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When a licence to kill is not some James Bond fiction

2012 December 16

Whenever a new James Bond film hits the screens an expert is wheeled out to opine that 007’s infamous “licence to kill” is as fictional as the secret agent himself. You could be forgiven for believing otherwise. A licence to kill, and another to torture, and another lie and dissemble, seems to come with the job.

The murder of a prominent human rights lawyer in Belfast involved the collusion of the British state, a report by a former war crimes prosecutor has just concluded, a full three decades after the event. Next it was announced in the High Court that the Government was to pay over £2m to the family of a Libyan dissident who was abducted with the help of the British secret service and flown to Tripoli where he was tortured by Colonel Gaddafi’s secret police.  The British government admitted no legal liability but the huge payment spoke for itself.

So that’s all right then. We’ve paid a whacking settlement to Sami al-Saadi and owned up over the murder for Pat Finucane. Yet this is one very British stitch-up after another.  The Hillsborough police cover-up and Jimmy Savile scandals have also shown how institutions close ranks rather than root out bad behaviour from their midst.  At the heart of British public life there so often seems to lurk something secret, unaccountable and apparently irreformable.

The classic defence for all this is “a few bad apples” low down in the blame chain. But collusion in Ulster was widespread. And British involvement what the Americans euphemise as “extraordinary rendition” – flying people off to foreign lands where they can be tortured out of sight of the West’s delicate sensibilities – goes to the highest levels of MI6. Perhaps higher.

Secret CIA documents found in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown included a fax from British intelligence’s head of counter-terrorism, Sir Mark Allen, which rather smugly boasted of MI6’s role in the rendition of another Libyan dissident, Abdel Hakim Belhaj. “The intelligence was British” and passing it on, he purred, was “the least we could do for you and for Libya”.  

Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary at the time, denies involvement. “I was scrupulous in seeking to carry out my duties in accordance with the law,” he said. But within days of his public denial he was visited by Secret Intelligence Service officers who brought a document showing that he had signed off the rendition.

The human rights of al-Saadi and Belhaj were fair game because the two Islamicists were suspected of links to Osama bin Laden.  There was no way of verifying such claims but evidence does not need to be tested when justice is dispensed in secret. It was the same in the dirty war in Northern Ireland. Finucane had Republican sympathisers in his family and defended prominent IRA suspects. So that was enough. Despite the fact that he also defended loyalist paramilitaries charged under terror laws the British security forces suggested him as a target to Loyalist killers and provided intelligence and guns. MI5 spread black propaganda claiming the solicitor was a high-ranking officer in the IRA.

Yet there is a myopic short-term memory syndrome involved in the idea that state operatives can act with impunity because no-one will care when the truth comes out 30 years later. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, whom we had strung up by his wrists, later became a British ally as one of the leaders of the rebel forces who toppled Gaddafi. Those who really were IRA leaders are now our partners in the trust and confidence-building process of which peace in Northern Ireland rests, somewhat shakily recent violence there suggests. Pre-emptive justice has political as well as legal consequences. What confidence are we to have in our police and army when we learn that senior officers in both repeatedly lied and obfuscated to cover up the truth?

And higher than that? After all these ghastly revelations the Finucane family is demanding a further full-judicial inquiry with the powers to cross-examine witnesses where last week’s report confined itself to examining private state documents. They want to know how high up the plot went.

Nor have we uncovered the full truth of the complicity of the UK in Washington’s policy of torture rendition in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. The Director of Public Prosecutions has announced a police investigation. Detectives had to postpone interviewing Sir Mark Allen when he had a stroke in July but he has since been well enough to deliver a lecture on the Arab Spring at Chatham House so we may well not have heard the last of that. Jack Straw and Tony Blair can expect to hear from the inquiry set up under the retired judge Sir Peter Gibson who is examining Britain’s role in the mistreatment of terrorism suspects since 9/11.

A culture of deniability is built into the British establishment. Just four weeks before Pat Finucane’s murder, a Home Office minister, Douglas Hogg, briefed by the Ulster police, told Parliament that some local solicitors were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA”. Ministers didn’t know about the plans to murder Finucane only because they had set up a system which distanced themselves from the dirty work, much as rendition for torture did 30 years later. How much more they knew about the subsequent cover-ups is a different matter.  

Yet now Government ministers want, on Tuesday, a vote on the Justice and Security Bill to allow politicians to decide that evidence in cases involving national security can be given in secret. These people never give up. The truth is that if public confidence is to be restored in the integrity of our state security apparatus we need a lot more information, not even less.


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