Right or wrong, Britain did benefit from evidence obtained by from the CIA’s now-notorious programme of High Value Target (HVT) interrogation, the use of methods like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in boxes, and throwing prisoners against (specially-modified) walls.
That’s what emerged from an investigation I did for BBC Radio’s File on Four and BBC World Service ‘Assignment‘ into the vexed question of alleged UK complicity into the methods used by the United States in combatting terrorism. (Download the PODcast of this program here or Listen to File on Four now 0r World Service version here. )
The former No 2 at Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6, Sir Nigel Inkster, was among those on the program. Asked by me if the UK agencies reap the benefits of the most controversial US methods, he said:
“To some degree I would say that the answer to that question is yes they did…Lets not forget that we’re dealing with a situation in which both the UK and the US had significantly under-invested in intelligence and security capacity for the preceding decade, so neither the CIA nor their British counterparts were exactly staffed up to deal with this global insurgency. And the material that came from these detainee interrogations was unquestionably valuable; one has to say for better or worse because as it now becomes evident you know some of the ways that information was obtained are ones that the UK government could never willingly have gone along with.”
What’s interesting is that, like some ex high-ups in the CIA I interviewed for this program, the significance Sir Nigel makes of these HVT interrogations is not their revelation of great plots but rather the way they filled in the details of an Al Qaeda network that on 9/11 was still largely un-canvassed. Not much of a ticking bomb scenario, in other words. That’s not really how it worked at all.
The program deals with specific cases of alleged UK complicity – as in the alleged torture in Pakistan of Ranzieb Ahmed (now convicted in the UK of Al Qaeda membership and directing terrorism), and torture in Pakistan and Morocco of Binyam Mohamed (released from Guantanamo this year after years inside the CIA rendition system & military detention).
It also includes the first broadcast interview with Iqbal Madni, another former detainee at Guantanamo who believes he was the first of two prisoners that were sent through the British island of Diego Garcia in CIA renditions. The legal charity, Reprieve, is launching an action in the High Court on his behalf. The crucial point is that, although he ended in ‘Gitmo’, that was only after his interrogation and he says torture had taken place in Egypt. Reprieve says that flight to torture was a crime. (More details on the BBC website here or in my piece for ABC News here).
Others interviewed on the program include: Lord (Peter) Goldsmith, the former Attorney General under Blair, who wishes the UK had been more outspoken against renditions etc, Sir David Omand, the former Intelligence and Security Co-ordinator at Downing Street, and Fran Townsend, former counter-terrorism adviser to President Bush. Townsend says it’s unlikely the Brits were informed about waterboarding etc — because even she wasn’t briefed on the program and she was at the heart of things.