Following on from the article former CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, and I co-authored last month about the possible “fixing” of intelligence around Iran, here is a subsequent interview we did for The Real News Network:
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.
An interesting article appeared in The Sunday Times today, stating that Britain’s top policeman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Ian Blair, had “unwittingly” misled the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee about the need to increase the period of detention without charge for terrorist suspects in the UK from 28 to 42 days. Blair claimed that 12 major terrorist operations had been foiled in Britain since 2005. In fact, the article reports that only 6 plots have been stopped. Blair has had to issue a grovelling apology via the Press Association for this, umm, gaffe.
But the article neglects to tell us how and why this new information came to light. So allow me to speculate.
The Met, along with its shadowy cohorts in MI5, is entrusted with protecting Britain from terrorist threats. Since 9/11 and the all-pervasive war on terror, Britain’s security forces have been granted sweeping new powers, resources and a huge increase in staffing levels to do this job. To ensure this is justified, they are continually telling us of the huge threat we face from terrorism and how successful they are in protecting us. It is in their interests to talk this up.
Meanwhile, over on the south bank of the river, MI6 continues to suffer from the loss of prestige brought about by its mistakes and lack of good intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. There is no love lost between these three agencies, as they compete for power and resources. So, to use a good civil service phrase, I cannot rule out the possibility that someone in MI6 leaked this information to have a pop at the Met and MI5.
However, there is a more serious aspect to this incident. But for this information emerging, MPs and public alike would have had no way of knowing that the perceived threat from terrorism had been grossly inflated in order for the police to gain yet more powers. We would have had to take Sir Ian’s word.
Well, we’ve been here before many, many times, most notoriously when the intelligence agencies would have us believe that Saddam had WMD that could attack British interests with 45 minutes. This, of course, led to the Iraq war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
So how can we ensure we are told the truth by the spies? Well, greater accountability and effective parliamentary oversight would be a step in the right direction. But we don’t just need the correct mechanisms in place in parliament. We also need MPs with the knowledge, intelligence and integrity to ask the difficult questions when faced with bogus assertions.