In a democracy, the question of whether M16 officers sought ministerial approval to render Libyan dissidents is vital
A key, unanswered, question lies intriguingly behind the startling revelation that the police are investigating evidence that senior MI6 officers were directly involved in the rendition of two prominent Libyan dissidents to Tripoli where, they say, they were tortured by Muammar Gaddafi’s secret police.
Did the MI6 officers seek and obtain authority from ministers for helping to engineer the abduction of Sami al-Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhadj in the spring of 2004, just days before Tony Blair was feted by Gaddafi in the Libyan dictator’s tent?
That MI6 helped in the rendition of the men there is little doubt. One of the documents found in the Tripoli offices of Gaddafi’s former intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa, was a letter from MI6’s top counter-terrorist officer, Mark Allen.
In a letter to Koussa dated 18 March 2004, Allen said: “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abdullah al-Sadiq [now Tripoli's military commander]. This was the least we could do for you and for Libya to demonstrate the remarkable relationship we have built over the years. I am so glad. I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week.”
Senior Whitehall officials insist that MI6 sought and got ministerial authority under the terms of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act. This protects MI6 (and GCHQ) officers from liability for activities abroad that otherwise would be unlawful.
Intelligence officials point to a passage in a speech by Sir John Sawers, the Chief – C, as he is called – of MI6 in October 2010. “When our operations require legal authorisation or entail political risk, I seek the foreign secretary’s approval … Those operations he does not approve do not happen.”
William Hague, the foreign secretary, drove the point home in a speech last November. “I see operational proposals from the [intelligence] agencies every day, amounting to hundreds every year,” he said.
Hague added: “The proposals … include substantial legal sections which set out the basis for the operation … I take ultimate responsibility for these operations, and I do not approve them all.”
In stark contrast, Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the Libyan renditions, has distanced himself from them. “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what … intelligence services are doing at any one time,” he said.
Straw has since indicated he will reveal all to the Gibson inquiry, set up by the coalition government in 2010 to look into all the allegations of British involvement in the torture and abuse of detainees abroad.
MI6 and MI5, I am told, will also reveal all to Gibson.
However, the government insists – and Sir Peter Gibson, a former appeal court judge agrees – that all evidence relating to intelligence information will be heard in secret.
The Gibson inquiry has been waiting for earlier police investigations into MI5 and MI6 involvement with the abuse of detainees to be completed. They have been. However, says the Crown Prosecution Service and the Met police, the Libyan cases “are so serious that it is in the public interest for them to be investigated now rather than at the conclusion of the [Gibson] detainee inquiry”.
That may well seal the end of Gibson. Meanwhile, the government is drawing up plans for a new law whereby in future no intelligence from MI5 or MI6 will ever be revealed. Instead, any dispute will be heard in court, in secret.
So we may never know whether MI6 sought authorisation from Straw, or Blair – who has said he knew nothing of the Libyan renditions.
Or whether ministers said no, or told MI6 to go ahead. That, in a democracy, would be a totally unacceptable outcome.