British involvement in controversial and clandestine rendition operations provoked an unprecedented row between the UK’s domestic and foreign intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, at the height of the “war on terror”, the Guardian can reveal.
The head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, was so incensed when she discovered the role played by MI6 in abductions that led to suspected extremists being tortured, she threw out a number of her sister agency’s staff and banned them from working at MI5’s headquarters, Thames House.
According to Whitehall sources, she also wrote to the then prime minister, Tony Blair, to complain about the conduct of MI6 officers, saying their actions had threatened Britain’s intelligence gathering and may have compromised the security and safety of MI5 officers and their informants.
The letter caused a serious and prolonged breakdown of trust between Britain’s domestic and foreign spy agencies provoked by the Blair government’s support for rendition.
The letter was discovered by investigators examining whether British intelligence officers should face criminal charges over the rendition of an exiled Libyan opposition leader, Abdul Hakim Belhaj.
A critic of Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator, Belhaj was seized in Bangkok in March, 2004 in a joint UK-US operation, and handed over to the CIA. He alleges the CIA tortured him and injected him with “truth serum” before flying him and his family to Tripoli to be interrogated.
Abdul Hakim Belhaj, centre, speaks during a press conference in Tripoli in 2012.
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Abdul Hakim Belhaj, centre, speaks during a press conference in Tripoli in 2012. Photograph: Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images
According to documents found in Tripoli, five days before he was secretly flown to the Libyan capital, MI6 gave Gaddafi’s intelligence agency the French and Moroccan aliases used by Belhaj.
MI6 also provided the Libyans with the intelligence that allowed the CIA to kidnap him and take him to Tripoli.
Belhaj told the Guardian that British intelligence officers were among the first to interrogate him in Tripoli. He said he was “very surprised that the British got involved in what was a very painful period in my life”.
“I wasn’t allowed a bath for three years and I didn’t see the sun for one year,” he told the Guardian. “They hung me from the wall and kept me in an isolation cell. I was regularly tortured.”
The secret role played by MI6 was revealed after the fall of Gaddafi, when documents were found in ransacked offices of his intelligence chief, Moussa Koussa.
One, dated 18 March 2004 was a note from Sir Mark Allen, then head of counter-terrorism at MI6, to Moussa Koussa. It said: “I congratulate you on the safe arrival of Abu Abd Allah Sadiq [Abdul-Hakim Belhaj]. 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.”
Allen added: “[Belhaj’s] information on the situation in this country is of urgent importance to us. Amusingly, we got a request from the Americans to channel requests for information from [Belhaj] through the Americans. I have no intention of doing any such thing. The intelligence on [Belhaj] was British. I know I did not pay for the air cargo [Belhaj]. But I feel I have the right to deal with you direct on this and am very grateful for the help you are giving us.”
Scotland Yard has concluded its investigation into the alleged involvement of intelligence officers and officials in Libyan rendition operations and an announcement about whether or not to prosecute is imminent.
Whitehall sources have told the Guardian that police and prosecutors have been reviewing the issue for months. They say investigators have been frustrated by the way potentially key witnesses have said they were unable to recall who had authorised British involvement in the rendition programme, who else knew about it, and who knew the precise details of the Belhaj abduction.
“This is an extremely difficult area for police and prosecutors,” said one source. “The problem is, the CPS cannot bring a charge against a government policy.”
The letter to Blair sent by Manningham-Buller, who was director general of MI5 from 2002 to 2007, reflected deep divisions within Britain’s intelligence agencies over the methods being used to gather information after the 9/11 attacks on the US.
Though MI5 has been criticised about some of the tactics used, the letter suggests Britain’s security service had serious misgivings about rendition operations and the torture of suspects.
The Guardian has been told the MI5 chief was “shocked and appalled” by the treatment of Belhaj and vented her anger at MI6, which was then run by Sir Richard Dearlove.
“When EMB [Manningham-Buller] found out what had gone on in Libya, she was evidently furious. I have never seen a letter quite like it. There was a serious rift between MI5 and MI6 at the time.”
She has since said the aim of engaging with Gaddafi to persuade him to abandon his chemical and nuclear weapons programme was not “wrong in principle”.
However, she added: “There are clearly questions to be answered about the various relationships that developed afterwards and whether the UK supped with a sufficiently long spoon.”
The police files with the CPS are understood to describe how Belhaj, his pregnant wife, Fatima Bouchar, and children, and Sami al-Saadi and his family were abducted from the far east to Gaddafi’s interrogation and torture cells in Tripoli in 2004.
The British government paid £2.2m to settle a damages claim brought by al-Saadi and his family. Belhaj has refused to settle unless he receives an apology.
Jack Straw, who as foreign secretary was responsible for MI6, and Allen have always denied wrongdoing.
UK government ‘seeking to avoid responsibility’ for renditions
In December 2005, when the first evidence emerged that Britain was colluding in CIA rendition operations, Straw told MPs: “There is simply no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.”
When the Libyan renditions came to light, Straw said: “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time.”
He has been interviewed by the police but only as a potential witness. Government officials, insisting on anonymity, said MI6 was following “ministerially authorised government policy”.
Blair said he did not have “any recollection at all” of the Belhaj rendition.
The Blair and Straw denials appeared to be contradicted by Dearlove.
He has said: “It was a political decision, having very significantly disarmed Libya, for the government to cooperate with Libya on Islamist terrorism. The whole relationship was one of serious calculation about where the overall balance of our national interests stood.”
Neither MI5 nor MI6, nor Manningham-Buller, wanted to make any public comment. Whitehall sources insist the relationship between MI5 and MI6 has now been repaired after a difficult period.
Belhaj is demanding an apology and an acceptance of British guilt. He has taken his case to the supreme court, which has yet to hand down a judgment.
Last year, the court was confronted with the prospect of Straw and British intelligence officers deploying the “foreign act of state doctrine” – that is to say, the courts here cannot rule on the case since agents from foreign countries, notably the US and Libya, were involved, and they are granted immunity.
Section 7 of the 1994 Intelligence Services Act, sometimes described as the “James Bond clause”, protects MI6 officers from prosecution for actions anywhere in the world that would otherwise be illegal. They would be protected as long as their actions were authorised in writing by the secretary of state.
However, lawyers for Belhaj say many cases involving deportation or asylum seekers, for example, relate to actions of foreign states and that, in any case, torture overrides all legal loopholes.
An inquiry under Sir Peter Gibson, a retired senior judge, into earlier rendition programmes in which British intelligence was involved, was abandoned because of the new and dramatic evidence about Belhaj’s abduction.
After insisting that the issues were so serious that it needed a judge-led inquiry rather than one carried out by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, David Cameron reversed his position. After the Gibson inquiry was dropped, he said the issues should be taken up by the committee after all.
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general and now chair of the committee, said shortly after he was appointed last October: “Our longer-term priority is the substantial inquiry into the role of the UK government and security and intelligence agencies in relation to detainee treatment and rendition, where there are still unanswered questions.”
The Gibson inquiry published a damning interim report before it folded. It concluded that the British government and its intelligence agencies had been involved in rendition operations, in which detainees were kidnapped and flown around the globe, and had interrogated detainees who they knew were being mistreated.
It said MI6 officers were informed they were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva conventions; intelligence officers appear to have taken advantage of the abuse of detainees; and Straw, as foreign secretary, had suggested that the law might be amended to allow suspects to be rendered to the UK.
It raised 27 questions they said would need to be answered if the full truth about the way in which Britain waged its “war on terror” was to be established.
The questions include:
• Did UK intelligence officers turn a blind eye to “specific, inappropriate techniques or threats” used by others and use this to their advantage in interrogations?
• If so, was there “a deliberate or agreed policy” between UK officers and overseas intelligence officers?
• Did the government and its agencies become “inappropriately involved in some renditions”?
• Was there a willingness, “at least at some levels within the agencies, to condone, encourage or take advantage of a rendition operation”?
Nick Hopkins and Richard Norton-Taylor
Tuesday 31 May 2016 17.56 BST Last modified on Wednesday 1 June 2016 17.20 BST
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