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Friday, February 26, 2010 

Paragraph 168 and all that.

It's been a week of non-denial denials, as well as some especially flagrant lies in the shape of Gordon Brown's curious failure to remember unleashing "the forces of hell" against his chancellor after he made the mistake of being too honest with an interviewer. Kindly, they've saved the best until last, with the trifecta of prime minister, home secretary and foreign secretary all uniting in defending those poor, unable to answer back protectors of the realm in the security services:

"We totally reject any suggestion that the security services have a systemic problem in respecting human rights. We wholly reject too that they have any interest in suppressing or withholding information from ministers or the courts."

"It is the nature of the work of the intelligence services that they cannot defend themselves against many of the allegations that have been made. But I can - and I have every confidence that their work does not undermine the principles and values that are the best guarantee of our future security."

It's instructive that all three of these statements, in response to the full disclosure of paragraph 168 of the "seven paragraphs" ruling, only talk in the present tense. Is anyone actually suggesting that the security services now have a systemic problem in respecting human rights? It's been clear that both MI5 and 6 have somewhat changed their ways as a result of the allegations made against them involving both complicity in torture and rendition, helped along by the fact that to a certain extent the CIA has also moderated its behaviour. Alan Johnson's second sentence is worded equally carefully - while Lord Neuberger suggests that David Miliband was misled by MI5 when he issued the public interest immunity certificates put before the court, the main allegation made by Neuberger is that MI5 lied to the Intelligence and Security Committee when they told it in March 2005 that "they operated a culture that respected human rights and that coercive interrogation techniques were alien to the Services' general ethics, methodology and training" while they also "denied that [they] knew of any ill-treatment of detainees interviewed by them whilst detained by or on behalf of the [US] Government". The ISC contains no serving ministers, and no one has claimed that the security services have suppressed or withheld evidence from the courts.

Likewise, as asinine as Brown's claim is that the security services cannot defend themselves, somewhat contradicted by Jonathan Evans' moon-lighting as a Telegraph columnist, why shouldn't he have "every confidence" that their work doesn't undermine "the principles and values" that keep us safe? After all, the new guidelines under which MI5 and 6 are meant to work, which explicitly forbid any complicity in mistreatment have been in place now for some time, and there's been no indication as yet that they aren't being followed. We aren't talking about the here and now however, we're talking about what the security services did, which Brown, Miliband and Johnson strangely don't seem to want to discuss. It would be nice, for instance, for Miliband to comment on whether he was misled by MI5 as Neuberger suggests he was, something which he inexplicably declined to mention in an otherwise lengthy tĂȘte-a-tĂȘte with a BBC journalist.

The other defence of the security services, and with it the ISC, is that they weren't lying in 2005 when they told the committee the lines stated above as they didn't then apparently know about all the additional documents and information which were only found at a later date once the courts were involved. This is errant nonsense of the most obfuscatory kind. Two years later the ISC was told by Eliza Manningham-Buller (or Bullshitter, as only I call her), then head of MI5, that it was "regrettable that assurances regarding proper treatment of detainees were not sought from the Americans" in Binyam Mohamed's case, despite knowing full well, as the seven paragraphs show, that he was already being tortured before "Witness B" went to interview him. These documents were withheld for the very reason that they directly contradicted what MI5 had told and continued to tell the committee, right up until it was no longer legally possible to pretend otherwise. Miliband, Brown and Johnson are defending the indefensible, and they know it. The only question remains is whether ministers themselves were kept in the dark by the security services in a similar fashion until plausible deniability was no longer an option. The only way we'll find that out is through a judicial inquiry, something that both ministers and the security services will resist with every fibre of their being.

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