Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Britain’s murky role in CIA torture

The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 30 2014
By Michael Glackin

Not long ago, in a bid to find out how effective the CIA really was at counterterrorism, U.S. President Barack Obama released a rabbit into a forest and challenged the agency to find it. The CIA spent months planting informers in the forest, interviewing forest creatures, and examining all the forest intelligence. Nothing. Finally the agency went into the forest and dragged out a soaking wet, badly beaten brown bear screaming: “Okay, okay! I’m a rabbit, I’m a rabbit!”

Funny as this old joke is, it’s not nearly as funny as the news that the British body charged with investigating the U.K.’s complicity in the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects between 2001 and 2009 was none other than Parliament’s hapless Intelligence and Security Committee.

One of the many merits of the U.S. political system is that all branches and agencies of its government are held accountable by what is sometimes tenacious oversight by elected politicians. The Senate’s Intelligence Committee recently released a report on torture conducted by the CIA in the so-called war on terror. Its work hasn’t been perfect, but at least Americans now know the truth about the CIA’s torture program, and, it appears, the complicity of the administration of former President George W. Bush.

However, we in the U.K. still do not know the extent of our government’s role in this sordid affair. And, if it is left to the feeble ISC to investigate, we never will.

For years, the British government denied that its territory had been used for so-called “rendition” flights, in which terror suspects were illegally transported across the globe by the CIA to countries where they could be tortured. It also denied that British intelligence agencies had any involvement or knowledge of the CIA’s brutal program. The denials were supported by an ISC investigation in 2007 that gave the intelligence agencies and government a clean bill of health. The ISC reiterated its findings in 2010.

Yet a steady drip of leaks and court actions has long contradicted both the government’s lofty denials and the ISC’s findings. For example, for more than a year now, police in Scotland have been investigating whether Scottish airports were used in rendition flights. This probe followed publication of research compiled by the Rendition Project, an academic program that has spent over four years tracking CIA rendition flights and found that 50 aircraft linked to renditions landed in Scotland between September 2001 and September 2006.

But the U.K.’s involvement goes beyond providing a stopover for CIA torture flights. The U.K.’s legal authority, the Crown Prosecution Service, told me that on Dec. 16, London’s Metropolitan Police had handed over a file of evidence, the result of a three-year investigation titled Operation Lydd, into MI6 involvement in the kidnapping of Libyan activists in 2004.

Police working on Operation Lydd even questioned Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary, as a “witness” to the alleged abductions of two Libyans who claim they were handed over to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s regime and tortured. This occurred at a time when the U.K. was trying to curry favor with the dictator.

The CPS told me it was “now in a position to begin considering the material with a view to making a charging decision in due course.”

It is worth pointing out that two years ago, despite government denials and the ISC’s findings, the government paid $3.5 million to one of the Libyan activists, Sami al-Saadi, and his family. This ended a longrunning legal action in which he claimed Straw had authorized his kidnapping in a joint U.K.-U.S.-Libyan operation.

At the time, however, the Foreign Office insisted that the payment was not “an admission of liability.”

The government has also spent more than $600,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to quash another case, brought by a Gadhafi opponent, Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Belhadj, whose pregnant wife was kidnapped with him, is understood to have turned down a $1.6 million settlement because it did not include an acceptance of guilt by the U.K.

There is also the case of former Guantanamo Bay inmate Binyam Mohammed, who in 2011 received $1.6 million from the government in yet another out-of-court settlement. This came after he claimed he was tortured with the complicity of British intelligence agencies while illegally held in Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan.

We also know that U.K. intelligence agencies supplied information to the CIA’s torturers and were present at some of the torture sites. This last point has been substantiated by Lord West, a former Home Office minister and by Dr. James Mitchell, the man who devised and ran the CIA torture program.

The Senate report insists the CIA program was ineffective in gaining information, but many will argue that the West cannot seek to occupy the moral high ground when its enemies film gruesome beheadings of their captives or throw them off high buildings.

But it is the constant denials and barefaced lies of successive government officials that needs to be investigated, and with it the utter failure of the ISC to actually uncover any wrongdoing, or re-examine any of its failings amid police investigations, a plethora of court actions and multimillion-pound taxpayer-funded payoffs.

An earlier inquiry into the torture allegations, launched four years ago and led by a former judge Sir Peter Gibson, questioned whether the U.K. had “a deliberate or agreed policy” to ignore the mistreatment of suspects. It sought to determine whether MI5 and MI6 operated a policy that would “condone, encourage or take advantage of rendition operations” carried out by other countries.

The government promptly scrapped this inquiry before it was finished and asked the ISC to complete it. That was a year and a half ago and the ISC still hasn’t published its findings. Now the government has added the report on CIA torture to the ISC’s workload. You could be forgiven for thinking the British government isn’t keen for the truth to emerge. And that really isn’t funny at all.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 30, 2014, on page 7.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 2 2014
By Michael Glackin

Anyone seeking evidence of how far the United Kingdom has descended from a nation renowned for unblinking fortitude in the face of adversity to one now gripped by collective neurosis and hysteria, need look no further than two bizarre events that took place last week.

First, police started handing out leaflets at railway stations informing commuters that in the event of an Islamist terror attack they should “Run, Hide, and Tell.” If that message wasn’t clear enough, the leaflets also contained images of terrified commuters running down stairs, cowering in darkened corners, and then anxiously calling someone on a mobile phone.

It’s a long way from Winston’s Churchill’s inspirational call to arms in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany: “We shall fight on the beaches ... in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

From Churchillian defiance to “run, hide, and phone a friend.” Lord help us. You could be forgiven for thinking that the U.K. was already occupied by ISIS. Small wonder that the nation’s commuters lambasted the police for scaremongering and wasting taxpayers money.

If that wasn’t enough, we then had the astonishing verdict of a parliamentary inquiry that found an American social media website responsible for the brutal murder of a British soldier on the streets of London last year by two Islamist terrorists. This shamelessly passed the buck that should have stopped at the British intelligence services, which had monitored the killers over several years.

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said the website, later revealed to be Facebook, failed to inform the authorities that one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, wrote of his murderous intentions on Facebook six months before he and an accomplice, Michael Adebolajo, killed army drummer Lee Rigby in May 2013 and attempted to behead him.

Facebook had closed some of Adebowale’s accounts after its automated systems flagged up terrorist concerns, but Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the ISC and a former British foreign secretary, insisted that if MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, had had access to this information there was “a significant possibility that MI5 would have been able to prevent the attack.” Rifkind accused Facebook of providing a “safe haven for terrorists,” adding that the murder “happened on this U.S. Internet company’s watch.”

In actual fact, the murder happened on the British government’s watch, and that of increasingly hapless intelligence services.

Rifkind’s diatribe served two purposes. First, it was a crude attempt to deflect attention from a string of failings by MI5 and MI6 that were highlighted in the ISC report. Second, it paved the way for the government’s sweeping new anti-terror laws, which give police draconian powers to force Internet firms to hand over details that might identify suspected terrorists and other criminals. The legislation was unveiled at the same time as the ISC report was made public.

The ISC exonerated MI5 and MI6 yet its report lays bare how much the intelligence services knew about the killers, both of whom are British citizens and are now serving life sentences.

Adebolajo, the leader of the attack, had been the subject of five separate investigations and surveillance operations by MI5. In 2010 he was arrested in Kenya while traveling to Somalia to join Al-Shabab. MI6, Britain’s overseas security service, was notified of the arrest but failed to interview Adebolajo or even sit in on the Kenyan interviews. While the ISC was scathing in its criticism of Facebook, it merely said MI6’s failure to follow up on the Kenyan arrest was “deeply unsatisfactory.”

For the next two years Adebolajo was under intensive MI5 surveillance, then inexplicably, a month or so before the murder, it stopped. It has been claimed that around this time MI5 was trying to recruit him as an informant.

Meanwhile, the other killer, Adebowale, had been investigated on two occasions. MI5 had even decided to start a new intensive “intrusive” surveillance operation against him in the weeks before the murder. However, it delayed seeking the required legal permission from the home secretary until the day before Rigby was killed.

In short, the report’s findings clearly indicate that better intelligence work and more decisive action by both agencies would have reduced the danger posed by these men, perhaps even saved Rigby’s life. But the ICS ignored its own findings and heaped opprobrium on Facebook instead.

This isn’t the first time the security services have escaped condemnation for their failings. A government inquiry into the July 7, 2005, bombings in London also absolved MI5, despite the fact the leaders of the attack, which killed 52 people, were, in the parlance of the spooks, “known” to the service.

While everyone needs to be vigilant against terror threats, it is surely not the responsibility of Internet companies to intercept individual emails. Even the security services are only supposed to be able do so when backed by a warrant, issued by the home secretary in the U.K. and by a judge in the United States.

But, as the ISC revealed, the security services did not seek a warrant until it was too late. If MI5 didn’t think the killers’ Internet activity needed monitoring, why should Facebook?

The rush to blame Facebook, and further invade Internet privacy, will merely drive terrorists to find other ways to communicate. The rush to strike fear into commuters with miserable, shameful, leaflets will convince the terrorists that they are succeeding in terrorizing the country. And the sordid rush to implement a litany of heavy-handed, coercive measures in the shape of the government’s anti-terror legislation is a victory for paranoia and fear over calm heads and leadership.

What the government and the ISC should be doing is asking whether this constant corrosion of our civil liberties would be needed at all if the intelligence services just did their job properly in the first place.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 02, 2014, on page 7.