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Protest against the torture of prisoners outside the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in California, 25 June 2009 Credit: Jae C Hong/AP/Press Association
THE PURSUIT OF SECRECY
Richard Norton-Taylor addresses Labour’s legacy of secrets, spin and cover-up
14 the pursuit of secrecy
‘Drop it,’ ministers strongly advised, as I sensed the government was not coming clean about their role in ‘extraordinary rendition’, the US practice of secretly transferring terror suspects to places where they were likely to be tortured. It was the familiar attempt to smother an embarrassing tale, a practice at which New Labour and its spin doctors were particularly adept. It may still be too early to tell for sure, but first indications from the Con-Lib coalition are that it intends to unearth its predecessor’s activities. William Hague, the foreign secretary, has promised to set up what he suggested before the general election — a judge-led inquiry into allegations of complicity in torture.
What was astonishing was the lengths to which ministers and officials went to cover up their activities. As they persisted in a shameless pursuit of secrecy, they blamed journalists and conspiracy theorists, fed, they claimed, by human rights groups and misguided lawyers, for not letting go.
The determination of the Blair and Brown administrations, which in their very early days promised a new era of openness, to suppress information was more than an instinctive bureaucratic reaction by those simply enjoying power and wanting as quiet a life as possible. Ministers, and Blair in particular, adopted an extraordinarily cavalier attitude to the rule of law, and to constitutional and democratic principles.
The government was quick to use the Official Secrets Act for political reasons. In 2007, David Keogh, a Cabinet Office official, and Leo O’Connor, former researcher to a Labour MP, were convicted after an Old Bailey trial, partly heard behind closed doors, in a move that stopped the public finding out whether George Bush proposed to Blair at a meeting about Iraq in Washington in April 2004 what would have been a war crime and how Blair reacted.
The evidence the government suppressed was an official record of the Washington meeting when the situation in Iraq was deteriorating fast. The leaked memo is reported to have referred to Bush’s alleged proposal to bomb the Arabic TV channel al Jazeera and, ironically, to have revealed how far Blair went in criticising US military tactics when its forces were assaulting the Iraqi town of Falluja.
Before the trial, Margaret Beckett, then foreign secretary, made it clear embarrassment was the real issue at stake. She signed a Public Interest Immunity (PII) certificate claiming the disclosure of the document would have a ‘serious negative impact’ on UK-US diplomatic relations. ‘The ultimate consequence’, she claimed, ‘would be a substantial risk of harm to national