The British State protects its own. Whitehall does its utmost to safeguard former Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants from investigation by invoking the usually bogus defence of national security. In this way, a curtain is drawn over past acts of carelessness or ineptitude in government. Skulduggery and lies are concealed. Official papers are not released for at least 20 years, and even then the more incriminating ones are held back.
The latest example of institutional cover-up concerns Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary, and Sir Mark Allen, a former senior MI6 officer. Both men have reportedly said they cannot respond to allegations of conspiracy in the torture of a prominent Libyan dissident, pleading the need to keep official secrets. Their silence follows Whitehall’s refusal to release secret pre-Iraq War discussions between Tony Blair and President George W. Bush to the Chilcot Inquiry. Without such evidence Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues will be unable to produce a complete report on the Iraq War.
One would have hoped that Mr Straw and Sir Mark Allen would wish to co-operate in order to establish their innocence. In March 2004, Islamist leader Abdel Hakim Belhadj and his wife were snatched in Malaysia by the CIA and flown to Libya, where they were both tortured by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s thugs. MI6 was undoubtedly instrumental in this act of so-called 'extraordinary rendition'. (Note that the last Labour government repeatedly denied any involvement in rendition.) In a chummy letter dated March 18, 2004, Sir Mark congratulated Musa Kusa — Gaddafi’s intelligence chief — on the ‘safe arrival’ of Belhadj in Libya.
A few days later, Tony Blair had his famous meeting with Gaddafi at his desert base. It was the first of many visits, and the beginning of a warm relationship between the two men. Britain’s delivery of Belhadj into the hands of his torturers was almost certainly Gaddafi’s precondition for talks. Isn’t that shameful? We should have qualms enough about Mr Blair’s love-in with a genocidal monster, but at least the defence of realpolitik might conceivably be entered. But knowingly handing over a man to torture? There can be no defence. Mr Belhadj is claiming compensation from the British government and its intelligence agencies, as well as from Mr Straw and Sir Mark. The two men deny doing anything unlawful. Along with MI6, MI5, the Home Office and the Foreign Office, they blankly refuse to explain their role in the affair.
Some might say what is being protected is not national security but the reputations of government departments, ministers and civil servants. Many will think that, by insisting on remaining silent in the face of such grave charges, these people and institutions are condemning themselves. Of course there should be a proper investigation of Tony Blair’s relationship with Gaddafi, starting with the torture of Mr Belhadj and his wife, though this would be undermined by Whitehall, if the Chilcot Inquiry is anything to go by.
Set up in 2009, the Inquiry is now not expected to report until the end of this year or even the beginning of next. It has been beset by delays arising from continuing rows with the Government, which has been blocking the release of classified documents. At the beginning of 2011, Britain’s then top mandarin, Gus O’Donnell, consulted Tony Blair before deciding not to release details of the former Prime Minister’s discussions with President Bush. Lord O’Donnell was appointed Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service when Mr Blair was in No 10.
The key question that the Chilcot Inquiry must address is whether Mr Blair made private promises to the White House in 2002 to join military action before he had secured the agreement of either the Cabinet or Parliament. A transcript of his exchanges with the American President would very likely throw light on this matter.
Lord O’Donnell justified his refusal to release these papers on the grounds that Britain’s relations with the U.S. might be damaged. Even if this were true, the need to explain why Britain entered a possibly illegal — and certainly bloody and costly — war is surely paramount. The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, has effectively endorsed Lord O’Donnell’s actions by vetoing the release of Cabinet papers from the days leading up to the Iraq War. Mr Grieve said holding back the papers was necessary to protect the privacy of Cabinet discussions.
You might have thought this Tory-dominated Government would be happy to expose the shenanigans of its predecessor, but Whitehall’s love of secrecy persists from one administration to the next. Its greatest loyalty is to itself. Will Chilcot be able to enlighten us about what really happened? I doubt it. As a result of Whitehall’s practised obfuscations, I don’t suppose Mr Blair will ever be asked to answer for his actions, any more than he will be required to explain his improperly close relations with Gaddafi, or Britain’s connivance in torture.
Nor do I imagine that his unrepentant sidekick, the thuggish Alastair Campbell, will be made to confront the enormity of his wrongdoing in confecting a bogus dossier in February 2003 which sought to make the case for war while using, without attribution, already published and, in some instances, highly tendentious material. Statesmen and civil servants are on the receiving end of the most serious allegations — including lying to Parliament, torture, and taking this country to war on false pretences — and yet are allowed to take refuge in Whitehall’s vow of silence. The Mafia have a word for it: omertà.
I trust I am not being paranoid, but it is impossible not to register the starkly contrasting treatment being meted out to journalists and policemen for what mostly seem relatively trivial offences, and in some cases not offences at all. Two senior policemen have been arrested at dawn in their homes for leaking stories to journalists, though in neither case is there any suggestion that money changed hands. Their alleged misdemeanour may be to do the very thing Whitehall abhors: passing on truthful information.
Scores of journalists have been arrested — their homes sometimes ransacked — because they have received information from the police. There is no defence if payment was made, though many people will judge such behaviour less egregious than the skulduggery that Whitehall strives to conceal. Isn’t there a grotesque imbalance here? If you are an ex-Cabinet minister or former Prime Minister or ex-MI6 big cheese you can evade accountability by summoning up that indispensable catch-all, national security. I am not talking about the pardonable mistakes that politicians are bound to make. Nor do I dispute that some matters of state must be kept secret. But the State will not be rocked to its foundations if the chicanery of ministers and senior civil servants is revealed. On the contrary. We would all benefit from more honest and open government.
As it is, we have a secretive State that thrives on double standards. There is one law for most of us. And, it would seem, there is sometimes no law at all for those telling us what to do.