War crimes of a party fit for imperialism

In June 2018, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) finally published the report of its inquiry into the British state's relationship to the torture and extra-legal transfer of terrorism suspects from one country to another.*  The ISC examined Britain's collusion with the US from 2001-2010, covering the period of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.  It shows the scale of the abuse perpetrated and enabled by Britain’s security services – and finds the official response to it wanting. However, it is too little too late, leaving the war crimes of the Labour governments of 1997-2010 essentially unchallenged. Joe Smith reports.

During the imperialist onslaught on Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 onwards, serious allegations emerged of the involvement of British agents in the torture and mistreatment of detainees held by the CIA and its allies. Calls for an inquiry were fiercely resisted by the Labour government, whose collusion with torture and rendition we covered at the time. In 2010, David Cameron announced an inquiry led by Judge Peter Gibson. Even though severely limited in his powers, Gibson began to amass damning evidence; the inquiry was quickly called off. Gibson’s interim report was quietly published during the Lee Rigby murder trial in 2013 and then allowed to sink like a stone. His unanswered questions were passed on to the ISC.

The ISC also found its inquiries hampered by the government. It was not allowed to interview intelligence officers in the field who had been in junior positions, or key figures who might face criminal proceedings. it says this is ‘regrettable’ and that its inquiry can go no further. However, what it has published is damning. This includes:

  • evidence that UK intelligence officers were involved in almost 600 cases in which a prisoner was mistreated
  • 198 occasions when British intelligence officers received information from a prisoner whom they knew was being mistreated.
  • up to 3,000 interviews conducted by British agents at the illegal US detention centre in Guantanamo.
  • that the British government had planned, agreed or financed 31 rendition operations.


The ISC found, for example, that MI6 questioned a Saudi detainee, Abu Zubaydah, despite having ‘direct awareness of extreme mistreatment and possibly torture’ at the hands of the CIA, including being waterboarded 38 times. Zubaydah lost an eye while in custody.

The ISC finds states ‘concerns that in some cases UK personnel appear to have been directly engaged in the mistreatment of a detainee’. It gives the example of one officer, codename ‘Faraday’, at a US operated facility in 2003, suggesting that he ‘misunderstood’ the provisions of the Geneva Conventions and was ‘possibly’ complicit in abuses. Faraday talked of hooding detainees, keeping them awake in stress positions and manipulating their feeding schedule to make them lose sense of time.

The report also cites MI6 consenting, in 2002, to the US military police holding a detainee in stress positions at in Bagram air base in Afghanistan for three days. ‘He shook violently from cold, fatigue and fear but ... we agreed to maintain pressure for the next 24 hours.’

The ISC considers ‘inexcusable’ that the security services turned a blind eye to what was going on. It says it is ‘difficult to comprehend’, in the light of evidence that had emerged by 2004 of the barbaric practices being carried out at CIA detention centres including Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo and a network of secret ‘dark’ prisons across eastern Europe, how senior MI5 and MI6 officers could not have known what was going on, and that the US had made it clear, in briefings to UK agents as early as 2001, that it was no longer prepared to abide by the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners.

It makes this point again in relation to rendition, which it suggests was a conscious way of ‘outsourcing’ torture.

Can't beat 'em? Fly them to someone who can

‘Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States… there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.’ Jack Straw, former Labour Foreign Secretary

In 2005, challenged in parliament over evidence that Britain had allowed US rendition flights to refuel in Britain, Straw blatantly lied. The ISC makes that clear. The Foreign Secretary signed off on the funding for at least three rendition operations; MI5 and MI6, for which he was responsible, agreed to a further 28 and provided intelligence for 22 more. The ISC says, scathingly, that it was obvious that these flights posed a ‘real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of the detainees’ yet ‘the UK government conspicuously failed to act.’

Inevitably, however – after all, what are inquiries for, other than to prevent the ruling class ever facing justice? – the report suggests there was no malevolent intent, just crimes of omission, lack of guidance, or embarrassment at taking Britain’s powerful US ally to task. The reality is that the British state has always been willing to use torture in the interests of imperialist repression.  Many of the methods used against suspects in the new War on Terror were developed for use in Britain’s colonies in the 1950s and further refined in the 1970s during Britain’s occupation of the north of Ireland against Republican prisoners of war.  From 2001 onwards, the use of torture was again secret but official state policy, sanctioned at the very highest levels of government, in direct contravention of international and domestic law. Craig Murray, the former ambassador to Uzbekistan who raised objections to CIA-sanctioned torture, was summoned home to be told ‘that it had been decided that as a matter of War on Terror policy we should now obtain intelligence from torture, following discussion between Jack Straw and [MI6 chief] Richard Dearlove… I can testify that beyond any doubt the British government has for at least six years had a considered but secret policy of co-operation with torture abroad. This policy was cleared by government legal advisers and approved by Jack Straw as Secretary of State’. Bring Labour war criminals to justice.

* http://isc.independent.gov.uk/committee-reports/special-reports


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