Torture, the UK's role, "I'm satisfied that our system is dealing with all of these issues"

A new Senate report lays bare US involvement in torture. As for Britain's collusion, well, you'll just have to take David Cameron's word — they're handling things. What could possibly go wrong?

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 December 2014



It may be that there is a grim satisfaction to be gleaned from the US Senate's Report on the CIA's use of torture. In particular that it did not work, which saves a lot of amoral rumbling:

The Committee finds, based on a review of CIA interrogation records, that the use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.

The Report exposes the systematic determination of the CIA to 'sell' its story to the media, successfully misleading the press and public in the process. Oddly, that aspect of its influence has received little coverage.

Another aspect so far under-reported is that the CIA's appalling if not murderous incompetence was outsourced. It is worth quoting from the Report's summary on this. In 2008, it states, 85% of the agency's workforce for detention and interrogation operations was contracted out. Two psychologists in particular were contracted and developed a system that delivered what they called "learned helplessness" — a term with a future.

In 2006, the value of the CIA's base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million  prior to the contract termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect  the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.

At the risk of being parochial, there are two particular aspects of the Senate report to emphasis here in the UK section of openDemocracy. The first is British collusion — and the determination of the UK and its agencies to cover up their complicity rather than follow the American example of limited openness. The second is the way the use of torture connects to the nexus of the secret state and its desire to control what we know, not least in order to protect its own impunity and lawlessness.

The link between New Labour's growing assault on liberty and the government's approval of torture was signalled five years ago in a classic video appearance by Peter Oborne, recorded for the Convention on Modern Liberty (see above).

Oborne went on to develop his critique, starting with a remarkable lie by Jack Straw denying that he was lying. The evidence of the UK's involvement was overwhelming, and set out with most authority by Ian Cobain in his Portabello Book, Cruel Britannia, reviewed here by Nicolas Mercer. Oborne's assumption is that torture is something the British did not do, at least in living memory, until Blair joined forces with President Bush. Cobain shows otherwise. It is a home grown part of our perfidious tradition.

But this is not a reason to refuse to applaud those who have opposed modern torture from the get go, such as David Davis MP, who writes today, "our failure to stand up to torture and those that use it casts a dark shadow over us all". If only Labour MPs were as outspoken. We need as broad an alliance as possible to expose the methods of the secret services. As Geoffrey Robertson puts in a fierce piece in today's Independent:

The most remarkable thing about the US Senate Intelligence Committee Report is that it was published at all – a reproach incidentally, to the secrecy in which British politicians swathe MI6…. among the 5,500 unpublished pages in this Report, will be found details of MI6 collaboration in CIA torture. They are unpublished because the British government has invoked a protocol that allies must not spill each other’s secrets. Mr Cameron, if he shares the gumption and integrity displayed by President Obama, should call  for these redacted passages and publish them. Britain, too, should publicly reject conduct up with which we should not put.

What has Britain done? You can measure the Prime Minister's gumption for yourself. His statement (which you can see here) is worth considering in full:

First of all, let me take the question about the report issued today, and let’s be clear: torture is wrong. Torture is always wrong. Those of us who want to see a safer, more secure world, who want to see this extremism defeated, we won’t succeed if we lose our moral authority, if we lose the things that make our systems work and our countries successful. So we should be very clear about that.

Now, obviously after 9/11 there were things that happened that were wrong, and we should be clear about the fact that they were wrong. In Britain we have had the Gibson Inquiry, and that inquiry has now produced a series of questions that the Intelligence and Security Committee will look at. But I’m satisfied that our system is dealing with all of these issues, and I as Prime Minister have issued guidance to all of our agents and others working around the world about how they have to handle these issues in future.

So I’m confident this issue has been dealt with from the British perspective, and I think I can reassure the public about that. But overall, we should be clear: torture is wrong.

Hmmm. What exactly should we be "clear about"? What happened that was wrong, if we can't know precisely then at least give us a hint? Did the UK torture of not? Why is the government insisting any reference to its activities be removed from the US Senate Report? The Gibson Inquiry was scrapped and the Report that was published in December last year could have been called What the Inquiry Would Have Wished To Investigate. For it contains an astounding description of all the issues it "would have wished to investigate". In no way can these be described as questions that the Intelligence and Security Committee "will look into"?

What is this "our system" that is "dealing with all these issues" to the satisfaction of our... Prime Minister? Go to sleep, children, now guidance "has been issued" to all our agents "and others" around the whole world about how they should "handle" right and wrong. (And who, incidently, are these "others" around the world to whom our Prime Minister issues guidance?). So, from the British perspective, we can all be reassured.

And if we are feeling strangely less assured? Might we lack confidence in this guidance from Cameron? Perhaps we think that we should know what the wrong things are that have been done in our name. If only to ensure that they are not done again. Or maybe we are alarmed by the development of secret justice, apparently to prevent information about the wrongdoing of our political leaders, their agents and those "others" (for we don't want them to feel left out) from being revealed. We may even recall that one of the reasons why the government said it could not discuss such wrongdoings in open court was to protect our American ally from being exposed! 

Well, be reassured. The new head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, says our internet providers must allow him access to our communications, to assess any such subversive thoughts. The Home Secretary Teresa May is intent on rushing through legislation that will strengthen such mass surveillance (see the open Rights Group response).The point being that these are connected, the agencies complicit in wrongdoing are the same agencies spying on everyone to seek out wrongdoing, intent on protecting their powers in the process.

It is particularly helpful, I feel, to strike a personal note, that the Prime Minister tells us "I’m satisfied that our system is dealing with all of these issues". I'm one of those who has long argued that the British system is flawed and needs to be reformed as a system. Often, I'm looked at as if I'm paranoid for using such shorthand. Well, I'm not alone! Torture, anyone? The US has set about telling the world what it has learned of its own activities in this regard. And here in Britain? Fear not, "our system is dealing with the issues".


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