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Detainee Mistreatment & Rendition - Intelligence Committee reports

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#1
Surprised that nobody seems to have posted this yet. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Yesterday the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) released two long awaited reports on rendition and detainee treatment by UK agencies. The two reports basically cover two time periods: from 9/11 to 2010, and from 2010 to present (including the current standing of detainee policy). It covers all the intelligence agencies, plus the MoD and some elements of the police. I haven't yet found a neutral article on the subject, so here's an aggregator link to lots of articles:

NewsNow: Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition news

Report 1: Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition 2001-2010
Report 2: Detainee Mistreatment and Rendition: Current Issues

A summary of the findings and talking points so far:
  • There are more cases of the UK acknowledging some connection to rendition cases than previously believed or publicly stated.
  • Jack Straw appears to have knowingly misled Parliament in a statement.
  • The current guidance is criticised, as different ministers interpreted the powers it allows them differently in evidence.
  • Dominic Grieve (chair of the committee) has said Theresa May / No.10 tried and succeeded in preventing the committee from producing a "credible report".
What does seem to be missing - arguably because of the disallowing of access in the last point above - is a firm idea of what constitutes mistreatment or torture in these cases, but it's pretty clear that the ISC is very unimpressed. Given how wide that potential net is for these definitions, I'm fairly sure that, like me, there are a number of people on here who will have had some involvement in this over the years. Even if you were a bloke on the ground in Afghan who was involved with detainees taken by or handed over to the ANA / ANP / NDS, you fall under the remit of this.

Is this level of scrutiny justified, desirable, overdone? Where is the line between legitimate and necessary work with allied countries, and support of unacceptable practices? Should the officers / soldiers / people at the ground level be opened up to more scrutiny, or is that inviting another Northern Ireland / PIL & Shiner situation. What happens if, as is clearly the desire of some groups, we take a zero tolerance line on any deviation from our norms (e.g. held a prisoner for more than 24-48hrs without charge? we're not working together anymore)?

Thoughts, questions welcome. Hyperbolic bullshit inevitable.
 
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Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#3
Your Lambo quote sums it up in one.
Yes...but on which side?

However you want to characterise people arguing that torture is an absolute bad and can never be tolerated, unless they are actually in a prison cell at the time, I'm not sure that "image, material value and self interest" are fair motivations to give them.

There is clearly a line here somewhere, and those arguing that torture can never be tolerated certainly have a moral point. But, equally, there is a practical point here about working with the imperfect world we have, rather than the perfect one we would like.

I can think of people on both sides of this argument who I would characterise with that quote.
 
#5
Given the final bullet point in the OP, it appears that all this has actually done is wasted a significant amount of time, effort and taxpayer's money to achieve nothing more than to stir up the grievances and prejudices of both sides of the fence.
 
#6
I see it as a quite simple question; do the benefits outweigh the cost?

To date, I don't think they do. Our enemies have a clear message, that the West lies and that the freedoms we offer are illusory. We reply that human rights are sacrosanct - then show that's only true if you're white. That recruits for our enemies and harms us.

As to benefits, where are they? I find it very difficult to believe that if we were foiling massive plots regularly thanks to such activities we wouldn't be hearing about it. And yet no-one can point to anything. Again and again, when the facts emerge, we've been torturing a bunch of muppets or bystanders sold to us by cynical opportunists to no real gain.

Hell, remember what bin Laden was after when he planned 9/11? Over-reaction. You can't have the apocalyptic clash of world views he was after without radicalising both sides. The sad thing is arguably he got just what he was after.
 
#7
Is this level of scrutiny justified, desirable, overdone? Where is the line between legitimate and necessary work with allied countries, and support of unacceptable practices? Should the officers / soldiers / people at the ground level be opened up to more scrutiny, or is that inviting another Northern Ireland / PIL & Shiner situation.
Absolutely not. Ultimately this is a question of high-level policy and we should actually be looking at those who made the decisions.
 
#8
Our enemies dont applaud when we do the right thing.
If they did, they probably wouldnt be our enemies. IMHO we should drop the HR charade - because we arent honest or even handed in reality. We should just admit that we are self serving and have done with it.
If we want to smell of roses, we shouldnt indulge in shifting sh*t.
 

Caecilius

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#9
To date, I don't think they do. Our enemies have a clear message, that the West lies and that the freedoms we offer are illusory. We reply that human rights are sacrosanct - then show that's only true if you're white. That recruits for our enemies and harms us.

As to benefits, where are they? I find it very difficult to believe that if we were foiling massive plots regularly thanks to such activities we wouldn't be hearing about it. And yet no-one can point to anything. Again and again, when the facts emerge, we've been torturing a bunch of muppets or bystanders sold to us by cynical opportunists to no real gain.
I'm not sure about either paragraph here.

For the first, while I think it is important to keep our own moral standards and I oppose torture for that reason, I'm not convinced it's actually that much of a recruiting tool for OPFOR. When you look at some of the terrorist publications like Dabiq or Inspire, there's enough material in there focusing on the western way of life as a whole without them needing to highlight things like Gitmo. I'm sure it helps recruiting a little but I'm not convinced it makes all that much difference when there's so much other material available. You mention Bin Laden but he got agitated about an invited US presence in Saudi - it didn't need Gitmo to get AQ off the ground.

Moving to the second paragraph, I'm not sold on the idea that we'd hear the details of secret investigations and how they stopped terrorist plots if they were happening. There's a tendency towards ongoing secrecy with all these investigations and that's especially true of anything involving the CIA.
 
#10
I think we are grateful to the OP, starting the thread is a critical discussion of a topic which is awkward to discuss.

I think that this needs to be read and considered in conjunction with the recent spectacular Abdul Hakim Belhaj apology.

Britain apologises for 'appalling treatment' of Abdel Hakim Belhaj

TL;DR ?

Belhaj was a Libyan Islamist (and member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group - proscribed in the UK since 2005), the UK Government now accepts that intelligence from the UK was passed to the US which allowed them to detain Belhaj and his wife in the far east.

Both were then returned to Libya, to somewhat predictably "less than PACE compliant treatment".

This whole incident came to light, when the documents maintained by the Libyan foreign intelligence service, the External Security Organisation, were recovered.

Libyan rendition: how UK's role in kidnap of families came to light

This led to investigations of British individuals, and no charges were ever brought.

What I personally find interesting in the whole mess, is -

A) Sir Mark Allen, the former head of Global CT at SIS (and a celebrated Arabist in his own right), against whom no charges were brought was named in recovered correspondence in the UK/LIbyan relationship; and specifically this extraordinary rendition matter. Sir Mark has left HMG Service and now in private industry advises BP group on North African issues.

B) I also do chuckle at the breathtaking hypocrisy of Mrs May's government.


Well compare the olive branch there to Mrs May and her willingness to drag up scandals starting from 1968 onwards when she wanted to beat the police (with of course, the Holy Hand Grenade of the Lawrence report - published in 1999, reporting on a murder in 1993)

Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics. The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after “Plebgate”. Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence. The Herne Review into the conduct of the Metropolitan Police Special Demonstration Squad. The Ellison Review into allegations of corruption during the investigation of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Further allegations that the police sought to smear Stephen‟s family. Soon, there will be another judge-led public inquiry into policing
Home Secretary Speech to the police federation, 2014.

It is almost as though seperate rules apply for convenience, isn't it?

If people have spare time, I would urge them to read The Black Banners

The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by Ali H. Soufan

Which is the predictive of what I imagine we will see here. It details the insitutitional fighting between elements of the US Government, and ultimately the alarm of the FBI which withdrew its officers from Gitmo as they believed they would be investigating it in the future.

The book is heavily redacted, despite most of that being said in evidence to the US authorities. Cynics sugges the CIA taking revenge under cover of national security redactions.

The whole thing does appear to be the most recent going around of the mulberry bush. Granted the concern of the existential threat post-9/11 could have led to a justification of exigencies that over-ride normal proceedural correctness.

However, Operation OVERT (the liquid bomb plot to down transatlantic airliners) was foiled without such a throwing out of the rule book. Aside from the death toll, if successful it would (I believe) have likely reset international air travel and potentially led to the fall of a government.

BBC NEWS | UK | Liquid bomb plot: What happened

Ultimately, the problem for us is that our enemies will seek to exploit due process in our own country for the actions of HMG and Crown Servants abroad. Wronged innocents (by which I mean "Non-terrorist persons") also need to seek civil redress. The former will use the later for cover.

The balance to be struck is to individual taste, I would assume? Quite what national policy can be formulated, I would need a very strong cup of coffee to begin to ponder.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#11
Absolutely not. Ultimately this is a question of high-level policy and we should actually be looking at those who made the decisions.
Ok. I'd argue from experience that the people who make the decisions are those at the lower levels, and the higher levels just rubber stamp them. Sometimes something doesn't get through the higher level, but 90% of the time they take the recommendations from below. So...who is actually making the decision there? Who are the ones you need to be sure are doing their job? Are they the same person?

It's very similar to the UAS debate: legally, the op commander is usually responsible for a decision. But what about: the guy flying the vehicle; the int person who made / validated the target pack? In various ways, they have a lot more input to that decision than the op commander does.

I've also seen cases where those people at the lower levels were questionably diligent in how they put together recommendations, because - broadly - they felt they were protected by everything above them. So long as they didn't break with the policy or status quo (not always the same), they didn't really question whether the right thing was being done in that case.

Arguing that all soldiers are heroes and intelligence officers are 100% selfless bravery is dumb. There are always ********* and partially engaged mid-level civil servants in even the most 'elite' of groups, just like I'm sure there must be some good politicians.
 
#13
<Hyperbolic bullshit>I'd suggest that there's a world between mistreatment and torture. To me mistreatment could be getting stood in the corner with a bag on my head which, for me, is a long way away from anything involving blowtorches and bacon slicers (see Fisck).

If they went to all that trouble to render you to a black site then I suspect we're mostly talking about the latter - but I don't know.

Is torture justifiable? Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and Consequentialists such as Mozi would apply the test of the greatest good. If it allowed you to discover a plot to smuggle explosives onto a trans-Atlantic flight then torturing one or two people to save several hundred would be acceptable. Torturing several hundred to save one or two people less so; tough call.

This is the Ticking Time Bomb scenario which is a variant of the Trolley Problem which has resurfaced with the dawn of autonomous vehicles.

Opponents argue the torture is never justified because, they claim, a) torture doesn't work, b) how can you be certain the person has the information, and c) it's a slippery slope.

Does torture work ? I think the answer has to be yes. It's been practiced for a long time and the ancients weren't stupid and knew all about double-sourcing and test questions.

A corollary to the problem is the torture of the suspects family.

I'm not aware of any Classical philosophers who argued against it on any moral or ethical grounds so if anyone knows ?

The Theistic religions don't, I think, help. They're all against it now but in their prime they were all roaring for somebody to pass the thumbscrews for the good of some poor sod's soul.</Hyperbolic bullshit>
 
#14
Reading that report through the one thing that struck me was the interchangeable and imprecise use of words like torture, mistreatment and CIDT (cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) in a way that blurs the lines between fact and allegation.

Its great for someone to claim that they, or someone else, have been tortured, but its a lot more difficult to define and clarify what constitutes Torture - the report doesn't really help here either, accepting at face value that tactics such as waterboarding, white noise and hooding must de-facto constitute torture or CIDT, when a more accurate and legalistic approach might well leave what is and isn't prohibited by international law a much greyer area.

A simple example would be that, if the USA offers a guarantee that those renditioned "will not be subjected to Torture" we are, arguably, entitled to accept that on face value - now, the fact that the US don't accept that waterboarding legally amounts to prohibited torture is one extreme, but equally, after years of hindsight, we can end up with MP's retrospectively saying that stress positions and white noise were also banned (along with certain lawyers and NGO's who would put denying prisoners access to the TV remote control in the bracket of torture)

So, I think what I've essentially said above is: A lack of concrete definitions and a whole lot of grey areas means that the report is more retrospective opinion than fact.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#15
Does torture work ? I think the answer has to be yes. It's been practiced for a long time and the ancients weren't stupid and knew all about double-sourcing and test questions.
I meant a different kind of hyperbolic bullshit, I think you're safe.

Torture definitely works. I've drawn attention on here before (possibly in that thread that @Bravo_Bravo linked) to the diametrically opposed messages we give to our own a) interrogators, and b) soldiers at risk of interrogation. To a) we say: torture never works, so don't do it. To b) we say: you may get tortured, and if you do, everyone talks eventually. Both cannot be true.

Every discussion about whether torture works I've seen deliberately omits any context, and just assumes that information gained from torture is used as is, with no further processing. Ask any trainee police who has done their interviewing phase, and they will tell you that the point isn't the information an interviewee gives you: the point is to compare the information they give you with other information. Exactly the same applies to interrogation. Any kind of coercion, whether positive (money, freedom, etc) or negative (prison, torture) is used within that framework. It's about ensuring there are clearly understood consequences to them giving the information, or not. But you still need another source of information to compare it with, otherwise you are merely just shooting in the dark. TV and films - which whether they know it or not are where most people get their ideas about the subject from - are deeply unhelpful here, as aside from The Wire and 0D30, I don't think I've ever seen any portrayals in popular media that gets even halfway to being authentic, which is hilariously bad given the number of cop and legal shows out there. Torture is just a form of coercion to induce someone to give you information, or more accurately or quicker than they would do otherwise. Some kind of analysis process is required subsequently.

All that said: the fact that it works doesn't mean we should do it. Nuking Tora Bora and Kabul would probably have had the desired effect in 2001, but it doesn't mean it was a good idea.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#16
Reading that report through the one thing that struck me was the interchangeable and imprecise use of words like torture, mistreatment and CIDT (cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment) in a way that blurs the lines between fact and allegation.

Its great for someone to claim that they, or someone else, have been tortured, but its a lot more difficult to define and clarify what constitutes Torture - the report doesn't really help here either, accepting at face value that tactics such as waterboarding, white noise and hooding must de-facto constitute torture or CIDT, when a more accurate and legalistic approach might well leave what is and isn't prohibited by international law a much greyer area.

A simple example would be that, if the USA offers a guarantee that those renditioned "will not be subjected to Torture" we are, arguably, entitled to accept that on face value - now, the fact that the US don't accept that waterboarding legally amounts to prohibited torture is one extreme, but equally, after years of hindsight, we can end up with MP's retrospectively saying that stress positions and white noise were also banned (along with certain lawyers and NGO's who would put denying prisoners access to the TV remote control in the bracket of torture)

So, I think what I've essentially said above is: A lack of concrete definitions and a whole lot of grey areas means that the report is more retrospective opinion than fact.
Very much agree, and that is also what limits sensible policy going forward. I think the whole issue has become - and I don't use this lightly - a virtue signalling topic - where public figures are terrified of saying anything that might possibly be construed as support or questioning that torture is bad. So nobody tries to grade or define what the scale is between adequate treatment > inadequate treatment > mistreatment > torture, and as a result they simply all get elided together. Everyone then reacts to all news about 'detention' or 'mistreatment' as if every case was an episode of Game of Thrones.

The institutional side doesn't really help here by refusing to engage with the debate, but you can see why they do so given the febrile levels of hyperbole that accompany any news about detention. Yet the reality that I saw was one where some detainees actually didn't want to leave (being released, not going to prison), because they had a better standard of life in the facility than at home. Clearly that wasn't the experience for everyone. But it's hard to have a rational discussion unless the reality is accepted, that there is a range of experiences and badness involved here.
 
#17
@Sarastro I'd also suggest that the Ticking Time Bomb problem is not as common as we'd like to think.

Recently torture seems to have been used to seek information about secret organisations i.e. who do you work for, where do they hide ?

Modern cellular organisations have reconfigured as soon as they learn an element has been compromised and to train their operatives to hold out for an agreed time to allow the changes to be made.

This type of general intelligence seeking torture has the downside of running lots of people, mostly innocent, through the mill with no benefit other than earning their undying enmity; eventually the French lost in Algeria.

There is also, in my mind, a difficulty criticizing torture yet justifing war - both impose suffering on largely innocent civilians.
 

Sarastro

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#18
@Sarastro I'd also suggest that the Ticking Time Bomb problem is not as common as we'd like to think.
Not that exact problem, e.g. "we need this information to prevent an attack and save thousands", no. That is really loading the question to give an obvious answer, and conversely, anyone who seriously argues against it on those grounds should be very sure that their honest response to 9/11, 7/7 and so on is: well, at least we didn't play loud music at the guys who did it.

Time-pressured intelligence and decision cycles, however, are common in both hostage / man away scenarios. There are many real life examples, not going into them here. Also, CT exploitation of the aftermath of an attack by a surviving network, in order to stop follow on attacks. 7/7 is a prime example, as was Paris, but also Manchester and so on. Anything where you can't be sure that the network is totally rolled up. Unlikely it is ever so clear as "we know a huge attack is imminent and need to stop it", however.

Together, that means actually it does probably happen several times a year, just for the UK. So it's a legitimate scenario to raise. The problem is it tends to get defined in an unrealistic context. The chances of having a convenient detainee who is likely to know the required information is slim, given the prevailing suicide MO. Again, people watching too much Spooks, I suspect.

Recently torture seems to have been used to seek information about secret organisations i.e. who do you work for, where do they hide ?

Modern cellular organisations have reconfigured as soon as they learn an element has been compromised and to train their operatives to hold out for an agreed time to allow the changes to be made..
Both of those are unsafe assumptions. Most torture is practiced by states that are not us, and it is mostly used to coerce people into confessions. Those states / groups don't have any particular interest in using it to glean reliable information, quite the opposite. The violence is the point, not the information or confession: it's a warning. Second, it's a terrible idea to assume competence from anyone, particularly terrorist groups. Intelligence work in particular is about finding the points of incompetence and exploiting them. Many, perhaps most, terrorist cells are more Four Lions than Four Horsemen.
 
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#19
The institutional side doesn't really help here by refusing to engage with the debate...
It might be useful if a few retired VSOs etc would stand up and tell the world a few home truths about what's out there instead of denying that they ever acquiesced with cutbacks.

There was an interesting article by Dmiry Orlov, who is a little bit OTT IMO, where he talks about modern European man's inability to face up to reality and how it is going to bite us.
 
#20
Many, perhaps most, terrorist cells are more Four Lions than Four Horsemen.
I would love to see a cross over between Albrecht Durer's art and Four Lions



But probably more productive, I would tend to aruge that the sort of intelligence exploitation we saw in the era that gave rise to this report is over.

This was classic Mujahideen, graduating from training camps and with attempts at centralised control and direction (or at least from the franchise of AQ trying to carry out the attack).

With the decline now of the "DAESH" model from its high point of a pseudo-state to harbour and train, the problem is to understand what will the threat model be?

The easiest answer is to say "more of the same". There's enough ungoverned space on the planet for the JIhadists to decamp to (say) the Sahel. Continue to use that as a harbour area from which to project force at the near (un-Islamic local government) enemy and the far (western powers) government.

It the answer is that we face decentralised threat, self-radicalised lone individuals or "a group of guys" acting alone - there's a bit more of a problem.

Add to that the growing knowledge of state level tactics to frustrate, plus the usual paranoia of such groups, I would suggest our threat model is likely to be "small plots, individually lethal" but not the spectacular co-ordination attacks of the early 2000s.

This is not to say this is any less dangerous. If I am the chap with my throat slashed on the Leytonestone tube, I am going to treat it quite seriously. That an individual managed to successfully prosecute a mass-casualty attack (killing 23 and wounding 139) at the Manchester arena is sadly remarkable.

That the suspect allegedly self-radicalised (or was on the fringe of others) and managed to educate himself to successfully construct a potent IED is a continuing example of the high level threat posed by the abiity to tavel to terrorist haven areas

Manchester attacker ‘made bomb in four days’

All of of this requires the sort of state level cross-matched data-based analysis that is not as "interesting" as having the [insert Mukhbarat of choice] beat the vital int out of people abroad.

So, I would suggest that the issues of the report are aimed at the historic threat the was manifest then. We should not assume that the dilemma will present on the same "industrial scale" that we saw at that time again. If it does, we're in the sticky stuff because the threat has gone back to where we were in the 1990s. Ignoring it (or being unaware of it) lead to the problems of the 2000s.
 

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