Torture investigation must be full and open and include the role of Ministers

The government is set to announce an investigation into one of the murkiest chapters in recent British history: complicity in the use of torture in the "war on terror". This must be as full and open as possible if all the lessons are to be learned.
Guy Aitchison
30 June 2010

This week brought welcome news of the imminent announcement of an investigation into allegations that UK intelligence services were complicit in torture. Predictably, this has been delayed by attempts on behalf of the security services to limit its terms. David Cameron is said to have agreed that the inquiry will be led by a judge and that it should provide compensation in cases where British agents were aware of the torture of detainees but moves are afoot in Whitehall to limit the potential damage this could do, both to individuals and to the UK's links with other security services.

On his blog, Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan who resigned over British complicity in torture, warns of a “vicious rearguard action” being fought within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that any inquiry does not include his evidence and does not consider whether there was a policy of complicity with torture:

Rather the security services wish it only to look at individual cases like Binyam Mohammed and assess compensation for them. The cover-up that these individual cases were accidents would be maintained.

Alongside this warning, Murray has published an extraordinary set of documents, obtained under Freedom of Information, that record senior FCO figures discussing Murray’s concerns over the Uzbek regime’s use of torture during his time as ambassador.  Despite large parts being redacted (primarily, Murray believes, to remove any reference to US intelligence services) the documents appear to prove that there was indeed an official policy of using intelligence obtained by torture and that it enjoyed the support of the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw.

One email, from the FCO’s director for wider Europe, says that Murray was right to raise the “legal and moral” issues involved in the UK’s reliance on intelligence obtained by Uzbek torturers with Straw and others, before saying that:

There were difficult ethical and moral issues involved and at times difficult judgements had to be made weighing one clutch of "moral issues" against another. It was not always easy for people in post (embassies) to see and appreciate the broader picture, eg piecing together intelligence material from different sources in the global fight against terrorism. But that did not mean we took their concerns any less lightly.

The email goes onto make clear that the policy of continuing to use such intelligence came from ministers:  

He (Murray) had fed in his views. You and Ministers had decided how to handle this question.

Read past the delicate language used by mandarins to tip-toe round the brutal fact of torture and it seems pretty clear what was going on: a political decision had been taken at the ministerial level that the UK would make use of intelligence in cases where there was a very strong possibility it had been obtained by torture.

The attempts within Whitehall to water down the terms of the investigation so that the focus is on particular cases, while the broader policy is ignored, simply cannot be allowed to succeed if the inquiry is to have any genuine credibility. The inquiry should have a broad remit which permits it to focus on what policy came from government and what advice and guidance it gave to agents working in the field. It must be able to review all the relevant evidence, including the devastating evidence provided by Murray, and make as much of it public as possible. If we are to learn the lessons of this murky chapter in our history and hold those responsible accountable then some key questions need to be answered. The human rights charity, Reprieve, has done a helpful job of setting them out:

  • The evolution of the rules of engagement that were provided to British agents in the field who had to interrogate prisoners in the custody of another state, or who were present at such interrogations. 
  • The rules and practice concerning transfer of individuals in UK custody to the custody of other countries, and the adequacy of any safeguards designed to ensure that the rights of such prisoners were respected.
  •  The rules and practice concerning cooperation with other governments known to be abusing prisoners, whether this involved sharing intelligence concerning prisoners, or submitting questions for them.
  • The rules and practice governing UK involvement in the ‘rendition’ program.- Who was responsible for developing and authorizing these rules.- The extent to which existing mechanisms, including Ministerial accountability and the Intelligence and Security Committee, have been adequately equipped to ensure oversight of the work of the intelligence services.

In addition to these questions, I'd suggest that the inquiry should investigate the subsequent role played by politicians and civil servants in attempting to "cover up" the UK's complicity in the use of torture. We know that David Miliband mounted a legal challenge to prevent evidence on the use of torture being made public, citing the damage it would to do our intelligence sharing relationship with the US. But what lengths did Miliband and others go to to prevent the truth coming out? How did it get to the point where the foreign secretary saw this as his proper role? I think the public has a right to know.

This is vitally important. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems promised a full investigation into the UK's complicity in torture when in opposition. They should not shirk from that now that they have the security services whispering dire warnings in their ear. The use of torture in the "war on terror" was not only morally abhorrent and illegal it was massively counter-productive, acting as a powerful recruiting tool for jihadis and dealing a massive blow to non-military efforts at counter-terrorism. A full and open investigation, therefore, is not just in the interests of woolly liberals who care about human rights, but cold-hearted utilitarians preoccupied by security. Any further attempts at an establishment cover-up are bound to fail. They will only generate calls for more inquiries down the road until the truth emerges, as happened with Bloody Sunday and as we've seen again and again with the Iraq war.

I wrote yesterday that the Coalition's commitment to rights and liberties has not been as strong as advertised. Let's hope they prove me wrong on this one. 

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