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MI5 Head: Torture collusion claims undermine UK security

The head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, has today launched an attack upon the media storm swirling around the Court of Appeal’s decision on Wednesday to reject the Government’s arguments and order the disclosure of seven redacted paragraphs from an earlier judgment detailing the maltreatment of former Guantanamo detainee Binyam Mohamed (pictured left) whilst he was in US custody.

The maltreatment, which even the British Government admits amounts to repeated instances of at least inhuman and degrading treatment, was known to British authorities, who continued to supply questions to the US Government to use as the basis of their interrogations.

This state of affairs opens the government to two possible types of action, meaning that the Mohamed case is more likely the beginning than the end of the Government’s difficulties. Firstly, the Government already faces civil actions from a number of former Guantanamo detainees seeking damages arising out of further allegations of MI5 collusion. The first decision has already been handed down allowing elements of these cases to be heard in camera (Al Rawi (no. 2)). One of the reasons behind the government’s decision to stop fighting this case is likely to cut its losses in preparation for this coming legal battle.

Moreover, individuals such as Witness B, the MI5 officer present at some of the interrogations of Mohamed and who continued to supply questions even in light of his treatment, could face criminal liability (an investigation was launched last year). This would focus on the offence of torture provided by section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. This provision, coupled with section 31 of the Criminal Justice Act 1948 which makes it illegal for public officials to act overseas in a manner which would break UK law within the jurisdiction, hangs like the sword of Damocles over members of the Security Service cooperating with the US authorities in the aftermath of 9/11.

The corrosive effect of such investigations on morale in the Security Service likely forced Jonathan Evan’s hand in his Telegraph op-ed, which focuses on refuting accusations of a cover up by highlighting that ‘[t]he material our critics are drawing on to attack us is taken from our own records, not prised from us by some external process but willingly provided by us to the court, in the normal way’.

Nonetheless, on the substantive issue of the role of British personnel in interrogations of those in US custody, he concedes that,

‘One shortfall it highlighted in 2005 and again in 2007 was that the British intelligence community was slow to detect the emerging pattern of US mistreatment of detainees after September 11, a criticism that I accept. But there wasn’t any similar change of practice by the British intelligence agencies. We did not practice mistreatment or torture then and do not do so now, nor do we collude in torture or encourage others to torture on our behalf.’

Despite this admission, in the penultimate paragraph of his piece Evans attempts to deflect some of the attention from his embattled officers:

‘For their part, our enemies will also seek to use all tools at their disposal to attack us. That means not just bombs, bullets and aircraft but also propaganda and campaigns to undermine our will and ability to confront them. Their freedom to voice extremist views is part of the price we pay for living in a democracy, and it is a price worth paying because in the long term, our democracy underpins our security.’

This claim misses the point. With or without a cover up, Irish history teaches us that blood tends to seep out from under closed doors. These events must remain the focus of public attention, for if they do not the British Government will not learn the lessons of the lack of oversight in the Security Service that Evans acknowledges. This is all the more important because Evans’s claim fails to appreciate that it is the malpractice itself which drives extremist propaganda, not the reporting of malpractice or the analysis of events in court. Indeed, it is the only process likely to satisfy the public that mistakes have been corrected.

Warning of the risks of providing propaganda to extremists by reporting the British Government’s failings smacks of the reaction to the Thatcher Government’s response to criticism of the Gibraltar killings or the attacks by members of the Bush Administration on Barak Obama’s release last year of the “Torture Memos”. The real problem for those implicated in all these cases not the reporting, it’s that blood sticks.

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