The Director General of the Security Service, Jonathan Evans, has jumped with both feet into the increasingly heated debate about British use of intelligence obtained through torture. In a centenary speech at Bristol University yesterday (15 October), he made a valiant effort at having it both ways.
“I can say quite clearly that the Security Service does not torture people, nor do we collude in torture or solicit others to torture people on our behalf”, Mr Evans said. BUT (there is always a but)…..
We live in a nasty world, and it is an unfortunate fact that other countries’ intelligence services – including America’s, Mr Evans tut-tuttingly admits - do use torture to extract information about terrorist threats. We share intelligence with those countries. If we did not, we might suffer atrocities on our streets which could otherwise have been prevented. Indeed, according to Mr Evans, “many attacks have been stopped as a result of effective international intelligence co-operation since 9/11” (presumably including intelligence obtained through torture). How many attacks, and how seriously threatening, Mr Evans does not say: we have to take his word for it.
After 9/11 the UK and other Western countries were faced with the “fact” (Mr Evans’ word) that the terrorist threat posed by Al Qaida was “indiscriminate, global and massive”. Again, he does not provide any evidence for this flesh-creeping assertion, and admits that “now, 8 years on, we have a better understanding of the nature and scope of Al Qaida’s capabilities but we did not have that understanding in the period immediately after 9/11”. Why not, if our intelligence services are so competent and on the ball as they like to claim? And Mr Evans gives no indication of what our current “better understanding” is; presumably the bin Laden bugaboo has shrunk to a punier size, but we are still not told how serious the threat from Al Qaeda is today, or even what that shadowy non-organisation amounts to.
What Mr Evans does tell us is that “we” (that is, the security services) were aware that 9/11 was not the summit of Al Qaeda’s ambitions. But what those ambitions were he doesn’t reveal. What he does reveal – and should be ashamed to have to do so – is that “our intelligence resources were not adequate to the situation we faced and the root of the terrorist problem was in parts of the world where the standards and practices of the local security apparatus were very far removed from our own” – a euphemism for “they torture people as matter of course”.
Nevertheless, “we would have been derelict in our duty” (says Mr Evans) “if we had not worked, circumspectly, with overseas liaisons who were in a position to provide intelligence that could safeguard this county from attack”- ‘circumspectly’ presumably being another weasel-worded euphemism for “turning a blind eye to their barbarous methods”. The justification is that “Al Qaeda had indeed made plans for further attacks after 9/11” – when, where, on what scale? Again, Mr Evans doesn’t tell us.
Mr Evans assures us that “I do not defend the abuses that have recently come to light within the US system since 9/11”. Nor would he dispute the judgement of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee that MI5, among others, “was slow to detect the emerging pattern of US practice”. In other words, his office was asleep at the wheel. When the emerging pattern of US policy was tardily detected, Mr Evans assures us, “necessary improvements were made”. Again, no indication of what these were.
Pleading his agency’s tradition from its earliest days of “a culture of pragmatic decency that served it well in changing times”, Mr Evans concludes with the ringing pledge that “we have to work hard to ensure that we do not collude in torture or mistreatment”. “Enormous effort”, he says, goes into assessing the risks in each case but it is not possible to eradicate all risk. But the reality is that “we do not solicit or collude in torture. We do not practice torture.” So that’s alright, then: it’s all the fault of those degenerate Yanks (who will no doubt be highly gratified to hear it) and their Asian satellites. We’re in the clear.
This egregious performance reminds me of Pooh-Bah in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’ who regales his sadistic sovereign’s ear with graphic descriptions of torture and execution and then, when it transpires that the hapless alleged victim was the Mikado’s son, pleads that he in fact wasn’t there, and had merely sought to add “a touch of artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative” . It’s all ‘look, no hands’, and – in true American army fashion – ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’.
And, quite incidentally, Evans’ lame apologia blows sky high the reiterated Jack Straw defence of plausible deniability that, when Foreign Secretary, like the three wise monkeys rolled into one he hadn’t the slightest inkling that we might be using intelligence obtained through torture, because nobody had told him.
It used to be said that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. But as we no longer have any virtue to profess in our public life, why bother being hypocritical any more? If torture is OK, let’s say so forthrightly and use it ourselves unblushingly. If it’s not, let’s do everything we can to stop it, whoever is doing it. What we shouldn’t be doing is to make humbugging prevarications along the lines of “We only practice the highest standards of food hygiene, but if some of our foreign suppliers send us tainted meat we have no option but to feed it to our customers”.