26/01/2017 08:06 GMT | Updated 27/01/2018 05:12 GMT

A US Torture Programme Would Not Make Britain Safer

Our participation in the US torture programme was contrary to British values and did nothing to make us safer. If Britain does not shore up its defences quickly, it runs the real risks of being once more dragged into American excesses.


Yesterday President Trump claimed, again, that torture works. He's wrong. In December 2014, the US Senate published an extensive study of the CIA's torture program - it concluded that what little intelligence it did produce was faulty or fabricated. As any sensible person could have told them before they started down this path, torture victims will tell you whatever they think will make you stop.

The report also produced a grisly list of the techniques applied to the CIA's victims. Not just waterboarding - which the report described more clearly as "a series of near drownings" - but also rectal forcefeeding - which the agency falsely claimed was a medical procedure - and other techniques so harsh they were blamed for the death of a detainee.

The Senate's conclusion, after a lengthy and penetrating investigation, was unequivocal: the programme was counterproductive, unlawful and did not yield any valuable intelligence. Trump's comments run contrary to voluminous evidence and common sense.

The CIA shares the Senate's view, though it will not admit it publicly. Last week, documents released as part of a lawsuit brought by three victims of CIA torture against the architects of the programme reveal that the Agency concluded a detainee in their custody, Abu Zubaydah -- guinea pig of the CIA torture programme -- had not provided anything useful after they had tortured him. Any useful information they got from him was through interrogation that did not resort to torture.

Abu Zubaydah was believed to be no.3 in Al-Qaeda, until the US government realised its mistake and dropped those allegations against him. He is stuck in Guantanamo, after the CIA concluded he should "remain incommunicado for the rest of his life", presumably because he knew too much.

This vicious programme would not have been possible without the help of allies like the UK. Britain worked hand-in-glove with the US. The US used the British territory of Diego Garcia to render detainees around the world, and the UK helped the CIA kidnap and render Libyan dissident Sami al Saadi, his wife and four children aged six to 12 to Gaddafi's torture chambers.

Ministers are quick to point to the country's torture policy, wrested from the vaults of Whitehall after Reprieve sued the British government, to assure the public that this cannot happen again. But the policy is seriously flawed and lacks oversight.

It allows intelligence officers to collaborate with regimes that resort to torture if they seek assurances that torture will not be used. As history has shown, torturers will happily provide such assurances while continuing to mete out horrific treatment to those in their custody. Assurances are not enough.

The policy also does not oblige intelligence officers to inform Ministers of concerns about the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which includes sleep deprivation, threats of violence and diet manipulation. The agencies only conduct an internal assessment of the risk. If they need to mitigate the risk, then they will seek unreliable assurances. It leaves the door wide open for British complicity in detainee abuse.

Worryingly, MI6 is unwilling to be overseen. In September 2016, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, tasked with making sure the agencies comply with the policy, remarked that MI6 ran rings around him. They provided him with "inaccurate and incomplete information" and sought to "'fence' with and close down his lines of enquiry" in response to an inquiry he was conducting.

Late last year, the government scrapped what minimal oversight existed over the policy. The Investigatory Powers Act abolished the Commissioner's position. David Cameron had elevated this oversight to a statutory footing. As it stands, no one is overseeing compliance with the Torture Policy. At a time when Trump has signalled a slow creep back to the Torture Programme Britain cannot afford to have such a gaping hole in oversight.

The policy and its oversight are in urgent need of reform.

Our participation in the US torture programme was contrary to British values and did nothing to make us safer. The head of MI5 in 2004 understood this all too well. She was so "incensed" at our participation in US rendition-to-torture operations she wrote a letter of complaint to Prime Minister Tony Blair and kicked out MI6 officers from her headquarters. If Britain does not shore up its defences quickly, it runs the real risks of being once more dragged into American excesses.