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Friday, October 29, 2010 

Stepping out of the shadows while wanting to remain in the dark.

One of the glorious things about the British state has always been the notion that the hoi polloi should be eternally grateful when our social betters deign to either visit or talk to us. For the most part this has thankfully broken down, both due to the fracturing somewhat of the class structure and the shattering of the notion of deference. The only real times such attitudes still apply are when it comes to the senior royals, and even more bizarrely, when our intelligence chiefs briefly step out of the shadows to inform us all of just how deeply moral and ethical they are, saving countless lives and foiling the dastardly plans of the evil minority amongst us. We should be privileged, it seems, that they take time out of their schedules of saving the world from impending doom to lecture us on how deeply unfair it is that anyone dares to second guess what they do.

The reality is that such speeches never take place in a vacuum. When Eliza Manningham-Buller whilst still head of MI5 briefly entered the limelight she told of us of how they were monitoring up to 30 active plots, with there being around 1,600 individuals of interest to them who wished us ill. It is doubtless down to the sacrifices of MI5 that of those 30 plots causing active concern, and those 2,000 individuals dedicated to thinking up new and imaginative ways to kill us that there has not been a successful terrorist attack here since 7/7. Then again, perhaps not: figures released yesterday made clear that over the last two years, no one has been held for longer than 14 days without charge under anti-terrorist legislation. Either the terrorist threat has been consistently over-egged, to say the least, or MI5, MI6, the police and everyone else is doing a fantastic job keeping us safe from harm.

Yesterday Sir John Sawers, the current "C", or for those of us who've never much liked James Bond, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, delivered a speech which was, and this was highlighted by everyone so we must also do so, televised live. His aim in doing so was to answer two questions, the second of which was presumably the whole point of his turning up. In the light of the completely untrue allegations made against the security services by those whose innocence has never been proved, how can the public have confidence that work done in secret is lawful, ethical, and in their interests?

It's a tricky one, isn't it? Sir John thankfully had the answer: because he said it is. In fact, it was even better than that, as his speech itself makes clear:

Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.

We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.

Yet if we hold back, and don't pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.

These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas.

Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more finely-balanced judgments have to be made by Ministers themselves. I welcome the publication of the consolidated guidance on detainee issues. It reflects the detailed guidance issued to SIS staff in the field and the training we give them.

Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we're required by UK and international law to avoid that action. And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.


It is really rather gobsmacking: here is the head of our foreign intelligence service first putting forward the hoary old chestnut that is the "ticking time bomb scenario", where the human rights of the suspect conflict with the opportunity to save lives, then immediately afterwards stating categorically that torture is illegal and abhorrent and that they have nothing to do with it. It's not difficult to see the conflict between these two statements, as Craig Murray most definitely has. We're back it seems to plausible deniability - putting the argument plainly and strongly for exactly the sort of abuse which has been documented post 9/11 - then stating equally plainly and strongly that they would never ever do such a thing.

If for some unfathomable reason you don't trust the word of MI6, then well, you're pretty much stuffed. For Sir John is firmly in favour of the "control principle", where by you don't release information you've received from others without their permission. This was supposedly breached when the "seven paragraphs" concerning the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed were ordered to be published by the Court of Appeal. It doesn't matter to MI6 that the main reason for doing so was that a legal ruling in the US had already established beyond doubt that Mohamed was tortured, using information from the CIA; the principle rather than shining the light of truth on such "abhorrent" practices by our closest allies is far more important. Sawers looks forward to a green paper which will set out "some better options for dealing with national security issues in the courts", for which it's impossible to read anything other than an end to courageous judges exposing what was done in our name.

Although it reflects a Blackadder joke, Sir John Sawers is right in saying secrecy is not a dirty word. We need intelligence services, as is demonstrated by the packages which have been intercepted on cargo planes today. Openness it seems however is a dirty word. Sawers can talk all he wants about the useless Intelligence and Security Committee and two former judges who act as commissioners; their work simply doesn't provide anywhere near enough oversight into services which routinely do perform heroics, but which can equally also find themselves complicit in activity which makes us less safe, not more. What is needed is a wholly independent body, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which would conduct yearly reviews and also have the powers to investigate allegations of abuse, producing reports which would be as lightly censored as possible. For all their recognition that they can no longer hide in the shadows, the intelligence services still want to remain in the dark, and are actively fighting to do so.

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I'm not sure whether you realise, whoever you are (why are we not allowed to have your name, since you are so enthusiastic about openness and so scornful about secretiveness? Even Sir John Sawers writes under his own name) that in the extract from Sawers's speech which you quote he is talking about the dilemma which arises when the UK acquires information about suspected terrorist planning in another country and has to decide whether to pass it on to that country's security service, even if it's quite possible that those named in the information will be pulled in and tortured; yet if we don't hand the information over, innocent people may be killed, e.g. by a suicide bomber. If you really think that there's an easy solution to that dilemma in every case, you obviously ought to be working for MI6. (By the way, Sawers's remarks have nothing to do with a ticking bomb scenario, nor with the question of whether our government is justified in some circumstances in seeking corroboration of information about a possible future terrorist act or other crime if there are grounds for suspecting that the information in question has been extracted by torture by another country's intelligence and security services. You may have a view about that, but it's not what Sawers was talking about.)

Brian
http://www.barder.com/ephems/

I would agree with your interpretation if it wasn't for one word which Sawers uses from the first key paragraph of the relative section. "Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives here or abroad." That here is key. When he then goes on to posit that if they pass on related intelligence a suspect could be badly treated, he's clearly setting up a ticking bomb type scenario. In any event, as Craig himself argued from the post where I suspect you were directed from, it's fairly clear that this was all but an admission that (in some cases with ministerial permission) intelligence is passed on to dictatorial or authoritarian regimes which does result in mistreatment from time to time. It's therefore disingenuous in the extreme to condemn torture so utterly in the very next sentence.

I don't believe there's an easy solution to every operational decision, and dealing with moral absolutes is always a dangerous game. Regardless of that, it's still clear that MI6 and its sister organisations are operating as if nothing whatsoever untoward has occurred since 9/11, when it most certainly has, and this speech was just a continuation of that refusal to accept responsibility for following the US into the gutter.

No, I'm sorry, that won't wash. You put weight on the word 'here' that it won't bear. Sawers proceeds from the general to the particular. Take the general scenario: we receive information that could save lives somewhere -- here or abroad. There's an obvious duty to do something about it in order to save those lives. Now he gives an example of the kind of complication that may arise in passing the information to those who can act on it. What if this happens to be an undemocratic régime that might "badly treat" the suspect named in the information? Not a word here about whether we ought to receive information if it originally came from a nasty régime. That's not the dilemma which he chooses to discuss.

As to the "ticking bomb", that refers to an imaginary situation where a suspect is believed to know how to prevent an imminent atrocity likely to kill many innocent people, and the bomb is timed to go off at a given time unless the secret code to stop it can be extracted from the suspect. Should we torture him to extract the information and thus save many lives, or should we let the innocents die rather than stoop to torture? This makes for good theatre or cinema, and for satisfying academic debate about the ethics of the alternative courses of action, but it's extremely unlikely to arise in real life, and it's certainly not the scenario discussed anywhere in Sawers's speech.

The situation he discusses is one where our security services acquire information, possibly or even probably from tainted sources, which points to an identified group in a specified location who are said to be planning an act of terrorism, some time in the future, that could result in the deaths of innocent people. Sawers asserts that in such circumstances there is an obvious duty to "act on it" -- in other words, to check it out, to investigate the allegations, and to ascertain whether they are independently corroborated. If they are, the relevant authorities must clearly step in to prevent the execution of the plan and the deaths likely to result from it. Do you seriously argue that it would be a proper reaction in such circumstances to say: "This intelligence may have originated with people who are known to torture their opponents for information. It would be immoral for us even to read it -- or, if we read it, to do anything about it. We will take no action, and if the information turns out to be true and innocent people die, so be it. We can't then be accused of complicity in torture: our hands will be clean, which is all that matters"? Note too that this is a situation that occurs regularly and routinely in real life and has nothing to do with the implausible ticking bomb scenario.

It's difficult to resist the suspicion that your post here reflects a gut dislike of persons engaged in the collection of secret intelligence by unorthodox and clandestine means, and a determination to read into the utterances of such persons' chief honcho implications that will discredit and expose him as holding immoral and objectionable views. I suggest that you try to clear your mind of all prejudice, or at least suspend it, and then re-read Sawers's speech. You might find it surprisingly reassuring.

Brian
http://www.barder.com/ephems/

This comment has been removed by the author.

I have tried to post a considered and civil reply to your comment, but it has been rejected. If you will send me your email address to brianlb[at]ntlworld[dot]com, I will email my reply to you.

Brian

The comment went to spam for some reason.

No, I'm not making such an argument as you set out, and I didn't at any point. I do note however that you've twisted it round to exactly the opposite of what you believe Sawers was setting out, to us receiving information which may have come from mistreatment, rather than us passing on information to regimes which may as a result commit torture. The key difference there is that we can have a certain amount of certainty over just how it was sourced, and how reliable it is as a result; Craig's argument is that very little of the information which came from the likes of the Uzbeki security services was either accurate or any use, whilst almost certainly being the product of torture. Such intelligence is the kind we could almost entirely do without. I say almost entirely as nothing should be dismissed completely out of hand.

If there is a gut dislike reflected here, it is not of the persons engaged in the shadows protecting us but in the methods which they or their predecessors succumbed to so quickly, and which they are still determined to either hide or throw as little light as possible upon. Even if you see nothing untoward in the glib condemnations of torture in all its forms, I would have thought you might be concerned with how determined they are to stop their dirty laundry from being exposed in court again and how the current methods of oversight are so completely lacking. These are more than good enough reasons to be cynical about Sawers' "reassuring" speech.

I'm content to leave it to others to judge whether I have "twisted" anything around. The question of the adequacy of oversight of the intelligence and security agencies is important but a different issue from those that you and Craig Murray have raised over Sir J Sawers's speech. As to the attempted protection of an intelligence-sharing partner's documents from unauthorised disclosure by the UK courts without the consent of their owner, and the implications of such disclosure for future sharing of intelligence, I don't share your evident conviction that the interests of universal automatic transparency for everything outweighs every other consideration.

As I have pointed out long ago elsewhere, Craig Murray was and is in no position to assess the reliability (or lack of it) of such intelligence from Uzbek sources about the terrorist threat to the UK or elsewhere as may have been passed on privately to London by the Americans while he was ambassador to Uzbekistan, because he would not have seen it. He made clear to London many times his view that (a) we ought not to receive such intelligence from the Americans, and that (b) if we did receive it, we should dismiss it as invariably unreliable. That advice will undoubtedly have been given the weight it deserved by those in London responsible for assessing intelligence in the light of all factors, including Craig's advice among that of many others more expert than him.

I don't propose to comment further here, if you will forgive me. I still owe Craig a reply to his comment on his own blog. I appreciate the space you have provided here for me to express a dissenting view.

Brian
http://www.barder.com/ephems/

You write:

"Craig's argument is that very little of the information which came from the likes of the Uzbeki security services was either accurate or any use, whilst almost certainly being the product of torture. Such intelligence is the kind we could almost entirely do without. I say almost entirely as nothing should be dismissed completely out of hand."

Exactly. The whole problem comes from sifting through masses of intelligence material round the clock, trying to work out whether despite our qualms about a given report or a flow of material from a source we may have to use it.

Craig Murray is an unconvincing absolutist - at least you see the operational nuances.

One vital message from John Sawers' speech was that it is one thing to have robust UK procedures for overseeing MI6's work, but quite another to have the UK courts poring over intelligence reports from other countries. If that is even remotely possible, why should anyone share anything serious with us?

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