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Thursday, December 19, 2013 

Rendition: one step closer to, something.

A day after saying I was right I can swiftly redress the balance by making clear I was also wrong.  There is actually very little in the Report of the Detainee Inquiry aka the Gibson report (PDF) that's been redacted.  Indeed, only one brief section of the report has been, although the main redaction consists of an entire paragraph (page 48 onwards, 5.23) which reading between the lines was an account of what MI5 and SIS officers saw on being allowed to interview detainees at Bagram airbase on the 9th of January 2002.  In what seems to be the first instance of an officer reporting back first hand the potential mistreatment of detainees, SIS Head Office responded by telegram on the 11th of January with advice that while it was "important that you do not engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment", "the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this".  In fact, international law explicitly states the opposite.  Another entire paragraph is then redacted, and this time it's impossible to know what the closed report said.

The main reason why more hasn't been redacted is immediately apparent on reading the rest of what is by inquiry standards, even one which was cancelled early, a fairly short document.  For anyone who presumed the report would deal in detail with individual cases of alleged complicity in rendition, they're likely be left extremely underwhelmed.  What the report amounts to is little more than a reprise of the narrative which those who've followed the rendition scandal from the outset will already be familiar with. This is hardly surprising when it draws heavily on the two previous reports by the Intelligence and Security Committee, 2005's detainee report and 2007's one on rendition. Both were wholly inadequate, thanks to how the ISC didn't then have the power to demand documents from the agencies, and the usual failure of the spooks to tell the truth. Gibson even fully accepts the ISC's defintion of what is and isn't an extraordinary rendition, so once again the agencies are cleared of personal involvement in rendition, despite the massive role played by MI5 in the transfer to Guantanamo of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna.

Despite also having almost full access to the documents requested from MI5 and SIS (the "vast majority" were released, although some, especially those requiring American consent have not been, which is interesting to note considering the NSA's horrendous failure to keep GCHQ documentation safe), new revelations are extremely few and far between. We already knew for instance that while expressing concern about conditions at Guantanamo in public when it opened, Jack Straw was agreeing the transfer of British citizens to the detention camp behind closed doors.  One new detail is that Straw, apparently looking for an alternative, suggested to David Blunkett the then being drafted Extradition Bill could try and restrict the precedent set by R vs Mullen, where the unlawful return of Nicholas Mullen from Zimbabwe had resulted in his conviction of conspiracy to cause explosions being quashed (page 35).  Blunkett reported back 5 months later saying "the obstacles to this suggestion are simply too formidable".

The key issue that remains is the one considered in chapter 6 of the report (page 73 onwards).  Despite what the then heads of MI5 and SIS said to the ISC previously, it's apparent there was more than enough evidence collected by the agencies themselves, not least from the reports of officers back to their heads, to suggest mistreatment was fairly widespread at Bagram and elsewhere.  Gibson says these "reports ... were of variable quality and viability", but when we now know that after the very first visit by British officers to Bagram they were reporting back their concerns only to be told they didn't have to worry their little heads about things like the Geneva convention, it's difficult not to conclude that some within the services knew full well what was happening.  Indeed, it seems as though as early as 2002 MI5 was conducting internal reviews in an attempt to collate the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo.  Despite this, the report reveals, no centralised record was subsequently kept of either allegations of mistreatment or first hand accounts from officers themselves.

As to whether ministers were informed of these concerns, something that has previously been unclear, the report does little to clear things up.  Tony Blair annotated a briefing note on Guantanamo saying although he had been sceptical about claims of torture, it had to be "quickly establish[ed] that it isn't happening".  Jack Straw was also made aware of the report from Bagram, and like Blair, annotated it; he also went on to intervene in both 2003 and 2004 with the Americans with concerns on the treatment and conditions British citizens were subject to.  It wasn't until after the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light however that Straw specifically asked SIS to provide him with information on their experiences in interviewing those held in Afghanistan.  As much as it seems the security services didn't go out of their way to keep ministers informed, the ministers themselves hardly seemed to have been too bothered either.

Which, again, isn't wholly surprising when we know Straw was involved at around the same time in the transfer of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi back to Libya.  Straw for his part responded in the Commons, once again denying that he was in "any way complicit in the unlawful rendition or detention of individuals by the United States or any other state".  The problem for Straw is that MI6 says they only acted in accordance with ministerial authority, meaning one of the two has to be wrong.

Aren't you glad then it'll be the ISC investigating once again, rather than a fusty old judge with a legion of lawyers getting fat off the taxpayer doing the interrogating?  Straw certainly must be, as no doubt are the intelligence services themselves.  Ken Clarke, who must have pulled the short straw and so gave today's Commons statement despite no longer being the justice minister, certainly didn't give anything approaching an adequate explanation as to why a judge-led inquiry can't take place now, with consideration of the alleged Libyan renditions delayed until the the court case and police investigation have concluded, whereas it seems the ISC can do both at the same time.  If nothing else, today's report makes clear that questions from parliamentarians, especially those who have previously held the same positions as those accused, are simply not going to be of the same standard as from those appointed to helm an independent inquiry, not least when the ISC is already conducting at least two other substantial investigations at the same time.

Then there's the very issue we started with.  This report has been with the prime minister for 18 months.  We can't know the battles that went on between Gibson and the Cabinet Office over the redactions, only in the end they've turned out to be relatively minor.  That it's taken such an incredible amount of time to be published does though suggest any report eventually issued by the ISC is even more likely to be affected.  I cannot possibly see how redacting that first paragraph dealing with events more than 10 years ago could affect national security now, and yet in the end Gibson gave in and allowed it to be removed.  When you also consider they've chosen to publish it on what has turned out to be a busy news day at the time of year when few are much interested in parliament, the potential for the hiding of embarrassment, let alone potentially criminal acts, remains immense.  It has at long last been stated fairly uneqovically, if carefully, that we chose to involve ourselves in rendition and the mistreatment of detainees during the initial period of the "war on terror".  It's how those involved are now held to account that matters, and the signs are that just as the CIA was allowed to get away with far worse, our own politicians and spies will be able to plead unique circumstances and get away with only stains on their character.  Those who were tortured will merely have to bear the very real scars for the rest of their lives.

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