The FCO finally speaks up


The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, along with the Security Service and Secret Intelligence Service, has come under intense scrutiny in recent months over allegations that they colluded in the torture of terrorist suspects.

A new report released by the FCO yesterday offers the boldest defence yet of the government’s position on this matter. It states:

We cannot get all the intelligence we need from our own sources, because the terrorist groups we face are scattered around the world, and our resources are finite. So we must work with intelligence and security agencies overseas. Some of them share our standards and laws while others do not. But we cannot afford the luxury of only dealing with those that do. The intelligence we get from others saves British lives.

That is a fair point which needs consideration. Charles Moore has one of the best pieces on this, published in the Telegraph last month.

Go back to 2002, and imagine that you are working for MI5. You are told by the secret service of Pakistan that it has detained a Ethiopian-born British resident [Binyam Mohammed] whom it suspects of terrorist links. Do you want to go out and interview him? Of course you do.

You will strongly suspect that Pakistan, like many governments of Muslim countries, favours methods of interrogation that are not tolerated in the West. You will regret it, but it is not your job as a Security Service official to try to police this. If your service insisted on sending out torture inspectors in advance of any interview it might conduct, it would never be allowed to interview anyone.

Similarly with the Americans, a much closer and more important ally, and one operating much more strictly under rules. If they say to our secret services, as happened in this case, “Do you want to know what we have discovered about one of your residents?”, should we say no? If it is true that the Americans exacted information under torture, it is disgraceful.

Torture is, of course, always morally wrong – but that is not the nub of this matter. There are wider considerations here which need careful attention. For example, what do we expect of our intelligence services if they receive actionable intelligence that comes from questionable methods or sources?

This is the dilemma in which operational officers from British intelligence find themselves on a daily basis.  The FCO document acknowledges this:

If the risk of mistreatment is too high then we will not go ahead with an operation. This is not just a theoretical possibility – operations have been stopped because the risk of mistreatment was judged to be too high. But this is never an easy judgement and we would be failing in our twin duties to defend the country and to uphold human rights if we pretended that there was never a tension between the two.

Charles Moore makes the necessary observation:

Yes, individual rights matter…But collective rights matter greatly too. There is such a thing as a national interest, and it must be defended.

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