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The Guardian/UK

MI5 Can't Keep Turning a Blind Eye to Torture

Torturing people doesn't keep us safe. MI5 should stop making policy by anecdote and condemn those who abuse prisoners

Clive Stafford Smith

Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, told an audience at Britsol University yesterday that we have to consort with people who torture, and that we can do so while keeping our own hands pristine clean.

Evans stressed that MI5 is "an accountable public organisation." Since it is generally neither accountable nor public, his speech should be seen as a welcome foray into the public arena. Reading the full text of his speech, most was entirely unobjectionable. But it is sad that he thinks Britain will be made safe by hanging around in dark alleys with the world's most unsavoury regimes.

Indeed, the need for public debate is made clear by some of Evans's more questionable statements. It may well be that British agents do not soil their own hands with the apparatus of torture, but they certainly know that torture is going on, and loiter in the shadows while others apply the thumbscrews. Evans cannot deny this, as we have a copy of the advice given to an agent who complained: "It appears from your description that [the prisoners] may not be being treated in accordance with the appropriate standards," reads the policy statement that was issued to all MI5 agents when confronted with American abuse in 2002. "Given that they are not within our custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this."

In other words, Evans's agents could witness the crime of torture and do nothing to prevent it. They could then step into the interrogation room and question the suspect.

He suggests that these issues have presented "a real dilemma" for the service. Well, there should be no dilemma. To witness torture and act the ostrich is a criminal offence, which explains why the Metropolitan police are currently investigating the actions of the security services in at least two cases. This is a failure in leadership, more than of the agents in the field.

Evans tells us that we have had no option but to work with torturers, because "the root of the terrorist problem was in parts of the world where the standards and practices of the local security apparatus was very far removed from our own." In other words, Evans has concluded that most "terrorists" live in countries that abuse suspects.

So what is cause, and what is effect? Does he not recognise that the very reason so many people are disaffected in Pakistan is that the police and ISI routinely frogmarch suspects into to a dark torture chamber? Does he not see that by knowingly consorting with such a "local security apparatus" we are forfeiting our right to the moral high ground, and pulling the rug from under those of us who would hope to inspire young people towards democracy and the rule of law?

Ultimately, Evans is committing the age-old mistake that often afflicts politicians – making policy by anecdote. Politicians make decisions, fixated on the next hypothetical attack on Britain: if a suspect is abused, perhaps that will provide the necessary intelligence to prevent it. Naturally we all want to avoid such an attack, but in focusing on the need for "intelligence", they lose sight of the broader picture: are their actions making Britain safer overall?

On a purely utilitarian level – leaving morality and the law out of it – consorting with torturers makes us less safe, and thereby betrays the trust of the British people.

It is possible that a particular statement extracted through torture might prevent a particular crime from time to time, although Evens is unwilling to offer us the proof that this has actually happened, and – notwithstanding my US security clearance – I have never seen any. However, on the other side of the scale, we know for sure that people have frequently been tortured without benefit to anyone.

Binyam Mohamed had a razor blade taken to his genitals by the Moroccans, and all we got was pain. Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi had electrodes attached to him by the Egyptians, and the bitter fruit was false information concerning a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein – "intelligence" that helped to bring on the Iraq war.

Because the security services are intent on keeping their dirty secrets in the dark, there is only one public study available to date on the efficacy of torture, and it comes in the form of the independent assessments made by federal judges concerning prisoners abused in Guantánamo Bay. Thirty of the 36 prisoners who have come before the courts so far have been found innocent of any links to terrorism. Of the six found to be "enemies," there is no evidence that important intelligence was learned by abusing the prisoners; but of the 83% of cases where the Americans got it entirely wrong, there is plenty of evidence that the intelligence was false.

There is no evidence that Guantánamo – or any other secret torture centre – has made the world safer by producing intelligence; yet there is abundant proof that America's medieval mistreatment of prisoners has made the world more dangerous, by standing as a flashing beacon of hypocrisy.

Each time the truth leaks out that Britain is consorting with torturers, we are tarred (justifiably) as hypocrites who say one thing and do another. And it is that hypocrisy that breeds hatred around the world, provoking people to despise us and wish us harm. If MI5 continues to turn a blind eye, cuddling up to the torturers rather than condemning them, the danger to our country will continue to escalate.

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Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of defendants facing the death penalty in the USA

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