Brit spooks: Yanks are frightful cowboys
But we should still be chums with them
The UK Parliament's Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has released the results of its long-running investigation into involvement by the British secret services in "rendition" operations - the forcible moving of people, normally suspected terrorists, from one country to another without any judicial process such as deportation or extradition taking place.
The members of the ISC report that British spies have only undertaken one rendition in modern times. In 1989 the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, aka MI6) "facilitated the transfer" of Nicholas Mullen from Zimbabwe to the UK in order to stand trial for his involvement in a 1980s UK-mainland bombing campaign. This is nowadays referred to as "rendition to justice" in spy speak.
That might not be quite appropriate in the case of Mullen, who was freed on appeal by the British courts because of the methods used to bring him before them. There was no suggestion that Mullen was not a bomber.
As the Beeb noted : "Mr Justice Colman and Mr Justice Maurice Kay said that the UK's 'abuse of process' had to outweigh the conviction.
"They said the facts of [Mullen's] involvement in a 1980s bombing campaign which left 14 dead and caused major damage were not considered..."
This apparently sickened the UK spooks sufficiently that they gave up on "rendition to justice".
But there are, according to yesterday's ISC report, other kinds of rendition. American spies have not only indulged in various successful "renditions to justice" - the US courts not being as picky as the British ones - they have done more. A lot more.
Nowadays, the suspect's destination might not be a proper trial in a normal Western court. Instead, he might be taken to a military jail/tribunal camp like Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib ("military rendition"), or an overseas secret-service facility with no legal aspects of any kind ("rendition to detention"). The very unluckiest captives may be taken to a place overseas - usually run at least ostensibly by non-Western security forces - where they can be tortured or otherwise dealt with in a totally illegal way ("extraordinary rendition").
According to the ISC, the British spooks of SIS and the Security Service (MI5) aren't allowed to do any of this. But they have a very close relationship with the Americans. To quote the Security Service:
"We have however received intelligence of the highest value from detainees, to whom we have not had access and whose location is unknown to us, some of which has led to the frustration of terrorist attacks in the UK ..."
Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, director general of the Security Service, testified to the ISC regarding Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who was linked to a number of Al-Qaeda terrorist plots, including 9/11.
She said: "When he was in detention in 2003, place unknown, he provided [information on] six individuals … who were involved in al-Qaeda activities in or against the UK. The Americans gave us this information … These included high-profile terrorists – an illustration of the huge amount of significant information that came from one man in detention in an unknown place."
The parliamentarians of the ISC wrote (their bold type):
Our intelligence-sharing relationships, particularly with the United States, are critical to providing the breadth and depth of intelligence coverage required to counter the threat to the UK posed by global terrorism. These relationships have saved lives and must continue.
So what the Americans get up to is OK? Maybe not.
The ISC went on to say that:
"Ethical dilemmas are not confined to countries with poor track records on human rights – the UK now has some ethical dilemmas with our closest ally."
Famously, in 1995, then-President Clinton issued a directive that stated:
"Where we do not receive adequate cooperation from a State that harbors a terrorist ... we shall take appropriate measures to induce cooperation. Return of suspects by force may be effected without the cooperation of the host government."
This allowed various "rendition to justice" efforts, in some of which SIS gave the Americans a hand.
Then came 9/11, and the rules of the game changed. President Bush authorised American servicemen and spooks to carry out the various other sorts of rendition. Apparently, the Americans told SIS that the gloves were coming off, but the British spies were "sceptical about these new powers – in part because there was a great deal of 'tough talk' following 9/11. They did not therefore report this information to UK Ministers".
But a wakeup call came in 2002. MI5 was monitoring three suspected terorists in the UK, Bisher al-Rawi, Jamil el-Banna, and Abdallah el-Janoudi (a British national). They arrived at Gatwick airport planning to fly to the Gambia, and their bags were secretly searched.
The spooks found a bunch of Islamic literature and "a bundle of electrical wires wrapped around a set of tweezers, a 'folding plotter', three manuals for VHM FM hand-held transceivers, an air pump manual, drill bits, a gas cylinder, a voltage inverter, and various bits of electronic equipment. There was also an item described as 'a quantity of masking tape wrapped around an unidentified object [with] a metal sheet stuck to it, and wires leading from it to a battery pack (without batteries). Also connected to this were a series of clips on the ends of several other wires.'... This was later discovered to be a modified battery charger."
Al-Rawi, el-Janoudi and el-Banna were arrested - apparently a police decision rather than an MI5 one - but there was insufficient evidence to bring charges. The men were released. A few days later they flew to Gambia without interference.
MI5 informed the US of the move, and referring to the baggage search said that the pair had been in possession of a "home-made electronic device" and indicated that it "may be a timing device [or] part of a car-based IED [improvised explosive device]..."
Why they said that, only they know. However, the British spooks included a header on their messages saying that the info shouldn't be used as the basis for "overt, covert or executive action". Apparently the US agencies had always honoured such headers up to that point.
However, when al-Rawi, el-Janoudi, and el-Banna arrived in Gambia they were searched and seized, along with Bisher's brother Wahab al-Rawi (a British national). This time their baggage contained:
"...a solar panel for a satellite phone, several thousand dollars worth of outdoor equipment, a repair kit for wetsuits, mountain-climbing gear, and a large plastic bag full of hand-soldered electrical components."
The men were passed into US custody at an undisclosed location. Then the Americans informed MI5 that they intended to move the four prisoners to a secret holding facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan - a "rendition to detention".
MI5 said the Americans had completely disregarded their request that no "overt, covert or executive" action be taken. They said it "was a surprise to us that the Americans were operating in this way."
After a diplomatic scuffle, the two British nationals (el-Janoudi and Wahab al-Rawi) were released and returned to the UK the following month. Bisher al-Rawi and el-Banna were moved to Bagram, then to Kabul, then finally passed to military custody at Guantanamo the following year. The US forces determined that they had been correctly classified as "enemy combatants".
According to the report, Bisher al-Rawi has now been released from Guantánamo and el-Banna - five years after being snatched for posession of a battery charger - has been cleared for release.
"This case showed that the US rendition programme had now extended its boundaries beyond individuals connected to the conflict in Afghanistan... the Agencies had seen that passing intelligence to the US about individuals not directly involved in the Afghanistan conflict could lead to a rendition... despite their protesting once they learnt of US plans," the ISC says.
And then in 2003, the British spooks began to be aware that America was operating secret third-country prisons.
"C", the head of SIS, said to the ISC:
"It never crossed my mind that [the intelligence] was coming from torture. We are talking about the Americans, our closest ally. This now, with hindsight, may look naive, but all I can say is that is what we thought at the time."
It's since been alleged  that SIS may subsequently have got involved in a bit of torturing in the wake of the London 7/7 bombings, though it denies this.
It appears that SIS did begin to realise they could get in trouble simply by passing intel to third countries, as those countries might then inform the US and people might vanish.
According to the ISC: "In early 2005, SIS developed an operation that might have provided high-value intelligence on a target. The circumstances were such that the only viable option [blanked out] and they therefore sought Ministerial authorisation ... Approval was given on condition that appropriate assurances on humane treatment and a limit on the duration of detention were obtained [blanked out] ... the operational proposal was dropped because SIS was not able to satisfy itself as to the likely treatment of the target."
President Bush publicly admitted the existence of secret CIA overseas prisons - as distinct from the military jail at Guantanamo - last year.
The ISC members said "the rendition programme has revealed aspects of the usually close UK/US relationship that are surprising and concerning. It has highlighted that the UK and U.S. work under very different legal guidelines and ethical approaches."
Dame Manningham-Buller, head of MI5, argued that the policy of rendition might actually make things worse rather than better:
"I have certainly had discussions about the broader issue of rendition and detainees with [American] colleagues ... this can be counter-productive in terms of our concern about terrorism and radicalisation and so on."
The report also covers the issue of whether CIA flights may have moved secret prisoners through the UK. The ISC members believe that on four occasions CIA planes refuelled in Scotland, possibly on their way home after having moved prisoners between other countries, but that there is no verifiable case of a rendition target being moved via UK territory - probably not even the Indian Ocean base at Diego Garcia. The British spooks did, however, say that they had to trust US assurances on this, as resources for checking every civil aircraft entering or leaving the UK were unavailable.
If one believes the British spies and their parliamentary overseers, then, they are the very soul of rectitude, holding up their hands in horror as they Americans swagger around the world with spurs chinking. But they're still pretty pleased to have the intel.
There is one little point of interest, though. The ISC concluded at one stage that:
The Committee considers that "secret detention", without legal or other representation, is of itself mistreatment. Where there is a real possibility of "Rendition to Detention" to a secret facility, even if it would be for a limited time, then approval must never be given.
Her Majesty's ministers replied:
The Government notes the Committee’s view. The UK opposes any form of deprivation of liberty that amounts to placing a detained person outside the protection of the law.
Of course, if they were already beyond the protection of the law... ®