Since 9/11, the notion of liberalism in the UK has been diluted with a long line of government acts that have removed individual rights from the British people, affording the state with a level of authority that would not look out of place in China. The recent plans to provide the security services with greater internet surveillance powers is the latest example of the clash between basic rights and principles one would expect in a 21st century democracy and the concept of public interest that governments have repeatedly used to justify any infringement on fundamental civil liberties.
While an elected government has a duty to represent the best interests of the people the proper implementation of that responsibility is challenged when firstly, public interest seemingly justifies an erosion of liberal values (as the above internet surveillance example suggests) and secondly, when public interest vindicates decisions that do not concern the electorate and their dependents but are made in the context of power politics, (e.g. Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003).
…this story has created a storm in the press over the past week…
Peter Taylor’s recent BBC documentary series Modern Spies has raised the profile of the security services in recent weeks, encouraging a discussion on the nature of their operations in relation to the public interest. The 7/7 bombings reflect the reality of the threat the United Kingdom faces from terrorism in the 21st century and therefore justifies the maintenance of secretive intelligence agencies; to be effective one assumes secrecy is imperative. Indeed the number of foiled plots that reach the newspapers are surely a fraction of the actual number.
In the second part of Taylor’s documentary, he conducts an interview with Abdelhakim Belhadj, the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and now a member of the Libyan government. Belhadj is currently suing the British government for complicity in his illegal rendition and alleged torture under Colonel Gaddafi’s former regime. Unsurprisingly, this story has created a storm in the press over the past week and poses a vast number of questions pertinent to whether the government, represented by the security forces, are indeed conducting their actions for the good of public interest.
No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time…
There is no doubt that there is a significant amount of evidence to back up Belhadj’s claims, not least a letter found in the bombed-out offices of Moussa Koussa, Gaddafi’s intelligence chief, from Sir Mark Allen, a former MI6 officer congratulating Colonel Gaddafi’s government for the safe arrival of the air cargo. The letter’s authenticity has not been challenged by Sir Mark, and an American court ruling has refused to disclose papers to a British parliamentary group that are said to reveal complicity between MI6 and the CIA in illegal rendition. Jack Straw, the Foreign Minister at the time, has freely admitted that “No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing at any one time”, and Tony Blair’s claims a “lack of recollection” about the event.
Considering the strength of the evidence that supports Belhadj’s argument, either Straw or Blair are lying, and are therefore misleading Parliament, or MI6 are conducting a policy of their own, without the approval of government ministers. The reality of the situation is that the government authorised the rendition unaware that Allen’s letter would ever be found. Indeed, Tony Blair’s so called deal in the desert occurred on 24 March 2004, six days after the date of Allen’s letter. The denials are made today, not only because of the illegality of the decision but of the changed lens through which the government now views Libya. The Libya that Britain had developed a remarkable relationship with is now gone. MI6 facilitated the rendition and torture of a man now part of a government Britain helped create.
…a seemingly secret world of power politics and one-upmanship…
The best interests of the British public have clearly been abused in the Belhadj case. MI6 colluded with the CIA because British foreign policy demanded a close relationship with the United States. This relationship did not concern individual British citizens but saw, and still does see, politicians, diplomats and spies redefining the notion of public interest to refer to a seemingly secret world of power politics and one-upmanship that allows egos to run wild and ambition to dominate. It is a scenario that infringes on human liberties and abuses public trust. How long will it continue?