Making Light Work of Torture

Image of prisoner laying on ground

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of Reprieve, on why we need a proper, judge-led inquiry into UK involvement in torture. 

The comment by a ‘Westminster Security Official’ must rank high up in the Premier League of all the offensive things that have emerged from government of late: “Given the circumstances, it is understandable, yet regrettable, that occasionally we did not get things right,” he said, when the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) issued its report on British involvement in torture and rendition on June 27.

Is it truly “understandable” that British agents were deeply complicit in torturing my clients? Merely “regrettable” that they kidnapped people, rendered them all around the world, and constantly lied about it? And if “occasionally” failing to get things right means committing hundreds of crimes, then Nero only went astray every now and then – and given the difficulties faced by any Roman emperor it was understandable, albeit regrettable, that he killed his own wife, mother and brother, along with thousands of others.

The Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, QC, is the Chair of the ISC and he is the first to confess the limitations of his report. Despite this, I congratulate him on it. Grieve is an honourable man, a breath of fresh air leading a committee that has, all too often, played patsy for the government. This time, he and his colleagues closed their inquiry down early when it became obvious that Theresa May was not going to permit the misconduct of the security services to be known. He could not publish the truth, so instead he published the way in which truth was being suppressed.

Grieve writes that the ISC wished to hear from some 46 agents of the security services, to hear why they dabbled in torture. The Prime Minister let them call just four, and would not allow them to be asked “about the specifics of the operations in which they were involved, nor fill in any gaps in the timeline of events”; the Committee could not quote their evidence in its Report, even anonymously.

Did he truly know what was going to happen to the man who had been kidnapped?

The ISC wanted to understand how the politicians in charge could have let some of the offences go on. For example, when Jack Straw agreed to pay many of the expenses of one rendition – did he truly know what was going to happen to the man who had been kidnapped? “Had our Inquiry continued,” Grieve complains, “we would have called the Right Hon. the Lord Blunkett, the Home Secretary during the 2001–2004 period, and the Right Hon. Jack Straw, the then Foreign Secretary, to examine what they understood to be the situation at the time, and explain why briefing was not requested.”

In what limited material they were willing to share, the Agencies pretend that they did not know about all this American-sponsored torture until late in the piece. As the ISC points out, “as early as January 2002 they were being asked questions in Parliament about the situation.” When I (along with two colleagues) sued President Bush, very publicly, over Guantánamo Bay on February 19, 2002, we asserted – and the U.S. government never disputed – that everyone in the base had been tortured. If MI6 is so ill-informed that they did not read the papers, then the security of this country is in dire jeopardy.

Yet in “March 2002 SIS submitted a request to the Foreign Secretary for authority … to interview detainees in Guantanamo Bay … suggesting that there had been ‘no evidence that the detainees have suffered any mistreatment while in US custody.’” And as of May 2004, GCHQ (supposedly the jewel in the British intelligence crown) claimed they did not have “any knowledge” of US torture.

There can only be on explanation for this: they turned a blind eye, and made sure nothing got written down.

There is nobody who has spent a day in Guantánamo and the other secret prisons who has not been mistreated.

I respect the fact that the ISC everywhere gives the Agencies the benefit of many doubts. However, if we are going to learn the lessons of history, it is important that we know what that history is and I am less willing to be charitable to apologists for torture because it is ultimately so pernicious in every way. In the space of less than a year, at least 34 percent of all MI6 ‘intelligence’ came from 2,800 reports of the interrogation of detainees. The ISC reports that the intelligence reports reflected 198 cases where mistreatment was known to have taken place – where, then, the statements would have been involuntary and unreliable. Yet anyone who has any experience in this area knows this to be a monstrous underestimate: there would have been abuse in all 2,800 cases, since there is nobody who has spent a day in Guantánamo and the other secret prisons who has not been mistreated.

While the ISC recognises that this torture has led to a radical diminishing of the moral standing of the West in the world – a ghastly own goal, if you will, in the battle for hearts and minds – the agencies still struggle manfully to ensure that we do not learn the true lessons of all this nonsense.

Are we meant to believe that it was for a holiday in Sharm el Sheikh?

So much of the secrecy is childish. Does MI6 really think that it is not immediately obvious that “Cuckoo” is Sheikh al Libi, and that “Cupar” is Egypt. They also think us gullible fools. An agent watched in Bagram Air Force base in January 2002 as “a pick up jeep with a six-foot, sealed box on the back drove … CUCKOO on his way to the waiting plane.” Why not say it: al Libi was taken out sealed in a coffin to further terrify him en route to further torture. An MI5 legal adviser then issued a report saying “[w]e of course do not know what the [US authorities] purpose was in deporting CUCKOO to CUPAR.” Are we meant to believe that it was for a holiday in Sharm el Sheikh?

Al Libi was flown to Cairo so that President Bush’s Egyptian proxy-torturers could use an electric cattle prod to him to get him to say – falsely, as we all now notoriously know – that Saddam Hussein was working with Al Qaida on weapons of mass destruction. As a result of this we got the Iraq War. When one honest legal adviser recommended that the Home Office be informed about this, she was overruled by an MI5 officer who noted that MI6 was not planning on informing the FCO either. The Director General went along with this, adding a notation: “Unsatisfactory – but their [American] business.” No: Torture is not just American business if Britain is doing business with them, and then invading a country based on false intelligence, tilting the Middle East into further chaos.

A razor blade was taken to his genitals every fortnight for a year and a half.

It is clear beyond peradventure that the Agencies knew the US was involved in torture and rendition in early January 2002. Not only did they do nothing about it, but they contrived to hide the facts from their political masters. This pattern is repeated over and over. My client, British resident Binyam Mohamed, was taken by the U.S. from Pakistan to Morocco, where a razor blade was taken to his genitals every fortnight for a year and a half. Naturally, he made a few false confessions, including one about a non-existent nuclear bomb plot that terrified the world. Over and over again, MI5 agents said they did not know where he was being held; the Director General specifically said this to the ISC. We can call it a terminological inexactitude, or we can just be forthright and call it a lie: of course they did. They had agents there in Morocco, and they had a stooge – I know his name – in the same torture prison telling Binyam to become an informant for the government (as if his torture was likely to win hearts and minds).

“Rendition” is merely a fancy term for kidnapping.

Grieve is a fine lawyer. He therefore made sure that the ISC clarified a few legal propositions. For example, because “rendition” is merely a fancy term for kidnapping, he was “astonished” that, in 2018, the government still has no policy regarding involvement in such a crime. The ISC recommended that it be made clear: rendition, without more, qualifies as CIDT (Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment).

The Agencies’ failure to be forthright about so weighty a subject is, Grieve suggests repeatedly, “regrettable.” When he uses the term, Grieve himself is guilty of understatement: it is bizarre that public servants can conspire to commit hundreds of offences, and think it okay simply to refuse to discuss them. One opportunity to sterilise this nightmare has been lost. However, unlike the torture of my clients which can never be erased, we can still “get things right”: we need a full, transparent and independent inquiry, such as was originally promised by David Cameron, where any reasonable security concerns may be addressed by anonymity.