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.


Interview with Francis Wheen, 1999

An interview with Francis Wheen of The Guardian, August 1999:

The spy left out in the cold

Fran­cis Wheen on the hound­ing by the author­it­ies of MI5 whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler:

Annie Machon, a former MI5 officer liv­ing in France, came to Lon­don last week. On a pre­vi­ous vis­it, in 1997, she was nabbed at Gatwick air­port by a goon squad from Spe­cial Branch. This time her only ordeal was a couple of hours with me in a Soho café. It was pro­gress of a sort, I sup­pose; but little else has changed​.It is exactly two years since Annie’s part­ner, Dav­id Shayler, hit the head­lines with his com­plaints of mal­prac­tice and incom­pet­ence at MI5. Since then the gov­ern­ment has con­sist­ently refused to heed or
invest­ig­ate his alleg­a­tions, pre­fer­ring to load up its rusty blun­der­buss and shoot the mes­sen­ger.

In his ori­gin­al inter­view with the Mail on Sunday, Shayler exploded the offi­cial myth that MI5 mon­it­ors only those “sub­vers­ives” who wish to “over­throw demo­cracy by viol­ent means”, reveal­ing that, in fact, it kept files on such harm­less pussy­cats as Jack Straw, Peter Man­del­son, Har­riet Har­man and the reg­gae band UB40. The gov­ern­ment was out­raged — not by the evid­ence of spooky skul­dug­gery but by Shayler’s whis­tleblow­ing.

Tony Blair’s spokes­man warned the news­pa­per that “the heav­ies would move in” unless future art­icles were sub­mit­ted to Down­ing Street for vet­ting. When the edit­or refused to obey, the treas­ury soli­cit­or obtained an injunc­tion ban­ning the media from report­ing any fur­ther remarks by Shayler about mis­con­duct or mis­man­age­ment in the secur­ity ser­vice.

Shortly after­wards, at MI5’s request, Spe­cial Branch officers raided the Lon­don flat Shayler had shared with Machon. The search war­rant per­mit­ted them to look for
“evid­ence of an offence under the offi­cial secrets act” — which they inter­preted, rather eccent­ric­ally, as a licence to smash the fur­niture, hurl table lamps to the floor and remove sev­er­al pairs of Machon’s knick­ers.

Then came the absurd pan­to­mime at Gatwick air­port. Machon was obvi­ously not going to put up a struggle: her law­yer had told the police when and where she was due, and she was armed with noth­ing more leth­al than an overnight bag. Nev­er­the­less, Spe­cial Branch
thought it neces­sary to send no few­er than six brutes to hustle her away. This crude intim­id­a­tion con­tin­ued dur­ing six hours of ques­tion­ing at Char­ing Cross police sta­tion, when her inter­rog­at­ors read out love let­ters she had exchanged with Shayler — bil­lets doux that had no con­ceiv­able rel­ev­ance to the Offi­cial Secrets Act.

If Shayler had com­mit­ted a ser­i­ous offence, as Straw main­tained, why were no charges brought against the edit­ors and journ­al­ists who pub­lished his dis­clos­ures? The ques­tion answers itself: bul­lies pick on the power­less, and min­is­ters were reluct­ant to ant­ag­on­ise the mighty Asso­ci­ated News­pa­pers. Instead, the author­it­ies took out their frus­tra­tion by har­ass­ing inno­cent bystand­ers. Shayler’s broth­er, Philip, was detained, as were two of his friends.

Like Machon, they were even­tu­ally released without charge — although not before the police had help­fully informed Philip’s employ­ers that he was wanted in con­nec­tion with “fin­an­cial irreg­u­lar­it­ies”.

From his French exile, Shayler con­tin­ued to press for an inquiry. In Octo­ber 1997, the
gov­ern­ment set up a cab­in­et office review of the intel­li­gence agen­cies to be chaired by John Alpass, a former deputy dir­ect­or of the secur­ity ser­vice. As Shayler points out, Alpass was scarcely a dis­in­ter­ested party, as “any adverse cri­ti­cism of MI5 would have reflec­ted badly on his time there”. Nev­er­the­less, Shayler sub­mit­ted a 6,000-word memo on “man­age­ment prob­lems in MI5”.

The com­mit­tee refused to read it. He was giv­en a sim­il­ar brush-off by the par­lia­ment­ary intel­li­gence and secur­ity com­mit­tee, sup­posedly respons­ible for hold­ing the spooks to

Last sum­mer, in the hope of excit­ing some offi­cial interest, Shayler told the Mail on Sunday that MI6 had secretly paid a Liby­an emigré £100,000 to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Muam­mar Gadafy. Although  the point of Shayler’s rev­el­a­tion was that min­is­ters had neither known nor approved of the plot, Robin Cook felt able to issue an instant deni­al. “I’m per­fectly clear that these alleg­a­tions have no basis in fact. It is pure fantasy.”

Why, then, did the gov­ern­ment refuse to let the MoS pub­lish the art­icle, arguing that it would endanger nation­al secur­ity? And why did Straw imme­di­ately ask France to arrest
and extra­dite Shayler? If the story was fantasy, he hadn’t broken the offi­cial secrets act. If it was true, and Brit­ish intel­li­gence had indeed con­spired to murder a for­eign head of state, then it would not be Shayler who had some explain­ing to do.

Unable to cope with this glar­ing con­tra­dic­tion, his enemies took refuge in invect­ive. “In a
bet­ter world,” the Daily Tele­graph har­rumphed, “Dav­id Shayler and his like… would be horse-whipped.”

After his release from a French jail last Novem­ber, the Sunday Tele­graph came up with an even more extreme solu­tion, point­ing out that if he were a reneg­ade French spy his former employ­ers would prob­ably have killed him. “One won­ders how Shayler would react to being shot at by MI5 agents,” the news­pa­per mused. “But these days,” it added  regret­fully, “MI5 is scru­pu­lous in its obser­va­tion of the let­ter of the law.”

Scru­pu­lous as ever, MI5 tried assas­sin­at­ing his repu­ta­tion instead, let­ting it be known
that he was always regarded in the ser­vice as “a Wal­ter Mitty, a loose can­non” and “a rebel who likes to sail close to the wind”. (The last phrase, incid­ent­ally, came from a school report writ­ten before Shayler had even taken his A-levels.)

Many tame MPs and hacks have repeated these insults without paus­ing to think through their logic. If Shayler is as mani­festly dotty as they claim and yet man­aged to join the fast track at MI5 and win a per­form­ance bonus in his final year, doesn’t this con­firm that the secur­ity ser­vice is indeed run by dan­ger­ous clod­hop­pers, as Shayler claims?

Logic, how­ever, is sel­dom allowed to intrude into this case — except for the deranged logic of Catch 22. Shayler wrote a spy nov­el, The Organ­isa­tion, assum­ing that this at least would be allowed. No such luck.

The treas­ury soli­cit­or con­tac­ted the major Lon­don pub­lish­ers warn­ing that Shayler must not write any­thing, “wheth­er presen­ted as fact or fic­tion, which may be con­strued as relat­ing to the secur­ity ser­vice or its mem­ber­ship or activ­it­ies or to secur­ity or intel­li­gence activ­it­ies gen­er­ally .” (My ital­ics.) In oth­er words, Shayler can’t pub­lish true stor­ies, even if the gov­ern­ment says they are fic­tion; but he can’t pub­lish fic­tion for fear that it might have a ker­nel of truth. And yet oth­er ex-spies — John Le Carre, Ted All­beury — have writ­ten ump­teen nov­els about Brit­ish intel­li­gence without hav­ing injunc­tions hurled at them.

It is barely believ­able in this day and age that a UK cit­izen should have to live in exile for telling the truth — or, if you believe the gov­ern­ment, for mak­ing up stor­ies about the intel­li­gence ser­vices,” Shayler says. “It is doubly dif­fi­cult to accept when we see that this has happened at the behest of a Labour gov­ern­ment.”

Per­son­ally, I don’t find it at all dif­fi­cult: Labour politi­cians have always been suck­ers for cloak-and-dag­ger non­sense. Lest we for­get, it was the last Labour gov­ern­ment that expelled the Amer­ic­an journ­al­ists Philip Agee and Mark Hosen­ball at the behest of MI5, without troub­ling to give any reas­ons, and then tried to jail a col­league of mine from the New States­man for the hein­ous offence of col­lect­ing min­istry of defence press releases. “New” Labour has revived the tra­di­tion by pro­sec­ut­ing a respec­ted defence orres­pond­ent, Tony Ger­aghty, and tor­ment­ing the hap­less Shayler.

Only last month the treas­ury soli­cit­or sent a stern let­ter to Shayler’s law­yers. “Your cli­ent has been writ­ing to vari­ous mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment, enclos­ing a pamph­let which he has writ­ten entitled Secrets and Lies,” he noted. “The dis­clos­ure of this inform­a­tion con­sti­tutes yet a fur­ther breach by your cli­ent of the injunc­tion against him… I am not instruc­ted to deal in detail with the points made by your cli­ent, save to say that his  alleg­a­tions of impro­pri­ety on the part of the secur­ity ser­vice are rejec­ted.”

How can min­is­ters know that the alleg­a­tions are false without both­er­ing to check? Easy: MI5’s dir­ect­or, Steph­en Lander, has assured Straw that everything is tick­ety-boo.

At the height of the Spycatch­er pan­ic, the Brit­ish cab­in­et sec­ret­ary admit­ted that White­hall often found it neces­sary to be “eco­nom­ic­al with the truth”, and there are very few people naïve enough to assume that the pro­fes­sion­al dis­sim­u­lat­ors who run MI5 and MI6 can always be believed. For­tu­nately for Lander, this select band of cred­u­lous oafs includes every seni­or mem­ber of the Labour cab­in­et.

If Dav­id Shayler were a mem­ber of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA, Tony Blair would be happy to nego­ti­ate deals and  indem­nit­ies with him. Since he is merely a pub­lic-spir­ited whis­tleblower who has nev­er murdered any­one, he is con­demned to har­ass­ment, vili­fic­a­tion and indef­in­ite exile.