The past week's revelations about the CIA are notable not least for their (deliberate) absence of any mention of Britain's role in torture and rendition - even though this was possibly the worst-kept secret imaginable. As one astute hack for the Independent put it: 'Where the CIA goes, MI6 usually follows.' Predictably, various politicians on all sides of the spectrum insisted that Britain's role was minimal to non-existent.
I often find it amusing that the politicians, as well as the general public, have such blind trust in the integrity and effectiveness of institutions like MI5 and MI6, whose members are unelected and shroud themselves in secrecy, and are therefore never asked to justify their existence with any evidence. Organisations like Reprieve and the Rendition Project are among those who have carefully documented the horrific accusations against the SIS and the SS since 2001 - from kidnap and rendition, to complicity in torture and detention without trial. The evidence is wide-ranging, and the picture seems to be one of systematic abuse sanctioned from on high, with little benefit gained in terms of life-saving intelligence.
The truly mystifying aspect is that if this sort of deep-seated corruption was the case for any other institution - whether it be the police, the NHS, or the BBC - heads would roll and public enquiries would be undertaken with some seriousness and rigour. The closest we have seen however was the farce that was the Gibson Inquiry - a process condemned by external observers as being ineffective and dominated by former members of the intelligence community trying to cover each other's backs. Even if a report similar to the one about the CIA was released, it seems to be a forgone conclusion that no-one in MI6 or MI5 would be punished.
The implicit reason for this always seems to be that everything the intelligence community does is about protecting our day-to-day freedoms. By nature, this is meant to justify whatever tactics they might use - and furthermore, that despite the odd waterboarded British-Asian or hunger strike-ridden Irishman, 99% of the time they clearly do a bang-up job at it.
I accept that MI6 and MI5 agents and officers probably often conduct work that is necessary, in very difficult circumstances. But institutions that get involved in kidnap and torture have lost their right to conduct everything in the dark. The intelligence services should be subject to the same criticism as any other state-sponsored institution, and there should be less tolerance for the entrenched culture of 'closing ranks' whenever evidence is unearthed of serious criminal wrong-doing.
The political cowardice displayed in the wake of the brutality and ineptitude of the British intelligence community since 2001 seems symptomatic of the continued willingness by politicians, as well as the general public, to treat MI6 and MI5 with kid-gloves. Abuse is denied or explained away and cock-ups are blamed on other people - a system that not only hampers Britain's moral standing abroad, but arguably prevents the intelligence community from the proper scrutiny reform required for any institution to do its job well.
An in-depth and open inquiry about the intelligence community's actions during the 'war on terror' is well overdue. For once, actually following the Americans' recent example would be a good place to start.