MI5 officers told to get on with the job in face of storm

MI5 officers were being stoical "getting on with the job, concentrating on the threat to national security" amid the criticism over their supposed complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed. That, at least, was the official message from Whitehall sources yesterday.

But what emerged yesterday was hardly comforting. The charges made by Lord Neuberger, the Master of the Rolls, were damning. The secret service did not respect human rights, deliberately misled a Commons committee of MPs and Lords, and had a "culture of suppression" in its dealings with the court.

Mr Mohamed, who was arrested on suspicion of terrorism and who believes the Taliban "provided the best government Afghanistan has had in 20 years", suffered sleep deprivation while being verbally threatened, and was kept shackled during questioning.

The mistreatment took part in Pakistan while the Ethiopian-born Mr Mohamed was in custody of US authorities. It is unclear whether this was done by Americans or by agents of the ISI, the Pakistani secret police, which has itself been accused of helping to organise attacks by Islamist terrorist groups in a number of countries in pursuit of its own shadowy agenda.

There are no claims that MI5 took part in the abuse. But one of its agents, "Witness B" in court proceedings, "probably" knew of it in documents he read before flying out to interrogate Mr Mohamed.

Members of MI5 who are troubled by condemnation such as that levelled in this case can seek guidance from an "ethical counsellor". Officials refused to comment yesterday on whether anyone, including Witness B, had sought this option.

We do know, however, from a report of the Commons Intelligence and Security Committee, that some had raised "concerns... whether there was sufficient control for sharing information with countries that do not comply with international standards for the treatment of those in detention, and whether guidance for staff on these matters was sufficiently accessible and understood".

Witness B is now a key part of a Scotland Yard investigation into the Binyam Mohamed case, and others in MI5, according to the court, must also have known what the prisoner was being subjected to. Charges may follow if it is indeed the case that staff within MI5 were willing accomplices to human-rights abuse.

The government position is that the case against MI5 is fundamentally flawed and the judges had accepted "unsubstantiated" allegations. The disclosures of secret intelligence documents on the instructions of the judges, say MI5 and MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service, have led to foreign agencies warning that they may, in the future, refuse to share information.

So worried was David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, about what was about to be disclosed by the Court of Appeal in London, that he telephoned the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on Tuesday evening to warn her. Subsequently, a statement issued by Dennis Blair, the director at the office of national intelligence in Washington, DC, said: "The decision by a United Kingdom court to release classified information provided by the United States is not helpful, and we deeply regret it."

It is unlikely that the US will refuse to pass on intelligence which could prevent a terrorist attack in the UK. But other countries may, especially if it feels that as a result, its officials may in future face international warrants and prosecution.