Jack Straw took the policy decision that the UK would receive intelligence obtained under torture by the CIA and other liaison intelligence services. He has been denying it ever since, and described my evidence to the Parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee as “entirely untrue”.
In the White House and at the Pentagon, such respect had evaporated completely. As Cofer Black, former head of counter-terrorism at the CIA was later to tell a congressional committee: “All you need to know: there was a before 9/11 and there was an after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves came off.”
There must have been some realisation of this new fact of life at the highest levels of the British government. Craig Murray, who was later removed from his post as ambassador to Uzbekistan after denouncing the use of intelligence extracted under torture, recently told parliament’s joint committee on human rights (JCHR) he had been informed by a senior Foreign Office official that a decision that such intelligence should not be questioned was taken by Jack Straw, then the foreign secretary, following discussions with senior intelligence officials. Straw describes this claim as “entirely untrue”. But when Michael Wood, the FO’s senior legal advisor, was asked his opinion, he is known to have concluded it was not an offence in international law to receive or possess information extracted under torture, although it would not be admissible as evidence in court.
Now either Jack Straw or I must be lying to Parliament. There is no other explanaton. One of us is an extrenely devious man who has poisoned public life with falsehoods on the subject of the British government’s attitude to torture and the validity of much of the “war on terror” narrative as a result. Which one is the liar?
There is a document which will establish the truth of this. It is classified Top Secret and stored in the Permanent Under Secretary’s Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I judge that the time is now right to try and get hold of it through the Freedom of Information Act. I have little doubt that the FCO will refuse the request, but I believe that, with parliamentary and police investgations underway into this policy, I can now demonstrate enough of a public interest case for the Information Commissioner to release the document on appeal.
This is my email to the FCO. I think the reasons given for release of the document are pretty cogent. The request was dated 20 September and addressed to Peter Ricketts, Permanent Under Secretary, FCO:
I wish formally to request from you under the Freedom of Information Act the minutes of the metting of 7 or 8 March 2003 between Linda Duffield, Michael Wood, Matthew Kydd and I on the subject of the receipt of intelligence obtained under torture. In particular I wish to receive the top copy which includes a manuscript note of the views of Jack Straw. I believe you were in the loop on this discussion at the time in your then position of Director International Security.
There is a strong public interest in the release of this minute. This meeting formed the core of the evidence which I gave recently to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. The credibility of my evidence is a key issue in the very important report on UK complicity in torture produced by that committee. The release of this minute will go far in establishing the truth or otherwise of my account, which is a matter of major public interest and on which I have given evidence in person before not just the parliamentary joint committee, but also important committees of the European Parlaiment and the Council of Europe. As you will acknowledge, the UK’s attitude towards the receipt of intelligence from torture abroad is a matter of keen parliamentary, academic, media and public debate of late.
There is an undeniable public interest in the truth of the government’s policy on this major issue being known.
You had a personal role in the establishment and implementation of our policy of obtaining intelligence from torture, first as FCO Director of International Security and secondly as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Therefore I do not doubt you will immediately be minded to obstruct this FOI request. Let me anticipate your arguments:
This meeting is no longer secret. With the agreement of Treasury Solicitors, I published on my website and in Murder in Samarkand, the letter from Sir Michael Wood of 13 March 2003 which refers to the meeting and sets out his view that to receive intelligence from torture is not a breach of the UN Convention Against Torture. This letter is discussed at length in the recent report and the minutes of evidence of the Parliamentary Joint Committee. The existence of the meeting and the government’s line at the meeting is therefore well established. Publication of the minute will only add the personal involvement of the then Secretary of State. To continue to hide that would be only in the interests of avoiding political embarassment, which is not a legitimate reason under the Freedom of Information Act.
An account of the meeting was published in my book Murder in Samarkand. This account of the meeting was cleared with the FCO and takes into account the input of others at the meeting as given to me by the FCO as part of the clearance process. The table produced by the FCO, giving my account of the meeting alongside the FCO’s comments and request for changes, is an unclassified document and has been published by me on the internet for three years now. So there is no additional damage to relations with the US or Uzbekistan from releasing the minute of a meeting the content of which has already been acknowledged by the FCO in public.
The Obama administration has taken a different line on these issues to its predecessor, has acknowledged that excesses occured in CIA handling of the question of torture and intelligence, and has released key top secret documents on the issue. For the UK to do the same cannot credibly be argued to damage UK/Us relations.
If, as Jack Straw says, my story is “Entirely untrue”, then it should be a simple matter to release this document and prove it.
There is a possible downside – I am worried that this request may lead to the destruction of the document, or at least of the top copy with the manuscript note amplifying Jack Straw’s views.