As David Miliband made his extraordinary statement about rendition in Parliament on Thursday, it was fitting that Jack Straw was sitting behind him like an offender revisiting the scene of a crime. Because just two years ago Straw had said the following: "We are clear that the US would not render a detainee through UK territory or airspace (including overseas territories) without our permission." I felt for the Foreign Secretary as he gamely pressed on through the awful, humiliating admission that Britain had, despite all assurances, aided the transport of two terrorist suspects for interrogation in places operating outside the rule of international law. Miliband knew the significance of new information provided by the Americans that CIA planes had twice refuelled on the British territory of Diego Garcia. Torture is a horrible word and now the UK is officially complicit.
Had Miliband insisted on Jack Straw's presence? I half-expected the younger man to turn and point the finger. After all, it is not the first time this year that he has been forced to carry the can over events that occurred at the Foreign Office on Jack Straw's watch. On Monday, Miliband had been forced to agree to the publication of the so-called "Williams draft" of the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The document, named after the Foreign Office's former director of communications, John Williams, demonstrated beyond doubt that the Government's spin machine was at the heart of the drafting process for the dossier, despite assurances that it was the work of the intelligence services. As Foreign Secretary, Straw had personally intervened to stop the draft being published.
Earlier this year, Miliband was faced with a similar embarrassment when the Foreign Office whistleblower Derek Pasquill walked free from the Old Bailey. Again Straw was entirely to blame. Pasquill faced six charges under the Official Secrets Act after leaking documents detailing discussions about government contacts with radical Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Straw took a personal interest in the case and was determined to pursue Pasquill through the courts. In the end, documents came to light showing that others within the Foreign Office shared Pasquill's concerns about government appeasement of extremism and had doubts about the wisdom of the prosecution. Jack Straw can be held almost single-handedly responsible for the policy of bringing Islamists into the heart of government. As Home Secretary and then at the Foreign Office, he gave a near-monopoly on dialogue with the Government to the Muslim Council of Britain, a now wholly discredited approach.
Pasquill also leaked a key document on rendition. In January 2006, the New Statesman published details of a memo from the Foreign Office to Downing Street, outlining what it knew – or rather did not know – about the US practice of rendition on British soil, and making clear that any British co-operation in it would be illegal.
At that point two years ago, two cases of requests for rendition from 1998 came to light, but the memo went on to say that "the papers we have unearthed so far suggest there could be more". Revealingly, in the context of what we now know about Diego Garcia, the Foreign Office advice to Downing Street stated: "We now cannot say that we have received no such requests for the use of UK territory or air space for 'Extraordinary Rendition'."
The evidence from Miliband's statement on Thursday suggests that it was naive to expect a request from the Americans, who simply went ahead and did it without the courtesy of asking permission. A question asked by Whitehall mandarins in that 2006 memo has a terrible ring now that we know rendition has happened on British soil. It reads: "How do we know whether those our armed forces have helped to capture in Iraq or Afghanistan have subsequently been sent to interrogation centres?" The answer then was: "We have no mechanism for establishing this." Today this must remain the case, unless the Americans choose to alert us to their own wrongdoing.
I may be able to help here. When I heard that one of the "rendered" prisoners might have been taken to Morocco, I was reminded of when, in June 2002, I was working on a story in the North African country about an alleged al-Qa'ida plot to attack British and American shipping in the straits of Gibraltar. One evening, after requesting a comment from the Interior Ministry, I was introduced to the Interior Minister himself, Fouad Ali El Hemma, and his intelligence chiefs. They gave me a detailed description of how they dismantled the plot. I asked if they could tell me how they had been tipped off to the presence of the cell. At this point the three men, who were all drinking champagne, rocked back in their chairs and laughed heartily: "Your people told us," they said. "The information came from people taken to Guantanamo."
My question is this. If the Moroccans knew what was going on as early as June 2002, why has it taken our Government so long to get to the truth?
For too long, the Government simply chose to look the other way, and for that Jack Straw must take much of the responsibility. This is a man who pursued a vindictive case against the junior civil servant who tried to tell the British public what was going on over his policy of bringing senior Islamists into Whitehall. This is the man who was complicit in constructing the bogus case for war in Iraq and equally complicit in covering up the role of his own department's director of communications in the process. This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, permitted state-sponsored kidnapping to be perpetrated on British sovereign soil.
Straw, of course, may well take refuge in the weasel expression and tell us that he acted "in good faith". This is a man who, like Tony Blair, deferred to Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld over the finer details of the "war on terror". Despite his radical student past, Straw never had much of feel for civil rights. When it came to the question of rendition, he failed to show the most basic human curiosity in order to find out what was really going on. Frankly, I find it astonishing that Straw still has the gall to show his face in public, let alone sit on the government front bench in the House of Commons.
Martin Bright is the political editor of the 'New Statesman'Reuse content