British intelligence officers witnessed prisoners being tortured and played an active part in the rendition of terror suspects into the hands of the secret police of brutal regimes knowing that they faced inhuman treatment, a damning official report has revealed.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) concluded that British authorities turned a blind eye to the routine mistreatment of detainees by US authorities. The committee said UK intelligence agencies knew it was going on from an early point.
MPs found that British spies had seen detainees being mistreated at least 13 times and were told by prisoners on 25 other occasions that they were being mistreated. On another 128 occasions, they were told of mistreatment by foreign agencies.
But despite knowing of the abuse, the UK agencies continued to supply questions for interrogations. The committee found there were 232 cases when this took place despite the knowledge or strong suspicion that the information was being obtained by torture or other abuse.
The damning findings show there were 198 cases where there was definite knowledge of mistreatment. There is no evidence, said the report, that British officers themselves took part in torture.
The UK agencies played a major role in the rendition of suspects carried out by the US administration, the report found.
MI6 and MI5 financially subsidised, or offered to subsidise, the rendition of suspects on three cases and provided information enabling arrests and transportation in 28 cases as well proposing or agreeing to rendition on 22 others.
They failed to take the opportunity to stop rendition in 23 cases, including those of British nationals or residents. Two renditions took place through Diego Garcia, the British-owned island in the Indian Ocean whose population had been deported to make way for an American base. However, the inquiry was restricted on this issue by “woefully inadequate records”.
The report said they could be described “extraordinary renditions” due to the risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment. The report continued: “In addition to individual cases, we have considered the actions of those in the agencies’ head offices. Immediately after 9/11, the agency heads and deputies were briefed by the CIA: these briefings clearly showed US intent but were not taken seriously.
“Soon afterward those at head office became aware of reports that detainees were being mistreated: there are at least 38 cases in 2002 alone of officers witnessing or hearing about mistreatment. The agencies argue that these were ‘isolated incidents’: they may have been isolated incidents to the individual officer witnessing them, but they cannot be considered ‘isolated’ to those in head office.
“It is difficult to comprehend how those at the top of the office did not recognise the pattern of mistreatment by the US. 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. The same is true of rendition: there was no attempt to identify the risks involved and formulate the UK’s response. There was no understanding in HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] of rendition and no clear policy – or even recognition of the need for one.
“The 27 conclusions contained in the body of this report outline some serious concerns: in our view the UK tolerated actions, and took others, that we regard as inexcusable. That being said, we have found no ‘smoking gun’ to indicate that the agencies deliberately overlooked reports of mistreatment and rendition by the US as a matter of institutional policy.
“The evidence instead suggests a difficult balancing act: the agencies were the junior partner with limited influence, and concerned not to upset their US counterparts in case they lost access to intelligence from detainees that might be vital in preventing an attack on the UK.
“It is easy to criticise with the benefit of hindsight. We wish to be absolutely clear that we do not seek to blame individual officers acting under immense pressure. Our findings must be viewed in the context in which the events took place. The pace of work after 9/11, both in Afghanistan and London, was frenetic: we do not underestimate the pressure that the agencies experienced whilst dealing with the imperative to protect the UK and prevent another attack on the scale of 9/11.
“With that said, more could have been done at an agency and ministerial level to seek to influence US behaviour. More could also have been done to distance themselves from mistreatment of detainees.”