Image: Fatima Boudchar and her son, with lawyers from Reprieve, outside the Houses of Parliament, May 2018. Credit: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images, all rights reserved.
For years, Britain’s three security and intelligence agencies – the Secret Intelligence Service, commonly known as MI6; the domestic Security Service, MI5; and GCHQ, the worldwide communications eavesdropping agency – have insisted they are accountable to ministers, that they are responsible to democratically-elected politicians. And for years, ministers have insisted that the agencies are properly accountable to them.
We all now know what some of us have been saying for a very long time: such assertions are myths. The Prime Minister herself has admitted it.
On 13 December 2005, Jack Straw, then foreign secretary responsible for MI6, told the Commons Foreign Affairs committee: “Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States …There is simply no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we never have been”. Straw added that the British government was not compliant in rendition, nor did it turn a blind eye to it.
This was not true. On 18 March 2004 – nine months before Straw gave his denials to MPs – Mark Allen, head of MI6’s counter terrorism section, wrote to Moussa Koussa, foreign intelligence chief of the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, congratulating him on “the safe arrival” of Abdel Hakim Belhaj – the Libyan national in the news last week after Theresa May was forced to apologise to him and his wife for Britain’s role in their rendition.
Allen added: “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad... [Belhaj’s] information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us.”
He went on, “Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from [Belhaj] through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on [Belhaj] was British”. (The CIA had supplied the aircraft taking the couple – what Allen called the “air cargo” – to Tripoli.)
The letter was one of hundreds of documents scattered among the ruins of Koussa’s office in Tripoli, when the building was destroyed by NATO (possibly by British bombers) in 2001. It was proof that MI6 had provided intelligence leading to the capture in Bangkok of Belhaj, a leading member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and opponent of Gaddafi.
He and his pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar, were bound and gagged throughout the 17-hour flight to Tripoli where they were jailed. Boudchar was imprisoned for four months and released shortly before her baby was born. Belhaj was tortured and released in 2010. During his captivity he was questioned by British intelligence officers and, he says, made it plain to them he had been tortured. (Sami al-Saadi, a fellow member of the LIFG, and his wife were also seized on information supplied by MI6. He later accepted £2.2 million from the British government as compensation for its part in his mistreatment.)
Faced with such clear evidence of British involvement in rendition operations, Straw told the BBC on 5 September 2011: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.” The Metropolitan Police opened a criminal investigation and questioned Straw and Allen. After four years they handed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). In 2016, the CPS announced that neither Straw nor Allen would face charges because of insufficient evidence. In a carefully-worded statement it said Allen had “sought political authority for some of his actions albeit not within a formal written process nor in detail...”
Meanwhile Belhaj sought an admission from the British government of its role, through civil proceedings in the courts. The government fought back. It claimed that British courts could not hear the case because the agents of foreign countries – a reference to the CIA, in particular – were involved. When it lost that argument, the government insisted that the legal advice given to the CPS case should remain secret. When it lost that argument, the government insisted that Belhaj’s civil claim for compensation had to be heard in a secret trial.
Then this month, on 10 May, the government’s senior law officer, attorney general Jeremy Wright QC, admitted that Belhaj and his wife had been subjected to a “harrowing ordeal”. In the Commons with Boudchar and her son looking down from the public gallery, Wright read a letter the Prime Minister had written to them. What happened to them was “deeply troubling”, May wrote. The British government’s actions “contributed to your detention, rendition, and suffering”.
In a reference to the role of British intelligence officers, May added: “during your detention in Libya, we sought information about and from you. We wrongly missed opportunities to alleviate your plight: this should not have happened.”
Wright came very close to admitting that, despite the CPS decision not to prosecute Straw or Allen, the British role in the abduction and rendition was unlawful. It was important, he said, that “we should act in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law”.
Immediately after Wright made his statement to MPs, Straw issued a statement of his own, through his lawyers. It read: “On 1 March 2004 my approval was sought for some information to be shared with international partners. In almost every case such approvals were made by me in writing, on the basis of written submissions to me. However in rare cases of great urgency, oral submissions could be made and oral approvals given by me. This is what happened on this occasion.”
Procedures had now changed, reforms were being put in place, said Wright. Ministers must now be consulted whenever MI6 officers were involved in an operation where a detainee was “at serious risk of mistreatment by a foreign state”. And “behavioural and cultural changes” were needed in Britain’s security and intelligence agencies.
Wright referred to “unacceptable practices of our international partners” and said they should have been appreciated by MI6 “much sooner”.
This claim – an excuse, really – lacks credibility. Court documents disclosed in a previous case involving MI5 and MI6 complicity in British nationals and residents reveal that as early as January 2002 they were aware that the CIA was prepared to abuse and torture terror suspects. Officers at MI6 headquarters in London told one of their officers abroad: “it appears from your description that they [detainees] may not be being treated in accordance with the appropriate standards”. But MI6 had added, significantly: “Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this...It is important that you do not engage in any activity yourself [my emphasis] that involved inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners”.
The Belhaj case will now be investigated by the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) of MPs and peers. The committee’s members, who have to be approved by the prime minister (and, we can assume, are vetted by MI5 and MI6), meet in private. The ISC’s record is not good. It has been misled by MI5 and MI5 in the past, specifically about Britain’s role in rendition. The ISC has already said that MI6 officers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001 were “not sufficiently trained” in the law, notably the Geneva Conventions. How long have they needed to learn?
In the Belhaj case, MI6 officers clearly believed the political imperative of the Blair government was to cuddle up to Gaddafi. The prospect of lucrative oil and gas deals loomed after the Libyan dictator became a friend, once he agreed to give up his nuclear and chemical weapons programme at the end of 2003.
With Blair’s planned ‘Deal in the Desert’ imminent, it appears that the government was so keen to ingratiate itself with Gaddafi that unlawful action – the rendition of Belhaj and al-Saadi and their wives – was approved. By whom, and how, the ISC must find out. It must question Straw and Allen, Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, and publish the evidence. Otherwise, the apologies of Theresa May and her attorney general will seem rather hollow.
Today Tony Blair - who after the Allen letter to Koussa said he had ‘no recollection” of the rendition - has again distanced himself from it. “I did not know about the case until after I left office in 2007”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It was not brought to my attention. It was not something I dealt with in government”.
Blair's intervention today prompted renewed calls for a judge-led inquiry into the MI6 operation.
Cori Crider, a lawyer at Reprieve who represented Belhaj, said, “Mr Blair’s non-apology to Mr Belhaj and his wife raised more questions than it answered. His hug with Gaddafi happened just two weeks after Belhaj and his wife were delivered to Tripoli, and two days before MI6 helped abduct another entire family for the Libyan dictator."
"Sir Mark Allen’s infamous fax to Moussa Koussa, in which he called my clients 'air cargo,' also shows him personally arranging Blair’s mission to Libya in minute detail - down to asking for the photo op to be held in Gaddafi's tent because 'the journalists would love it'. Perhaps Mr Blair would like to publish the 'five requests' Gaddafi made to him directly in a letter in October 2003 as they sought to strike a deal. Are we meant to believe the dictator never mentioned the 'stray dogs’ he hated so much? Both Reprieve and Scotland Yard amassed a mountain of evidence about this case. If the British public want the whole truth and nothing but the truth, let’s have a full public inquiry and be done with it."
Amnesty International UK’s Head of Policy and Government Affairs, Allan Hogarth, said:
“Tony Blair’s comments today on this appalling case of UK involvement in torture and rendition highlight once again why we need the proper judicial inquiry we were promised. We shouldn’t accept attempts to draw a line under the involvement of UK officials in these horrors. For years successive governments have tried to keep this case behind closed doors and eventually shut it down, apparently fearful of what evidence of the UK’s complicity in kidnapping and torture might emerge. We will be watching to see what comes out of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long-awaited report next month, but that secretive process cannot be enough. We still need a judicial inquiry into the UK’s role in torture carried out by its partners - including the CIA’s extensive programme of rendition and illegal detention.”
Straw last week said: “There are many questions on this. I understand that”. He told BBC Radio's World at One programme on 14 May he was happy to give a full account to the ISC. However, he added that there were limits to what he could say publicly “for national security reasons”.
The phrase “national security” of course has been used by successive governments and cabinet ministers to cover a multitude of sins.