London, England – The decision by the British government to release two reports pertaining to detainee mistreatment and rendition overseas: one on information collated between 2001-20110 at the height of the so-called “war on terror” and a second recommending a tightened framework for Consolidated Guidance regarding the treatment of detainees has met sharp criticism after the government stated they had been redacted by the US government prior to their release.
This redaction immediately became the focal point of an argument against both the UK government’s intentions in doing so and the authority of the US to redact British government information.
Critics claim it may be the UK’s intention to detract criticism and “draw the sting” away from its complicity in torture – theoretically prohibited by Consolidated Guidance rules.
But the true nature of this prereleased information may have been to divert attention from the fact that the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) who produced it was blocked access to military and agency staff at ground level as well as detainees themselves by the government.
“The report is bound to contain some revelations and criticisms about the UK’s agencies, but even more worrying is what it won’t contain,” said Bella Sankey, deputy director of human rights NGO, Reprieve.
“The committee only saw what the government allowed it to see, being denied access to individual intelligence agents and could only question senior officers who were not directly involved in alleged torture and rendition,” she continued.
This throws the report’s ability to paint a full picture of the abuses suffered by detainees and the full scope of Britain’s role in their treatment in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, as well as the UK’s current stance on rendition seriously into question.
Speaking at a parliament press conference, chairman of the ISC committee the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve, MP, also, acknowledged the report’s shortcomings.
“We needed to hear from the officers who were involved at the time. The government has denied us access to those individuals. The committee has therefore concluded – reluctantly – that they must draw a line under this inquiry.” He said in an opening statement.
“That said, we have found no smoking gun to indicate the agencies deliberately overlooked reports of mistreatment and rendition by the US as a matter of institutional policy.”
The ISC is not an independent body and lacks institutional separation from the British government, with the prime minister retaining absolute veto over both membership to the organisation, as well as final say on what information can be included.
With the release of the second report on Consolidated Guidance, the ISC’s aim is to establish concrete policy on detainee treatment – which it has requested the government produce three months after the report’s release date.
“The problem is that the [current] guidance is not rigorous enough, as well as being vague and full of worrying loopholes, and there’s evidence that’s it’s routinely ignored and breached, leaving individuals vulnerable to horrific abuses,” added Reprieve’s Bella Sankey when commenting on Consolidated Guidance.
According to the second report – and still in line with current rules – upon witnessing mistreatment in Afghanistan in 2002, the Secret Intelligence Service’s (SIS) head office instructed officers to “avoid anything that would make them party to, or risk their being seen as condoning mistreatment.
However, it also made clear they were under no legal obligation to intervene, nor provided any framework for what constitutes mistreatment.”
There were 13 reported incidents of this nature within Consolidated Guidance’s seven-year operational period, including three individual cases where SIS and MI5 made or offered to take a financial contribution to others to conduct rendition, effectively outsourcing torture.
More worrying, is the fact, echoed by Grieve, that there were no cohesive numbers and little attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of Consolidated Guidance during the height of the so-called “war on terror” and over the years which followed.
Alongside these factors, the redaction made by the US – one figure in over 300 words – appears less significant.
The UK and US have a long history of sharing intelligence. Although the furore over the government’s decision to prerelease information and US involvement has momentarily taken front seat, what remains out of focus is the British government’s refusal to allow a full jury-led inquiry into detainee treatment from 2001-2010, which would permit full access to all materials and witnesses required.
This request has been formally issued by both the ISC and Reprieve, the latter claiming that it has been repeatedly ignored and that the government are now conducting changes in secret.
Although the report’s findings on British involvement in US renditions remains opaque and unclear, Grieve stated believes that “It is difficult to comprehend how those at the top of the office did not recognise the pattern of mistreatment by the US.”
The current Consolidated Guidance framework still states that the US can’t use UK soil for rendition without permission, as it did (and admitted) in 2008. But the need for transparency is greater than ever, given the Trump Administration’s vocal support of torture: a sentiment re-iterated by Sankey.
“The fact that we now have a US president who has openly condoned torture and appointed Gina Haspel, someone deeply implicated in the torture of detainees, to lead the CIA, means that the need for proper safeguards is even more urgent.
“Unfortunately, this report will not give the full picture of UK involvement in torture and so the lessons will not be fully learnt.”