The British investigation into the previous Blair regime’s complicity in torture and terrorism is becoming clearer by the day. Such studies, while inevitably flawed due to a generally bi-partisan belief in keeping the worst details private, are a far cry from anything undertaken by America or Australia:
The true extent of the Labour government’s involvement in the illegal abduction and torture of its own citizens after the al-Qaida attacks of September 2001 has been spelled out in stark detail with the disclosure during high court proceedings of a mass of highly classified documents.
Previously secret papers that have been disclosed include a number implicating Tony Blair’s office in many of the events that are to be the subject of the judicial inquiry that David Cameron announced last week.
Among the most damning documents are a series of interrogation reports from MI5 officers that betray their disregard for the suffering of a British resident whom they were questioning at a US airbase in Afghanistan. The documents also show that the officers were content to see the mistreatment continue.
One of the most startling documents is chapter 32 of MI6’s general procedural manual, entitled “Detainees and Detention Operations”, which advises officers that among the “particular sensitivities” they need to consider before becoming directly involved in an operation to detain a terrorism suspect is the question of whether “detention, rather than killing, is the objective of the operation”.
Other disclosed documents show how:
• The Foreign Office decided in January 2002 that the transfer of British citizens from Afghanistan to Guantánamo was its “preferred option”.
• Jack Straw asked for that rendition to be delayed until MI5 had been able to interrogate those citizens.
• Downing Street was said to have overruled FO attempts to provide a British citizen detained in Zambia with consular support in an attempt to prevent his return to the UK, with the result that he too was “rendered” to Guantánamo.
The papers have been disclosed as a result of civil proceedings brought by six former Guantánamo inmates against MI5 and MI6, the Home Office, the Foreign Office, and the Attorney General’s Office, which they allege were complicit in their illegal detention and torture.
The government has been responding to disclosure requests by maintaining that it has identified up to 500,000 documents that may be relevant, and says it has deployed 60 lawyers to scrutinise them, a process that it suggests could take until the end of the decade. It has failed to hand over many of the documents that the men’s lawyers have asked for, and on Friday failed to meet a deadline imposed by the high court for the disclosure of the secret interrogation policy that governed MI5 and MI6 officers between 2004 and earlier this year.
So far just 900 papers have been disclosed, and these have included batches of press cuttings and copies of government reports that were published several years ago. However, a number of highly revealing documents are among the released papers, as well as fragments of heavily censored emails, memos and policy documents.
Some are difficult to decipher, but together they paint a picture of a government that was determined not only to stand shoulder to shoulder with the United States as it embarked upon its programme of “extraordinary rendition” and torture of terrorism suspects in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but to actively participate in that programme.
Early January 2002. The Taliban regime in Kabul had been toppled, Nato forces were spreading out across Afghanistan, and the initial military response to the events of September 11 appeared to be running smoothly.
But in Whitehall – and particularly at the Foreign Office – there were the first signs of nervousness over the proposed manner of dealing with one problem that had arisen in the country: a small number of British citizens and residents, all Muslims, had been detained by US forces.
A mass of documents disclosed during high court proceedings show how rapidly the government became involved in the abduction and torture of these individuals in its attempts to secure the UK against attack by al-Qaida.
They also appear to show how little regard was given within the government to the illegality of its own actions.
On 4 January 2002, a memo circulated to the secretaries of the junior Foreign Office ministers Ben Bradshaw and Lady Amos, as well as to the Foreign Office press office and the department’s senior legal adviser, Sir Michael Wood, notes: “Public opinion has on the whole shown little concern about the welfare of the British detainees, or the legal terms of their detention. But the issue is clearly of sensitivity to Muslim opinion in the UK and abroad.”
It adds that the FCO should be “seen as applying our normal standards of consular assistance as far as possible”. Consular officials had not seen these detainees, however, and “our holding line, that we are first seeking to establish identity details, is wearing thin”, not least because extensive reports about one individual had already appeared in the press.
At this time, the fact that “rendition” – abducting an individual and moving them against their will from one country to another – was illegal appears not to have been a concern. A document disclosed by the Foreign Office, dated 10 January 2002 and entitled Afghanistan UK Detainees, expresses the government’s “preferred options”. It states: “Transfer of United Kingdom nationals held by US forces in Afghanistan to a United States base in Guantánamo is the best way to meet our counter-terrorism objectives, to ensure they are securely held.” The “only alternative”, the document adds, would be to place these individuals in the custody of British forces in Afghanistan, or to return them to the UK.