Spies, Lies and the War on Terror Book Launch Speech


Firstly I would like welcome you to this gathering – the launch of the book authored by Paul Todd, myself and the late Patrick Fitzgerald.  I want to thank Estella Schmidt for organising it as well as the Bar Human Rights Committee for making its facilities available.

I also wish to pay tribute to our late co-author Patrick who tragically died in December. I had known Patrick for over 27 years and we had co-authored two books together – he was anything but conventional and always had an eye for bucking authority – he will be sorely missed.

I guess the genesis of the book and its title “Spies Lies and the War on Terror” was a raid on a flat in Wood Green in January 2003. It was alleged that Ricin had been found in the flat and that it was intended to be used to poison the London underground. As a local councillor who had often walked past the said flat I was surprised that there was a delay in notifying the local public health authorities. This seemed suspicious as if there was such a plot and it had the consequences subsequently attributed to it of huge number of deaths you would have thought the local public health authorities would have been closely involved. This lack of involvement was at the time commented on locally.  However a few days’ later doctors throughout the UK were warned to watch for signs that patients had been poisoned by ricin.  The Sun, reported the discovery of a “factory of death” and other newspapers warned on their front pages “250,000 of us could have been killed.”

But it did not stop there. Colin Powell the US Secretary of State in his speech to the UN on 5 February 2003 used the ricin plot as evidence of a worldwide terrorist plot emanating from Iraq to justify the invasion.  Off course, there was no ricin. In fact within 2 days of the raid Porton Down the laboratory which examined seized articles had confirmed that there was no trace whatsoever of ricin.  This fact took 3 years to emerge. This did not however stop Gordon Brown as late as February 2006 describing it as a significant terrorism plot.

This however fitted the pattern of a dramatic police raid, several arrests, incredible claims been made, the life of the nation been threatened and then it peters out.  It transpired that the source of the plot was according to the then Director-General of MI5 evidence from a gentleman Mohamed Meguerba who had been arrested in Britain, jumped bail and fled to Algeria.  He was arrested there and was subject to torture. 

This pattern was to be repeated time after time. Whenever the Government felt the need for more anti terrorism laws or were suffering in the polls there would be a large scale raid followed by scary headlines and then the quiet release of the suspects. 

Intelligence agencies have always played a role in Western domestic politics – the spying on communists and perceived fellow travellers in the USA in the 1950s and MI5’s surveillance of such legendary subversives such as Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman are but two examples. 

However in the past decade there have been three factors which has led to their role been expanded and civil liberties been further eroded.  Firstly there was the fall or collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states.  These countries had at the time perfected the surveillance and control over their citizens but a flawed economic system and the Afghanistan war brought this to an end.  This led in turn to an unchallenged dominant capitalist system in all its triumphalism.  This was capitalism with no social democratic edge – the widening of income inequality was no longer socially unacceptable.  No challenge to this ordering of society would be brooked.

At the same time you had the splintering of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the growth of religious fundamentalism be the Christian Right in the USA and the Islamists in North Africa etc. The ruling classes became increasingly nervous as to their sustainability of their rule and upped the need to have information to “manage” the situation.  Thirdly there was the growth of technology which suddenly made surveillance on a much wider scale possible. Ex Stasi members must look on in amazement at the 4 million cameras filming the inhabitants of this island ie one for every 15 inhabitants.

But it was 9/11 which provided the ultimate rationale for increasing the role of the intelligence agencies and their use together with a multitude of anti terrorism laws to clamp down not just on violent actions but also protest and peaceful dissent. Ironically 9/11 was about blow back. The CIA had armed Islamists to overthrow the Soviets in Afghanistan and were now reaping the whirlwind.  I guess nobody had thought through the consequences of the Soviet defeat and what would happen to these thousands of men who had been armed and encouraged in their fundamentalist ideology. 

These anti terrorism laws often passed in haste have always suffered from “mission creep” and intelligence agencies overegging the dangers. However, on a risk parameter you are more likely to die crossing the road or going into a hospital than from violent political action.

As a student at the University of Cape Town I remember an incident which happened in my 1st year of studies. After yet one more death of a detainee the university student newspaper “Varsity” carried a front page story about security police brutality with a headline “Torture Murder all in a day’s business”. Shortly thereafter, the editor who was a British citizen was deported.

One cannot help feel now that this headline “Torture, murder all in a day’s business” has become the motto of the British and American intelligence agencies.  It is now known according to Human Rights First that at least 48 detainees were killed during or after their interrogations by US interrogators.  Of course there have been no serious prosecutions. While disappointing it is not surprising that Obama has given immunity and impunity to CIA interrogators and torturers. It has now been revealed that the upper echelons of the Democratic Party were constantly briefed by the Bush administration on the torture techniques – at least 19 Democrats were briefed about the techniques in detail by end 2006.  Two Democrats did object in private but there was no public protests relating directly to the briefings. Moreover, the policy of rendition which is inextricably linked to torture was actually a measure brought in by the Clinton administration in 1995.

Torture is a crime under US law. It is a crime under the Third Geneva Convention and the UN Anti-Torture Convention, both of which the US signed. Kidnapping and moving suspects to be tortured in third countries is a crime.  In 1945 the US hanged Japanese officers for inflicting water boarding i.e. near drowning on US prisoners, as this was deemed a war crime.  There is no ambiguity about torture.

Thanks to some members of the US government who were unhappy with the techniques and rendition details were leaked to journalists, moreover the FBI refused to partake and made this fact known.  In addition because of sterling efforts by various NGOs including the ACLU we now know a lot more of the chain of command and it would be true to say that torture had become the official policy of the US Government.

By opposing the prosecution of both the architects of US torture policy as well as the implementers Obama is ensuring that these practices will continue.

The poodles in the British Government and the intelligence agencies were not far behind.  The intelligence agencies MI5 and MI6 had until late in the day existed in the shadows – it was only in 1989 that MI5’s existence was Recognised in legislation and 1994 for MI6. However, the flawed system of accountability devised by Ministers including a parliamentary committee and a tribunal have left the intelligence services essentially unaccountable.  In addition, their activities are explicitedly excluded from the Freedom of Information Act and de facto from the Data Protection Act.  Where there is unaccountability and non transparency it is inevitable that wrongdoing will occur.  It is therefore not surprising that both services have been implicated in rendition, torture and the spreading of disinformation.

In the book we focus on these themes and several others.  We map out how the final Cold War phase in the 1970s and 80s took issue with the exponential growth of trans-national Islamism. We detail the rise of Islamist charities and financial institutions in bankrolling the Afghan Jihad and their renewed alliance in the Balkans conflict.  We consider the expanding role of “strategic communications” in both implementing and determining the course of policy. 

A broader analysis of the Cold War roots of the War on Terror suggests how the strategic discourse of nuclear annihilation has led to the promotion of starkly construed “zero sum” views on security policy in the United States.    We examine how the apparently total US victory in the Cold War had inspired a drive for “full spectrum” dominance in any conceivable field of conflict and a position of permanent ascendancy. We look at the new instititutional framework of the US military’s domestic presence, the growing implications for civil liberties and the technological drivers of the spread of mass surveillance and the closely fought battle to reign them in.

In the wider War on Terror arena of the UK and European Union we look at the domestic use of the terrorist threat as a promotional and political tool and the increasing politicisation of police, security forces and civil servants in pushing government policy and the role of spin and manipulation in government itself.  We also examine some of the more unsavoury overseas alliances in pursuing the War on Terror and how Britain got absorbed into the global network of black sites, torture flights and rendition.

We then look at the role of the European institutions and how the European powers have systematically used both the threat and reality of terror in mobilizing wider goals for military, intelligence and legislative integration. We examine how NATO has expanded its structures so as to play an increased role in the War on Terror.

We conclude by showing how the whole enterprise has been a boon not only to unaccountable politics and agencies as well as encroaching bureaucratic powers but ironically how it has fuelled the agenda of the islamists themselves. 

To conclude I would suggest that we should not stand by and let governments and their intelligence agencies erode and sweep away our civil liberties.  We should give strong support to organizations like CAMPACC which has steadfastly opposed all anti terrorism laws and supported the struggle of oppressed people throughout the world in their fight for self determination and better conditions.


The event is sponsored by

  • Bar Human Rights Committee
  • Zed Books