My RTTV interview today about Libya, torture, and UK double-dealing:
My RTTV interview today about Libya, torture, and UK double-dealing:
It was widely reported today that a number of well-respected British lawyers and civil liberties organisations are questioning the integrity of the much-trumpeted inquiry into UK spy complicity in torture.
And about time too. One hopes this is all part of a wider strategy, not merely a defensive reaction to the usual power play on the part of the British establishment. After all, it has been apparent from the start that the whole inquiry would be questionable when it was announced that Sir Peter Gibson would be chairing the inquiry.
Gibson has certain form. He was until recently the Intelligence Services Commissioner — the very person who for the last five years has been invited into MI5, MI6 and GCHQ for cosy annual chats with carefully selected intelligence officers (ie those who won’t rock the boat), to report back to the government that democratic oversight was working wonderfully, and it was all A‑OK in the spy organisations.
After these years of happy fraternising, when his name was put forward to investigate potential criminal complicity in torture on the part of the spies, he did the publicly decent thing and resigned as Commissioner to take up the post of chair of the Torture Inquiry.
Well, we know the establishment always like a safe pair of hands.… and this safety has also been pretty much guaranteed by law for the last six years.
Ever since the Inquiries Act 2005 was pushed through as law, with relatively little press awareness or parliamentary opposition, government departments and intelligence agencies have pretty much been able to call the shots when it comes to the scope of supposedly independent inquiries.
Interestingly, Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary who now chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, has also weighed in to the debate. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he stated:
“I cannot recollect an inquiry that’s been proposed to be so open as we’re having in this particular case. When was the last time the head of MI5 and the head of MI6 – the prime minister has made quite clear – can be summoned to this inquiry and be required to give evidence?”
This from the senior politician who has always denied that he was officially briefed about the illegal assassination plot against Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in 1996; this from the man who is now calling for the arming of the very same extremists to topple Gaddafi in the ongoing shambles that is the Libyan War; and this from the man who is also loudly calling for an extension of the ISC’s legal powers so that it can demand access to witnesses and documents from the spy organisations.
No doubt my head will stop spinning in a day or two.…
My recent article in The Guardian newspaper about the strange, sad case of yet another Guantanamo victim.
Guantánamo Bay files: Was Bin Hamlili really an MI6 source?
With dirty tricks rife in the secret service we may never know the truth about the Algerian carpet-seller’s version of events.
Another cache of intelligence nasties has emerged, blinking, into the mainstream media daylight by way of WikiLeaks. This time, the information is drawn from official Guantánamo reports on detainees, drawing on information gleaned over the years of “enhanced” interrogations.
One case that caught my attention was that of Algerian carpet seller Adil Hadi al Jazairi Bin Hamlili, an alleged “al-Qaida operative, facilitator, courier, kidnapper and assassin” who also apparently worked as an agent of CSIS (Canadian Secret Intelligence Service) and our very own MI6. So was this man a double-agent, playing his own lonely game and caught between the demands of his al-Qaida contacts and his western handlers? Or has MI6 been employing its very own al-Qaida assassin?
The report states that this is Bin Hamlili’s story in his own words – no doubt freely uttered as he emerged, spluttering, from yet another interrogation. It appears that he entered the mujahideen world when he was a child in the 1980s, fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. An era when the group was very much an ally of the west, funded, trained and armed by the CIA and MI6 in the fight against the Soviet Union.
This could very well have led to MI6 and/or CSIS approaching Bin Hamlili as a potential source of human intelligence. Humint sources are the crown jewels of intelligence work – able to reach parts beyond the range of electronic surveillance. The downside, of course, is that they are merely human and need strong support and backup to survive their dangerous job, year after year. This is something that is not always provided to them and they can often end up feeling exposed, increasingly paranoid and in real danger, playing every side just to survive.
While some agents do indeed suffer a genuine revulsion towards their earlier allegiances – the basic ideological shift – and try to atone by helping the spooks, most are entrapped by the other three points in the classic spy acronym: money, ideology, compromise, ego. These are more shaded, compelled motivations that can lead to resentment and potential double-dealing, and require close agent handling and care. Unfortunately, this is often lacking.
So welcome to the classic intelligence “hall of mirrors”. Was Bin Hamlili really an MI6 source? Or was this just an attempt to stop the torture in Guantánamo, however temporarily? Perhaps he was playing both sides? Or perhaps he faithfully reported back to his CSIS/MI6 handlers but his reports were not effectively acted on – this happens in the intelligence agencies – and the culpable officers brushed these mistakes under the carpet by claiming “agent unreliability” or “lack of co-operation”.
Or, more worryingly, Bin Hamlili might indeed have had an effective working relationship with his handlers and was actually tasked in his work as provocateur or even terrorist, for some arcane intelligence purposes. But once caught, he was deemed to be politically embarrassing and hung out to dry.
This would certainly not be the first time this has happened to intelligence agents. Dirty tricks were intrinsic in the dirty war in Northern Ireland from the early 1970s, and agents such as Martin McGartland, Denis Donaldson (deceased) and Kevin Fulton have learned all too brutally what the phrase “hung out to dry” really means.
This was not restricted to Northern Ireland. In 1996, MI6 illegally funded an “al-Qaida” coup to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi, using as its agent a Libyan military intelligence officer. The attempt manifestly failed, although innocent people were killed in the attempt. This was all hushed up at the time, but now seems rather tame as we watch our defence secretary, Liam Fox, fly out to discuss with his US counterpart, Robert Gates, the overt assassination of Gaddafi using predator drones. State terrorism as the new diplomacy?
I doubt we shall ever now know the truth behind Bin Hamlili’s report. The exposure of the Guantánamo régime highlights once again that torture is counterproductive – it panders to the preconceptions of the interrogators and acts as a recruiting ground for future potential terrorists. This used to be the consensus even within our intelligence agencies, pre‑9/11. They need to re-remember the lessons of history, and their humanity.
“Well, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. Why object to increasing state surveillance powers?”
I speak regularly at international events about basic freedoms, civil liberties and encroaching police states, and this is one of the most frequently asked questions.
This question is usually posed in the context of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras that infest the streets of Britain, where it is estimated that you can be photographed hundreds of times a day going about your daily business in London.
Not to mention the talking CCTV cameras in the North of England, nor the increasing use of spy drones (as yet, reportedly, unweaponised — at least lethally) over the skies of Britain. Nor the fact that the police officers in charge of CCTV units admit that the technology is only useful as evidence in 3% of cases, and that violent crime has actually gone up since the spread of CCTV, so we’re certainly no safer on our streets.
Nor do the well-meaning people asking this question (who, one presumes, have never-ever done anything wrong in their lives, even to the extent of not dropping litter) seem to grasp the historical evidence: they retain an optimistic faith in the long-term benign intentions of our governments.
Yet as we’ve seen time and time again in history, more dubious, totalitarian and malignant governments can indeed gain power, and will abuse and extend the surveillance laws and available technology against their own peoples. And I’m not just talking about Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s or the East German Stasi, although I’m in agreement with UK Education Secretary Michael Gove at the moment in saying that history lessons are never a waste.…
But we also need to learn more recent lessons: the UK in the 1970s-1990s, where the Irish community as a whole was targeted because of fringe Republican terrorism; or the Muslim community post‑9/11, which lives with the real fear of of being arrested, extraordinarily rendered, tortured, or even assassinated on the say-so of unaccountable intelligence agencies; or even peaceful protest groups in the USA and UK who are infiltrated and aggressively investigated by Stasi-like police officers.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was put in place for a very good reason in 1948: to prevent the horrors of state terrorism, violence and genocide from ever happening again. Amongst the essential, internationally-agreed core principles are the right to life, the right not to be tortured, freedom of expression, and the right to individual privacy.
Which brings me neatly back to the start of this article. This is precisely why increasing state surveillance is a problem. Because of the post‑9/11, over-inflated, hyped-up threat from soi-disant terrorist groups, we are all being penalised. The balance of power is shifting overwhelmingly in favour of the Big Brother state.
Well, almost. The Wikileaks model is helping to level the playing field, and whatever happens to this trail-blazing organisation, the principles and technology are out there and will be replicated. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
So, why not pose the very question in the title of this piece back on those who want to turn back the clock and eradicate Wikileaks — the governments, mega-corporations, and intelligence agencies which have been outed, shamed and embarrassed, and which are now trying to suppress its work?
If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.….
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.
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?
In 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.