Goldsmith calls for investigation into UK's role in torture

Former attorney general demands 'clarification' from ministers on activites of intelligence agencies
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The Independent Online

The former attorney general Lord Goldsmith last night called for an investigation into whether Britain's intelligence agencies or government were complicit in the torture of British terror suspects abroad.

His demand came days after the Court of Appeal's decision last week to release seven paragraphs summarising a US intelligence report which showed that MI5 was aware of the inhumane treatment, including sleep deprivation and shackling, meted out to the terror suspect Binyam Mohamed by his CIA interrogators in 2002.

Lord Goldsmith said that the events of last week had further "confused" the issue of whether Britain was aware that suspects were being tortured.

"I believe [this issue] needs to be clarified in the interests of the public and the intelligence agencies," he said. "However that clarification comes about – I look forward to hearing how the government proposes that that should be done."

His view is at odds with the Government, which continues to deny there has been any collusion in torture. The Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, last week dismissed the idea as "ludicrous lies". The Government last week denied it was aware of any cruel or inhuman techniques of interrogation until 2004, after which it changed its guidelines for security officers – although these have never been published.

Despite the denial, there are at least four other troubling cases in which terror suspects claim they have been tortured with the knowledge of the British intelligence services. In some cases security officers were allegedly feeding questions to the CIA or Pakistan's ISI intelligence service.

Britain's official position is that it does not condone torture, which is against international law. However, evidence is mounting that in the wake of 9/11 there was a "don't ask, don't tell" policy after the Americans decided that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to the war on terror. It is claimed that agents entering a room where torture was taking place would simply leave, giving rise to arguments over the definition of "complicity".

Human rights lawyers point out that under the 1994 Intelligence Act agents operating abroad are not secure from prosecution unless a minister has signed off on their actions. The ministers involved are the home and foreign secretaries – David Blunkett and Jack Straw in 2002.

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg alleged yesterday that the knowledge of torture must have gone up to No 10. There are suggestions of a divergence of view between MI5 and the Government following the Court of Appeal's decision, with MI5 fearing it has been hung out to dry. Such sentiment culminated in an extraordinary article, published on Friday, by MI5's boss Jonathan Evans, in which he drew attention to the probity of his staff.

One former MI5 official told the IoS yesterday: "I find it inconceivable that the Government would not know. Security officers were making their concerns known about the use of torture in 2002. It is beyond belief that such complaints would not be passed up."

The United Nations has just completed a study, which accuses Britain of "taking advantage of the situation of secret detentions by sending questions to the state which detains the person or by soliciting or receiving information from persons who are kept in detention".

Martin Scheinin, a UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights, told the IoS: "I am very disappointed at the defensiveness of the British government. When there is strong prima facie evidence of UK complicity in torture, they should be helping uncover the truth but instead they are just blaming others and citing 'conspiracy theories' about anyone who raises suspicions."

Another authoritative intelligence source added: "Between 2002 and 2005 the UK was probably the most opportunistic partner of the US, picking the fruits of extraordinary rendition, torture and secret detention. Current CIA officers are quite bitter about this, saying that while they did all the dirty work the UK sneakily sent questions and interrogators."

Lord Goldsmith, who was Britain's legal chief in 2002, added that he was keeping "an open mind" as to the form the clarification should take, but that it was "important in the light of what the Court of Appeal said and what senior ministers have said this week".

Asked yesterday if he had discussed torture in 2002 he said: "it was an issue of importance to make sure we did not take part, of course, but to be sure that we didn't do anything that might condone or be complicit in it". "I'm very troubled by what actually happened," he said recently, "and that's why I've said yes, these are matters which ought to be investigated. If there was complicity, it's important that people are brought to book."