Conspiring in torture, betraying our freedom. Charles Clarke is a disaster
ON FRIDAY the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, will ask the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders to help him to infringe the rule of law. He will tell them of a threat facing Britain that is greater than anything since Hitler. There are people out there, he said last month, who “want to kill hundreds and thousands of people who are innocent of everything”. Surely Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy will not want to impede urgent legislation — and just before an election?
Mr Clarke is emerging as one of the weakest home secretaries of modern times. He has capitulated to the dark forces behind every government who do not care a cat’s whisker for civil liberty. He wants to allow himself (which means them) to impose “control orders” on anyone he (which means they) choose. The victims may be Muslims, Irish, animal rights activists or anyone the Home Secretary “suspects of terror”. Mr Clarke wants curfews, electronic tags, internet and phone bugs and restrictions on contacts, all without court orders. Yesterday he withdrew passports from two British former Guantanamo inmates without explanation. He eschews the phrase “house arrest”, preferring to “restrict people to the premises where they live”. Authoritarians love euphemisms.
I cannot believe that Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy will give Mr Clarke this crude political bonbon, let alone on the threshold of an election. Despite two years of hyperbole, the Government has not convinced anyone but itself of the scale of the threat. It did not convince eight out of nine law lords, the Law Society, the Bar Council or a bevy of former defence chiefs (in Monday’s Times). Tony Blair keeps citing 9/11. As any reader of the official report into that atrocity will know, its ferocious impact resulted not from an over-liberal American Government but from a catastrophic failure of intelligence.
Mr Blair and Mr Clarke seek to bolster their case through asserting some “means of mass destruction” available to Muslim extremists to “undermine the entire British way of life”. Both threat and consequence are implausible. I have heard of nothing that puts Britons at greater risk today than from, say, a nuclear holocaust or Soviet special forces during the Cold War, or from the IRA, or from the disparate fanaticism that goes by the name of al- Qaeda. The British way of life has survived all these threats without having to suspend the rule of law.
A more serious reason for the Opposition to have no truck with Mr Clarke is that his requested control orders will make Britain less, not more, safe. They will radicalise every dissident group and minority neighbourhood and make Britain a target for every nutcase.
The control orders are to be prepared on the basis of secret reports from the police and security services. Such intelligence was shown during the Iraq weapons fiasco to be unreliable. Its gathering and assessment were distorted by the most brazen executive pressure from Mr Blair’s office. That pressure will be the more intense when the Home Secretary has made himself sole arbiter of the orders. He may set up an appeal, like that in place for imprisoned foreigners. That has proved such a travesty of justice that two “special advocates” assigned to it have already resigned.
Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary have shown any contrition for the deceptive Iraq intelligence dossiers. Now they are inviting the agencies which wrote them free rein to deprive British citizens of their freedom. The deprivation will be indefinitely renewable, as will the law itself. This is monstrous. I find it hard to believe that once-upon-a-time liberals such as Mr Blair, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, Gordon Brown, Peter Hain, Patricia Hewitt or Tessa Jowell can sit in a Cabinet that is embarking one inch down this totalitarian road. Now I know how banana republics are formed.
And there is worse to come. The control orders will be based not just on British intelligence but also on American, which means from the interrogation camps of Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. Last year the Court of Appeal gave a ruling of astonishing naivety. It allowed the Home Secretary to detain people without trial on the basis of intelligence gained overseas by torture, so long as British agents were not doing the torturing. Perhaps the court thought the idea hypothetical.
As so often, Americans are found not only among freedom’s most inept defenders but also among its most trenchant guardians. It is American congressmen, American lawyers and American journalists who have supplied the most vigorous critique of coalition actions in Iraq. Now the truth about Mr Clarke’s control orders can be unearthed from a long exposé by Jane Mayer in this week’s New Yorker.
The magazine collates mounting evidence from victims of Donald Rumsfeld’s policy of “extraordinary rendition”. This policy was approved by George Bush and employs “removal units” to kidnap people (of any nationality) and fly them in great secrecy to client states that employ torture. The results are fed back into the intelligence loop. The countries used include Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and probably Uzbekistan. That such places should be considered allies of Britain and America in any War on Terror is surreal.
The lengthening list of survivors now seeking legal redress puts the policy beyond doubt. One such is Maher Arar, a 34-year-old Canadian who is suing the American Government after being kidnapped, flown to Syria and tortured for almost a year before being sent back to his family a physical and mental wreck. Apparently a victim of mistaken identity, he told his interrogators anything they wanted to hear and was eventually considered “worthless”. There are countless other cases. The non-existent links between Saddam and 9/11 that so delighted right-wing commentators were apparently beaten out of an al-Qaeda informer by Egyptian torturers asked by the CIA for that particular titbit. It appeared in Colin Powell’s UN dossier. Did Tony Blair know this at the time?
The White House, in the person of Dick Cheney, endorsed torture after 9/11 because he thought that it might prevent another imminent attack. Like all such instant responses, it was soon institutionalised. Other whistle-blowers cited by The New Yorker include retired CIA and FBI agents exasperated by the counter-productivity of “rendition”. The trickle of torture disclosures is becoming a flood, contaminating the entire judicial process against terrorism. Guantanamo houses some 550 detainees whose cases cannot be brought to trial because any honest judge must dismiss all evidence against them as extracted under duress.
The only suspects so far prosecuted over 9/11, in Germany, had to be freed because America declined to send crucial witnesses from Guantanamo. It reportedly feared what they might say in court. Whatever the instant appeal of torture to some enforcers, once systematised it is lethal to sound intelligence and due process of law. Nobody knows what to believe, nor what to do with the victims afterwards.
So Mr Clarke is about to deny British citizens their freedom on the possible say-so of an Uzbek sadist, a Syrian thug or an electrode-wielding Egyptian. A British court says he can do this provided only that a chap from MI6 is not involved — which I would have considered a safeguard. I cannot see what conceivable weight can be put on such “intelligence”. At least in Tosca’s day Scarpia was in the next room. Even assuming that Mr Clarke’s conscience has gone to sleep, what has happened to his brain?
Control orders are a deep offence to British justice. Despite being based on unreliable intelligence and “outsourced” torture, they will become entrenched, like all past “prevention of terror” laws. They will alienate the Muslim population and make martyrs of hoodlums. No court can treat their evidence as usable. As America and Germany show, this will severely compromise the bringing of real terrorists to justice.
Mr Clarke may think that he is hanging tough for his boss at election time. But he is making Britain less free and less safe. Mr Howard and Mr Kennedy should have nothing to do with him on Friday.