Last week, the Home Affairs Committee heard Professor Sir David Omand (former Director of GCHQ) to discuss false claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction and extraordinary rendition. I was astounded by the lack of repentance and admission of culpable guilt by the man who consistently side-stepped our questions.
MPs now take the decisions on sending our troops into war. We can do this properly only if we are in possession of the whole truth. The deaths of 626 pf our troops resulted from two major errors.
Non-existent weapons of mass destruction
Q591 Paul Flynn: I want to ask about two matters in my time in Parliament, the first of which is the decision to join the war in Iraq in 2003, which the security services and the Intelligence Committee were cheerleaders for and supporters of. We now know that that decision meant the loss of 179 British lives. Those lives were sacrificed in the cause of trying to protect the United Kingdom from attacks from non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Do you think that there has been some improvement now and that the loss of confidence in the Committee and the security services from that event—and another one I will mention in a moment—has been repaired in some way?
Professor Sir David Omand: Time has healed to some extent, but it was a very significant blow to the credibility of the intelligence community and we fully accept that there were significant matters that we got wrong. I think you mentioned the Security Service in your question. That may have been a reference to the Secret Intelligence Service. I think Dame Manningham-Buller gave evidence to the Chilcot Committee—as I did—pointing out that in our joint Intelligence Committee reports we had indeed made clear that the consequence of intervention in Iraq would be an increase in radicalisation domestically.
Q592 Paul Flynn: You accepted the likely existence of weapons of mass destruction, did you not?
Professor Sir David Omand: Yes.
Paul Flynn: And you were wrong.
Professor Sir David Omand: Yes. Well, we believe we were wrong.
Q554 Paul Flynn: Just another matter, if I can briefly go into it. A similar, but even worse decision—which a Conservative Member asked for an inquiry into yesterday—was that in 2006, there was debate in the House on the wisdom of an incursion into Helmand Province, where at that time only two British soldiers had died in combat. The justification for going in—again, supported by the cheerleaders on the Security Committee—was that we would be there for a maximum of three years, end the growing of heroin, which is now at a record level, and come out in the hope that not a shot would be fired. It was compared in the debate in the Commons as equivalent to the charge of the light brigade. The person who did that understated the situation because the numbers of British casualties—lives that have been lost in Helmand—are three times the numbers lost in the charge of the light brigade. When we look back at the record of the security services and the Intelligence Committee, was this not a terrible mistake to support Government at that time? Should they not have been providing a check on the Government?
Professor Sir David Omand: We should look forward to the publication of the official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which at the moment is being written by one of my colleagues at King’s College. I hope that will be published within a few months, and that will perhaps set the record straight about the overall balance between getting things right and getting things wrong.
Q555 Paul Flynn: Would you answer the question?
Professor Sir David Omand: I had left Government service by then. I do not think I have any way in which I can help.
Q556 Paul Flynn: Has there been an improvement that should increase public trust in the intelligence services after these two calamities?
Professor Sir David Omand: I would simply point to the number of terrorist plots—directly relevant to the inquiry you are engaged in here—which have been frustrated by the activities of the intelligence services, and we are all safer because of it.
Q596 Mr Clappison: Can I ask you another question on supervision and parliamentary accountability? You said that MPs could perhaps pay more attention to debating reports and so forth. Can I raise with you one area where something does seem to have gone wrong—and which MPs certainly did take an interest in—and that is the question of extraordinary rendition? I remember colleagues asking question after question about extraordinary rendition and being told that there was no UK involvement at all. If you are told that, you have the equivalent of the straight bat play and it is very difficult to take it any further. We then find out that that is not entirely the case. Can you give us your view as to what went wrong with accountability on extraordinary rendition?
Professor Sir David Omand : I am not in a position to answer that. As I understand it, the police are still conducting inquiries that are relevant to that. I really do not think it is something that I should be commenting on in public.
Q597 Mr Clappison: You can understand the frustrations of parliamentarians when we do ask questions conscientiously and are given the equivalent of a straight bat and it turns out not to be the case?
Professor Sir David Omand: That is a matter where, again, the Intelligence and Security Committee have produced at least two reports, so if parliamentarians have concerns, I would have thought that they would wish to direct them to their colleagues who sit on that—
Q598 Chair: Can I just explain something to you about the way in which Select Committees operate? As a former Permanent Secretary, you ought to know this. When we have witnesses here, it is open to Members of the House to ask witnesses their questions. You are not here to speak on behalf of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Mr Clappison is perfectly in order under the rules of Parliament—which you have said is very wise—to put a question to you. He is asking for your opinion, not the opinion of the Intelligence and Security Committee. We can get that at any time, because we see them every day; he is asking for your opinion. We do not see you every day; you are here as a witness and that is what he is putting to you.
Professor Sir David Omand: I have just given my opinion.
Q599 Chair: Sorry, what was that again, for the record?
Professor Sir David Omand: My opinion is that it would be wise for Members of Parliament who have concerns about matters like that to raise it with the Committee of the House that is already examining these matters.
Chair: Sir David, that is not your opinion. We are asking your opinion on the issue that has been raised by Mr Clappison. As you have said, you have left the Government service. You are supposed to be the Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, and you have held all these great offices of state. As far as we are concerned, you are an expert, and you know very well when you come before a Select Committee that the members are going to ask you questions. This is not a tea party; this is a Select Committee of the House. We know we can ask Sir Malcolm Rifkind questions, and we know how to read reports; Mr Clappison is asking you a specific question. Would you like to put it again, Mr Clappison—otherwise you will be in contempt, Sir David.
Q600 Mr Clappison: I asked what you thought in your opinion went wrong with accountability on extraordinary rendition, when that was an issue before the House. Did you think that something has gone wrong?
Professor Sir David Omand: I do not think anything went wrong on accountability, except that perhaps we should have moved rather earlier than we did to ensure that new guidance was issued and available to members of the service, but the law on rendition has always been very clear in this country. That was well understood. Given the circumstances of our involvements with the United States, I regard it as a matter of great pride that there were not more issues that arose out of that relationship. In fact, British agencies and armed forces acted with enormous discretion and common sense. That is my view.
Chair: That is a very helpful answer.
Extraordinary rendition and whistleblowers
Q631 Paul Flynn: In 2004, Mr Abdel Hakim Belhadj, with his pregnant wife, was abducted from Bangkok Airport, flown to Gaddafi’s Libya and tortured. In 2005, Jack Straw denied that the British Government had any involvement in renditions. In 2011, Human Rights Watch discovered documents and published them which named the British MI6 agent who they claim had boasted about this abduction, and Jack Straw has subsequently said that he was advised by MI6 on this. No one would have the knowledge of this and the truth on this without Human Rights Watch. Many other matters we would not have the truth of if it was not for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Do you not agree that we do need the whistleblowers, and they do convey to the public the truth of what is going on, rather than listen gullibly as we are told—as I have been and as the Chairman has been—that there was no involvement with extraordinary rendition. We were lied to. Do we not need whistleblowers?
Professor Sir David Omand: Let me say that a true whistleblower, in accepted international convention, has to exhaust his remedies. For example, Mr Snowden could have gone to his employers—I understand why he would not do that; I would not press that point. He could have gone to the inspector general, the independent figure of his organisation. I would not press that point either. He could have gone to Congress. Just imagine if Mr Snowden—flanked perhaps by the editor of The Guardian and the editor of The New York Times—had walked into the Congressional Oversight Committee and said, “The White House has kept from you and the Executive have kept from you knowledge of a massive programme of collecting data on American citizens.” There would have been a huge political stink. I am quite sure President Obama would have been forced to issue the sort of statement that he issued a few weeks ago.
Paul Flynn: He has.
Professor Sir David Omand: Mr Snowden would have achieved his objective and he would not have had to steal 58,000 British top-secret documents or 1.7 million he did not do that, so in my book he is not a whistleblower.
Q632 Paul Flynn: Monsieur Dick Marty, who is a very distinguished Swiss MP, who was described by a Foreign Secretary here to me as being a madman—he was not; I know him very well. He was the person who very bravely took up this issue in Europe. Successive British politicians denied what was going on. The question is: do we not have to rely on the whistleblowers, on the Dick Martys, on the Human Rights Watch, to get the truth? Otherwise we live in ignorance, as politicians and the public. Of course they supply this service to us, surely.
Professor Sir David Omand: I believe in the free press. Under no circumstances will I want to muzzle the press. If they can perform a public service, let them do that. In a well-regulated democracy, you don’t have to rely on the media.