Clive Stafford Smith: The spooks are being sold down the river

MI5 is at fault over torture, but its bosses refuse to be blamed for the decisions of politicians

Share
Related Topics

The past month has seen a parade of spies going public. Mostly, they seem intent on insisting how little they know about the terrible goings-on in the world. First, it was the MI5 director general, Jonathan Evans, writing in the Telegraph. "We 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."

Last week, it was the turn of Evans's predecessor, Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller. "It wasn't actually until after I retired that I read that, in fact, [Khalid Shaikh Mohammed] had been waterboarded 160 times," she told a parliamentary meeting.

Evans carefully shifted tenses, and thereby said nothing that was remotely relevant to the pending criminal investigation. Nobody has ever intimated that the British tortured Binyam Mohamed. Rather, the allegation is that they stood by and watched while the Americans did the abuse. Evans carefully refrained from saying "nor did we collude in torture" – because we did.

Likewise, Manningham-Buller said absolutely nothing of significance. We know she did not read about Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's waterboarding until after her left her job – she retired on 20 April, 2007, and the truth did not emerge until a year later. Nobody has ever made the remotest suggestion to the contrary: she set up a straw man and shoved him back down.

It is hardly surprising that the spooks are saying very little of relevance – that is in their nature. But why did they choose this moment to say very little so very loudly?

Our intelligence agents are not blind to the obvious. Peering from their burrows like Punxsutawney Pete, they panicked. The cause of their dismay? The politicians – the only people who are revealing less about torture than the spies, albeit even more loudly.

Never did a team play for the final whistle more plainly than this government. If the ministers can get past a May election, the Labour realists expect to join Tony Blair on the lecture circuit, far from the perils of office. The thin red line of Labour optimists, afraid that the sins of their recent past could prove an electoral iceberg, pin their wavering hopes on a continued cover-up.

They weave and dodge, dodge and weave. Their plan is simple: if they win the election, they will figure out another way to weave; if they lose, the Tories will be forced either to continue the dissimulation or, like President Obama, to shoulder blame for the wrongdoings of a predecessor.

The spooks are being sold down the river, and they know it. The torture scandal should have been long behind them. Had the politicians made a public acknowledgement – "Regrettably, mistakes were made in the political tsunami that followed 9/11" – all would have rapidly been forgiven. Only the most sanctimonious media commentator would have been writing about it a fortnight later.

Richard Nixon taught the world the danger of the cover-up. The botched Watergate burglary was of minor significance; the White House conspiracy to keep it secret drove Nixon from office. It turned the word "gate" into a suffix for every political evil. So now each day brings a further revelation in Torturegate. Jonathan Evans suggested in the Telegraph that "an allegation has been made that one of my officers might have committed a criminal offence". Unfortunately for Evans, the seeping evidence suggests that this is not the case. It may not have been "my officer" who committed the offence, but Evans himself.

"My officer" was the whistleblower who reported seeing a British prisoner being abused by the Americans on 10 January 2002 – and asked what he should do. It was very likely Evans – in charge of counterterrorism at the time, and presumably working closely with his boss, Manningham-Buller – who sent back a telegram the next day, advising the agent that if he witnessed torture taking place in front of him, he could legitimately ignore it, given that the prisoner was in American custody. The police are not just investigating the small fry, but those responsible for the crimes as well.

Of course, we might have had sympathy for Evans and Manningham-Buller, as they were responding in the wake of 9/11, perhaps the most televised mass crime in history. But the political cover-up has eroded this sympathy. Rather than a frank admission, and an open apology, the original crime has been compounded by the subsequent dissembling.

Friday brought the latest bad news, when the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) released its 2009 report. Referring to evidence of abuse that had been hidden from the ISC in the Binyam Mohamed case, the committee noted that it had only recently learned "that at least four members of staff saw the information, including the team leader... and their section head". So five more members of MI5 will be drawn into the pending criminal investigation.

"The allegations of collusion in torture and the lack of respect for human rights will wound [MI5 agents] personally and collectively, and... will make it harder for them to do their jobs," said Manningham-Buller. But the problem is not the allegation of complicity, but the fact that the allegations have been proven true time and time again – against a background of concerted government obfuscation.

The next government must order a full and independent inquiry. Nobody who is forthright about his mistakes should be sent to jail. The process should be conducted in a spirit of honesty and reconciliation, for we can only learn from history if we know what that history was. Then, when the next inevitable crisis comes, we may hope to respond with greater wisdom. If, on the other hand, officials continue to dissemble, we will still be wading through this mire for many years to come.

Clive Stafford Smith is director of the prisoners' human rights organisation Reprieve ( www.reprieve.org.uk)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer