Jack Straw, then foreign secretary and responsible for MI6, told MPs in 2005: “Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States … there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition.”
We now know, on the government’s own admission, that far from indulging in conspiracy theories, some of us were telling the truth. Thanks to Nato air strikes, and perhaps British bombs, clear evidence emerged that MI6 was directly complicit, indeed had helped to set up, the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a leading opponent of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, and Belhaj’s pregnant wife, Fatima Boudchar.
The bombs destroyed the Tripoli office of Gaddafi’s foreign intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa. His files were scattered. They included a letter from Mark Allen, MI6’s counter-terrorism chief, dated March 2004 – a year before Straw was assuring MPs – congratulating Koussa on the “safe arrival” of Belhaj.
Allen added: “This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years.” Though he noted that the CIA had provided the aircraft for the rendition operation [my emph.], “the intelligence … was British”.
When the evidence emerged of British involvement in the operation, Straw explained: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.” He said today: “In every case where my approval was sought I assumed, and was entitled to assume, that the actions for which my approval was sought were lawful.”
Shortly before the rendition, in which Belhaj was shackled and his wife bound from head to toe throughout a 17-hour flight from Bangkok to Tripoli, Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, led a high-powered delegation of intelligence officers to discuss close cooperation with Gaddafi and his security chiefs.
Whitehall officials have described the rendition of Belhaj and his wife as the result of “ministerially authorised government policy”. After a four-year police investigation, Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service announced that neither Straw nor Allen would face charges, because of insufficient evidence [my emph.]; though it said Allen had “sought political authority for some of his actions, albeit not within a formal written process nor in detail…”.
For six years government lawyers fought tooth and nail in the courts to prevent the disclosure of any more incriminating evidence. After today’s statement to MPs by the attorney general, Jeremy Wright, we are none the wiser about where the responsibility lies. In what he called an out-of-court “full and final settlement”, Wright emphasised that there was “no admission of liability”.
Despite Wright’s clear implication that British officials had not acted “in line with our values and in accordance with the rule of law”, no member of the Blair government, and no member of MI6 or anyone else in Whitehall’s security establishment, is going to take responsibility for what Theresa May, in her letter to Belhaj, described as “deeply troubling and appalling treatment”.
Instead, we had mealy-mouthed references to how British intelligence officers “should have done better to reduce the risk of ill-treatment”. MPs were told how MI6 was slow to understand the practices of “our partners” – a reference in particular to torture and the CIA.
This is a tired excuse that has been used before. And it is scarcely credible, given that MI5 and MI6 chiefs were made aware soon after the 9/11 attacks on the US in September 2001 how the CIA was going to treat “terror suspects”.
But to make sure that ministers – then and now – will be protected from any blame, Wright told MPs that “cultural” and “behavioural changes” as well as “system” changes were needed in Britain’s intelligence agencies. It is not the first time we have heard that; ministers have said the very same for decades whenever MI5 or MI6 has been caught in a scandal.
When he was prime minister, David Cameron set up a judge-led inquiry under Peter Gibson into evidence that MI5 and MI6 were colluding in the rendition of British citizens and residents to the US military jail at Guantánamo Bay. They received millions of pounds in compensation in out-of-court settlements designed to prevent incriminating evidence from being disclosed.
The Gibson inquiry was halted when evidence of the Belhaj case emerged. Cameron decided to hand it all over to the prime minister’s intelligence and security committee of MPs and peers. That committee, which meets in private, is no match for a judge-led public inquiry or an open trial in the courts. It seems we will never know who was responsible for the torture of Belhaj and his pregnant wife.