Blair government’s rendition policy led to rift between UK spy agencies, even ignoring the human rights dimension

1 Jun

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
by Nick Hopkins and Richard Norton-Taylor
 

British involvement in controversial and clandestine rendition operations provoked an unprecedented row between the UK’s domestic and foreign intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, at the height of the “war on terror”, the Guardian can reveal.

The head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was so incensed when she discovered the role played by MI6 in abductions that led to suspected extremists being tortured, she threw out a number of her sister agency’s staff and banned them from working at MI5’s headquarters, Thames House.

According to Whitehall sources, she also wrote to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, to complain about the conduct of MI6 officers, saying their actions had threatened Britain’s intelligence gathering and may have compromised the security and safety of MI5 officers and their informants.

The letter caused a serious and prolonged breakdown of trust between Britain’s domestic and foreign spy agencies provoked by the Blair government’s support for rendition.

The letter was discovered by investigators examining whether British intelligence officers should face criminal charges over the rendition of an exiled Libyan opposition leader, Abdul Hakim Belhaj.

A critic of Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, Belhaj was seized in Bangkok in March, 2004 in a joint UK-US operation, and handed over to the CIA. He alleges the CIA tortured him and injected him with “truth serum” before flying him and his family to Tripoli to be interrogated.

According to documents found in Tripoli, five days before he was secretly flown to the Libyan capital, MI6 gave Gaddafi’s intelligence agency the French and Moroccan aliases used by Belhaj.

MI6 also provided the Libyans with the intelligence that allowed the CIA to kidnap him and take him to Tripoli.

Belhaj told the Guardian that British intelligence officers were among the first to interrogate him in Tripoli. He said he was “very surprised that the British got involved in what was a very painful period in my life”.

“I wasn’t allowed a bath for three years and I didn’t see the sun for one year,” he told the Guardian. “They hung me from the wall and kept me in an isolation cell. I was regularly tortured.”

The secret role played by MI6 was revealed after the fall of Gaddafi, when documents were found in ransacked offices of his intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa.

One, dated 18 March 2004 was a note from Sir Mark Allen, then head of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa. It said: “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Abdul-Hakim Belhaj]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week.”

Allen added: “[Belhaj’s] information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us. Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from [Belhaj] through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on [Belhaj] was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo [Belhaj]. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.”

Scotland Yard has concluded its investigation into the alleged involvement of intelligence officers and officials in Libyan rendition operations and an announcement about whether or not to prosecute is imminent.

Whitehall sources have told the Guardian that police and prosecutors have been reviewing the issue for months. They say investigators have been frustrated by the way potentially key witnesses have said they were unable to recall who had authorised British involvement in the rendition programme, who else knew about it, and who knew the precise details of the Belhaj abduction.

“This is an extremely difficult area for police and prosecutors,” said one source. “The problem is, the CPS cannot bring a charge against a government policy.”

The letter to Blair sent by Manningham-Buller, who was director general of MI5 from 2002 to 2007, reflected deep divisions within Britain’s intelligence agencies over the methods being used to gather information after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

Though MI5 has been criticised about some of the tactics used, the letter suggests Britain’s security service had serious misgivings about rendition operations and the torture of suspects.

The Guardian has been told the MI5 chief was “shocked and appalled” by the treatment of Belhaj and vented her anger at MI6, which was then run by Sir Richard Dearlove.

“When EMB [Manningham-Buller] found out what had gone on in Libya, she was evidently furious. I have never seen a letter quite like it. There was a serious rift between MI5 and MI6 at the time.”

She has since said the aim of engaging with Gaddafi to persuade him to abandon his chemical and nuclear weapons programme was not “wrong in principle”.
 
Read the rest from The Guardian
 

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