terrorist suspects, particularly the hapless Binyam Mohamed, whose case was wending its way through the British courts. Bullying-Manner (as she is known in the corridors of power) appears to have been covering up for her predecessor, Sir Stephen Lander, who was quoted in The Telegraph in March 2001 as saying “I blanche at some of the things I declined to tell the committee [ISC] early on”.….
Yesterday, however, he seems to be back-tracking frantically. Following an interview by the BBC with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf appearing to confirm that MI5 did indeed turn a blind eye to the use of torture, Richard Norton-Taylor and other members of our esteemed Fourth Estate are once again quoting Baroness Manningham-Buller’s dicredited li(n)es to the ISC as gospel truth, and forgeting both the serving head of MI5’s unavoidable confession and the evidence from the Mohamed court case itself.
The ISC was put in place following the 1994 Intelligence Services Act as a democratic fig-leaf: it is not a fully-functioning, independent oversight committee, as it is only able to report on matters of spy policy, finance and administration. It has no powers to investigate properly allegations of crime, torture or operational incompetence, is unable to demand documents or interview witnesses under oath, and is appointed by and answerable only to the Prime Minister. It has been lied to by the spies and senior police time and time again — the very people it notionally oversees. As I have written before, the ISC has since its inception failed to address many key intelligence matters of the day, instead spending its time nitpicking over details.
In the face of this utter lack of intelligence accountability and transparency, is it any wonder that sites like Wikileaks have caught the public’s imagination? Wikileaks is an obvious and necessary reaction to the endemic secrecy, governmental back-scratching and cover-ups that are not only wrong in principle in a notional democracy, but have also resulted directly in illegal wars, torture and the erosion of our traditional freedoms.