MI5 denies withholding evidence on torture victim

The director general of MI5 writes an impassioned defence of his service, denying allegations of lying to Parliament. Yemen signs a truce with the al Houthi insurgents. Ahmedinejad hails Iran as a ‘nuclear state.’ China protests over Dalai Lama meeting with President Obama. All this and more, in today’s security update…
Oliver Scanlan
12 February 2010

In an unprecedented move, the director general of the British intelligence agency MI5, has written a trenchant defence of the agency’s conduct. Denying charges of torture, Jonathan Evans also specifically responded to allegations that a ‘culture of suppression’ dominated the service, saying that this was the ‘precise opposite of the truth’.

The allegation was one of several made by Lord Neuberger, Master of the Rolls and the second most senior judge in the UK. MI5 was accused of failing to respect human rights, failing to denounce torture and withholding evidence of torture from parliament in a scathing critique made by the judge in a later to be censored draft of the Court of Appeals verdict in the case of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident.

Binyam Mohamed was detained in Pakistan in 2002, where, following intimidation and abuse, he was interviewed by an unidentified Mi5 agent now under police investigation. He says he was then transferred to a number of different facilities as part of the US 'extraordinary rendition' programme, including prisons in Morocco and Afghanistan. He was eventually moved to Guantanamo Bay where he remained until his release without charge in 2009. He maintains that he was tortured at the behest of the CIA and that UK intelligence agencies were complicit in this.

Evans' article comes in response to Wednesday’s decision by the Court of Appeals that compelled the publication of a seven paragraph summary of what intelligence officers were told by the CIA about Mohamed’s treatment. The paragraphs describe plainly that this treatment was ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading.’ The foreign secretary, David Miliband, had sought to block the publication on the grounds that it would hinder UK-US intelligence co-operation.

In his article, Evans went so far as to say that Lord Neuberger’s accusations served the propaganda purposes of Islamist terrorists. One Whitehall source quoted by The Daily Telegraph went further, stating that a ‘campaign’ was being waged against the intelligence services through the courts and hence funded by the British tax payer.

The openSecurity verdict: The recent controversy over the treatment of Binyam Mohamed and alleged attempts by the security service to obstruct judicial proceedings raises key questions that cut to the heart of the British state and the tensions between human rights and the pragmatic considerations relevant to intelligence gathering.

Legalistic distinctions between instances of abuse and torture and questions as to what constitutes ‘collusion' in torture are misleading here; Lord Neuberger alleges ‘failure to denounce’ human rights abuses. Evans and Miliband may be correct in stating that UK intelligence agencies do not torture, but the evidence is overwhelming that they have taken advantage of information obtained by torture. It is this aspect of ‘intelligence co-operation’ that makes the UK complicit in the systemic human rights abuses that have been an integral part of the counter-terrorist efforts of the United States and its allies since 11 September 2001.

Evans is of course justified in suggesting that the release of this damning information is a ‘propaganda victory’ for Al Qaeda and its sympathisers, but his repeated references to the threat of propaganda seem to amount to an outrageous attempt to label as traitors those who disclose or seek to disclose information of malpractice by Britain and its allies' intelligence services.

More alarmingly, the attempt by David Miliband to block the publication of evidence to appease the US raises real questions about the British state and its accountability. The near-hysterical attempts of The Daily Telegraph’s source to represent the valid criticisms of the intelligence services’ conduct by leading members of the judiciary as part of a shadowy plot to sabotage them are especially worrying. The implications are clear: the security apparatus should be left to do its job without having to answer for its actions. The rule of law, it is argued, is counter productive to the defence of the state.

It is worth remembering here that in comparison to the US, intelligence oversight in the UK is already very weak. The shield of national security has invariably been raised to keep the operations of allied intelligence agencies beyond public scrutiny in cases ranging from Iran-Contra to the Bay of Pigs. Disclosures are claimed to undermine national security, and contrary decisions by the courts are contested by ministers and bureaucrats. It is unsurprising if people then conclude that their main purpose is to keep often egregious incompetence and illegality from the public eye, or that this lack of openness gives rise to the 'conspiracy theories' Evans warns of.

Yemen and al Houthi militants agree truce

On Thursday, the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, announced a ceasefire in the country's long running conflict with al-Houthi insurgents in the north of the country. The move comes after the rebels accepted a six point agreement, which includes pledges to hand over weapons captured from Saudi and Yemeni government forces, withdraw from regions they have occupied and to release civilian and military prisoners. While undoubtedly a welcome step, it remains to be seen how long the peace will hold should the grievences of Yemen's Shia community not be addressed. Qatar brokered short lived ceasefires in 2007 and 2008 and President Saleh unilaterally declared the war over in July 2008 only for fighting to break out a year later.

Ahmedinejad continues nuclear posturing

On the 31st anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad told cheering government supporters in Tehran’s Azadi Square that Iran was a ‘nuclear state’, in what analysts are referring to as an escalation in the standoff over the clerical regime’s nuclear programme. Ahmedinejad added that Iran had the capability to enrich uranium to 20% ‘or even 80%’, a level of enrichment near to that required for the manufacture of a nuclear weapon, although he went on to say it had no desire to make use of this claimed excess capacity. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs derided the claim, saying that it was ‘based in politics, not physics’.

Obama-Dalai Lama meeting ‘the wrong decision’, says China

Ma Zhouxu, foreign ministry spokesman for the People’s Republic of China, has urged President Barack Obama to cancel a scheduled meeting with the Dalai Lama on 18 February. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has stated that the US and China had ‘a mature enough relationship that we know the two countries are not always going to agree on everything.’ The meeting comes in the wake of disagreements over US arms sales to Taiwan and internet censorship, as well as the ongoing controversy over the value of the Renminbi and the US-China trade deficit. Chinese cooperation is sorely needed if tougher sanctions are to be applied against Iran in the UN Security Council.

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