The foreign secretary, David Miliband, told MPs today that he will not allow the public to see the secret interrogation policy that is at the heart of allegations that MI5 has been colluding in the torture of British citizens.
Gordon Brown has ordered that the policy be rewritten after a series of people complained that they had been questioned by British intelligence officers after being asked the same questions under torture by Pakistani and Bangladeshi intelligence officers. Brown has also pledged that the policy would be made public.
However, Miliband told MPs on the Commons foreign affairs select committee today that he has no intention of making public the policy as it currently stands, because of the risk of prejudicing a number of on-going court cases. Pressed further, he said that the currently policy would not be published even once those court cases have concluded, as to do so would “lend succour to our enemies”.
He added that the policy had been reviewed by the Intelligence and Security Committee, the group of MPs and peers who are supposed to oversee the activities of Britain’s intelligence agencies, and that the ISC was able to “square the circle between secrecy and accountability”.
The ISC sits in secret, its members and its reports to the prime minister are published after being censored in consultation with the agencies themselves.
Asked about the morality of receiving intelligence that has been extracted through torture, Miliband told the committee: “We would never procure intelligence, or procure evidence through torture. We would never say to another intelligence agency ‘Please get us information about X’ and, you know, abandon our legal and ethical commitments in respect of how you find that.”
Evidence heard in court has contradicted that, however. Last September Manchester Crown Court heard how MI5 and Greater Manchester Police drew up a list of questions for use by a notorious Pakistani intelligence agency which was unlawfully detaining Rangzieb Ahmed, a man from Rochdale. By the time Ahmed was deported to Britain 13 months later three of his fingernails were missing. Furthermore, civil proceedings brought on behalf of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident who was freed from Guantánamo earlier this year, has resulted in the disclosure of the questions that MI5 asked be put to him, despite knowing that he had been tortured in Pakistan and having reason to believe he was being tortured after being rendered elsewhere.
Miliband admitted that the the co-operation between MI5 and MI6 with foreign security and intelligence agencies during counter terrorism operations could risk detainees being mistreated.
“It is not possible to eradicate the risk of mistreatment. A judgment needs to be made”, he said in a letter to the committee. “We cannot act in isolation in order to protect British citizens.” He acknowledged that some countries had “different legal obligations and different standards to our own in the way they detain people and treat those they have detained”. He added that this “cannot stop us from working with them”.
As well as allegations of collusion in torture in Pakistan, where British intelligence officers have questioned people being held by agencies whose use of torture is widely documented, there have been allegations of complicity in the torture of British citizens detained in Bangladesh, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Miliband refused to answer questions from the committee yesterday about allegations that MI5 officers had put the same questions to detainees that had earlier been put, under torture, by foreign intelligence officers, claiming that to do so may prejudice ongoing court cases.
The only cases currently before the courts are those in which the British government and its intelligence agencies are being sued for damages by the alleged victims of torture.
Referring to the secret interrogation policy, Miliband did tell the committee: “Before 2004 the guidance was informal, after 2004 it was more formal. It is now comprehensive, including comprehensive legal advice to all officers.”
He also said the interrogation policy would be made available to defence lawyers representing terrorist trial defendants who allege that they were tortured by foreign agents, and then questioned by British intelligence officers, before being deported to the UK and prosecuted. “Surely, it is founding principle of our legal system: defending counsel can call for whatever papers they want,” he said. “Defence counsel having these papers isn’t the same as putting them on the internet.”
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem shadow spokesman of foreign affairs, said that British intelligence officers had been given “inadequate” guidance on their obligations while interrogating detainees held overseas.