Tim Cooke-Hurle: When the secret state crosses the line

When the secret state makes too strong a demand on power, then trust breaks down

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Spy on the spies, and you're likely to find them muttering about the pressure the secret institutions now face. Talk might be of the rupture of an unspoken compact between the secret and public worlds. Normally, the public allows the secret service to operate in the shadows, and at the edge of the rules. The public – parliament, the judiciary, civil society – give the secret services this space to operate, in the belief that this keeps us safe.

However, when the secret state makes too strong a demand on power, when it steps beyond the edge of the acceptable or strays into complicity in torture, then trust breaks down and the public sphere bites back. This is what is happening now.

A decade of unanswered allegations on complicity in torture and rendition have exposed the secret services to criminal investigation, to the anger of the appellate judges, to the scrutiny of a judicial inquiry, and has led to the unprecedented publication of their rules for detainee operations.

At times like these, the options available to the intelligence services begin to shrink. Robust, democratic demands for transparency and accountability require intelligence services to account for their actions, and society looks for ways to control them more tightly.

Rendition – the infamous and brutal CIA-led torture programme – is not a game the UK Government claims to play. In its darkest form, men disappeared into the torture chambers of the most brutal regimes. This was immoral and counterproductive, making allied intelligence agents wary of complicity in the crime, and radicalising a generation.

The challenge posed by rendition is not only at this extreme end of the spectrum. If normal judicial procedures are circumvented and men are flown around the world by the secret agencies, it is right for Parliament, the courts, and groups such as Reprieve to demand that they account for the use of the power we give them.

Tim Cooke-Hurle is senior investigator at the legal support group, Reprieve

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