Monday 5 July 2010

Could the conclusions of a "Chilcot lite" torture inquiry have already been agreed?

The government will make an announcement tomorrow about a judge-led commission or inquiry into whether the UK was complicit in the use of torture.

Patrick Wintour on the Guardian blog says the test for the Coalition will come in the details. He asks:

Nick Clegg, Edward Davey and Hague have demanded an inquiry so much in Opposition, they would look ridiculous if they rejected one today. But much will depend on the details. Is the inquiry to be held in public, what evidence will be published, what witnesses will be called, will the civil court cases being taken against the government be stopped, how will compensation, if any, be distributed to victims of torture? And, finally, how will the American security services be involved and how will torture be defined?

Answers to several of these questions were set out last week in a well informed Telegraph column by political editor Ben Brogan, which bore all the hallmarks of several authoritative insider briefings.

Brogan was particularly sympathetic to the security services' troubles in having to devote resources to dealing with allegations of torture, and to the problems which a full or frank inquiry could present for relationships with US intelligence, where "no one knows if the British can be trusted with secrets any more or whether we still have the stomach for the fight", as Brogan put it.

So Brogan was full of praise for the creative Coalition statecraft by which, he claims, David Cameron has agreed to a closed inquiry which will exonerate the security services while upholding.

I am assured that Mr Cameron has seen the danger, and, at the behest of the secret services, is devoting his energies to finding a remedy that – to use a phrase deployed in Whitehall –"cauterises the wound". Those, like me, who have argued that our credibility and effectiveness in the fight against Islamists is undermined by putting our intelligence agencies on trial, will have to accept the setting up of an independent inquiry – being described as a "Chilcot lite" – that will sit mostly in secret. MI5 and MI6 will wear it if it means a line can be drawn under the affair. They are confident that it will find in their favour. There was no torture. Strip aside the lurid tales, I am told, and all that emerges is that on a single occasion, at the height of the alarm after 9/11, a British officer acted as an interpreter during an interrogation of a hooded suspect. It's hardly Jack Bauer. Based on that, a mountain of calumny has been heaped upon serving officers who deserve better for their efforts than the nonsense on stilts thrown at them by the Binyam brigade.

There are still details to be worked out. The legal arrangements are fraught. But here, perhaps, we begin to see the thrust of Mr Cameron's foreign policy: a traditional, problem-solving Tory approach to a conundrum that cannot be wished away, as the previous government found. It marries a Conservative desire to defend the institutions of the state with Lib Dem beliefs in the imperative of human rights.

For Brogan, that is a very sensible and honourable compromise, serving both national security and human rights with a due sense of balance and discretion.

Yet the nagging thought remains: might not this apparent briefing, in advance, of the agreed conclusion of an inquiry perhaps slightly undermine its credibility?


Of course, the issue of how to have the most effective inquiry possible need not divide along party lines, and has not done so in the past.

Indeed, the Fabian Society's advocacy of an Iraq inquiry impressed William Hague so much that he devoted the opening of his March 2008 opposition day debate speech to reading out my letter to Gordon Brown. After an Inquiry was announced, but with the intention for it to be in private, Next Left strongly supported Nick Clegg's point that public hearings were essential for the Iraq inquiry to win public trust. We were among those to successfully advocate that the inquiry should be public wherever possible.

Having made common cause with both Hague and Clegg then, I am sure we can be confident that Liberal Democrats outside government and within it will remain as committed to similar principles on this occasion. Though we note with interest Chris Ames' observation that Nick Clegg's vocal complaints about calls for a more open Iraq inquiry process may perhaps, from the new perspective of government office, be settling into much greater understanding of Whitehall's case for the status quo.

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