‘Beyond doubt’ that Britain knew US mistreated terror detainees

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The UK tolerated “inexcusable” treatment of detainees by the US in the years after the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, a parliamentary committee has found.

And it was also inexcusable that British intelligence and security agencies supplied questions for the interrogation of prisoners who they knew or suspected were being subjected to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment (CIDT) and paid for the rendition of others to states where they were at risk of such abuse.

A three-year investigation by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee found no “smoking gun” proving that the agencies turned a blind eye to torture, and no evidence that UK officials themselves mistreated detainees.

But it said British agents “were party to mistreatment administered by others” in two cases, one of which has never been fully investigated and could now be reopened.

It was “beyond doubt” that Britain knew about US practices at an early stage in the war on terror, and that “more could have been done” by both security agencies and ministers in Tony Blair’s Government to try to stop them, the committee said.

“In our view the UK tolerated actions, and took others, that we regard as inexcusable,” said committee chairman and former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

But he stressed that the report did not seek to point the finger of blame at “individual officers acting under immense pressure”.

Instead, he said: “More could have been done at an agency and ministerial level to seek to influence US behaviour.

“More could also have been done to distance themselves from mistreatment of detainees.”

Evidence suggested that the UK agencies were in the position of a “junior partner with limited influence, concerned not to upset their US counterparts in case they lost access to intelligence from detainees that might be vital in preventing an attack on the UK”.

The ISC probe was launched after the collapse of the independent judge-led Gibson Inquiry into rendition.

It reviewed 40,000 documents and interviewed former detainees and three ex-officials. But it was brought to a premature halt after Prime Minister Theresa May refused to allow the panel of MPs and peers to question agents involved in the events.

New York vehicle attack
Detainees were held at the US base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba (US Department of Defence/PA)

It called for a full review of seven-year-old guidelines on the handling of detainees overseas, to make clear that no official should be able to authorise action where there is a serious risk of torture.

The ISC report found:

– Personnel from MI6, MI5 and military intelligence participated in 2,000-3,000 interrogations of individuals held by the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay from 2002;

– In 232 cases, UK personnel continued to supply questions or intelligence after they knew or suspected mistreatment;

– In 198 cases, they received intelligence obtained from detainees who they knew or suspected had been mistreated;

– UK agencies suggested, planned or agreed to 28 rendition operations, provided intelligence to enable a further 22 and failed to take action to prevent 23 more – including some involving UK nationals or residents;

– In three cases, MI5 or MI6 made or offered payment towards the “extraordinary rendition” of detainees to states where they were under real risk of torture or CIDT;

– UK officers made verbal threats in nine cases and on two occasions were party to mistreatment administered by others.

The committee rejected agencies’ claims that reports of abuses made by officers on the ground amounted to no more than “isolated incidents”.

CIA briefings in 2001 to the heads of MI6, MI5 and the Government’s GCHQ eavesdropping centre, as well as Mr Blair’s foreign policy adviser, “clearly showed US intent but were not taken seriously”.

But there was no documentary evidence that ministers were informed of the problem until 2005.

“It is difficult to comprehend how those at the top of the office did not recognise the pattern of mistreatment by the US,” said the committee.

“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.”

Responding to the report, Mrs May said the security and intelligence agencies now “regret” not recognising at an earlier stage the extent to which allies had adopted “unacceptable practices” towards detainees.

“With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that UK personnel were working within a new and challenging operating environment for which, in some cases, they were not prepared,” she said.

“It took too long to recognise that guidance and training for staff was inadequate, and too long to understand fully and take appropriate action on the risks arising from our engagement with international partners on detainee issues.”

Downing Street said some of the officials the ISC had been prevented from speaking to were junior at the time of the events and it was “not usual practice” for them to give evidence to a committee.

A spokeswoman added: “We fully and willingly co-operated with the report.”

Jack Straw, who served as foreign secretary from 2001-06 with formal responsibility for MI6 and GCHQ, said that the report contained “much about the activities and the approach of these agencies of which I was not aware before”.

Mr Straw said the ISC findings showed that “where I was involved in decisions, I consistently sought to ensure that the United Kingdom did act in accordance with its long stated policies, and international norms”.

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