CIA torture report: the UK must be honest about its complicity in these grisly crimes

What has been published by the Senate is just the tip of the iceberg – so far, the UK has successfully avoided a public accounting for the part it played in facilitating rendition and torture.

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The Senate’s report on CIA torture – or rather the executive summary which has been declassified – doesn’t make for easy reading. Not only is it over 500 pages long; it includes details with the power to shock even those who thought themselves familiar with the horrors of the CIA torture programme. One detainee died from excessive cold; at least five others were subjected to “rectal feeding”; interrogators threatened to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat;” multiple victims were left so disturbed by their abuse that they made attempts at “self-mutilation”.

But for all the important work this report does in bringing to public attention the horrific nature of the torture programme, what has been published remains just the tip of the iceberg. It is less than a tenth of the full 6,000-page report. Significant numbers of those we know to have been victims of CIA torture are not named. And the countries which assisted the US in its programme also largely avoid public shaming.

Notable among these is the UK. More may emerge as people undertake detailed consideration of the report, and attempt to unpick the redactions, but at first look it appears that Britain, although mentioned in the summary, has successfully avoided a public accounting for the part it played in facilitating rendition and torture. And it has to be asked if this was down to the strenuous efforts it made to lobby the Senate Committee which produced the report, in the hope of avoiding just that public embarrassment.

It is worth stressing that UK complicity in CIA “renditions” – where prisoners were flown to countries where they could be subjected to torture, beyond the reach of the law – is not, as Jack Straw once said, the fantasy of conspiracy theorists. Just a few years after these comments, David Miliband, who by then was foreign secretary, was forced to admit that the claims that Britain had not been involved in rendition were entirely false. Detainees on CIA torture flights, he told parliament in 2008, had in fact landed on the British-owned territory of Diego Garcia. Three years after that, correspondence from MI6 to Gaddafi’s spy chief came to light in the wake of the Libyan revolution: in it, a senior British spy fell over himself to take credit for the rendition of Gaddafi’s opponents to Libyan prisons, where they faced years of torture. Those opponents were accompanied by their wives – one heavily pregnant at the time – and children – all aged 12 or under.

One of those children, Khadija al Saadi – whose family is being assisted in their efforts towards accountability by legal charity Reprieve – has written powerfully about her ordeal. She recounts how, on arrival in Libya – courtesy of MI6 and the CIA – they were driven

to a secret prison outside Tripoli, where I was certain we were all going to be executed. All I knew about Libya at that time was that Colonel Gaddafi wanted to hurt my father, and that our family had always been moving from country to country to avoid being taken to him. Now we had been kidnapped, flown to Libya, and his people had us at their mercy.

Yet Khadija’s story – and the UK’s role in her suffering – is not mentioned in those parts of the report which have been made public. Neither is the use of UK territory as an airstrip for CIA torture flights. So what’s gone wrong?

Two documents, obtained by Reprieve, may shed some light: one of them, a letter from then-Foreign Secretary William Hague, confirms that the UK “made representations” to the Senate Committee regarding the potential disclosure of “UK material” in its report. It doesn’t seem to require much reading between the lines to see this for what it is: an admission that Britain lobbied the US Senate Committee over what it would publish about the UK’s part in torture and rendition. The second document, obtained under Freedom of Information, shows the scale of that lobbying effort: the British Ambassador to the US was dispatched to meet – and presumably plead – with members of the committee an astonishing 21 times during the course of its work.

At the risk of being accused by Jack Straw of falling for conspiracy theories, it does not seem unreasonable to see the UK’s intense lobbying of the Senate Committee as in some way connected to the lack of embarrassing information relating to the UK published in the report; despite the extensive evidence already in the public domain which proves that the UK helped the CIA to kidnap, render and torture.

This would fit too with the bigger picture: the government continues to fight in the courts to prevent rendition cases from even being heard. The prime minister has u-turned on his July 2010 promise to hold an independent, judge-led inquiry into British involvement in torture. And ministers claim that records held on Diego Garcia which might have provided crucial evidence of rendition operations have been mysteriously damaged by “extremely heavy weather” – during a suspiciously dry month.

Now it seems that, not content with shutting down accountability in their own country, our political masters have reached across the Atlantic to stymie torture revelations there as well. The British public – not to mention the Americans – deserve better. We need a full accounting of UK complicity in these grisly crimes – which, let us not forget, sank so low as to target not just adults but even children like Khadija and her siblings.

Donald Campbell is head of communications at Reprieve