Dogs that don’t bark, elephants that stay quiet: Jonathan Evans’ speech and torture

Please be aware that the video content in this post contains scenes of graphic violence which some users may find distressing.

The head of MI5 Jonathan Evans has made another of those “rare” speeches (aren’t these MI5 speeches always called rare, even though they seem to happen quite frequently …?) in which he’s talked about the dangers of cyber-attacks and how changes in the Middle East and North Africa may have made the world more dangerous (read the full transcript).

In Evans’ view, “parts of the Arab world have once more become a permissive environment for al-Qaeda”. Hmm. As ever with these intelligence service speeches, you’re given very little information but lots of warnings (Evans himself talks about how some of the threats he describes might be “dogs that don’t bark”).

While I can see that the threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen or in Somalia is obviously very real, I do wonder what he means here. Surely he can’t have in mind the historic changes in Egypt or Tunisia. And presumably he’s not referring to Bahrain. Libya? Maybe not. I guess he may have Syria in mind. Meanwhile places where al-Qaeda or their affiliates remain active include the organisation’s birthplace Saudi Arabia and places like Mauritania or Afghanistan / Pakistan (which he refers to) so I’m not really sure about the eye-catching “changes in the Arab world” line.

Anyway, as “security analysts” tend to say, the intelligence services get to see all the information and they’re in a position to make these kinds of assessments. We are not. We have to take what they say on trust. And OK, let’s hope that none of these dogs bark.

But - to stay with animal metaphors - I think there was a small elephant in the room when Mr Evans delivered his speech in the Mansion House last night. By which I mean: the whole issue of MI5 facing up to its alleged involvement in the rendition, illegal detention and torture of people in the past decade as part of the so-called “war on terror”. Evans didn’t mention it - at all. Instead he expressed support for the government’s controversial proposals for more secret justice while insisting the agency does “not fear accountability”.

Echoing the Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, Evans’ arguments is that MI5’s willingness to “account for our actions in the courts is constrained by the fact that sensitive national security related material relevant to civil proceedings can only be considered in open court”. It’s that exaggerate-the-point-to-advance-a-not-very-convincing-argument trick again. Instead of accepting the Evans/Clarke case for “closed material procedures” in more and more civil cases involving allegations of UK complicity in torture, we should be insisting on open justice with sensible safeguards (like concealing the identity of witnesses where there’s a clear risk that revealing an identity would endanger them).

Rather than trumpeting secret justice measures, Mr Evans ought to be reassuring the public that his agency would still welcome a proper public inquiry into the issue of torture complicity (one that improves on the flawed and now shelved Gibson detainee inquiry). The UK is just one country out of many in Europe to have been involved in the murky US-led business of rendition and torture (see this new “Unlock The Truth” website from the Amnesty EU office) and like almost every other “partner in crime” it has yet to properly investigate what happened and make this known to a worried general public.

Do I make too much of these - mostly old - cases of torture? Is it something that people like me harp on about while ignoring the true dangers (ie terrorism)? No, I don’t think so. Violence by groups like al-Qaeda (or the Taleban or Boko Haram) is disgusting and needs to be countered. But lawfully. Not like this*.

*Note: Please be aware that this link directs to an Amnesty-produced video to mark today's International Day for the Care of Victims of Torture - which contains graphic scenes that some viewers may find disturbing.

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