UK Rendition and Torture: Lessons for Canada

UK Rendition and Torture: Lessons for Canada
“Bliar” black coffin: Tony Blair protest at the Iraq Inquiry, London, 29 January 2010.Chris Beckett

The British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has produced two reports on collusion in rendition (the legal term for shipping someone from one jurisdiction to another) and torture operations in the US-led War on Terror. They remind us in blunt terms that these issues are still with us, almost two decades after the Bush Administration launched the war in 2001. The reports were released on 28 June 2018, despite considerable efforts by the British government to block witness testimony and prevent the examination of potentially crucial documents.

In the UK, the most important US security and intelligence ally, the issues of rendition, torture, and co-operation with US agencies in the War on Terror have never really subsided. Guantanamo Bay allowed them to fester for years, and recent cases on renditions to Libya have kept these issues on the front pages. It’s unfortunate that Canadian focus on similar issues has abated. The two reports would help Canadians understand why it’s critically important for security and intelligence agencies to be constantly vigilant in safeguarding their integrity. The reports also pinpoint the types of issues that have given rise to large financial settlements in the UK, Canada, and elsewhere to those victimized by these practices. Cases in the UK continue. Several are ongoing in Canada.

In the first report — Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition, 2001–2010 — the Committee arrived at 27 conclusions that shed astonishing light on British involvement in renditions under US leadership, mainly between 2002 and 2004. In summing up its lengthy analysis, it suggested that the key British agencies, MI5 and MI6, were caught in “a difficult balancing act.” They were “the junior partner with limited access or influence,” fearful of losing access to valuable intelligence if they complained or drew attention to torture and abuse. They were “distinctly uncomfortable at the prospect of complaining to their host” as the US War on Terror ran amok. Nevertheless, they participated in US renditions, helped the US interrogate detainees in abusive circumstances, and were slow to report these activities to ministers or the British Cabinet. Most of this is not new. What is new is the extent of UK co-operation in the War on Terror, which seems to go far beyond the cases that have come to light since 2004.

The second report — Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: Current Issues — brings things up to date, but is even more significant in a policy sense. In 2010, after a first round of investigations into UK involvement in renditions and torture, as well as massive public uproar about the issues and a key judicial decision that threatened to expose US intelligence documents in court, the UK Government tried to contain the crisis in its security and intelligence community. One of its measures was to issue guidance to officials about “the interviewing of detainees overseas and the exchange of intelligence on detainees in order to ensure that our Security and Intelligence Agencies are not, and will not be, involved in torture or mistreatment in the name of the UK.” (This report also appends a 2010 report on that guidance, putting it into the public domain for the first time.)

The new report evaluates the government record since 2010, and it’s not pretty. Not only does the Committee conclude that “there appears to have been remarkably little attempt to evaluate or review its operation beyond ensuring compliance for oversight purposes.” It also asserts that the Cabinet Office (which issued and therefore “owns” the guidance) “does not seem to regard it as important to evaluate or review the Guidance on an ongoing basis.” The Committee, therefore, saw “a policy vacuum: no one is assessing the utility of the Guidance, whether it is achieving its aims or whether those aims remain the same.” Its conclusion is stark: “The Cabinet Office must take proper ownership of the Guidance: it is too important an issue to be left unattended.”

UK agencies were key US partners in the War on Terror, and their errors in judgment have cost the British government a stunning amount of money as mediated settlements have come in over the past decade. The recent reports are serious attempts not only to ensure a long-term course correction but also to put into place systems and practices that would make a repetition of the past impossible. They are important baseline documents, and they tackle the same host of issues faced by other American allies, like Canada, as the War on Terror went global. They discuss detention operations abroad, interrogation in abusive circumstances, and co-operation with third countries known to use torture as a standard prison practise. Because of the similarity of issues faced by the UK and Canada — as well as by Germany, Australia, and others — the reports should have resonance in Canada. At a minimum, these reports should be reviewed by the new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, created by the Trudeau government in 2017.

The two reports mark an important step forward for the British Intelligence and Security Committee, which has not always been a bastion of strength.  The reports are models of quality, clarity, and investigative determination in the face of government and agency resistance. More importantly, they are courageous in tackling issues that could and should have been more carefully and judiciously handled, even admitting the benefits of hindsight, as the War on Terror took hold.

If the Canadian Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians decides to look at the Canadian record on the War on Terror, there is no better starting point than these two reports. And if it wants to make a case for more expansive investigative powers, emulating the quality and insight of these reports would be a good way of demonstrating its capacity. The issues raised by the War on Terror are still with us. And more can be done by the Canadian government to demonstrate that the right policy lessons have been taken permanently on board.

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