Before the House of Lords this week the government has been arguing for the right to act on intelligence obtained by torture abroad. Channel 4 has obtained the statement to the Law Lords by the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Butler. In effect she argues that torture works. It foiled the famous ricin plot.
She omits to mention that no more ricin was found than is the naturally occurring base level in your house or mine ‘ or indeed that no poison of any kind was found. Nor does she recall that there has never been a successful large scale poisoning with ricin. But let us leave that for now.
She argues, in effect, that we need to get intelligence from foreign security services, to fight terrorism. And if they torture, so what? Her chief falsehood is our pretence that we don’t know what happens in their dungeons. We do. And it is a dreadful story. Manningham-Butler is so fastidious she even avoids using the word ‘Torture’ at all in her evidence. Let alone the reality to which she turns such a carefully blind eye.
Uzbekistan is one of those security services from whose ‘friendly liaison’ services we obtained information. And I will tell you what torture means. It means the woman who was raped with a broken bottle in both vagina and anus, and who died after ten days of agony. It means the old man suspended by wrist shackles from the ceiling while his children were beaten to a pulp before his eyes. It means the man whose fingernails were pulled before his face was beaten and he was immersed to his armpits in boiling liquid. It means the eighteen year old whose knees and elbows were smashed, his hand immersed in boiling liquid until the skin came away and the flesh started to peel from the bone, before the back of his skull was stove in.
These are all real cases from the Uzbek security services which we viewed as friendly liaison, and from which we obtained regular intelligence, in the Uzbek case via the CIA. A month ago that liaison relationship was stopped ‘ not by us, but by the Uzbeks. But as Manningham-Buller sets out, we continue to maintain our position as customer to torturers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and many other places.
The key point is that none of the above Uzbek victims were terrorists at all. The great majority of those who suffer torture at the hands of these regimes are not terrorists, but political opponents. And the scale of this torture is vast. In Uzbekistan alone thousands, not hundreds, of innocent men, women and children suffer torture every year. Across Manningham-Buller’s web of friendly intelligence agencies, the number may reach tens of thousands. Can our security really be based on such widespread inhumanity, or is that not part of the grievance that feeds terrorism? Every year the Uzbek government kills many times more innocent people than would realistically have died, even if someone had been able to scrape ricin out of their saucepan. Do those deaths not matter?
How many foreign Muslim lives is one British life worth?
These other governments know that our security services lap up information from their torture chambers. This practical condoning more than cancels out any weasel words on human rights which the Foreign Office may issue.
In fact, the case for the efficacy of torture intelligence is not nearly as clear-cut as Manningham-Buller makes out. Much dross comes out of the torture chambers. History should tell us that under torture people would choke out an admission that they had joined their neighbours in flying on broomsticks with cats. The narrative we get is the precise narrative that the foreign intelligence agency wishes us to hear. They often have their own agenda to plug.
A final thought. Manningham-Buller is arguing from the efficiency of torture in preventing a terrorist plot. If that argument is accepted, then in logic there is no reason to rely on foreign intermediaries. Why don’t we do our own torturing at home? James VI and I abolished torture ‘ New Labour are making the first attempt in English courts to justify Government use of torture information. Why stop there? Why can’t the agencies work over terrorist suspects?
I seem to recall that we tried that approach with the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4, and look where that got us.
The Security Services want us to be able to use information from torture. That should come as no surprise. From Sir Thomas Walsingham on, the profession attracts people not squeamish about the smell of seared flesh from the branding iron. That is why we have a judiciary to protect us. I pray that they do.