Friday, February 26, 2010 

Paragraph 168 and all that.

It's been a week of non-denial denials, as well as some especially flagrant lies in the shape of Gordon Brown's curious failure to remember unleashing "the forces of hell" against his chancellor after he made the mistake of being too honest with an interviewer. Kindly, they've saved the best until last, with the trifecta of prime minister, home secretary and foreign secretary all uniting in defending those poor, unable to answer back protectors of the realm in the security services:

"We totally reject any suggestion that the security services have a systemic problem in respecting human rights. We wholly reject too that they have any interest in suppressing or withholding information from ministers or the courts."

"It is the nature of the work of the intelligence services that they cannot defend themselves against many of the allegations that have been made. But I can - and I have every confidence that their work does not undermine the principles and values that are the best guarantee of our future security."

It's instructive that all three of these statements, in response to the full disclosure of paragraph 168 of the "seven paragraphs" ruling, only talk in the present tense. Is anyone actually suggesting that the security services now have a systemic problem in respecting human rights? It's been clear that both MI5 and 6 have somewhat changed their ways as a result of the allegations made against them involving both complicity in torture and rendition, helped along by the fact that to a certain extent the CIA has also moderated its behaviour. Alan Johnson's second sentence is worded equally carefully - while Lord Neuberger suggests that David Miliband was misled by MI5 when he issued the public interest immunity certificates put before the court, the main allegation made by Neuberger is that MI5 lied to the Intelligence and Security Committee when they told it in March 2005 that "they operated a culture that respected human rights and that coercive interrogation techniques were alien to the Services' general ethics, methodology and training" while they also "denied that [they] knew of any ill-treatment of detainees interviewed by them whilst detained by or on behalf of the [US] Government". The ISC contains no serving ministers, and no one has claimed that the security services have suppressed or withheld evidence from the courts.

Likewise, as asinine as Brown's claim is that the security services cannot defend themselves, somewhat contradicted by Jonathan Evans' moon-lighting as a Telegraph columnist, why shouldn't he have "every confidence" that their work doesn't undermine "the principles and values" that keep us safe? After all, the new guidelines under which MI5 and 6 are meant to work, which explicitly forbid any complicity in mistreatment have been in place now for some time, and there's been no indication as yet that they aren't being followed. We aren't talking about the here and now however, we're talking about what the security services did, which Brown, Miliband and Johnson strangely don't seem to want to discuss. It would be nice, for instance, for Miliband to comment on whether he was misled by MI5 as Neuberger suggests he was, something which he inexplicably declined to mention in an otherwise lengthy tête-a-tête with a BBC journalist.

The other defence of the security services, and with it the ISC, is that they weren't lying in 2005 when they told the committee the lines stated above as they didn't then apparently know about all the additional documents and information which were only found at a later date once the courts were involved. This is errant nonsense of the most obfuscatory kind. Two years later the ISC was told by Eliza Manningham-Buller (or Bullshitter, as only I call her), then head of MI5, that it was "regrettable that assurances regarding proper treatment of detainees were not sought from the Americans" in Binyam Mohamed's case, despite knowing full well, as the seven paragraphs show, that he was already being tortured before "Witness B" went to interview him. These documents were withheld for the very reason that they directly contradicted what MI5 had told and continued to tell the committee, right up until it was no longer legally possible to pretend otherwise. Miliband, Brown and Johnson are defending the indefensible, and they know it. The only question remains is whether ministers themselves were kept in the dark by the security services in a similar fashion until plausible deniability was no longer an option. The only way we'll find that out is through a judicial inquiry, something that both ministers and the security services will resist with every fibre of their being.

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Friday, February 12, 2010 

The seven paragraphs fallout continues.

It's not very often that you see the British state act in such apparent unison as it has over the last couple of days. It's reminiscent of the behaviour of a dog or a child that knows it's done something wrong but carries on acting belligerently regardless, hoping that by doing so you'll concentrate on the reaction rather than the initial offence. In what was almost certainly a carefully choreographed move, we've had the home and foreign secretaries both writing to newspapers to complain bitterly that they dared to report what their chief legal Rottweiler almost ordered a judge not to write in his ruling, while over in the Telegraph Jonathan Evans himself makes a rare appearance in customary obfuscatory spook fashion, suggesting that not only this could all be part of a propaganda war but that also we seem to be indulging in "conspiracy theories and caricature".

You could be forgiven for thinking that the government and intelligence agencies were worried by such unpleasant but also undeniable insights into how they have in the recent past operated against their own citizens and residents. Surely though, it must all be part of an over active imagination. Clearly, slurs and "ludicrous lies" are being told about the organisations that are working as we speak to keep us safe from those who would do every single one of us harm. When Jonathan Evans says, "[W]e did not practise mistreatment or torture then and do not do so now, nor do we collude in torture or encourage others to torture on our behalf", then who are we to disagree?

It doesn't seem to matter that at every single step of the way, from the first investigations into what has become known as "extraordinary rendition", which were the work of newspapers and investigative journalists, not as Evans seems to claim, "taken from our own records", all the way now up to the allegations made in parliament by David Davis concerning the almost outsourcing of torture in the case of Rangzieb Ahmed, that both the government and the security services have denied being involved either in torture or being complicit in its use. Try to spot the difference between what Jack Straw told the Foreign Affairs committee back in 2005 and the denials of everything that have poured forth today:

Q 23. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea.

I do not think it would be justified. While we are on this point, Chairman, can I say this? Some of the reports which are given credibility, including one this morning on the Today programme, are in the realms of the fantastic.

Since then we've learned of the use of Diego Garcia for rendition, the cases of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, who were rendered to Guantanamo after MI6 told the CIA that they were carrying bomb parts when they weren't, of the over 100 different flights which passed through this country which were involved in the rendition programme and of the handing over to the Americans of Iraqi prisoners, who were swiftly taken to Bagram airbase, home of an especially notorious "black site" prison.

At the very heart of this is the continued refusal to accept that the security services knew almost from the very beginning that the US was mistreating prisoners held under the auspices of the "war on terror". In one of the few revealing documents given to the Intelligence and Security Committee in their otherwise worthless investigations into rendition and prisoner mistreatment was a memo from the 11th of January 2001, issued to both MI5 and MI6 officers telling them that they "could not engage in inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners" but they also had no obligation to stop it from happening. This was after one officer had reported back that the detainee he had interviewed had been tortured by US personnel. Despite this, the ISC completely believed the story it was told by both government and the intelligence agencies that they didn't realise properly what the US was doing until the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light, a point repeated by Jonathan Evans today, that it was "slow to detect the emerging pattern". It had detected it all right, it just did nothing about it until it blew up in the Americans' faces, hoping like they did that they could get away with. Likewise, the ISC considered the fact that MI5 had provided questions to the Americans which were subsequently used while Binyam Mohamed was tortured in Morocco as "regrettable", as was the fact that it hadn't sought assurances that he wouldn't be mistreated. As the seven paragraphs have now made clear, MI5 knew full well that Mohamed was already being tortured, yet it still did nothing to help him and sent on the questions for him to be asked regardless. What is that if not active complicity in torture?

Nick Clegg is close to getting somewhere when he suggests that ministers themselves must have known about this policy of non-involvement but also non-condemnation of ill-treatment. This though is where things start getting truly murky: the Guardian has previously reported that Tony Blair knew, but not until after the Abu Ghraib scandal. This would tie in with the claims of the security services that they couldn't possibly have known about the US policy of mistreatment until then. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the ministers didn't know, or at least only had an inkling and that the security services had kept it a secret from them up until it was no longer possible to. It's plausible and would also explain just why the security services keep up the ridiculous pretence that they didn't know until then, hence also why both were so outraged when Lord Neuberger claimed that MI5 was unaccountable even to the politicians supposedly in charged, having got far too close to the actuality.

Is that letting them off the hook somewhat, if it turns out to be the case? Certainly. We've known for years about the antics of the intelligence agencies, and especially how in the past they reacted to Labour governments, as well as their infiltration of completely harmless leftist organisations throughout the 70s and 80s, and for the current generation to forget about those scandals is unforgivable. Did even they though imagine that they would become complicit in torture in such a way? They're responsible and accountable, but it could well be that the security services remained even more out of control than us "conspiracy theorists and caricaturists" imagined.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2010 

The seven paragraphs.

Reading the seven paragraphs that have finally been released detailing the CIA's treatment of Binyam Mohamed after today's ruling by the Court of Appeal, it's initially difficult to know quite why the government was so determined that they should remain secret. They tell us absolutely nothing that we didn't already know: that the US was systematically mistreating almost anyone that came into their custody in either Afghanistan or Pakistan; that this was just the start of the torture regime which Binyam Mohamed found himself under; that the CIA, despite the claims of our security services, had been letting them know just what they were doing to individuals connected to this country; and that despite knowing full well that what the CIA was doing to Mohamed at this early stage would breach our obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights, as found during the 1970s when the "five techniques" were outlawed in Northern Ireland, they did absolutely nothing to intervene to stop his mistreatment.

Why then did they appeal, time and again until finally giving up at some point last week to stop these already widely known facts from entering into the public domain? The claims, repeated ad nauseam today that this was all about the "control" principle, that one country does not publish intelligence provided by another without its express permission is wholly unconvincing. Even if it does annoy the CIA and the US that more of their dirty secrets are being thoroughly examined and released by the courts of another country, it's nothing as to what they themselves have already admitted that they did and authorised, such as the Bybee memos and the waterboarding of the few top al-Qaida members whom they managed to capture. Indeed, the only reason why the Court of Appeal decided that seven paragraphs could today be published was that far more gruesome evidence of the torture which Mohamed underwent was released by a US court in a judgement in November of last year. Lord Neuberger quotes from it in his section of today's ruling (paragraph 126):

[Mr Mohamed's] trauma lasted for two long years. During that time, he was physically and psychologically tortured. His genitals were mutilated. He was deprived of sleep and food. He was summarily transported from one prison to another. Captors held him in stress positions for days at a time. He was forced to listen to piercingly loud music and the screams of other prisoners while locked in a pitch-black cell. All the while, he was forced to inculpate himself and others in various plots to imperil Americans.


At page 58, she said that "[t]he [US] Government does not challenge or deny the accuracy of [Mr Mohamed's] story of brutal treatment" and repeated that point at pages 62 and 64. On pages 61-2, she said that his "persistence in telling his story" and "very vigorous… and very public ... pursu[ance of] his claims in the British courts" indicated that his evidence was true and "demonstrates his willingness to test the truth of his version of events in both the courts of law and the court of public opinion". In the passage just quoted from page 70 of her Opinion, she referred to Mr Mohamed's "lengthy prior torture" as an established fact.

Compared to the seven paragraphs we have today, it doesn't really get much more damning.

Fortunately, the government, through its staggeringly inept attempts to stop even the slightest criticism of the security services from being made by those mad, unelected, unaccountable judges, has completely given the game away. Having seen the draft judgement, as is usual, the government's QC Jonathan Sumption was presumably ordered to complain about the withering remarks by Lord Neuberger in paragraph 168, which is distinctly unusual. Even more unusual is that Neuberger acquiesced, and withdrew his comments. Worth quoting in full is Sumption's objections:

The Master of the Rolls's observations, to whichever service they relate, are likely to receive more public attention than any other part of the judgments. They will be read as statements by the Court (i) that the Security Service does not in fact operate a culture that respects human rights or abjures participation in coercive interrogation techniques; (ii) that this was in particular true of Witness B whose conduct was in this respect characteristic of the service as a whole ('it appears likely that there were others'); (iii) that officials of the Service deliberately misled the Intelligence and Security Committee on this point; (iv) that this reflects a culture of suppression in its dealings with the Committee, the Foreign Secretary and indirectly the Court, which penetrates the service to such a degree as to undermine any UK government assurances based on the Service's information and advice; and (v) that the Service has an interest in suppressing information which is shared, not by the Foreign Secretary himself (whose good faith is accepted), but by the Foreign Office for which he is responsible.

Neuberger, whether through acute analysis or just searing condemnation, got far too close to the reality of how the security services were acting post-9/11. From repeated accounts of MI5 and 6 officers visiting those held in by either the CIA or the Pakistanis, we already knew that despite being told of how they were being mistreated nothing was done, and that even on some occasions there was total complicity, with questions from the UK authorities being asked while the detainees were undergoing stress techniques and worse. They clearly, as Neuberger identified, had no problem with operating within a culture where human rights were not respected. Most pointedly, he also noted that the security services had deliberately misled the Intelligence and Security Committee. "Deliberately misled" is mild; they lied and lied and lied, all the way up to the very top.

That is though what the security services do for a living - they lie to people, they mislead and they abuse. For a judge to say that the Intelligence and Security Committee is useless, which is what he was more than implying, is far too damaging. For one to imply that the assurances given by MI5 to politicians are worthless, because of their "culture of suppression", is even worse. As Ian Cobain notes in his annotations on the letter sent by Sumption, the courts are in danger of dismissing the reassurances of politicians based on information from MI5 because of its continued pattern of deception. If they'll lie to the politicians that represent them, then it therefore follows that they'll lie to everyone. They therefore then have to be made accountable to someone, and that someone would likely have to be a fully independent, judicial committee, not a parliamentary select committee packed with ex-ministers.

Despite then already being fully aware that the information in the seven paragraphs was already well known, the real reason for wanting them to remain secret was because they show just how out of control our supposedly fully accountable and enlightened defenders of British security actually were and indeed remain. They show that they'll lie not just to the public, but to politicians as well. And despite knowing this, those self-same politicians are far more interested in protecting their own hides than in shining a light on the agencies that colluded in the torture of both British citizens and residents. The sad thing is that they succeeded on the principle, but not on this particularly case, thanks to the same United States which supported the government's attempt to stop the paragraphs being published. That must hurt, but not as much as a fully damning judgement with an unexpurgated paragraph 168 would have done.

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Monday, August 10, 2009 

Protesting too much about collusion.

One of the more cutting criticisms made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights last week was that while the head of MI5 had no problems in talking to the media, he seemed to regard it as an unacceptable chore to have to appear in front of a few jumped-up parliamentarians. Yesterday the head of MI6, "Sir" John Scarlett appeared on a Radio 4 documentary into the Secret Intelligence Service, where he naturally denied that MI6 had ever so much as hurt a hair on anyone's head, or more or less the equivalent, as Spy Blog sets out.

This would of course be the same MI6 that passed on information to the CIA regarding Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna which resulted in their arrest in Gambia and subsequent rendition to Guantanamo Bay, and indeed the same MI6 which along with MI5 interviewed Binyam Mohamed while he was being detained in Pakistan, where we now know he was being tortured. The Intelligence and Security Committee noted even in their whitewash report into rendition that MI6 had likely given information to the Americans which was subsequently used in his mistreatment whilst in Morocco. We've since learned that "Witness B", an MI5 officer, also visited Morocco on a couple of occasions while Mohamed was being held there, even further heightening suspicions of direct collusion in his torture.

Those two others who declined to appear before the JCHR were David Miliband and Alan Johnson, who also seem to prefer talking to the media than having to face the chore of sitting before a committee with something approaching independence. Their article in the Sunday Telegraph, responding to the report's claims was one of those wonderful pieces of writing which condemns everything, states the obvious whilst not contradicting any of the specific allegations of collusion. It's the lady protesting too much: no one said, as they do, that the security and intelligence services operate without control and oversight; indeed, it's been quite clear that ministers have known from the very beginning just what the intelligence services have been getting up to, they've just denied and denied and denied it until finally forced to admit to specific allegations, like that two men were rendered through Diego Garcia despite previously repeatedly denying it. They've in fact just admitted that they are personally accountable for what MI5 and MI6 officers get up, so we'll know who should be prosecuted should collusion be revealed, and it's difficult to believe that at some point it won't be.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009 

Torture? Look at this fucking great fish!

You perhaps would have thought, what with it being the silly season and all, that a hard news story such as the most authoritative so far inquiry into British state complicity with torture post 9/11 might have made a few waves. Fat chance. The only thing making waves, or rather no longer making them, is a dead fish. Front page of the Graun, pretty much a given, considering the paper's own contribution to the inquiry by the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (PDF), was the best it could manage.

Admittedly, it might be because it doesn't tell those of us who have been following the long and winding road from complicity in rendition with the Americans to complicity in torture in Pakistan much that we don't already know. It also doesn't specifically say that we have been complicit: such investigation was outside its remit, and besides, both David Miliband and the home secretary declined to give evidence to the committee, as did Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5. Andrew Dismore, trying to shame the MI5 director into meeting his committee even pointed out to Evans that back in January he gave an interview to a select band of hacks. If he can give an insight into the current workings of the security service to the hoi polloi in Fleet Street, surely he can spare a few minutes to say something to parliamentarians? Alas, no. Evans it seems is only answerable to the toothless Intelligence and Security Committee, where his evidence can be conveniently censored and redacted, and considering their report into rendition, which was a complete whitewash, it's no surprise why the service favours them.

Thankfully, the committee's conclusions pull few punches. Complicity in torture would be a direct breach of our international human rights obligations; despite the need for co-operation between foreign intelligence agencies, there must be mechanisms for ensuring accountability; ministers are determined to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, and the fact they can do so confirms the system for ministerial accountability for security and intelligence matters is woefully deficient; the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee must be debated to ensure it is subject to frequent scrutiny and that it should be established as a proper parliamentary committee, with an independent secretariat; the government should immediately publish all versions of the guidance given to intelligence officers in relation to the detention and interviewing of detainees overseas; the government should follow the Obama administration and publish all relevant legal opinions provided to ministers; and lastly, the only way to restore confidence in the intelligence services is an independent inquiry into the numerous allegations of complicity in torture, which should make recommendations about improving the accountability of the security services as well as removing any scope for impunity.

Some coverage of these conclusions might well have helped towards that inquiry, one which this government at least is certain not to hold; it's doubtful also that Cameron, especially with the neo-conservatives among his front bench, is likely to piss off the security services as soon as he ascends to power. What it comes down to is that no one really cares: some of those making the allegations are after all convicted terrorists; oh, and probably the fact that all of them have brown or darker skin helps too. We will though remain in judgement of Guantanamo Bay and the explicit involvement of the CIA in torture, even when we ourselves are just as up to our necks in it.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009 

Collusion, lying and willing torturers.

Craig Murray quite reasonably wonders whether he's been airbrushed out of history, as the Guardian keeps up its rather belated "exclusives" concerning who knew what and when over the mistreatment of British detainees and our corresponding collusion in torture. I'm more concerned though with how this yet again shows just how useless the Intelligence and Security Committee is. In their report on rendition a couple of years back, which was, it goes without saying, a complete and utter whitewash, they believed the claims of MI6 that they knew absolutely nothing about anyone being mistreated anywhere until the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged:

150. It was only when news surfaced of the mistreatment of detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 that the UK Government realised that there were real risks of CIDT:
Back in 2003 we were concerned about secret facilities but we did not at that stage, I think, make an automatic connection between secret facilities and mistreatment. That sort of connection grew later as more allegations came to light or… things like Abu Ghraib came to light, which led you to believe, just a minute, if that is happening there, what might be happening in secret facilities.

This itself was unbelievable: what was the point of "secret" facilities except to subject those held there to the sort of treatment which would eventually severely embarrass both the United States and this country? The idea itself that MI6 couldn't or didn't know what was going on was even more ridiculous: what is the point of intelligence gathering organisations if they can't even work out what our allies are up to?

We know now for certain however that MI6 knew full well what was going on as soon as they started being allowed access to prisoners with UK connections, as could have been expected. In January 2002, after an MI6 officer realised that someone in US custody was being mistreated, they sent out official advice which while telling their agents that they could not be seen to condone torture, they were not under any obligation to intervene to prevent it, something which directly breaches the obligation not to be complicit in that mistreatment.

MI6 can't be blamed for lying; that is after all what they are trained to do from the moment they join the service and is to be expected. Our politicians can however be blamed, for both knowing full well what was happening despite their denials and for publishing those denials as if they were true. There is only one way to get to the bottom of the abuses which have happened under the rendition programmes and the mistreatment in the name of the war on terror, and that is through a fully independent judicial inquiry. At the same time, the ISC needs to be abolished and a fully independent watchdog of the security services needs to be established, with the Independent Police Complaints Commission as the model, modified as necessary. Liars may then not be able to prosper after all.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009 

Threat level diminishing? Say it ain't so...

Sometimes the headlines used in different newspapers on the same story can be instructive: while the Guardian headlined their report of the interview with MI5 head Jonathan Evans "al-Qaida threat diminished but not over", the Telegraph went with the more alarming "MI5 chief warns of threat from global recession". Little of what he said really hinted at any imminent security threat as a direct result of the recession, more a gradual shifting of power from the West potentially to the East, but it made for a better story than the much more important revelation that the threat level has diminished.

Whether this is, as Evans argued, a result of the last couple of years of prosecutions or rather down to the changing priorities of those becoming radicalised, with Evans suggesting that Somalia is becoming an increasingly attractive place to join the jihad is impossible to know. It is however very encouraging and informative that according to Evans al-Qaida appears to have no "semi-autonomous structured hierarchy" currently in place in this country. This suggests that if there are going to be attacks, or attempted attacks, they're more likely to be of the variety provided by Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead outside the Tiger Tiger and at Glasgow airport, where incompetence and lack of funding combined with an apparently automonous decision to launch an attack, although allegations of links to the Islamic State of Iraq, rather than al-Qaida "central" in Pakistan have been made.

Without saying as much, Evans more or less admitted that since the Glasgow attack there has been no serious, imminent plot to disrupt. He also more or less suggested that the number of active sympathisers, said by himself to be around 2,000, a figure which has never been adequately quantified, has also declined, although whether this is due to recantation or those previously identified leaving the country is again impossible to know. From attacks supposedly being imminent, or actively being planned, Evans only said that "they have the intention to mount an attack here", which is a long way from some of the blood-curdling rhetoric and outright fearmongering we have heard from politicians and police in the past. It also directly contradicts the recent remarks made by Lord West that "another great plot is building up again".

Evans' interview ought to raise the question of why the "official threat level" continues to remain at "severe", which is meant to mean that an attack is highly likely. By his comments, a more suitable level would be the next one down, which is "substantial", with an attack a strong possibility. One of the factors involved is surely that prior to 7/7 there were discussions about lowering the threat level to "substantial", only for the attack to apparently occur from out of the blue, catching police and security services off-guard, although it subsequently became clear that MI5 had known about two of the attackers, previously described as "clean skins". Potential criticism for messing around with the threat level is probably part of why it hasn't been brought down, but also surely a factor is that Labour ministers themselves continue to scaremonger at every given opportunity, regardless of the reality. Keeping it at "severe" helps them to be able to continue sell the ever continuing casual dilutions of liberty and the new plans for databases, all supposedly to make us safer while apparently doing nothing other than properly prosecuting and monitoring plots has up to now stood us in apparently good stead.

Evans did mention the mega-database plan, or at least something similar to it, although his main concern appeared to be calls made over Skype, which they seem to currently have difficulties intercepting. Far less impressive was his defence of the Intelligence and Security Committee, for the obvious reason being that it is about as inefficient and hopeless as a watchdog over the security services as any parliamentary committee. From its whitewash over MI6's involvement in rendition, which changed the descriptions of what constituted an "extraordinary rendition" so that MI6 was found innocent, to its pathetic censored reports which may as well not be issued for all the enlightenment they offer, both MI5 and MI6 need to have a fully independent organisation which monitors them, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which although flawed, is far better than the ISC currently is. Neither political party however is interested in opening up the security services any further than they currently have been, and they'll continue to be able to do more or less as they please for years to come. They may have cleaned up their act considerably on the home front, but abroad and especially regards to suspects in Pakistan and elsewhere they seem as dependent on torture and the unannounced, shadowy visits as they ever have.

Outside of that, what we ought to take from the interviews with Evans is that the sky is not about to fall, despite so many relentlessly predicting just that. The one real concern is in fact that the assaults on Gaza by Israel seem to be successfully radicalising not just those living in the occupied territories, but those outside it as well. All those defending Israel to the hilt ought to take note of that; when we refuse to recognise that such disproportionate attacks on an impoverished people far away can have such an effect on our own streets, it imposes on all of us an obligation to push ever harder for a peaceful settlement. And one thing that can be guaranteed is that the massacres we have seen over the last couple of weeks are only likely to put that further away.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008 

And now, some rare good news, amid a tepid constitutional reform white paper.

Only 3 years after it was first passed, the sections of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 dealing with protests with 1km of Westminster are to be repealed. Presumably those members of parliament who justified the restrictions on the basis that Brian Haw's placards could hide a bomb might be moved to retract their words, and perhaps those convicted under the act might also have their records cleared, along with apologies from the government for how they were prosecuted simply for exercising their democratic right. Perhaps I might go piss in the wind.

That, sadly, was about the most radical part of today's white paper on the "constitutional renewal bill" (PDF). The other measures are either ones that have long been proposed or ones that are incredibly feeble. Hence the reform of the attorney general's powers, prompted entirely because of the concerns over the advice given prior to the Iraq war and Lord Goldsmith's role in the ending of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry into the BAE-Saudi slush fund are such that he/she in the future will retain the right to end prosecutions over matters of national security, which just so happens to be the specious reasoning behind the dropping of the SFO case! The change itself that the attorney general will have to report to parliament when he/she does wield that power isn't clear either; Goldsmith announced to the Lords previously that the inquiry was being dropped. Isn't that more or less one and the same thing?

The whole bill seems to have this aura of meaninglessness and paucity of radicalism about it. Parliament will now have to have all treaties laid before it and passed before they can be enshrined, but this won't apply to either EU or tax treaties, so how often this new parliamentary right will be exercised is open to question. The civil service will be formally made independent, which is long overdue, but again how much it will actually change anything is another matter.

As promised, the bill does set out how parliament will have a vote before war which is a much needed reform, but this doesn't inspire total confidence either. Two points open to question are that the attorney general's advice on whether the conflict itself will be legal under international law will not be provided in full but whether it's legal or not will be given, which is hardly sufficient either for those expected to vote on such a matter or for this country's standing on the international stage. It also won't apply to when special forces are being used, won't be retroactive, so if forces are sent in secretly then there won't necessarily be a vote once their mission becomes known, and if parliament is dissolved or adjourned when a conflict breaks out, again the government reserves the right not to recall parliament in order for a vote to be held. We'd better hope then a war doesn't break out sometime between July and the end of the party conferences at September, as the government will be fully justified in ignoring calls for a vote, just as it ignored calls for a recall to debate the Israel-Lebanon-Hizbullah war in 2006.

The other parts of the bill/white paper deal with public appointments, on which the government is yet to respond to recommendations made by the liason committee; the intelligence and security committee, which under the proposals is to be ever so slightly beefed up, with appointments made by the commons rather than the prime minister himself, briefings to be given making the committee's work more public, a role for an investigator previously assigned to be revived, and with a debate after publishing of reports in the House of Lords. This doesn't come close to what we really need, which is a watchdog similar to either prisons inspectorate or to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Similarly, if the directors of either MI5 or MI6 can make public speeches about just how dire the security situation is, as both the former and current head of MI5 has done, they should be expected to give their evidence to the committees in public. They can't demand secrecy one moment and give bloodcurdling speeches the next.

Finally the paper sees no reason to change the current archaic system of the prime minister appointing senior members of the Church of England to their respective posts, although it does deign to consider recommendations made by the Synod itself over the procedures, and the flag will now be able to fly from government buildings permanently.

That, it seems, is the key metaphor for the entire packaging. Everything else might be screwed, but the flag will continue to fly.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008 

Not much intelligence from the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Continuing with the security theme, yesterday saw the release of the annual report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. The last report they issued was the gobsmacking whitewash on extraordinary rendition, which decided that MI5's involvement in the CIA kidnapping of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna because they'd changed the definition of what exactly an "extraordinary rendition" is. To quote from the toadying, ridiculously trusting report:

D.Those operations detailed above, involving UK Agencies’ knowledge or involvement, are “Renditions to Justice”, “Military Renditions”and “Renditions to “the Detention”. They are not “Extraordinary Renditions”, which we define as extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system,where there is a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

The security services were therefore cleared of any complicit involvement in extraordinary rendition. Aren't our investigating parliamentary committees wonderful?

Just where do you go from issuing such a laughable written record of sycophancy and admiring disregard for anything other than a clean bill of health for our glorious saviours in MI5 and SIS? To an even more hilariously censored account (PDF) which manages to inform you of almost precisely nothing you didn't already know.

Richard Norton-Taylor on CiF has already said it best, but the whole report has to be read to be believed. There isn't a page that goes by that isn't affected in some way by material it's felt to sensitive for the public to read, and so is instead replaced with asterisks. Predictably, we aren't told how much the security services are either spending or being allocated in funding, but some of the removals just make the whole thing completely impossible to understand or make your marvel at just what the point of even bothering to issue a report was. There's this for example:

We are now engaged in a range of counter-terrorism work; direct pursuit of terrorists, ***, capacity-building with key [countries,] and – this is an absolutely vital point
– ***.
***. So put like that and defined like that, this takes up about 56 per cent of our effort… and it is rising.


SIS has improved its *** and its understanding of the factors that have the potential to affect radicalisation and extremism in the UK.

Its what? Its cookery? Its archery? Its performance? Its dick waving?

The media have focused on the fact that GCHQ suffered from flooding last year and the report's inquest into that, but far more interesting is the report's comments on media relations, the stopping of the SFO inquiry into the BAE slush fund and the possibility of intercept evidence being made admissible. These seem to be Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's comments on the coverage of the Birmingham beheading plot raids:

We were very angry, but it is not clear who we should be angry with, that most of the story of the arrests in Op GAMBLE were in the media very, very fast. Indeed, before the arrests in Birmingham, the press were pre-positioned and before the police had picked up one of the plotters and the surveillance was still out looking for them, the story was in the press.

So the case was potentially jeopardised by the exposure of what the story was. My officers and the police were jeopardised by them being on operations when the story broke. The strategy of the police for interrogating those arrested was blown out of the water, and my staff felt pretty depressed about the fact that this had happened.

We've never got to the bottom of who was behind the leaking, mainly to the Scum, but most of the fingers were being pointed directly at the Home Office. Not that they're the only guilty parties; the Met, the security services themselves and other interested parties have all leaked stories for their own benefit in recent years. The solution to this though doesn't appear to be to ensure that accurate, non-sensationalist information is supplied by the police or others when arrests are made, transparently making the news available to all rather than just a few, but instead to tighten the screw on the media in its entirety, with again predictably the complaint being that "lives are at risk":

The current system for handling national security information through DA-Notices, and the Agencies’ relationships with the media more generally, is not working as effectively as it might and this is putting lives at risk. We recommend that the Government engage with the media to develop a new, effective system, with a view to protecting intelligence work, operations, sources and criminal prosecutions, whilst ensuring that the media continue to report on important matters of public interest.

The government engage with the media? Who is the committee kidding? Either it will put down more chilling legislation which rather than affecting the sensationalism in the aftermath of the foiling of a "plot" will instead stop legitimate reporting and investigation, or it'll do nothing.

The committee's unquestioning approach to the evidence given them by the security services is once again highlighted by their pitiful investigation into whether there really was a threat of the Saudis withdrawing intelligence cooperation if the SFO investigation into corruption continued:

106. We asked the Chief of SIS about the Saudi threat to withdraw co-operation:

There was some suggestion in some of the media coverage that there was no *** threat to our co-operation… that is not true. There were threats made to the existence of the co-operation [and] there was reason to take those threats seriously…

If the committee is well briefed, it would know that the intelligence between all the major western intelligence agencies is now pooled and shared. Even if the Saudis had withdrawn their cooperation with SIS, they would never dare remove their cooperation with the Americans, who in any case would then have submitted the same information to us. If John Scarlett was questioned about that, it sure isn't in the report.

U. The Committee is satisfied that, at the time, there were serious national security considerations which contributed to the Serious Fraud Ofice’s decision to halt the investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Even if there were, it was still the equivalent of giving into blackmail and letting a foreign country dictate to us what we could and could not do in relation to more than substantiated allegations of corruption. We would never give in to such demands from terrorists or the likes of Iran, so why with our supposed friends? The rule of law means nothing when it comes to continuing the arming of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East.

Onto intercept evidence. Surprise, surprise, the agencies are firmly against, and the committee certainly isn't convinced either:

113. The Agencies, however, are adamant that their intercept capabilities must not be disclosed in court. If they were, criminals and terrorists would quickly learn what the Agencies can and cannot do, and would emd means of avoiding detection, which would then damage their capability and coverage. Other countries, however, allow the use of intercept as evidence without any adverse impact on their security and intelligence capability, so what makes the UK different?

GCHQ points to a unique combination of factors in the UK:

The UK is the only country which has all three of the following things: an adversarial legal system, subordination to [the European Convention on Human Rights] and a strategic intercept and SIGINT capacity that is worth protecting.

The tabloids' aversion to the HRA seems to be contagious; even the security agencies are now making spurious allusions to the ECHR somehow making it obvious how intercept evidence can't possibly be made admissible. The next paragraph is completely open about how poor some of the intercept evidence is, rather than "strategic" and "worth protecting":

In practice, because of the UK’s adversarial legal system, the defence would be able to test the validity of evidence and thereby explore how it was obtained. As communications technology evolves (particularly internet protocol), we understand it may be dificult for the Agencies to be able to prove intercept to an evidential standard.

So there you are. Admittance that the evidence which currently means those on control orders can't be prosecuted is so flaky or unable to back-up that it would be unlikely to stand up in court. No wonder that the agencies are against it; the last thing they want to look is either stupid or for it to be shown that men innocent of any crime have been held under the equivalent of house arrest for years on their say so.

117. The Director of GCHQ summarised the test for allowing intercept:

… a change to allow intercept as evidence should be introduced only when doing so would have a net benfeit in securing the safety and the security of the UK. By that I mean not just convicting and imprisoning criminals, but also preventing crimes and terrorist actions.

Which just happens to be a test which you'll never be able to come to a definitive conclusion about. Best not to even try then; after all, who cares about those stuck in the eternal limbo of the control order regime, driven to severe depression like Cerie Bullivant, whose only crime seems to have been to have associated with relatives of the fertiliser bomb plotter Anthony Garcia, who had his order quashed yesterday by a judge who was heavily critical of the Home Office.

Its conclusion then:

V. Intercept is of crucial importance to the capability of the Agencies to protect the UK, its citizens and its interests overseas. Any move to permit the use of intercept evidence in court proceedings must be on a basis that does not jeopardise that capability.

In other words, more blackmail. Introduce this and we won't be able to do our jobs properly. Never mind that numerous other countries in Europe also signed up to the ECHR manage it, and that the security services are more than happy with the results of their bugging, crucial to the Crevice trial and now the beheading plot being made available as evidence, intercept would be a step too far. Just what are they so scared of?

The only real showing of teeth by the committee was being denied access to a document prepared for ministers about "an important matter", apparently related to a foreign operation, which the foreign secretary at the time was happy to be given them. The prime minister didn't agree, and the committee said that doesn't say much about his previous pledge to make the committee more transparent.

Indeed, Brown and this government's intentions of doing just that could not be more summed up than in the choice of who to replace Paul Murphy, previous chairman and now the Welsh secretary after Peter Hain's resignation. Margaret Beckett, whose previous performance in her last two jobs, as head of DEFRA and then foreign secretary were both execrable, could not be either more establishment or less likely to ask the pertinent questions needed of the security services. So much too for the independent investigator that the committee was promised. The only way the security services will ever be held properly to account will be if a watchdog similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission or the Information Commissioner were to be set-up. Why for instance should the head of MI5 be able to make doommongering statements about the terrorist threat in public and then refuse to give evidence to a parliamentary committee under the same scrutiny? Just how far the inroads into everyday life the security services are making were revealed in statistics released this week by Sir Paul Kennedy, which showed that more than 250,000 requests were made to monitor phone-calls, emails and post in just 9 months. The surveillance state is ever growing, yet there is not even the slightest attempt to provide accountability. That simply has to change.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007 

Rendition: The whitewash is applied.

Another day, another reasonably damning report on rendition, this time from the Intelligence and Security committee, which ties itself in knots (PDF) in order not to implicitly condemn MI6's role in the rendition of alleged terrorist suspects. First, it provides a lesson in how to obfuscate by defining the different sorts of rendition:


6. The term “rendition”is used to mean different things by different people. It encompasses numerous variations ofextra-judicial transfer such as: to countries where the person is wanted for trial; to countries where the individual can be adequately interrogated; transfer for the purposes of prolonged detention;and military transfer of battlefield detainees.

7. In order to provide clarity,the Committee has used the following terms throughout this Report:

“Rendition”: Encompasses any extra-judicial transfer ofpersons from one jurisdiction or State to another.

“Rendition to Justice”: The extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes ofstanding trial within an established and recognised legal and judicial system.

“Military Rendition”: The extra-judicial transfer of persons (detained in, or related to, a theatre of military operations) from one State to another, for the purposes of military detention in a military facility.

“Rendition to Detention”: The extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system.

“Extraordinary Rendition”: The extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system, where there is a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (CIDT).

For example, the transfer of battlefield detainees from Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay would fall into the category of “Military Renditions”. The transfer of a detainee unconnected to the conflict in Afghanistan to Guantánamo Bay would be a “Rendition to Detention”. A transfer to a secret facility constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment because there is no access to legal or other representation and, on that basis,we would describe this as an “Extraordinary Rendition”.

Isn't that glorious? According to the committee then, what happened to Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna, who were rendered to Guant
ánamo Bay as a result of information provided to the CIA by MI6 wasn't actually an "extraordinary rendition", as they weren't being sent to somewhere where there was a "real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment". I don't know about you, but I consider two men being effectively kidnapped by a security service far outside of their own legal jurisdiction and then imprisoned in a camp where numerous former detainees have alleged that mistreatment was endemic, in al-Rawi's case for 4 years, with al-Banna's detention still continuing, to be cruel and inhuman treatment, whether they were personally tortured or not. In fact, I'd say it was pretty much a complete fucking outrage. Using this definition however, the committee comes to this conclusion:

D.Those operations detailed above, involving UK Agencies’ knowledge or involvement, are “Renditions to Justice”, “Military Renditions”and “Renditions to “the Detention”. They are not “Extraordinary Renditions”, which we define as extra-judicial transfer ofpersons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system,where there is a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. We note that in some of the cases we refer to, there are allegations of mistreatment, including whilst individuals were detained at Guantánamo Bay, although we have not found evidence that such mistreatment was foreseen by the Agencies. The Committee has therefore found no evidence that the UK Agencies were complicit in any “Extraordinary Rendition” operations.

With the goalposts thus shifted, the UK agencies get a clean bill of health. Everything is right with the world after all!

Elements of whitewash are splashed liberally around most of the cases which the committee has investigated. On Binyam Mohamed, who you might remember as the prisoner who had his penis repeatedly slashed with a scalpel, MI6 informs the committee that they one of their men did indeed interview him in Karachi in 2002, and that it's quite possible that information they handed to the Americans on him was subsequently used by the Moroccans who tortured him. However, their conclusion is:

M. There is a reasonable probability that intelligence passed to the Americans was used in al-Habashi’s subsequent interrogation. We cannot confirm any part of al-Habashi’s account of his detention or mistreatment after his transfer from Pakistan.

N. We agree with the Director General of the Security Service that, with hindsight, it is regrettable that assurances regarding proper treatment of detainees were not sought from the Americans in this case.

Throughout the report MI6 is repeatedly let off the hook because "at the time" they didn't know what the Americans were doing to those being rendered. This failure to see any evil in what the CIA was doing only changed after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal was unearthed, as is described in a section of the report headed "ethical dilemmas":

149. The Security Service and SIS have, certainly since 1998, where they considered it necessary, sought assurances from foreign intelligence services that individuals facing detention as a result of any action or intelligence shared with them would be treated humanely. This was originally more concerned with the need to ensure a fair trial and avoid capital punishment as CIDT was not thought to be a likely risk.

150. It was only when news surfaced ofthe mistreatment of detainees at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 that the UK Government realised that there were real risks of CIDT:
Back in 2003 we were concerned about secret facilities but we did not at that stage, I think, make an automatic connection between secret facilities and mistreatment. That sort ofconnection grew later as more allegations came to light or… things like Abu Ghraib came to light, which led you to believe, just a minute, if that is happening there, what might be happening in secret facilities.

From an organisation that is meant to imagine the worst in order to prevent it, this is not just a shocking lack of curiosity, it absolutely reeks of cover-up. Guant
ánamo itself had been open for over two and a half years by the time the Abu Ghraib scandal occurred, where from the beginning there were allegations of ill-treatment and torture. Is MI6 seriously trying to suggest that when it knew full well that suspects were being transferred to black sites and countries where torture was endemic that it honestly believed the CIA's motives for doing so were entirely pure? Why on earth is the Intelligence and Security Committee willing to accept this errant nonsense?

Finally, the allegations of "ghost flights" containing rendered individuals going through UK airspace are similarly dealt with in a "see no evil" style, especially by the director of the MI6:

We have no knowledge of any detainees being subject to rendition through British territory since 9/11; nor have we helped any “Extraordinary Renditions” via UK airspace or territory; nor have the U.S sought our assistance or permission to use UK airspace or facilities… Unless you say you are going to search every aircraft to check the truth of what you are told, it is a difficult issue… As you know… we are prioritising ruthlessly and I could not possibly justify diverting people to check whether aircraft are CIA-sponsored and what they contain,and frankly I doubt the police have the resources to do this.

In other words then, since the Americans didn't feel the need to inform anyone of what they were doing, we're not going to waste any time investigating the possibility, even if it is backed up by mountains of evidence showing the flights linked to the rendition programme have passed through UK airports. The police also have much better things to do than investigating whether men who have been kidnapped and are on their way to being tortured are being flown through UK airspace;
like chastising parents for the way they discipline their children, or removing protesters so that a bull can be slaughtered. The committee's own conclusion is:

FF. The use of UK airspace and airports by CIA-operated aircraft is not in doubt. There have been many allegations related to these flights but there have been no allegations, and we have seen no evidence, that suggest that any of these CIA flights have transferred detainees through UK airspace (other than two “Rendition to Justice” cases in 1998 which were approved by the UK Government following U.S. requests).

All of which reminds one of the phrase "plausible deniability". Don't tell and we won't ask. The silence it seems will forever continue, as shown by Gordon Brown's refusal to condemn the rendition programme yesterday and by the government's pretty pathetic response to the committee's report (PDF). Some things are destined to remain secret.

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