LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s international standing has been undermined by allegations that its spies colluded in torture, but reforms to remedy the damage should preserve the secrecy that espionage needs, the government said on Wednesday.
According to extracts from a speech released in advance by his office, Foreign Secretary (Minister) William Hague said he hoped a strengthening of outside scrutiny of the security services and an inquiry into reported abuse would contribute to “drawing a line under the past.”
Hague, who oversees Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, (SIS), and the Government Communications Headquarters intercept agency, said secrecy was vital to their “dangerous work.”
“Many agents and sources risk their lives -- some lose their lives -- to give us the vital information to keep us safe. We have a duty to protect them,” he said.
Hague said he saw hundreds of operational proposals a year and did not approve all of them.
“Intelligence throws up some of the most difficult ethical and legal questions that I encounter as Foreign Secretary,” he said.
”Some of them relate to the proper use of intelligence in reaching and justifying decisions in foreign policy -- the most controversial instance of this, the Iraq War, is currently the subject of an inquiry.
“But we also saw allegations of UK complicity in extraordinary rendition leading to torture. The very making of these allegations undermined Britain’s standing in the world as a country that upholds international law and abhors torture.”
British authorities say they would never use, or encourage others to use, torture to obtain information.
An independent inquiry announced by Prime Minister David Cameron in July last year will examine allegations made by several Britons of Pakistani descent that they were abused in custody in Pakistan with the complicity of British officials.
It will also look at allegations of mistreatment of those held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and probe allegations that British security services were involved in illegally sending Libyan terror suspects to Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya where, the individuals allege, they were tortured.
One of the complainants is prominent Libyan Islamist commander Abdel Hakim Belhadj, now seen by some analysts as a significant political player in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Several human rights groups have said they will not take part in the inquiry because they believe it risks becoming a “whitewash.”
The government also plans to convert a committee of MPs which monitors the agencies into a statutory committee that reports to parliament and has stronger powers to obtain information. At present the committee reports to the prime minister.
“We are confident that, taken together, these changes represent the most comprehensive effort yet to address the complex issues thrown up by the need to protect our security in the 21st century, and to do so in a way that upholds our values and begins to restore public confidence,” Hague said.
Improving intelligence performance has been a priority for the West since the September 11, 2001, attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion, events involving serious gaps in intelligence.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq citing the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein’s government. British Prime Minister Tony Blair used similar arguments to win parliamentary backing for the invasion. No such weapons were ever found.
Reporting by William Maclean; editing by Tim Pearce