Sunday 08 February 2009 00:12
The greatest moral failure of Tony Blair's premiership
Tony Blair was "appalled" when it was first revealed, some five years ago, that Iraqi prisoners were being tortured in Abu Ghraib. "Nobody underestimates how wrong this is or how wrong this will seem to be," said the then prime minister.
His brother in arms George W Bush claimed to feel "deep disgust" and declared that his White House would not stand for it. "I do not like it one little bit," said the then American president. "That's not the way we do things."
Oh, but it was the way they did things. And those things were done because they had been permitted and encouraged from the highest levels. Torture was sanctioned by George W Bush early in 2002 when he signed the now notorious memorandum declaring that the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war did not apply to members of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
As for Tony Blair, he did underestimate how wrong it was. He was never quite appalled enough about torture to remonstrate publicly with his ally in the White House as the Bush administration betrayed the west's best values and the very causes of human rights and the rule of law that they were supposed to be fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan. If there is any evidence that Tony Blair used his private face time with George W Bush to protest about what was being perpetrated in the names of America and Britain, I have never come across it.
From those strokes of the presidential pen flowed the outrages in the cells of Abu Ghraib and the cages of Guantánamo, at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan and CIA "black sites" in Europe and around the world. From that sprang "extraordinary rendition", the Orwellian euphemism for state-licensed kidnap, and "enhanced interrogation", the spin-torturer's way of describing his trade in pain.
We now have confirmation from the government itself. Barack Obama's attorney-general says America used torture. The armed services committee of the Senate, which recently delivered the most definitive official account of what happened, says America used torture.
Why America turned to the dark side was briskly explained by Joseph Cofer Black who for a time ran the CIA's counterterrorist centre. "There was a world before 9/11 and there was a world after 9/11," he told one hearing. "After 9/11, the gloves came off."
And on came ghost prisons, water-boarding and the out-sourcing of torture to foreign contractors.
In the aftermath of 9/11, a climate was created in which the immoral was presented as moral. We started hearing a lot about the "one day to save the world" scenario which justifies torture on the grounds that it may be the only way to force a terrorist to reveal the deadly conspiracy that is about to kill thousands of people.
This idea gained popular currency in the mass media, notably through 24, the American television series starring Kiefer Sutherland. Each day in the life of Agent Jack Bauer sees him heroically thwart a nuclear bomb/bio-weapon/presidential assassination plot by using violence to extract information. Each cliffhanger is resolved by Agent Jack defusing the threat and killing the conspirators with seconds to spare. The conclusion we are invited to draw is that torture is a necessary evil that always works.
In its seventh season, now showing on Sky, the opening episode of the latest day suggested that the script writers were accommodating to the new sensibilities of the Obama era. Agent Jack is wanted for questioning about his illegal activities by the FBI. But he is portrayed as the hero again when he defiantly defends his methods before a congressional hearing and the twist is that they need him to save the world again from a fresh threat to America.
David Cameron is a fan of the show. Some of Mr Blair's staff used to call him "Agent Tony". But the premise and the message of 24 are both wrong. The "one day to save the world" scenario rarely occurs in the real struggle against terrorists and rogue states. Experienced interrogators say that torture is extremely unreliable as a means of yielding solid intelligence and often produces false confessions from victims who will say anything to end the pain. Resources are then squandered in pursuit of fantasy plots.
Charles Guthrie is no one's idea of a bleeding heart liberal. He served with the SAS and was commandant of the intelligence corps before he became chief of the defence staff. As he puts it, torture is not only illegal, unethical, ineffective, cruel and counter-productive, it is also plain dumb. "Western use of torture to counter terror has been a propaganda coup for al-Qaida and a recruiting sergeant for its global jihad. Our hypocrisy has radicalised our enemies and corroded the power we base on our proclaimed values."
Agent Jack is presented as a moral man compelled to do bad things for the greater good. That is how George W Bush and Tony Blair saw themselves too. The "War on Terror" was such an absolutist cause for them that the good end of protecting liberal democracies from murderous extremists became the justification for repulsive means. That sacrifice of civilised principles and law in the name of security has been repudiated by Barack Obama. It has also been rejected by our own foreign secretary in his recent speech in Mumbai in which David Miliband declared the "War on Terror" to be a mistake.
Yet this shameful period will not be so smoothly and simply buried. Though neither of them was in their jobs when this swamp was created, it continues to suck at both president and foreign secretary. Even under new management, the United States wants to keep its secrets. Threatened by America with a withdrawal of intelligence co-operation, David Miliband has just suppressed the publication of grave allegations about the activities of US and British officials in the case of Binyam Mohamed. In the view of two high court judges, what happened to him "gives rise to an arguable case of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment". There was a "very considerable public interest" in publication, they argued, "particularly given the constitutional importance of the prohibition against torture".
The David Miliband that I know is a humane and liberal man who utterly abhors torture. Yet he finds himself suppressing a dossier about the crime, doing so in the name of national security, the very invocation used to justify torture in the first place. Barack Obama has started to dismantle the grisly apparatus created by his predecessor. One of his earliest acts was to order the closure of Guantánamo and reimpose a total prohibition on the use of torture by American agents. The new occupant of the White House seems to hope that this will be sufficient to purge his country's conscience and clear its name in the world. He shows no enthusiasm for bringing anyone to trial for war crimes, saying: "We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards."
The British government would also be very grateful if everyone averted their eyes from this dark chapter. In that hope, they are likely to be disappointed. "There's a lot more to be raked up," one senior British official told me recently. The Binyam case is far from the only one involving allegations that British agents colluded in torture. We already have an official admission that the base at Diego Garcia was used for extraordinary rendition by the CIA and there is a wide suspicion that it went further than that.
When I talk to people at very senior levels in government, I don't find them willing to put a hand on heart and swear that British agents were never complicit in torture. British and American intelligence are closely enmeshed; it stretches credulity to snapping point that no one in the Blair government knew what was being perpetrated.
On the same day that the foreign secretary was facing accusations of a cover-up, Tony Blair was in Washington wearing his faith on his sleeve. At a "prayer breakfast" with Barack Obama, the former prime minister made more than 30 mentions of God and declared: "We pray that in acting we do God's work and follow God's will."
Only God knows how Tony Blair reconciles his conscience with his role in this disgraceful period. It was not as if the Bush administration made much pretence about it. "Bad things happen to bad people," baldly declared Vice-President d**** Cheney.
Did Tony Blair never ask what was going on? If he did not ask, was it because he knew he would not like the answer? His own law officers were highly uncomfortable with the legal black hole created at Guantánamo. Charlie Falconer, not only his lord chancellor but also one of his closest allies, tried to persuade his friend to raise his voice in opposition. He failed. "An anomaly" was all Mr Blair would ever say about Camp Delta when he was prime minister.
The true extent to which British officials colluded in torture is yet to be established. In terms of ethical complicity, I think we can already begin to return a verdict. As the God-fearing Tony Blair knows, there are sins of commission and there are sins of omission. "We have condoned with our silence torture committed by others," says Charles Guthrie, his favourite general.
That was arguably the biggest moral failure of Tony Blair's premiership.
I thought that this was a good article, particularly in regard to the referances to the use of entertainment media to condition the populace. It should come as no surprise that 24 is a product of the Murdoch Fox Network.
Whilst I would agree that the issue of torture represents a huge moral failure on behalf of the British, I don't think it is their most significant. Call me parochial but I think that Blair's airbrushing of state collusion in Ireland is a greater moral failure.