Henry Porter writes:
We can be sure of one thing about the US Senate report into the torture of terror suspects by the CIA: it would not have been published in the Britain of today.
Even in the Unites States, the crucible of so many wrongs since 9/11 – including torture, drone attacks and the Guantánamo gulag – the system of democratic accountability is evidently more alive than it is in Britain.
The CIA has been exposed; the officers and politicians who served previous administrations are now forced to admit what they knew and what methods they actually sanctioned.
Some, like former vice-president Dick Cheney, have no problem with torture, although he did swerve in his Fox News interview to say that he didn’t know of “rectal rehydration”, a technique that suggests a medical procedure, but which in fact involved pumping pureed food into a man’s rectum so that his intestines burned with pain.
But in Britain we can be sure that no politician or agent will be put on the spot.
Nearly 12 years after the Iraq war, the Chilcot report has not been published, because main players, such as Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Alastair Campbell, have been allowed to dispute the findings in an endless process of prevarication.
The same happened with the Gibson inquiry into British involvement in the torture of people who had been found guilty of any crime.
Despite Sir Peter Gibson’s frustration, it simply withered away and the public part of a report into the early work of the inquiry (there was of course a secret version for ministers and officials) said without irony: “The report does not, and cannot, make findings as to what happened.”
That is the British way. Things become foggy. Issues are kicked into the long grass. Governments come and go, and no one is held to account, let alone prosecuted.
By and by, the public forgets.
There is no doubt that British agents knew about torture.
In early 2010, the Court of Appeal decided that intelligence services almost certainly knew of the techniques being used by American agents, and this was despite the efforts of the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, to suppress information on entirely spurious grounds.
And we know now that the UK government has had 24 separate meetings in order to redact the Senate report and cover up the knowledge – maybe direct participation – of our agencies in such practices as waterboarding and imprisoning men in coffins.
The Senate committee allowed the redactions and, naturally, the UK government then denied there had been any such thing, although the Number 10 press officer subsequently allowed for the possibility.
The thing to remember is that this is a cross-party conspiracy.
The home secretary, Theresa May, was accompanied in her endeavours by the former Labour security minister, Lord West, as well as British ambassadors.
When you have both major parties combining with civil servants to protect officials who may have broken the law, there is no hope for democratic accountability.
A few MPs, notably the Conservatives Andrew Tyrie and David Davis, NGOs (Reprieve) and journalists (Ian Cobain of the Guardian) have battled away over the years on Gibson, the obfuscations of David Miliband, and Jack Straw sending men to Guantánamo, but there has been nothing that approaches a moment when the executive and agencies have been properly investigated and people made to take responsibility.
And please do not mention the Intelligence and Security committee.
Chaired by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the committee hovers between craven subservience and an embarrassing desire to be a part of, rather than overseer of, the secret world.
Rifkind was running around, giving assurances about the innocent nature of the redactions but, candidly, can anyone believe him after the committee’s defensive behaviour on the Snowden revelations about UK and US government surveillance?
Rifkind is a former foreign secretary; his only instinct will be to circle the wagons, which is why we should place little trust in the investigations of the ISC.
To some extent, we are all at fault because we’ve allowed the abhorrence for torture to be diluted since 9/11.
This used to be an absolute in the public mind but little by little we have grown to accept that in certain ticking bomb situations it may be desirable, despite the fact that we know – because the Senate committee said so – that very little information is won by inflicting excruciating pain on an individual.
But the idea is out there – the TV series 24 and the movie Zero Dark Thirty gave support to “legitimate” torture and certain public figures, including US lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff, have mused about its possible benefits.
Only last week the British neocon chatterbox Douglas Murray was on BBC’s This Week excusing the CIA agents by saying that, while they had failed to live up to the highest standards, they were worthy of our understanding.
Murray was actually saying in a coded way that torture is permissible, as long as we are doing the torturing.
Neither the usually sharp host of the show, Andrew Neil, nor regular guest Michael Portillo, expressed the horror that this should have provoked, which makes you wonder if pro-torture views are now a permissible stance.
Only Diane Abbott reacted with anything like the contempt that we should all express on this issue.