The British Intelligence services are accused of involvement in rendition and torture – ten years after the beginning of the war on terror, it continues to undermine the credibility our ruling elite argues Peter Stauber.

Tripoli Files

Secret document discovered by Human Rights Watch in Tripoli | Image AP / Human Rights Watch

Intelligence services pick their villains at will. People who are labelled “good” today find themselves cast as the “bad guys” tomorrow – whichever suits the secret services at that particular moment in time. The most infamous case is the mujahedeen in Afghanistan – allies in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, villains in the decade after.

With Gaddafi, it was the other way round. For decades, he was bad – in 1996, the CIA and MI6 were allegedly involved in an attempt on his life. Then, with the onset of the war on terror, he became very useful for the British intelligence services, and they established close ties with his regime (of course, he turned bad again once the people rose up against him).

This much was known. However, according to secret files found in a Tripoli office last weekend, the collaboration went much further than previously known, with the British intelligence services handing over secret information to help Gaddafi stay in power.

MI6 apparently supplied the dictator with information on exiled opposition figures and even helped him write a speech in which he pledged to give up his nuclear weapons programme. Most damaging is the claim that British intelligence services collaborated with Libyan security officers in the rendition of terror suspects. For years, MI5 and MI6 have denied that they were involved in American rendition operations, which subsequently led to the torture of terror suspects.

A CIA file discovered in the Tripoli office suggests otherwise: on at least one occasion, MI5 worked together with the Libyan intelligence services to detain one suspect in Hong Kong and subsequently send him to Libya. The files also show that the British intelligence services were heavily involved in American “rendition to torture” operations.

It is not the first time that British intelligence has been accused of colluding with torturers. After the release of Binyam Mohamed from Guantanamo Bay in 2009, allegations were made that MI5 was involved in his unlawful treatment. Unsurprisingly, the government at the time tried its best to keep the lid on the affair: Labour foreign secretary David Miliband tried to obstruct justice and prevent the disclosure of secret government files relating to the case, before he was over-ruled by the Court of Appeal early last year.

Although the new government under David Cameron announced an inquiry into the UK’s alleged role in torture and rendition after 9/11 last year, it too made sure that things were kept as secret as possible. Former detainees will not be allowed to question intelligence officials, and most evidence from security officials will be heard in private – several human rights groups will boycott the inquiry, saying it lacks transparency and credibility.

The inquiry will be led by Sir Peter Gibson, who was acting as Intelligence Services Commissioner for several years and has repeatedly exonerated the security services from any wrongdoing. The Gibson inquiry has announced that it will consider the new allegations, but as Shami Chakrabarty said: “There is no way the Gibson process, effectively an internal Cabinet Office one, can be adequate to deal with the unfolding scandal of this magnitude.”

While the government is thus trying to protect the intelligence community, the war on terror comes under an unexpected attack: the former head of MI5, Lady Eliza Manningham-Buller, decried the invasion of Iraq in unambiguous terms and said she never felt it helpful to talk of the “war on terror”.

Just like the revelation of the corrupt relationship between News International and the British government, this is a heavy blow for the British elite. Another pillar of the British state is under attack, and should the allegations of complicity in torture prove true, the intelligence services would be completely discredited. Interestingly, there have been allegations of cosy relationships between certain members of the intelligence services and News International – a claim that will hopefully be examined by the Leveson inquiry. This would extend the nexus of corruption at the heart of the British state even further: police, media, intelligence services and politicians would all be implicated in it.

Ten years after the beginning of the war on terror, our rulers’ credibility lies in tatters. Only a few days after the discovery in the Tripoli office, an inquiry into the death of an Iraqi detainee has ruled that British soldiers have inflicted “violent and cowardly” assaults on Iraqi civilians. The report criticises individual soldiers in damning terms and talks of a “loss of discipline and a lack of moral courage”.

The war on terror seems more and more like an unmitigated disaster for the integrity of the British state.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.