The UK is lagging behind the US in dealing with unfinished business from the ‘war on terror’.
A week is, famously, a long time in politics and anything over a year, therefore, an eternity. But as we can see at present, politics is a bit of a self-sealing bubble.
The law – and life – moves more slowly, but nevertheless inexorably. Procrastination eventually runs out. Thus, the UK still has to deal with unfinished business from the ‘war on terror’ – and not only the false prospectus of the Iraq war. The US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the role of the CIA in torture, a summary of which was published just before Christmas, was a major step towards transparency and responsibility yet to prove visible in its closest ally.
The report confirmed that the CIA learned little or nothing from its freewheeling actions. It gave us more detail of what was done. We knew about waterboarding but the reporting of ‘rectal rehydration’ was new. The evident collusion of doctors recalls the Nazi example that precipitated the absolute nature of the right against torture protected by all human rights conventions since the second world war.
Senators on the committee expressed regret for what had been done, but they also began the political response. Senator King quoted Colin Powell on Abu Ghraib in 2004: ‘Watch America. Watch how we deal with this. Watch how America will do the right thing. Watch what a nation of values and character, a nation that believes in justice, does to right this kind of wrong. Watch how a nation such as ours will not tolerate such actions.’
The US response is not perfect. No one has been prosecuted. One of the then government lawyers who justified the US torture programme remains a federal judge. The senate committee has published only a heavily redacted summary (albeit close to 600 pages) of its report. President Obama has not shown much interest in holding individuals to account.
However, the US is miles ahead of its UK ally. David Cameron, who you would have thought would have every reason to pursue his predecessors, told Sky News in reference to the US report: ‘I am confident this issue has been dealt with from the British perspective.’
The grounds for Cameron’s confidence are not clear, though the UK ambassador to Washington apparently had no fewer than 21 meetings with the US committee to ensure sensitivity to UK involvement. Coalition ministers have also fought tooth and nail to conceal before the courts the role of the security services in cases such as that relating to Abdel Hakim Belhadj, the Libyan leader allegedly kidnapped and tortured with the participation of MI6 officers.
Court-ordered disclosure in his case ultimately revealed both the extent of surveillance of lawyers and the connivance of the UK in his return to, and torture in, Libya. Belhadj has now reportedly – and perhaps not surprisingly – joined Islamic State: so much for torture as realpolitik.
The Senate Committee’s summary shows the international consequences when the world’s major superpower goes rogue. The corruption spreads outward. One country (identity redacted) reversed its intention to close a torture facility, ‘detention site green’, after ‘continued lobbying by the chief of station’.
The site was terminated only when US papers threatened to publish its location. Local objection was stifled. In another, a CIA official reported: ‘They also happen to have three or four rooms where they can lock up people discretely. I give them a few hundred bucks a month and they use the rooms for whoever I bring over – no questions asked.’
Sometimes the cost was higher. One country refused to take detainees including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: ‘The decision was reversed only after the U.S. ambassador intervened with the political leadership of [the] Country. The following month the CIA provided $[redacted] million to [the] Country’s [redacted] after which… officials, speaking for [redacted] and [the] Country’s political leadership, indicated that [the] Country was now flexible…’
Nothing so crude as bribery was surely used to obtain UK compliance over the use of Diego Garcia or complicity in ‘enhanced interrogation’. However, the allegation hangs over key ministers of the Tony Blair administration and, in particular, former foreign secretaries Jack Straw and David Miliband, that they co-operated not only over the specious grounds for the Iraq war but with the torture-happy response of the Bush administration.
Blair was, after all, explicit about the ‘blood price’ of support payable to the US whatever its actions. He meant this literally, but it also applied to the lifeblood of principle. The allegation of spinelessness also hangs over their successors.
Those involved can try their best to kick accountability for their actions into the long grass. But eventually the truth will out – with more thanks in the UK than the US to lawyers and courts than politics and principle.
The world can see the US struggling towards responsibility. Does it not also need to see the same here?
Roger Smith is visiting professor at London South Bank University and former director of human rights group Justice