As ballot papers for Labour’s leadership land on doorsteps this week, those charged with electing the next Leader of the Opposition, namely party members, MPs and affiliated trades unionists have a duty not only to consider their party’s best interests, but the country’s best interests too.
They should at least pause to consider, amongst the myriad of issues and concerns closest to them, one of the darkest episodes of New Labour’s decade in power, namely the role allegedly played by a number of Ministers in what has come to be known as ‘Extraordinary Rendition’. Knowingly allowing terror suspects to be transferred through British airspace, in order for them to be tortured in third countries and to allow British Agents to gather information from suspects treated in this way, is a deadly serious issue. It goes to the heart of what is morally defensible and what is legal in an advanced liberal democracy.
The Guardian reported in 2005 on rendition flights dating back from 2001, over 240 of them to be precise, that flew in and out of British airspace and airports. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extraordinary_rendition_by_the_United_States
In December 2003, I raised the possibility that prisoners were being held illegally on Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory in The Independent. http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/news/2003/031213-british-gtmo.htm
These claims were denied by another former Minister, Baroness Amos, who is shortly to take over as Under Secretary General of Humanitarian Affairs at the United Nations, but were finally admitted to be true by Miliband to Parliament in 2008. Clive Stafford Smith and his team at Reprieve have relentlessly sought to expose Britain’s involvement – so strenuously denied – in what have been quite despicable acts that are not only illegal but morally indefensible.
When the new Coalition Government overruled the objections from Tony Blair and other members of the previous Government and announced an independent Judicial Investigation under the chairmanship of Appeal Court Judge, Sir Peter Gibson, one MP recalls that at least two faces on the Opposition front bench turned ashen. They were those of a previous Foreign and Home Secretary, Jack Straw and former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. The Judicial Inquiry will amongst other lines of inquiry seek to discover exactly what Miliband and others knew about a secret interrogation policy that allowed agents in places such as Afghanistan to interrogate people who had been tortured, as long as they did not participate in actual torture or seek to condone it. The Inquiry will want to know what Miliband knew of how this policy was developed or not from 2004 onwards.
For how could Ministers sleep at night if they knew that their weasel words about “not condoning torture”, still allowed intelligence to be gathered from people who had been tortured?
The Judicial Inquiry might also be interested in seeking some answers from former members of the Bush Administration, who became wearied by the Brits ‘get out’ clause. Here is what one of them had to say when asked if the Brits objected to extraordinary rendition. “For their own reason they felt compelled to do this. There is a formal political channel through the State Department through which to do it and there would be an adult understanding that there’s an objection because they need to object not because they expect us to do anything different. That is my surmise that that’s what would have happened… I find the charade that goes on kind of tiresome, but I understand it, the faux objection that we get is kind of tiresome. I understand their (the CIA’s) feeling entirely. I can’t tell you for certain the British knew, but I can confirm that I have heard similar concerns from intelligence people”.
And what of the longstanding claims about rendition through Diego Garcia? “The notion that our British colleagues – they’re our most sophisticated allies – on Diego Garcia had special handling instructions for a particular plane and either didn’t ask, or didn’t know what the hell was going on.. It’s hard for me to understand that. It just doesn’t make sense”.
There are some Conservative MPs keenly anticipating the possible appearance of David Miliband in front of that Judicial Inquiry, alongside perhaps Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Alan Johnson, and especially if Miliband has been elected leader of the Labour Party in the meantime. There will be others, and across all parties and none who appreciate the gravity of this particular Inquiry and who appreciate that political point scoring palls into insignificance with the serious charge that a British Government colluded with torturers.
So what did Labour’s putative leader know, and what didn’t he know? Why was he so hostile to the creation of the Judicial Inquiry, and what exactly did he know of the alleged torture of Binyam Mohammed and several other UK citizens in Pakistan and elsewhere? And why did he seek to suppress the seven paragraphs that revealed that Binyam Mohammed had been tortured, attacking “irresponsible judges” and claiming that such information “could give succour to the country’s enemies”. Did he really seek to “knobble the judges”, as Jon Snow who questioned him on Channel 4 News alleged?
And when and what did he ask of British officials based on the island of Diego Garcia?
If all of these activities were being undertaken without the knowledge of the British Government, what questions did David Miliband ask for all of the well documented and longstanding claims made in The Guardian and elsewhere?
Rather than wait to be called before the Beak, perhaps David Miliband could tell us – and the Labour electorate now – before we mark our ballot papers.