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Tuesday, July 06, 2010 

An inquiry without a beginning or an end.

Welcome as the announcement of a judicial inquiry into allegations of collusion in torture and rendition by the security services is, it's also difficult not to be discouraged by the rather thin details so far given, even if the full picture is yet to emerge.

First off is the judge who will be in overall charge. Although obviously a judge with some knowledge already of the intelligence services would be preferable, for the one who is overall commissioner of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to lead it suggests we shouldn't get our hopes up. If there's anything you learn about how the security services in this country are handled and reviewed, it's that those unlikely to rock the boat are always given the role of supposed watchdog. The parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee is packed with ex-ministers and "elder" statesmen, having previously been chaired by both Paul Murphy and Margaret Beckett and latterly by Kim Howells, none of whom have had almost anything critical to say about those they monitor. Indeed, the ISC has already produced a report on the role of security services in rendition, the most spectacular whitewash and moving of the goalposts you're ever likely to read. The same has been the case with Lord Carlile, the reviewer of terrorism legislation who equally has found little to criticise the services over. That Sir Peter Gibson has not just been appointed commissioner, but is serving his second term is not the greatest of signs. I might of course be doing him a great disservice, and it's true, as Craig Murray points out, that the other two on the inquiry are of a more independent bent who will have just as great an input and will no doubt complain vigorously if their interpretation of the same evidence put before them is depreciated.

Of even more concern is that the inquiry will essentially look into just the allegations of those who claim to have been mistreated either directly or indirectly by the British state, rather than attempting to present a narrative of how security service policy changed and developed after September the 11th, the sort of overview which is needed to be able to learn the lessons of what happened when the attitude of our main ally changed essentially overnight. The fact the inquiry won't begin until the cases currently being brought by those British citizens and residents formerly held at Guantanamo Bay have been settled, and not before it's decided whether an MI5 and MI6 officer are to be charged over their personal roles in the commission or collusion of mistreatment suggest that this could just be a mopping up exercise, setting out what happened to them, adding to the compensation they are likely to receive without explaining why they were allowed to be treated in that way to begin with.

While as David Cameron said, it was never going to be possible to hold the entirety of the inquiry in public when it is investigating something meant to be completely secret, as much as can be should be heard in an open setting. Even more crucial though is that the end result, the report, ought to be free from redaction, and not the equivalent of a joke as the ISC's yearly round-ups are.

An insight however into how minor any real changes in policy are likely to be from the previous government is presented by the announced at the same time green paper into intelligence sharing, apparently designed to stop embarrassments like the "seven paragraphs" ever being released again. Whether this is being directly prompted by the Americans or not is unclear - it could equally be a ruse by the security services themselves to never have to reveal anything so incriminating again. After all, the seven paragraphs were released essentially because the Americans had already put into the public domain information far worse than the details they had given to MI5 surrounding the treatment of Binyam Mohamed, such as the Bybee memo, not to mention also the ruling which essentially agreed with Mohamed that he had been tortured. It in any case should be the courts that decide what should and should not be released when it concerns potential breaches of the law - not politicians who will themselves be culpable for the decisions which lead to those breaches.

We are then not really any further along in getting to the very bottom of the rabbit hole of collusion in rendition and torture. An inquiry, but one without terms of reference, and without a date on when it will start, led by a judge with hardly a spotless record. Perhaps the best course of action is to be pessimistic and end up surprised later; or equally, to have our worst suspicions confirmed.

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