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.

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