In what should be one of the biggest political scandals of the decade, the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May personally blocked a powerful parliamentary committee’s access to witnesses and evidence about the UK’s involvement in ‘extraordinary rendition’ and the use of torture to obtain intelligence – so fatally that it had to abandon the rest of its inquiry.
This has been ignored by the BBC News channel and most mainstream news outlets.
The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) report on the UK’s complicity in the extra-judicial transfer of prisoners for torture, including the personal attendance of UK intelligence officers during the torture, has rightly shocked the nation and has brought widespread condemnation. It was a brave and exemplary piece of work by the ISC, headed by Tory MP Dominic Grieve that took over four years.
But the personal role played by Theresa May in the hobbling and early end of the ISC’s investigation has been downplayed by the few ‘MSM’ to have mentioned it – and ignored completely by the nation’s news broadcaster.
Paragraphs 9-14 of the report detail the Prime Minister’s involvement:
The report states that the committee considered it ‘essential‘ to speak to witnesses who were personally involved in the UK’s participation – but it was initially blocked by a government ruling that no officers could be interviewed if they were ‘junior at the time‘. This effectively blocked all access to those with first-hand knowledge, as ‘senior at the time’ officers would be highly unlikely to be personally involved in transfers or torture.
This blocking took place in spite of the Cabinet Secretary’s promise at the beginning of the inquiry that it could interview any officials it felt it needed to.
The ISC appealed to Theresa May herself – and she blocked the committee’s access to first-hand witnesses on the grounds of ‘legal uncertainty’ about the protection afforded to such witnesses.
But as the Tory-chaired committee reported, evidence given by witnesses to the ISC cannot be used in legal, civil or disciplinary proceedings. – and the government and all intelligence agencies have previously agreed this is ‘sufficient protection’.
In other words, there is no ‘legal uncertainty’ – but May blocked it anyway.
But May was not finished. The report continues:
Taking a ‘belt and braces’ approach to her obstruction, May also claimed that it would not be ‘appropriate’ for the ISC to take evidence from then-junior staff – but as the report points out, this restriction does not apply to the ISC:
This may be the case for Select Committees, but the ISC is not a Select Committee; it quite deliberately has greater powers and protection, in recognition of the fact that it has sole responsibility for oversight of intelligence matters.
Furthermore, in respect of this Inquiry, the ISC sought, and thought it had been granted, access to officials, beyond the Agency Heads.
May was taking the extraordinary step of blocking the access to witnesses of a specially-empowered committee – on two grounds that were already known not to be true. And the Tory-led committee delivered an emphatic verdict:
The Committee considered this denial of access to witnesses to be incompatible with the terms under which the ISC had agreed to conduct the Inquiry. We were adamant that we must hear from officers who were involved at the time, as this was essential if the Inquiry was to be thorough and comprehensive and be in a position to reach properly considered, balanced and fair views about the facts. The Committee considered that the terms and conditions imposed by the Prime Minister were such that it would be unable to conduct an authoritative Inquiry and produce a credible Report.
The scale of this conclusion cannot be over-stated. So great and so fatal was Theresa May’s decision to block access to ‘essential’ witnesses – that the ISC itself has pronounced its own report to be non-authoritative and non-credible and had to end its inquiry prematurely:
The Committee has therefore concluded – reluctantly – that it must draw a line under the Inquiry.
If the revelations of a blocked and curtailed report were huge, what would have been the impact of a ‘thorough and comprehensive’ and ‘authoritative’, ‘credible’ version?
Theresa May – personally – prevented the inquiry doing its job and did so in such a way that even a Tory-chaired ISC could not restrain itself from laying out the consequences.
A cover-up of the cover-up?
Search for mention of this enormous scandal yield scant results. A few publications, such as the Guardian, did nod to May coming ‘under fire’ for the intervention – but then move swiftly onto other aspects of the report without further comment on what should be political dynamite:
Only PoliticsHome, a couple of independent media and some international platforms have drawn specific attention to May’s actions – but many even of these have not emphasised the scale of the scandal.
However, former UK ambassador Craig Murray, who gave evidence to the inquiry, did. He wrote (emphases added):
it is impossible to read paras 9 to 14 without being astonished at the sheer audacity of Theresa May’s attempts to obstruct the inquiry. They were allowed to interview only 4 out of 23 requested witnesses, and those were not allowed “to talk about the specifics of the operations in which they were involved nor fill in any gaps in the timeline”. If the UK had a genuinely free media, this executive obstruction of the Inquiry would be the lead story.
The BBC News channel, the nation’s funded and supposedly impartial news broadcaster, was silent.
When challenged about this, a BBC spokesperson pointed to a single article on the BBC News website that does mention the report’s criticism of Theresa May and the fact that the report featured on the channel’s 10pm news programme on 28 June, before going on to state (emphasis added):
We have given our audiences comprehensive coverage of this report on TV, radio and online.
But when pressed to state explicitly whether May’s intervention was covered in the broadcast, the spokesperson confirmed:
We covered the story but did not cover that particular angle.
The BBC’s news channel is still the main news source for a significant part of the UK’s population. Yet its ‘comprehensive’ broadcast coverage of the report did not even mention that the Prime Minister blocked the investigation so fatally that she rendered the report – in the opinion of its authors – non-credible and non-authoritative.
Or ‘that particular angle’, as the BBC puts it.
Asked directly by the SKWAWKBOX about Mrs May’s intervention, a spokesperson for 10 Downing Street provided only ‘background’ that echoed May’s original and already-debunked reasons for blocking the committee’s access to anyone but ‘agency heads’, along with irrelevant information about ‘current compliance’:
The ISC had access to the HMG material provided to the Gibson inquiry and the agency heads’ responses to the 27 themes and issues identified by Sir Peter Gibson in his preliminary report.
In addition, the ISC was provided with the Intelligence Services Commissioner’s views on current compliance of those aspects of the CG that he monitors.
In certain instances some officials that the ISC were looking to speak to were junior at the time of the events in question.
It is not normal practice for a Parliamentary Committee to take evidence from junior officials.
Theresa May’s actions should, in a nation with an actual ‘free press’, constitute the kind of scandal that ends Prime Ministerships and even governments.
The silence of the BBC and a large part of the UK’s media estate on the issue only serve to make it a double and even larger scandal that the population of this country needs and deserves to know about.
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