Richard Norton-Taylor & Ian Cobain — Guardian.co.uk Dec 19, 2013
MI6 officers were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions and turned a “blind eye” to the torture of detainees in foreign jails, according to the report into Britain’s involvement in the rendition of terror suspects.
Even when individual MI6 and MI5 officers expressed concerns about the abuse of detainees they did not pass on their thoughts for fear of offending the US, Britain’s closest intelligence partner.
British officials were reluctant to question sleep deprivation, hooding, and waterboarding for “fear of damaging liaison relationships” – an unmistakable reference to the CIA.
This is the message of the 115-page report by a panel led by Sir Peter Gibson, the former appeal court judge, into Britain’s involvement in the extra-judicial abduction of terror suspects who were flown in secret to prisons where they were ill treated.
The Gibson inquiry was set up by the coalition government in 2010 following increasing evidence of British complicity in CIA-led operations involving UK citizens and residents who ended up incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay.
The inquiry was cut short in January last year amid dramatic, firsthand evidence of MI6 involvement in another rendition, that of two prominent Libyan dissidents, Abdel Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi.
The Libyan operation is the subject of a police investigation proceeding now, and since the same intelligence agencies and some of the same individuals – notably Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary – were potential witnesses, the Gibson inquiry was abandoned.
Despite promises by David Cameron and the former justice secretary, Ken Clarke, that investigations would be continued by an independent, judge-led inquiry, the government told the Commons on Thursday that it had handed over the task to the intelligence and security committee of selected MPs and peers.
The Gibson report depicts Britain’s security and intelligence agencies as being totally unprepared for the US response to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
US agencies, notably the CIA, picked up terror suspects, or “enemy combatants”, as the Bush administration called them, and secretly rendered them to foreign jails, where they were abused and tortured, and eventually sent to Guantánamo Bay.
Straw told MPs on Thursday that in January 2002 he agreed the UK should not stand in the way of British nationals detained by the US in Afghanistan being transferred to Guantánamo.
He said parliament should never forget the context, given that the allegations of torture arose in the “aftermath of the world’s most appalling terrorist atrocity ever, on the 11 September 2001″.
However, the report reveals that in December 2001 Straw suggested to David Blunkett, then home secretary, that an extradition bill going through parliament should be amended to allow detainees to be rendered to Britain.
The Gibson report makes it clear that years after MI5 and MI6 realised what the US agencies were doing, the organisations continued to co-operate with interrogations even though they knew, or strongly suspected, that detainees were being abused.
Gibson’s concerns are reflected in a series of passages, set in bold print in his report, identifying issues described as ones “the inquiry would have wished to investigate”.
The Gibson report provides a list of unanswered questions, including whether MI6 officers “may have turned a blind eye to the use of specific, inappropriate techniques or threats used by others, and used this to their advantage when resuming an interview session with a now compliant detainee”.
One question included concerns over whether British security and intelligence officials were advised that, “faced with apparent breaches of Geneva convention standards, there was no obligation to intervene”.
It is also questioned whether MI5 and MI6 told ministers about their “growing awareness” of the CIA’s rendition operations, whether they became “inappropriately involved”, “condoned”, and “took advantage” of them.
The report also includes evidence showing MI5 and MI6 continued to co-operate with the CIA, “feeding in questions and receiving intelligence”.
The Gibson inquiry also says it would have wished to investigate the UK’s involvement in the rendition of Belhaj and Saadi to Libya.
Saadi has reached an out-of-court settlement of £2.2m from the British government. Belhaj is seeking an apology in the courts, and a symbolic compensation of £3. The government argues that British courts have no say in the matter since any unlawful practice took place outside the UK.
The inquiry says it received 20,000 documents identifying 200 reported cases of the UK’s alleged involvement in the mistreatment of detainees, and said that 40 cases deserved particular attention.