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Espionage

UK intelligence agencies involved in torture and rendition after September 11 attacks: report

Parliamentary report says overseas agency MI6 and the domestic service MI5 were involved in hundreds of torture cases and scores of rendition cases

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 8:58pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 June, 2018, 8:58pm

British intelligence agencies were involved in the torture and kidnap of terrorism suspects after September 11, according to two reports by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee.

The reports published on Thursday amount to one of the most damning indictments of UK intelligence, revealing links to torture and rendition were much more widespread than previously reported.

While there was no evidence of officers directly carrying out physical mistreatment of detainees, the reports say the overseas agency MI6 and the domestic service MI5 were involved in hundreds of torture cases and scores of rendition cases.

The committee says the agencies were aware “at an early point” of the mistreatment of detainees by the US and others. There were two cases in which UK personnel were “party to mistreatment administered by others”. One has been investigated by the Metropolitan police but the other is still to be fully investigated.

Jack Straw, the foreign secretary from 2001-2006, will face questions over how much he knew and, given that accusations of torture and rendition were widespread at the time in the press, why he did not ask for a briefing.

That the US, and others, were mistreating detainees is beyond doubt, as is the fact that the agencies ... were aware of this
Parliamentary committee report

A key passage in the report says MI6 “sought and obtained authorisation from the foreign secretary” for the costs of funding a plane involved in an individual rendition case.

The committee was frustrated it could not call Straw and three others, believed to be the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and two intelligence officers because they would only be available to answer partial questions. One report deals with the mistreatment and rendition of detainees between 2001 and 2010, while the other considers current issues.

The report dealing with the treatment of detainees details a litany of cases of concern, saying: “We have found 13 incidents where UK personnel witnessed at first hand a detainee being mistreated by others, 25 where UK personnel were told by detainees that they had been mistreated by others and 128 incidents recorded where agency officers were told by foreign liaison services about instances of mistreatment. In some cases, these were correctly investigated but this was not consistent.”

It said in 232 cases UK personnel continued to supply questions or intelligence to other services despite knowledge or suspicion of mistreatment, as well as “198 cases where UK personnel received intelligence from liaison services which had been obtained from detainees who knew they had been mistreated – or with no indication as to how the detainee had been treated but where we consider they should have suspected mistreatment”.

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The committee found three individual cases where MI6 or MI5 made or offered to make a financial contribution to others to conduct a rendition operation. In 28 cases, the agencies either suggested, planned or agreed to rendition operations proposed by others. In a further 22 cases, MI6 or MI5 provided intelligence to enable a rendition operation to take place. In 23 cases they failed to take action to prevent rendition.

The report says those at headquarters were aware of reports of mistreatment by the US – including 38 cases in 2002 alone – but did not take them seriously.

“That the US, and others, were mistreating detainees is beyond doubt, as is the fact that the agencies and defence intelligence were aware of this at an early point,” the report says. “The same is true of rendition: there was no attempt to identify the risks involved and formulate the UK’s response. There was no understanding in HMG of rendition and no clear policy – or even recognition of the need for one.”

The chair of the committee, Dominic Grieve, said because it had been denied access to key intelligence individuals by the prime minister, the committee had reluctantly decided to bring the inquiry to a premature end. He said the reports were being published now because he felt the information gathered so far should be put into the public domain.

Had the inquiry continued, the committee would have called Blunkett and Straw to explain what they understood to be the situation at the time and why a briefing was not requested.

The reports say evidence of the direct involvement of MI6 officers and a British military officer in the mistreatment of detainees at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan was withheld from the intelligence committee in the past. This involved sleep deprivation, starvation and the use of stress positions. The committee said it had wanted to interview the MI6 officers involved but said: “The government has denied us access to those individuals.”

While one officer had been investigated by Scotland Yard, the other had not, the report said, adding: “There must now be a question as to whether that investigation is reopened.”

The military officer’s involvement in the mistreatment was investigated by military police, but that inquiry was shut down after MI6 refused to cooperate.

The involvement with torture and rendition is set out in the report Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition 2001-2010.

The investigation was ordered by David Cameron in 2010. A former judge produced an interim report but, frustrated by too many unanswered questions, the inquiry was passed to the intelligence committee.

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The second report, which focuses on guidance given to intelligence officers, is also critical, saying that a policy on treatment of detainees overseas was published in 2009-10 but there had been “remarkably little attempt to evaluate the guidance over the past seven years”. The Cabinet Office had conducted only “a light touch” review last year, prompted by the committee inquiry.

The intelligence agencies are unlikely to respond directly to the reports, leaving it to the government. The present head of MI6, Alex Younger, said in the past the organisation, reviewing its role after September 11, had learned tough lessons and changes had been introduced over the last 17 years. MI6 works with a wide range of partner countries whose laws are different but they know “our red lines”.

Theresa May issued a statement saying the lessons of what happened in the aftermath of September 11 “are to be found in improved operational policy and practice, better guidance and training, and an enhanced oversight and legal framework”. She added: “We should be proud of the work done by our intelligence and service personnel, often in the most difficult circumstances, but it is only right that they should be held to the highest possible standards in protecting our national security.” May’s statement did not address the committee’s conclusion that the UK had been in breach of the international prohibition on torture. Nor did she say anything about the recommendation that a fresh police investigation be considered.