UK criticised over role in US rendition

UK criticised over role in US rendition

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Detainees stand during an early morning Islamic prayer at the U.S. military prison for 'enemy combatants' on October 28, 2009 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption British agencies participated in interviewing detainees at the US holding facility Guantanamo Bay

The UK tolerated “inexcusable” treatment of US detainees after the 9/11 attacks, MPs have found.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) said it was “beyond doubt” the UK knew how the US handled some detainees.

The ISC found no “smoking gun” indicating a policy of deliberately overlooking such cases.

The chair of the parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, Ken Clarke, called for an independent inquiry into the UK’s role, “to get to the truth”.

According to the ISC report, the UK continued to supply intelligence to allies in 232 cases where British officials knew or suspected mistreatment.

Prime Minister Theresa May said British personnel had been working in “a new and challenging operating environment” which some were “not prepared” for.

She added “it took too long to recognise that guidance and training for staff was inadequate”, and said British intelligence and the Army were “much better placed to meet that challenge”.

The ISC rejected claims by intelligence agencies that the cases detailed were no more than “isolated incidents”.

The report added: “That the US, and others, were mistreating detainees is beyond doubt, as is the fact that the agencies and defence intelligence were aware of this at an early point.”

BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera said the report showed there was “no evidence of direct mistreatment” by British intelligence agencies, but there were “13 cases where spies witness first-hand a detainee being mistreated by others”.

He added that the ISC criticises the UK’s foreign intelligence service MI6, and its listening service GCHQ for playing “a role in enabling some detentions”.

The report adds “more could have been done” by security agencies and ministers in Tony Blair’s government to try and influence US behaviour.

Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who was responsible for overseeing GCHQ and MI6, said he was not aware of the activities or approach of the agencies.

He said the report shows that “where I was involved in decisions I consistently sought to ensure that the United Kingdom did act in accordance with its long-stated policies, and international norms”.

He said “many lessons… have since been learnt”.


By Dominic Casciani, BBC home affairs correspondent

Today’s ISC reports come after a judge-led inquiry was scrapped and court battles failed to get to the bottom of all the allegations that the UK got its hands dirty after 9/11.

Today, if a foreign agency is torturing a detainee that British intelligence agencies need to speak to, and the British know or fear the abuse is happening, ministers must be informed.

This is set out in published guidance designed to prevent British officials breaking the law.

That guidance was consulted 2,304 times over the three years to 2016 – but the ISC could not find out how many times those fears of abuse were escalated to ministers because nobody is keeping the figures.

Secondly, the ISC said in a separate report it was “astonishing” that there still no clear policy on whether and how UK personnel can be involved in rendition.

So, while the agencies are emphatic that the failings of the past are long gone, it’s very difficult to know for sure exactly what is going on – because top security people in Whitehall may not even be able to see the full picture.

The ISC said Ethiopia-born UK resident Binyam Mohamed was held in Pakistan in 2002 – and that MI5 and MI6 were informed by US agents he had been subjected to sleep deprivation.

The report said MI5 failed to act on that information before its own officer arrived to interview Mr Mohamed.

The US then secretly moved Mr Mohamed to Morocco, where he was tortured. MI5 asked its American allies where he had gone and what was happening to him – but was rebuffed.

Despite this, the ISC report says, the agencies gave questions to the US to be put to him. Mr Mohamed was later returned to the UK.

What is rendition?

Rendering or rendition involves sending a person from one country to another for imprisonment and interrogation, probably by methods such as torture, that would be illegal in the country doing the rendering.

US intelligence agencies used the process of “extraordinary rendition” to send terror suspects for interrogation by security officials in other countries, where they have no legal protection or rights under American law.

In the report, the ISC says the government “denied” the committee access to “officers who were involved at the time” of the UK’s involvement in rendition.

British citizen Moazzam Begg, previously held in Guantanamo Bay, criticised the inquiry’s scope as inadequate, saying “we still don’t know the process of accountability”.

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Media captionMoazzam Begg: “I was hooded, shackled, and had a gun to my head”

Speaking about his own detention, he said: “British intelligence agents were physically there watching as I was hooded, shackled, with a gun to my head, threatened with being sent to Syria or Egypt if I didn’t co-operate.

“There was the sound of a woman screaming in the room next door, that I was led to believe was my wife being tortured. British intelligence agents knew all about this.”

Although there is no evidence US rendition flights transited through the UK, there is evidence that two detainees went through the Indian Ocean British territory of Diego Garcia, where records about the conditions in which they were held are “woefully inadequate”.

UK involvement in US rendition programme

  • The UK participated in interviewing between 2,000 and 3,000 US detainees after 2002
  • British agencies suggested, planned or agreed to a rendition operation in 28 cases
  • MI6 and MI5 offered to help fund a rendition operation three times
  • The UK knew or suspected detainees were abused in 232 cases
  • In 198 cases British agencies received information from interrogations where they knew detainees had been mistreated
  • British personnel threatened detainees in nine cases but there is no evidence they carried out abuse

In a separate report, the committee said the government has “failed to take action” and there is “no clear policy” for preventing UK complicity in unlawful rendition.

The ISC said the government’s failure to ensure the US and other allies cannot use British territory for rendering detainees was “completely unsatisfactory”, especially since there has been a “clear shift in focus” of US policy under the Trump administration.

Ken Clarke, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, said the findings of the ISC report “are not small issues which can now be swept under the carpet – and the government must address them urgently”.

“The APPG has been working on these important issues since 2005 and it is more crucial than ever today to finally get to the full truth.”

Mr Clarke added: “The ISC says ‘we find it astonishing that, given the intense focus on this issue 10 years ago, the government has failed to take action.’ I strongly agree.”

Human rights campaign group Reprieve has called for a judge-led inquiry, saying the ISC’s report was too limited.

Baroness Chakrabarti, Labour’s shadow attorney general, echoed calls for a separate inquiry.

She said: “In the days, months and years after 9/11 there was an understandable febrile atmosphere and the senior partner in the special relationship, i.e. the United States, was dabbling in these most horrific practices and – to some extent – the UK government went along for the ride.”

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