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John Rentoul

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.

"The Independent's must-read man" - Daniel Finkelstein

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Tony Blair and torture

Posted by John Rentoul
  • Friday, 19 June 2009 at 09:48 am
Didn't have time to do the two Google searches required to deconstruct The Guardian's front-page lead story yesterday. The headline was:

Tony Blair knew of secret policy on terror interrogations

This has been instantly re-reported in all other newspapers and around the internet as something quite different: that Blair knew of a secret policy of the intelligence services to ignore evidence of torture carried out by US and other forces. Despite the news story's providing no evidence for this, and despite the fact that anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject would recognise that neither piece of documentary evidence cited is new.

The evidence that British intelligence policy might have been for a time to turn a blind eye to torture is a memo dating from January 2002 that advises officers what to do if they become aware that detainees held by other countries are being mistreated: 

Given that they are not within our ­custody or control, the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this.

This is not good. It was reported and criticised by one of the former Prime Minister's most fierce but fair critics in March this year. The document itself has been available on the internet for longer than that, but I'm not sure how long - that would require more than a couple of Google searches.

What, then, of the evidence that Blair knew that this was the policy? That consists of a letter that he wrote to the Intelligence and Security Committee in May 2004. It was published in the committee's annual report 2003/04 (pdf), page 23, in June 2004. It says:

UK intelligence personnel interviewing or witnessing the interviews of detainees are instructed to report if they believe detainees are being treated in an inhumane or degrading way.

That is good and right. It is not evidence that Blair knew about the January 2002 memo.

So: two quotations from three months ago and five years ago that do not prove the thesis that is already all the way round the world. Weep? I almost laughed.


'America is angry'
bobbellinhell wrote:
Friday, 19 June 2009 at 09:33 am (UTC)
Isn't it true that Blair tried to justify the existence of the Guantanamo torture camp by saying that Americans were 'angry' about the September 11 attacks? And isn't that the argument of a man who's prepared to countenance torture?
susangalea wrote:
Friday, 19 June 2009 at 10:05 am (UTC)
Bobbellinhell: your logic is that if Tony Blair commented that the Americans were obviously angry after 9/11 then he was condoning torture. So, if the BNP are obviously angry then Griffins condones paying you a visit? Tony Blair is guilty of a great many things not least of which is lying to us and selling the war in Iraq on a false dossier that he later claimed was amended at a meeting he did not attend. But he did and he then said he'd forgotten that he had.... He has, as a result of wilful mendacity caused terrible harm to the people of Iraq and Britain to name but two victims. We should save our calumny and critiques for the facts and be wary of false logic.


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