John Rentoul: When not knowing is not good enough

MI5 and MI6 sources say there may be 15 cases of UK complicity in torture. An inquiry is welcome but may not get many answers

Related Topics

Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General, is an oddity. The description is not mine, but hers. She once explained, in a book called Why I Am Still a Catholic: "I know that whatever I have done as a minister, and will do, it is by the grace of God. I'm not in control of the agenda." She added: "I realise that putting it in such terms is unusual for a politician, but as a black socialist Catholic in government I am already an oddity anyway."

Well, by the grace of God, there will now be a police investigation into the allegation that British agents encouraged the torture of Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian, in Pakistan and Morocco in 2002. Lady Scotland decided last week that MI5 had a case to answer, so asked the Metropolitan Police to undertake its first criminal inquiry into the actions of one of the intelligence services.

This is, of course, a good thing. On balance, we should be in favour of inquiries, and attempts to find out the truth generally. But we should be cautious in our expectations. People who call most loudly for inquiries often do not want to know what happened – they think they know. They want their beliefs confirmed.

Those who are most sure that Tony Blair lied about Iraq are most vocal in demanding (another) inquiry to prove it. When it concludes that he did not, although I hope that its main focus will be on more constructive matters, they will demand another inquiry to find out how the intelligence services, the Attorney General, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Saudi royal family conspired to conceal the truth.

So it is that some of those most eager to put ministers in the dock for the torture of Binyam Mohamed have already decided that this government is, in the vogue word, "complicit". The chances are that they won't be satisfied by the outcome of the police investigation. But in this case they may have a point. "I don't think we should kid ourselves into thinking that a police investigation will necessarily close this issue," said Peter Goldsmith, the former attorney general, on the Today programme on Friday.

Some of the outlines of the case for defence were sketched yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, one of the more spook-friendly newspapers. The security services, it would seem, would like a further 15 doubtful cases taken into consideration. They say that (a) they didn't realise what the Americans were up to, and (b) that, as soon as they suspected, they sent a memo to all agents reminding them about the Geneva Conventions. The trouble is that this was as early as January 2002, and it implied that they should not try to stop the mistreatment of prisoners held by the US: "Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this."

Of course, we should not assume that MI5 officers knew or even should have known that Mohamed was being badly treated when they interviewed him in Pakistan or supplied questions to his interviewers in Morocco. And I suspect that Lord Goldsmith is right that we shall never find out. But that does not mean that the police investigation into the Mohamed case, or a wider inquiry into other cases, is a waste of money.

First, accountability is important. So far, David Miliband has been criticised unfairly. His role has been to supply Mohamed's lawyers with intelligence documents that help his case, and to allow him to return to Britain, where he once lived, on his release from Guantanamo Bay. Miliband wasn't Foreign Secretary in 2002: at the time, Jack Straw was responsible for dealing with the Americans and other governments. And it was David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, who was directly responsible for MI5. I understand that Blunkett is irritated that neither his successor, Jacqui Smith, nor Lady Scotland told him that he might be the subject of a police investigation.

Not that I believe for a moment, if Mohamed was tortured, and if MI5 agents were "in the next room" at the time, that Blunkett would have known about it. The person who might have known is Jonathan Evans, who was head of international counter-terrorism at MI5 at the time, and who is now its Director General. But, as Lord Goldsmith suggested, we would be kidding ourselves if we thought it would be easy to establish either wrongdoing or responsibility for it.

However, an inquiry into the Mohamed and other cases would still be valuable. Not so much for establishing what happened up to seven years ago, but for sending a shock through the system to make it less likely in future that anyone in the British security services thinks it a good idea to turn a blind eye to torture.

Because the important lesson of the Mohamed case is that torture is counter-productive. Some of his story of how he ended up in an Afghan training camp on a false British passport seems unconvincing. But it is believable that he would be prepared to admit to anything – in his case a "dirty bomb" plot that was put to him by his questioners – in order to stop the pain. If Mohamed ever had any useful intelligence about jihadi terrorist plans, its value was destroyed by the way he was treated.

Torture is morally abhorrent. But those are just words. What may make a difference, and what an inquiry may help to establish, is that it doesn't work.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

Read Next

After Savile, we must devote our energies to stopping the child abuse taking place now

Mary Dejevsky
A ‘hugely irritated’ Sir Malcolm Rifkind on his way home from Parliament on Monday  

Before rushing to criticise Malcolm Rifkind, do you know how much being an MP can cost?

Isabel Hardman
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower