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Thursday, August 04, 2011 

The comforting recourse to the black pen of the censor.

One of the odd afflictions of both those who comment on politics and those who actually conduct it is that whenever a scandal erupts, a minister is accused of some impropriety or a policy ends in disaster we demand an inquiry. This isn't because either of the two groups have any great faith in the inquiry getting to the bottom of what actually happened - it's a very rare occasion when the findings are so damning that almost everyone has to acknowledge them - it's because neither know what else to do other than ask some independent grandee to investigate. Strangely though, this initial cynicism and scepticism is often forgotten once the report is published and the conclusion fails to satisfy.

The other thing to keep in mind is that while governments find it very easy to conduct investigations into those other than themselves, hence why the inquiries into phone hacking at the News of the World and associated matters have now become so wide-ranging that one suspects we won't see the results until just before the next election, they do their very best to scupper or hinder those into matters which they don't really want to talk about. This backfired on the Blair government, meaning that rather than one investigation into the Iraq war we're now waiting on the fourth.

History seems unlikely to repeat itself when it comes to the coalition's purposely crippled inquiry into the security services' alleged collusion in torture. After a year of trying to make the government see sense, the 10 involved NGOs, including Liberty, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch amongst others have withdrawn their cooperation from the Peter Gibson helmed inquiry. From the very beginning it seemed unlikely to meet even the smell test: Gibson was already the intelligence services commissioner, a position you aren't offered if there's even the slightest fear you might be anything other than slavishly establishment. A truly independent figure not associated with the intelligence services would have been the obvious choice if the new government really wanted to ensure any mistakes committed under Labour aren't repeated.

Instead it seems Gibson's powers will largely resemble those already wielded by the discredited and supine Intelligence and Security Committee, the toothless parliamentary panel which whitewashed rendition and was almost certainly lied to by a former head of MI5. He cannot order any particular witness to submit to appearing before the inquiry, nor can he demand to see all the evidence the security services hold on rendition. It's instead up to MI5/6 what they decide to graciously provide. Those who claim to have been mistreated will also go unrepresented, with their lawyers unable to question any witnesses. Moreover, the end report, like with those produced by the ISC, will go before the prime minister and the cabinet secretary before it's released, with both able to demand redactions. For an insight into what it will probably end up looking like, you can take a glance at Sir Richard Dearlove's evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, so heavily censored that you wonder why they bothered releasing it at all.

Why they continue to be quite so wedded to such tight secrecy when so much of what they're likely to go over is public knowledge is made clear by the Guardian obtaining the official security service policy document on dealing with foreign intelligence agencies over detainees of interest. In itself it makes clear that despite their insistence they knew nothing of how the United States was mistreating detainees until the Abu Ghraib scandal, MI5/6 had already developed a strategy at the beginning of 2002 in an attempt to remain above the depths the US was sinking to. As it sets out, where they were concerned there was a clear chance of being complicit in torture, they could still go ahead as long as there was approval from the highest levels, right up to that of ministers. It even admits that disclosure of such collusion could in itself lead to further radicalisation of those they were meant to be monitoring and preventing from launching attacks, or damage the reputation of the agencies, yet such worries were pushed to the side.

Apart from pointing the finger directly at ministers who at the time repeatedly denied any knowledge of rendition in particular, Jack Straw notably denouncing such claims as "conspiracy theories", it gives a taster of both what a proper inquiry could uncover and how the door is now being slammed shut. As Malcolm Rifkind has taken to the airwaves to say, there are simply some things so sensitive and so secret that us poor plebs can never know about them, especially it seems if it involves collusion in the mistreatment of our own citizens and residents. It doesn't matter that as they themselves predicted, the reputation of MI5/6 has been damaged by the allegations, and that the only way to repair a sullied reputation is as near to complete disclosure as can be provided by what have to remain semi-secret organisations, the default response remains stonewalling, backed up by those armed with the black pen of the censor.

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Great stuff but you might mention Craig Murray & his struggle to expose Jack Straw's personal involvement in sanctioning intelligence service cooperation with Uzbek torturers.

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