Martin Bright

The Torture Debate

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There isn't one. That was a trick headline.

The line between a state that tortures and the state that does everything in its power to avoid the physical abuse of individuals in its name is what defined the late twentieth century drive against barbarism. When the French were exposed using specially adapted field radios to pass electric shocks through suspected rebels in Algeria it rightly caused outrage in a world still recovering from the reality of the Holocaust. 

We are a little less easy to horrify now. But the revelation that our own intelligence services have been prepared to use the fruits of torture, however unwittingly, still has the ability to digust.

The response this story fascinates me, though, because we are still thinking about the way this intelligence has been used in a very limited way. Alan Johnson and David Miliband were able to write with some confidence for the Sunday Telegraph this weekend that:

"There is no truth in suggestions that the security and intelligence services operate without control or oversight. There is no truth in the more serious suggestion that it is our policy to collude in, solicit, or directly participate in abuses of prisoners. Nor is it true that alleged wrongdoing is covered up."But there is an assumption here that concerns about information obtained under duress refer only to the excesses of states alleged to practice outright torture. How about, for instance, the information obtained from detainees in US or British custody? What currency does that have on the international intelligence market?

I'll give you an example. What about information obtained about Morocco from an al-Qaeda suspect held in coalition custody? What if that information were passed from the US via the UK intelligence services to their north African counterparts? Is that legitimate? This, after all, would be the active transmission of intelligence rather than its passive reception.

I will never forget a meeting I had with two senior Moroccan security officials at the Rabat villa of the Interior Minister in June 2002 following an alleged plot to blow up British shipping in Gibraltar. Several Moroccan-based Saudis had been arrested in a series of dramatic anti-terrorist raids. When I asked the Moroccans where they had received the tip-off from, the three Moroccans rocked with laughter. "From your people, of course," they said. "Haven't you heard of Guantanamo?"