Iraq, Secret Courts and bogus intelligence

Posted by Bella Sankey on 19 March 2013

Dozens of people have been killed and many more injured in a series of car bomb attacks in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. It is a devastating way to mark today – the tenth anniversary of the US-UK led invasion. With the passing of a decade comes yet more bloodshed.

Such incidents reflect the ongoing reality inside Iraq and the legacy of a war justified by the dodgiest of dossiers and without the approval of the international community. Ten years on, Iraq is still a nation blighted by conflict and the invasion remains a galling example of the risks of unreliable intelligence.

Subsequent inquiries have exposed the material used to support the war as weak and inaccurate. Intelligence by its very nature often is. It is invariably a mixture of fragmentary information; circumstantial, inferential and ambiguous. We now know the Iraqi regime had no weapons of mass destruction. A BBC investigation has revealed that two highly-placed sources within Saddam’s regime said as much at the time – but both were ignored.

And yet it seems little has been learnt of the dangers of unreliable intelligence. Ministers are now busy trying to force through legislation which will allow the Government to rely on such information in civil cases held behind closed doors – away from the scrutiny of victims, press and public.

The odious Justice and Security Bill would enable the State to shut down open justice to prevent future embarrassments from coming to light. The Executive would be given the power to present secret material to defend serious allegations of wrongdoing, and control litigation brought against it.

Centuries of proud fair trial protections – allowing all parties to see and challenge all evidence relied upon – will be lost. Instead material, including inaccurate and misleading intelligence, will be presented to a judge untested. This creates a real and dangerous risk of perverse judgments being reached.

Furthermore, while Iraq was one of the bloodiest displays of the infamous “War on Terror”, closer to home other excesses of post-9/11 policy continue to cast a similarly dark shadow over Western democracies.

Late last year it was confirmed that German national Khaled el Masri was abducted, secretly detained and tortured under the CIA rendition program. The European Court of Human Rights found that el Masri had proved beyond all reasonable doubt that “at Skopje Airport at the hands of the CIA rendition team” he was “severely beaten, sodomised, shackled and hooded, and subjected to total sensory deprivation” – “in the presence of state officials of Macedonia and within its jurisdiction”. Meanwhile the US continues to execute drone killings outside of the law in Pakistan – with the suspected involvement of British intelligence.

Thankfully many previous abhorrent practices were at least exposed by a combination of brave investigative journalism and groundbreaking legal action. But now, under a Prime Minister who once said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, the Coalition is pursuing proposals which will ensure that past, present and future scandals remain hidden for good.

Surely the remedy to those abuses of power which emerged is more public scrutiny, not less? Denying bereaved families of neglected soldiers or torture victims access to open justice, and allowing the State to rely on bogus evidence, is certainly not the answer.

Sadly many MPs who backed the plans earlier this month clearly felt differently. But the ball is now back in the court of the Upper House, where we urge Peers to hold firm where their counterparts failed and stand up and fight for fairness and the rule of law.