Britain's foreign spy chief denied in an interview broadcast Monday that agents tortured terror suspects or that Britain colluded with countries that use torture.
John Scarlett's claim comes amid growing calls for an official
inquiry into how much the government knew about the treatment of
terror suspects overseas. Several British residents who allege they
were tortured or abused in countries such as Pakistan and Morocco
say British intelligence agents were complicit in their
mistreatment because they fed questions to foreign interrogators.
"Our officers are as committed to the values, and the human
rights values, of liberal democracy as anybody else. They also have
the responsibility of protecting the country against terrorism, and
these issues need to be debated and understood in that context,"
Scarlett, the MI6 chief, told the BBC.
When asked about torture, Scarlett said: "No torture, and there
is no complicity with torture."
Parliament's human rights committee last week called for an
independent inquiry into whether British spies were complicit in
the torture of terrorist suspects.
"We do not support calls for an inquiry," a spokesman for the
prime minister's office said Monday, speaking on condition of
anonymity in line with government policy.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is weighing whether to name a
criminal investigator to determine whether laws were violated
during interrogations of terrorism suspects after Sept. 11, 2001.
President Barack Obama has moved to ban torture and
controversial interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, but
scant information has been released on U.S. or British involvement
in sending terror suspects to foreign countries for interrogations,
a process known as extraordinary rendition.
Seven former Guantanamo detainees are suing the British
government, accusing the security services of "aiding and
abetting" their extraordinary rendition, unlawful imprisonment and
One of the men, Binyam Mohamed, alleges that the MI5
intelligence agency fed questions to his interrogators in Morocco,
where he says he was severely beaten, subjected to sleep
deprivation and had his genitals sliced with a scalpel.
Mohamed, an Ethiopia-born British resident, was detained in
Pakistan in 2002 and held in Morocco and later at the U.S. prison
camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was released without charge in
The British government has fought to keep some details of
Mohamed's treatment secret, arguing it could harm U.S.-U.K.
intelligence-sharing if the information was released.
Obama has tried to distance himself from Bush administration
policies. The British government faces a different challenge - the
Labour Party has been in power for more than a decade.
"Our American allies know that we are our own service, that we
are here to work for British interests, we are an independent
service working to our own laws, and nobody else's, and to our own
values," Scarlett said when asked how to deal with any differences
over moral standards with the United States.
Government officials say Britain does not condone or participate
in torture, but officials have avoided answering specific
allegations that Britain participated indirectly by obtaining
intelligence from suspects who had been tortured overseas, or
sending agents to visit suspects who suffered mistreatment in
Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Home Secretary Alan Johnson
- who oversee MI6 and its domestic counterpart, MI5 - say Britain
did not collude in torture, but that guarantees of detainee
treatment in foreign governments were impossible.
There is lingering debate over what constitutes torture and
mistreatment, and even more on whether passing questions to foreign
interrogators constitutes collusion.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of campaign group Liberty, said
although the government has issued a denial, "it is most revealing
for what it doesn't say."
Kim Howells, Labour chairman of the Intelligence and Security
Committee that scrutinizes the secret services, said "I can tell
you that we've found no evidence that there has been collusion
between the intelligence services, any government department and
governments that torture their individuals."
The committee often holds such investigations in secret to
protect the work of the intelligence services.
Scarlett, whose career has been dogged by concerns over the
intelligence used to build the case for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion
of Iraq, is retiring in November. He has headed MI6 since 2004, and
before that, he was in charge of the Joint Intelligence Committee,
which was responsible for providing the intelligence dossier
leading up to the war.
Scarlett will be succeeded by John Sawyers, a top U.N. diplomat
who had a senior role in talks about Iran's disputed nuclear
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