Sir John Sawers, head of MI6, makes historic public appearance

For the first time in 100 years “C”, the head of the UK for­eign intel­li­gence ser­vice SIS (com­monly known as MI6) has gone public.

Former career dip­lo­mat Sir John Saw­ers (he of Speedo fame) yes­ter­day made a speech to the UK Soci­ety of Edit­ors in what appeared to be a pro­fes­sion­ally dip­lo­mat­ic rear-guard action in response to a num­ber of hot media top­ics at the moment.

Choos­ing both his audi­ence wisely and his words care­fully, he hit on three key areas:

Tor­ture: Leg­al cases are cur­rently going through UK courts on behalf of Brit­ish vic­tims of tor­ture, in which MI5 and MI6 intel­li­gence officers are alleged to have been com­pli­cit.  The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police are cur­rently invest­ig­at­ing a num­ber of cases.  Over the last week, a Brit­ish mil­it­ary train­ing manu­al on “enhanced” inter­rog­a­tion tech­niques has also been made pub­lic. How­ever, Saw­ers unblush­ingly states that MI6 abides by UK and inter­na­tion­al law and would nev­er get involved, even tan­gen­tially, in tor­ture cases.  In fact, he goes on to assert that the UK intel­li­gence agen­cies are train­ing the rest of the world in human rights in this regard.



Whis­tleblow­ing: In the week fol­low­ing the latest Wikileaks coup — the Iraq War Diar­ies, com­pris­ing nearly 400,000 doc­u­ments detail­ing the every­day hor­ror of life in occu­pied Iraq, includ­ing war crimes such as murder, rape and tor­ture com­mit­ted by both US and UK forces — Saw­ers states that secrecy is not a dirty word: the intel­li­gence agen­cies need to have the con­fid­ence that whis­tleblowers will not emerge to in order to guard agent and staff iden­tit­ies, as well as main­tain­ing the con­fid­ence of their inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence part­ners that their (dirty?) secrets will remain, um, secret.  One pre­sumes he is advoc­at­ing against the expos­ure of war crimes and justice for the victims.

This, one also pre­sumes, is the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for US politi­cians who pro­pose cyber-attacks against Wikileaks and the declar­a­tion by some US polit­ic­al insiders that Juli­an Assange, spokes­man of the organ­isa­tion, should be treated as an unlaw­fully des­ig­nated “unlaw­ful com­batant”, sub­ject to the full rigour of extra-judi­cial US power, up to and includ­ing assassination. 

Spuri­ous media claims of unveri­fied “dam­age” are the hoary old chest­nuts always dragged out in whis­tleblower cases.  After Wikileaks released its Afghan War Blog in July, gov­ern­ment and intel­li­gence com­ment­at­ors made apo­ca­lyptic pre­dic­tions that the leak had put mil­it­ary and agent lives at risk.  US Defense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates has since gone on the record to admit that this was simply not true. 

Dur­ing the Shayler whis­tleblow­ing case a dec­ade ago, the gov­ern­ment repeatedly tried to assert that agent lives had been put at risk, and yet the form­al judge­ment at the end of his tri­al stated that this was abso­lutely not the case.  And again, with the recent Wikileaks Iraq War Blog, gov­ern­ment sources are using the same old man­tra.  When will they real­ise that they can only cry wolf so many times and get away with it?  And when will the journ­al­ists regur­git­at­ing this spin wake up to the fact they are being played?

Account­ab­il­ity:  Saw­ers goes on to describe the mech­an­isms of account­ab­il­ity, such as they are.  He accur­ately states, as I have pre­vi­ously described ad nauseam, that under the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, he is notion­ally respons­ible to his polit­ic­al “mas­ter”, the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, who has to clear in advance any leg­ally dubi­ous for­eign oper­a­tions (up to and includ­ing murder – the fabled “licence to kill” is not fic­tion, as you can see here).

The 1994 ISA also estab­lished the Prime Min­ister­’s Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee (ISC) in Par­lia­ment, which many com­ment­at­ors seem to believe offers mean­ing­ful over­sight of the spies.  How­ever, as I have detailed before, this is a mere fig leaf to real account­ab­il­ity: the ISC can only invest­ig­ate issues of policy, fin­ance and admin­is­tra­tion of the spy agen­cies.  Dis­clos­ures relat­ing to crime, oper­a­tion­al incom­pet­ence or involve­ment in tor­ture fall out­side its remit.

But what hap­pens if intel­li­gence officers decide to oper­ate bey­ond this frame­work? How would min­is­ters or the ISC ever know?  Oth­er spy mas­ters have suc­cess­fully lied to their polit­ic­al mas­ters in the past, after all.

Sir John has the gall to say that, if an oper­a­tion is not cleared by the For­eign Sec­ret­ary, it does not pro­ceed.  But what about the Gadaf­fi Plot way back in 1996, when MI6 was spon­sor­ing a group of Islam­ic extrem­ist ter­ror­ists in Libya to try to assas­sin­ate Col­on­el Gadaf­fi without, it has been asser­ted, the pri­or writ­ten approv­al of the then-For­eign sec­ret­ary, Tory politi­cian Mal­com Rif­kind?  This was repor­ted extens­ively, includ­ing in this art­icle by Mark Thomas in the New States­man. What hap­pens if rogue MI6 officers blithely side-step this notion­al account­ab­il­ity — because they can, because they know they will get away with it — because they have in the past?

MoS_August_97_QPlot_CredibleIn the interests of justice, UK and inter­na­tion­al law, and account­ab­il­ity, per­haps a new Conservative/Coalition gov­ern­ment should now reas­sess its approach to intel­li­gence whis­tleblowers gen­er­ally, and re-exam­ine this spe­cif­ic dis­clos­ure about Libya, which has been backed up by inter­na­tion­al intel­li­gence sources, both US and French, in order to achieve some sort of clos­ure for the inno­cent vic­tims in Libya of this MI6-fun­ded ter­ror­ist attack? And it is finally time to hold the per­pet­rat­ors to account — PT16, Richard Bart­lett, and PT16B, Dav­id Wat­son, who were the seni­or officers in MI6 respons­ible for the murder plot.

As civ­il­ised coun­tries, we need to rethink our approach to the issue of whis­tleblow­ing. Lies, spin,  pro­sec­u­tions and thug­gish threats of assas­sin­a­tion are beneath us as soci­et­ies that notion­ally adhere to the prin­ciples of demo­cracy.  If we can only real­ist­ic­ally hope that the actions of our gov­ern­ments, mil­it­ary forces, and intel­li­gence agen­cies are trans­par­ent and account­able via whis­tleblowers, then we need to ensure that these people are leg­ally pro­tec­ted and that their voices are heard clearly.


New York INN conference: How the world changed after 9/11

INNIn Septem­ber 2010 I was invited over to New York to speak at a tele­vised 2‑day sym­posi­um organ­ised by the inde­pend­ent TV and radio sta­tion Inter­na­tion­al News Net (INN).  The top­ic under dis­cus­sion was “How the world changed after 9/11”.

Speak­ers were invited from around the world to par­ti­cip­ate in pan­el dis­cus­sions focus­ing on dif­fer­ent areas that have been notice­ably degraded and cor­rup­ted since 9/11 in response to the end­less “war on ter­ror”: civil liber­ties, the rule of law, intel­li­gence, polit­ics, eco­nom­ics, and the media.  Some of the dis­cus­sions fea­tured aca­dem­ics, pro­fes­sion­als and sci­ent­ists ques­tion­ing the asser­tions of the offi­cial US gov­ern­ment account of 9/11 itself — the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for so many ensu­ing horrors.

NYC_Sept_2010_on stageI was on the same pan­el as Ray McGov­ern (army vet­er­an and long-time CIA ana­lyst), Coleen Row­ley (FBI whis­tleblower), and Dr Kath­er­ine Albrecht (digit­al pri­vacy cam­paign­er).  The title of the ses­sion was “Good­bye Fourth Amend­ment”.  As I poin­ted out at the begin­ning of my talk, at least the US has a writ­ten con­sti­tu­tion to shred — some­thing the UK nev­er quite man­aged to produce.…

Here’s the film of my ses­sion. DVDs of this and all oth­er pan­el dis­cus­sions are avail­able from INN.

The Secret Garden Party, UK 2010

SGP_2010 In July I was invited back to speak at the Secret Garden Party, a music, polit­ics, and arts fest­iv­al held annu­ally some­where, er, secret in the UK.

What a fab week­end.  I have a well-known anti­pathy to sleep­ing under can­vas, but this was an excel­lent fest­iv­al — and even the com­post loos were not too grim. 

Lis­ted as one of the “Star Acts” in the prin­ted fest­iv­al pro­gramme (I blush), I had the lux­ury of an hour and a half to speak in the première debate tent in the Rebels and Intel­lec­tu­als sec­tion of the fest­iv­al — The For­um — a concept that the organ­iser, Ben de Vere, prom­ises to trans­plant to Lon­don some­time in the near future.

Any­way, I ser­i­ously recom­mend put­ting this fest­iv­al in your diar­ies for next year, and keep an eye open for the spread of The Forum.….

Here’s the video:


Gestapo Past and Present

So last week I was on hol­i­day with my lovely Dutch­man in Cologne on the Rhine in Ger­many, a city steeped in his­tory and now chiefly fam­ous for its Goth­ic cathed­ral, widely reputed to be pretty much the last build­ing left stand­ing in the city at the end of WW2.  Eas­ily res­ist­ing both this reli­gious hot­spot and, with slightly more dif­fi­culty, the  siren calls of the brauerei, we decided on a bit of cul­ture, some museums and a stroll along the river. 

How­ever, it turns out that not one but two build­ings had sur­vived WW2 in their entirety.  Tucked away on a back­street, we found the second sur­viv­or: the Gestapo HQ, which had been pre­served as it was found at the end of the war to serve as a ghastly warn­ing to history. 

Gestapo_HQ2Well, as someone who reg­u­larly speaks at con­fer­ences across the world about human rights, total­it­ari­an­ism and encroach­ing police states, I felt I had to have a look.  The build­ing is a non­des­cript office block that looks per­fectly inno­cent from the out­side.  Three floors are open to the pub­lic.  On the first is the museum, with the his­tory of the rise to power of the Nazis.  It was hideously fas­cin­at­ing to read how freedoms and rights were incre­ment­ally eroded as the state slipped ever more from demo­cracy.  The major­ity of the Ger­man people went sleep-walk­ing into nation­al social­ism.  As soon as Hitler had any sort of polit­ic­al power his attack-dogs, the SS, used dis­pro­por­tion­ate, sud­den, and shock­ing viol­ence against Ger­many’s own cit­izens to crush any nas­cent res­ist­ance.  So from 1933 onwards the pop­u­la­tion was ter­ror­ised, as “undesir­ables” were routinely snatched from their homes for ques­tion­ing, tor­ture and imprisonment. 

Gestapo_HQ_Annie_2And the pro­pa­ganda in the media that was on dis­play.….  Shall I just say, even more unsubtle than that which is used against us today.  I sup­pose these dark arts have developed over the inter­ven­ing years.

MischaBut it was the lower floors that packed the strongest punch.  The base­ment, just below street level, held the cells — tiny, dank spaces where as many as 30 people had been her­ded togeth­er.  And the walls are covered in graf­fiti in all the lan­guages of Europe — sad, des­per­ate mes­sages to the future from people who were “dis­ap­peared”. They seemed to want to leave a record of the fact simply that they had exis­ted: they had loved, they missed their fam­il­ies, they were try­ing to hold their heads high des­pite the agon­ies inflic­ted daily, they were inno­cent, they were about to die.…..

Hold_your_head_highThere was one more level — the rein­forced rat hole deep under­ground, which served both as the air-raid shel­ter for the Gestapo officers (the pris­on­ers were left upstairs in their cells dur­ing the raids), and as the tor­ture rooms.  Con­sid­er­ately, the Gestapo car­ried out their most bru­tal inter­rog­a­tions under­ground, so that the screams could not be heard at street level.

As we emerged, some­what silent, from this museum, I noticed that we, and many oth­er vis­it­ors, all turned to stare at this build­ing: it looked so bland and innoc­u­ous from the out­side.  But then people would inspect the base­ment win­dows that hid the cells.  The smokers in the group all sparked up as soon as they were out­side, drag­ging hard on their cigar­ettes.  Oth­ers just stood silently. 

So the museum does its job.  It is a power­ful warn­ing from the grave.  Homo hom­ini lupus: man is wolf to man, ever has been and ever will be, absent adequate leg­al restraint.  This is why the Uni­ver­sal Declar­a­tion of Human Rights was put in place in 1948, to pre­vent such atro­cit­ies from hap­pen­ing again.

Yet, at the risk of sound­ing sen­ten­tious, such abuse is going on around the world right now, par­tic­u­larly in the cause of the end­less, neb­u­lous “war on ter­ror”.  We have been lazy, blind and fool­ish, let­ting our basic rights slide away.  People are dis­ap­peared, extraordin­ar­ily rendered, to for­eign pris­ons and tor­tured for years.  Assas­sin­a­tion lists have been drawn up by US intel­li­gence agen­cies; sus­pects face kangaroo, mil­it­ary-style courtrooms, where they face the death pen­alty but are not allowed to know the full case against them; our gov­ern­ments aggress­ively, illeg­ally, invade oth­er coun­tries, and yet the politi­cians who lie to take us into these wars, thereby caus­ing the need­less death, pois­on­ing, maim­ing and dis­place­ment of mil­lions of people, are not called to account for their crimes, as they should be under the Nurem­berg Prin­ciples, the Rome Stat­ute, and the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­in­al Court.

We, the cit­izens of still just-about-func­tion­ing demo­cra­cies, should be ashamed.  We need to re-remem­ber our his­tory and take a stand — before it’s too late.

Protest_and Resist

Alan Johnson’s MI5 File?

Alan_JohnsonI won­der what inform­a­tion, if any, MI5 has on file about new-ish UK Home Sec­ret­ary, Alan John­son?  Or, more per­tin­ently, what HE thinks the spies might have.…..

How else explain his recent com­ments in The Daily Tory­graph? He said that he will be the voice of those who can­not defend them­selves — ie those poor, anonym­ous intel­li­gence officers in MI5.  He even drags out the hoary old chest­nut that a crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tion into prima facie evid­ence that the spooks have been involved in ser­i­ous crime — the tor­ture of anoth­er human being — would dam­age nation­al security. 

I’m sur­prised he man­aged to bite back Tony Blair’s infam­ous line, that an invest­ig­a­tion into pos­sible spy incom­pet­ence and crime would be a “ludicrous diversion”

Ever since Labour came to power in 1997, we have had a series of Home Sec­ret­ar­ies strain­ing to avoid doing their job vis a vis the spooks in Thames House: the job being that of polit­ic­al mas­ter of MI5, thereby provid­ing a modic­um of demo­crat­ic over­sight to an extremely power­ful and secret­ive organ­isa­tion, hold­ing it to account and ensur­ing it obeys the law. 

The role of Home Sec­ret­ary is not to be the cham­pi­on of unac­count­able spies who are pro­tec­ted from invest­ig­a­tion and over­sight by a whole raft of secrecy legislation.

More and more evid­ence is emer­ging that MI5 assisted the USA’s extraordin­ary rendi­tion plan, that it  was com­pli­cit in tor­ture, and that its officers have lied to cov­er their tracks.  Under this ava­lanche of scan­dal, some MPs have finally woken up to the fact that the Home Sec­ret­ary should be ensur­ing MI5 obeys the law.  Some are even dar­ingly sug­gest­ing that there should be prop­er Par­lia­ment­ary over­sight of the spies, rather than the fig leaf that is the Intel­li­gence and Secur­ity Com­mit­tee — hand-picked by and only answer­able to the Prime Min­is­ter, and power­less to ques­tion intel­li­gence officers under oath, demand papers, or look at any­thing more ser­i­ous than policy, fin­ance or administration.

Walk_the_plankThe Met­ro­pol­it­an Police have even begun a crim­in­al invest­ig­a­tion into MI5’s com­pli­city in tor­ture.  While I doubt any case that could, ahem,  “dam­age nation­al secur­ity” will ever come to court,  a few juni­or officers may be asked to do the decent thing and quietly walk the plank. 

But the real issue — the closed, self-per­petu­at­ing group-think cul­ture, where officers should just fol­low orders and not rock the boat — will con­tin­ue unchal­lenged, res­ult­ing inev­it­ably in yet more scandals.

It is time we had a Home Sec­ret­ary who is up to the job and who has the back­bone to ini­ti­ate some mean­ing­ful reform of MI5

Gareth Peirce on Torture, Secrecy and the British State

Gareth_Peirce_1Lead­ing UK human rights law­yer, Gareth Peirce, has writ­ten a power­ful and elo­quent art­icle in the Lon­don Review of Books about the Brit­ish state’s involve­ment in torture. 

She also broadens out the argu­ment to look at the fun­da­ment­al soci­et­al prob­lems — lack of account­ab­il­ity, secrecy, the use and abuse of the concept of “nation­al secur­ity”  — that cre­ated a cul­ture that facil­it­ates and con­dones torture.

Gareth has fought for vic­tims of injustice for four dec­ades, focus­ing primar­ily on ter­ror­ism and intel­li­gence issues. 

A long piece, but stick with.  It’s worth it!

Film Review of “Secrecy” on Cinepolitics, January 2009

Over the last few years I have been a reg­u­lar guest on polit­ic­al dis­cus­sion pro­grammes on the rap­idly grow­ing Press TV.  Occa­sion­ally I am invited onto the film review show, “Cinepol­it­ics”, by the host (and film maker) Rus­sell Michaels

The film under review is a doc­u­ment­ary called “Secrecy”, look­ing at the stifling effect cen­sor­ship and the creep­ing concept of nation­al secur­ity have had on demo­cracy in the USA under the former pres­id­en­tial régime.  When this was filmed in Janu­ary, there was hope that the new pres­id­ency might roll this back.  How­ever, “Secrecy” is just as per­tin­ent now that the issue of tor­ture and Guantanamo Bay is being addressed more openly by the media.

Deja Vu

I had a strong sense of déjà vu today, when I read about the woes of Mrs Green, the bar­ris­ter wife of Tory MP Dami­en Green who was arres­ted last Novem­ber for allegedly encour­aging gov­ern­ment inform­a­tion leaks.

Mr Green was arres­ted under an obscure and antique piece of legis­la­tion for “con­spir­ing to com­mit mis­con­duct in a pub­lic office and aid­ing and abet­ting, coun­selling or pro­cur­ing mis­con­duct in a pub­lic office”.  This, des­pite the fact that civil ser­vice man­dar­ins had per­suaded the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB) to invest­ig­ate him because he posed a “ser­i­ous threat to nation­al secur­ity”.  The case has now been dropped and reports have now shown that these civil ser­vants sig­ni­fic­antly over­stated the case to spur the police into action.

In such a case the obvi­ous step would have been for the Met to have invoked the dra­coni­an 1989 Offi­cial Secrets Act.  Cer­tainly their heavy-handed response seemed to indic­ate that this was how they were view­ing the grav­ity of the case, even if they were des­per­ately try­ing to avoid the attend­ant scan­dal such a step would have pro­voked.    Spe­cial Branch officers in the Counter-Ter­ror­ism squad are not nor­mally sent to rip apart people’s houses for minor offences.

Which takes me back to the inter­view with the out­raged Mrs Green.  A bar­ris­ter spe­cial­ising in highly con­fid­en­tial child abuse cases, she inno­cently let the secret police enter her home, only to watch in dis­be­lief as they ripped it apart in what sounds to me like a counter-ter­ror­ism style search.  They, of course, found noth­ing rel­ev­ant to their invest­ig­a­tion, but scoured the com­puters, removed the bed­sheets, took away love let­ters between the Greens, and even rifled through the chil­dren’s books.

I sup­pose I was more for­tu­nate than the hap­less Mrs Green.  When the secret police ripped apart my home in the same way back in 1997, I was in Europe with my ex-part­ner and col­league, MI5 whis­tleblower Dav­id Shayler.  After we had exposed the fact that MI5 was shame­lessly break­ing the law, the MPSB had obtained a war­rant that allowed them to search our home for mater­i­al relat­ing to our employ­ment in MI5.  As I was away, they jack­hammered the front door in, and then spent two days rip­ping through the flat in Pimlico.  It had been my home for 4 years.

Nat­ur­ally, the police found noth­ing rel­ev­ant.  That did not deter them from search­ing the place for two days, and tak­ing away bags of pos­ses­sions, includ­ing some of my under­wear, the bed­sheets, pho­to­graphs, and our love let­ters.  They also smashed up chairs and lamps, ripped the bath apart, pulled up the car­pets, and scattered my remain­ing under­wear across the bed­room floor. It looked like they had been play­ing with it.

I saw all this when I returned home a month later, and I felt viol­ated.  I know this is a com­mon reac­tion when one’s home is burgled; but in this case my home had been despoiled by the police, not by crim­in­als.  No doubt, some would say that we, and the Greens, deserved this treat­ment.  After all, we had the temer­ity to expose mal­prac­tice, lies, and crime with­in gov­ern­ment circles.  We, of course, would argue that we had acted for the pub­lic good.

Whatever.  I still think that a counter-ter­ror­ism style search of a whis­tleblower­’s house is over the top and delib­er­ately intimidatory.

The police may have ran­sacked my home, but I was nev­er charged with any offence.  Nor did I ever did get my under­wear or love let­ters back.….

Gareth Peirce talks to Moazzam Begg

An inter­view between Guantanamo detain­ee, Moazzam Begg, and human rights law­yer Gareth Peirce.

I have writ­ten before about the appalling treat­ment of people like Moazzam, who are kid­napped, tor­tured, and held illeg­ally without charge in Amer­ica’s secret pris­on camps and Gitmo. Here he has the chance to inter­view Gareth about this and the wider implications:


Gareth Peirce has worked indefatig­ably over many years to defend vic­tims of mis­car­riages of justice in the UK courts and bey­ond. The roll call of those she has helped, not just leg­ally but also with emo­tion­al sup­port and a gentle and humane approach, includes: the Guild­ford Four, the Birm­ing­ham Six, Samar Alami and Jawed Bot­meh (the Israeli Embassy Two), Dav­id Shayler, the Bel­marsh internees, Judith Ward, the fam­ily of Jean Charles de Menezes, and now the Guantanamo victims.

Gareth is a true hero of our times. 

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.