UK spies continue to lie about torture

Jonathan_EvansWhat a dif­fer­ence a year makes in the may­fly minds of the old media. 

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”.….

MusharrafBut Evans had to come clean to the ISC because of the Mohamed court case, and Norton-Taylor wrote, by the Grauny’s stand­ards, his fairly hard-hit­ting art­icle last year. 

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.

Spy Chiefs attack UK Police State

DearloveSir Richard Dear­love, ex-head of MI6 and cur­rent Mas­ter of Pem­broke Col­lege, Cam­bridge, has been much in the news recently after gra­cing the Hay on Wye book fest­iv­al, where he gave a speech.  In this, he is repor­ted to have spoken out, in strong terms, against the endem­ic and all-per­vas­ive sur­veil­lance soci­ety devel­op­ing in the UK

Ex-spy chiefs in the UK have a charm­ing habit of using all these sur­veil­lance meas­ures to the nth degree while in the shad­ows, and then hav­ing a Dam­as­cene con­ver­sion into civil liber­ties cam­paign­ers once they retire.  Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, the ex-head of MI5, used her maid­en speech in the House of Lords to argue against the exten­sion of the time lim­it the police could hold a ter­ror­ist sus­pect without charge, and even Stella Rim­ing­ton (also ex-MI5) has recently thrown her hat in the ring.  They nick all my best lines these days.

Would­n’t it be great if one of them, one day, could argue in favour of human rights, pro­por­tion­al­ity and the adher­ence to the law while they were still in a pos­i­tion to influ­ence affairs?

Dear­love him­self could have changed the course of world his­tory if he had found the cour­age to speak out earli­er about the fact that the intel­li­gence case for the Iraq war was being fixed around pre-determ­ined policy.  As it is, we only know that he objec­ted to this because of the notori­ous, leaked Down­ing Street Memo.

The Guard­i­an news­pa­per repor­ted that Dear­love even touched on the real­ity of obtain­ing min­is­teri­al per­mis­sion before break­ing the law.  Which, of course, is the ulti­mate point of the 1994 Intel­li­gence Ser­vices Act, and does indeed enshrine the fabled “licence to kill”.  It states that MI6 officers can break the law abroad with impun­ity from pro­sec­u­tion if, and only if, they obtain pri­or writ­ten per­mis­sion from their polit­ic­al mas­ter — in this case the For­eign Sec­ret­ary.

How­ever, accord­ing to The Guard­i­an, he seems to have mis­un­der­stood the spir­it of the law, if not the let­ter:

He said that the intel­li­gence com­munity was “some­times asked to act in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. When it does, it asks for leg­al opin­ion and min­is­teri­al approv­al … It’s about polit­ic­al cov­er”. 

Moment­ar­ily put­ting aside the not unim­port­ant debate about wheth­er the spies and the gov­ern­ment should even be allowed tech­nic­ally to side-step inter­na­tion­al laws against crimes up to, and includ­ing, murder, I am still naively sur­prised by the shame­less­ness of this state­ment:  the notion of min­is­teri­al over­sight was put in place to ensure some kind of demo­crat­ic over­sight and account­ab­il­ity for the work of the spies — not to provide polit­ic­al cov­er, a fig leaf.

I think he’s rather giv­en the game away here about how the spies really view the role of  their “polit­ic­al mas­ters”.